Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Michigan bowhunters, muzzleloader hunters and even rifle hunters have a golden opportunity to fill their tags. Here's where you'll find deer during Michigan's late season. (December 2008)

The author admires a 10-point buck that made the mistake of chasing a doe in heat. Late-season snow gives hunters a big advantage.

Photo by Kenny Darwin.

I knew the first time I laid eyes on the massive Michigan buck that he was a special whitetail. What I didn't realize was just how long I'd have to labor to finally call the trophy mine.

I spotted him in a Jackson County hay field in August and his mossy looking velvet rack looked world class. During bow season, he disappeared and I did not see him during the regular gun season. Come muzzleloader season, I got a glimpse of the monster deer chasing a doe in a snowstorm. The following morning I stalked my stand with confidence, moving slowly crosswind, looking for movement of brown fur against the white snow. Huge fresh tracks were everywhere, in the snow-covered corn field, through the hardwoods and into the thicket where I took stand.

I heard a buck grunt to the west and as I slowly turned my head to investigate, a small doe pranced directly toward me. Behind the hot doe was one of the largest bucks I've ever laid eyes on. I recognized the rack, flipped the safety off my Ultimate .50-caliber muzzleloader and placed the cross hairs on the big buck's chest. He stopped, curled his upper lip and turned his massive, polished rack in the morning light as the flash of the rifle filled the air with blackpowder gray smoke.

It was indeed a proud moment when I reached the fallen giant. I guess we all have one special hunt in our lives and this was mine. I held the large 10-point rack as I sat in the freshly fallen white blanket of snow, marveled at his beauty and thanked God for Michigan's late deer season.

This is a good example of the many benefits of participating in Michigan's late-season deer hunting. You do not need an army of other hunters in the woods moving deer to make December deer hunting worthwhile. It's an ideal time to harvest venison, highlighted by perfect weather to chill and season the tasty meat. Deer are often confined close to food sources and smart old bucks begin to venture from hiding spots. Michigan hunters have a long-standing tradition of harvesting does during December. It is also an ideal time to fill a gun or bow tag, and in many counties, you may use a centerfire rifle during the late antlerless-only season. Here are your late hunting seasons and options:

  • Archery resumes statewide Dec. 1 until Jan. 1, 2009.
  • Muzzleloader season opens in the Upper Peninsula Dec. 5-14.
  • Muzzleloader season opens in the southern Lower Peninsula Dec. 5-21.
  • Muzzleloader season is open 10 days in the northern Lower Peninsula Dec. 12-21.
  • Antlerless-only firearms season runs Dec. 22 through Jan. 1, 2009, in designated counties of regions 2 and 3.

Only private property is open to hunting with centerfire rifles, muzzleloaders and shotguns during this period and centerfire rifles may not be used in Zone 3. Hunters must carry unfilled antlerless licenses for those counties while hunting.

Harvesting a big buck in Michigan is not an easy task, especially following the rifle season. But after the orange army vacates the woods and deer resume normal activities, you can up your odds by concentrating on specific locations. Here's why.

Hunters harvested nearly 484,000 deer during the 2007 season -- 24 percent took antlerless deer and 35 percent harvested a buck -- according to DNR statistics. But where can you find deer come late season?

If I had my pick of counties, I'd concentrate efforts in southern lower Michigan's Zone 3. This is where the bucks with the largest racks are killed. For example, some of the highest scoring bucks come from Lenawee, Allegan and Washtenaw counties. Other productive buck counties include Jackson, Cass, Hillsdale, Livingston, Montcalm, Huron, Sanilac, Barry and Calhoun.

DNR big-game specialist Rod Clute is quick to explain why big bucks often are found in southern lower Michigan. "This part of the state has ideal habitat, good genetics, and a warmer winter than the U.P. and fewer predators than the big woods up north."

I agree, but the main reason bucks grow huge racks in southern lower Michigan is because there are huge plots of private ground that act as sanctuaries where deer become mature. Prime buck locations include private farms, inner city deer hideouts like cemeteries, parks, airports, golf courses and more. My best buck stands border sanctuaries, one a horse farm that does not allow hunting and the other a multi-million dollar housing complex, complete with orchard, trout pond, cattail swamp and a protected deer herd.

Southern lower Michigan's best-kept trophy buck hotspot is the Shiawassee Federal Refuge, which hosts several December hunts. This expansive 25-square-mile waterfowl sanctuary is home to thousands of deer, and refuge managers tend to look at deer as a problem species that should be harvested on a yearly basis. You must apply online at www.fws. gov/midwest/shiawassee.gov. by Aug. 1 for a permit to hunt the refuge.

While some might argue that bucks in zones 1 and 2 -- the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan -- should not be ignored, I disagree. It is my opinion that chances of finding a wallhanger are relatively small following the severe 2008 winter and deep snow across the northern part of the state. Oh sure, there are deer still surviving in these zones, but mature deer are often the first to die when deep snow covers food sources and winter winds blow late into spring. If we had a mild winter with little snow, big bucks yard for a shorter period of time and their survival percentage is much higher. It is my opinion that the trophy buck potential in the U.P. is on the downswing.

The northern lower Peninsula is gradually producing more mature bucks with dandy racks. The biggest factor helping this is reduced deer numbers over the past six years. The remaining deer are healthy and because hunter numbers are way down, bucks grow racks to their full potential. Hunting pressure has declined due to poor deer sightings, gas price increases and restricted doe permits in traditional doe areas. Since hunting pressure has declined in response to fewer deer sightings, the remaining bucks are allowed to live longer and grow bigger racks.

DNR statistics show an estimated 60,000 blackpowder hunters took to the woods in Zone 2, and interestingly, the buck kill was slightly higher than the previous season. Newaygo County produced some big bucks last year along with western lower Michigan counties of Oceana and Mason. Areas in Isabella County have few d

eer due to overharvesting during doe seasons, but Mecosta County shows increasing deer numbers and some dandy bucks are coming from the region near Chippewa Lake and Barryton.

The situation was similar in northeast Zone 2, although the DNR over-issued doe permits and block permits to trim the deer herd in the TB zone. The blackpowder harvest was slightly up from previous seasons. The rate of buck success actually increased in this area in the following counties: Oscoda, Presque Isle, Alpena, Montmorency and Alcona.

So, where can you expect to find bucks during late season in Michigan? Well, one source that can help answer this question is Commemorative Bucks of Michigan, the state's leading big-buck record keepers. They have members throughout the state that are qualified deer antler scorers. When a Wolverine state hunter takes a trophy deer, CBM measures the rack and enters the data by county into an official book.

By evaluating scored deer, you can get good references regarding which counties produce outstanding deer. For instance, CBM data shows the top 10 big-buck counties in Michigan are Jackson, Branch, Van Buren, Calhoun, Clinton, Hillsdale, Ingham, Shiawassee, Allegan and Cass. The point is this: If you want to increase your chances at taking a dandy buck during late season, concentrate your hunting efforts in these counties.

You can kick around statistics all you want, but the secret to filling your buck tag boils down to selecting a hunting area and putting in plenty of time afield. Statistics are great, but Michigan's buck herd is in a steep decline due to increased doe licenses, and this year the DNR will issue maximum permits and offer an early antlerless-only season in an effort to bring the population down even farther. Doe licenses quickly destroy buck populations because button bucks comprise more than half of the deer harvested.

Late-season deer hunters should concentrate on areas that have food, which will draw deer. Crops are the key to successful late-season hunts in southern Michigan. There are plenty of food sources that deer prefer like corn, hay, beans, sugar beets and more. In southern Michigan, you are better off finding standing corn or stubble corn fields that attract plenty of animals.

Try scouting late in the afternoon by driving roads and using quality binoculars to locate herds of feeding deer. After finding a hotspot, start knocking on doors to gain hunting permission. In some cases, getting hunting permission is a cake walk following the regular gun season because many deer hunters are done hunting after rifle season. If you locate a mega-buck -- I'm talking a trophy deer with heavy antlers, wide spread and at least 10 points -- plan on dusting off your wallet. Most landowners who have large bucks on their property expect some payment for hunting rights.

If you have a deer lease, own land or have a place to hunt, it is a sure bet that late-season deer will be attracted to food plots. When cold weather arrives, deer often begin feeding at sundown and are active most of the night. To conserve energy during cold weather, they bed during the day, but bright sun or temperatures above freezing can bring them out from hiding.

Hey, let's face it. Many Michigan deer are shot over bait. Some hunters find the tactic unsportsmanlike, while others have more faith in their stand and will sit long hours when bait is used. Baiting is legal in Michigan, but late-season baiting can be tricky. First, smart deer quickly empty bait piles under the cover of darkness. Not all bait can be used during cold weather -- beets freeze, carrots freeze and rot. My choice is shelled corn and I recommend placing piles in a circle within easy range. By spreading the bait, you can accommodate several deer at a single dinner and up your odds at luring bucks to the food. Bait simply increases your deer sightings no matter where you hunt in the Wolverine State.

Come late season, deer in the big woods migrate to familiar yarding areas that have evergreen trees. Cedar is perhaps the most sought-after food source and savvy hunters take stands in ancient cedar swamps where deer reside. It is a common sight to see cold weather deer standing on their hind legs feeding on the needles and branches of evergreen trees. Some U.P. deer migrate more than 50 miles to congregate in yarding areas rich with green food sources.

If snow is not deep, deer can be located by finding oak ridges highlighted by a forest floor covered with acorns. These nuts draw deer like a magnet throughout Michigan, but in the big woods of zones 1 and 2, a good acorn crop can feed deer all winter. White acorns are the bomb! Knowledgeable hunters are fast to locate the ridges lined with white acorns that are larger than other varieties.

Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule and perhaps the most outstanding big-buck magnet in Michigan is found near metropolitan cities. There seems to be adult deer tucked within the city limits of almost any Michigan town. Big boys hang out at the Dow Gardens and the City Hospital in Midland.

Mt. Pleasant has a super buck dancing close to the state police post. Greenville has a brute living in the city park, and Lansing hosts a substantial herd in Potter and Fenner parks. Delta Township on Lansing's west side has banned hunting and mega-bucks are dancing area streets. Ever seen the big bucks found on the private property Pfizer Corporation owns near Kalamazoo or the bucks that roam south of Milham Park? What about those heavy antlered brutes that wander the Consumers Property south of Ludington? These are examples of the adaptability of deer to find and live in a sanctuary.

Sanctuaries provide a location where deer can hide, a resting spot where people do not bother them, a place where deer can sleep during the day and they roam freely at night to feed. If you try to enter the sanctuary, bucks have little difficulty slipping out the other side. Some cities allow hunting, provided you have permission and you are more than 400 feet from an occupied dwelling. Others only permit bowhunting, some are closed to hunting, and smart, old bucks roam freely. It makes little difference where you live in southern Michigan, big bucks are found within almost every city limits.

Late season is the best time to hunt deer that have a precise sanctuary. Smart bucks lie low during the regular season, but when the woods become quiet and the young bucks have been harvested, that's when the big boys roam in search of food. My recommendation is to get hunting permission on land bordering a sanctuary and set up your ambush point.

Michigan sportsmen have lost wildlife habitat at an alarming rate across the state. In many areas, suburbia has grown so fast that vast properties have been partially developed and abandoned, creating ideal locations for deer populations to boom. In other spots, deer have quickly been surrounded by homes or office complexes and again they are protected from hunting pressure and populations surge abruptly upward. While most hunters would prefer the serenity of the silent north woods, complete with the aroma of cedar or pine, many Michigan buck hunters are fast finding hotspots close to metropolitan areas.

Choosing where to hunt late season is an art that i

s difficult to describe in a single article. Winter is a time when you have the woods to yourself. The deer are relaxed, yet wary after the long season. Perhaps your biggest advantage is if you locate deer, you can rest assured that they are confined to a relatively small area. Select your stand with care and you can count on good activity when the evening sun touches the horizon.

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