Michigan's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Michigan's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Hunters should consider the southeastern counties for high-scoring whitetails -- five B&C records came from there -- but don't overlook the big-buck potential elsewhere. (October 2008)

After plotting where the bucks with the biggest racks have come from in Michigan over the last two years, it's obvious that counties in the southwestern portion of the state are coming on strong. That block of counties especially ranks far above those in the rest of the state in terms of top-end whitetails from last fall. Five of the six bucks with antlers large enough to qualify for all-time listing in the Boone and Crockett Club national records came from that region.

Each of those deer was entered in state records kept by Commemorative Bucks of Michigan to confirm what they score. There were a number of reliable reports of a seventh Booner taken in the same part of the state during 2007 that has not yet been entered in CBM records, and it may never be. Not all hunters who bag big bucks enter them in record books. Nonetheless, this is the first time I know of that so many large bucks have been concentrated in such a small area. (Continued)

The counties I'm referring to are Berrien, Van Buren, Allegan, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Calhoun and Kalamazoo. Two B&C qualifiers came from Van Buren County. One each was bagged in Berrien, Cass and Calhoun. The Booner that hasn't been entered in state records was reportedly shot in Kalamazoo County. A buck that exceeded the requirements for entry into B&C records was tagged in St. Joseph County during the fall of 2006, and a number of whitetails that fit the same criteria have come from Allegan County in recent years.

Besides the highest scoring whitetails, this block of counties have given up plenty of other bucks that qualify for state records that any hunter would be happy to put a tag on. What's responsible for the surge in big bucks in that part of the state? Each year, more hunters are understanding the role they play as deer managers in terms of what they shoot while afield one year will have a bearing on what type of deer they see in the future.

Part of that understanding is the realization that shooting does to balance population numbers with the habitat is more valuable than shooting young bucks with small antlers. Moreover, when yearlings are passed up, it means many of them will live a year longer, when they will grow larger antlers. The abundance of private land in most of these counties also limits hunting pressure, which allows some bucks to live longer.

Conditions are ideal throughout Region 3 for bucks to grow trophy racks, if they live long enough. That's why southern Michigan counties have consistently produced the biggest antlered whitetails for years. Genetics favoring excellent antler growth are common in that part of the state and plenty of nutritious food is available year 'round. Winters are mild, too. So, most bucks that live to be at least 3 1/2 will grow antlers large enough to qualify for state records. Some of them achieve that size at 2 1/2.

The fact that more hunters are willing to pass up small bucks opens the door for them to take bigger bucks. More and more hunters are knowledgeable about what it takes to score on trophy whitetails, too. Therefore, because there's an increase in the number of hunters who are targeting book bucks, that plays a role in the number tagged.

On top of that, there is an increase in the number of two- and three-season hunters. A significant number of bowhunters who don't fill their tags with an arrow hunt during firearms season. Some firearms hunters who have unfilled tags elect to try the muzzleloader season.

Multiple-season hunters, for example, are responsible for bagging two of the highest scoring bucks known taken in Michigan last fall, both of which ended up being of state-record proportions. Tom Britenfeld from St. Joseph filled his first buck tag with a 5-pointer in Van Buren County last October, then released another arrow at a much bigger buck in November but only grazed him.

Britenfeld returned to the same area during the December muzzleloader hunt and managed to shoot the same buck he grazed in November. The massive typical 15-point rack grossed 204 1/8 and netted 190 6/8, qualifying as a new state record in the muzzleloader category.

Tim Tackett from Homer filled his first buck tag with a 10-pointer in Calhoun County on opening day of gun season. He returned to the same area with a muzzleloader in December and bagged the new state-record non-typical blackpowder buck. The 19-pointer grossed 225 and netted 215 1/8. Another article in this issue has more information about these hunts.

Britenfeld and Tackett's success last December clearly shows that all of the big bucks aren't bagged during October and November. Adult bucks like those they tagged, which were at least 5 1/2 years old, are excellent at eluding hunters. The snow and cold weather that sometimes accompanies late seasons sometimes makes mature bucks more vulnerable to hunters.

The second B&C buck that came from Van Buren County last year was collected during the October bow season by Bob Reits of Paw Paw. He downed a monster 20-point non-typical on Oct. 25 that grossed 208 3/8 and netted 206 1/8. Reits saw the buck a number of times when it was in velvet and he hunted hard to try for that deer when bow season opened. His persistence eventually paid off. A detailed account of Reits' hunt for that buck was in the August issue of this magazine.

Matt Wheeler of Coloma collected the highest scoring typical bow buck known taken in Michigan last fall in Berrien County. The 13-pointer that he arrowed on Nov. 10 grossed 178 1/8 and netted 174 2/8. Wheeler took a number of trail camera photos of the buck between Oct. 21 and Nov. 4 and saw the whitetail in that vicinity while bowhunting on Nov. 8 but wasn't able to get a shot.

Where Matt ended up killing the deer was a mile and a half from where the trail camera had been taking its picture. He had been maintaining some mock scrapes in the area where he arrowed the buck.

What would have been last fall's No. 1 non-typical bow kill was arrowed in Jackson County by Christopher M. James of Horton on Oct. 24. Although James shot the 24-pointer that grossed 227 and netted 218 3/8, making it the highest scoring non-typical known taken in the state last fall, he did not have a deer license at the time. He bought a license the next day and used it to tag the buck after recovering it. The fact that James didn't have a license when he shot the deer made it an illegal kill, so it was confiscated by the DNR.

CBM and Pope and Young measurer Mike Bowers of Albion measured the James buck after the 60-day drying period. James wasn't charged with poaching the deer until after that, and that's also when the antlers were confiscated. For shooting tha

t buck illegally, James was assessed fines and costs of $1,300, sentenced to five days in jail and lost his hunting privileges for four years.

It certainly would have been much cheaper and better all the way around if James had purchased a hunting license before he went deer hunting. He then could have legitimately claimed one of the state's biggest non-typicals with bow and arrow.

Jackson County is one of the best counties in the state for B&C bucks. Most of the other Booners from that county listed with CBM, including the current state-record typical, were taken legally. The James buck is the only one of 2007's top ranking bucks that didn't come from that block of southwestern counties.

The final B&C qualifier from 2007 entered into state records came from Cass County. Doug Redder from Hamilton bagged the exceptional 11-pointer during gun season on Nov. 23. Redder's son, Mitch, was in the blind with him that morning. Doug wanted his son to shoot the deer, but when Mitch didn't have a shot, Doug put his shotgun into action.

The rack had a gross score of 181 5/8 and netted 171 6/8. The net score would have been much higher if the left beam would have had a sixth point to match its mate on the right side. The whitetail was 5 1/2 years old and had a live weight of 227 pounds. The dressed weight was 183 pounds.

For the second year in a row, Joe Tone from Marcellus bagged a 4 1/2-year-old whitetail buck on Cass County property he and his brothers manage for deer. The antlers on his most recent trophy were as impressive as those grown by the big buck he took in 2006, but the rack was a typical instead of a non-typical and he made his most recent kill with a muzzleloader during December instead of a bow in October. Tone's experience, once again, shows the value of being a multi-season, multi-weapon hunter.

"I saw a lot of nice bucks this year when hunting with the bow," Joe said, "but it just didn't work out to get a shot at a big one with an arrow. Most of them were too far away or didn't give me a bow shot."

The book buck he arrowed on Oct. 29, 2006, had a 15-point non-typical rack that grossed 175 4/8 and netted 167 4/8. The monster he dropped with a muzzleloader on Dec. 8, 2007, had an 11-point rack that grossed 163. Both mature bucks had dressed weights of 225 pounds.

The trophy bucks Joe got the last two years in Cass County are only part of the story about how successful the Tone brothers' five-year management plan has been on their property. Joe also shot an 8-pointer that grossed 142 during the 2007 gun season. Joe's younger brother, Jeff, killed a 150-class 12-point during bow season and a 140-class 10-point in firearms season. In addition, Joe shot a 140-class 9-point during gun season, too.

The other four bucks were all 3 1/2 years old. The brothers don't just pass up young bucks; they pass up all bucks except those that they think will score at least 140. They also shoot plenty of does.

The total number of CBM entries for each county reflects their trophy-producing potential in the recent past as well as the future. Typical gun bucks that score at least 125 and bow bucks that tape at least 100 qualify for state records. Since all of the deer entries for 2007 had not been completed when this was written, figures for 2006 are the most recent.

Calhoun County was the No. 1 county for book bucks in Region 3 that year with 40 entries, and there's no doubt it also ranked high last fall. Jackson and Van Buren counties were next in line with 29 each, followed by Branch with 27, Oakland and Allegan with 24 each, Lenawee, Ingham and Clinton with 23 each. Barry, Ionia and Gratiot counties each had 22 entries, followed by 21 for Shiawassee and Cass.

Leelanau County is far and away the strongest county in Region 2 and it may get even better in the future due to stringent antler restrictions that have been in effect for five years that protect bucks with less than 3 points on one antler. A total of 21 book bucks from that county were entered into state records during 2006, which is the most of any county in this region for a long, long time.

There was a big jump in the number of book bucks entered between 2005 and 2006. Only five deer from that county made it into CBM records from 2005. This is the only county in the state where there has been such a dramatic jump in book bucks in response to antler restrictions. Results weren't as noticeable in Clare County, for instance, where a 3-point rule was in effect for five years. A similar rule has been in effect for more than five years in southeast Dickinson County in Region 1, too, without an obvious increase in book buck entries.

The best counties in Region 2 for book bucks besides Leelanau are in the southern portion of the region. Osceola and Lake counties had seven entries each, Clare had six, Newaygo and Mason had five. Other counties in that region with five entries are Wexford, Montmorency and Antrim.

The Upper Peninsula or Region 1 has far better trophy buck potential than the numbers show. Many more bucks reach 3 1/2 years of age in this region than anywhere else in the state due to light hunting pressure and large blocks of thick cover that make it easy for older whitetails to escape hunters. I think this is going to be the breakout year for the U.P. to show what it's got as far as big-buck potential after two mild winters in a row followed by the most recent winter being moderately severe.

Weather conditions were not severe enough to affect survival of adult bucks that were at least 1 1/2 years old. I saw far more adult bucks after the 2007 season ended than I have for a long time and most of those bucks will be a year older this fall. I would not be surprised to see one to several Booners bagged in the U.P. this year. I know they are present. It's simply a matter of whether or not hunters are lucky enough to get them.

There are sure to be plenty of whitetails that qualify for CBM records taken in Region 1 this season. Best counties in the region for book bucks, based on 2006 entries, are Menominee with seven, Marquette and Gogebic with five each and Keweenaw with four. B&C bucks have come from every county in the U.P. in the past, however, so one could crop up anywhere.

The last Booner taken in Region 1 that I'm aware of is a typical 11-pointer that Mark Romali of Calumet shot in Houghton County during the 2002 firearms season. The antlers netted 171. A pair of non-typicals that exceeded B&C minimums for all-time listing was tagged in the region during the 2000 gun hunt.

Pat Abram from Curtis nailed a 16-pointer in Mackinac County that netted 196 2/8. That whitetail was 8 1/2 years old. Jake Jackovich of Calumet dropped a 26-pointer netting 202 3/8 in Keweenaw County that was 5 1/2 years old.

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