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.
Many of Minnesota's deer hunters will be out looking for a buck like this one killed recently in southeastern Minnesota by Kevin Yoder. The giant whitetail grossed 214 0/8. Photo courtesy of Shawn Riley.
Killing a big buck is not as easy as the guys on television make it seem. Surveys conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other organizations show time and time again that most whitetail hunters in our state would like to shoot a trophy buck -- if given the opportunity. But not at the expense of not being able to shoot a deer at all.
The moral of that story? Most of us are meat hunters first and trophy hunters second. Actually, what the statistics show is that we like to hunt in the same place year after year with the same people, no matter what the trophy potential anywhere else in the state.
Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all! But there are some parts of the state with better trophy potential than others, and there are a significant number of hunters willing to move their deer camps into those places, even if it means hunting in a different location from year to year.
Determining where to go in Minnesota for a trophy deer is actually much more difficult than one might imagine. The DNR harvest statistics only reveal whether a deer was male or female and a juvenile or adult. An adult buck could be anywhere from a forkhorn on up to a massive 30-pointer.
There also are agencies such as Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young that compile statistics based on reported deer kills from around the state. The problem with that is it depends on the hunter reporting it and, both agencies believe it to be true, at best 50 percent of the trophies taken in the state each year are reported to one of these two organizations.
Over the past five seasons, the top counties around the state for trophy deer have been Anoka, Fillmore, Houston, Morrison, Olmsted, Otter Tail, St. Louis, Todd, Wabasha and Winona. Does that mean if you hunt in Cass County you should move? Does it mean if you hunt in Otter Tail and haven't seen a trophy deer that you must be doing something wrong? The answer to both those questions is a resounding, "Probably not."
There are trophy deer all over the state and it's safe to say there are dozens of trophy bucks in every one of Minnesota's 87 counties. "All it takes is that one time when everything works out," said Pete Hein, owner of Flatline Products. "And it's the most special thing to shoot a trophy buck, or as I call them, a gagger or swamp donkey."
Finding that opportunity for a trophy is possible statewide as any DNR area wildlife manager will tell you. "Anywhere you hunt in Minnesota there are going to be large bucks with quality racks but there are so many factors that go into creating just such a deer," said Lou Cornicelli, big game project coordinator for the Minnesota DNR. While there definitely is an impact based on the biology of an area regarding food sources, climate and genetics, there also is a larger impact based on the hunting activity of the area.
Big bucks are difficult for the average hunter to find, which is precisely the reason the bucks become so big. When hunters harvest the first buck that comes along, logically speaking, their hunting area is not going to hold many trophy deer. Passing on a 6-pointer is the only way to possibly have an opportunity at an 8-pointer the next year -- but only if every other hunter that deer walks by passes as well. Therein lies the challenge of taking a trophy deer.
Just as hunters rely on a combination of dumb luck and skill to harvest a trophy buck, that buck is relying on the same dumb luck and skill to avoid being shot. It's not a formula for producing trophy deer, but the majority of hunters have said time and time again that they are more interested in getting a buck than in getting a trophy. Areas of the state like the northeast are known for producing large-bodied deer that field dress well over 200 pounds, but frequently their antlers reach less than "trophy" status due to the harsh conditions faced year after year.
There are two large areas where the vast majority of trophy whitetail are taken every year. The common thread for both those areas is the Mississippi River, which has a tremendous diversity of topography from its headwaters in north-central Minnesota down to the Iowa border. But it always provides ample food sources and cover as it snakes through the state. The first prime area is known as the "transition zone" and is found throughout the heart of the state from around Alexandria and Fergus Falls over to Brainerd and south to the north metro. The second area is the well-known southeastern corner of the state that has some significant regulation changes this year aimed, in part, at producing more trophy deer.
Some people call it Minnesota's "transition zone" because it's located where the prairie potholes and flatlands give way to hardwoods before turning into the pine stands of the northeast. Longtime Minnesota hunters know this area as Zone 2 that used to connect northwest Minnesota with the Metro area. Now that Zone 2 has absorbed Zone 4, that doesn't work, so the logical choice is to call it what it is -- a corridor of ideal deer hunting land.
Eliminate those counties in the southeast and the largest numbers of our trophy bucks have come from this region of the state. "This is a great part of the state because it doesn't receive as much hunting pressure as the southeast or woods further up north, and we regularly see several high-quality deer each and every season," said Steve Tulp, owner of Mile High Deer Stands in Princeton, Minnesota.
Tulp is lucky enough to hunt his own property, but said he believes the east-central portion of the state he hunts in is underutilized for trophy bucks. "The biggest challenge of hunting around here is passing on quality bucks that we know will get bigger but look so great right now," he said.
There are a lot of quality bucks in his portion of the state, he said, including Sherburne, Mille Lacs, Isanti and Kanabec. "If you own land like we do, that's the ideal situation because you can really get to know the property and deer living on it. But there is a lot of public land around here that doesn't get hunted very heavily and could yield a trophy to somebody willing to put the scouting time in."
Just a little north and west of Tulp's area are the counties of Otter Tail, Todd, Douglas and Wadena which are traditional deer hunting counties but not often thought of as high trophy potential. While that might have been true years ago, the last decade has seen an upsurg
e of trophies taken from those counties. As is the case with this entire transition zone, these counties feature a quality combination of forage, cover and terrain.
Just to the south of Tulp's area is the metro area, which is home to one of the largest supply of trophy whitetail bucks anyplace in the country. Having sprawled out into a broad seven-county metropolitan area (some might argue a 10- or 11-county area), the Twin Cities contain some large stands of undeveloped and underdeveloped land that whitetails find absolutely perfect.
The metro area offers considerable food sources throughout the year and enough pockets of cover to keep a healthy deer population happy. The challenge with hunting the metro is that most of it is off-limits to hunters with firearms and muzzleloaders. Bowhunters love it because they have almost the entire area to themselves. If ever there was an excuse needed for taking up bowhunting, the opportunity to hunt around the Twin Cities is it. At least, it is worth investigating.
While there definitely are trophy deer to be had throughout the state, with concentrations in several key areas, the best region for harvesting a trophy whitetail is in the southeastern corner. It has the perfect combination of habitat with croplands, large stands of mature timber and river bottoms. It looks exactly like some of the finest deer hunting land anywhere else in the nation.
This will be an interesting year in southeastern Minnesota, with the new changes to the hunting season for hunters in Zones 3A and 3B. There was quite a lot of discussion raised about the changes when they were released back in June and those discussions will probably become even more vocal as the season approaches. All in all, a lot of hunters are happy with the changes.
"Southeastern Minnesota has the perfect meld of qualities for producing trophy deer -- climate, food, genetics, land and topography," said Tom McFarlane of Whitetail Properties. "It's nice there are now some regulations in place to allow these bucks to reach their potential."
Southeastern Minnesota's firearms early and late deer seasons will remain at nine days this fall, but bucks must have at least one 4-point antler to be legal for harvest. Southeastern deer hunters also will not be able to tag bucks shot by other hunters.
"These new regulations are designed to effectively manage the deer populations at goal levels and increase the proportion of mature bucks," Cornicelli said.
Hunters 17 and younger are exempt from those restrictions. Adults will not be allowed to tag a buck for a youth hunter. "Our hope is that providing youth in the southeast an opportunity for early success will encourage them to be lifelong deer hunters," said Cornicelli.
Eliminating cross-tagging of bucks does not totally make party hunting non-existent because hunters can still take and tag antlerless deer for others in their party. While some hunters feel that cross-tagging of bucks is part of Minnesota's deer hunting tradition, the regulation changes came after a five year study by the DNR to evaluate the impact of non-traditional regulations. These new regulations are designed to lower deer densities and increase the proportion of mature bucks in the population. Similar regulations were very successful in several state parks where the regulations were piloted and they have been successful in other states.
The regulation was introduced in southeastern Minnesota because there are high deer densities and the habitat is ideal for producing large bucks. The southeast has better age-classes of bucks, and yearling bucks tend to survive better than those in other parts of the state.
Cornicelli said the new 4-point antler restriction is expected to protect about 75 percent of the 1 1/2-year-old bucks, but very few bucks older than 2 1/2 years. Buck harvest is expected to decline in 2010, logically speaking, but should begin to increase again in 2011 as more and larger bucks become legal for harvest.
"Increasing the harvest of bucks older than 2 1/2 years old, even up to 4 years old, is a great management tool and we're seeing a better trend among Minnesotans for doing that," said Chris Blackledge, Midwest regional director of Quality Deer Management Association.
Cornicelli said an important byproduct of these regulations would be larger deer with better racks. He said it would take two years to see the benefit of this regulation on bucks but that it definitely will be noticeable after one year.
"This would be a great time to find a piece of property in the southeast that you can own or lease and get to know it, and the deer on it," McFarlane said. "Hunters on public land should also see some impressive deer walking around this year that they'll have to wait another year for. But their best bet is to find some tracts of public land off the beaten path."
A lot of hunters in the southeast say they are going to approach this year as a scouting year and a chance to fill tags with antlerless deer. If that quality buck comes along they'll take it, but the antlerless harvest is expected to rise this year for that very reason.
Some worry that antler-point restrictions in the southeast could be a precursor to antler-point restrictions in other parts of the state. "A lot of our members are apprehensive about the restriction," said Minnesota Deer Hunters Association executive director Mark Johnson. "We are going to pay close attention to how the public perceives the new regulations and monitor the parameters of this three-year experiment, which is what the DNR is calling it."
Supporters of the new regulations believe this year will be the toughest for hunters, who will have to pass on deer they might normally have taken a shot at. Those same supporters believe the rewards are two to three years out when hunters who griped this year are grinning ear to ear when they take a high-quality 10-point buck that otherwise would never have reached that size.
FIND YOUR OWN
A trophy buck is not easy to locate, which is part of the reason it's a trophy in the first place. Good old-fashioned dumb luck is the way to get a trophy in a new hunting area, but the tried-and-true method is scouting. "Knowing the property you are hunting on -- whether you own it, lease it or it's public land -- is the key to bagging a big buck," said McFarlane.
This is true in southeastern Minnesota, the Arrowhead and every other nook and cranny throughout the state. Understand the land, deer movement on that land, how they respond to hunting pressure and where their movements adjust during the rut is something that has to be earned rather than stumbled upon.
McFarlane said hunters should begin looking for land with trophy potential by going through the DNR's harvest numbers and looking at information produced by organizations like Pope and Young, Boone and Crockett and the MDHA.
Just because a specific area has produced trophy bucks in the past doesn't mean it's the only
place to find a trophy, but there is something to be said about the potential of an area and the genetics of an area. Permit areas and counties are too large to predict deer size by numbers alone, but they can help narrow the search for that perfect property.
It used to be that topographic maps and aerial photos were difficult to come by, but now they can all be obtained online without any cost. The DNR Web page has topographic maps for all parts of the state through the recreation compass feature. There also are aerial photographs on the DNR Web page. One of the best sources for aerial photographs I've found is on www.bing.com, especially those maps with the "birds-eye" feature. You literally can zoom in on the tree where you hope to put your deer stand.
"All that taken into consideration, you still have to walk around that property," McFarlane said. "Either spend time sitting and watching or use trail cameras, and get down on your hands and knees to look for deer sign. Don't just find a track or some droppings, really look at it and try and figure out the sex and size of the deer that left it."
In the late winter and early spring, return to that area and search for sheds. Finding quality bucks can be difficult, but once they drop their antlers it's like leaving a calling card. Mark that location in the GPS and then begin the search for where the deer went afterward and where it came from.
"Find the place where that buck is feeling safe when there is hunting going on because that's the hideout he'll head to when the season gets under way. If you can get into that area slow and smart or while he's away, you'll be able to take that deer," Hein said.
At the end of the day, the biggest challenge facing hunters may be in deciding what makes a deer a trophy.
Good luck with finding your own trophy deer this year, no matter how you happen to define it. Be sure to send a photo of your trophy to Minnesota Sportsman as well!