Wisconsin's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

Is this the year you finally bag the biggest buck of your deer-hunting life? We've compiled this information to help you achieve that very goal.

Remember the good old days of Wisconsin trophy buck hunting?

You'd better, because they're right now.

Steve Ashley of Glenwood City, the Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club's records director, said hunters from Wisconsin have put more than 100 whitetails into the Boone and Crockett records in recent seasons.

"Last year was probably the best," Ashley said, referring to the number of trophies entered into the state records book.

If you're hoping to put a trophy buck onto the back of your truck this year, concentrating your efforts in units that have had multiple Earn-a-Buck seasons in recent years would be a good idea.

Even though Earn-a-Buck was shelved outside the chronic wasting disease zone last year, its benefits in saving bucks in units that had it two or three times in recent seasons will still be seen this fall.

Surveys have found that a majority of hunters don't like Earn-a-Buck. Yet Ashley believes the "doe-first" tool is directly responsible for Wisconsin's rise to the top in Pope and Young record book bucks and one of the leading states for Boone and Crockett entries.

"Wisconsin has the best genetics, no doubt about it," Ashley said. "Now add Earn-a-Buck -- it's the reason our trophy numbers have soared -- and you have more bucks reaching an age class they normally wouldn't have. That's opened a lot of people's eyes."

The increased awareness of the importance of age to trophy buck production will need to play a major role if Earn-a-Buck is taken out of the herd management toolbox for good.

"Deer need age, food and cover," Ashley said. "Earn-a-Buck is more or less forced Quality Deer Management. I would love to see Earn-a-Buck statewide, but there has to be certain modifications to make it acceptable to hunters."

For one, Ashley said he'd like to see buck stickers valid for several seasons after a doe was registered.

"There has to be a limit on the number of does shot," Ashley said. "There was some over-harvesting of does in a majority of areas where Earn-a-Buck was in place. A lot of guys are pretty selective on the bucks they shoot, and they often don't shoot one every year or every other year. They were frustrated that they'd have to go out and start all over again and shoot a doe."

Ashley said suspending Earn-a-Buck outside the chronic wasting disease zone last year resulted in a spike in trophy buck registrations.

"It'll be real interesting to see what happens this year and next," Ashley said.

Units still under Earn-a-Buck rules in the CWD zone have been producing an enormous number of trophy bucks.

"I don't know if it's simply Earn-a-Buck, or less hunter pressure, or that the deer are being more educated from longer and more liberal seasons," Ashley said. "But boy, we've seen some dandies come out of there. There are a number of hunters who shoot two, three or even four trophy-class bucks in one year. Whether they're over-harvesting or there are simply that many bucks, that's hard to tell."

Healthy deer populations in most areas mean lots of bucks on the meat pole, including some with impressive racks. Photo by Kevin Naze.

Ashley said the "brown is down" mentality has gradually been replaced by the club's trademark, "Let 'Em Go, Let 'Em Grow." He's concerned, though, that the absence of Earn-a-Buck and a soft economy will mean more hunters targeting whatever kind of buck they can kill.

Ashley compiles and inputs the data from 110 Buck & Bear Club measurers across the state.

"Many counties are seeing the fruits of Earn-a-Buck now, but will it last?" he said. "There's been a really large increase in older bucks. But without Earn-a-Buck, they'll eventually get shot off again. We may be seeing that already. Hopefully, though, Earn-a-Buck taught the hunters or at least reaffirmed to let 'em go and let 'em grow."

Ashley said there's another possible scenario playing out as more areas move to rifles. He said when Buffalo and several other counties had a "two-plus-seven" season years ago -- shotgun-only and either-sex opening weekend of the gun deer hunt, followed by seven days any weapon but bucks only -- more bucks survived those first two days.

"That one rule probably did more to help Buffalo County than anything else," Ashley said. "My best guess is more bucks are being harvested opening weekend. The average trophy rack size in Buffalo County has been going down a few eighths a year while it's been going up in other areas. That major change (rifles) may have had some impact."

BIG BUCKS ARE RARE, YET THEY'RE ALL OVER

The truly top-end bucks -- those B&C-caliber whoppers -- will never be easy targets in the wild. In fact, even in the best years, only about 1 out of every 20,000 Wisconsin bow and gun hunters will ever put a tag on a Booner.

If you want to increase your odds, the money says to hire an outfitter in western Wisconsin, right? Buffalo County for sure, and maybe Trempealeau?

The truth is, there are potential B&C bucks in every county, and there are Pope and Young trophies all across the state.

Both B&C and P&Y clubs offer online looks at extensive databases showing where the trophies are coming from. You can also purchase the Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club's newest trophy records book.

Guided hunters and do-it-yourself hunters with exclusive access to managed properties have a much better chance at a monster. But even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to tagging out on a wild, old whitetail.

Self-control comes into play. Ashley said there is some luck involved, but being able to pass up the caliber of bucks that most hunters would shoot in a heartbeat also plays a role.

GETTING STARTED

Those who own vast tracts of managed lands peppered with food plots, or who pay a guide to do the heavy work each year don't need to read muc

h farther.

For the vast majority, though, the quest for a heavy-racked whitetail often begins with picking the right spot -- or better yet, spots.

Whether you have permission to hunt private grounds or select a good-looking stretch among the millions of acres of public property in Wisconsin doesn't matter. The big thing is pre-hunt scouting and in-season adaptation to both the animals you're hunting and to other hunters.

Food-rich agricultural lands, urban sanctuaries and dense northern and central forests and marshes are among the spots to concentrate your efforts.

Some choose to stick with an area 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 pouring your efforts into that.

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. It's also important to get as many others who hunt in the area to do the same. If you can do that, in time, the sightings of mature bucks will increase.

Knowing who is hunting public land is next to impossible, but if you spend some weekends scouting, chances are you'll bump into others. If you'd rather go it alone, try taking a canoe rout back into a swamp or marsh, or some dense cover in an out-of-the-way land trust tract. Also, look into any limited metro hunts that might be available.

Spend as much time as you can hunting your carefully chosen sites when the wind is right during the rut, as well as during the gun deer season.

You can increase your odds of tagging a trophy buck by hunting areas few others do. As long as there's quality habitat, finding places with low deer and deer hunter densities can work in your favor. Such spots don't produce numbers, but there may be some real old-timers around.

No firm numbers of hunting pressure are available, but DNR estimates of opening weekend gun hunters per square mile of deer range are 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.

Want more? The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' deer hunting Web page http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/HUNT/deer/ contains a wealth of information.

TOP COUNTIES IN 2009

Dozens of Boone and Crockett giants and hundreds of Pope and Young whitetails were taken in Wisconsin last year, from all corners of the state and many places in between.

Archers took a solid percentage of whopper bucks last year, including the two largest non-typicals -- one of them a new state record at 243 6/8 inches, for Wayne Schumacher in Fond du Lac County.

Of the Top 40 whitetails measured through mid-June, four of them were from Buffalo County. Several others had two or three, and one county -- Vernon -- led with six terrific bucks, including four of the Top 20 non-typicals.

Ashley believes the CWD units will continue to produce some real wallhangers this fall, especially if hunters catch good weather and the tail end of the rut on opening weekend of the gun hunt. Last year's foggy opener in much of the state and a corn harvest well behind schedule likely saved a percentage of bucks that otherwise would have been harvested. There were millions of acres of corn still standing on opening day.

Tagging a record-book buck this fall might indeed be a long shot, but that won't stop hundreds of thousands of hunters from daydreaming about it.

Meantime, while waiting for the miracle to happen to you, Ashley has some advice for the young bucks you're sure to see this fall: "Let 'em go, let 'em grow."

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