Deer hunters head toward early gun opener

Dan Hansen
Many hunters will be out to bag a trophy buck, while others may be looking to put some venison in the freezer when the season opens on Nov. 17.

MADISON – Under the current season format, Saturday, Nov. 17, is the earliest opening day for Wisconsin’s nine-day firearms deer season.

Hunters are hoping the early opener will help them improve on last year’s harvest totals of just over 227,000 animals. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is also hoping the early start will encourage an increase in license sales over the 588,000 sold in 2017.

According to DNR biologists, an excellent growing season has provided abundant food sources and reports from across the state indicate plentiful deer sightings which are helping to fuel prospects for hunter success.

However, recent rains have halted the corn harvest in several areas, so deer may take refuge in standing corn. This year also has become one of the wettest on record, and that may make it difficult for hunters to get into some swamps and other low areas.

New for 2018

The state is divided into four Deer Management Zones (DMZs) and 77 Deer Management Units (DMUs). However, hunters need to be aware of several modifications and new DMUs were created during the DMU review conducted by County Deer Advisory Councils (CDACs) during the fall of 2017. DMUs follow county boundaries in most cases, and 10 DMUs are split by zone boundaries. 

Also new this year, deer tags are now referred to harvest authorizations. Baiting and feeding regulations have changed in select counties. And in 2017, the State Legislature placed a limit on the time during which the baiting and feeding of deer may be prohibited following a positive test for CWD or TB. Hunters should continue to follow local ordinances that may prohibit baiting and feeding of deer until they are notified of a change locally.

All successful hunters will be required to register their deer online (fastest and easiest method) or by phone. They also have the option of registering electronically at a participating walk-in registration station.

For a list of participating businesses offering walk-in registration, visit dnr. and search keywords “registration stations.” To register a deer electronically, hunters will visit or call 1-844-426-3734 (1-844-GAME-REG).

Here’s a look at what hunters can expect in various regions of the state.

Southern District

Mild winters, lower antlerless harvest and available habitat have led to increased populations throughout the Southern District, all of which falls within the Southern Farmland Zone. Many DNR staff and the general public have reported seeing deer frequently this summer and a high number of fawns. 

With lower than historic antlerless harvest the past few years, hunters should see numbers slightly higher than last fall. However, it is important for hunters to keep in mind that there is great variation in the habitat as well as the quality of the habitat across the landscape and as a result, the number of deer between individual properties can vary significantly. Southern Farmland Zone (CDACs) are offering, on average, more antlerless tags in response to the expected increase in deer numbers.

Deer numbers tend to be higher in the western portion of the District but good to great opportunities to harvest a deer can be found in any of the counties that make up the Southern Farmland Zone. 

More:Want hunting info on the go? Download the Hunt Wild Wisconsin app

More:Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources makes it easier to enjoy the state's wild side

West Central District

DNR biologists expect ample quality hunting opportunities in the 19-county West Central District. Most of the counties within the district experienced an average to milder than normal winter in temperatures and snow depth. An early spring snow storm that dumped a foot of snow in most areas did not seem to have a negative impact on fawn production due to the warm temperatures that followed the storm, melting the snow before it could stress the deer.

Most counties have an objective of maintaining the current deer herd population levels, while others aim to decrease or increase over the coming 3-year period. CDACs also reviewed DMZ boundaries as well as metro sub-unit boundaries. Some counties added metro sub-units or adopted changes to zone boundaries that will be in effect this fall, and offer new hunting opportunities. The counties of Chippewa, Clark, Eau Claire and La Crosse all made modifications to metro sub-unit boundaries within their county, 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provided 2018 Deer Season Structure and Management Zones.

Hunters within the West Central District will be asked to assist in a district-wide CWD sampling effort this fall. A number of counties along the western side of the district have not had a comprehensive sampling effort since the late 2000’s, 

Deer populations within the forested zone are not as high as the farmland areas, but hunters can still expect to find ample quality hunting opportunities. On the eastern side of the district, deer populations are robust as well, with most counties seeing an upward trend in deer numbers. 

Northeast District

Most of the district experienced another mild winter. This is the fourth consecutive mild winter which has contributed to strong fawn production throughout Northeast Wisconsin. 

Most of the District experienced a mid-April snowfall, with the central section accumulating up to 30 inches of new snow. This snow event and a wetter than normal spring delayed agricultural production by 10-14 days. Hunters should expect corn and soybeans to be harvested later than normal which can impact deer movements and available cover. 

Marinette and Oconto counties are each split into two Deer Management Units by the boundary of the Northern Forest and Central Farmland Zones. 

This prize buck walks through  a cornfield in northeast Wisconsin.

In the Northern Forest Units, the buck harvest has been increasing the last couple of years, and is expected to increase again this year. There is great variation in the habitat type as well as the quality of the habitat across the landscape. As a result, the number of deer utilizing individual properties can vary significantly. Manitowoc and Sheboygan CDACs modified the Metro sub-unit boundary in their counties.  

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has not been detected in wild deer in the Northeast District. The district’s southern counties of Fond du Lac and Sheboygan will be conducting weighted CWD sampling. 

Northern District

The Northern Wisconsin deer herd has been on an upward trend as is evident with increases in sightings, as well as antlerless quotas and overall harvests including bucks. Region-wide another year of growth is expected. The amount of growth will vary among areas largely due to variable habitat quality and winter severity in 2017-18 that ranged from moderate in most areas to severe in the heart of the snowbelt. 

To keep a balanced herd many of the CDACs have selected a “maintain” population objective over the next three years. Herd health assessments, conducted across the north by observing fat reserves of car-killed deer early in the spring, indicated an overall well-prepared herd with fat reserves still available in mature deer. Some of last year’s fawns were observed to be in poor condition with fat reserves fully utilized. 

All DMUs, except Iron County, are providing antlerless harvest opportunities, offering the chance to collect some extra high-quality meat from the field. An increased antlerless harvest should also take pressure off young bucks and add to potentially of seeing more mature bucks in the woods in the future. 

Based on trends seen during the past few seasons through aging and harvest, a good adult age class of bucks is expected this year due to the previous mild winters.

Holiday Hunt

An antlerless-only Holiday Hunt will run Dec. 24 – Jan. 1, 2019. This hunt is only occurring in select Farmland (Zone 2) DMUs including: Brown, Buffalo, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Door, Jefferson, Kewaunee, Marinette (Farmland Zone only), Milwaukee, Oconto (Farmland Zone only), Outagamie, Waupaca, Monroe (Farmland Zone only), Richland, Sauk, Vernon, Washington, and Waukesha counties.

Be sure to check the 2018 DNR Hunting Regulations pamphlet or go online for complete information on the 2018 seasons.