Minnesota deer hunters had a very slow opening weekend across much of the state, registering only 59,711 deer after the first two days of the season — down 21% from the 2019 harvest at the same time.

The unexpectedly low deer harvest is 16% below the five-year average and has wildlife biologists scratching their heads. Many had predicted a good season this year, and definitely up from a slower-than-average 2019 across most of the state.

“Both our archery harvest and our youth hunt harvest were up heading into the firearms season. … So that’s what we were expecting,” said Barb Keller, big-game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Honestly, I expected the firearms harvest to be up 20% from last year, not down 20%.”

In the 100-series deer management areas, two-day opening-weekend deer registrations totaled just 13,660, down a whopping 28% from 2019 and down 27% from the five-year average. Some of that decline may be attributed to fewer antlerless permits available after a tough, deep-snow winter in some Arrowhead counties.

“I don’t know what it was. It was particularly warm and windy (over the weekend) and that may have played a role,” Keller said.

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Indeed many hunters reported unexpectedly little or no movement of deer in the woods over the weekend despite what should be the peak of the rut, with bucks chasing does.

The firearms season continues through Nov. 22 in the 100-series units. But because hunter participation generally drops way off as the season goes on, it’s not likely the harvest will turn around much.

“Generally half our deer are taken during opening weekend,” Keller said. That would put the total firearms harvest around 120,000 statewide for 2020. The DNR has set a goal of 200,000 deer taken annually by archery and guns. Last year, hunters hit 183,000 deer taken by all means.

Meanwhile, what was expected to be a significant jump in deer license sales due to the pandemic apparently is not happening.

Overall firearms deer hunting license sales through the first weekend of the season stood at 402,629, down just a tick from 403,800 at this point last year but down 10% from this time in 2012. Regular resident firearms license sales are down 1%.

Many prognosticators had expected an increase in deer hunting interest to follow high interest in other outdoor activities since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

Indeed, license sales were up considerably a few weeks ago. But, as occurred with fishing license sales over the summer, it appears existing hunters were simply buying their licenses early rather than a big push of new people buying licenses.

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