Minnesota's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Whether you rely on luck or hard work, there are many places to kill a big-racked buck in our state. (October 2007)

Photo by Mark Werner.

Minnesota may not lead the nation in the number of big whitetails killed every year, but there are definitely some trophy-racked bucks in our woods, swamps and fields.

There are two kinds of hunters who shoot a buck qualifying for trophy status -- those who get lucky and those who are willing to put in plenty of hard work.

Dumb luck is hard to come by these days, and you can't really rely on it when afield. The odds of shooting a big white-tailed buck are still better than winning the lottery, but in the end, it is not a safe bet to make.

The only other option is to put in a considerable amount of hard work to create a trophy-hunting opportunity. Hours and hours of scouting throughout the year must be done whether on public land or private land. Those of you hunting public land have to find an area far enough away from the crowds. Those of you hunting on private land have the added work that goes into effectively managing the land for trophy bucks. But in the end, there is no guarantee that all that sweat will pay off with the kind of buck on the covers of magazines.

"A lot of people aren't willing to put out the work required to get a trophy animal, and many who put out the work and don't get one are so disappointed that they give up," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Johnson said many hunters forget that a large part of trophy hunting is the effort that goes into creating that opportunity. Some hunters even seem to think that simply because they go deer hunting and put some work into it means they are entitled to a big buck.

"Many hunters fail to recognize the fact that a trophy buck is that way because there aren't very many around," Johnson added.

This is assuming, of course, that all hunters want a wallhanger rack. Despite what some hunters believe, deer are more than just antler-delivery systems.

"It's a loaded topic, and the overwhelming response from our members is that they don't want to be restricted from shooting what they want," Johnson said.

The only way for trophy deer hunting to improve in Minnesota is through management geared at creating big-racked bucks. The Department of Natural Resources has conducted surveys of deer hunters about this very situation, and the responses revealed the controversial nature of trophy management.

"The survey showed us that 65 percent want more mature bucks in the deer population, but none of the regulation options received more than 49 percent support from hunters," said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big-game program coordinator.

The DNR is currently conducting a research project looking at different ways of killing deer to provide for increased numbers of mature bucks. The public is able to participate in this project, and a check of the regulations shows that several state parks are included in this experiment.

For the last several seasons, hunters have had the opportunity to hunt in several select state parks with specialized restrictions. Some state parks have earn-a-buck programs where a hunter is required to tag an antlerless deer before killing a buck. Other state parks have antler-point restrictions requiring a buck to have a minimum of 3 or 4 points on one side, depending on the park. Cornicelli said the results of this research should come out sometime next year, but whether or not it will result in regulation changes is still undetermined.

Johnson said hunters want to make the decision themselves.

"Antler restrictions might be socially acceptable, but one thing that many are in favor of is allowing people to voluntarily limit themselves to harvesting only mature animals," Johnson said.

The issue is very controversial, and while some hunters want whatever it takes to create more mature bucks in the woods, the vast majority of hunters simply want the opportunity to shoot a buck of any size no matter what. They especially want young hunters, new hunters and elderly hunters to have all the opportunities available to kill a deer.

"We are pounded by some hunters about big bucks, but when you talk about what to do about it, people don't want many of the changes that would make it possible," Cornicelli said. "It's long been a frustration for me, because which regulation do you use?

"Just because we're not managing deer for a small percentage of people who want to kill a trophy doesn't mean we aren't doing a good job managing deer," Cornicelli added.

The fact of the matter is that regulation changes over the last decade have actually taken some of the pressure off tagging bucks to the point where 59 percent of last year's harvest were antlerless deer. Rewind to 1990, and the number of antlerless deer was only 46 percent of the annual harvest.

"Whether that's detectable by the hunting public or not is hard to say, but we are saving more bucks today than before," Cornicelli said.

While many members of MDHA say they would love the chance to kill more trophy deer, they consider the subject to be secondary to issues such as land access and passing the dedicated funding legislation.

"We are working more with overall landscape schemes to acquire more public lands and create programs where private landowners can open their land to the public," Johnson said.

TROPHY AREAS

Since 2000, the county with the most Boone and Crockett Club non-typical and typical trophy bucks combined was Morrison with eight -- six typicals and two non-typicals. Wabasha, Otter Tail and Todd counties tied for second with seven trophies each. Wabasha had three typicals and four non-typicals, Otter Tail had five typicals and two non-typicals, and Todd had one typical and six non-typicals. The next top counties were Chisago with six trophy bucks, Houston with five, Winona with four, and Fillmore and Pine with three each.

Map those counties out and you have three distinctive areas of the state. Otter Tail, Todd and Morrison counties are all adjacent to each other in west-central Minnesota. Wabasha, Houston, Winona and Fillmore are adjacent to each other and form the southeastern corner of Minnesota. The last pocket is Chisago and Pine counties, which run along the east-central border with Wisconsin.

Nationally

, Minnesota has been one of the top locations for both typical and non-typical deer over the last 10 years. The state ranked 11th nationally in the typical category with 75 bucks registered and 10th in the non-typical category with 41 trophies registered. So it should come as little surprise that these top counties are also among those listed in the top permit areas.

Examining the number of trophy bucks officially registered is one way to evaluate the best areas of the state, but whether or not it is the best method is debatable. Nobody knows for sure, but it is believed that anywhere from a third to half of all trophy bucks taken by hunters are never registered. That's a large discrepancy in numbers.

Perhaps the best places with trophy potential are those on the fringes of urban areas. The term "suburb" has typically been used to describe this area, but as cities sprawl outward, that term doesn't necessarily mean areas large enough to hunt in. The newest term being thrown around is "exurban," which means outlying suburbs on the edge between the urban core and surrounding rural area. This includes those areas around the Twin Cities, of course, but also areas around Duluth, Rochester, New Ulm, Red Wing, Mankato and Granite Falls.

"There are a lot of big deer to be taken in these exurban areas, but hunting is limited to archery in most of those areas due to discharge restrictions," Cornicelli said.

The Boone and Crockett numbers showed that the southeast corner is a high-quality area to hunt, but there are more places to go than just the four counties listed. Cornicelli said he typically works check stations in the southeastern corner of the state each year and sees plenty of very nice deer.

This author did some additional homework to find some "hidden gems" for trophy whitetails this season that may not receive as much pressure as the better known locations. This homework included digging through the numbers, chatting with DNR officials, reading various online message boards and listening to simple anecdotal evidence from fellow hunters. It is by no means a guarantee. That said, the following three areas have tremendous potential to yield trophy bucks this season -- whether it be with luck or with hard work.

PARK RAPIDS AREA

In Hubbard County, the area around Park Rapids is very similar in nature to that of those top-ranked counties previously mentioned. This area may not prominently appear on the B&C list, but it is a very productive area for big deer. One of the biggest benefits of this area is that it includes some large stands of undisturbed public land -- areas perfect for big bucks that are accessible to those hunters willing to move past the crowds.

"I've personally worked some check stations over the years and seen some really nice bucks come through the registration station both from public and private lands," said Rob Naplin, the DNR's Park Rapids area wildlife manager.

The permit areas in Naplin's area include 243, 244, 245, 251, 298, 246 and 172.

"Some permit areas are nearly all private land, and some other permit areas have a high percentage of public land, but it's a very productive area for deer and we have good annual recruitment," Naplin said.

Like each of Minnesota's top B&C counties, this area is located in the "transition zone" between forestland and prairie.

"We have interspersed agricultural lands with the wooded forest lands that make for ideal deer habitat, as well as a lot of timber management that provides good deer habitat," Naplin said.

His best advice for trophy hunters in his area is to make the extra effort with scouting and getting off the beaten path.

"Get off the traveled areas and you'll have a better opportunity to be able to harvest a trophy animal," Naplin said.

LAC QUI PARLE WMA

Looking at the top trophy locations reveals a few common connections, and among those is the presence of a significant system of river valleys. The section around Lac qui Parle is just such an area where big bucks have plenty of places to hide out while also having tremendous access to food sources.

"We have the habitat here to get deer to 4 or 5 years of age," said Dave Trauba, the DNR's wildlife manager for the LQP WMA.

The LQP river valley provides a large, continuous habitat base of managed land with bottomland forest among native prairie blocks, large cattail sloughs and over 3,000 acres of cropland.

"We have some sanctuary areas, private land and nature conservancy land where there's no hunting pressure, and deer on those plots can grow to be pretty old, but those bucks will wander off that land and give somebody an opportunity to harvest one," Trauba said.

The land around LQP is truly a diamond in the rough because the bucks in the surrounding area have very little area to hide out. Most of the surrounding area is composed of large tracts of cropland with scattered wood lots.

Traub said LQP WMA is hardly a secret to deer hunters, and he said he would characterize the pressure as being "moderate to heavy" throughout the season. The LQP WMA is over 34,000 acres in size, and with 86 parking spots, offers hunters a tremendous amount of access. Still, there are sections where few hunters have ventured throughout the years.

"What I've noticed is that a lot of people don't get far from the parking lot," Traub said. "From a deer hunter's standpoint, there are a lot of opportunities for those who want to go farther in by boat or on foot."

THE NORTH SHORE

Given the mild winters over the last decade, the North Shore area of Minnesota should have some hearty bucks with nicely developed racks. Harsh winters take a toll on the deer population, especially on bucks that are weary from the rut. Those that survive the winter are usually so stressed out that their racks do not have much opportunity to develop because of nutritional problems throughout the winter and spring.

"We had another mild winter last year and productivity has been great, so there are some big animals up here," said Bob Kirsch, the DNR's wildlife manager for the Two Harbors area.

There is plenty of private land along the North Shore, some of which doesn't receive any hunting pressure. Hunters willing to knock on a few doors can gain permission to hunt these areas without too much problem.

Kirsch's area is much larger than that of most other wildlife managers around the state because his region is sparsely populated by humans. As a result, much of his area doesn't have many roads, especially side roads.

"Most people hunt in close proximity to the roads, and if you can get away from them into an area where you locate scrapes and other buck sign, then that's a good place to be," Kirsch said.

Almost 75 percent of Kirsch's a

rea is public land in one form or another, and there are plenty of big bucks around if that is what you are interested in, he noted. The biggest precaution hunters should take when trying to access difficult-to-reach areas is to be up to speed on the off-highway vehicle regulations.

"Pay attention to the regulations, especially because they are different on state land versus federal land," Kirsch said.

Even though Kirsch understands the desire to pursue trophy bucks in his area, he said there is a definite need for thinning the number of antlerless deer there as well.

"We're trying to direct people into considering taking antlerless deer because the population is pretty high in northeastern Minnesota, and it's causing a problem with some forest management projects, such as trying to get more white pine," Kirsch said.

PRIVATE LANDS

It cannot be stressed enough that there are thousands of acres of private lands in Minnesota that are never hunted because nobody bothered to ask permission. Many of these areas do not necessarily hold trophy bucks, and hunters are wrong if they assume that simply because an area isn't hunted that it's good for big racks.

However, these areas are definitely worth examining and scouting out. Gain permission for a few different properties and then scout them to figure out which one is the best. The earlier in the year you can gain permission, the better off you will be.

* * *

Whether you are a trophy hunter or meat hunter, remember to carefully read the 2007 regulations for any rules changes and boundary adjustments, because they could affect the permit area you hunt in or the type of hunting you employ.

Happy hunting, and hunt safely!

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