Last month, we took a look at the big picture for deer hunting in Indiana. We discussed deer numbers, management issues, top spots for hunter harvest, and where to go to fill that tag. This month, we’re going to narrow the focus and concentrate on bucks only and trophy bucks in particular. We’ll look at some recent trends and offer suggestions on where to seek out that trophy deer in the Hoosier State. But, just what is a trophy buck?
DEFINING A TROPHY
A trophy is purely relative. It’s relative to experience, equipment choices, age and personal desire. A trophy buck to a child or newbie hunter may not even classify as a shooter buck for a veteran hunter with lots of bone on the wall. A trophy buck may mean only one that qualifies for Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett. Or it could be as simple as a first antlered buck taken with a bow. Regardless of how a trophy is defined, Hoosier hunters are very blessed with a lot of great deer and there are plenty out there that would be considered true wall-hangers by any standard.
Indiana hunters have been having quite good success in taking decent antlered bucks in the state. One reason is the percentage of the total harvest being comprised of bucks has been reduced from years past. This keeps more antlered deer in the population and gives them more time to mature. Back in 1987 and 1988, antlered deer comprised 57 percent of the total harvest. That number has been declining due to management changes and more selective harvest by hunters. Last season, the buck harvest amounted to 40 percent of the total.
Firearm hunters took the most adult antlered bucks with 46 percent of the total firearm harvest being bucks. The next closest was early archery season hunters who netted 34 percent antlered bucks. All other seasons were much lower.
ONE BUCK RULE
Some folks attribute the success seen today to the One Buck Rule (OBR), which was implemented in 2002. A survey done by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2006 found that some 70 percent of deer hunters in the state supported the OBR. The DNR is currently working with an independent research group to survey about 20,000 deer hunters to determine their attitudes toward the OBR and compare how those attitudes have changed since 2006. The OBR must be renewed every five years and will be up for renewal after this season concludes.
The OBR may not actually be the direct cause of better deer hunting, but it may have helped sway hunters to more selective harvest, thereby improving buck quality. Chad Stewart, deer research biologist for the DNR, explained, “The Division has always maintained that the OBR is more of a social issue than a biological issue. Prior to 2002, approximately 15 percent of hunters took two bucks in a year, so the actual impact of decreasing the limit to one buck is minimal.
One con that is always brought up is that the buck hunting opportunity is lost for multi-season hunters. The Division has noticed a drastic decrease in the percentage of yearlings harvested since the OBR was implemented. However, this trend was declining prior to the OBR.
Many items have changed throughout the course of the OBR and since its inception: antlerless licenses have been liberalized, license costs have increased, hunters are likely aging and looking to harvest more mature deer, the food plot revolution has increased, etc. It is unknown whether the OBR has actually changed the male deer herd structure, or just the mentality of the hunter in choosing to harvest a buck. The only thing that is certain is that Hoosier hunters are taking more mature bucks today than they were 10 years ago.”
Indiana is but one state that is part of a shift in quality deer harvest over the past few decades. In the past, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas were hailed as the big buck states. Then states such as Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky started entering the mix. Now, Indiana is being mentioned right up there with the big boys as being a go-to spot for trophy deer.
When talking trophy deer, there is always much debate. One needs only to jump on the Internet and peruse some of the chats and message boards to find Indiana hunters bickering back and forth about whether or not Indiana has good trophy potential and whether or not the OBR has helped. Recently, writers in major national magazines have touted the Hoosier State as being in the top-five best spots for taking a trophy-book deer, but hunters still argue the criteria used to reach that conclusion. One report from 2001-2006 ranked Indiana sixth for most Boone & Crockett entries per square mile (PSM) and fifth for most Pope & Young entries PSM. Looking at the cold, hard facts sheds a little light on the situation and quells some of the debate.
The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) is one of the recognized national leaders in monitoring and encouraging deer management to produce trophy animals. The QDMA is comprised of some of the best whitetail biologists and deer managers in the country. There are some very interesting statistics found the QDMA’s Whitetail Report 2011.
The estimated antlered buck harvest for animals 1 1/2 years and older during the years of 2007-2009 was compiled in the report. Indiana hunters took 49,375, 50,845, and 52,981 bucks, respectively, in each of those three years. The increase between 2008 and 2009 was four percent. The number of bucks taken per square mile was 1.5, which matches exactly the average PSM harvest for all Midwestern states. The number of bucks taken PSM ranged from 0.4 in North Dakota to 3.7 in both Michigan and Wisconsin.
Now, breaking that down by age structure shows Hoosier harvest of immature bucks is decreasing while the harvest of mature bucks is increasing. During those three years, the percentage of bucks 1 1/2 years old decreased from 44 percent to 40 percent and then to 36 percent in 2009. Bucks 2 1/2 years old increased from 39 percent to 40 percent. The harvest of bucks 3 1/2 years old went from 17 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2008 and then to 24 percent in 2009. The Midwest average for bucks 3 1/2 years old in 2009 was 23 percent. It must be noted, however, that the average percentage was tallied from less than half of the 13 states that make up the Midwest category in the report. The remaining states did not provide percentage data.
These numbers, as well as other harvest data, appear to point toward hunters being much more selective in what they take. Stewart said, “Over the past 10 years, hunters are definitely shooting more older deer (2 1/2-years-old and older) than yearling deer. Of deer checked in during opening weekend of last year’s firearms season, 60 percent of the bucks killed were 2 1/2-years or older. We have hit sort of a plateau in recent years (since 2008) as far as yearling harvest, but it is a significant improvement from the late 1990s or early 2000s.”
Stewart said, “Trophy bucks can be found in any and all counties. Indiana has great white-tailed deer habitat that is capable of producing high-quality deer after just a couple of years.” For sure, much of the state deer quality is attributed more to genetics, the habitat and terrific food sources rather than a true trophy management plan by the DNR. Stewart explained, “Our goal as a division is primarily to balance the deer herd with the available habitat while minimizing conflicts with people. Trophy management and buck quality will always take a backseat to that primary goal. That being said, we realize that many hunters value high-quality deer, and if we can improve those numbers while meeting our primary goal of balancing the herd, then we will attempt to do so.”
WHERE GIANTS ROAM
Okay, so now we have determined that there are plenty of trophy deer available in the state. The next step is to determine where to find them. Certainly it is correct to say a trophy deer could come from any place in the state. However, there are specific areas of the state that seem to put out a higher percentage of mature bucks than others.
Stewart likes to point hunters toward counties with high deer-harvest numbers. Regarding trophy deer, he said, “I don’t have specific numbers, but I would suspect high-kill counties such as Parke, Harrison and the counties in the northeast and southeast to be at the top or near the top of the list. In general, where there are a lot of deer, I would expect there to be higher trophy or book entries.” He added, “I have worked check stations in the southern part of the state and have seen some deer that any hunter would be proud to take. Counties like Franklin, Harrison, Parke and Switzerland seem to put out great deer each year. I have heard that up north, counties like Kosciusko, Steuben, LaGrange and Marshall put out some great deer.”
Hoosier hunters took more than 2,000 deer in 17 counties and more than 3,000 deer in five counties last season. There were 1,000 or more antlered bucks taken in nine different counties last season. Ranked in order, they were Steuben (1,389), Kosciusko (1,231), Switzerland (1,204), Parke (1,100), Noble (1,097), Washington (1,049), Franklin (1,044), Marshall (1,027) and Dearborn (1,016).
The problem most hunters have when seeking a trophy deer is one of access. The best opportunity for taking a trophy animal is on properties where the deer aren’t constantly pressured. Big bucks are obviously very wary and hunter-educated, so they tend to be less visible during shooting hours in areas of heavy pressure. This doesn’t bode well for the hunter without private land on which to hunt. However, there are some public land hunting opportunities for trophies, too, if one knows where to look and is willing to put in the extra effort required to take a quality deer deliberately and not just due to pure, dumb luck.
In southern Indiana, hunters may want to target some of the bigger state and national forests. These areas offer a lot of area to spread out both hunters and deer. The trick to hunting trophies on these properties, and any other heavily-pressured areas for that matter, is to really study maps of the area, do some scouting, and find out where other hunters are focusing their efforts. Then look for possible escape routes and sections of the properties where other hunters are likely not to go due to a lack of roads, distance from parking, or other difficulties. This is where the trophy hunter will find less-pressured bucks.
The Hoosier National Forest is the largest and totals about 200,000 acres. There are a lot of huge deer on the Hoosier, but again, extra effort is usually required to find them. For more information, call (812) 275-5987 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier.
Another good choice is the Jackson-Washington State Forest. Washington County was the sixth-best county last year for antlered buck harvest. The property has a total of nearly 18,000 acres, most of which is open for hunting. Hunters can visit the forest office, located about 2 1/2 miles southeast of Brownstown on State Road 250, or contact Property Manager Brad Schneck at (812) 358-2160 for more information on hunting at the forest.
The Harrison-Crawford SF and the Owen-Putnam SF offer good options as well. The former totals about 24,000 acres and the latter 6,245 acres. The Harrison-Crawford SF office is located about 10 miles west of Corydon at 7240 Old Forest Road SW. Hunters can reach property manager Dwayne Sieg at (812) 738-7694. Contact the Owen-Putnam SF at (812) 829-2462 or visit the office at 2153 Fishcreek Road, near Spencer.
Hunters in the northern part of the state don’t have all the forest options, but there are some good fish and wildlife areas (FWA) on which to seek trophy bucks. Hunting these areas is just like hunting the southern forests. Hunters must do the homework and find out where other hunters aren’t going and then target their efforts in these areas of least pressure.
The Kankakee FWA has 4,295 acres and is located mostly in Starke County. Contact the property at (574) 896-3522. Willow Slough FWA has nearly 10,000 acres in Newton County, right along the Illinois border. The FWA may be reached by phone at (219) 285-2704. Pigeon River FWA may be called at (260) 367-2164. This property features 17 miles of river bottomland and over 11,600 acres of land. It is located in LaGrange and Steuben counties. As mentioned earlier, Steuben County was the top-rated county last year for most antlered bucks harvested. The J. Edward Roush Lake property in Huntington County should also be considered. It has over 7,000 acres of land in addition to the lake. Hunters may call (260) 468-2165 for more info.
Many of these properties mentioned have special site-specific regulations. Contact the properties directly and learn the rules before going afield.