A trophy whitetail is the hardest animal to hunt; you have to be smarter than they are, and, a lot of times, that's not an easy thing to do."
So says Pete Hein of Flatline Productions in Elk River. Hein is an avid whitetail hunter who films hunts and takes youths on special hunts. He's seen his fair share of trophies and has managed to shoot a few.
Pete is not your typical Minnesota deer hunter. He spends days upon days scouting before the season and spends weeks upon weeks throughout the year managing property, following movement, monitoring trail cameras and doing what it takes to pattern trophies. Because of the time he puts into the pursuit of trophy whitetails, however, his success rate is much higher than the average.
Yet, a lot of our state's hunters look at Hein and wonder why they don't have the same success rate as he manages on a consistent basis. Hard work and dedication definitely pays off, but the vast majority of hunters don't have the resources to invest so much in the pursuit.
What does it take for one of those typical hunters to come across a trophy whitetail? It's a whole lot more than dumb luck.
Minnesota is home to a healthy population of white-tailed deer. Some say there are too many deer and others argue there are not enough, but the state's deer herd is healthy and hunters will have plenty of opportunities to bag an animal this season.
How many bucks with impressive racks are wandering the woods and fields is another question. It is a very difficult question to answer and an even more difficult one to predict.
A quick check of the trophy books shows that Minnesota is well represented across the categories of typical and non-typical for each of the weapons categories — firearm, archery and muzzleloader. The state is home to the second highest number of total Boone and Crockett entries; northeastern Minnesota's St. Louis County is at the top with the most entries since 1830.
Even though they keep track of every deer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources personnel do not keep records regarding the potential trophy status of its harvested bucks. That's according to Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the Minnesota DNR.
"We don't monitor the numbers of deer based on the size of their rack, only whether it is an adult or fawn and whether it is a male or female," he said.
All the trophy-buck information that exists for Minnesota is collected by private individuals and organizations, including Pope and Young and the Boone and Crockett Club. Those organizations rely on deer hunters to submit their information, meaning they can only keep track of those deer that are reported.
For discussion purposes, let's suppose a trophy buck is one with a rack having at least four 7-inch tines on each main beam. That constitutes a very healthy 8-point buck, and DNR biologists estimate that the number of bucks with those measurements number less than 1 percent of the annual harvest.
Considering that 207,000 deer were harvested last year, the number of harvested trophy bucks should have numbered around 2,000. An impressive number until you consider the fact that there were almost 600,000 licenses sold. Apply the law of averages, and the number of years it would take the average hunter to harvest a trophy comes out in the neighborhood of 300 years.
Yet some hunters consistently bag trophies year after year. The question remains the same — where do you find those trophy bucks?
Every year in the spring, thousands of whitetail hunters attend the Minnesota Deer Classic where there are plenty of trophy bucks. The classic has more gawkers than a rush hour accident. Hunters have a chance to admire the impressive mounts from the previous season as well as the largest typical and non-typical bucks taken in North America over the years.
Show coordinator Hugh Price manages the records for the classic but said he still has to rely on hunters to report their harvest. One of the reasons for the Classic is to show hunters that trophies do exist throughout our state.
Every county in Minnesota has yielded at least one trophy whitetail over the years. Most hunters report the county where they harvested the deer, but there is no surefire way to determine the accuracy of those numbers.
"What we've found," said Price, "is that 90 percent of the time the hunters lives near where they hunt and only a small percent hunt far away from their home."
Minnesota Deer Hunters Association executive director Mark Johnson said he thinks a lot of hunters registering their trophies are hunting private land. Johnson believes those trophies taken on public land are more likely to be kept out of the papers and the big awards.
Johnson said anyone could scour the DNR harvest records, the record books, and the trophy registers but that conversations with the locals will provide information that's just as reliable.
"You could walk into a local barbershop in most towns and find out about big bucks taken over the years that are not listed in any record books or displayed at any shows," he said.
A perfect example of that is a bowhunter friend of his who has taken numerous Pope-and-Young-class bucks over the years. "He hunts public land in Zone 1 that is pressured but he hunts it smarter," Johnson said. "The big bucks are there and available. He knows that, but he gets into those areas where most hunters don't venture."
Numerous hunters venture into St. Louis County each November, but most of them never venture very far from the roads and trails. The question many hunters must ask is this: Are those trophies killed by hunters who ventured far from the beaten path, or are there just a ton of trophies running around the woods?
"There are probably big deer all over Minnesota and there are naturally areas where they are more dense than others," said Johnson. "But the simple fact remains that they are found all over the state and the secret is to target them using techniques that other hunters are not."
The numbers Price has accumulated over the years also support that comment.
There's another factor to consider. What is it? The fact that not every permit area in Minnesota is loaded with trophy bucks, and there's no real way of knowing which ones are better than others. It is especially difficult to ascertain the answer looking at harvest numbers from the previous year.
If permit area 244 near Brainerd has a high number of antlered deer taken in 2010, does that mean there are a lot of bucks? Does it mean that there were a lot of bucks but now the old ones are dead and so there will only be lots of yearlings? Are those "quality" antlered deer? By quality we mean are they near the definition of a trophy as defined earlier.
What it all comes down to is the tried and true method of scouting and being willing to be mobile. Funny thing is this, the average Minnesota hunter has said in DNR surveys that he would like improved trophy opportunities. The same hunters also say that they hunt the same woods year after year. The majority also says that when push comes to shove, they are going to fill a tag (and their freezer) before letting a buck pass, knowing that it stands a good chance of getting larger the next year.
The simple reality is that the 80 percent of hunters who practice "if it's brown, it's down" must understand their odds of getting a trophy are much lower than the average. Likewise, the 20 percent of hunters who do practice selective harvest, count antler points, are willing to change locations, and conduct extensive scouting must understand that they are still statistically only allowed one or two trophies in their lifetime.
FINDING THE IDEAL LOCATION
Find an area to hunt that is large enough to provide adequate cover the year 'round. That means cover from the elements, year-round access to food that is high in protein, and predator escape routes. Of course, the absence of predators is better yet. Predator escape is absolutely critical for big bucks.
"A lot of times that means a river they can jump into where they'll hunker down with their nose down and let the wolves pass," Hein said.
The perfect storm would be a location with a high deer population and lower hunter density. "This does still exist in some areas but you should also go after those areas where hunters are primarily going after antlerless deer," he said.
Other factors are at play here regarding the classification of the permit area, but for the most part, those permit areas with the lowest percentage of bucks as part of the total harvest are the locations Johnson recommends focusing on.
Operating under the premise that trophy deer are found all over the state, finding those locations where they are most likely to hang out is critical. Thoroughly scouting an area is critical when going after trophies and that means patterning the deer.
Understanding the life cycle of a buck is an important part of this step. Once they survive their first season as a fawn, they are kicked out by their mother and they need to find a place that is safe. Doing so is risky since there are numerous roads to cross, wolves and other predators to avoid, not to mention being gored by other bucks when they wander into the territory of another.
"Once they've hit the 3 1/2- to 5 1/2-year-old mark, they've made it through the most vulnerable times of their lives and are now in the trophy range," he said.
Most bucks never make it to that stage because they succumb to predators, die of starvation or are harvested by hunters happy for a deer with antlers, even though it is not a trophy. DNR studies show that most bucks are unable to escape the high hunting pressure in most places and only end up living a season or two.
"Once they make it past all that, they have their smarts about them and they go nocturnal," Johnson said. Being nocturnal allows bucks to move more freely with less pressure from predators, competition for food and less danger crossing roads. The temperatures at night are cooler, allowing them to be more efficient with their energy.
A large, expansive piece of privately owned land with zero hunting pressure is ideal, but impossible to get for probably 99 percent of hunters. The good news is there are a lot of unexplored sections of public land that hold deer throughout the year, especially during the hunting season.
Deer are not stupid and will move around the patterns of hunters. That land closed to hunting doesn't hold a lot of deer throughout the year, but is stacked with them once the season begins. The presence of fresh sign throughout the season proves they are still moving only at night or when most hunters are not in the woods.
Another option Johnson talked about was corporate land that is open to public hunting. Large corporations like Boise Cascade, Blandin, and Potlatch own large chunks of forestland and many people only hunt the periphery of that land. According to their Web pages, Boise Cascade owns more than 300,000 acres of northern Minnesota forestland, Bladin owns almost 200,000 acres and Potlatch owns more than 320,000 acres.
Whether it is a large tract of huntable private land or public land, Johnson said the big bucks that have survived several seasons have done so not on the outskirts of this land, but deep within it where hunting pressure is minimal to nothing. Getting in there and locating them is the key to being successful.
DON'T BE A NORMAL HUNTER
Pete Alfano is a Bear Archery pro-staff member who pursues trophy whitetails for his "Whitetail Properties" television show. He said when a person starts hunting trophy deer he needs to look at his own techniques and not just be a normal hunter. That includes scent control, noise factors and eliminating as many visual distractions as possible.
Hunters are making the connection between shooting the first antlered deer that comes along and a lack of trophies. Studies show that most bucks produce trophy-class antlers by the time they are 5. Too many hunters are quick to blame the DNR for the lack of trophy deer in their area.
Alfano said hunters could do a lot of balanced management on their own and see results within a few years. Another sound piece of advice is to change your hunting patterns. No doubt a great deal of the bucks are taken by 9 a.m. opening morning, but some of the largest bucks are taken in the middle of the day when most hunters are moving around to another stand or heading to and from lunch.
Hein said that hunters have to put their time in to grow trophy deer. "You have to be willing to wait until that deer has had the time to grow into a trophy and, if you are able to, be willing to do what it takes to the land you hunt to provide that deer with the nutrition for growing.
"Give them a place to be safe when there is hunting going on and give them a place they can hide out. If you hunt all of your land throughout the season, then go at them slow. Those big bucks are smart and they don't get old by being dumb; have a good game plan so you don't mess anything up."