While most Minnesota deer hunters are happy enough just to bring home some venison, a rack for the wall is always a bonus. If that set of antlers is a big one, so much the better!
Let's take an in-depth look at Minnesota's big-buck lore. We'll figure out the definition of a trophy buck for our state, explore why Minnesota is such a great place for growing big whitetails, examine our state's history for top-notch bucks, and identify six target areas for zoning in on your next big whitetail.
DEFINING A TROPHY
While it's true that most Minnesota deer hunters aren't "trophy" hunters in the strict sense of the word, it's also a fact that every one of us would like to shoot a big buck now and again. But what exactly is a big buck in our state?
Is it a Boone and Crockett buck, a once-in-a-lifetime trophy? That would be a lot to ask, and my guess is that while every hunter dreams of a buck of that caliber (scoring 170 or more inches for a typical buck, 195 or more inches for a non-typical), most of us would be happy with something a little different.
One challenge regarding taking the Boone and Crockett Holy Grail is that few bucks of that stature exist. That minimum rack score is so high few bucks anywhere attain the age and have the rich food sources needed to grow such a rack.
The other challenge is that bucks old enough to be Booners don't get that way by being dumb. Next to big old does, those bucks are the smartest, and often most nocturnal, deer in the woods.
On the Pope and Young side of things, a record-book trophy is defined as a buck scoring 125 inches for a typical buck, and 155 inches for a non-typical specimen. Those are more realistic expectations.
The challenge with Pope and Young is that the hunter's choice of weapons, archery gear, limits his ability to "reach out and touch" a buck. But there are more bucks of that stature out there.
So, what's a trophy buck in your book? If you will never be happy with anything less than a Booner, you're going to get frustrated. That said, some hunters set that goal and take nothing less.
Are your personal guidelines as to what represents a trophy buck tied to a tape measure and inch count? Anyone who reads my stories knows that I am a big fan of the "any whitetail is a good whitetail" mentality, and that goes for bucks too. I'm out there for the experience, the family time, and the venison.
So establish your own trophy-buck standards. What makes you happy? Most Minnesotans would include some combination of the following factors for a trophy Minnesota buck:
— A mature deer, at least 3 1/2 years old, and probably 4 1/2 or 5 1/2.
— Probably 8 points or more (I have seen some outsized 6s that are beyond cool!).
— A well-developed rack. In Minnesota, that generally means thick beams and tines. More than spread or height, we seem to like heavy racks here.
— Some hunters like width or height in their whitetail rack, it's a personal thing.
— Uniqueness. Some hunters, experienced ones with a few big bucks to their credit, are looking for an odd rack with drop tines, stickers, double beams and more.
— Symmetry. Other hunters want that perfect, evenly matched rack that takes your breath away with its perfection.
Let's not forget one other factor on the big-buck scale. Weight. While the record books don't track such matters, how much a whitetail weighs makes a lot of difference to the Minnesota hunter.
While none of us would ever pass up a buck with a trophy rack because we thought the animal's body was too small, there is a certain thrill to bringing home a buck that is big in body. The standard here is 200 pounds, although the 175-pounder is more realistic!
FORMULA FOR BIG BUCKS
We can all agree that a big buck is a good thing. Even if you're happy shooting smaller bucks and the occasional doe along the way to keep the freezer filled with venison, a big buck is always welcome. What factors contribute to growing a big buck in Minnesota?
To start, let's talk about our deer. Biologically speaking, our subspecies of whitetail — Odocoileus virginianus borealis (northern whitetail) and Odocoileus virginianus dacotensis (Dakota whitetail of western Minnesota) — are some of the biggest whitetails on the planet. Simply put, Minnesota's deer have the genetic potential to be great.
Even great deer need time to grow big, though. Either through seclusion or lack of hunting pressure, a buck needs to live a few years to reach maturity. Fortunately, many areas of our state offer such conditions. Think of the southeast bluff-and-hill country, the far north, and our metropolitan suburbs.
It takes more than time to grow a big buck. It also takes quality forage. Minnesota offers that. Almost every area of our state has the food supply potential to grow big bucks — from the farmland areas with abundant crops to northern cutovers filled with nutritious browse.
Everything sounds perfect, but there is one potential issue, and that's winter. The biggest bucks often go into winter with the least amount of body fat, because they were chasing does all fall. Mature bucks are the most susceptible animals in the herd to deep snow and prolonged cold.
While a buck in the Boone and Crockett record books may not be in the cards for most of us, that database of trophy deer represents a history lesson on where our biggest bucks have come from.
Perhaps Minnesota's most famous buck is the Breen buck. Taken in 1918 in Beltrami County by John A. Breen. That magnificent deer stands atop Minnesota's typical record book, with 202 inches of antler. The deer is No. 9 on the list for North America.
Our top Boone and Crockett typical entry from the most recent times hails from Winona County. Michael Burgdorf shot that astounding buck in 2012. The beautiful whitetail netted 193 1/8 inches, a true trophy of a lifetime, and ranks No. 9 all-time in Minnesota and No. 76 on the all-time Boone and Crockett typical list.
For non-typicals, a relatively old-time deer still tops our records: Mitchell Vakoch's Norman County buck that grossed 268 5/8 back in 1974. This is one great rack, with unbelievable amounts of mass, tines, extra beams and junk, including one "paddle" drop tine.
Most recently, hunter Dylan Beach-Bittner dropped an astounding Otter Tail County buck in 2012. The deer grossed 243 0/8 and is No. 10 all-time in Minnesota, and No. 162 on the overall list.
WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US
Minnesota has 1,025 bucks listed in the Boone and Crockett records. That's no surprise, given the genes of our deer and the quality of much of our habitat. There is a lot of good farmland and big woods in Minnesota to grow big bucks.
Boone and Crockett isn't the be-all and end-of all of trophy listings, yet it is an excellent measure of the quality of deer here, and the locations from which those bucks come are the kinds of places that produce those personal trophies we dream of. So let's look at where Minnesota's record-book bucks were killed.
Of those 1,025 bucks in the book, 610 are typicals and 415 are non-typicals. That's actually a very high ratio of non-typicals, compared to other states and provinces. That's a good thing. Almost everybody loves a rack with character.
Can you take a guess at Minnesota's top trophy county? It's St. Louis. While some of it may be attributable to the sheer size of the place — it's got more square miles than the whole state of Connecticut — it's also got oodles of bucks in the record books, 95 to be exact.
Simply put, St. Louis has the big woods habitat that bucks need to grow old. That's the positive. The challenge is clear though. It takes some hard work to hunt up a buck in that big country. Still, the deer are out there, and they get a chance to grow.
Where else do big Minnesota bucks traditionally come from? Otter Tail County, with 47 bucks, ranks No. 2. Otter Tail is another good-sized county, but its Boone and Crockett buck count is disproportionately large. It is prime transition zone country with an almost perfect mix of farmlands, wetlands, timberlands and brush country. Deer thrive there, and there's enough cover and space that bucks can grow old.
It may be surprising that the classic southeastern counties aren't ranked No. 1 and 2. But the Southeast comes on strong at positions 3, 4 and 5. Houston County (44 bucks), Fillmore County (42 bucks), and Winona County (35 bucks) are the players there. Those are relatively small to average-sized counties, and so they are truly over-represented with big bucks. Wabasha County ranks No. 8, to further solidify our southeast hill country as a big-buck leader.
At the No. 6 spot, we return to prairie-woods transition country, and Todd County. With a respectable 33 bucks, there is no doubt the country around Long Prairie is prime for big whitetails.
Aitkin County sneaks in at No. 7, with 30 bucks. It's too far east to be considered a prairie transition county, Aitkin contains a mix of farmland coming up from the south and encroaching into big woods. Aitkin has deep woods and wetlands, giving bucks a chance to grow old.
A north-central county, Itasca, comes in at No. 8, tied with Koochiching (and Wabasha). These are big-woods, big-buck areas, where the forage might not be best (little farmland is available) and the winters tough, but whitetails have plenty of room to hide from hunters.
Beltrami County eases in at No. 9, with 26 bucks in the record book. Heading south, we see Morrison County at No. 10, and a tally of 25 bucks. Morrison is another of those central "mix" counties with farmlands and forest, prime real estate for both numbers of deer and the chance to grow big bucks.
Most of our counties are represented in the record book. Simply put, respectable bucks — a trophy in your record book — can come from any corner of our state. Here are some recommendations on our best bets for big bucks.
SIX BIG-BUCK TARGET AREAS
As the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area continues to expand, more whitetails will come under protection from gun hunting by county and municipal ordinance. That will expand the number of big, old bucks. You may have to hunt with bow and arrow, but the studs are there.
In particular, look to the western Minneapolis suburbs and exurban areas in Hennepin County, the southwest suburbs down in Carver County, especially the Minnesota River country, and the northeast metro, from Blaine and Anoka County on over to Scandia in Washington County. All those areas have plenty of deer, and big bucks.
Becker, Otter Tail, Todd, Wadena, Hubbard Counties
This five-county area is all carved from a similar mode: prairie-farmland transition, with lots of woods and wetlands, an almost ideal mix of cover. This is a great area for volume of deer, but it's also where a lot of our big bucks are from.
Wadena County is producing nice bucks these days, especially in the Pope and Young ranks. Becker, especially the eastern half of the county, is prime as well.
St. Louis County
If you're looking for seclusion coupled with big-buck potential, you're not likely to beat St. Louis County. There is no doubt this is the No. 1 big-buck county in Minnesota, and that is not going to change any time soon.
But hunting there is a real challenge. It's not the kind of country where you'll see a dozen deer a day. A few deer a day is good, and a few deer every few days more common.
St. Cloud Area
With its footprint expanding, the St. Cloud area is poised to become a big-buck hotspot. This has always been good deer country, and with less gun pressure due to the settlements, bucks are going to get their chance to grow.
Stearns, Sherburne and Benton counties will produce some big bucks in the next few years. This area has lots of farmland and so the forage is good, but there is plenty of cover.
Alexandria Area: Douglas And Pope Counties
Here's a bold prediction: Douglas and Pope counties are going to grow into their big-buck potential. The areas already produce record-book bucks. Douglas ranks high in Pope and Young entries, and Pope has a whopping 19 Boone and Crockett bucks to its credit.
This is good farmland mix country, and the bucks have the right genes for growing big. It's fairly open country, but winters are a notch milder there vs. those in the North Country.
The Southeast is going to continue producing some of Minnesota's biggest and best bucks, in volume. That's not breaking news, so we mention it last.
But don't overlook Olmsted and Goodhue counties when thinking about the Southeast's big bucks. These two counties have similar potential to Wabasha, Winona, Houston and Fillmore counties. In fact, Goodhue produced 17 Boone and Crocket bucks and counting.
In the end, a trophy deer is what you define it. The only record book that makes a difference is your own.
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 'good 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 'chip-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.
'I'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 'Big 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. '