Wisconsin's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Finding Trophy Deer
September 30, 2010
The quest for a trophy whitetail buck rarely comes easy, but in Wisconsin you have history on your side. (October 2009)
When it comes to finding and hunting trophy bucks, rumors and urban legends often outcompete the obvious: You don't need to poach or be wealthy to drop a wallhanger.
In Wisconsin, there are some monsters taken illegally each year -- all one has to do is check out the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Wall of Shame exhibit at deer shows around the state each winter and spring for a few examples -- but not only are many trophies taken legally each season, a good number of them are tagged by regular folks who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
A few hunters surely get away with questionable ethics and outright illegal acts in their lust for big antlers. Some others have an advantage by owning or leasing large tracts of prime agricultural land or hunting with an outfitter.
And while there's always the possibility of a bruiser being bought on the sly from a high-fence operation, the likelihood of that happening isn't even worth wasting time thinking about. Still, the rumors of cheating persist for many who are fortunate to stop a giant in its tracks.
One of my friends says his trail camera better be on video mode when the next world record walks by, just so he can silence the critics when he arrows it.
With his luck, the batteries will be low -- and so will his shot.
All kidding aside, the odds of shooting a Boone and Crockett deer anywhere in the wild are minuscule. Pope and Young-caliber whitetails are more common, but again, only a very small percentage of hunters will be blessed with a shot at a whitetail worthy of the record book.
Now, seeing a 125-inch or better buck in Wisconsin, well, that's a different story. And sometimes all we hunters need is to see one -- in person or from a trail camera -- to get the blood pumping and keep the dream alive.
Where To Start?
Any serious quest for an older, heavy-racked buck should begin with an honest look at your goals, opportunities and abilities.
If you don't already have a spot in mind for this fall, it's likely you'll be joining the tens of thousands who hunt on millions of acres of public property. Narrowing your choices could involve a tip from a fellow hunter, an online information search or a stop at a WDNR or forestry office to check out maps and get some advice.
Trophy bucks are where you find them, and in Wisconsin, it's hard to beat food-rich farm country, urban sanctuaries and the vast northern and central forests. You might increase your odds by gaining access to a spot in one of the top trophy-producing counties. Then again, you may be better off learning an area with quality habitat close to home and spending your efforts there.
Whatever you choose, keep in mind that getting your sights on a record-book buck is a once-in-a-lifetime deal for many hunters, most of whom will never see, let alone shoot, a B&C trophy. But if just having a shot at the biggest buck of your life is your goal, there are a few things you can do that might help.
First, no matter where you hunt, you must be of the mindset to pass up all racked bucks that you wouldn't consider bringing to a taxidermist. Obviously, if you can get other members of your party or neighboring hunters to also practice the "let 'em go, let 'em grow" philosophy, everyone will -- in just a couple years -- have a better chance at seeing a mature whitetail buck.
Second, if you don't have access to private land, you'll do best to select lightly hunted public property.
That might mean taking a canoe route to get way back into a forest, hiking farther than other hunters, or finding some dense cover in an out-of-the-way land trust tract. Another option is participating in metro bowhunts, either on a limited draw basis or by obtaining landowner permission.
Third, you should plan to spend as much time as possible hunting your carefully chosen sites when the wind is right, during the rut, as well as in the gun deer season.
You might also want to hunt in units that have been under earn-a-buck regulations for a number of years. While unpopular with many hunters, earn-a-buck is definitely a potent trophy-producing tool.
Hunter complaints, landowner threats to close properties and political intervention led to its demise outside of the CWD zone. So says Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club Director of Records Steve Ashley.
"It's my opinion that the hunters did themselves a real disservice by opposing the earn-a-buck program instead of having the WDNR fine-tune it," said Ashley, who noted that both the number of entries and size of entries from earn-a-buck areas has been impressive.
Top Gun Counties
Sixty-five Wisconsin counties have produced Boone and Crockett typicals since 2000; 51 have produced non-typical B&C trophies.
Buffalo County, long known for its mega-bucks and expensive leases, is not only No. 1 in Wisconsin, but annually at or near the top nationwide. In fact, nine Wisconsin counties are among the top 20 in the nation in B&C typicals since 2000. That's as many as Texas, Illinois and Iowa combined. Ohio and Kentucky each have one county among the top 20.
Buffalo has produced 31 B&C typical bucks since 2000. Neighboring Trempealeau County is second with 15, followed by Sauk and Shawano with 11 each and Grant, Outagamie, Pierce, Richland and Waupaca, each with 10. Dane and Pepin round out the top counties with eight B&C typicals each.
Buffalo County also leads the state in the same period with nine B&C non-typicals, good for fifth nationally. Crawford County had six (18th in the nation); Columbia, Dodge, Grant and Waupaca counties each five; and Barron, Iowa, Jackson, Sauk, Shawano and Vernon each four.
Last year, Wisconsin led North America with 23 typicals entered into the Boone and Crockett record book in 19 counties, including two each in Marathon, Pepin, Pierce and Trempealeau.
Missouri had 15, Kansas 14, Alberta and Indiana 12 each, Texas 11 and Illinois and Iowa each 10.
Since 2000, Wisconsin has put 308 typical whitetails into the B&C records program. Illinois is second with 275, followed by Kentucky (206), Ohio (186), Iowa (182), Saskatchewan (176), Missouri (156), Kansas (142), Indiana (138) and Minnesota (107). Of the rest, only Texas (103), Alberta (77) and Nebraska (54)
have more than 50. Michigan is 14th with 38.
More than half of Wisconsin's all-time B&C entries -- 385 of 736 Badger bucks on the books -- have been taken since 1998. Illinois is second all time with 620, followed by Iowa (556), Minnesota (482) and Saskatchewan (461).
Since 2000, the top 50 B&C typical bucks entered here range from a 175 6/8 Washburn County trophy to a 186 5/8 buck shot in Buffalo County. An even larger buck was picked up in Green County. Interestingly, more than 20 different counties are represented. On the non-typical side, Wisconsin, with 119 non-typical B&C trophies since 2000, trailed only Illinois (232) and Iowa (142). Buffalo (2), Grant, Marquette and Waupaca (1 each) all produced non-typical entries in 2008. Since 2000, the top 50 non-typicals here have ranged from a 198 7/8 Vernon County whopper to a 241 7/8 giant from Waupaca County last year. More than two-dozen counties are represented.
However, you can also increase your odds of tagging a 130-inch-plus buck without being on prime agriculture land by hunting areas few others do. As long as there's quality habitat, seeking places with low deer and low deer hunter densities can workin your favor.
Among all-time state giants, James Jordan's 206 1/8 typical taken in Burnett County in 1914 heads the list. Second is a 197 6/8 bruiser from Kenosha County in 1999. Three others in the top 10 were scored in the past 15 years, including the Green County pickup in 2007 (189 2/8) and monsters from Crawford and Langlade counties.
Arnold Stalsberg's 247 3/8 Vernon County non-typical is Wisconsin's all-time record. Three others from the past decade are in the top 10, including a 241 7/8 buck shot in Waupaca County on day five of the state's nine-day gun deer season last fall.
How many more Wisconsin trophies die of old age and are never found? Radio telemetry research in the mid-1980s and 1990s showed many older bucks were not harvested. Among the bucks that were found was one 9 1/2 years old that had apparently died of natural causes. It had an infection on top of its head around the antlers, possibly from a fight with another buck. But most of the bucks weren't found after radio transmitters stopped functioning or deer leave the area in which they were trapped. Researchers believe had some of the other big bucks been shot, most hunters would have turned in the tags or collars.
So why aren't many old bucks found dead? At least one researcher believes bucks on their last legs may retreat to the same sanctuaries of heavy cover they used to elude hunters for many years, where they're never found or predators and scavengers feed on the carcasses and scatter the bones. Meanwhile, squirrels, porcupines and rats could eat the bones and antlers.
Top Bow Counties
With a whopping 871 entries, Buffalo County heads the list of P&Y trophies taken in Wisconsin. Dane (342), Trempealeau (327), Sauk (260) and Columbia (258) round out the top five, followed by Waukesha, Waupaca, Polk, Jefferson and Marquette.
Polk tops the Northern Region, Waupaca the Northeast, Dane the South-Central, Waukesha the Southeast and Buffalo the West-Central.
Since 2000, an incredible 509 Pope and Young whitetails have been taken in Buffalo County. Trempealeau has produced 219, Waupaca 131, Dane 126, Columbia and Sauk each 125, Polk 109, Marquette 108 and Shawano 106, Vernon 90, Jackson 89, Outagamie 88, Marathon 87 and Dunn 83.
In the past two years alone, Buffalo County has seen 94 P&Y whitetails make the record book. Trempealeau had 46, Dane 35, Polk and Sauk each 24, Iowa, Vernon and Waupaca each 23, Columbia 22 and Marquette 21.
It's obvious that Buffalo County is No. 1, but there are plenty of other areas producing trophies.
Managing for quality whitetails plays a big role. However, you can also increase your odds of tagging a 130-inch-plus buck without being on prime agriculture land by hunting areas few others do. As long as there's quality habitat, seeking places with low deer and low deer hunter densities can work in your favor. Such spots don't produce numbers, but there are some real old-timers around.
Year in and year out, the Northern Forest region consistently produces some of the oldest deer in WDNR aging surveys.
However, a huge increase in the passing up of young bucks in the past decade -- voluntarily as well as through earn-a-buck regulations -- has dropped the yearling buck percentage across the state. Bottom line? Since modern recordkeeping began, there has never been a higher percentage of older bucks in the herd.
Though no firm numbers of hunting pressure are available, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates of opening weekend gun hunters per square mile of deer range can be as low as the mid-single digits to as high as the mid-40s, with many units hosting somewhere between 15 and 30 hunters per square mile of range. No numbers are available for bow.
Want more? The Wisconsin DNR's deer hunting page //dnr.wi.gov/ org/land/wildlife/HUNT/deer contains a wealth of information.
Otherwise, if you want to dream big, there's no time like the present.