Thousands of Minnesota deer hunters return to the woods Saturday for the second weekend of the firearms deer season.
Deer hunting saw big changes this season. For the past few years, hunters could kill up to five deer. This season, bag limits were tightened in many areas to just one deer.
While the change has frustrated some hunters, it may also have an economic impact. Some sporting goods owners say the stricter bag limits -- combined with a weak economy -- mean hunters are spending fewer dollars on the sport.
Deer hunting contributes more than $450 million each year to the state economy. At Delaney Sport Center in Park Rapids, it's one of the busiest times of the year.
Owner Kevin Lempola stocks pretty much anything a deer hunter needs -- rifles and ammunition, blaze orange clothing, and a variety of scents to attract deer. Buck lures apparently are bestsellers.
"They make a little grunting noise, one buck to another buck," said Lempola. "They try to convince the other buck to come in -- a little competition."
But Kevin Lempola says business is down quite a bit from last year. He says there are fewer hunters, and they're not spending as much money as they have in the past. Over-the-counter hunting license sales at his store are down by close to 25 percent.
"Over the weekend, if you're down 70 people coming through your door on one given day, that amounts to a fair amount of business," he said.
Lempola blames the slowdown partly on the stricter bag limits. Last year, hunters in the Park Rapids area could kill up to five deer. Now the limit is down to just one. That means people are spending less time hunting.
Unlike last year, there's a lottery system in place in northern Minnesota. Hunters can shoot only bucks, unless they applied for and received an antlerless permit through the lottery.
The limited number of doe permits means it's less likely that hunters will get a deer this year.
The one-deer limit also means bow hunters who shoot a deer aren't eligible to take a deer during the rifle or muzzleloader seasons.
Lempola says he knows of some hunters who decided not to hunt in the area. Instead, they headed to the northwestern part of the state, where deer populations are higher. It's one of the few areas where a five-deer bag limit is still in place.
There are probably other reasons Lempola's business is down. Unseasonably warm temperatures mean hunters didn't need to spend money on warm clothing this year.
And then there's the troubled economy. Lempola noticed a drop in sales as far back as the fishing opener last spring. He says fewer people can afford weekend sporting trips.
"The people that normally come north, I don't think came north," said Lempola. "We definitely didn't see the bow hunters come and we didn't see the grouse hunters. The trend has been a little slower."
Statewide, the number of deer killed this season is down about 5 percent from last year at this time. In 2008, hunters killed nearly 184,000 deer during the firearms season.
License sales this year are down slightly, too. That doesn't surprise Dennis Simon, the DNR's wildlife management section chief.
He says back around 2005, people in many parts of the state complained there were too many deer. Since then, liberal bag limits reduced deer populations in certain areas by anywhere from 10 to 50 percent from peak levels.
Simon says now that management goals have been reached in many of those areas, hunters will have to get used to the idea of shooting fewer deer, and in some cases, limiting their kills to bucks only.
"Hunters over the last three or four years in many of those areas have been accustomed to just buying their license over the counter ... They could just go out to the woods, they could harvest any animal that came in front of them," said Simon. "But now ... they had to think ahead of time and they had to apply for an antlerless permit ... and that took some people by surprise."
Some hunters are grumbling about the new limits and claim there are more than enough deer for the taking. Mark Johnson from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association says the DNR has effectively reduced the herd size, and now needs to maintain a good population balance.
"From a management standpoint, the DNR's been doing a good job. Now it's the public saying, well, maybe we don't want that few deer. Maybe we want more deer again," said Johnson. "So it's that yo-yo back and forth that we're seeing in play right now."
For some hunters, this year's deer season has been complicated by an unusually late crop harvest.
Typically, farmers have most of their corn crop harvested by now. But as of earlier this week, around 75 percent of corn was still standing. For now at least, those corn fields are providing deer a safe place to hide.