Minnesota's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Combine our analysis with a little bit of sweat equity through scouting, and 2009 could offer your best season in years! (November 2009)

Scouting, stalking and shooting a trophy whitetail buck is one of the most difficult accomplishments in the world of hunting. Big bucks get big for a reason, and most hunters never have the opportunity for a shot at such a cunning animal, let alone harvest one.

That is the reality, even if it might not be the perception. Even so, most hunters dream of a massive buck wandering through their shooting lane, stopping broadside and presenting the perfect shot, and while a few lucky ones will win that toughest of lotteries, the rest of us have to do the work it takes to find our trophy.

It either takes a lot of work and scouting to find a trophy whitetail or good, old-fashioned dumb luck. "Every year there are a handful of hunters who shoot a huge buck just because they were in the right place at the right time," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Dumb luck is hardly worth an article and is definitely not worth planning on it to happen anytime soon, so we'll focus on where to find that trophy whitetail in Minnesota. What permit areas, counties, and regions of the state afford a hunter the best opportunity on public hunting land for a trophy whitetail?

The answer to that question is much more difficult than it might seem. Confounding the matter is the fact that the entire state has the potential to produce trophy whitetail bucks. "You could argue that all of Minnesota's bucks, if given the opportunity to reach 4 or 5 years of age, will reach Boone and Crockett caliber," said Justin Spring, assistant director for big game records at the Boone and Crockett Club headquarters in Montana.

The key phrase in that statement centers around "if given the opportunity" to fully mature. Big bucks take time to become that way, and it is a process that tends to take three to five or more years. A large buck at 2 years of age will most likely be a huge buck at 4, but most of Minnesota's bucks never make it that long.

Trophy management is the name of the game for producing large bucks, and it's a controversial issue. In surveys conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the majority of hunters want the ability to be able to shoot any legal buck but feel that more needs to be done to produce trophy-potential bucks. Many would argue that those two goals are in direct conflict with each other.

What everybody does agree on is that Minnesota definitely has all the ingredients necessary for producing trophy bucks, provided those bucks can avoid hunters and predators for several years.

In some portions of the state, landowners have Quality Deer Management agreements with each other. There are still parts of the state where awesome deer habitat is at least several miles from a main road. Then there are the parts that see tons of camouflage and orange from September to December. Guess where a buck has the best chance of making it past his second birthday?

DEFINING A 'TROPHY'

The definition of "trophy buck" is truly in the eye of the beholder. For somebody who has never shot a buck before, a basket 6-pointer fits the definition. On the other hand, somebody who has a wall full of Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young bucks might not consider a deer a trophy unless it scores over 180.

Point being, "trophy buck" is a matter of opinion based on what an individual hunter is pursuing. For the purposes of this article, we'll consider a "trophy buck" to be one that would score in either of the official record keeping organizations: Pope and Young for archers and Boone and Crockett for firearms hunters. As a point of information, B&C lists bucks with an antler measure of more than 160 inches, while P&Y lists those more than 115 inches. Data is also available from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association's Big Game Records book, which lists trophies over 125 inches.

SEARCHING FOR TROPHY BUCKS

One of the best places to begin scouting for trophy deer is on your laptop or desktop computer. The Minnesota DNR publishes a ton of raw data based on harvest information, as well as survey information on deer numbers in the winter, fawn numbers in the spring and other aerial surveys conducted at different times of the year. Another excellent source of data is from official records kept by conservation organizations, such as the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young.

Information from the MDNR is easy and free to access, provided you have access to the Internet. Information from the MDHA is also free to download from its Web site at www.mndeerhunters.com, while the other two conservation organizations have some cost for the data. Boone and Crockett has all the information available online through a password-accessible database, and Pope and Young has the information available in a comprehensive book and searchable CD-ROM.

The Third Edition Bowhunting Records of North American Whitetail Deer is full of all the state and provincial records, as well as numerous informational articles on deer hunting and targeting trophy deer. It is very easy to obtain and is well worth the $43.95 it costs to order this hardbound book. It is chock-full of information that can be very useful for data savvy hunters.

"I think people are after that information quite a bit, and it is quite useful as a way to determine the best places to hunt because it reveals a great deal about the genetics of an area and can work as a good indicator of an area's trophy potential," said Kevin Hisey, executive secretary for the Pope and Young Club.

Justin Spring, assistant director for big-game records at the Boone and Crockett Club, agreed that the data collected by each organization can be useful for hunters but said hunters should carefully scrutinize the numbers. "Our records are looked at a lot by hunters and our general map of whitetail entries is useful to get a general area, but my background in wildlife management tells me that we sometimes look into it more than necessary," Spring said. "The way I'd use the data is to look at the number of entries in a county and divide that number by the square miles rather than just looking at the pure numbers. It gives you a better insight into the potential for that area," he added.

The MDHA data is updated on a monthly basis and sorted both by total score and by county. "The work of the Minnesota Official Measurers (MOM) makes that kind of updating possible, and it can be a great tool for seeing where trophy whitetails are taken throughout the state," said Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director.

BEST LOCATIONS?

Overall, the numbers suggest that Minnesota's t

op trophy areas are in the southeastern corner of the state, the Twin Cities metro area and throughout central Minnesota. "Southeastern Minnesota is largely private land, but it's still the best, along with the central portion of the state, for finding a trophy," said Lou Cornicelli, the MDNR's big-game program coordinator. "That said, the more mature bucks in the state are probably in the northeastern corner in Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties, where there is a lot of public hunting land, but access is difficult and deer density is low."

Hisey agreed that Winona and Houston counties are the top two in the state and that Morrison County, home to the Fort Ripley herd, is next in line. "The southeastern corner of the state has the strongest trophy potential."

A hunter can do all the data diving in the world and still not know where to sit on opening day. "It's hard to put a handle on the best place to go because the numbers can suggest a lot of different conclusions," Cornicelli said. "Just because an area has a high buck harvest rate doesn't mean it has a younger deer population. That number could be confounded by the fact that it's largely public land. Trophy buck kill per square mile numbers also tend to suggest there is a lot of private land -- not that the buck population is over-harvested."

"Data can help you narrow down your search for that trophy, but nothing beats time spent scouting and getting to know an area where you know a trophy buck exists," said Pete Alfano of Whitetail Properties Television. An expert at analyzing private land for trophy potential, Alfano said public land could be even more of a challenge to analyze because a hunter has more variables to consider.

"Use the numbers as a general guide, but then get into the field yourself and begin glassing fields with binoculars, walking the woods for deer sign and scouting for sheds in the late winter and early spring. The data can be a good tool, but it's not going to pinpoint a general hunting location," Alfano added.

Information available on a countywide level is good but too broad when it comes to figuring out where to hunt. Counties are massive chunks of land, and all those trophies could have come from a handful of locations. MDNR information on a permit area level is also good but doesn't provide the details because of the type of data collected and the still-massive amount of land it covers. "Deer kill per square mile is a good indication of population but not of buck quality, because a lot of other things go with it," Cornicelli said.

Given all that, the numbers don't lie. Hisey said the data reveals quite a bit about the genetics of the deer in an area. Bucks that produce large antlers will lead to future generations of bucks producing large antlers. There's too much data to cover in a single article, but it's all easy to access, so do some "data-diving" this off-season.

THE NUMBERS

Pope and Young's Bowhunting Records of North American Whitetail Deer, Third Edition lists every typical and non-typical trophy deer registered in Minnesota from 1945 to the present day, but we only analyzed the information over the past five seasons. Information from 2008 is still coming in and being recorded, so we went back to 2003. Information from the same time was also taken from the Boone and Crockett Web site.

The reason for examining the most recent history is because there are counties on those lists with tremendous numbers, but very few of those deer were taken in the last decade. Likewise, there are counties with numbers putting them somewhere in the middle, but most of those deer were taken in recent years.

The top Pope and Young counties were Anoka, Fillmore, Houston, Morrison, Olmsted, St. Louis, Wabasha and Winona. Each of those counties had more than 20 deer make the list (see table for details). The top Boone and Crockett counties were Fillmore, Houston, Otter Tail, St. Louis, Todd and Wabasha. Each one had five or more trophies the last five seasons.

Since 2003, there are 37 counties with at least one Boone and Crockett registered buck and 65 counties with at least one Pope and Young registered buck. A common thread throughout Minnesota's top counties is the Mississippi River, with only a few exceptions.

MANAGING TROPHY WHITETAILS

Why do states like Iowa have so many more trophy whitetails than Minnesota? "There are a few reasons, the first being that we have almost two-and-a-half times as many hunters as Iowa does. Season timing might play a role, but the bottom line is that we are a heavily hunted state and what we do differently is that we actively shoot deer for each other," Cornicelli said, referring to Minnesota's law allowing "party hunting."

State law allows hunters to take a buck for another hunter in their party, but an argument against that is that it takes a buck out of the herd that might have otherwise survived the season and been given another year to grow larger. The question is do hunters want the MDNR to manage the deer herd for meat or antlers?

It is possible to "grow" trophy whitetails on both public and private land, but doing so takes a lot of time and careful management of both the herd and habitat. On private land it's a matter of balancing the deer herd with the habitat and keeping the population below the carrying capacity, said Chris Blackledge, Midwest and western regional director for the Quality Deer Management Association. "We work with property owners and groups of property owners to help them balance the sex ratio of the deer in their area, create more food sources, better nutrition and reduce stress on the herd," he said.

Blackledge said managing public land is tougher because there's more land and the simple fact that anybody can hunt on the land, not just those who agree to abide by a cooperative effort. "The Minnesota deer herd, in our assessment, is improving in the trend away from shooting yearling bucks. There are more 2 1/2- to 4-year-old bucks being harvested, which is a good stepping stone," he said. The current sex ratio of 1.7 adult does per buck is in good shape, he said, but that too many of those bucks are young deer. "Minnesota hunters could protect more yearling bucks and let them get bigger if they want to see more large bucks throughout the state."

From QDMA's perspective, Blackledge said Minnesota's overall deer population is improving with time even if Minnesota is no longer viewed as a trophy state. "If deer management strategies like antler point restrictions are allowed and accepted by hunters, the state could be there in a few years," he added. Hunters often meet those restrictions with opposition.

Those kinds of controversies are a big reason why public land management of trophy whitetails is much more complicated. It also takes a lot more time because there's so much habitat and it is so variable throughout the state. Minnesota has gone through a lot of changes in its deer regulations the last few years, and it has been done very transparently in response to hunters' desires, balanced with best management practices.

While the harvest numbers are down from record highs earlier in the decade, the herd is becoming more balanced, creating more opportunities for hu

nters looking for a trophy without diminishing the hunt for those who want meat. "Hunters are starting to put pressure on female deer in the last few years and we are seeing more buck survival," Cornicelli said.

Harvest numbers reveal that three out of every four hunters in Minnesota harvest only one deer. Some hunters refuse to shoot a doe, but that percentage has shrunk over the years. "It's a default thing -- when a portion of hunters who could buck hunt shoot an antlerless deer, you save a few males at some level and we're starting to see that."

This will be the fifth year of a special study taking place in specific state parks where some have antler point restrictions and others have earn-a-buck regulations. "So far, we're finding that antler point restrictions save a ton of bucks and take a lot off the table from being harvested. It doesn't increase doe kill, but it does decrease buck kill. Take Itasca State Park as an example. More older deer are showing up in the harvest now than five years ago," Cornicelli said.

Earn-a-buck doesn't seem to have the same effect because most hunters only shoot one deer. Those hunters who do end up shooting a buck tend to go after the first buck that comes by, rather than wait for a more mature buck.

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