Pies are being baked. Chili is getting its final dashes of salt and pepper. Warm-weather layers have been pulled from closets and bags following a long year’s nap. Rifles are being sighted-in.
Michigan’s firearms whitetail deer season, an annual festival for those who tend to adore a deer camp’s merriment, as well as its food and drink delights, begins Sunday in Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas.
The forecast is promising, at least in terms of weather, with statewide temperatures expected in the 40s and 50s and little chance of precipitation.
Another potential edge for hunters has to do with autumn agriculture.
“Things are looking pretty good, especially in the Lower Peninsula,” said Chad Stewart, whitetail deer specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “A big difference will be the crop harvest. About 80 percent of the corn crop has been taken off, where at this time last year it was 40 percent.
“When the corn is gone, there’s obviously fewer places for the deer to hide and more opportunities for the hunters. So, that’s a pretty significant change from a year ago.”
Upper Peninsula hunters face a different story. Three successive brutal winters have cut herd numbers so deeply a ban on U.P. hunting was considered. Instead, antlerless deer were disallowed as a bow-hunting choice on public and most private land when Michigan’s archery season began Oct. 1.
No such restriction exists during firearms season, which extends through Nov. 30. But those hunting in the U.P. are aware the herd has been hit hard.
“It depends where you’re at, but the deer there are down, they’re spread out, and hunters are going to have as much trouble this year as last,” Stewart said. “It’s hard hunting up there. But a lot of people go there for more than hunting.
“It’s a tradition for so many of them. You simply have to keep your expectations tempered.”
A diminished deer herd wasn’t bothering Mike Pelletier, of Iron Mountain, whose friends and family were getting ready for Sunday’s opener and for hunting a mix of private and public lands in the western U.P.
“What happens when the population goes down is that the weak have died and the strong survive, so they’re actually seeing a lot more big deer around here,” said Pelletier, who is owner and host of “Hardcore Pursuit,” an outdoors television show that appears on the Sportsman’s Channel. “You’re seeing some pockets with older and more mature deer.
“Most people nowadays aren’t hunting venison anyway. They’re mainly looking for big deer. Plus, hunting season is such a good time for families — the heritage, the tradition of getting together. I know a lot of guys who are serious bow hunters for trophy deer, but firearm season ends up for them being more about family, fun, friends, and tradition.”
The Lower Peninsula fared better, especially in the lower counties, which over the past five decades have seen whitetail numbers boom.
Hunters, however, haven’t kept pace. The DNR estimates 500,000-plus licenses will be sold during the firearms season, which is at least 40 percent fewer than a generation ago, when more than 800,000 hunters would hit the woods for a traditional Nov. 15 opener.
Loading freezers with venison is always a stronger bet in the Lower Peninsula, especially in the southern tier, where crops, forage and ample cover have sent numbers zooming and antlers into the trophy range.
The winter of 2014-15 was cruel, Stewart acknowledged, but deer got a break once snow melted and temperatures rose.
“Everything we’ve heard from the field is really positive,” Stewart said. “We had a really wet spring, so vegetation growth was good, which helps fawn survival when there were simply more hiding places.
“That translated into sightings of more fawns, and even triplets, following does. That vegetation also tends to provide a lot of forage, which is going to help deer heading into the fall, and help with good antler growth.
“There’s a good indication some really good bucks are going to be taken this month.”
Trophy hunting remains the policy for 13 counties in the Lower Peninsula’s northwest quadrant. Shooting bucks with fewer than three points on at least one antler is prohibited.
The policy is designed to stock the herd with more trophy bucks, usually 21/2 years or older, rather than prune smaller whitetails that mostly would be 1-2 years old.
The policy was seen even two or three years ago as catching on with hunters. An expansion of trophy-deer counties was expected, perhaps throughout the Lower Peninsula and beyond.
But data and feedback have been mixed, Stewart said, and the DNR is waiting before recommending any changes that at the moment are far from compelling.
“It’s still a little early to make any formal proclamation or whether hunters are satisfied,” Stewart said. “Anecdotally, people generally like it. But there are counterpoints to it, as well. We’ll look at it a little harder maybe after next year — look at the harvest and how it has changed, and if how hunters feel about it has changed.”
Ready, aim . . .
What: Michigan whitetail deer firearms season
When: Nov. 15-30. Hunting is legal one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.
Where: Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan
Hunters anticipated: More than 500,000 are expected to purchase licenses for the firearms season.
Deer harvest: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported 326,000 deer were harvested during last year’s autumn hunt (firearms and archery), about a 15 percent decline from 2013. Upper Peninsula deer kills were down 36 percent. Twenty-seven percent of hunters reported shooting a buck, 20 percent an antlerless