Few of the last 50 North Dakota deer seasons have gone by without Joe Schaff pursuing his favorite game animal, and through those years the challenge of the hunt has always been what attracted him.
“See if you can sneak up on them,” said Schaff, 71.
The former mechanic, construction worker and farmer has been a salesman at Mandan Sporting Goods since the Main Street business opened 13 years ago. He’ll head to some of his favorite land near St. Anthony again this season -- which opens at noon Friday -- with a goal of filling his freezer with venison.
“I don’t horn hunt,” Schaff said. “If I can find a good set, yes, but I’m a meat hunter.”
Deer in the area have access to alfalfa and grain, which makes the meat of a quality that’s “about like being in a feedlot,” Schaff said. He understands that trophy hunters might prefer the racks they find in the Badlands, but “90% of it tastes like sage,” he said.
“They are what they eat,” he said. “You’re definitely going to taste it.”
Schaff is among the 69,050 North Dakotans who have deer gun licenses this year, an increase of 3,550 from 2019 because of a steady positive trend in the deer population over the last few years. It’s the fifth consecutive year that Game and Fish Department officials have made more tags available, according to Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.
“Generally speaking we’re on an upward trajectory,” he said.
The department in 2006 issued a record 149,000 licenses and started a gradual decrease a couple of years later. The winters from 2009 through 2011 were tough on the state’s deer population, and the department began issuing fewer licenses.
The license increase for 2020 added 1,500 any-antlered and 1,600 any-antlerless deer licenses, 250 antlered whitetail and 200 antlerless whitetail deer. Antlered and antlerless mule deer licenses stayed the same as in 2019.
Game and Fish officials are encouraging hunters in units in the western third of the state to turn in deer heads for chronic wasting disease testing. The department will test hunter-harvested deer taken in units 3A1, 3A2, 3A3 (north of U.S. Highway 2), 3B1, 3C (west of the Missouri River), 3E1, 3E2, 3F1, 3F2, 4A, 4B and 4C. The testing is important so officials know where the disease exists and where it doesn’t exist, according to Dr. Charlie Bahnson, the department’s wildlife veterinarian.
“In order to be confident in saying that we don’t have CWD in a unit, we have to test a lot of heads,” he said.
An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease -- commonly called EHD -- has prompted department officials to offer a refund to whitetail tag holders in certain southwestern and western units. Of the 9,000 tag holders eligible, fewer than 70 had sought the refund as of last week.
“The people it impacts most is the person who only has one area to hunt in a unit,” Williams said. “Most units are pretty good size. If they’re willing to go to other areas, it (EHD) didn’t decimate (deer) unitwide."
EHD is a viral disease transmitted by biting gnats. It’s not considered a danger to people. It impacts white-tailed deer more than mule deer.
The deer gun season closes Nov. 22. Archery deer hunters have until Jan. 3 to fill their tags. The state’s muzzleloader season opens Nov. 27 and closes Dec. 13.
Rifle hunters on opening weekend can expect above-average temperatures, and the chance of precipitation is lower than normal, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Michael Hollan.
The statewide gun hunter success rate in 2019 was 64%, a bit below the Game and Fish goal of 70%. It's hard to predict the success of the 2020 hunt, Williams said, but he added that conditions this year over last year -- drier weather and more crops harvested -- favor hunters more than deer.
"The increase in numbers always helps, too," Williams said.
Schaff hopes to be one of the successful ones, but his plan for opening day might seem odd to many sportsmen.
“I’ll probably be at work,” he said. “I don’t get in a hurry.”
If it’s the last day of the season when he gets his deer, that’s OK with him. He’ll be tending to customers on opening day and it will probably be Sunday -- two days after the opener -- before he gets to hunt. He’s slowed down some since he was a youngster and misses the opportunity to walk the deep draws. Now he hunts the hilltops with the help of binoculars, and a pickup or four-wheeler.
“Deer meat doesn’t taste right unless you have $50 or $100 worth of gas into it,” he chuckled.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com