It's the old case of Good News/Bad News. The good news is that you still have a far better chance of encountering a trophy buck in Ohio than in most places you could hunt. The bad news is that your chance of shooting a trophy-scoring buck in recent years is about half what it was in 1990.
A series of "Deer Summits" last winter brought news Buckeye buck hunters didn't want to hear.
According to the Division of Wildlife's (DOW) publication "Quality vs. Quantity, a Closer Look at Deer Herd Condition Trends in Ohio" the odds of a buck qualifying for the Buckeye Big Bucks Club (BBBC) have declined significantly. (The publication is available On the Ohio DNR website.)
It's not that plenty of bucks aren't still being entered in the BBBC and other trophy scoring clubs; they are, and in decent numbers.
Decent is relative, however, and the number of trophy bucks is largely a function of the overall population size: larger populations in Ohio lead to larger buck harvests, hence more trophy deer.
The publication points out, however, that in 1990, 41,076 bucks were harvested. Of those, 414 — about 10 in 1000 bucks harvested — were entered in to BBBC.
Although the average number of BBBC entries from 2004 to 2012 (about 530 per year) was slightly higher than in 1990, the average buck harvest over the same period was 87,000, more than twice that of the harvest in 1990. So by the 2012 season, only about 6 of every 1,000 bucks harvested qualified for the club.
So more trophy bucks are being killed, but the chances that any given deer taken by a hunter will be a trophy is lower.
Dr. Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Division of Wildlife said, "The changes in Ohio's deer herd are a product of more deer feeding on a lower quality diet. Reducing the size of our deer population in key areas should help some.
However, since it is unlikely that we're going to revert forests to farmland, habitat will likely continue to be a limiting factor. Time will tell. Population reductions have been rather dramatic. If the herd is going to respond, we should know something in a few years."
Don't let it put you off, though. If you hunt the right areas and use the right tactics, you still have a great chance to score a big Ohio buck.
Scott Bare, Jr. of Hopewell knows a lot about chasing trophies. His last four Ohio deer scored 171, 150, 188 and 191. Bare was an outfitter for six years before he found his calling in real estate. He is currently a recreation land and farm specialist.
He has hunted all over the eastern region of the state and has lots of confidence in the quality of bucks available there.
He hunts most in the Licking, Muskingum region and says the area produces significant numbers of good bucks. Bare says that Muskingum county is great for 140- to 155-inch bucks and the area also produces plenty of bigger ones — including one he has his eyes on for this year and believes will be his best yet if he gets it this fall.
Despite his love for his home stomping grounds, for hunters who can find access to land there Bare recommends southwestern Ohio, saying that while there's less access, there's also less hunting pressure and some amazing bucks.
"Clermont, Ross, and Green counties are all big buck producers; I've hunted Ross and it's just fantastic," said Bare.
Between 2005 and 2014 Ross County had 130 BBBC entries.
Bare starts early, putting in time hunting sheds.
"The biggest shed I've found is a 91-inch non-typical side, but I've found several between 70 and 80-plus inches. I have hunted and taken a 171-inch 11-point after finding his sheds the previous year. I killed him Nov. 2 coming from his bedding area where I had found his shed," said Bare.
His next step is getting cameras out. If he locates a buck he's interested in, Bare doesn't step a foot back in the woods until November.
"When I was guiding I never started hunts until Halloween because you can blow a place out so easily. If you start hunting in the beginning of October, you can actually get patterned by the deer. Going to the same stands, getting consistent in your behavior — it will ruin your chances at a big buck before the good hunting time comes around," he advised.
His favorite tactic?
"Mock scrapes — the buck I killed last year was the 13th buck to hit my mock scrape," said Bare.
Looking around the state you can find opportunities on both public and private land. For absolute numbers of bucks taken, Coshocton County heads up the list: hunters killed 2,231 antlered deer there last season. After that, the list runs Licking, Muskingum, Tuscarawas, Knox, Guernsey, Ashtabula, Adams, Holmes and Athens. That's a pretty well-spread-out list: Ashtabula is in the far northeastern part of the state and Adams is in the far southwest; Knox and Holmes are smack in the middle.
The top counties for producing bucks from public land, however, are centered primarily in southern and southeastern Ohio. Of the top 10 public-land counties, all but Erie are located in that region. Lawrence County leads the state for percentage of antlered harvest coming from public land: 35.1 percent of its 773 bucks came off public land. Muskingum brings in the most bucks of that top 10 with 1,897 checked in, 18.2 percent of them coming from public land.
These figures stand to reason, since the southern and eastern regions have the most public land.
Up in northcentral Ohio, long-time board members from the BBBC, Jon and Lori Byers, continue to routinely find bucks that qualify for the club. Jon has taken 16 qualifiers over the years, and Lori six. Jon's best to date is a NT 211 3/8 and Lori's a 153 2/8 T. Their daughter Vanessa, a recent high school graduate, has two to her credit, including a 183 7/8 NT.
They hunt only on their own land, the rich farmland of Ashland County. Jon says his best investment may have been a high-quality spotting scope he bought years ago. he has used it to watch deer for literally thousands of hours. They also use a number of trail cameras. Jon says that to consistently take scoring deer you need to learn to estimate their score before you go after them.
"Estimating score is the hardest thing we do and the cameras and the spotting scope have allowed us to do that. It's not easy but we've become good at field-scoring deer (on the hoof), though sometimes you can be fooled. I can't think of a buck we've killed in the last 10 years that we didn't know ahead of time was out there, and (we knew) pretty close to what he would net score," said Jon. They mainly hunt the woods/field edges.
"Another thing we do that may be unique is that we never walk in the woods; that sounds kind of crazy but it works. The deer I watch with the spotting scope are out in the fields, and the furthest treestand I have into the woods might be 20 feet," said Jon.
He adds that the only time they go into the woods is to hunt sheds after the season or to turkey hunt. They leave the woods alone and he believes that's why the big deer have consistently used their woods as a bedding area.
"Another thing is we never walk to our stands or blinds — when Lori or my daughter Vanessa goes out, I take them out on an ATV, or they take me, our feet hardly ever touch the ground," he said. Jon, who has cattle, is on the ATV a lot, so the deer are used to it.
Wind is the Byers other primary concern — they've had numbers of fights over the years when Lori wanted to hunt a certain day and the wind was wrong for the stand she wanted to hunt.
"I absolutely won't hunt or let anyone hunt when the wind is wrong. Once you blow a stand, with these more mature bucks, I think you're done. You don't get that second chance again," said Jon.
The BBBC keeps a log of which counties produce the most entries each decade and since 1986 Licking County rules (and it's a perennial top 10 county for sheer numbers of deer taken), dating back until at least 1986. Muskingum was second for BBBC for the two previous decades but dropped to No. 8 in the period from 2005-1014 and was replaced at No. 2 by Ross County.
Looking for a sleeper piece of public land? Highlandtown Wildlife Area Supervisor Jeff Janosik says it might well be Columbiana County's Highlandtown WA.
"We see trophy bucks every year come off Highlandtown and Brush Creek WA in Jefferson County. There are good numbers of deer and there's a lot of private property surrounding the wildlife area, and the deer get pushed off them. These areas are good to the point that you can actually pattern the deer. You absolutely would have a great chance to take a trophy buck here," said Janosik.
Highlandtown Fisheries Unit Leader Matt Backhaus became a total believer last year when he managed to stalk and kill a great buck.
The rack has not been officially scored but is in excess of 140 inches. Backhaus was headed for his stand when he saw the buck coming down through a field. Backhaus got on a mowed lane and waited for him. When the buck was close enough, Backhaus grunted twice and took the deer with a well-placed arrow from 25 yards.
Then there's Huron County, from which fewer than a dozen bucks were entered in BBBC for the 2013 year. But last November Mark Hammer of Norwalk killed a monster 254 1/8-inch non-typical that was Ohio's biggest buck taken last season.
And don't forget the urban areas; these are prime locations for finding a truly mature buck. Last year's harvest of bucks in Summit (Akron) Co. totaled 505, Franklin (Columbus) 314, Cuyahoga (Cleveland) 256, Lucas (Toledo) 214, and Hamilton (Cincinnati) 627. You can bet that some of these were big boys, as deer tend to get old in urban counties. All you have to do is find the deer on a place you can hunt.