2011 Michigan Deer Forecast...Finding Trophy Bucks

2011 Michigan Deer Forecast...Finding Trophy Bucks
Photo by BILLKINNEY.COM

Many Michigan deer hunters will probably be surprised to learn that two of the highest scoring bucks with typical antlers that were bagged in the state during 2010 came from the northern Lower Peninsula. A 12-pointer netting 170 3/8 was shot in Presque Isle County and a 10-pointer that netted 164 5/8 was arrowed in Leelanau County. Both bucks are No. 1 for their respective counties and may be a glimpse of what is to come from those counties, and others in the same region, for the future.

Keith Davis from Merrill got the Presque Isle County buck on Nov. 18 while hunting a 300-acre parcel that he owns there. The buck was aged at 5 1/2 years and weighed 232 pounds in the round, with a field-dressed weight of 201 pounds, according to Davis. Now that's a trophy whitetail anywhere!

Keith's best buck prior to last fall came from the same property in 2004. That one was 4 1/2 years old and scored 143. And in 2006, Keith's brother shot another 4 1/2-year-old buck on the property that measured 156. The fact that they only shoot mature bucks with at least 8 points, and the habitat on the parcel has been improved through the planting of food plots has contributed to their success there.

It was windy on the day Davis got his book buck last fall. The whitetail stuck its head and neck out from the brush on an old two-track road at 10 a.m. The deer was 100 yards away, but Keith said he didn't want to risk a neck shot, so he aimed where he thought the shoulder was and fired.

The bullet from Keith's .300 Winchester Magnum was deflected by the brush, but, fortunately, the buck ran into the open at the shot. That gave Keith a second chance and that time the bullet connected.

Davis had only had the antlers measured by Safari Club International when I spoke to him, but he said he planned to enter the deer in state records. The previous No. 1 typical from Presque Isle County that's currently in state records kept by Commemorative Bucks of Michigan scored 165 and was taken way back in 1946 by Earl Dueltgen.

Zack Heller from Rapid City bagged the new highest-scoring typical for Leelanau County on Nov. 3, which happens to be his birthday. I'm sure he couldn't have asked for a better birthday present. That day was windy and raining. Zack said he was in his tree stand until 9:30 a.m. without any luck. After he climbed out of his stand, he grabbed the memory card from his trail camera, and then went to his truck. He looked at the images from the camera and one of them from two days earlier was of a trophy animal that he and his father had named Mr. Big. That was the first photo they had of it since August and the deer had been by Zack's stand at 9:15 a.m.

Heller called his father to give him the news, and they decided Zack should return to his stand to continue hunting. The fact that Zack saw a forkhorn while sitting in his truck reinforced that notion. Heller had only been back in position in his tree stand about five minutes when Mr. Big showed up behind a doe and Heller eventually made good on a 35 yard shot with his 80-pound pull PSE bow tipped with a 3-blade Rage broadhead.

The buck was 5 1/2 years old and had a dressed weight of 180 pounds. The antlers have a gross score of 167 7/8. The county's best typical prior to last fall netted 162 2/8 and was shot during the 1969 firearms season by Robert Stroud.

Leelanau County has been one of the best counties in Region 2 for book bucks for a number of years, and that can be expected to continue. Antler restrictions have been in place for that county for at least five years now. All bucks must have a minimum of three points on one antler to be legal there.

Based on CBM entries from 2009, two more counties in Region 2 that produced a pair of bucks each that scored at least 125 are Manistee and Oceana. When considering an incomplete list of state record entries from 2010, Newaygo and Grand Traverse counties can be added to the list of those where the chances of encountering big bucks is good. Bucks that scored in the 140s and 150s were bagged in Newaygo County last fall. A 150-class buck came from Grand Traverse.

The county where the state's highest scoring typical for 2010 was shot isn't so much of a surprise — Jackson. A number of the state's biggest antlered bucks have come from Jackson County. It's gotten to the point where Jackson County is expected to produce Boone and Crockett qualifying whitetails on an annual basis, and it seldom disappoints.

Jerry Pennington from Oxford nailed a monster 13-pointer in Jackson County on opening day of gun season with a muzzleloader that nets 176 2/8 and grossed around 191. Pennington's blackpowder buck scores high enough to rank second among typical muzzleloader kills. Jerry shot the whitetail during the first minute of firearms season at a distance of 100 yards with a .50-caliber Thompson/Center Omega loaded with 150 grains of powder.

The county to the east of Jackson (Washtenaw) is as consistent a producer of book bucks as Jackson. The county to the west of Jackson (Calhoun), is now coming on strong and appears to have as much potential as the other two perennial producers. A pair of outstanding non-typicals were bagged by bowhunters in Calhoun County during 2010, for instance. George Swan Jr. from Marshall arrowed a 14-pointer netting 188 7/8 with a crossbow on Oct. 6 that is a new state record in the non-typical crossbow category. For more about the hunt for that deer, refer to the July/August issue of Michigan Sportsman.

On Nov. 4, another Marshall resident, Brian Van Dorsten, arrowed a 16-point non-typical in the county with his Bowtech compound that nets 182 4/8. Brian's father-in-law, Richard Kipp, had seen the buck a number of times while bowhunting and had trail camera photos of it, but had never been in position to get a shot at it. Van Dorsten saw the buck stand up from its bed at 5:55 p.m. and it started heading toward a stand where Kipp was hunting, but it must have winded him and turned back toward Brian, eventually giving him a 12-yard shot.

The odds of bagging a buck with antlers that will score at least 125 are actually excellent in any county that is part of the four southernmost tiers. That's where most of the state's book bucks come from on a consistent basis. Boone and Crockett-caliber whitetails have been and still can be taken from any of those counties as well. Based on the number of bucks scoring at least 125 that were entered in state records during 2009 (the latest season for which we have complete figures), the best southern Michigan counties for big antlers are Calhoun and Washtenaw (with 14 entries each), Jackson and Cass (13 each), Clinton (11), Berrien (10), Hillsdale (9), Branch, Van Buren, Allegan and Ingham (8 each).

One of the highest-scoring typicals claimed by hunters last fall was an 11-pointer from Berrien County netting 171 1/8. Randy Mottl from Eau Claire got that buck with a shotgun on Nov. 28. He shot it just 20 yards from the spot where he found one of the buck's shed antlers from the year before. Berrien County also produced a pair of trophy bucks that drowned in the St. Joseph River after their antlers became locked while fighting in November. One of those bucks was a 17-point non-typical with a pair of drop tines that grossed 188. The 10-pointer that died with it scored 140.

Van Buren County gave up a typical 14-pointer on Dec. 19 to muzzleloader hunter Rich Glista that had antlers similar in size to the one Mottl got. The cold and snow possible during December sometimes increases the vulnerability of big bucks to hunters as normally nocturnal deer move during shooting hours to try to regain some of the weight they lost during the rut. Glista shot his buck about 9:15 a.m.

An outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease in Cass, Van Buren, Ottawa and Allegan counties resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 deer, including some book bucks, before the 2010 season even began, probably reduced hunting success in those counties. Shed hunters recovered some of the racks from bucks that died from the disease. The largest rack was from a dead deer Christopher Coates found in Cass County, which was a typical 14-pointer, grossing 185. An 8-point rack he found measured 130.

Another southwest Michigan county that has been producing more book bucks than usual during recent years (St. Joseph) gave up a whopper during 2010. Ryan Glass from Three Rivers bow-bagged a 17-point non-typical in the county that nets 194 3/8 and the buck was 5 1/2 years old.

The best buck recorded from Allegan County during 2010 was another December muzzleloader kill that Amber Rogalla-Jones from South Haven dropped the hammer on during a snowstorm that occurred on Dec. 5. The snow was coming down so hard that she kept her .50-caliber Thompson/Center Encore rifle in an unzipped case to prevent it from getting wet through the open windows of her elevated box blind. When the 14-point non-typical that netted 179 5/8 showed up, she took the rifle out of the case and had to stand up to make the shot on the buck at 20 yards.

Monroe County in the southeast corner of the state appears to be coming on strong, too. At least two B&C qualifiers were bagged there last fall, according to county taxidermist Gary Brown. He mounted a huge 9-pointer for Mike Preadmore that grossed in the 180s as a typical and he's also mounting the head of a non-typical with antlers that grossed 199 and has not yet been entered in state records.

Huron County at the tip of the thumb produced another trophy non-typical for Ed McCrea from Bad Axe on Nov. 19, 2010. The 18-pointer has a gross score of 196 6/8 and nets 189 3/8. The 4 1/2-year-old buck was chasing a couple of does in a cut soybean field when McCrea got it with his shotgun. Ed's son got a good look at the deer with a spotting scope prior to the opening of gun season and he counted 15 points. He obviously missed several of them.

The highest scoring buck bagged in the U.P. during 2010 that I know of is a 15-pointer that Josh Stein from Hancock nailed in Houghton County with a muzzleloader on Dec. 5. The antlers grossed in the 150s and netted in the 140s. Houghton County is one of Region 1's top trophy buck producers. So are Keweenaw, Ontonagon, Marquette, Iron, Dickinson, Menominee and Delta counties.

For that matter, bucks that score a minimum of 125 are available in every U.P. county. They are simply tougher to get than those in southern Michigan due to the large blocks of forest most of them live in. The fact that a lower percentage of hunters who bag book bucks in the U.P. enter them in state records than the southern part of the state makes it more difficult to get an accurate picture of the trend there. CBM entries from 2009 for the U.P., for example, give a biased view of what was taken there. Overall deer-hunting success was poor in that region during 2009, especially during gun season, due to warm temperatures and the absence of snow for most of the season, but I know more than two book bucks were bagged there for the year.

Interestingly, one of the two book bucks from the U.P. recorded for 2009 was bagged by Zack Heller from Rapid City; the guy who collected Leelanau County's No. 1 typical with bow and arrow last fall. Zack's family has a hunting camp in Ontonagon County, where they normally hunt during firearms season. Heller shot a trophy 8-pointer out of the camp during 2009 that had a gross score of 137. Zack said he had the opportunity to shoot the same 8-point during 2008, but it was so cold the trigger on his rifle froze and it wouldn't fire as the buck stood only 20 yards away.

I know of multiple book bucks that were taken in Marquette, Menominee, Dickinson and Delta counties during 2010. Fourteen-year-old Mitch Laurin from Ishpeming, for instance, got a 5 1/2-year-old 10-point in Marquette County for his first deer. Bill Fredy of Ishpeming got a book buck from Marquette County, too, that was 4 1/2 years old and had a mane. I also photographed a book buck that retired conservation officer Mike Holmes from Iron Mountain got near his home in Dickinson County.

For the second year in a row, winter was easy on whitetails in the southern U.P. due to the presence of little snow, and winter was easier than normal over most of the rest of the U.P., too, which has set the stage for 2011 to be another good year for book bucks in Region 1. Plenty of wallhangers are in the region, but many of them are good at eluding hunters. Hunters who hope to connect on book bucks in the U.P. need to do as much scouting as possible before the season and then plan on hunting as long and as hard as possible in order to score.

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