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Thanksgiving, calendar complicate setting deer season date

This photo provided by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department shows a herd of deer congregating around feed in Central North Dakota. A bill being considered in the state Legislature would ban the baiting and feeding of deer and big game. (AP Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department )

BISMARCK -- For those already planning for next year's deer gun season: You may want to circle the Thanksgiving holiday on the calendar.

The last time North Dakota had a deer gun season that coincided with Thanksgiving was in 2007. It will come around again in 2012 -- then not until 2017 and again in 2018.

Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the Thanksgiving date is one question frequently brought up during fall advisory board meetings, which start next week.

Kreil's pat answer: It all depends on how the calendar falls.

Some in North Dakota don't like it when the season falls over Thanksgiving because it can foul up plans for the holiday. In other states, deer hunting over the Thanksgiving holiday is as much of a tradition as is turkey and dressing.

For decades, the deer gun season has opened on the Friday before Nov. 11, which means the the opening day can range between Nov. 4-10.

This year's opener was on Nov. 4 - the earliest it can be. Thanksgiving is observed on the fourth Thursday in November, meaning it can fall anywhere between Nov. 22 and Nov. 28.

Next year, the opening of the deer gun season will be Nov. 9 and the 16.5-day season will run through Thanksgiving, which will fall on Nov. 22.

In 2013, Thanksgiving will be Nov. 28, the latest it can be.

There have been plenty of discussions in taverns and coffee shops over the pros and cons of having an early deer season.

While the season does fall around the time the bucks go into rut, for the most part deer don't pay much attention to the calendar.

The rut is affected by two primary components: photoperiod, the amount of daylight in any given day, and when does come into estrus, which to some degree is influenced by the weather.

Those who favor the earlier opener like it because in most years the weather is better for travel and hunting comfort.

Those who like the later start favor it because farmers have more time to harvest row crops and the odds of the rut being in full swing will be greater.

While deer season dates have been consistent for the past three decades or more, that hasn't always been the case.

The first statewide gun season came in 1952 and ran between 2.5 days and 4.5 days, depending on the unit.

In 1949, the Legislature passed a law requiring the opener start at noon, allowing farmers and ranchers to get their morning chores done before hunting.

The law was later repealed, then reinstated in 1963 and in 1962, the opener fell on a Tuesday.

It was in that year the season was extended to 9.5 days statewide and an experimental season of 16.5 days was set in the Turtle Mountains two years later.

In 1983, the transition to the 16.5-day season started in some units in the eastern part of the state while western units stayed at 9.5 days.

In 1985, the whole state, except for the Badlands, went to a 16.5-day season. That changed in 1986 and 1987, when some units had 23.5 days.

In 1988, the regular deer gun season changed again to what we know today.

Every five years the deer gun opener runs later in the cycle, partly because of leap year.

This coming year, 2012, will be a leap year, when there will be 366 days on the calendar.

While that means just an extra day in February for most folks. Kreil said it can catch outfitters and nonresident hunters off guard when they book and plan hunts for the coming year because of the later opening date.

He said the last time it happened there were some outfitters and guides and nonresident hunters who showed up when there were no open seasons.

In 2007, the Game and Fish Department published an article in its magazine dealing with participation in hunting by the youth of the state.

Among the things that came out of the article was there was a notable decline in the number applicants for deer hunting ages 17-18. Depending on the year, the number of 18-year-olds who applied for deer licenses was roughly 15 percent lower than that of 17-year-olds. One of the theories is college students don't come home to hunt deer because of a short weekend.

Kreil said there are no plans to change anything, but it's a discussion that often comes up at advisory board meetings.

So, if you are making plans for next year's deer gun season, consider the fact it will run through Thanksgiving, giving you the opportunity to add venison backstraps to your holiday feast.