Printed on: October 04, 2012

The deer outlook

It's a mixed bag depending on what you're after

By Rob Thornberry

The outlook for mule deer hunters this year depends on what size of buck you are hoping to bag.

If your goal is to fill the freezer with a little buck, the forecast is good to great.

If you want a wall mount, the prediction calls for tougher hunting.

And if -- for some chance -- you want to shoot a small four-point, this might be the year to stay home.

"It's going to be an interesting season," said Daryl Meints, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's regional wildlife manager in Idaho Falls.

The general hunt starts Wednesday.

The varied forecasts are the result of wildly different winters over the past four years.

Let us start with last winter, which was very mild.

"It was probably the mildest winter conditions I can remember in my time here," Meints said.

That led to high survival of fawns and does, which will translate to a large number of yearling bucks and two-point bucks in the mountains.

Since small bucks regularly make up half the region's annual deer harvest, most deer hunters should be happy in the coming weeks.

"Hunters are probably going to see a bunch of two-point bucks out there," Meints said.

The winter of 2010-11 was exactly the opposite. Harsh conditions depleted a large swath of the deer herd, which will translate into fewer small four-point bucks this year.

"There are large gaps in the age structure of the overall herd, and 21/2-year-old bucks are one of those gaps," Meints said. "Those are your 'small basket bucks' with antlers that are roughly 18 to 20 inches wide."

The final part of the forecast is the outlook for trophy deer, those 31/2 years and older. The winter of 2009-10 was mild, which led to high survival. That should translate into more mature bucks roaming the high country.

"During the archery season, hunters reported seeing big bucks and some true trophies," Meints said. "We are going to see a few very nice trophy bucks this year."

He said mild conditions last winter helped the region's big bucks enter summer in good health. That allowed them to concentrate their energy on growing larger antlers.

"Conditions were ripe for good antler growth," he said.

Hunters will be helped by dry summertime conditions, which should help concentrate deer high on the mountains on north-facing slopes.

The hunting outlook in the Salmon region also is good for smaller bucks, said Bret Stansberry, a wildlife biologist.

"It appears that the fawn crop was pretty good this year," he said. "There will be a fairly decent abundance of young bucks."

More so than in eastern Idaho. Stansberry said that because of the dry summer, mule deer will be closely tied to riparian areas and agricultural fields.

"The animals are pretty low," he said.

Hunters are encouraged to research hunting in and around the recent large fires in Hunting Units 21 and 28.

Deer by the numbers

Statewide, a total of 118,639 deer hunters killed 41,739 deer in 2011.

That is a 35-percent success rate when general hunts and controlled hunts were combined.

General-season hunters had a 33 percent success rate by themselves.

Interestingly, white-tailed deer accounted for a greater share of the harvest in 2011. In the overall harvest, there were 20,959 whitetails and 20,780 mule deer. Mule deer harvest dropped 3,557 between 2010 and 2011.

In 2010, deer hunters killed 44,328 deer; the split was 24,337 mule deer and 19,031 whitetails.

To put last year's harvest in perspective, deer hunters in 1981 killed about 50,000 deer; 40,000 of those were mule deer and the remainder whitetails.

The Idaho Statesman