Upper Peninsula Public-Land Deer Bonanza

Upper Peninsula Public-Land Deer Bonanza

The public hunting land of Michigan's Upper Peninsula might not offer a buck behind every tree, but with persistence, patience and perhaps a bit of perspiration, a first-quality hunt is within reach. (August 2009)



Deer concentrations might be lighter in the Upper Peninsula than elsewhere in Michigan, but hunting pressure is low and big bucks are possible.

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.

PUBLIC STARTING POINTS

Public hunting land is abundant in the Lake Superior Watershed. Here is a sample of some locations where you might be able to experience the same type of hunt we did in our camp last fall. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is in both Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, with most of the park's huge acreage in Ontonagon County. Take County Road 519 north of M-28 on the east side of Wakefield to access the Gogebic County portion of the park. To get to the eastern entrance of the park, which is where the visitor's center is, take M-64 north from Bergland along M-28, to Silver city, then head west. Besides campgrounds, some rustic cabins are available for rent in this park.

Most of the southern half of Houghton County is part of the Ottawa National Forest. The forest can be accessed by way of Forest Highway 16 that goes north and south from the community of Kenton.

Craig Lake State Park is in eastern Baraga County. Some rental cabins are also available here, but they have to be reserved well ahead of time. A gravel road east of Three Lakes along M-28 provides access to the park. There is no visitor's center in this park.

The McCormick Wilderness is in western Marquette County. Drive north of Highway M-28 on the Peshekee Grade near Champion to access this wilderness area.

In Alger County, try the Hiawatha National Forest that surrounds the city of Munising. Most of the public forest is south and west of the city, but there's also public land to the east.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park is in eastern Luce County. Take M-123 north of Newberry to get to this park. Plenty of other state-owned land can be found along this route before you get to the park.

M-123 continues into Chippewa County north of the state park. More state land is available north and south of this highway near Paradise. Hiawatha National Forest Land is also abundant north and south of M-28 near Eckerman, Strongs and Raco.

If you are serious about getting away from the crowds, devote some time to reviewing maps of the U.P. and finding your own potential honeyholes. The northern Upper Peninsula is full of public-land opportunities, and singling out just a few can place undue pressure on specific areas. If you truly want a wilderness hunting experience with little chance of encountering other hunters, it is possible here, but you'll have to invest both the time required to find quality spots off the beaten path, and, quite literally, the legwork to get there.

THE KEWEENAW EXAMPLE

Last fall, Matt Westerbrink started the season off in a big way for himself and our camp on opening morning by shooting his first U.P. buck, which proved to be his best buck ever, as well as the camp's biggest ever. He scored on the trophy buck in an area no one else had hunted before. When Matt shot the whitetail, he knew it had a rack, but he didn't know how many points it had. He saw two tines and figured he could count the rest after the deer was on the ground.

Matt was in for a surprise when he reached the fallen buck. The rack sported 12 points on a typical 10-point frame, but the second point on each side is forked, giving it the two additional points. The deer was at least 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 years old.

What's even more amazing about Matt's hunting success on opening day is he saw a much bigger buck on his way to camp for lunch at 12:45 p.m. He said the tines were much longer and the beams were wider than the one he shot. That's amazing considering the inside spread of the 12-pointer's rack measured 19 1/8 inches and some of the tines are 10 inches long.

Matt was riding his 4-wheeler when he saw the monster standing in a logging road. He said the buck walked 30 yards from the road and stopped. As Matt was trying to get his rifle out of its scabbard, another vehicle came along, spooking the book buck.

Bill Westerbrink was the second member of camp to bag a buck on opening day. He shot a 2 1/2-year-old 8-point around 10 a.m. from a spot where he's taken a number of other bucks in the past.

Two more bucks were added to the pole on day two. Dave Menominee downed a 7-pointer from his favorite spot and Koljonen connected on an 8-point. Both bucks were shot around 9 a.m.

Both Bob Polly and I had only seen antlerless deer through the third day of the season.

Polly was hunting from a spot where he bagged a forkhorn the year before. The spot wasn't baited until he arrived in camp the day before the season opened. He also set up a ground blind then.

He only saw one doe each of the first two days of the season, but by the third day, there was an almost constant procession of does in front of his blind. Polly had a total of 17 deer sightings on the third day, three of which were fawns. Some of the adult does he saw probably visited his bait more than once, but there was still a tremendous amount of doe activity in the area.

On day four, Polly opted to move to Menominee's blind, where two bucks were seen the day before. He then graciously allowed me to occupy his blind. I was confident all of the doe activity was bound to attract a buck, and that proved to be the case.

A doe appeared at 10:15 a.m. A few minutes later, a nice buck followed her to the bait. As soon as I saw the rack, I knew he was a shooter, so didn't bother counting points. I assumed he was an 8-point. He stood statuesque for a full five minutes on a knoll behind the bait, assessing his surroundings, while suspiciously eyeing the blind I was in.

There was little wind that day and the front window of the blind was all the way open, so I didn't want to move while the buck was looking at the blind for fear of being seen or heard. I had wisely grabbed my rifle from the corner of the blind when I saw the doe approaching, just in a case a buck was behind her, and she acted as though she heard me make that move. While the buck was s

urveying the situation, the doe's fawn came around the left side of the knoll the buck was on and joined its mother at the bait.

After the fawn arrived, the buck relaxed and advanced to the bait, but his vitals were soon covered by branches. When he finally walked into the open, he nervously stomped a foot as though he detected something he didn't like. The doe and fawn started to leave and I was sure he would soon follow, so I quickly shouldered my .30/06 and fired when the cross hairs were on his shoulder. The 150-grain bullet instantly knocked him off his feet.

I sat in the blind for 15 minutes, savoring the moment. When I exited the blind, I saw Koljonen approaching. He actually reached the buck before I did and when he lifted the deer's antlers from the snow, we both realized the rack had 10 points instead of 8. Thanks to Polly's efforts, I was able to put my tag on a 3 1/2-year-old 10-point.

Our Keweenaw County deer camp is a realistic example of what you can expect on a U.P. hunt. You might not scope multiple trophies -- or even multiple bucks -- from your stand or blind each morning and evening, but persistent effort can produce impressive results in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

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