It's probably fair to say that every New England deer hunter ventures into the woods on Opening Day with high hopes for bagging a big whitetail buck.
It doesn't take long to discover that there's more to taking a trophy-sized buck than hope and good intentions. Every season a few lucky beginners stumble onto a record-book buck, but the majority of top-end deer are taken only after long days and weeks of scouting, preparation and persistence.
Tagging a trophy buck is not (nor should it be) an easy task, but every year bragging-sized racks from throughout the Northeast are added to the rolls of the Northeast Big Bucks Club. There are no guarantees, of course, but there are some ways hunters can increase their odds for success. Here's a look at how and where to make your trophy hunting dreams come true in 2014.
PREPARATION IS THE KEY
Hope springs eternal, but hard work invariably produces the most consistent results. Nothing beats putting boots on the ground, searching for signs of trophy-class bucks in areas where other hunters fear to tread.
Big bucks get big by staying out of the line of fire, exposing themselves only during the rut. Ambitious hunters put their time in the woods well before the season opens, finding the places where the biggest bucks hide. Big deer give themselves away by making rubs, scrapes and leaving big tracks in dark, muddy places. Generally, thick cover is the key, especially when that cover is surrounded by difficult terrain such as steep slopes, swamps and tangled clear-cuts.
Often these areas are far from convenient roads, trails and paths used by less aggressive hunters. It's true that big bucks can be found anywhere, especially during the rut, but hunters who play the odds know that their chances are best where the cover is worst (for the hunter).
Equally important is time spent in the woods. New England's biggest bucks do not operate on a time schedule, at least not one that's convenient to hunters. To make the most of your search, spend as much time as possible in the woods. Set up before daylight and stick it out till legal shooting time ends. Pack a lunch, water and snacks and force yourself to remain vigilant all day.
Try new locations, move to a better vantage point or just turn around and look the other way, but stay out there. Trust your earlier scouting, but if you find a new rub or scrape line made by a bigger, better buck, make the switch. But continue to put your time in. Keep in mind that big bucks roam the woods night and day as they search for receptive does. Your trophy may show up at dawn, dusk or any time in between. Plan to be there when he does.
Finally, be ready for the one and only shot you may get all season. Be sure your gun, bow or muzzleloader is loaded, tuned up and sighted in. Many a great buck has walked away from a hunter who wasn't prepared for the shot!
Archery season buck harvests have remained stable statewide at 37 percent in 2012 and 2013 during the four-week archery season, while the early archery harvest was 43 percent bucks. During late shotgun/rifle season, about half the annual harvest consists of bucks.
Connecticut's bowhunters took 363 antlered bucks on public land last season. The top-producing public lands for archery buck hunters included Pachaug State Forest with 42 bucks, followed by Centennial Watershed State Forest (23), Cockaponsett State Forest (19), Meshomasic State Forest (19) and Natchaug State Forest (12). Shotgun/rifle hunters were most successful on private land hunts.
Overall, 45 percent of the 2013 buck harvest consisted of 8-point bucks, while about 8 percent were 10 pointers, and about 3 percent were larger than 10 points.
For a complete review of Connecticut's 2013 deer season and a list of state lands open to deer hunting in 2014 log onto www.ct.gov/deep.
Bay State hunters tagged 6,556 bucks last season. Bowhunters took 2,970 antlered bucks, while shotgun hunters downed 2,508 bucks. Primitive season hunters accounted for 1,039 antlered deer.
Zones 10 and 11 produced 1,068 and 1,422 bucks respectively. Zones 8 and 9 produced 542 and 569 bucks, with five other zones coming in with more than 350 bucks each (Zones 2, 3, 4N, 5, and 7) with very little deviation in their five-year averages.
Generally, the best buck hunting is found in the eastern portion of the state where deer densities are highest, but persistent hunters should have no trouble finding "serious" bucks in the western Berkshires or the heavily wooded northern portion of the state.
For a complete review of the 2013 Bay State deer season and a list of public hunting options for 2014 log onto www.mass.gov.
Ocean State deer hunters tagged about 1,100 antlered bucks last season using archery gear, shotguns or muzzleloaders. Zone 2 hunters tagged 747 bucks while Zone 1 hunters posted an additional 317 antlered deer. Prudence Island and Block Island hunters added 80 bucks to the statewide tally.
Though Rhode Island is New England's smallest state and much of the best hunting takes place on private lands, the percentage of trophy-class bucks taken here often exceeds that of all the other Northeast states combined. Part of the reason for this is that the annual muzzleloader season occurs during the peak of the rut, a distinct advantage for hunters seeking above-average antlers. Also, Rhode Island's deer hunters are a discerning lot who are willing to pass on smaller bucks. Some 31 percent of bucks taken last year were 2.5 years or older, and 27 percent were 3.5 years or older.
For a complete review of Rhode Island's 2013 deer season results and information on where to hunt for trophy bucks on public land in 2014, log onto www.dem.ri.gov.
Cross over the Kittery Bridge into Maine and the definition of "big bucks" changes from antler score to body weight. The Biggest Bucks in Maine Club traditionally focuses on bucks that weigh over 200 pounds dressed weight. Several hundred heavyweight bucks are taken each year, earning the lucky hunter a red shoulder patch and lifetime membership in the exclusive club.
In recent years interest in bucks with Boone and Crockett- or Pope and Young-style antler scores has increased. The Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club and, more recently, the Northeast Big Bucks Club, has been compiling lists of typical and non-typical bucks with qualifying antler scores that rival some of the biggest deer in North America.
A "bucks only" state (meaning only bucks with antlers 3 inches or longer may be taken under the general rule), Maine produced 16,736 bucks last season, an 8 percent increase over the 2012 harvest. The bulk of the harvest occurred in central, southern and coastal Maine, where habitat and weather conditions are at their best. Harsh winters in the northern zones have reduced deer populations and harvests in recent years, but those areas rebound quickly when mild winters prevail for two or three years in a row.
Maine's biggest bucks are where you find them, but most of the top-end deer are taken in central Maine's farm country and in the coastal region where high human populations make access difficult and therefore give the deer more time to grow. There is plenty of room for scouting on private and paper company lands north of Portland. Hunters who don't mind knocking on doors may find a honey hole in the more developed southern portion of the state, where a good number of record-book bucks are taken.
For a complete rundown of last year's deer harvest and tips on where to begin your search for Maine's biggest bucks in 2014, log onto www.mefishwildlife.com.
Granite State hunters also hold to the tradition of "fat" deer rather than antler score, but there are plenty of bucks taken each year that qualify for either category. Grafton, Rockingham and Hillsborough counties usually lead the state in deer harvest numbers each season, with Cheshire, Merrimack and Strafford counties coming in close behind.
Though New Hampshire produces relatively few bucks over 200 pounds or with antlers that qualify for record-book status, hunters take good numbers of 8- and 10-point bucks that draw a crowd at the local tagging station. The most successful buck hunters wait for a good snowfall and then follow the tracks of the largest buck they can find. The most experienced, persistent trackers usually tag their deer within a day or so, although such a hunt may cover several miles over some extremely rough country.
To find out more about New Hampshire's hotspots for trophy whitetails, log onto www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
Made famous by the legendary Benoit family of buck trackers, the Green Mountain State produces some great bucks every year but, alas, very few that qualify for minimum P&Y or B&C scoring. Decent bucks (8 points or more) can be found statewide; in fact, some 8,831 antlered bucks were taken in Vermont last season, which comprised 63 percent of the total deer harvest. However, it's up to the individual hunter to decide what a "trophy" buck is and to hold off shooting lesser deer in hopes of seeing a more mature animal.
Southern Vermont's hilly farm country contains good numbers of deer, including higher numbers of receptive does, which means rutting bucks will not be far away. The mountainous northern and eastern portions of the state contain fewer deer but give hunters a chance to follow the track of a big, ridge-running buck.
For more information on Vermont's 2013 deer harvest and advice on where to look for trophy deer in the Green Mountain State in 2014, log onto www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
Finally, remember that most big bucks are earned the hard way, requiring all of your scouting, woodsmanship and hunting skills. Hunt hard, put in your time and, most importantly, be willing to pass up lesser bucks as you strive to put your tag on the biggest buck of your life. There are trophy-class bucks in every New England state and any one of them could belong to you!
NORTHEAST BIG BUCK CLUB
Perhaps the most useful tool a New England trophy deer hunter can acquire is the current listing of trophy bucks provided by the Northeast Big Buck Club. Now recognized as the most accurate and current source of trophy buck information in New England, the NBBC's annual record book is a deluxe, hardbound compilation of all of the largest antlered bucks taken in the Northeast including New York and Pennsylvania.
The NBBC was founded in 1996 by club president Jeff Brown and Bob Fontaine. Designed to honor trophy-class bucks taken by hunters in the Northeast, minimum qualifications for archery/muzzleloader bucks are 100 inches (typical) and 115 inches (non-typical).
Gun/pickup/acquired/shed minimums are 110 (typical) and 125 (non-typical). Official NBBC scorers are available in each state to measure and certify each entry. In addition, the NBBC considers the gross score of each rack with no deductions.
Hunters who join the NBBC and study the annual record book listings will have a much better idea of what to expect when they enter the woods this fall in search of a trophy-class buck. Detailed listings reveal where, when and how the biggest bucks in each state were taken, giving hunters a solid basis for planning their own trophy quest.
To find out more about the NBBC, to find an official scorer in your area or to enter a buck for qualification in the NBBC record book, log onto www.bigbuckclub.com or contact club president Jeff Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'œgood luck tree.'
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell\'s giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands\' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it\'s just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost\'s wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail\'s Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'œchip-shot.' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it\'s a good thing he didn\'t.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson\'s persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp\'s Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'œI've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to.'
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran\'s Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who\'d spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won\'t forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'œBig Daddy' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he\'d squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he\'d hit, but couldn\'t find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand.'