Best Big Buck States for 2014: Michigan
October 31, 2014
On opening morning of Michigan's 2013 firearms deer season, Matt Westerbrink from Howard City waited anxiously in a popup ground blind in Keweenaw County in anticipation of what the new season would bring. He had been hunting the area for years and knew how deer traveled through it. Some nearby buck sign had him hopeful that he would see one of the whitetails that made the sign.
Matt didn't have long to wait before a buck appeared; he dropped the 10-pointer with his single-shot Ruger in .45-70 caliber. The whitetail was at least 3 1/2 years old.
Quick success on Nov. 15 contributed to a more relaxed attitude on Westerbrink's part when daylight arrived the next day. Once it was light enough to see, Matt started reading Book 6 of Great Michigan Deer Tales to help pass the time as he waited for deer. After reading several chapters, he heard a sound that caught his attention. It was another buck.
Matt quickly exchanged the book for his rifle and filled his second buck tag. This whitetail only had 8 points, but the antlers were wider and larger than the 10-point rack he got the day before. The body of the 8-pointer also was bigger than the 10. Matt's second buck was at least 4 1/2 years old.
In spite of the fact that the winter of 2012-2013 was a tough one on U.P. whitetails, claiming 40 to 50 percent of the deer population over much of the region, hunters like Westerbrink who were in the right places at the right times still did well. Matt only saw two deer during two mornings of hunting, but that's all he needed to fill his tags. Although many other hunters may have seen more deer than Matt, he did much better than most U.P. hunters in terms of collecting venison.
Only 2.3 percent of U.P. hunters filled two buck tags last fall, according to the DNR's 2013 Deer Harvest Report prepared by Brian Frawley. About 27 percent bagged one buck. That's not bad considering how many deer were lost to the previous winter. In fact, at 28.7 percent, buck-hunting success was just as high last fall in the western U.P. as anywhere else in the state.
Two districts in Region 3 or the Southern Lower Peninsula came out a fraction of a percentage point higher. An estimated 28.8 percent of the hunters in the Saginaw Bay District bagged a buck and 29.1 percent of those in the Southcentral District did the same.
Why West U.P. hunters did so well on bucks during the 2013 season following a severe winter is due to a surplus of bucks built up during the previous three consecutive mild winters. Even though a significant number of bucks died during the winter of 2012-2013, enough remained to provide decent hunting opportunities. The fact that the buck harvest in the U.P. for all seasons declined by 20 percent during 2013 (28,907 vs. 35,966) compared to the year before, reflects the impact that last winter had. If the winter had been moderate to mild, last fall's U.P. buck kill could have been the best in the state.
If it weren't for one other factor besides the previous winter that negatively affected the U.P. buck harvest, the western district probably still would have come out on top for the state in terms of buck kill. Due to a wet fall, some cornfields were not harvested by the time firearms season opened in the southernmost U.P. county that has the most deer, which is Menominee. Some bucks took advantage of the added cover provided by those fields to avoid hunters.
Even though last winter was the worst on record in the U.P. for more than 20 years, those cornfields left standing helped whitetails weather it much better than those in the rest of the region. Snow depths were not as bad last winter in southern U.P. counties as those farther north, which is another factor that enabled more deer in those areas to survive the harsh conditions.
Two more factors that helped deer U.P.-wide survive last winter is that supplemental winter feeding was legal over the entire region and deer numbers had been lowered enough by the previous winter that there was less competition for the available food among the deer that remained.
Some U.P. deer were lost last winter, but the loss was not as high as the year before. The Michigan DNR's wildlife division no longer makes an attempt to estimate winter deer losses. But data gathered during a fawn survival study that has been under way in Iron County the past two years by Mississippi State University in cooperation with the DNR provides an index of how winter affected U.P. deer. Only 68 whitetails were captured for the study during the first months of 2014 compared to 119 the year before, a 43 percent decline.
Both bucks and does were captured during trapping efforts. Ear tags were attached to all of the deer captured.
The 68 whitetails that were live trapped during the first months of 2014 included 54 females and 14 males. Forty-one of the 54 does that were caught were adults. Seven of the remaining does were yearlings and six were fawns. Only four of the 14 bucks that were trapped were adults. Another four were yearlings and six were fawns.
While the overall deer population declined by 43 percent between 2013 and 2014 due to the impacts of the late-breaking winter going into the spring of 2013, the decline in the number of bucks was much higher. The 119 whitetails live trapped for the study during the first months of 2013 included 82 females and 37 males. There were 45 percent fewer does handled this year than the year before, but the number of bucks caught went down by 62 percent.
The 82 does handled for the study during 2013 included 46 adults, which only went down slightly to 41 in 2014. And it was the same for yearling does; nine for 2013 compared to seven for this year. The biggest difference was in fawns. A total of 27 doe fawns were trapped during 2013 and only six were caught this year, a difference of 78 percent.
The breakdown for the 37 bucks trapped for the study during 2013 was 8 adults, 7 yearlings and 22 fawns. There was a 50 percent drop in the number of adult and yearling bucks handled for the study this year compared to a 73 percent decline among buck fawns.
Winter did not claim all of the bucks tagged during the study in 2013. Three of the seven yearlings and one of the eight adults were reported taken by hunters. The fact that the number of adult bucks that were captured for the study declined significantly, and hunters only accounted for a small number of them, indicates bucks of various age-classes were lost during the previous winter.
Supplemental winter deer feeding under a permit from the DNR is legal every winter in the northern half of the U.P. Winter feeding is only legal in the southern half of the U.P. when snow depths reach levels that are higher than normal like last winter. A permit from the DNR was still required in order to feed deer last winter in the southern U.P.
What does all of this mean in terms of the chances for success in the U.P. this fall? The odds of connecting on an adult buck that is at least 2 1/2 years old will be similar to 2013 over most of the region. In southern U.P. counties of Menominee, Dickinson, Delta and Iron, however, the chances of tagging an adult buck will be better than last year, assuming cornfields are cut at a normal time. The southern U.P. is also where deer hunters have their best chance of seeing a yearling buck with spike or forked antlers. Yearling bucks will be in short supply across the northern U.P. due to the effects of the last two winters.
There will be fewer yearling bucks over most of the U.P. for two reasons. Most important, fawn production was low among does that survived the winter of 2012-2013 and were nutritionally stressed. On top of that, extreme weather last winter claimed some of the low number of fawns that made it through the 2013 season.
Mandatory antler restrictions remain in effect for the U.P. among hunters who purchase combination deer licenses. One tag is valid for bucks with at least 3 points on an antler and one tag is good for a buck with a minimum of 4 points on one antler. Hunters who buy single deer licenses can shoot bucks with spikes or better, but are limited to shooting one buck per year.
Hunters hoping to fill antlerless permits will have their best chances of doing so in southern Michigan counties. Zero public land antlerless permits will be available in the U.P. during 2014. Private land antlerless permits for the U.P. will only be issued for three management units — Menominee County, Norway and Gladstone.
Whitetails living in the Lower Peninsula normally escape the effects of severe winters. Not so last year. Record cold and snow depths were experienced statewide. Winter deer mortality also occurred from north to south for the first time in many years, but the DNR doesn't know the extent of winter losses in Zone 2 or Zone 3.
Although most Michigan counties escaped summer deer losses to EHD during 2013, the disease did strike some deer again in Muskegon County. An estimated 50 deer were lost to EHD in that county. Cornfields remained standing in parts of the L.P. during firearms deer season, too, having a negative influence on last fall's deer harvest.
Deer harvests declined last fall in both Regions 2 and 3 due to the negative factors mentioned, but the kill did not drop by as much as the U.P. For all seasons, the deer harvest was down an estimated 6.3 percent in Region 2 (40,265 compared to 49,468) and 7.7 percent in Region 3 (200,896 and 217,672).
While the antlerless harvest in Region 2 during 2013 was close to what it had been the year before, the buck kill dropped 11.1 percent (70,734 vs. 79,571). New mandatory antler restrictions that went into effect last fall in most counties of the Northwest District were largely responsible for that decline. All bucks in those counties must now have a minimum of 3 points on an antler to be legal.
The fact that the buck kill was only down 3.4 percent in Region 3 (103,416 compared to 107,103) confirms that MAR played an important role in reducing the buck harvest in Region 2. Reduced antlerless quotas in Region 3 due to the effects of an EHD outbreak during 2012 resulted in an 11.8 percent decline of does and fawns (97,499 and 110,591).
Due to MAR in Region 2 and higher winter deer losses in northern counties, Region 3 provides the best opportunity to collect venison this fall. An estimated 43.5 percent of the deer hunters who tried their luck in southern counties last fall tagged at least one deer. Hunters in the Saginaw Bay District had the best success on deer of either sex at 45.2 percent. Those in the Southcentral District did almost as good, with a 44.7 percent success rate.
The Saginaw Bay District is composed of the following counties: Sanilac, Tuscola, Huron, Saginaw, Bay, Midland, Isabella, Clare, Gladwin and Arenac. Those that make U.P. the Southcentral District are Hillsdale, Lenawee, Jackson, Washtenaw, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot and Montcalm. An antlerless permit for any of those counties practically guarantees success. Besides a 15-day gun season during the last half of November, there's a 20-day muzzleloader season in December and an antlerless-only centerfire firearms hunt on private land of designated counties during late December.
These same two districts also offer the best opportunity to connect on antlered bucks in the L.P. Success was around 25 percent.
Success on deer of either sex was still close to 40 percent in the Southwest District last fall. The top counties to try in that district are Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Allegan, Barry, Kent and Ottawa.
For hunters who plan on hunting in Region 2, there was little difference in hunting success during 2013 between the two districts for deer of either sex, and there's nothing to suggest it will be any different this year. Hunters who spent time in the Northeast District experienced 37 percent success for deer of either sex. Those who chose the Northwest District for their hunting had 36.9 percent success.