For most of us, deer season starts this month. And if you're like my family, you're anxiously awaiting what lies ahead.
With beef prices escalating, many of us just want meat for the freezer. A nice buck would be great, but a couple of fat does would be even better.
This article is the first in a two-part special. This month, we'll look at the best places in Indiana to put meat in the freezer. Next month, we'll look at the best counties to find bucks that sport trophy racks.
Many hunters are debating what effect rainfall, heavy snows, low temperatures, and the summer weather has had on Indiana's deer herd. Generally, if a county was great for deer hunting in the past, most likely it will be great again this year.
But a problem is looming.
Drive just about anywhere in farm country and you will see woodlots, fence lines, and other marginal ground being cleared as corn and soybean prices escalate. That is drastically altering valuable deer habitat and travel routes, and in most cases, it's for the worst.
Chad Stewart, IDNR deer research biologist, said it almost assuredly will have an impact, and not just on the deer population, but on other hunted species as well.
"The counties with our smallest available permanent deer habitat are Tipton and Benton counties, which also are our counties which have our smallest deer harvests," he said. "That's not by coincidence. Deer love agriculture, but they can't rely on it alone. They need cover, especially during the winter months, and the removal of small woodlots, fence rows, and other valuable cover like CRP, will ultimately reduce how many deer an area can support."
If you haunt the Internet hunting forums or read the local hunting news you already know 2013 was ranked sixth in total deer harvested. The latest IDNR report states that a total of 125,635 deer were reported harvested in Indiana during the 2013 season. This harvest was 8 percent lower than the 136,248 deer harvested during the 2012 season. The reported antlered deer harvest of 46,240 was nearly identical to the 45,936 reported harvested in 2012. The antlerless harvest of 79,395 was 12 percent lower than the 90,312 harvested in 2012.
In 2013, the reported harvest for total deer ranks sixth all-time, while the total antlerless deer harvest ranks as the fifth highest all-time in Indiana history. The antlered harvest ranks sixteenth all-time, according to the report.
So why the drop? There may be two reasons.
"During the opening weekend of firearms season, only 32 percent of the total firearm season harvest occurred, down from 50 percent in 2012. This was likely primarily due to a severe storm that came through the entire state on Sunday afternoon."
Second, the IDNR is succeeding in reducing the deer herd in some areas of the state. In most places the harvest was down, by 20 percent or more in some counties. Fewer deer means less hunter success.
"It's no secret we have created a bunch of changes to our deer hunting season over the past couple of years to reduce the deer herd where we feel it is needed." Stewart said. "The late antlerless season, the bundle license, and the inclusion of crossbows are all part of the package to increase the deer harvest."
In other places the harvest was up.
"The deer herd in south-central Indiana seems to be thriving," Stewart said. "They have largely escaped any major impacts from EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) over the past couple of years, they have tremendous habitat, including plenty of forested cover, and they are subjected to relatively mild winters. Counties like Harrison, Lawrence, and Washington have very healthy and abundant deer populations."
To make a forecast, historical numbers, and all the above factors that have affected the deer herd, have to be analyzed.
Some areas experienced low rainfall in midsummer, which led to a lack of moving water in some creeks. That in turn led to a rise in a tiny midge that transmits (EHD). After the heavy localized impact it had in 2012, I asked Stewart what continued effect that had on the herd.
"For the most part, EHD in 2013 wasn't too bad, though it was fairly widespread. The areas most impacted seem to be in the Ohio/Switzerland areas, though I was also notified of a fairly large outbreak in Daviess County. There seems to be some lasting impact from EHD in the northern part of the state, where I think EHD, hunter density, and (lessening) cover are playing a part to keep the deer herd down. Since most of the northern part of the state is so intensively agriculture, remaining cover in the late fall and winter is relegated to small woodlots. With many hunters remaining in these areas, the hunter density in these woods is much greater than what you see in the southern part of the state."
"The deer in the south have a stronger capacity to recover and rebound faster than herds in the north," Stewart said. "Look at the antler harvests from 2011-13. In the south, where we had EHD in Union, Pike, Putnam, Dubois, and Morgan counties, antlered harvest dropped between 8.5-27.5 percent in 2012, but rebounded anywhere from 3.4-26.4 percent in 2013.
In several "control" counties in the south where EHD was not reported (but likely occurred minimally), the antlered harvest grew. These areas in the south are generally classified as low-intensity gun efforts per deer range (because there is so much habitat-forest in the south). My theory is that deer have an opportunity to get away from hunters."
Many are asking, after the heavy snow and record cold temperatures, how is the health of the deer herd?
"I think the winter had minimal effect, if any. I did hear either first hand or second hand of a few over-winter kills, but nothing major. Deer are incredibly adaptable and able to withstand very cold temperatures. They require very little food as their metabolism is slowed greatly over these months, and Indiana deer are fortunate to enter winter with ample fat stores. The problem a deer herd has is when you get a very late and severe snowfall or freezing temperatures in late March or early April. By that time, the deer's metabolism has begun to ramp up, and they have virtually depleted their fat stores."
So what counties and areas of the state hold your best chances of putting venison in the freezer?
Generally greater deer densities mean better hunter success. State-wide, hunters harvested an average 3.51 deer per square mile. But, like Indiana's terrain, the harvest varied greatly from county to county. Benton County had a dismal low of 0.28 deer harvested per square mile and Tipton County wasn't far behind at 0.35 deer harvested per square mile.
Why so low?
If you drive through northern Indiana in winter you'll see the vast moonscape of harvested fields that runs through the middle of the state.
At the other end of the state is Indiana's hill country and some of the highest deer densities. Even with reports of EHD, Switzerland County hunters harvested an amazing 14 deer per acre and Ohio County wasn't far behind.
Going by districts we can more closely identify the higher deer-producing counties.
In District One the best producer was Porter County with 3.62 deer harvested per square mile. Yet not far away is Benton County, which had the state's lowest average of 0.35. Warren and Lake counties almost tied for second place with 3.43 and 3.39 averages. But those numbers can be a little deceiving. Much of Lake and Porter counties are urban areas with no hunting allowed. That indicates that the deer numbers harvested came from the remaining rural areas and urban zones. Statistics don't lie. Urban Zones can be deer-hunting hot spots.
In District Two, Starke and Marshall counties were the top producers with an average of 5.31 and 4.95 deer harvested per square mile, respectively. Kosciusko and Pulaski counties were close behind with averages of 4.23 and 4.09. While statistically LaPorte, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties were lower than average, they also have a great deal of no-hunt urban areas which would put the remaining rural and Urban Zone areas at a higher average.
District Three is one of the traditional hot spots of the state. Steuben County is one of the top deer producing counties at 8.58 deer harvested per square mile. Noble and De Kalb were also very high with an average 6.41 and 5.74 deer harvested per square mile and LaGrange just behind them with an average of 5.21.
In District Four, Fulton County was the leader with a 4.14 average followed by Miami County with an average of 3.12.
In District Five, Allen County is the leader with a 2.54 average, which once again, highlights the possibilities of Urban Zone hunting. With Ft. Wayne taking up a large portion of the county the average for the rest of the Urban Zones and rural areas would be higher.
There's more to District Six than covered bridges and mushroom festivals. Parke County produced 5.49 deer per square mile. While Tippecanoe County results are below average, many great opportunities exist in the Urban Zones around Lafayette.
Across District Seven exists the vast Indiana "Corn Desert." Hendricks County is the leader with an average of 1.57. While the numbers for each county are well below average, look for areas that provide good cover with year-round food and you'll find the deer.
As farmers clear fence lines and wood lots, deer can be pushed into other areas and increase hunting opportunities. Don't rule out Urban Zone fringe areas where agriculture blends with suburbia. They see little hunting pressure and can produce huge deer.
In District Eight, Fayette County is the leader with an average of 4.27. Hunters in Wayne and Union counties should keep a sharp eye out for some of Indiana's rare wild hog population. While infrequent, there are documented cases in those counties as well as in adjoining Ohio counties.
In District Nine, Owen County is the leader with an average 4.45 followed closely by Greene County with 4.28.
In District 10, Brown County is still the leading deer producer with a 6.28 average. Much of that is most likely because of the rugged hills keeping all but the fittest hunters close to the roads. Monroe and Jackson counties are not far behind with 4.49 and 4.45 averages. Jackson County hunters may also get a chance to bring home bacon with their venison if they get a chance at the growing population of wild hogs roaming the wooded hills and valleys.
District 11 is still the number one place in Indiana for deer. Switzerland County hunters harvested an unparalleled 13.99 deer per square mile! Ohio County produced an average of 10.41 while Dearborn County more than doubled the state average with 7.30 deer harvested per square mile! I would be remiss if I didn't mention Franklin County, which wasn't far behind with 7.10 deer per square mile.
In District 12, Martin and Dubois counties switched positions over 2012 with above-average results of 4.71 and 4.60, respectively.
In reality, District 13 is another powerhouse deer district with deer numbers well above average. In fact, while most of the state's harvest was down, every county in District 13 was up.
Will this trend continue? Only time will tell. Crawford County had an average of 7.65 and Harrison County is a close second with an average of 7.12. Like Jackson County next door, Washington and Lawrence counties have growing populations of wild hogs. Increased pressure may continue to drive the hogs into new areas. There are no limits or seasons on Indiana's feral hogs so harvest all you can.
District 14 runs from average- to great-hunting, mostly great. The leader is Jefferson County at 6.68 followed closely by Scott with an average 6.11 deer harvested per square mile.
In District 15, Perry County is the top producer at 4.94, followed closely by Vanderburgh and Warrick counties with averages of 4.07 and 4.01 deer harvested per square mile.
Study the numbers and start knocking on farmer's doors or head for Indiana's public lands. A favorite saying is, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
So true. Somehow the hunters that do pre-season scouting, go father, hunt harder, and hunt longer are the luckiest. With just a little bit of work, that could be you.
For a more detailed summary of the 2013-2014 deer harvest visit the DNR's web site.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '