Minnesota's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Minnesota's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Hunters truly in search of a trophy whitetail will have two options to them: either purchase a plot of land large enough to create the opportunity or be willing to move around to several locations to find the opportunity. (October 2008)

There are plenty of big bucks roaming the woods, swamps and fields of Minnesota. Those bucks are big for a good reason -- everything about them is tough. Big bucks are tough to locate, tough to pattern and tough to get into range for a shot.

A few Minnesota hunters would also argue that they are tougher to find these days than in the past. While that's an argument best settled over a cold one at deer camp, the fact remains that there are plenty of big bucks taken every year. A few of them are even registered on national listings, such as the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young clubs.

Last year, seven non-typical and 12 typical Minnesota whitetails were registered with B&C. That means only 19 trophies scoring more than 160 in one year, but the actual number may never be known because, by many estimates, only one-half to one- third of all trophies are ever reported to an official scoring agency. Hunters don't report the trophies for a variety of reasons whether it be because they don't know about it, they don't care, or they don't want people to mess up a good thing.

The state of Minnesota does not keep a count of trophy bucks, only the number of adult males and fawn males that are harvested from each permit area. It is a number based on the assessment as reported by the hunter or the registration station monitor. This means that looking at harvest data for adult males includes large forkhorns, as well as trophy bucks.

Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big-game program coordinator, said there isn't much public interest in collecting more data about the rack size of deer taken within the state. He also said that trophy whitetails can be found throughout the state, with the highest concentrations in north-central and southeastern Minnesota.

He pointed out the fact that these are the most commonly targeted areas of the state as well. Regions of the state, including the Arrowhead and the greater Twin

Cities metro, hold trophies but aren't as heavily hunted because access is limited. In the Arrowhead, access is limited due to the rugged terrain and lack of roads, while in the metro area, access is limited by urbanization and tons of private property.

TROPHY SEARCHING

Most hunters dream of shooting a massive buck, but only a few actually seriously pursue the dream. It's a dream that is difficult to obtain because those big bucks are so wily and so many of them are located on private land or on public land that is difficult to access.

Is it worth the work to try to harvest a trophy or should a hunter strictly rely on luck? Good question.

Most hunters resort to luck without even realizing it. A report from a conservation officer last year told the story of a rookie hunter who shot a massive 8-pointer a half hour into his very first hunt. As the CO checked the hunter's license and helped him load the deer into his truck, the hunter asked if deer hunting was always that easy.

That stroke of beginner's luck is about as rare as winning Powerball and the worst thing about the story is that hunter may have a tough time being happy with any future hunt if he's after a trophy. Those kinds of things just don't happen with any kind of consistency that you can rely on as your plan for a trophy.

Back to that first question: Is it worth the work to harvest a trophy? This hunter's answer is a simple yes. Not as much for the fact that just such a deer comes with a beautiful rack to put on the wall, but more for the fact that such an animal requires an investment of time and effort.

Some hunters badmouth trophy hunters because they consider it an ego-based pursuit, but for most trophy hunters, it's more about bagging a mature buck than just one with a nice rack. There are plenty of 2- and 3-year-old deer with big racks, but the true trophies belong to those 4- and 5-year-olds.

It's too bad a doe doesn't have the same indicator of age as a buck. The rack tells us plenty about what kind of deer it was, while does all look the same. Those 4-year-old, 5-year-old and older does are actually even craftier than their male counterparts.

ANALYZING THE NUMBERS

Of the 19 B&C registered bucks last year, eight came from the southeastern corner of Minnesota, an ideal deer habitat, including fields, river valleys and large oak stands. The count breaks down like this: three from Fillmore County, two from Houston County and one each from Goodhue, Wabasha and Olmsted counties.

The next highest concentration of trophy bucks was in north-central Minnesota. Similar habitat exists in that area, as well as some large wetland complexes where burly swamp bucks roam. The top county in this portion of the state was Otter Tail with two and one each from Crow Wing, Itasca, Becker, Cass, Todd and Hubbard counties. More than 100 whitetails from Morrison County are registered on the Pope and Young listing.

Two bucks came from the greater Twin Cities area, including one from Washington County and another from Isanti County. While Isanti is not considered part of the seven-county metropolitan area, it is increasingly beginning to resemble the region.

Check the Pope and Young trophy listings and you'll find the metro counties prominently listed, with the top two being the counties of Washington and Anoka.

The final deer in the count came from St. Louis County, the second-most listed county on the entire continent from the inception of the B&C list in 1830. A total of 79 whitetails are on the list from St. Louis County.

Not surprisingly, check the other top counties on the all-time list and the results are very similar to the top counties from last year. Representing north-central Minnesota is Otter Tail County with 35 deer, followed by Itasca County with 34 and Todd County with 29. The other top two counties are in the southeastern corner, with 29 coming from Houston County and 30 from Winona County.

What does this all mean?

The simple answer is if you want to find big deer, you must go where big deer live. It could be argued that looking at trophy lists only tells you where big deer were killed, but it

is an indication of the trophy capacity of an area. If a county has only one trophy buck killed in the last decade, the odds are not as strong that it will be as good a place to hunt as a county that consistently makes the list.

Still, there are counties not among the top of the pile for registered trophies that hold plenty of big deer. Likewise, it's not like every buck walking through Houston County has a massive rack.

Hunters truly in search of a trophy whitetail have several options available to them: Either purchase a plot of land large enough to create the opportunity or be willing to move around to several locations and find the opportunity. There are trophies to be taken on both public and private land, but there are different challenges posed by each.

Taking a trophy on public land is not as difficult as one might seem to think. A wildlife management area near my home is heavily pressured by hunters of all varieties, yet I saw one of the biggest bucks of my life last year on that small 40-acre parcel. I was pheasant hunting, of course, and did not see him in that area again, but I have spoken with several other hunters and learned that I'm not the only one who saw him. That WMA is part of his home habitat. Taking him would require plenty of time and patterning to determine when and how he utilizes that WMA surrounded by a combination of fields and houses.

In larger WMAs like Lac qui Parle and Whitewater, big bucks are all over the place, but most hunters never get the chance to see one. The secret is to push deep into the WMA to parts where other hunters don't go. Again, plenty of scouting is required to figure out the best locations to set up on and to get the timing right.

TOP PERMIT AREAS FOR BUCKS IN 2007
COUNTY OR COUNTIESPERMIT AREASAREA SIZE (Sq. miles)BUCKS PER SQUARE MILE
ZONE 1
1. Hubbard/Beltrami1841,2312.72
2. Itasca1701,3112.26
3. St. Louis1781,2592.27
4. Mille Lacs/Kanabec1578893.01
5. St. Louis1817082.90
ZONE 2
1. Becker2445863.24
2. Cass/Wadena2463142.37
3. Hubbard2455833.07
4. Otter Tail2404172.72
5. Douglass/Todd2131,0571.60
ZONE 3
1. Houston349 (A)4921.95
2. Wincona/Houston3463192.47
3. Olmstead3436620.87
4. Goodhue3416111.00
5. Filmore3483311.93
ZONE 4
1. Kandiyohi4178140.78
2. Nicollet4428020.54
3. Freeborn4669300.29
4. Murray/Cottonwood4548400.33
5. Rice/Goodhue4625060.59

Owning or getting permission to hunt on private land is one of the best ways to increase your odds of taking a trophy buck. If the property is large enough, it is possible that several trophies could spend the vast majority of their lifetimes on that property. With a little management, the time spent on your land can in

crease if the right combination of bedding and feeding grounds exist.

Getting permission to hunt can be difficult, but it is well worthwhile. Just be sure to ask permission to spend plenty of time scouting. It seems redundant, but scouting is the single most successful way to locate and ultimately kill a trophy buck.

2007 HARVEST NUMBERS

Last year's hunt was the fourth largest in history, just missing the third place spot by a few hundred deer. A total of 260,434 deer were taken, including 108,623 bucks. As Cornicelli said earlier, the state does not differentiate between a buck with a large rack and one with a small rack. Even though there are no official statistics, the odds show that most of those bucks were spikes, forkhorns or small 6-pointers.

There's nothing wrong with any of those deer, but hunters should realize that when they analyze state numbers, it represents all deer, not just trophies or near-trophies.

The most bucks in Zone 1 were taken in Permit Area 184, an area surrounding the greater Bemidji metro area. A total of 3,553 of the 11,000 deer taken in the area were adult males. The top area of Zone 2 was Permit Area 244 near Park Rapids, with 2,080 adult males taken from a total of 7,102 deer. Interestingly, the two areas practically border each other and include counties listed earlier about north-central Minnesota.

Heading to Zone 3 in the southeastern counties, the top buck harvest was in Permit Area 349 in Houston County, with 1,707 bucks from an overall harvest of 4,733. Along the western section of the state, Zone 4's Permit Area 417 yielded the most adult males, with 1,707 taken of the 1,855 total deer.

Because permit areas vary in size around the state, the DNR publishes a list showing the number of bucks taken per square mile by firearms hunters. This number could indicate a higher concentration of hunters or a higher concentration of bucks. Here are the numbers:

  • In Zone 1, Permit Area 172 gave up 3.9 bucks per square mile and a total of 9.97 deer per square mile. This permit area covers the part of Cass County east of Hackensack and south of Longville.

  • In Zone 2, Permit Area 241 gave up 3.36 bucks per square mile and a total of 8.85 deer per square mile. This permit area covers the northeastern corner of Otter Tail County north of Highway 10.

  • In Zone 3, Permit Area 346 in the 3A season gave up 2.47 bucks per square mile and a total of 4.35 deer per square mile. This permit area runs south from Winona, covers part of northern Houston County and east to the Mississippi.

  • In Zone 4, no permit area gave up more than one buck per square mile, reflecting the agricultural nature of the zone where vast areas are difficult or impractical to hunt. Topping the list again was Permit Area 417 in the 4A season giving up .78 bucks per square mile and a total of 1.08 deer per square mile.

Once again, there were a large number of special hunts offered in state parks and wildlife refuges around the state. Some of these included antler point restrictions and Earn-a-Buck regulations. Analyzing the antler point restriction hunts is probably the only way to determine the trophy status of the harvest in a particular area.

For example, in the Lake Louise State Park hunt, there were 44 deer taken, of which 10 were adult males. Given the antler point restriction on those deer, those 10 adults were of a quality size. In the Whitewater State Park hunt, of the 95 deer taken, 14 were bucks with sizable racks. Results from each of these hunts can be found online at www.dnr.state.mn.us.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

At the end of the day, the numbers point to some common trends. There are portions of the state where more hunters are successful, portions where more trophies are found and portions where management practices are affecting the population. Keeping up with it all can be complicated and putting it all together even more difficult.

Overall, the numbers point to several top areas to hunt around Minnesota, including the north-central area around towns like Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Long Prairie and Little Falls. Another top spot is in the fields and valleys of the southeastern corner anywhere east of Rochester. Not to be overlooked, are the woods and swamps of the Arrowhead.

While these numbers haven't been manipulated or altered, it should be mentioned that numbers might be deceiving. That is, they can give us false or misleading information. Don't base this year's hunt on the numbers alone. It's much better to use these numbers to help you narrow down places to hunt or consider new places to hunt. Deer hunting is a complicated mix between tradition and the search for a trophy. If you want to hunt your traditional location, you'll get what you have in that area right now. If you are willing to move, there's more flexibility. Mix the two and you may end up with the best of both worlds.

There are some big changes in store for the regulations this year. Read all about that and more in the November issue of Minnesota Sportsman. Feel free to contact Ron Hustvedt at Ron@WriteOutdoors.com.

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