Have you heard? Indiana is a “sleeper” state, when it comes to hunting trophy white-tailed deer. What does that mean?
People who know tell you Indiana’s whitetails are just as big and plentiful as the deer that roam hunting’s high-profile states around us. And it only makes sense. Indiana should — does! — have the potential to grow big bucks, the likes of those found in our neighboring states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. The outdoor press just didn’t know it.
That all changed in the fall of 2012. That’s when Tim Beck shot his record-breaking buck — measuring 305 7/8 inches — in Huntington County during shotgun season. And just like that — like the wallflower girl that always wore owl-like glasses and over-sized sweat shirts, who appeared at the prom with contacts and a form-fitting designer gown — all of a sudden the wallflower is the belle of the ball and the star of every boy’s dream.
Now, out of the blue, Indiana deer hunting is being featured in countless articles and discussions about quality whitetail hunting. Some magazines place our trophy deer hunting among the top-10 states in the nation, others in the top-5, and one article even ranked us as the best place in North America to bag a trophy whitetail.
And all those rankings are supported by trophy deer data registered over the past three years by the Boone and Crockett Club. Indeed, B&C ranks Indiana as one of the top states for registered trophy deer compared to its overall buck harvest.
I know what you’re thinking. “Great. Indiana grows trophy deer. But how do you find them?” That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? And as it should be, there isn’t just one answer.
“When you talk about trophy deer, you need to provide three basic tenets of (deer) management: nutrition, genetics and age,” reports deer research biologist Chad Stewart of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “The age is the hardest part to get from a deer.”
What does that mean? It’s quite simple. It takes time to grow a trophy buck.
“Sportsmen should manage for a healthy, balanced herd using habitat improvement and taking a healthy amount of does. Pass up the 6-point this year,” Stewart suggests, “and take a doe instead, and get your neighbors to do the same.”
Some hunters claim taking a small-antlered buck will improve genetics among an area’s deer herd. This simply isn’t true, Stewart says, for two reasons: 1) Deer are free-roaming, and bucks like to travel during rut, so you have no control on which bucks breed does in any given area; and 2) studies have proven the theory “once a spike, always a spike” to be false.
According to research done by the Quality Deer management Association (QDMA), a yearling buck’s antlers are dependent on four things: genetics, nutrition, age and timing of the fawning season. In most cases small antler size is simply related to a buck’s age and health. In that same study, pen-raised spike bucks grew normal antlers the very next year and were trophy-sized by three and a half years of age. The big take away from the study? Deer stop growing in the freezer.
Luckily, the attitudes of many Indiana deer hunters are changing. In the past hunters talked in terms of bagging a buck, any buck. If the beast had 6, 8 or 10 points, so much the better. Hunters now talk about the “class” of bucks — 140-class, 160-class, 180-class, or greater.
What that means is the general trend among Indiana deer hunters is to pass on small animals and wait for a larger buck. Indiana’s “one-buck rule” may be helping in this or it could just be a growing awareness that larger deer are out there if we just hunt a little harder, a little better and a little longer.
MEASURING UP A TROPHY
Before we get too deep, we should go over what makes a whitetail a trophy.
Through a complex method of measuring a buck’s antlers, the animal is awarded a final score. If that score meets or beats a set of criteria, it’s a “trophy.” Trophy-status criteria can change among hunters’ organizations. The Indiana Deer Hunter’s Association (IDHA) considers any whitetail buck — legally taken under the rules of fair-chase hunting — a “typical” trophy when it’s antlers (those that are normal, symmetrical and well-balanced) measure a total of 140 inches or more, and a “non-typical” trophy when its antlers (those that possess points that are abnormal in shape or position) measure a total of 160 inches or more.
Regardless of criterion, antler measuring follows a standard procedure, as outlined in the Hoosier Record Book: “The score for a typical head is … the distance between the main beams, plus the length of all normal points, plus four circumference measurements on each main beam, minus the difference between corresponding parts and the length of all abnormal points.
Non-typical antlers are scored in the same manner except the total length of all abnormal points is added to the score rather than subtracted. To be considered a point, a projection must be at least one-inch long and must exceed the length of its base.”
TROPHY BUCKS COUNTY BY COUNTY
So where do deer hunters hunt Indiana’s trophy bucks? The good news is that every county in the Hoosier State holds the potential for growing massive whitetail bucks. The bad news is that there is no official way to track how many trophy deer are taken and where. The IDNR doesn’t track the antler size of an animal during the check-in process. Records are kept by sportsman organizations such as Pope & Young, Boone & Crockett, the Safari Club, and others, but it’s all voluntary. The hunter must send in an application to register his/her trophy to be accounted for in the tracking data.
I personally know hunters who do not go through that process, even though they have bagged trophy deer. But we need to start somewhere to identify the top locations to take an Indiana trophy whitetail; so, we’re using county-by-county data from the Hoosier Record Book Program (online: www.HoosierHunting.com) to compile the information below.
Perhaps, the most telling data for locating trophy bucks is to examine the number of trophy deer harvested per square mile. In this manner, larger counties wouldn’t be falsely inflated over smaller counties. The top counties in Indiana for producing typical and non-typical trophy deer rank as follows:
1 – Switzerland County
2 – Ohio County
3 – Parke County
4 – Jay County
5 – Jefferson County
6 – Dearborn County
7 – Steuben County
8 – Martin County
9 – Franklin County
10 – Noble County
While the accompanying map displays trophy density, the antlers of trophy bucks in some counties outrank th averages. To determine the counties that produce the biggest bucks, the top-10 antler scores in each county were combined and divided by 10 to determine average antler measurements. According to the Hoosier Record Buck Program, the top-10 counties, by antler measurements, for the best typical antlers include:
1 – Parke County, 177 inches.
2 – Ripley County, 176 inches.
3 – Poesy County, 174 inches.
4, 5 – Porter and Warren Counties, 173 inches.
6, 7, 8, 9, 10 – Dearborn, Franklin, Sullivan, Vigo and White counties, 172 inches.
What this data shows is that trophy deer can, indeed, be found anywhere in Indiana. However, your best chances are those areas that hold a superior blend of agriculture and woods that offer a wide variety of year-round foods and has terrain that allows them to reach maturity with little hunting pressure.
I place the emphasis on year-round food because of what some Indiana deer hunters say is the “corn desert” that runs through north-central Indiana. In those counties that are highly agricultural, little year-round food remains after the corn and soy beans are harvested.
The same is true for cover. Once the combines finish the harvest in November, a vast wasteland lies in their collective wake, with little to keep deer and other wildlife fed or protected. And with the prices of corn reaching new highs, many farmers are clearing even more areas along streams, fence lines and lowlands, leaving isolated river bottoms and woodlots miles apart.
With travel routes, winter food and cover decimated, Indiana deer hunters can only expect deer numbers to drop in some areas. Stewart agrees.
“When you lose habitat, you limit the potential for the number of deer on the landscape,” he points out. “When trophy deer make up a small percentage of the deer population, you can see how the number of trophy deer can be limited, simply because there are fewer total deer on the landscape.” With the loss of cover, deer have fewer places to hide and grow, not only limiting their ability to survive, Stewart adds, it makes it easier for hunters to concentrate on key areas to find them.
TROPHY BUCK REFUGES
Without doubt — and the records bear this out — the best places to hunt trophy whitetails are where deer can find year-round nutritious food with good cover and seclusion nearby. Because some counties hold a patchwork of farm fields, woods and rugged terrain, they stand as “deer factories” where bucks can grow old and big. In fact, there are endless areas in Indiana where deer can grow unmolested and reach maturity with little interaction with hunters as the numbers prove. “I think this leads to a lot of de facto deer refuges,” Stewart points out, “because hunters simply won’t want to walk in or drag a deer out of such rugged terrain.”
Indeed, a great deal of public hunting grounds — state and national forests, wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges — stand open to Indiana deer hunters. Among these, Hoosier National Forest (south of Bloomington), Yellowwood State Forest and Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge hold big deer as long as you’re willing and able to walk deeper into unmolested terrain than the other guy.
While the rural hills of Indiana make great deer refuges, there are a few more areas where savvy hunters go when they target trophy bucks. Pro-staffers Mike Cullison and Chris Byers of G5 Archery regularly bag trophy bucks in Indiana’s “urban zone” deer hunts.
What is an “urban zone” and what makes them so hot? Basically, urban deer hunting zones are agricultural and forested areas that fall within the corporate limits of cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, or in the populous areas of Lake and Porter counties and other sites. Due to the nature of these areas, deer hunters in these zones are limited to archery hunting only. (See the IDNR hunting regulations for more information.)
The deer in urban deer hunting zones enjoy ample year-round food among the shrubs, fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens suburbia has to offer. In many places the subdivisions are interlaced with row crops, green spaces, ponds, creeks and parks. Deer are more likely to die from mini-van injuries and old age than by a broadhead and can grow to record-book proportions. Gain access in an urban zone to an agricultural area that provides good cover, and you just may bag the buck a lifetime.
“I feel the urban zones have been needed for a long time. They open up a lot of hunting opportunities,” Cullison says. “Look for areas that provide heavy cover or dense pockets in open areas. I feel some of the biggest bucks live in some of the smallest areas.”
Byers agrees. “I enjoy the urban zones for the fact that the deer are usually not pressured. They can also be a little less timid to the sounds and smells of a human presence,” he says, pointing out, “The biggest bonus for an Indiana Urban Zone is that you can harvest a second buck.” (Author’s note: Hunters must first harvest a doe before bagging that second buck.)
However, hunting so close to large populations can raise concerns.
“Finding land to hunt in urban zones needs to be taken very seriously,” Cullison explains. “As responsible hunters, we must take all things into consideration. Property lines need to be respected along with landowner wishes. Knowing your equipment, being very proficient with it, and knowing the anatomy of your quarry will provide for a quick, humane harvest as our quarry deserves. Stay in contact with surrounding landowners, if possible, to keep them aware that you respect their boundaries and want to respect their wishes, should any tracking issues arise.”
In fact, it doesn’t matter where you hunt. Basic hunting skills need to be sharp to increase hunting success.
“I don’t know any (hunting) secrets,” Byers says modestly. “I scout for big bucks by first trying to find a feeding area, a bedding area, and a few good trails going or coming from both. After I have found these, I will usually hang one or two cameras to see what’s in the area. If I see any bucks worth pursuing, I note what days and times they are coming through to see if they have a pattern they follow.” And Byers points out it’s always key to have access points that allow him to go to and from his stand without spooking deer.
What is the biggest factor for successfully finding a trophy buck? Cullison knows full well.
“Be willing to hunt in obscure spots and willing to sacrifice volume of deer for quality. We all dream of mature bucks filtering through that big open white oak ridge top,” he admits, “but in most situations, for me, it involves thickets and low-visibility areas such as honeysuckle, olive oak and briar patches. I believe the biggest mistake made is simply timing. Hunters need to be diligent during prime times such as pre-rut and late-season cold spells.”
And be prepared to stay put, advises Cullison.
“Plan to sit all day or at least into the early afternoon if possible,” Cullison says. If you saw Cullison’s trophy wall you would take his advice as gospel.
<h2>A.J. Downs</h2>Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.