Our state's southernmost counties offer the best bets for deer hunters who want to bag bucks with both bragging-sized antlers and bodies. The highest-scoring and heaviest bucks bagged during the 2014 seasons came from the two tiers of counties that are farthest south, according to state record keeper Commemorative Bucks of Michigan.
Any and all counties in Region 3 are capable of producing whitetails of world-class proportions, and most of them have. The odds of scoring on the buck of your dreams are even better in those counties this fall.
The reason why is more hunters than ever before are voluntarily passing up small or young bucks to let them get older. The fact that most of the largest-antlered deer recorded in Michigan every year come from counties where mandatory antler restrictions are not in effect is confirmation that voluntary restrictions work just fine.
Older bucks are generally bigger bucks, body-wise and antler-wise. Due to generally mild winters and excellent year-round nutrition, bucks as young as 2 1/2 can have trophy-sized racks in those counties and whitetails that are at least 3 1/2 are capable of growing Boone and Crockett-caliber antlers.
The 12-pointer that Wayne resident Jacob Rizkaliah arrowed in Washtenaw County at 11:15 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2014, is a perfect example. That buck's antlers had a gross typical score of 174 3/8 and netted 170 6/8, qualifying for a place in both national records maintained by the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young Club. Jacob said the deer was aged at 3 1/2 years. Its dressed weight was 183 pounds and its live weight would have exceeded 200 pounds.
Rizkaliah said he and his buddies, who go by the name of the Michigan Hunting Syndicate, had trail camera photos of the Booner, but most were from after dark. The night before the 13th, Jacob hung a stand in a part of the property that had not yet been hunted, and that turned the tables in his favor. About 10:15 a.m., the bowhunter had a shot at a trophy 10-pointer that he passed up because one of its tines was broken.
The fact that Jacob knew the bigger buck was in the area contributed to his decision to let the 10-pointer walk. An hour later, the bigger buck crossed a river while in pursuit of a doe. With the use of a grunt call, Rizkaliah lured the bruiser to within 25 yards for a shot with his 71-pound Bow Tech Experience bow. A fixed-blade 100-grain G5 broadhead brought the buck down.
Chris Evenhouse from Three Rivers and hunting partner Paul Kruger also practice voluntary antler restrictions to increase their chances of success on mature bucks. That worked out for Chris last fall. He arrowed the highest-scoring whitetail known taken in our state during 2014 seasons on the evening of Oct. 21 in St. Joseph County. The 18-point non-typical grossed 205 2/8 and netted 196 2/8, also qualifying for a place in B&C and P&Y records.
Understandably, Evenhouse developed a bad case of buck fever as the drop-tine buck moved into position for a shot with Chris' 65-pound Mathews Creed. The hunter came to full draw when the buck walked behind a tree at 20 yards. He was prepared for a shot as the deer walked toward one of his shooting lanes. But the buck stopped one step short of the opening.
After straining to remain at full draw for at least a minute, Chris saw a small opening that he thought he could get his arrow through, but, when he released, the arrow went high. Fortunately, the buck didn't know what happened. After taking two bounds away, it turned back. Evenhouse got another arrow tipped with a G5 Montec Broadhead on the string and made it count, at a distance of 30 yards.
The buck was estimated to be 5 1/2 years old and had a dressed weight of about 210 pounds.
Scott Hunter collected the highest-scoring typical known taken in the state last fall in Branch County. The 11-pointer was estimated to be at least 5 1/2 years old, and the antlers netted 172 0/8. Scott and his son also voluntarily pass up young bucks to let them get older. Last fall marked the second year that Hunter was trying for that particular buck. During 2013, the buck had 12 points, with one of them a 4-inch drop tine.
The whitetail failed to grow a drop tine on his rack during 2014. Scott arrowed the buck during the first week of November, from a tree stand in a funnel between bedding areas.
Scott said the buck had been doing a lot of fighting. It was blind in its left eye and had a puncture wound from a tine in its right armpit. The deer's dressed weight was only 170 pounds.
Garrett Shembarger from Niles bagged his first buck with bow and arrow in Berrien County on the evening of Oct. 30, 2014 and it was a monster 11-pointer that also was a Booner.
The 5 1/2-year-old buck's typical antlers netted 170 1/8 and it weighed well over 200 pounds.
Garrett's sister had seen the buck earlier in the day while bowhunting and she described the deer as "a horse" due to its large size.
The trophy whitetail was chasing does near the tree stand Shembarger occupied that evening.
He eventually got a 37-yard shot at the deer with his Bow Tech Assassin, scoring a fatal hit with a 2-blade Rage Broadhead.
Unfortunately, the deer was not weighed, but it looks huge in photos that Garrett supplied.
Deer herds in some counties of the southwestern part of Region 3 that were hardest hit by an EHD outbreak during 2010 and 2011 appear to be well on the road to recovery based on the number of bucks from them that were entered in state records from last fall.
Perhaps the whitetails that are making it into the records now from Allegan, Van Buren and Berrien counties managed to escape the disease. Even if that is the case, enough time has gone by since the outbreak for more trophy bucks to be available in that portion of our state this year than have been available for a number of years.
Based on the number of bucks entered in state records maintained by CBM from 2014 seasons that scored at least 140, the best counties in Region 3 for trophy bucks are Washtenaw (with 7), Eaton (5), Ingham (5), Oakland (4), Branch (4), Jackson (3), Lenawee (3), Cass (3), Allegan (3), Livingston (3) and Tuscola (3).
To determine the best counties for trophy bucks from Regions 1 and 2, I combined CBM entries that scored a minimum of 140 for those counties from both 2013 and 2014. That was necessary because the two northern regions produce far fewer bucks of that caliber than those in the south.
The situation during 2014 was made much worse in the U.P. or Region 1 because of a major snowstorm that hit counties of the Lake Superior Watershed prior to the opening of firearms deer season. So much snow — more than 3 feet — fell in counties bordering Superior that many hunters were unable to access camps and areas where they normally would go.
The snow was so deep in northern counties that the only way to reach remote locations was by snowmobile or snowshoes. In fact, the highest-scoring buck entered in state records from the U.P. during 2014 was bagged by a hunter who used a snowmobile to reach his deer blind. Russ Bengry from Eagle Harbor got a typical 11-pointer in Keweenaw County that netted 163 3/8.
Russ got the book buck on the fifth day of gun season. He has a propane heater in his deer blind. By noon on that day, the propane tank was empty, and so he went home to get a replacement. He thought about staying home where it was warm, but made the decision to return to his blind. That decision paid off when the big buck appeared.
There was concern that the unusually early heavy snowfall in the U.P. was setting the stage for a third severe winter in a row that would further reduce the region's deer population. Fortunately, that was not the case. The weather moderated during December, warming above freezing long enough to melt much of the snow that fell during November. January wasn't bad either, with some days above freezing.
A bumper acorn crop in the U.P. last fall, in areas where oak trees are common, helped deer in those areas put on excellent fat reserves to better enable them to withstand the winter weather that did occur. Enough snow melted during December to allow whitetails to continue feeding on acorns into winter and enough of the mast crop remained for them to resume feeding on the nutritious nuts when spring arrived.
The best news for U.P. deer was that spring came early. It got warm enough during March to melt much of winter's snow over most of the region. There may have been winter losses of fawns in some parts of the U.P. where weather was the worst, but most deer survived winter in great shape. That should result in maximum fawn production this year.
Since most of the antlered bucks survived winter in good condition, this year's antler development should also be great. The fact that bucks saw much less hunting pressure in northern counties during firearms season, means there should be a good carryover of bucks into this fall, too.
I'm expecting an increase of CBM entries this year from U.P. counties in the Lake Superior Watershed for that very reason.
There is no shortage of bragging-sized bucks in southern U.P. counties either. They normally get less snow than those to the north, and the snow melts earlier, giving bucks a big break. Cornfields are common in Menominee County and the fact that many of them were still standing during gun season helped protect some mature bucks from hunters.
So the best counties in Region 1 for big bucks this fall, based on CBM entries for the last two years and the information I've just revealed, are Gogebic (3), Baraga (2), Houghton (2), Keweenaw (2), Dickinson (2) and Menominee (2). Eastern U.P. counties that are good bets are Schoolcraft, Alger and Mackinac. They each had one CBM entry.
This will be the third year for Mandatory Antler Point Restrictions (MAPR) in 12 counties of the northwest Lower Peninsula. Bucks must have a minimum of 3 points that are at least 1 inch long on an antler to be legal in those counties.
If those restrictions are going to accomplish what they are supposed to, they should produce a number of book bucks this fall. I know some landowners who were unsuccessful in bagging a single buck on their property the last two years because of the new rules, so the buck harvest has been reduced during those years.
Those 12 counties in Region 2 where trophy bucks should be available in greater numbers this year are Emmet, Antrim, Charlevoix, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Manistee, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Missaukee and Wexford.
It's interesting to note that not a single buck scoring more than 140 has been entered in CBM records from Leelanau County the past two years. MAPR have been in effect in Leelanau for more than a dozen years now. Some hunters feel the quality of antlers in that county have declined due to the fact that young bucks are now doing most of the breeding as older bucks with at least 6 points are removed from the herd.
One of the region's southernmost counties — Mecosta — is a top choice for trophy bucks, with three CBM entries during the last two years. Alcona County in the northeast had two CBM entries. Cheboygan, Crawford, Roscommon, Newaygo and Oceana had one each.