Michigan's 2009 Whitetail Outlook Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Michigan's 2009 Whitetail Outlook Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

When it comes to hunting trophy whitetails in Michigan, it's a classic battle between north and south. Fortunately for you, both sides have plenty of firepower. (October 2009)

If you haven't hunted whitetails in the Upper Peninsula recently because you thought there weren't many big bucks left, you might want to reconsider based on the results of the 2008 seasons. A pair of U.P. bucks bagged last fall carried the largest antlers of any deer taken in the state last year, and I'm sure there were other U.P. whoppers spotted that remain tightly guarded secrets.

The U.P. has historically produced some of the state's biggest bucks, but during recent years, those honors have typically gone to the southernmost counties, where winters are seldom severe, nutrition is excellent and bucks as young as 3 1/2 years old have grown antlers of Boone and Crockett proportions. The fall of 2008 represents a turnaround. The U.P. may be reemerging as a trophy buck producer.

Part of the reason for a possible turnaround in big-buck production in the U.P. is reduced hunting pressure. Fewer than 100,000 deer hunters out of the estimated 700,000 in the state now hunt whitetails in the U.P. during gun season. (Continued)

The downward trend of U.P. deer hunter numbers started when the deer herd crashed after the disastrous winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97. A boom in the southern Michigan whitetail herd, high gas prices and a downturn in the state's economy continued to cut the number of hunters who ventured north from southern cities to hunt whitetails in the U.P. Reduced hunting pressure combined with some mild winters has allowed more bucks to reach the age-classes at which they grow big racks.

The two monsters that were bagged in the U.P. last fall have Boone and Crockett-qualifying non-typical racks. To make the all-time listing in national records maintained by the Boone and Crockett Club, non-typical antlers must measure at least 195. The minimum for typical antlers is 170. Typicals that score at least 160 and non-typicals that tally 185 still make it into B&C's honorable mention category.

Bill Rushford from Newberry bagged the slightly larger of the pair of U.P. "booners" in Luce County on Nov. 26 after capturing a trail camera photo of it. The 14-pointer had a gross score of 199 7/8 and netted 197 3/8. It appeared late in the day, following a doe that was likely in heat.

Rushford recognized the buck right away, based on the trail camera photo he had. The whitetail had a dressed weight of 212 pounds and was aged at 5 1/2 years. There was more snow than normal during the 2008 firearms season in the U.P., and the excessive snowfall may have been partly responsible for Rushford's success. Deer tend to migrate toward winter yarding areas once snow starts piling up, and that might have worked in Bill's favor.

Bob Vitton from Hancock killed the second B&C non-typical from Houghton County on Nov. 21. That buck's image had also been captured on film by a trail camera before it was shot. The Vitton buck had a 17-point rack that grossed 201 1/8 and netted 195 2/8, according to Commemorative Bucks of Michigan measurer Greg Dupuis.

Vitton said he was hunting over bait, which remains legal in the U.P., when he got the buck late in the day. Several does and small bucks were at the bait when the monster showed up. The buck may have been following the trail of a doe. That buck had a dressed weight of 185 pounds and was aged at 6 1/2.

A likely third B&C buck from the U.P. that was caught on camera -- but not shot -- was photographed in north Marquette County. That white­tail may have scored more than the two that were tagged. The rack reportedly had a number of drop tines.

Something all three bucks have in common is they were in northern U.P. counties. Hunting pressure is even lighter in these counties than those in the southern U.P. Supplemental winter feeding is also legal in these counties. So, in spite of the tough winters common in those counties, supplemental feeding enables many deer to survive that otherwise might not. Some trophy bucks are obviously among those deer that are carried through winter.

The last booner from the U.P. that was entered in state records before 2008 was a typical from Houghton County that was taken in 2002. A pair of B&C non-typicals were bagged in 2000 -- one from Keweenaw County and the other from Mackinaw County. The fact that more world-class bucks haven't been tagged in the U.P. during recent years doesn't mean they aren't there. In fact, I'm certain B&C bucks are present in every U.P. county. They are simply tough to get because of the savvy that goes with their age and experience. Likewise, many of the places they live are difficult to access compared with terrain in southern Michigan.

New antler restrictions went into effect in the U.P. only last year that are supposed to increase the number of older age-class bucks in the population. Both tags on combination deer licenses were restricted to one buck with at least 3 antler points on one side and one buck with at least 4 antler points on one side. Elsewhere in the state, one of the tags on a combo license was valid for bucks with at least one 3-inch spike. U.P. hunters who wanted to shoot a buck with spikes or better had to buy a single gun or bow license and were limited to shooting one buck.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Terry McFadden at the Marquette office said the new regulations confused many hunters, and he doesn't think they saved any more bucks than the previous licensing system because more hunters bought single licenses than combos. Hunters who normally voluntarily pass up spikes and forks bought combo licenses, and those who don't bought single tags. The result was probably fewer deer license sales for the MDNR and reduced recreation for those who filled single tags early in the season and had to quit hunting.

It's clear that there are already plenty of older age bucks in the region, more than the proponents of the change realized. George Lindquist from Negaunee, for instance, is a trustee with the Marquette chapter of U.P. Whitetails, and he's credited with passage of the new rules. He stated publicly numerous times that he felt most U.P. does were bred by yearling bucks since there were so few older bucks. He also commented that he didn't think there were any 5 1/2-year-old bucks left in the U.P.

He proved himself wrong during the 2008 gun season by shooting a 9-pointer in Alger County that was 5 1/2 years old. The antlers on that buck grossed more than 137 and netted in the low 130s, easily qualifying for state records. During 2007, Lindquist tagged a 2 1/2-year-old buck in Marquette County.

If mandatory protection of young bucks were the key to producing older bucks with big antlers in the U.P., deer management unit 122 in southern Dickinson County would be overrun with them. Bucks with less than 3 points on an antler have been protected there for eight years, but there has not been an increase in whitetails that qualify for state records from that area.

Most of the other giant bucks bagged in Michigan last fall came from the three counties in the state's southernmost tier. Doug Hamstra, for example, harvested a non-typical 15-pointer in Kalamazoo County with a muzzleloader on opening day of firearms season that netted 188 6/8.

He was hunting in an area where there were some huge antler-rubbed trees.

"About 1 p.m., I was watching a little 8-point about 40 yards away," Hamstra said. "All of a sudden, that 8-point just did a 180 and whipped around, and I did the same thing."

The small buck heard the bigger one coming, and by following the 8-point's lead, Hamstra spotted the 15-pointer and dropped it in its tracks.

Bill Bennett was hunting in Washtenaw County on the morning of Nov. 16, also with a muzzleloader, when he dropped an 18-point non-typical that netted 182 4/8. It was already daylight when he parked his vehicle that morning, so he still-hunted toward his blind rather than rushing to it. His patience was rewarded when he was about 30 yards from his blind.

"I saw the back of a deer," Bennett said, "so I pulled up the scope on my muzzleloader. I saw antlers, but his rack was kind of obscured by the trees. I decided I wasn't going to waste any time and made a target out of him."

Bill knew the rack was a nice one based on the size of the one antler he could see, but he wasn't sure of the dimensions. He was amazed at how large the rack was when he reached the fallen deer.

Chris Hiltunen scored on a 16-point non-typical in Washtenaw County with a shotgun on Nov. 21 that grossed 184 5/8 and netted 178 1/8. It's a good thing he had five rounds in his shotgun. The buck followed a doe out of a marsh, and then stopped.

The buck remained where it was, unflinching, as Hiltunen emptied his gun. The deer finally dropped with a broken neck when Hiltunen pulled the trigger for the fifth time.

Washtenaw County resident Jeff Stannis collected a trophy typical with bow and arrow in his home county on Nov. 2, 2008. The 11-pointer had a gross score of 163 7/8 and netted 159.

The deer is Stannis' best buck ever, and he was proud of having been able to bag the exceptional whitetail. Stannis' buck is a perfect example of why southern Michigan counties produce so many big-antlered whitetails. The long-tined 11-pointer that Stannis arrowed was only 3 1/2 years old. The rack has a typical 10-point frame, with a 2 1/2-inch sticker near the base of the left antler that accounted for most of the difference between the gross score and the net score.

Stannis was actually hunting for a buck with a similar rack that only had 9 points when he got the 11-pointer. In fact, he thought the buck he shot was the one he was after until he recovered the animal and got a better look at the rack.

Part of the reason that Stannis was successful in taking such an outstanding buck last fall was that he had become more selective in the deer he shoots. Knowing that a trophy-class buck is in the area makes it easier to pass up small deer.

Although Stannis spends a lot of time on state land, he also has access to adjoining parcels of private land. He got his 11-pointer from one of those parcels that have excellent bedding cover. The buck was chasing a doe when he shot it.

The doe came right under Stannis' tree stand, but he was able to stop the buck when it was 20 yards away. It was 5:15 p.m. when he arrowed the trophy. Stannis commented that he thinks the 9-pointer he was after survived the hunting seasons, so he is going to try for that deer again this year.

Jackson County was where Todd See from Jackson got a terrific typical with a muzzleloader on the very last day of firearms season. The 10-pointer grossed 175 2/8 and netted 167 4/8. The buck was following a doe when See got it.

Tim Carper got the highest-scoring typical reported in the state last fall in Branch County on opening day of gun season. The 14-pointer grossed 177 7/8 and netted 170. Carper shot the buck when it was 15 yards away as it chased a doe right to him.

Tim said he got his buck on a large block of private land. Even though there is far more overall hunting pressure for whitetails in southern counties than the U.P., abundant private property in the south provides enough refuge for bucks to reach older age-classes.

Abundant corn fields in the south serve as valuable cover that bucks use to elude hunters when the corn is cut late, too. Carper said he saw a buck with much larger antlers than the one he got.

Van Buren, Cass and Berrien Counties also produced their share of trophy bucks last fall. John Franks from Paw Paw, for instance, got a pair of nice whitetails with bow and arrow from the same tree stand in Van Buren County two days in a row. He downed a decent 10-pointer around 9 a.m. on Nov. 12. The following day, he got a non-typical 18-pointer that netted 177 7/8 and was probably 3 1/2 years old.

Based on the number of bucks entered in state records that score at least 125 from 2007 (complete 2008 data was not yet available from CBM at press time), the best counties for trophy bucks in southern Michigan are Jackson (20), Van Buren (14), Shiawassee (14), Berrien (13), Cass (13), Washtenaw (12), Livingston (12), Eaton (12) Gratiot (11), Montcalm (10) and Allegan (10). The cutoff of 125 for antler measurement was used because that's the minimum for entry of typical antlers in national bowhunting records maintained by the Pope and Young Club. Typical antlers from bow kills that score a minimum of 100 qualify for entry in state records.

Public property in southern Michigan's best big-buck counties is limited and often crowded. The best way to get away from the crowds is to seek out spots that are farthest from roads or in the wettest, nastiest swamps or marshes. That's also where the biggest bucks are most likely to be.

Top picks for trophy bucks in the northern Lower Peninsula or Region 2 are Mason, Mecosta, Newaygo, Oceana, Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties. Leelanau County has been coming on strong during recent years because of an antler restriction there. The largest chunk of public land in that county is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Most counties in Region 2 have abundant public land.

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