Killing a big buck is not as easy as the guys on television make it seem. Surveys conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other organizations show time and time again that most whitetail hunters in our state would like to shoot a trophy buck — if given the opportunity. But not at the expense of not being able to shoot a deer at all.
The moral of that story? Most of us are meat hunters first and trophy hunters second. Actually, what the statistics show is that we like to hunt in the same place year after year with the same people, no matter what the trophy potential anywhere else in the state.
Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all! But there are some parts of the state with better trophy potential than others, and there are a significant number of hunters willing to move their deer camps into those places, even if it means hunting in a different location from year to year.
Determining where to go in Minnesota for a trophy deer is actually much more difficult than one might imagine. The DNR harvest statistics only reveal whether a deer was male or female and a juvenile or adult. An adult buck could be anywhere from a forkhorn on up to a massive 30-pointer.
There also are agencies such as Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young that compile statistics based on reported deer kills from around the state. The problem with that is it depends on the hunter reporting it and, both agencies believe it to be true, at best 50 percent of the trophies taken in the state each year are reported to one of these two organizations.
Over the past five seasons, the top counties around the state for trophy deer have been Anoka, Fillmore, Houston, Morrison, Olmsted, Otter Tail, St. Louis, Todd, Wabasha and Winona. Does that mean if you hunt in Cass County you should move? Does it mean if you hunt in Otter Tail and haven’t seen a trophy deer that you must be doing something wrong? The answer to both those questions is a resounding, “Probably not.”
There are trophy deer all over the state and it’s safe to say there are dozens of trophy bucks in every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties. “All it takes is that one time when everything works out,” said Pete Hein, owner of Flatline Products. “And it’s the most special thing to shoot a trophy buck, or as I call them, a gagger or swamp donkey.”
Finding that opportunity for a trophy is possible statewide as any DNR area wildlife manager will tell you. “Anywhere you hunt in Minnesota there are going to be large bucks with quality racks but there are so many factors that go into creating just such a deer,” said Lou Cornicelli, big game project coordinator for the Minnesota DNR. While there definitely is an impact based on the biology of an area regarding food sources, climate and genetics, there also is a larger impact based on the hunting activity of the area.
Big bucks are difficult for the average hunter to find, which is precisely the reason the bucks become so big. When hunters harvest the first buck that comes along, logically speaking, their hunting area is not going to hold many trophy deer. Passing on a 6-pointer is the only way to possibly have an opportunity at an 8-pointer the next year — but only if every other hunter that deer walks by passes as well. Therein lies the challenge of taking a trophy deer.
Just as hunters rely on a combination of dumb luck and skill to harvest a trophy buck, that buck is relying on the same dumb luck and skill to avoid being shot. It’s not a formula for producing trophy deer, but the majority of hunters have said time and time again that they are more interested in getting a buck than in getting a trophy. Areas of the state like the northeast are known for producing large-bodied deer that field dress well over 200 pounds, but frequently their antlers reach less than “trophy” status due to the harsh conditions faced year after year.
There are two large areas where the vast majority of trophy whitetail are taken every year. The common thread for both those areas is the Mississippi River, which has a tremendous diversity of topography from its headwaters in north-central Minnesota down to the Iowa border. But it always provides ample food sources and cover as it snakes through the state. The first prime area is known as the “transition zone” and is found throughout the heart of the state from around Alexandria and Fergus Falls over to Brainerd and south to the north metro. The second area is the well-known southeastern corner of the state that has some significant regulation changes this year aimed, in part, at producing more trophy deer.
Some people call it Minnesota’s “transition zone” because it’s located where the prairie potholes and flatlands give way to hardwoods before turning into the pine stands of the northeast. Longtime Minnesota hunters know this area as Zone 2 that used to connect northwest Minnesota with the Metro area. Now that Zone 2 has absorbed Zone 4, that doesn’t work, so the logical choice is to call it what it is — a corridor of ideal deer hunting land.
Eliminate those counties in the southeast and the largest numbers of our trophy bucks have come from this region of the state. “This is a great part of the state because it doesn’t receive as much hunting pressure as the southeast or woods further up north, and we regularly see several high-quality deer each and every season,” said Steve Tulp, owner of Mile High Deer Stands in Princeton, Minnesota.
Tulp is lucky enough to hunt his own property, but said he believes the east-central portion of the state he hunts in is underutilized for trophy bucks. “The biggest challenge of hunting around here is passing on quality bucks that we know will get bigger but look so great right now,” he said.
There are a lot of quality bucks in his portion of the state, he said, including Sherburne, Mille Lacs, Isanti and Kanabec. “If you own land like we do, that’s the ideal situation because you can really get to know the property and deer living on it. But there is a lot of public land around here that doesn’t get hunted very heavily and could yield a trophy to somebody willing to put the scouting time in.”
Just a little north and west of Tulp’s area are the counties of Otter Tail, Todd, Douglas and Wadena which are traditional deer hunting counties but not often thought of as high trophy potential. While that might have been true years ago, the last decade has seen an upsurg
e of trophies taken from those counties. As is the case with this entire transition zone, these counties feature a quality combination of forage, cover and terrain.
Just to the south of Tulp’s area is the metro area, which is home to one of the largest supply of trophy whitetail bucks anyplace in the country. Having sprawled out into a broad seven-county metropolitan area (some might argue a 10- or 11-county area), the Twin Cities contain some large stands of undeveloped and underdeveloped land that whitetails find absolutely perfect.
The metro area offers considerable food sources throughout the year and enough pockets of cover to keep a healthy deer population happy. The challenge with hunting the metro is that most of it is off-limits to hunters with firearms and muzzleloaders. Bowhunters love it because they have almost the entire area to themselves. If ever there was an excuse needed for taking up bowhunting, the opportunity to hunt around the Twin Cities is it. At least, it is worth investigating.
While there definitely are trophy deer to be had throughout the state, with concentrations in several key areas, the best region for harvesting a trophy whitetail is in the southeastern corner. It has the perfect combination of habitat with croplands, large stands of mature timber and river bottoms. It looks exactly like some of the finest deer hunting land anywhere else in the nation.
This will be an interesting year in southeastern Minnesota, with the new changes to the hunting season for hunters in Zones 3A and 3B. There was quite a lot of discussion raised about the changes when they were released back in June and those discussions will probably become even more vocal as the season approaches. All in all, a lot of hunters are happy with the changes.
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