Let's start with a bottom line truth: Every county across our state — from Rock to Cook and Houston to Kittson and everywhere in between — has the potential to produce trophy whitetail bucks. That's one of the beauties and benefits of being a deer hunter in Minnesota.
WHY WE HAVE BIG BUCKS
It's also a bottom line truth that a whitetail is a whitetail is a whitetail wherever you find it. But one simple reason Minnesota enjoys a big-buck advantage over many states is simple. The subspecies of whitetail in our state is the continent's largest in both body size and antler size.
Biologists' maps would pretty much split Minnesota in half in this regard. Toward the west roam Dakota whitetails — North America's largest, and the same subspecies that inhabits our neighboring Dakotas and eastern Montana, on to the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Toward the east roam Northern whitetails — the same subspecies that grows big in the trophy-rich states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and places north. Say what you want about our Cheesehead and Hawkeye neighbors, they share our love of big whitetails.
So we have big deer, our own brand of Minnesota whitetail! But we also have the habitat to grow them. When you think about the endless woods and wetlands in essentially the northern half of our state, the steep bluff country in the southeast, the wide-open prairies with so much space out to the west, and the fertile farmlands of the south, there's no doubt we have the countryside everywhere to make big bucks.
Then there's this final factor in producing big bucks: hunting pressure. In reality, hunting pressure in Minnesota is lower than it is in many other places. If you don't believe me, try a place like Pennsylvania on opening day.
Or go to Wisconsin's central counties and find orange behind every tree. We just have so much more open space here, and bucks get a chance to mature and get big.
Great subspecies of deer, excellent habitat, plenty of room and time to grow. Is it any wonder Minnesota is an envy of the whitetail hunting world when it comes to producing big bucks? In fact, only Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri share spots as "Top 5" states as far as Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young go.
WHERE ARE OUR TROPHY BUCKS?
There are many ways to define the words "trophy buck" in our state.
To take the most challenging and strictest sense of the term, one would look at the B&C record book. That is a high-altitude neighborhood! To make the all-time B&C record book, typical bucks must measure 170 net inches of antler, and non-typicals must go 195 inches.
Minnesota has 1,025 bucks in the B&C all-time record book. That's no surprise, given the genes of our deer and the quality of much of our habitat. Of those 1,025 bucks, 610 are typicals and 415 are non-typicals. That's actually a very high ratio of non-typicals, compared to other states and provinces. That's a good thing. Almost everybody loves an oddball rack with lots of character and oddities.
Our top B&C counties are St. Louis, Otter Tail, Fillmore, Houston and Winona, followed by Todd, Aitkin, Itasca, Beltrami and Morrison.
Whether you shoot a Minnesota whitetail with bow or gun, P&Y standards make good barometers for great bucks. The minimum scores are 125 for typical, 155 for a non-typical. Show me a hunter willing to pass up a 125-inch whitetail. They are few and far between, and not this guy!
Minnesota's status and statistics in P&Y are indicators of our big-buck power. Minnesota ranks No. 7 for P&Y whitetails. Other than the three usual suspects (Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois), only Indiana, Ohio and Kansas beat us for P&Y entries.
Our top P&Y counties for number of bucks entered are Morrison, Washington, Anoka, Dakota and Winona, followed by Houston, Olmsted, Goodhue, Fillmore and Hennepin. Two factors stand out in that last: A definite suburban bias toward the top, where bowhunting is king due to the suburban and exurban conditions. Even highly urban Hennepin makes the top 10! The other bias is toward the southeast.
That brings up a fascinating comparison. B&C focuses to the north. My suspicion is that it's because bowhunting is just so challenging up there. It's less commonly done, and the area just is a rifle place. Truth is, you can hunt deer on their own patterns (just like bowhunting) in rifle season in the north.
Another great resource for analyzing Minnesota's best bucks is the Minnesota Deer Hunter's Association Record Book (mndeerhunters.com/en/hunting/record-book-database/). That online database offers a wealth of Minnesota big-buck information.
This homegrown record book uses a composite of scores for making the grade. Archery deer match P&Y standards at 125 for typical and 155 for non-typical. Firearm minimums are 140 inches typical and 160 non-typical. Those are true bragging-buck standards. Muzzleloader minimums are 130 inches typical, 160 non-typical.
In all, 861 homegrown bucks are listed there, consisting of 677 typicals, and 184 non-typicals. I love this database because it's a true mix of our state's deer hunters. And it's instructive to look at the Top 10 counties for insights into our true big-buck hotpots. Those are St. Louis with 132 bucks; Itasca, 70 bucks; Aitkin, 61 bucks; Beltrami, 47 bucks; and Crow Wing, 36 bucks.
The next six counties cluster between 20 to 30 entries each and include Douglas, Otter Tail, Winona, Koochiching, Cass and Clearwater.
That list represents a northern bias, and a rifle-hunting bias, which is reflective of our deer hunting tradition in Minnesota and perhaps the MDHA. In any event, it's more insight into where big bucks come from. The prevalence of St. Louis and Itasca counties in the list show how important escape cover is for helping bucks get old — and big.
OF PERSONAL TROPHIES
So how do you define a trophy buck? If you're holding out for a Booner, you aren't going to be putting many racks on the wall. That goal is just so mind-boggling.
Most of us would love to shoot a B&C buck, but it's folly to hold out for that. I would offer this definition for a trophy buck in Minnesota: A mature deer with antlers of outsized proportions for the area you hunt.
That definition leaves the playing field wide open. To shoot 3 1/2-, 4 1/2- or 5 1/2-year-old deer, no matter its antler size, is an accomplishment worthy of the description "trophy" in most hunters' personal record books.
To put a score around that buck, I would use the 125-inch parameter. Even if you're shooting it with a rifle or slug gun, that is a mature deer everywhere. Still, I would hesitate to put a tape to any buck I shoot. Why ruin your image of that great deer with some random number? What's the difference between a 110- and a 130-inch buck? Not that much. And neither one is getting a pass at my stand anyway!
That's an important point. Everyone has to define his own standards for a trophy. For example, my boy and I are a couple of years into a new hunting area in Swift County, out in the "big wide open" of western Minnesota. We have taken home some venison, but no antlers.
My next goal is to take a buck there — and considering the effort we are putting in, any buck will be a trophy! In our case, any antlers will do, and I am going to consider that buck great no matter what anyone else says.
HOW TO HUNT OUR BIG BUCKS,
REGION BY REGION
So we've established that any zone in Minnesota can grow big bucks. It's also true that a few areas are more productive than others. They include the north-central region, where deer have a chance to grow old; the prairie-woods transition corridor, where ample cover and abundant farmland provide bucks with plenty of places to hide as well as protein-rich forage; and the rugged southeast with its crop fields and wooded valleys.
Now that you know where to find that big boy this year, here are some proven strategies for putting your tag on a personal trophy in our state.
Bucks get big in the aspen, cutover and big timber areas by growing old. Hunters shoot big bucks there by being persistent and putting in their time. Still, it pays to know a few tricks of the trade.
Look for natural cover seams and travel corridors. The edge between a large wetland and timber is perfect, as deer travel the line.
Scout hard for signs of rutting bucks. If you find scrapes and rubs, you've identified a buck's cruising area. Stick close and hunt hard, waiting for him to come through on his circuit.
Hit the rifle season hard. This is the area of our state where gun season is the ticket for big bucks. And when the rut is on, they're vulnerable.
This may well be our best trophy-buck zone. The keys center on finding that core area where a big buck is roaming.
Scout hard with trail cameras and try to get a big buck patterned early in the season. Hit the bow season hard in late October, working the doe groups. Bucks are sure to show up.
After opening day of gun season, head back in to the thickest, meanest, most secluded cover you can find.
The prairie lands of western Minnesota offer good opportunities to shoot some awfully nice bucks. This zone may not have as many B&C or P&Y "book" bucks as elsewhere in our state, but a 3 1/2-year-old buck out there is going to be a very nice deer. Get that slug gun sighted in for long ranges. Invest in a straight shooter.
Hunt with a group and push the sloughs and wetlands, where deer hide. Teaming up is an effective way to move bucks there. Get out and hunt when storm systems are approaching or heading out. Prairie winds blowing can keep deer lying low, but when the gales subside, deer really get out to feed.
This may be Minnesota's classic buck country, but it's not easy to shoot a bruiser. The landscape is steep and the deer are hunted hard.
Try bowhunting. It's tough to get gun-hunting permission, but an archer stands a good chance of getting access to some good private land. Hunt high or low. Whitetails are going to gather around the food, which is either on the ridgetops or in the valley bottoms.
Look for a saddle in a ridge and hang a stand there. Hill country bucks tend to cross between drainages in dips and folds.
There's no doubt that the Metro area produces some of Minnesota's very biggest bucks every year. With little gun hunting pressure, bucks get a chance to grow old and big.
Work hard to get access. Finding a parcel to hunt in the Metro is like discovering a gold mine.
Hunt often. Get up early for an hour-long sit before work, or get to work early and leave early for an evening hunt. Keep after them. Dial in. A big Metro buck is going to give you one fleeting chance. Be ready now.
Are you ready for a great November for big bucks? They're out there. The rut is going to kick in good and you need to just be out there hunting hard and giving yourself a chance at the whitetail you've been dreaming of. That's about as simple as it gets. Good luck!