If you're one of the thousands of deer hunters dreaming of putting your hands around a thick-racked buck this fall, then you're living in the right state. Wisconsin has ranked at or near the top in producing record-book bucks entered with Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett for more than a decade now, and last year's top-end trophies prove the state hasn't quit producing just yet.
Through midsummer, 14 200-inch-plus non-typicals shot in 2010 had been registered with the Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club. Archers took six of them. The biggest typical shot in the state last year was also taken during the bow season, a new archery state record at 187 5/8.
Even with earn-a-buck shelved for the third straight year in much of the state — and the first time in nearly a decade in the CWD zone for the first buck targeted — it's unlikely that many hunters will lower their standards and shoot just any buck.
"Let 'em go, let 'em grow" is gaining steam across the state. While some of that is quality deer management-based, credit must also be given to earn-a-buck. The controversial management tactic showed skeptical hunters what one more year of antler growth could do when whitetails have the right genetics and plenty of food.
Trophy whitetails are found in every Wisconsin county, but they don't get big by making mistakes. Hunters who scout to find the telltale signs of older bucks — large rubs, scrapes, tracks and droppings in thick cover — increase their odds of a "chance" meeting while hunting.
Steve Ashley, records keeper for the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club, believes earn-a-buck has had a tremendous influence on what many hunters have been seeing in recent years.
"Without earn-a-buck, more of the 1.5- and 2.5-year-old bucks will get shot, and there will be fewer 3.5 and 4.5s," Ashley said.
Still, its demise due to overuse could be the catalyst that raises the awareness of hunters on what it takes to "grow" a trophy whitetail.
"It could be good and bad," Ashley said. "Earn-a-buck was forced let 'em go, let 'em grow. I've talked to a lot of hunters who found out what happens after going through earn-a-buck — a big increase in trophy buck sightings in the years immediately following."
Unless more hunters realize that and decide to pass up younger bucks, Ashley believes, the number of trophies registered will go down.
"The downside of earn-a-buck was the fact that the doe harvest was increased even more than the DNR may have intended," Ashley said. "I don't think they realized how fully effective it would be. It really decimated the doe herd in some areas."
Ashley said the good news is hard-hit areas seem to be recovering nicely after a two-year break and another solid crop of fawns this year.
"Hopefully, the good that will come out of it is that people saw what happened with the increase in trophy bucks," Ashley said. "I look at it as an educational opportunity."
Ashley predicts that the CWD units, where earn-a-buck was still required prior to any buck kill last year, will continue to put out good numbers of giants.
"The bucks are much more educated in areas with increased pressure," Ashley said. "That's why we're still seeing so many mature bucks coming out of there."
WHERE TO LOOK
Trophy bucks are where you find them, and in Wisconsin, they come from managed farms, urban sanctuaries, the vast Northwoods and almost anywhere in between.
Of the top 40 typical and non-typical bucks measured by Buck & Bear Club scorers from the 2010 deer seasons, only Dunn (3 entries), Jackson (3), Buffalo (2), Crawford (2) and Trempealeau (2) had more than one of the top-end monsters.
The biggest gun-killed typical of 2010 came from a county not known for producing many Boone and Crockett entries, but Joel Krautkramer's 11-pointer, taken from a ground blind mid-season of the November firearm hunt, taped out at an impressive 181 1/8 inches. Not so surprisingly, the area had earn-a-buck regulations in place three straight seasons from 2006-'08.
Kyle Slama's 229 2/8 Marquette non-typical, the biggest by a gun hunter last year, was also taken in an area under EAB rules in 2008. Many other bucks among the top tier in 2010 also came from EAB areas, including Brian Korfmacher's 211 2/8 Dane County giant, the largest non-typical taken by an archer last season.
Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist Jeff Pritzl, the state's acting big game specialist, said hunting in much of the state is very different than it was even 20 years ago.
"There are more deer gravitating toward areas where more food is available," Pritzl said, "and more landowners willing to manage with deer in mind by making their property more attractive to deer. Some landowners are competing with each other for the deer's attention, and some are in better position (financially or habitat-wise) to do that. That changes the distribution of deer."
The increase in food plots and baiting and feeding in the past decade as well as changes in stand placement and hunting methods — fewer deer drives, for example — mean deer aren't forced to move as much as they once may have.
"That reduces sightability, and that's a problem if you aren't set up on a stand close to where those deer are feeding," Pritzl said.
The elimination of the four-day October antlerless gun deer hunt in herd control areas this year might help hunters see more bucks. Many archers and November-only gun hunters believe that the added pressure on the does at that time of year makes bucks that much harder to kill in the weeks to follow.
More does on the landscape might also mean more bucks moving about trying to find the ones that are in heat. On the other hand, if an area has plenty of does, there might be no need for local bucks to move about as much, reducing the chances of seeing a real bruiser that shows up well outside of his core area.
As always, careful scouting will go a long way toward improving the odds that you'll get at least a glimpse of a trophy deer this season. Putting in the hours it takes to locate the type of sign made by big bucks — rubs, scrapes, tracks and droppings — might pay off if you can avoid spooking the very deer you hope to kill.
If you don't already have a spot in mind for this year's rut, it's likely you'll be joining the tens of thousands who hunt on our millions of acres of public land. Narrow your choices with tips from fellow hunters, an online search, or a stop at a DNR or forestry office to check out maps and pick the brains of the local experts.
Getting your sights on a record-book buck is a rare deal for many hunters, most of whom will never see, let alone shoot, a B&C whitetail. But if just having a shot at the biggest buck of your life is your goal, then there are a few things you can do that might help.
GET AWAY FROM IT ALL
It's not enough to pass up small bucks if you hunt an area where everyone else shoots the first buck they see. If that's the case, try to find some new ground or talk to neighboring hunters to see if there's a chance they'll get on board with giving young bucks a free pass.
With even one extra year under their belts, antlered whitetails become a much more difficult critter for the average hunter to get close to.
If you don't have your own land or access to a quality parcel owned by a friend or relative, your options are often limited to leasing private land or searching out some public property that isn't hammered with pressure.
That could be as simple as finding a small, out-of-the-way piece that would be considered unbearably thick for hunters who'd rather have a large view. Or it could be a more difficult walk or a canoe trip deep into a parcel well past hunters who sit less than a quarter-mile from their vehicle.
Metro bow hunts are another solid option, either on a limited draw basis or by landowner permission.
Finally, you should spend as much time as possible hunting your chosen sites when the wind is right. Rutting whitetail bucks can show up at any hour of the day this month, and the more time you spend on stand, the better your odds of seeing one.
Since 2000 — and not including all of the 2010 bucks, some of which have not yet been entered — Wisconsin has put 440 typical whitetails into the Boone and Crockett records.
That's according to the Club's online trophy database called Trophy Search. For information about the valuable information service and other B&C activities, visit the B&C Web site at www.booneandcrockettclub.com.
The Montana-based Club's records show Illinois in the second-place spot with 315 entries, followed by Kentucky with 264, Ohio 241, Iowa 227 and Missouri and Saskatchewan with 203 each.
For non-typicals, Wisconsin is No. 3 with 166, trailing only Illinois at 284 and Iowa 191. Ohio with 151 entries and Missouri 145 round out the top five.
Sixth-nine Wisconsin counties have produced Boone and Crockett typicals since 2000. Buffalo is No. 1 with 41, followed by Trempealeau at 23, Sauk 16. Pierce, Shawano and Waupaca have 15 each; Grant County has 13; Chippewa, Dunn and Richland 12 each; Outagamie and Pepin 11; and Polk 10.
Fifty-five counties have produced B&C non-typicals since 2000, led by Buffalo County's dozen. Crawford and Waupaca counties have each had nine, Grant eight, Sauk seven and Dodge and Shawano six each. Four counties have had five each: Columbia, Iowa, Jackson and Vernon.
Illinois' Pike County led during that span with 14, followed by 13 from Monroe County, Iowa. Buffalo County was one of five counties with a dozen non-typical B&C bucks in the past decade. Crawford, Waupaca and Grant also made the top 20 nationally.
Buffalo County is No. 1 nationally with 41 typical B&C qualifiers since 2000, and Trempealeau is No. 3 with 23. Sauk, Pier, Shawano and Waupaca hold down the sixth through ninth spots. Two Texas counties, one in Illinois (Jo Daviess) and one in Iowa (Allamakee) are the only non-Wisconsin counties in the top 10.
Last year, Wisconsin led North America with 65 typicals entered into the Boone and Crockett record book as this issue went to press, nearly as many as Indiana with 25, Kentucky 25, and Minnesota or Ohio 23 each combined.
At least 38 Wisconsin counties produced record-book typicals last year, double the number just two years earlier. Buffalo 6, Trempealeau 5, Juneau and Sauk 4 each, and Barron and Chippewa at 3 led the way.
Twenty Wisconsin counties produced B&C non-typicals in 2010, including three each in Dunn, Sauk and Waupaca and two each in Crawford, Marquette, Milwaukee and Shawano.
More than half of Wisconsin's all-time B&C typical entries — 440 of 864 Badger monster typicals on the books — have been taken since 2000, at least 108 of them in the past two years alone.
Of the 355 Wisconsin non-typicals in the B&C records, 166 of them have been booked since 2000, 42 of them in just the past two seasons.
Among all-time state giants, James Jordan's 206 1/8 typical taken in Burnett County in 1914 heads the list. Second is a 197 6/8 bruiser from Kenosha County in 1999. A Green County pickup in 2007 that scored 189 2/8 is the largest in the past decade. Brian Inda's 2010 state record bow kill at 187 5/8 is 12th all-time in our state.
Elmer Gotz's 253-inch Buffalo County non-typical from 1973 is Wisconsin's all-time record. Four bucks since 2000 have made the top 10, including a 243 6/8 brute shot in Fond du Lac County in 2009 and a 241 7/8 taken in Waupaca County in 2008 in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots.
SOME ARE NEVER SHOT
A lot of bucks meet their fate on Wisconsin's busy highways and rural roads during the chasing phase of the rut. But how many more trophies die simply from the affects of old age and are never found? Radio telemetry research in the mid-1980s and 1990s showed many older bucks were not harvested. Among the bucks that were found was one 9 1/2 years old that apparently had died of natural causes. It had an infection on top of its head around the antlers, possibly from a fight with another buck. But most of the bucks weren't found after radio transmitters stopped functioning or the deer left the area. Researchers believe that if the other big bucks had been shot, most hunters would have turned in the tags or collars.
So why aren't many old bucks found dead? At least one researcher believes bucks on their last legs may retreat to the same sanctuaries of heavy cover they used to elude hunters for many years, where they're never found or predators and scavengers feed on the carcasses and scatter and eat the bones and antlers.