According to the Boone and Crockett Club, Indiana is now considered to have one of the best managed deer herds in the nation. Some experts feel Indiana is the up and coming state for trophy production. For others, that's hard to fathom, considering the past 80 years.
Like many Midwest states, Indiana whitetails were extirpated by the 1930s. But with hard work and conservation efforts by visionary Hoosier hunters, deer were reintroduced. By the 1980s, whitetails had expanded back into their former range and stabilized.
Prior to the 1970s trophy deer were basically unheard of. As some remember, hunters felt lucky just to tag a buck, regardless of what it scored. Back then, most hunters didn't even think about scoring antlers. The measure around the campfire was how many points a buck had. Eight-pointers were a big thing. Anything more than that was just wishful thinking.
How times have changed. Now, most hunters talk about class sizes of 160-, 170- and 180-class bucks, or even higher. Many hunters are letting smaller bucks that our grandparents would have salivated over walk away and grow another year. Why? For that information I went to Bill Keaton, who practices quality deer management, and Kirk Botkin, who is an avid trophy hunter.
If you monitor Internet hunting chat sites or read local publications, there is a growing trend to manage for larger bucks. Love it or hate it, Indiana's "One Buck Rule" may be helping in this.
"It totally changed my thinking and how I approach hunting," Botkin, a devoted bowhunter, said. "Knowing that my overall hunting season would be pretty much over with the first buck that I shot, I immediately started letting the smaller bucks walk."
There are three basic canons of wildlife management. Those are nutrition, genetics and age. Not to worry. Indiana has great nutrition and the same genetics as our well-known neighbors, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
Age is the hardest part to get from a deer. What does that mean? It's quite simple. It takes time to grow a trophy deer. If you want to grow trophy deer, pass up that young buck this year and take a doe instead, and get your friends and neighbors to do the same.
"I have had one rule for almost 20 years," said Keaton. "You can't shoot a buck on my property unless it is bigger than one you have shot before. (Only my family hunts our property, so I can control this.) This rule permits a first-time hunter to shoot any buck, while encouraging the other hunters to let the smaller bucks grow."
Some claim taking a small-antlered buck will improve genetics for the area. They are greatly mistaken. There's nothing to be done about the genetics of free-roaming deer.
Bucks will roam miles from their home range during rut, so you have no control on what buck are breeding does in your area. In fact, a huge percentage of twin fawns came from different fathers.
In reality, a buck's antlers are mostly dependent on nutrition and age. In a QDMA study, pen-raised spike bucks grew normal antlers the very next year, and were trophy-sized by three and a half years of age.
Another study found that most hunters over-estimate the age of their deer and harvest them too young.
Here's that part you've been waiting for; where are these trophy bucks? Every county in Indiana has the potential for growing monster bucks, but the IDNR doesn't track the antler size of an animal during the check-in process.
While records are kept by sportsman organizations like Pope & Young, Boone & Crockett, the Safari Club, and others, it's all voluntary.
This means the hunter has to send in an application to register their trophy to be accounted for in the tracking data. For the purpose of this article, data from the Hoosier Record Book was used to achieve the results.
Using the data from the Hoosier record program we determined the number of trophy deer harvested per square mile since 2000. In this manner, larger counties wouldn't be falsely inflated over smaller counties, and changing trends could be taken into account. The top counties at producing typical and non-typical trophy deer rank as follows:
Switzerland and Jennings take the top two spots, with Parke County coming in at third. Dearborn and Noble, respectively, round out the top five counties. Steuben County takes the No. 6 spot for producing trophy deer, followed by Franklin, Ripley and Fayette counties. DeKalb rounds out the top 10.
To find the counties that produce bucks with the biggest racks, the top 10 scores were averaged. According to the Hoosier record program, Ripley County leads for the highest averages of typical antlers since 2000.
Putnam and Parke counties round out the top three spots, followed by Greene and Franklin counties. Dearborn comes in at No. 6, and Owen and Switzerland tie for the No. 7 spot. Posey and Porter are next on the list.
We can crunch the numbers further and find the highest concentrations of the biggest bucks to increase your chance of hanging a trophy on the wall. The statewide average metric to judge against is 17. Any county above 17 means you are increasing your chances of finding a trophy buck.
The top 10 are as follows:
1. Switzerland (49)
2. Parke (42)
3. Jennings (41)
4. Dearborn (40)
5. Noble (37)
6. Franklin (36)
7. Ripley and Steuben counties (35)
8. Fayette and DeKalb counties (32)
What the data shows is that trophy deer can be found anywhere in Indiana. However, one of the reasons that some counties are such deer factories is the fact that they have an endless patchwork of farm fields, woods, and rugged terrain that permit deer to reach maturity with little interaction with hunters. The majority of trophy deer are harvested in Indiana's hilly southern and northeastern counties just for that reason.
The good news is there is a great deal of public hunting ground in state and national forests in those same areas. The Hoosier National Forest south of Bloomington and countless state forests and WMAs like Yellowwood and Big Oaks hold big deer, as long as you're willing and able to walk deeper into unmolested terrain than the other guy. And it also pays to know the forest. Botkin knows this well.
"Understand food sources, travel lanes, and any possible pinch points," he advised. "Food sources change from season to season and year to year. For instance, the different varieties of oaks are cyclic, so you need to know your trees, and if they are producing that particular year or not. Just because red oaks are producing acorns doesn't mean that white oaks are, and vice versa."
While the rural hills of Indiana make great deer refuges, there are other areas that savvy hunters go to find big deer. Some hunters regularly bag trophy bucks within view of a city skyline as they hunt the urban zones.
What is an urban zone, and what makes them so hot? Basically urban zones are agricultural and forested areas that fall within the corporate limits of cities such as Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Lake and Porter counties, and other locations. Due to the nature of these areas most are limited to archery equipment only. (See the IDNR hunting regulations for more information.)
One of the biggest reasons urban zones are so incredible is lack of pressure. Most hunters don't associate trophy deer with the suburbs. But, they don't realize the great deer they are passing as they head for the rural parts of the state. Plus, a big bonus for an Indiana urban zone is that you can harvest a second buck, after taking a doe.
A second reason is the ample year-round food from the shrubs, fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens that suburbia has to offer. In many places the subdivisions are interlaced with row crops, green spaces, ponds, creeks and parks. All of this creates the perfect haven for growing big deer.
But, being so close to large human populations can cause conflict. Property lines need to be respected. Contact the surrounding landowners and make them aware that you respect their boundaries and want to respect their wishes, should any tracking issues arise. Hunters that observe proper ethics are welcomed back year after year.
It doesn't matter where you hunt; basic skills need to be used to increase success. Know your equipment, and be very proficient with it. Knowing the anatomy of your quarry provides a quick, humane harvest. Keaton teaches this well.
"Don't take a shot if you're not positive you're going to make a clean kill," he noted. "You're not likely to recover a buck after a bad shot. It will run far away and die, or become educated, so you will not likely have another chance at it."
Another key to success is to have access points to move to and from a stand without spooking deer.
"Hunters need to put in the time and become one with the environment that they are hunting in," Botkin said. "I know that it sounds a little corny, but wall hangers don't just happen. Big bucks know when you are in their house well before you ever see them."
Scent control is an important consideration as well.
"Trophy bucks don't get big by being dumb," Keaton advised. They learn from their past experiences, including what they smell in and out of season."
Keaton hunts using the wind. "You need to have more than one location in the woods to hunt with the prevailing winds in mind."
The best plan is to make sure the wind is carrying your scent away from the hunting area, not into it.
So what may be the biggest difference in finding a trophy buck? "It seems that everyone thinks they only have to hunt early morning and late afternoon," Keaton said.
"It is true that some bucks are nocturnal, and those shooting windows might give the best opportunity for taking a nocturnal buck. But I have killed more big bucks during peak rut from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. than any other time." His best advice?
"Don't leave the woods at 10 a.m. The bucks don't stop chasing does just because you are tired of sitting in your stand," he noted. Not only are you disturbing the woods by moving about, you're also missing out on part of your hunting season by not staying in your stand.
Realize that a once-in-a-lifetime buck could walk by anytime and anyplace in Indiana, so plan well, hunt hard and hunt longer. This may be the year that a dream comes true.