by Kyle Hey
Every summer millions of bowhunters across North America spend countless hours checking trail cameras, planning hunting trips, and daydreaming about the crisp fall mornings ahead. Few, if any, of these hunters would think to include Europe as a destination on their whitetail bowhunting bucket list. Now, that might all change.
Finland, home of the largest whitetail population outside of North America, has created new legislation that now allows legal bowhunting opportunities for whitetail deer and other big game. Even though Finnish hunters harvest a hefty 20-25,000 whitetails annually, many North American deer hunters are unaware of opportunities to hunt the transplanted species in the Nordic country. Rising tag allotments promise to continue to expand those opportunities.
Prior to the 2017 season, whitetail deer and other big game species had been off limits to Finnish archers for decades. In the 1990’s the Finnish Bowhunting Association began to increase in membership and influence, eventually parlaying their growing clout into the passage of a 2003 law that broadened bowhunting opportunities to include roe deer and beaver. Previously, only small game and waterfowl were legal quarry.
Throughout the next few years Finnish bowhunters continued to advocate for more opportunities. “It took years and years of educating and demonstrating the effectiveness and power of the bow and arrow to affect the general attitude, and convince the authorities, and public as well, about its suitability for larger game,” explained the President of the Finnish Bowhunters Association, Antti Saarenmaa. Finally in the summer of 2017, Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry agreed to officially lift the prohibition of bowhunting most big game animals, with the exceptions of moose and large predators.
Finnish bowhunting veterans have noticed an increase in bowhunter numbers just weeks after the new legislation became official. This excitement should come as no surprise in Finland as the last several decades have seen an increase in popularity of both bowhunting and whitetail hunting. “Personally, as a bowhunter, I’ve been eagerly waiting for this opportunity to materialize for many years. I enjoy all different methods of hunting, but bowhunting mature bucks will be number one for me from this fall,” explained avid whitetail hunter Juha Honkamiemi.
Whitetails in Finland
Juha’s hunting career reflects the growth in popularity of the whitetail deer among Finnish hunters. As a child, he watched from his kitchen window as bachelor groups of bucks paraded their velvet headgear into the fields of his family’s homestead. “Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the species, and want to learn more and more about them. At first everything seems to be very simple, but the more one knows the less one actually seems to know. It can get obsessive,” Juha admits.
The process of creating whitetail obsessed hunters in Finland was put in motion well before Juha was born. In 1934 the first whitetail deer arrived in Finland as transplants from North America, making the Finnish whitetail herd just over a youthful 80 years old. Originally a gift from Finnish settlers who had immigrated to Minnesota, the small contingent of whitetails who survived the trip to Finland consisted of just five doe fawns and one buck fawn.
Over time, and with intentional management efforts, the population of whitetails expanded to approximately 50,000, located primarily in the southwestern region of the country. With the expansion of the whitetail population came the increasingly important role the deer play as a game animal. Finland held its first whitetail hunting season in 1960, with only a handful of whitetails being harvested. Today, Finnish hunters harvest nearly half of the country’s whitetail population every year. Driving deer with dachshunds, or sitting in box blinds overlooking feeding and baiting sites are common tactics for Finnish hunters.
High whitetail harvest numbers can be attributed to the meat oriented attitude many Finns have traditionally taken toward hunting. Due to the meat hunting culture many Finnish whitetail bucks are killed before reaching maturity. However, change is slowly coming to whitetail management in Finland. “Recent years have shown more interest to develop better management plans. It is more common now throughout Finnish whitetail areas to leave the bucks to grow old,” Juha notes.
Potential Impact of Bowhunting
Bowhunting may just be the ticket to expedite the evolution of quality whitetail management in Finland. Rather than depending on deer drives or baiting to fill the freezer, Finnish whitetail bowhunters will need to learn deer behavior and patterns, understand topography, and locate bedding areas. “Now we are about to take a huge leap in our learning process,” insists Finnish Bowhunter Taneli Sinisalo. “People will be surprised about all the effects that bowhunting whitetails will have in our hunting culture.”
Antti Saarenmaa also hopes that the change in tactics will give Finnish hunters a taste for the process and experience of the hunt, not just the venison. “I’d like to think that the more we see new bowhunters, the more we know people are valuing the hunt itself and everything associated with it.” Antti and others hope the outcome of legal whitetail bowhunting and increased whitetail knowledge will lead to more selectivity in buck harvests and a more balanced whitetail herd in Finland.
Opportunities in Finland
Hunting in Finland is not uncommon, in fact 6% of Finns engage in the sport, a number comparable to hunting’s popularity in the United States. Whitetail archery season starts September 1st and runs until last weekend of the month. At that time, whitetails may be harvest with any legal weapon until January 31st. Whitetail bowhunters traveling from outside of Finland will have to acquire a Finnish hunting license by providing a copy of their local hunting license, and pass the archery proficiency test, three arrows in a 23 cm target at 18 meters.
Unfortunately, unlike many areas of North America, there is little public ground in Finland open to hunting within the whitetail’s range, and tags are difficult to acquire for government owned forests. Hunting clubs lease much of the huntable area within the whitetail’s range, so either having a contact within a private hunting club, or working with an outfitter will likely be necessary in order to pursue a cagey “old world” whitetail buck.
Even though Finland is still maturing in its whitetail knowledge and management, the growing obsession and excitement surrounding the whitetail deer in Finland could make it a future hot spot for traveling bowhunters seeking to experience all the whitetail world has to offer.