Perhaps no other state offers a better shot at a trophy whitetail than does Ohio. Here's a rundown on some of the top spots in the state.
Ohio's trophy bucks continued to make the headlines last season, grabbing the attention of deer hunters from across the nation.
"My best estimate is the number of Buckeye Big Buck Club entries from 2009 will be slightly higher and the number of giants (200+ inches) may set an all time record" said Mike Rex, secretary of the Buckeye Big Buck Club. "It was a good year for big bucks in Ohio."
A rundown of Ohio's top whitetails from the '09 season would include Brian Stephens' 232-5/8, 18-point non-typical from Highland County that briefly held the state's muzzleloading record only to be unseated by another Highland County buck taken 16 years earlier that was never officially entered into the record books (see July issue NA Whitetail).
In Ross County, Jason McClintic arrowed one of the top P&Y archery kills taken in the U.S. when he downed a 240-0/8, massive 24-point non-typical in late November (see September issue Ohio G&F and NA Whitetail).
One of the state's top typicals was taken by Todd Bailey, a 14 pointer scoring 186-6/8, from Clark County (see July issue Ohio G&F). Ironically, though, the largest typical buck taken in the U.S. last season was a 16 pointer that scored 197-2/8 and was poached in Adams County and checked in as a Kentucky deer (see In The Field this issue).
Jeff McCulley took a 24-point non-typical with a crossbow in January from Summit County that scored an incredible 257-4/8, making it the state's top deer from last season (see next month's issue of this magazine for the complete story).
It goes to show that Ohio's top tier trophy whitetails literally dot the state map, and a look at the accompanying list of Buckeye Big Buck Club entries (typical-140 inches, non-typical-160 inches) offers a glimpse at Ohio's top counties.
The evidence is clear that the Buckeye State is perhaps king of the hill when it comes to trophy bucks but agricultural practices in a given area, even in Ohio, influence the quality of bucks the area produces.
"You certainly can't deny the connection," said Mike Tonkovich, head deer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "Corn provides lots of carbohydrates and energy and beans provide lots of protein during the summer."
The 2009 summer season brought with it lots of rain, resulting in a bumper crop of beans, hay, clover and woodland forage.
Brian Stephens poses with his magnificent 232 5/8 non-typical, taken last year in Highland County. Photo by Tom Cross.
"The rainfall (last year) had far more impact statewide than what was planted in the fields because it affected deer that don't have access to crops," said Tonkovich. "The amount of green vegetation available throughout late summer when things are normally dried up was certainly not an issue last summer. If anything the amount of rainfall has a tremendous impact on antler development in that particular growing season. So I would say if anything the rain fall was a big contributor in 2009."
When picking a top spot for trophy whitetails, Tonkovich said hunters could try, "Just about anywhere in the state.
"That's what makes Ohio unique -- you never know," said biologist Tonkovich.
"Summit, Adams and Highland County, you just never know where they're going to pop up. What's interesting, while we say anywhere, we're not seeing that historically famous area in east central Ohio -- the Guernsey, Muskingum, Licking counties that everybody used to flock to -- you're not seeing a lot of big bucks out of there anymore. [Instead] you're seeing them out of the southwest part of the state. Then you get to the agricultural belt of northwest Ohio and the deer there are harvested too early. If you gave the bucks another year or two to survive it would be on fire. But because those bucks are so vulnerable to hunting pressure most of those bucks are harvested at two-and-a half years of age. We see that in the data from the 7,000 deer we aged last year. When you start looking at the age of deer harvested, the youngest bucks are from northwest Ohio."
And age, is just as important a factor as food when it comes to producing big bucks: a buck has to reach 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 years of age to achieve maximum antler growth.
"Deer are going to start declining in antler quality at about 7 1/2 years of age, so at 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 years you're looking at a trophy. That's where they need to get to in order to maximize their potential," said Tonkovich. "If you look at the age structure it used to be 2 1/2-year-old bucks made up 25 percent of the buck harvest; nowadays it's 35 percent, so there's no question that a larger percentage of deer are making it to the older age class, but still its only five to six percent of the total buck harvest falls into that trophy category."
Tonkovich points out that it's apparent from the data that more and more hunters are passing on smaller bucks.
"You can look at the numbers and that tells the whole story: hunters are passing on smaller bucks," said Tonkovich.
As recently as 1995, yearlings represented 65 percent of the bucks harvested by hunters. Today only 45 to 50 percent of the bucks are yearlings, so hunters are taking small bucks at a lower rate than they did 15 years ago. Tonkovich suggests that part of the reason for this is that as more and more hunters become interested in killing big deer as opposed to any deer, they are passing up younger bucks. Another factor may be that hunters now have liberal antlerless harvest opportunities, so they don't have to shoot a yearling buck to put something in the freezer.
Not only are hunters becoming more selective, but hunters have also become managers of their properties or leases, thereby offering protection to young bucks.
"There is so much interest in deer that the average hunter has become the deer manager of today," said Tonkovich. "He's not just a consumer anymore -- he's engaged in deer management on his property. The average age of our hunters is the late 40's (and) they've got the interest, they've got the income, and they've got the time. They're taking more antlerless deer, they're watching their button buck harvest, and they're passing on 130-inch deer because they've seen the bypr
oduct of that management."
While the summer months are the most critical time for antler development in mature bucks, the mast crop from the preceding fall has significance as well.
"In those parts of the state that are mast dependant the fall acorn crop can have a tremendous impact on where that buck is at physically at the end of winter," said Tonkovich.
Todd Bailey's huge 14-point from Clark County scored 186 6/8. Photo by Todd Bailey.
Mature bucks that come through winter in good shape are going to be able to use the food they eat in June, July and August to grow antlers. And again a good mast crop is going to put mature bucks in better shape through the winter. Bucks can lose 25 percent of their body weight over the rut, so the better the fall forage, the better shape the deer will be in when spring arrives and the better chance those deer will have to put more energy into growing rack size.
The incredible size of some of the whitetails coming from Ohio lately even amazes the biologists.
"We didn't see this 15 years ago: the shear numbers of world-class deer on this grand of a scale," said Tonkovich. "What's unfortunate is a 150-inch deer doesn't get a second look anymore. In order to get into the magazines a buck has to be pushing 200 inches for a typical. Statewide the herd has gotten much larger without compromising quality. In fact the quality has not suffered at all in southwest or western Ohio. Just the shear number of deer means we're going to be harvesting a lot more good bucks. At the Buckeye Big Bucks Club banquets we're seeing thousands of deer qualifying. It doesn't seem to end."
While the poor mast crop that southeast Ohio experienced last fall could result in fewer quality bucks for that region in 2010, the deer herd in the agricultural counties in southwest Ohio is much less affected by mast crop and the outlook for trophy potential couldn't be higher.
"I think the east central counties have reached their peak and passed it," said Tonkovich. "The Adams, Brown, Warren, Clark, and Highland counties are where those counties were 20 years ago. Because of the shear numbers of deer in east central Ohio, quality there has begun to suffer. If you look at beam diameters and portion of fawns breeding, both are pointing toward more deer. You can't generate that kind of quality when you haven't added anything to the landscape except more deer."
While numbers of Ohio's Buckeye Big Bucks Club qualifiers continue to flow from the east central counties of Licking, Coshocton, Tuscarawas and Guernsey, it's the southwest region of the state from Ross, Scioto, and west to Clermont and Warren and north to Clark County, areas rich in bean and corn production, that steal the show when it comes to producing the 200 class typicals and the 300 class non-typicals with such legendary deer as the Amish Buck, the Beatty Buck, and the Jerman Buck.
"We have ideal habitat in this area, we've got the woodland cover, we've got the farm ground," said Dave Kohler, District Five Wildlife Management Supervisor for southwest Ohio. "We have a lot more archery hunters too. We've got archery hunters putting in the time (and) are out there early and often and are having a lot of success. The reality is we have a good buck-to-doe ratio and our hunters are being more selective."
According to the numbers, biologists point out that being selective can increase the odds dramatically for bagging a trophy.
"While our hunters are being more selective, mathematically I think that's huge," said Kohler. "More hunters are out there waiting for a trophy. What that's resulting in is those younger bucks get a chance to grow plus you've got more hunters waiting to harvest that trophy buck thereby mathematically increasing the odds of taking a good buck. If a hunter knows he is going into an area that has potential to produce trophy bucks then one might have a tendency to be more selective. We have relativity good deer densities so a hunter has a good chance to see deer but not so many that it's starting to diminish the quality of the racks, plus plenty of private ground allows bucks to live long enough to grow a trophy rack."
According to the Buckeye Big Buck Club, 538 trophy bucks were inducted into the record books at last year's banquet. Carroll County led the state with 45 new BBBC entries; Tuscarawas had 24 new entries, Guernsey 20 new entries.
Public hunting in Carroll County is limited to 13,100 acre Leesville Lake Wildlife Area (WLA) and 299 acre Valley Run WLA . Tuscarawas has very little public hunting except for the 1,500-acre Beach City Wildlife Area. In Guernsey County the 12,000-acre Salt Fork WLA is a buck hunter's best bet but it can get crowded.
Coshocton and Licking County, still among the state's top producers of 140-class bucks, each had 18 new qualifiers at the last BBBC scoring session. There is no public hunting in Licking County; however, Coshocton contains over 38,000 acres of public hunting. Look to the rough and tumble 14,639-acre Conesville Coal Lands and the 19,000-acre Woodbury Wildlife Area.
In south central Ohio, Ross County appears to be the "go to" spot for big bucks with 17 new BBBC entries. Plenty of hunting in Ross County with over 30,000 acres of public hunting land led by the 16,100 acre Tar Hollow and 9,600 acre Scioto Trail State Forests.
From the western side of the state, and perhaps a future big buck sleeper spot, Champaign County had a surprising 19 new entries into the books. Heavily agriculture Champaign County has virtually no public hunting available. Its neighbor Miami County had 10 BBBC qualifiers at the last scoring session. Like Champaign, Miami has a great deal of land in agriculture but no public hunting.
In southwest Ohio, Warren County is one of the top produces of trophy bucks with 16 new entries. Warren County hunters might find a nice buck at the 4,300-acre Caesar Creek WLA. Other public lands in the southwest corner of the state include 4,250-acre Tranquility Wildlife Area and 13,000-acre Brush Creek State Forest in Adams County. In Highland County look to the 7,389-acre Paint Creek WLA, and the 1,388-acre Fallsville Wildlife Area. In Clermont County check out 7,700-acre East Fork Wildlife Area and in Brown County, Indian Creek WLA at 1,626 acres is worth a look.