Best Big Buck States for 2014: Ohio
October 31, 2014
Jim Daugherty drives an hour each way to get to his office, mostly to keep from uprooting his family, but also because he can't stomach the idea of leaving his southwestern Ohio hunting grounds. Daugherty lives in South Dayton but is the general manager of Cabela's in Columbus. And when he's not talking hunting with customers, he's either scouting or hunting in Green County, an area that anyone who tracks the fall of big bucks in Ohio has heard plenty about.
Daugherty had the same buck on camera for three years and hunted it hard with bow and arrow for the last couple. He had an encounter with the buck last October but no chance for a shot. Then during the sub-zero muzzleloader season, another opportunity came up and he finally sealed the deal. The buck scored 161 2/8 NT, and was estimated to be 6 1/2 years old. This makes his fifth Ohio whitetail to score over 140, with two over 150.
To connect with a big Ohio buck, Daugherty says there's one main key — you have to let the smaller ones walk.
"Now that I've got the 160 mark topped, I'll be looking for a 170," he said.
He seeks hunting land that provides food and cover that deer need and want.
"Food plots are great but a lot of Ohio land is in corn and beans so if you can access hunting land that includes crop fields, you'll likely see more deer," he said.
Daugherty is a big advocate of placing game cameras in potential hunting areas. He starts early in June and July, keeps the camera in a spot for 30 days and sees what he has available.
"My buddies and I tend to hunt individual deer. We knew that on the properties we hunt there were three shooters last year; we pretty much named them and we knew their patterns. We talked every day so we each knew who was hunting where, and we always shared information on the bucks' movement," he said.
Daugherty notes that you hunt where you have access and you can certainly take a big buck anywhere in Ohio, but he maintains that southwestern Ohio is as good as it gets.
"If you look at that area and the quality of the bucks that are being taken there, it's unbelievable during the last 10 or 15 years. Think the Beatty (304 3/8 NT), and Jerman (201 1/8 TYP) bucks, taken in Green and Warren counties. The genetics are definitely there," he said. Another buck, taken by David Ross in Green County in 2003, scored 232 NT. It was taken not too far from where Mike Beatty's buck fell and some people thought it possessed the same characteristics/genetics.
Daugherty is right on target, according to Mike Tonkovich, the Division of Wildlife's (DOW) deer program administrator.
"As you move west in the state, a larger percentage of the bucks harvested will qualify for the BBBC (you can also find that high percentage in central Ohio's Franklin and Delaware counties). If you look at bucks killed in far northeast Ashtabula and far south Lawrence counties versus far west Miami Co., those who kill bucks are three times more likely to kill a scorer in Miami," Tonkovich said.
However, Tonkovich qualifies that by adding that in the western portion of the state, it's harder to find a place to hunt unless you lease land or have a friend or family member who owns land.
"Getting a spot to hunt in one of the big buck counties like Logan is like getting season tickets for OSU football; it's unlikely but if you do you've got a heck of a prize," he said.
Tonkovich's fellow deer biologist, Clint McCoy, added that most hunters will look for a buck spot in the eastern portion of the state, because of sheer numbers of deer in those more forested areas.
McCoy said, "That's essentially where most people will hunt, because there are lots of deer there and lots more public land. There's more cover and habitat, so even though hunters kill far more bucks there, some of them always slip through the cracks and grow to good size. "
Looking at the records for the Buckeye Big Buck Club (BBBC), the southeastern quadrant of Ohio wins out for absolute numbers of trophies. The top 10 counties for total number of bucks that made the score for BBBC include (in order) Licking, Muskingum, Guernsey, Coshocton, Athens, Ross, Hocking, Jefferson, Washington, and Tuscarawas. If you look at those top 10 counties, you'll find reasonable amounts of public hunting land in all but Licking and Tuscarawas.
If you look at the map from the standpoint of how many bucks made the grade per thousand bucks taken, the list of top counties (again, in order) looks significantly different: Franklin, Hardin, Miami, Auglaize, Sandusky, Delaware, Darke, Marion, Madison, and Wyandot. Six of these counties had 15 or more scoring bucks per 1,000 taken. That's huge.
Most serious Ohio trophy hunters have heard of Mike Rex of Athens, the long-time officer and currently secretary/treasurer of the BBBC. He knows a lot about how to/where to get big bucks.
An avid bowhunter, Rex is tied for first place in the number of bucks entered into its books, with 14 entries, including a buck that scored 218 6/8 taken on opening day of archery season in 2005. Does it pay to be a bowhunter? Apparently so, if you pay as much attention to the statistics as he does.
According to Rex, "Last year, for the first time, entries taken by bow outnumbered those taken by gun (BBBC's records are normally about a year behind because of the drying period, so this would have probably happened in 2012)."
Historically, Rex pointed out, while 80 percent of all entries were gun kills, 80 percent of people with multiple entries in the BBBC were archers.
According to Rex, there were about 600 BBBC entries last year. Since 1958, there have been some 17,000 bucks entered. He said that in looking at the history of entries, southwestern Ohio has come on very strong in the past 10 years, noting Warren County as harboring some really serious bruisers. Rex himself hunts primarily in southeastern Ohio but said that all 88 counties have had entries. His buck from last year netted 150 and was estimated at 8 1/2 years old.
"He wasn't my highest scoring buck but may have been my greatest trophy. We had nicknamed him 'the Teflon Don' because we previously thought he just wasn't killable," Rex said.
Deer hunting, and trophy hunting in particular, has changed over the last several decades. McCoy said most people now realize they don't have to shoot the first thing they see because there are so many antlerless opportunities to fill the freezer while still waiting for a buck.
"Many hunters these days have just one thing in the back of their minds — the big daddy," McCoy said.
He noted a definite trend towards hunters going after a bigger bucks rather than any buck. "You can see that the number of yearling bucks in the harvest (age 1 1/2) has been going steadily down since 1997 while the number of 2 1/2 and 3 1/2-plus either stayed the same or went up during the same time frame. During the '97 season, 65 percent of bucks killed were 1 1/2 year-olds; 10 years later just 50 percent of the harvest were yearlings. At one time, hunters took the first buck they saw because they just didn't see that many. Nationally, the number (percentage) of yearling bucks taken has gone down steadily. And, since there is no antler restriction in Ohio as to number of points — this is totally voluntary."
McCoy also believes technology has changed the way people hunt.
"You can look in magazines or on the internet and see the big bucks that are out there. Or look on your own cameras and see bucks you had no idea were in the area — it's a game changer," he said. "Now people think, hey, I fed that deer, I've got all those cameras out there — that's my deer. They name them."
Tonkovich added that by looking at pictures over a couple years, hunters have realized that one year makes a big difference in antler size and two years makes a huge difference. If you pass on a yearling buck, his antler size could double between age 1 1/2 and 2 1/2.
For those hoping to get a record book buck, variables will include a number of things. Looking through the records to see where numbers of trophies have been taken is a good start, but in a state like Ohio that may be the least significant variable in the big picture. Access to land with good deer habitat, and large amounts of time to spend in the stand, are two of the most important factors. But don't ever underestimate hunting skills like knowledge of deer behavior, effects of wind direction and ability with your chosen weapon.
And, does it matter whether you hunt private of public land? Statewide, hunting on private land resulted in 61,253 antlered bucks while 6,130 were taken on public land in the 2013 season.
While you might take a big buck anywhere in Ohio, the sleeper areas are still urban counties — think Franklin, Delaware, Mahoning, Columbiana, Lucas, Medina, Warren, and Clermont.
Right now Franklin County (Columbus) leads the state for number of trophy deer killed per thousand. It's hard to find a place to hunt in the more urban areas, and for that reason, bucks grow old and get big antlers. While Licking County leads state in terms of absolute entries in BBBC, that's because it's a huge county and has extremely high deer densities and lots of hunters.
Nick Pinizzotto is the new President and CEO of the Columbus-based hunter advocacy group the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, and he got to experience hunting Licking County last fall.
Recently relocated to Ohio, Pinizzotto is no stranger to hunting big bucks. During his hunting career, he's stalked them in more than 10 states and taken seven whitetails that at minimum would score for Pope &Young. Since last year was his first year on a new job, he lamented not having had more time to spend in Ohio's autumn woods.
"I knew what kind of quality to expect in Ohio and was very excited about hunting here," Pinizzotto said.
While last year didn't pan out he did see the kind of buck he was looking for — a 160-class animal that escaped when his release was bumped while he was trying to get in position for a shot. He did end up filling his tag with a nice 9-pointer. He's done plenty of scouting during the turkey season, and hopefully, the 160 will just be bigger next year.
Having spent a lot of time hunting areas outside his home range, Pinizzotto's advice to those looking for a big buck is to be persistent and spend time doing your homework.
"Technology has given us so many advanced tools to help with our hunting," he said.
When sizing up a new area, Pinizzotto spends significant time studying aerial photos, researching the statistics on where big bucks have been taken, then seeking permission and putting up and checking trail cameras. A favorite tool while he's in the stand is an app for his smartphone called ScoutLook Weather that allows you to map your stands and even provides an alert when the wind direction changes.
"So, based on your experience and expectations, you decide what constitutes a trophy. My experience tells me if you work at it and have some patience, you'll find that buck here in Ohio."