Is this the year you finally bag the biggest buck of your deer-hunting life? We've compiled this information to help you achieve that very goal.
Jim Strader used a shotgun to drop this 5 1/2-year-old non-typical in Eaton County last Novemebr. The giant netted 166 1/8 B&C points. Photo by Pat Rankin.
Although the bulk of the big bucks bagged in our state during the fall of 2010 are bound to come from the state's four southernmost tiers of counties in Region 3, as they usually do, counties in the U.P. -- Region 1 -- are poised better than ever to give the south a run for its money.
Last winter was a record mild one in the U.P., with less than normal snowfall and one of the earliest spring breakups on record (early to mid-March). So little snow fell in the southern half of the U.P. that deer in that portion of the region were not tightly yarded as usual.
Nutritional stress during winter is one of the major factors that holds many U.P. bucks back from experiencing their best antler development. After a tough winter, spring greenup is usually delayed, too, so it takes bucks longer to recover from the effects of winter, hampering maximum antler growth. Neither of those conditions played a role this year. Due to an early spring, greenup was also early and so was antler development.
For the first time I can remember, I saw adult bucks in the U.P. with a good start on their antlers by late April instead of mid-May. The antlers of one 4-year-old buck that I've been watching were starting to fork by the end of April. Growth was at least two weeks ahead of schedule. The early start on antlers in the U.P. should give racks a major boost this year, and the same thing is true for bucks in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Winter was not the only season that was mild in the U.P. Last fall's gun deer season was much warmer than normal, the result being no snow during most of the last two weeks of November. The warm weather reduced daytime activity of deer along with hunter success. The end result is a good carryover of adult bucks into 2010 that should all be carrying terrific sets of antlers this fall.
How do I know there is a good carryover of bucks in the U.P. from 2009? I saw some of them. I bowhunted during late December and saw more bucks than I normally do. I saw four bucks in two days, two of which had already lost their antlers. In another area, I saw four more adult bucks during winter. With the mild winter and early spring, those bucks should have survived along with plenty of others that avoided hunters last fall.
Even though deer hunting conditions were tough in the U.P. last fall due to less than ideal weather and reduced deer numbers in some areas, those who hunted hard and were persistent still managed to do well. Vern Hansen from Marquette is a perfect example. Hansen, a serious bowhunter, continues hunting with bow and arrow during gun season. He arrowed two mature bucks during 2009, one of which had antlers large enough for Pope and Young entry.
He got the 130-class 8-pointer at around 2 p.m. on Nov. 17 in north Marquette County. Hansen said he hadn't seen a deer for 16 days when he climbed into his tree stand around 1 p.m. on that day. But he continued hunting because there were some large rubbed trees in the vicinity that he was sure had been visited by a trophy buck. He had only been in position about 10 minutes when an 8-pointer with a 16-inch spread walked by.
Vern passed that one up, convinced it was not the whitetail making the large rubs he had seen. The fact that he had taken a 4 1/2-year-old 7-pointer in Iron County earlier in the fall made it easier for him to let that buck go. Forty-five minutes later, the much-bigger 8-point buck responded to some doe bleats that Hansen made.
The antlers on the big 8 had a 19 1/2-inch inside spread and the deer had a dressed weight of 196 pounds. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment aged the buck at 5 1/2 years, according to Hansen. Even though Vern knew the rack was big enough for both state and national records, he didn't bother having it officially measured. And I suspect there are a significant number of book bucks bagged in the U.P. every year that are not entered in state records.
Two of the highest-scoring bucks bagged in Michigan during 2008 were shot in the U.P., for instance, but one of them was not entered in state records. Bob Vitton from Hancock collected the 17-pointer in Houghton County on Nov. 21. The antlers grossed 201 1/8 and netted 195 2/8. The rack was measured while at the taxidermist.
Another non-typical from Luce County that netted a couple of inches more than Vitton's was entered into both state and national records. The lucky hunter was Bill Rushford from Newberry, who got that 14-point, 197 3/8-inch buck on Nov. 27.
The 2008 firearms season was the opposite of 2009, with plenty of snow over most of the two weeks, making bucks more vulnerable to hunters. The Vitton and Rushford bucks clearly show what the U.P. is capable of producing. If weather conditions are more favorable for hunters in 2010 than last fall, expect to see more whoppers from the Northcountry.
There are book bucks in every U.P. county, but those where the odds of connecting are the best include Menominee, Delta, Iron, Dickinson, Schoolcraft, Houghton and Keweenaw. Dean Hulce operates a commercial deer camp in Menominee County. He said that although total deer numbers seen by his hunters was down during 2009, the number and size of bucks they saw and shot was up due to healthy antlerless harvests in previous years. He said they took 12 bucks out of his camp, one of which was 5 1/2 years old and another 4 1/2. The remaining antlered whitetails were all 2 1/2. He expects even better buck hunting this year.
Southern Michigan deer hunters can expect to be surprised by the number of big-antlered deer they see this fall, too, but for a very different reason. In southern Michigan, most cornfields are normally harvested before Nov. 15. That didn't happen during 2009 due to a wet fall. Some fields were cut after firearms season was under way. Others remained standing through December, providing whitetails with more cover than they usually have and enabling some bucks to survive all 2009 hunting seasons. Those bucks will have bigger racks this year.
Hartline from Marcellus is well aware of the cornfield/big buck connection. He dropped one of the state's highest-scoring non-typicals for the year with a muzzleloader from his Cass County tree stand on the morning of Nov. 21. A nearby cornfield got cut the day before. Hartline talked to the farmer who cut the field on that evening, and the farmer told him he saw two big bucks leave the field as he was leveling it. Steve knows who shot the second trophy buck that was forced out of that field. It's obvious big bucks that lose the security uncut cornfields provide are vulnerable to hunters. Antlered whitetails that are able to hang out in the corn during most or all of the season are less vulnerable.
The buck Hartline got had 16 points, four of which are drop tines. The antlers have an official gross score of 206 2/8 and netted 198 3/8. Cass County has been one of the top producers of trophy bucks in the state during recent years and it should produce its share of wallhangers again this year. Todd Seiler from Niles got a whopper non-typical that netted 189 1/8 from Cass County with bow and arrow during 2009.
Several counties in the southwest corner of the state near Cass also are known for giving up big bucks. Van Buren County is just as good and Allegan County isn't far behind. Berrien County is on the list of trophy buck producers, too.
The second-highest scoring typical on record for the state was shot in Van Buren County during the 2007 muzzleloader season. The 15-point grossed 204 1/8 and netted 190 6/8. Tom Britenfeld from St. Joseph was the lucky hunter. He had grazed the same buck with an arrow during the early bow season.
Chris Eisbrenner from Watervliet arrowed a trophy non-typical in Van Buren County last fall that nets 175 6/8. A pair of typical bow kills that any hunter would be proud of came from Berrien County during 2009. And Drew Neilsen dropped a 12-pointer that netted 160 on the first day of last year's muzzleloader season in Berrien, too.
The southernmost counties in the state bordering Indiana and Ohio produce whoppers every year. Several more counties in that tier excel in producing big antlers, Hillsdale, Branch and Lenawee among them. More hunters than normal are probably going to be looking at Lenawee County really hard this year as a result of the 26-point non-typical that was found dead there during the first week of February 2010.
That buck, which died of unknown causes, grew a set of antlers larger than any other whitetail on record in Michigan. The rack grossed 257 1/8 and netted 246 2/8.
Jeremy Collingsworth from Monroe bagged the highest-scoring buck known taken by a hunter from Lenawee County last fall with bow and arrow. He attracted the attention of the 17-pointer to the decoy in front of his ground blind with a grunt call on the evening of Nov. 12. The antlers gross 204 5/8 and net 193 4/8.
Monroe bowhunter Jeremy Collingsworth killed this huge buck in Lenawee County last fall. The 17-point rack grossed 204 5/8 and netted 193 4/8 points. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Collingsworth.
Lenawee's neighbor to the west, Hillsdale County, has yielded its share of top end whitetails. The state-record non-typical bow buck came from Hillsdale in 2004. The 20-pointer grossed 232 7/8 and netted 225 7/8. Aaron Davis from Holland arrowed the monster on Nov. 14 that year. Three years earlier, the state-record 8-pointer was bagged in that county by Vic Bulliner from Davison. The amazing rack grosses 185 1/8 and nets 180 3/8.
Scott Kerr got the highest-scoring Hillsdale County buck recorded in 2009. It was a 15-point non-typical gun kill grossing 175 2/8 that he got on the morning of Nov. 15. Kerr saw the deer at the back of a bean field while bowhunting on the previous evening, but it was too far for a shot.
After dark, he put up a new stand where he hoped to see the buck the next morning and it worked. Scott missed his first shot at the buck that morning; fortunately, his second shot was on the mark. The huge 5 1/2-year-old buck had a dressed weight of 260 pounds.The best big-buck county in the state, Jackson, borders Hillsdale County to the north. Three of the Top 10 Typicals in state records, including the current state record, spent their lives in that county. A 15-pointer that Troy Stephens dropped there during the 1996 gun season holds the top spot. The enormous rack has a gross score of 214 3/8 and nets 198 even. Every year, Jackson County is close to the top of the list, if not at the top, in terms of book bucks entered in state records.
Counties to the east and west of Jackson, Washtenaw and Calhoun, are on the list of top big-buck producers, too. So is Shiawassee County, which is the second county north of Jackson. Federal and state wildlife refuges in Shiawassee County, on which deer hunting is tightly controlled, contribute to the county's production of big bucks.
This could be a good year for hunters to bring home book bucks from the northern Lower Peninsula's Region 2. Winter was mild, spring came early and deer numbers are down, so adult bucks should have big racks. Whitetails that score at least 125 could show up anywhere, but one county in the region that stands out above the rest is Leelanau.
Bucks must have at least three points on one antler to be legal in this county, and that regulation appears to have had a positive effect on the number of record-book qualifiers taken there. But the mandatory antler regulation is discouraging to some young hunters. At an outdoor show in Traverse City during March, I spoke to a man who said his daughter is no longer interested in deer hunting after spending two frustrating years of seeing only bucks she couldn't shoot.
The beginning hunter saw a forkhorn during her first year of hunting that she could have shot, if it weren't for the stringent antler requirements. On her second year of hunting, she saw a buck that her father thought was probably an 8-point, but she could only see enough of one antler to make out two points. Since the inexperienced hunter couldn't tell for sure the deer had three points on one antler, she was also forced to let that one walk. Her father complained that his daughter is now no longer interested in hunting, which is a major disappointment to him. He's convinced her enthusiasm for deer hunting would be much different if she had been permitted to shoot one or both of the bucks she saw.
Other counties in Region 2 that have given up book bucks in the past and that should generate more are Grand Traverse, Antrim, Gladwin, Isabella, Mason and Lake.
But no matter where you hunt in Michigan this fall, keep an eye open for an opportunity to take a big buck. You may only get one chance, but that chance can show up almost anywhere in our state.