Best Big Buck States for 2014: Wisconsin
October 31, 2014
Wisconsin hunters who are dreaming of squeezing the trigger on the buck of a lifetime this season should have a few more giants than usual to hunt out there. But that won't make the big bucks any easier to tag.
Still, you can increase the likelihood of more than just a chance encounter with a trophy buck by hunting high-quality habitat and putting in as much time as possible.
A growing interest in passing up young bucks and a windy, cold opening day last year means more than the usual number of Wisconsin whitetails made it through to see another birthday.
While winter was brutal, farm country deer especially seem to have weathered it in decent shape, and antler growth on bucks this past summer was exceptional.
More bucks are killed on opening day of the gun deer season each fall than during an entire archery season most years, and last year's windy opener had whitetails sitting tighter than usual in many hunting areas. Bucks that survive opening day — and there were a lot of them — typically have a much better chance of surviving the entire season.
In any given year, only a small percentage of hunters will take a buck big enough to make even the minimum score needed to gain entry into the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club system, let alone Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett.
But far more hunters will at least get an opportunity to tag the biggest deer they've ever seen, and frankly, don't care what it scores.
Wisconsin DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang encourages hunters who haven't already done so to get out and scout, and then make adjustments to their projected plan as needed during the season.
"We've got lower deer numbers in the northern and central forests, and a lot of buck-only areas designed to let the herd rebuild," Wallenfang said.
While lower deer numbers might discourage some hunters, that situation might benefit those seeking trophy bucks. Non-pressured whitetails tend to move about the woods more during daylight hours.
As always, those who've scouted the sign — large rubs, scrapes, tracks and droppings in thick cover — increase their odds of a "chance" meeting while hunting.
WHERE TO LOOK
Trophy bucks can be found in every Wisconsin County, but are more likely to be on well-managed farms and urban sanctuaries where they're allowed to grow older.
Of the top 38 typical and non-typical bucks measured by Buck and Bear Club scorers from the 2013 bow and gun seasons, only Sauk (4), Dodge (3) and Barron, Chippewa, Crawford, Fond du Lac, Richland, Trempealeau and Vernon (2 each) produced more than one of the top-end monsters. Seventeen other counties had one.
Deer often congregate near the best food sources. If you don't have your own land or access to a quality parcel owned by a friend or relative, your options are often limited to leasing private land or finding some public property. The DNR has an excellent database for those seeking public lands at www.dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands.
Metro bow hunts are another option, either on a limited draw basis or by obtaining permission.
In the past 10 years — and not including all of the 2013 bucks, some of which had not yet been entered — Wisconsin has put 498 typical whitetails into the B&C record book.
That's according to B&C's online trophy database called Trophy Search. For information about this valuable information service, visit www.booneandcrockettclub.com.
The club's records show Kentucky in the second spot in the past decade with 273 typicals, following by Illinois (249), Ohio (232), Indiana (206), Iowa (196), Missouri (180), Minnesota (176), Kansas (164) and Saskatchewan (152).
Wisconsin has 23 counties among the top 50 in North American typicals entered since 2004, including Buffalo (37); Trempealeau (26); Richland, Shawano and Sauk (each 18); Pierce (16); Dunn (15); Pepin (14); Polk and Vernon (13); Grant and Waupaca (12); Columbia (11); Crawford, Dane and Outagamie (10); Juneau and Marathon (9); and Adams, Chippewa, Dodge, Iowa and Marquette, each with eight.
For non-typicals, Wisconsin is No. 2 with 206, trailing only Illinois (254) since 2004. Iowa (189), Ohio (162) and Missouri (144) round out the top five, followed by Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas.
Wisconsin has 14 of the top 55 counties in North American non-typicals in the past decade, among them Buffalo and Waupaca (each 12); Grant (11); Crawford (10); Sauk, Shawano and Vernon (each 9); Dane and Dodge (each 8); and Columbia, Jackson, Marathon, Richland and Trempealeau (each 5).
GROWING BIG BUCKS
Randall said earn-a-buck rules got a lot of credit with helping some counties "save" more bucks, but even without the restriction in recent years the size continues to be impressive.
"I attribute this to the recruitment of hunters and landowners taking part in some type of deer management practices similar to our logo, 'Let 'Em Go — Let 'Em Grow,'" he said.
Randall believes the new Deer Management Assistance Program will offer flexibility in controlling deer herds within a county if enough landowners choose to participate, helping keep herds within a healthy and balanced buck-to-doe ratio.
"On local levels," he said, "there are a lot of landowners and hunters practicing some sort of deer management, which should increase the buck age structure and in turn, increase the opportunity at a trophy-sized animal."
Northern Wisconsin still produces some magnificent trophy bucks with far less hunting pressure than the farmland regions, but it's often difficult hunting with far fewer sightings due to the extreme winter weather conditions some years and the influences of wolf and bear predation.
Even after one of the worst winters in history, farmland region deer numbers seem to be exploding again. Randall said he doesn't think more deer are better for trophy hunters.
"I believe you should have a healthy buck-to-doe ratio of 1 buck to 3 does," Randall said. "If the ratio is much higher than that you start to see some of the smaller or less dominant younger bucks breeding, which I feel can impact the health of the deer herd. With an in-check ratio the average hunter would experience a much better rut with more movement."
A new law also allows hunters with permission — and with certain restrictions — to use bows and crossbows in more urban refuges this year. Randall said these areas are going to be very desirable for the hunters interested in having an opportunity at a mature buck.
"Anywhere there's a lack of gun pressure, more bucks will live to a mature age, and thus reach trophy potential," he said.
Randall believes predation can have a big impact. "I constantly hear from hunters who complain about no longer seeing many deer in their hunting areas, but plenty of wolf sign. We need to make sure that we have a healthy balance and keep our hunter-conservationists happy with a good hunting experience."
Randall said that even though Wisconsin is at the top of the record books for Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett-class deer, it's still the thrill of the hunt that should drive hunters.
The Buck & Bear Club is publishing its 10th edition of the state records book this fall, a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Jordan Buck. The club also puts out an annual deer magazine. Get more info on both at www.wi-buck-bear.org.
A CROSSBOW GIANT
For the first time in history, Wisconsin is allowing hunting with crossbows this fall in a season that coincides with the regular archery hunt. How that will impact future trophies will be seen, with supporters and opponents forecasting different scenarios.
Prior to the legislation signed into law, only hunters with physical disabilities and those age 65 and older were allowed to hunt with crossbows during the archery season. Crossbows were legal for use, however, by anyone who possessed a gun deer license and hunted with it during any season open to hunting deer with a firearm.
One of the hunters who has been using a crossbow in recent years due to disabling illness, including cancer, is Kevin Roesler of Arcadia. Roesler said the crossbow allowed him to keep hunting, and the deer he's shot with it were taken at ranges similar to the average vertical-bow shots.
In 2010, he put a bolt through a 10-point, near-perfect typical that had just 3 1/2 inches of deductions; it scored 176 0/8 B&C. Last season, on Nov. 7, he shot a 19-point non-typical that grossed 206 7/8 and netted 198 5/8 B&C.
Roesler said he and neighbors watched the buck on trail cameras for four years, and estimated it was at least 5 1/2 when it came to within 15 yards of his tree stand, dogging a doe.
Outside of a fleeting glimpse one night on a walk out from the stand — the buck "practically ran me over" coming out of a corn field — Roesler said he never saw the deer except on camera pictures.
"I thought I'd see it eventually, but I didn't think I'd ever shoot it," he said. "There were a lot of good hunters after this deer."
The buck was known as Fred, named after Fred Sanford from the Sanford and Son TV show.
"Fred was a junk dealer, and this deer grew a lot of junk on its head," Roesler said.
Kevin said he has some "super neighbors," and all practice "let 'em go, let 'em grow" so bucks can reach their potential. "There are a lot of deer out there, even after this bad winter," Roesler said. "We found some dead ones, but the doe population is phenomenal. We really need to take a bunch out this year."
Roesler said he's in the woods so much, year 'round, that the local deer get used to him.
"I don't switch stands during the season," Roesler said. "Deer are homebodies. If you have good habitat and good food, they'll stick around."
Roesler rents some land to a farmer, who leaves some standing corn. The hilly country has acorn-dropping oaks, and there's a small apple orchard, a water hole and some small food plots.
NEW CROSSBOW LAW
As expected, there's been a lot of confusion and rumors concerning crossbows in Wisconsin this fall. The new law creates a permanent crossbow season with no sunset, but also includes a non-statutory provision for the DNR to collect crossbow deer harvest data over a three-year trial.
While no one can predict how many archers might make the switch, there's fear from some bow-only hunters that more previously "gun-only" hunters will take up the weapon because it's easier to use. That, they say, could create more competition for hunting spots, especially on public land.
Since having to draw a bow and hold it without spooking the animal adds to the difficulty of archery hunting, there also are concerns that crossbow users will take a higher percentage of trophies.
The DNR will be tracking crossbow and archery licenses and harvest separately. Both licenses come with one buck tag valid in any unit statewide and one Farmland Zone antlerless tag. If a hunter wants to hunt with both bow and crossbow, he can do so for a $3 upgrade. However, the additional license does not come with a second set of tags.
Disabled hunting permits, which formerly allowed the use of a crossbow to hunt deer under an archery license, are no longer valid. The same is true for hunters age 65 and older: they must now purchase a crossbow license if they want to use one outside of the gun deer seasons and in the season that runs concurrent with the regular archery hunt.