Buddies, beer, cramped cabins, packed bunkhouses, card games and shared pots of food are beloved traditions of Michigan deer camps for many of the more than half-million hunters during deer season.
But they’re the stuff of nightmares for state and regional health officials battling to contain the fast-spreading new coronavirus. The 15-day firearms season starts Nov. 15, and already license sales have surged ahead of last year’s pace.
“You’re not going to stop it,” said Mark Ebener, a fish biologist and resident of Sugar Island near Sault Ste. Marie.
Ebener and his friends will meet this year at a Wisconsin deer camp. They’ve been getting tested for COVID-19 for a variety of reasons — a routine medical procedure, among them, and Ebener said they’ll do their best to keep a social distance, he said.
But to cancel the trip altogether?
He shakes his head.
“It’s the chance to get out, get with the guys, and get away,” he said.
The problem isn’t hunting itself, which is often a solitary activity in wide-open spaces.
“The higher risk is people from different households gathering indoors, especially if they are eating or drinking,” said Dr. Josh Meyerson, medical director of health departments covering the 10 northernmost counties in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Compounding the problem: After camp, hunters will scatter to their own communities, gathering for the holidays, said Mike Snyder, health officer in Delta and Menominee counties in the western U.P.
He worries that hunters are “not going to change deer hunting plans, they’re not going to change Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, and they’re not going to mask up.”
Still, some hunters interviewed said they take pandemic safety protocols seriously.
Marty Cotanche kneels with dog, Tyler, with his wife, Valerie Cotanche, standing behind, along with six regulars from the Traverse City area at the Cotanche's 920-acre hunt camp in Baraga County. The Cotanches called off this year's hunt because of COVID-19 that could be spread in close quarters. The youngest hunter is 57 years old. (Photo courtesy of Marty Cotanche)
Marty and Valerie Cotanche have owned a 920-acre hunting camp near Covington in Baraga County for 30 years and annually hosted a group of friends from the Traverse City area.
In April, with much uncertainty about the future of the pandemic, they notified their six guests that for only the second year in the last 30, they would cancel the 2020 hunt. (A blizzard in 2014 that dumped as much as five feet of snow forced the other cancellation.)
“We just looked at the risk factors and couldn’t sustain a group like that with all the guys sleeping in close quarters in a sleeping loft,” Marty Cotanche said. “They’re all guys from 57 to 70 and I didn’t want to be the one to create an additional risk factor.”
A retired partner in a small auto parts manufacturer in Traverse City, Marty Cotanche has hunted big game and birds across the world. But he prefers Michigan deer and bear hunting and bird hunting with his labrador, Tyler.
About the upcoming season at the camp, he said: “They’ll miss it. I’ll miss it, but hopefully we’ll all be around to do it next year.”
At the historic Turtle Lake Club, founded in the late 1800s and covering 44,000 acres is several northeastern Lower Peninsula counties, none of the approximately two-dozen members will be permitted to bring guests this year, reducing the number of hunters by about two-thirds, said Wayne Sitton, the club’s longtime manager.
The members will get meals boxed or delivered, rather than eating in a dining room, Sitton said.
“We’re going to have take-out. We’ve been working to keep everyone safe and still have a hunt,” he said.
This is the scene of a dinner after a past year’s deer hunt at the Beaver Lake Hunt Club in southwestern Alpena County, where more than 20 hosts and members passed shared plates, sitting elbow to elbow. The club's meal service and lodge with bedrooms will be closed this season, but members may still hunt the vast property. (Courtesy of Todd Reilly, club manager)
At neighboring Beaver Lake Hunt Club, manager Todd Reilly said he believes he’s taken one of the most aggressive pandemic-related steps among the various camps in a part of Michigan long known as hunting “club country.”
“We decided to shut down the lodge and the kitchen,” Reilly said Wednesday. “But the hunters can still hunt, and I’ve added electric hookups outside the pole barn and told our guys they can bring their own campers or stay at a motel.”
Reilly said he considered requiring masks and social distancing and keeping the lodge and kitchen open, but decided he didn’t want to play bad cop with the hunters.
Regardless whether Michigan sees evidence of hunters infecting friends and relatives at camp, one thing is virtually certain as Michigan heads toward the opening day: more hunters.
Through Oct. 26, 2020 hunting license sales were up by about 50,000 or 12 percent, from the same time a year ago, said Dustin Isenhoff, a Department of Natural Resources research specialist. More than 400,000 deer license sales have been reported — about a 15 percent increase over this time in recent years.
Last year, about 540,000 Michigan hunters killed about 364,000 deer. Typically, a huge surge in deer licenses occurs the week leading to the Nov. 15 firearms opener.
“My biggest theory is that lack of time and lack of access have been the biggest reasons for the past decline. Because of COVID, that may have changed,” Isenhoff said. “The acquisition of meat (venison) is likely a component, too.”
Meanwhile, the DNR eased regulations this year that should increase the odds of success for some hunters, Chad Stewart, the agency’s top deer specialist, told Bridge Michigan in an email. The changes weren’t motivated by the pandemic “but rather due to the long term hunter declines that we expect to persist in the future," he said.
Changes in the 2020 deer hunting regulation include allowing hunters to kill antlerless deer (does and fawns) with their regular or combo licenses in the Lower Peninsula. Typically, those licenses are restricted to bucks only during the firearms season.
Also this year, private land hunters throughout Michigan can purchase up to 10 antlerless permits to help them better manage deer on their property. In 2019, the limit was 10 but only in areas where chronic wasting disease, a major concern for the state's deer herds, was present. This year, Stewart said, the higher limit applies statewide to create uniformity.