Photo by Mike Searles
Public hunting land in the northern Upper Peninsula offers some of the best whitetail hunting in the state. Deer numbers are not as high in the Lake Superior Watershed as they are in the U.P.’s southern counties, but there are plenty of mature bucks to go around — and some of trophy proportions. Property open to hunting by the public is easy to find in counties bordering Lake Superior, and hunting pressure is light to nonexistent.
From east to west, the counties bordering Lake Superior are Chippewa, Luce, Alger, Marquette, Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon and Gogebic. To locate state and federal lands in the county you are interested in hunting, refer to color-coded maps in county map books. Those only tell part of the story though. Thousands of acres of land listed under the Commercial Forest Act are also open to public hunting. Refer to a plat book for the county you want to hunt to locate those parcels.
Reduced hunting pressure coupled with at least two mild winters in a row have created a deer-hunting bonanza on public hunting land in the northern U.P. The winters of 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 were mild, allowing for excellent winter survival of whitetails and good fawn production. The fact that supplemental feeding of deer during winter months is legal in the Lake Superior Watershed also helps. Even though the last two winters have been on the rough side, supplemental feeding in the north increased survival, and most whitetails that were at least 1 1/2 years old going into winter were hardy enough to make it without help.
Success experienced by the hunters in my Keweenaw County deer camp over the last five seasons illustrates how good the buck hunting can be on land open to the public in the northern U.P. There were six of us hunting out of a tent camp during 2008, and five of us bagged bucks. All of the bucks were at least 2 1/2 years old.
Besides the five whitetails we hung on the buck pole, we saw three more antlered bucks that we were not able to shoot. Camp members passed up an additional three yearling bucks that had spikes or forks, even though they would have been legal to shoot. Most camp members purchased combination deer licenses before the U.P.’s new antler restrictions took effect. The reason the yearlings were passed last year is the hunters who saw them had already tagged antlered bucks. In the past, we’ve harvested yearling bucks when they’ve been the only bucks encountered. Since no antlerless permits are issued for the northern U.P., gun hunters who want venison must shoot a buck.
THE PRESSURE’S OFF
The fact that yearling bucks have ended up on our camp buck pole in the past indicates that mandatory protection of spikes and forks is not necessary to produce older bucks. Hunting pressure is so light on most public hunting land in the northern U.P. that many yearling bucks survive their first year with antlers. A depressed economy combined with high gas prices and an abundance of deer in southern Michigan also factor into the light hunting pressure in these northern U.P. counties. Likewise, many U.P. hunters try their luck in southern counties in the region where deer numbers are highest.
Because most deer hunters choose to hunt farther south is fine with the hunters in my camp — Bill and Matt Westerbrink from Grand Rapids, Dave Menominee from Lac LaBelle, Bud Koljonen of Bete Grise, and Bob Polly from Tennessee.
Because of low deer numbers, stand-hunting with bait is the favored hunting method. Even though baiting was outlawed across the entire Lower Peninsula starting in 2008, the practice remains legal in the U.P. Bait such as apples and corn attracts the does, and the does attract bucks. Bucks will occasionally feed at baits, but they are primarily attracted to the locations by potential mates.
Even though we primarily hunt over bait, it is often placed where buck sign is already present or in known travel corridors. Food is not placed randomly. We’ve also taken deer by hunting natural food sources, such as acorns, scrape hunting, stillhunting and snow tracking.
The first year I hunted out of the camp, for example, I shot a 3 1/2-year-old 7-pointer while scrape hunting. I found a series of scrapes and antler-rubbed saplings along the edge of a swamp at the base of an oak ridge. I simply picked a spot on the side of the ridge to post where I had a view of the edge of the swamp.
During midday, I heard something coming and got my rifle ready. Seconds later, the buck walked into view 25 yards away and I dropped him in his tracks.
The northern U.P. is the best place in the state for anyone interested in snow tracking. Northern counties still have large enough blocks of public land to make this technique possible without trespassing on private ground. If snow isn’t on the ground by opening day, it usually arrives during the first week of the season. The presence of snow also makes tracking and recovering wounded deer easier.
IMPROVE YOUR ODDS
We do as much scouting as possible to make sure we are hunting in spots where there’s already decent deer activity to increase the chances of success. And, once the season opens, we hunt seriously, putting as many hours in as possible to increase the chances of seeing deer. We are usually in position before daylight and hunt until last light, bringing lunch with us to our blinds. In the northwoods, midday can be prime time for buck activity, so it’s best to be on stand during lunchtime rather than at camp.
The value of being in position by daylight, at the latest, when hunting the northern U.P. was reinforced for me on opening day of the 2007 firearms season. I left camp later than I should have that morning. It took me about an hour to reach my tree stand overlooking a saddle in a ridge where there was abundant big buck sign. It was already light when I climbed onto the platform and I decided to put a screw-in hook on the tree to hang my rifle from before pulling the rifle up with a rope.
That was a mistake. Before I finished, the buck I wanted came trotting off the ridge and presented me a 50-yard “gimme” shot. The only problem was that my rifle was still on the ground. The mature whitetail weighed at least 200 pounds and had a light-colored rack with lots of long tines. That buck would have been mine if I had been in position a few minutes earlier. I never saw him again.
Hunting all day is important beca
use you never know when a buck might appear in the northwoods. We’ve bagged them at literally every hour of the day. Even when hunting all day in the northern U.P., it’s possible to go some days without seeing a deer. That goes with the territory. Hunters who decide to try their luck in the Lake Superior Watershed have to be willing to accept that.
Some years, I’ve seen nothing one day and multiple bucks the next. If you go two or three days without a deer sighting, it’s time to change places. When there’s snow on the ground, it doesn’t usually take long to find alternate spots where whitetails might be moving during daylight hours. I often combine still-hunting and scouting when in the process of looking for a new stand site.
It only takes one deer to turn things around. And if you see a whitetail in the north, the odds of it being a buck are high, much higher than elsewhere in the state because sex ratios are less out of balance in that part of the region. Bucks also cover a tremendous amount of ground in their search for does during the rut in the north because the does are spread out.
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