October 21, 2015
If wrapping your hands around a pair of thick antler bases, sweeping up tall tines, and counting points is on your bucket wish list this season, it's not too late to get in the game.
Hundreds of thousands of procrastinating gun hunters wait for the final days before the firearm deer opener to purchase their license, and many others decide to skip the hunt for one reason or another.
Don't be that guy — or gal — this year.
If you haven't already done so, head to the nearest licensing agent and purchase your gun deer license. Better yet, there's still time to buy an in-season tag for archery or crossbow deer hunting.
Wisconsin offers bow and crossbow hunters peak rut opportunity the first two or three weeks of November, and many see their biggest bucks of the year at that time.
Of course, if it were as simple as just buying a license and hitting the woods every November, taxidermists wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand for their services.
Outside of a few lucky folks with exclusive access to vast tracts of lightly pressured and ideal deer habitat, shooting a trophy whitetail buck year after year is rarely easy.
Whether you hunt urban sanctuaries, farm woodlots and fields, vast marshes and swamps, or the big timber in the Northern and Central Forests, there are a number of things you can do to increase your odds of being in the right place for a shot at a mature whitetail buck this fall.
Let's take a closer look.
WHERE TO GO
Chances are you already have a spot or two in mind for when the rut heats up this month, or for opening morning of the gun season.
However, if you've recently lost a spot or want to try new ground, there's no time like the present to begin your search for another area.
Word of mouth can sometimes pay off, and a good place to start is asking friends and relatives if they have any leads on private parcels that might be available for the asking or for lease.
You can also talk to rural mail carriers, bus drivers and anyone commuting on the road between dusk and dawn to see if they've spotted some racked whitetails crossing. Then do some door-knocking, or an online research if it's public land.
Stopping at a DNR forestry office, county conservation office, or land trust office might also produce some tips.
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.
Some hunters employ a large array of trail cameras in hopes of pinpointing the exact area they might be able to get a crack at a trophy during legal hunting hours.
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.
Stand selection — and hunting that stand only when the wind is right if you're a bow or crossbow user — is often the critical piece of the puzzle once you're in the neighborhood of a buck worthy of a taxidermy bill.
It's also rarely 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 a more remote area, 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 creature for the average hunter to get close to.
Metro bow and crossbow hunts are another solid option, either on a limited draw basis or by landowner permission.
Searching out public property that isn't hammered with pressure can be as simple as locating a small, out-of-the-way piece that is unbearably thick for most hunters who'd rather have a large view, or a more difficult walk, or canoe deep into a parcel well past the hunters who often sit less than a quarter-mile from their vehicle.
Be prepared by shooting your bow regularly, or sighting in your gun and then shooting it from time to time — one shot, just like you might get in the field. Confidence and familiarity with your equipment will go a long way toward giving you the confidence needed to know you can make the shot.
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.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Boone and Crockett's assistant director of records, Justin Spring, said there was a considerable drop in Midwest trophy entries in 2012 and 2013, but last year seemed better.
"There's a lot of speculation on this: bad winters, too many does being shot in some areas, and diseases like CWD and EHD," Spring said. "But it seems to be coming back now."
A mild winter in much of Wisconsin this past year was in stark contrast to our previous two winters, which no doubt took a toll on older animals.
"Fawn survival was probably down, too, and that's something we might not see for a few years," Spring said. "But we have something like 1,370 official measurers throughout the country, and I hear a lot of discussion from them. Most are feeling pretty optimistic about this year."
Spring thinks Wisconsin could bounce back strong, as lower deer numbers in some areas means there's more year-round browse available to survivors. That combined with a milder winter might mean impressive antlers on older age-classes this year.
Eli Randall, records director for the Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club, expects it to be another solid year in the Badger State.
Randall noted there were dozens of counties represented in the Top 40 bucks measured by WBBC scorers from the 2014 season. The list included a new No. 1 typical on the archery side, Adam Hupf's 13-point, 191 6/8-inch Dodge County buck. Of the Top 40, Buffalo and Trempealeau counties — long known for giant western Wisconsin bucks — accounted for just three.
Many of the monster whitetails were taken in the western, central, southern and eastern farm country, but the Northwoods also is represented. A big drop in hunting pressure up north in recent years due to lower deer numbers could actually work in favor of trophy hunters this fall, and from here on out.
Randall said while almost every hunter dreams of lucking into a trophy buck, he hopes that all members of the camo and blaze orange bunch don't get caught up in antler size vs. spending quality time hunting with friends and family.
"Some of my best hunts were based on the hunting experience, not the harvesting of a deer," Randall said.
NO BONUS BUCK
Earn-a-buck and bonus buck programs are both off the table this fall, and some hunters are lobbying for an end to group gun deer hunting, saying it's a detriment to yearling buck harvest. In other words, they believe it's leading to more bucks being shot just to fill tags vs. individual hunters making the decision to pass up smaller bucks.
Some hunters would like to see antler restrictions, but Randall said continued growth of voluntary "Let 'Em Go — Let 'Em Grow," is the driving force behind more large-racked whitetails now that earn-a-buck is off the table.
Previously, counties that consistently produced the most trophy whitetails were often ones that had one or more earn-a-buck seasons in the years prior.
CWD units are still giving up a lot of large bucks. That's because the extra seasons and bonus buck opportunity of the past put additional pressure on deer, educating them and putting more survivors into nocturnal mode much of the year.
Randall believes the slow-but-sure growth of the state's Deer Management Assistance Program will offer flexibility in controlling deer herds within a county if enough landowners choose to participate, helping keep herds within a healthy and balanced buck-to-doe ratio.
"There are a lot of landowners and hunters practicing some sort of deer management, which should increase the buck age structure and, in turn, increase the opportunity at a trophy-sized animal," Randall said.
The explosion in farmland deer numbers in the past year concerns Randall, who worries that when there are too many deer on the landscape, the odds of less dominant bucks breeding increases. He prefers shooting for a 1-to-3 buck-to-doe ratio and believes that leads to a better rut with more movement.
The Buck & Bear Club recently published its 10th edition of the state records book, a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Jordan Buck. The club also puts out an annual deer magazine. Get more info on both at wi-buck-bear.org.
While the overall trophy numbers measured in recent years have dropped, there's no doubt that some absolute giants still exist.
Trail cam photos on social media this summer showed some incredible typical and non-typical whitetails, giving more than a few Wisconsin hunters a hope of seeing such bucks on the hoof sometime this fall.
Adam Hupf's Dodge County 13-pointer was the third state-record typical taken in the past five seasons. His buck scored nearly 2 inches larger than William Gerrits' Fond du Lac County giant from 2012, which was just over 2 inches bigger than Brian Inda's 12-point Waushara County trophy arrowed in 2010.
On the non-typical side, the state record has been broken four times in the past seven years, including back-to-back in 2008-09 and again in 2012-13. Jim Baker's 28-point, 249 5/8-incher is the current record.
Crossbow hunts for all who wanted them began in 2014 in Wisconsin. Separate license and registration data shows the hunters were effective. Archery licenses dropped, but with new crossbow licenses added in, the combined buck kill of more than 46,000 (bow 30,433, crossbow 15,768) set a record and totaled nearly half of the firearm buck harvest of 97,196.
Some archery or gun-only hunters fear increased crossbow use could put pressure on bucks. The DNR maintains it will continue to track the harvests separately and adjust season lengths as needed, but many believe the crossbow train will be hard to slow now that it's on the track.
If hunters are being honest in their method of harvest, it appears archers are taking far more top-end bucks than crossbow users. Only three of the Top 20 typical and non-typical "bow" bucks last year were listed as crossbow kills by the hunter.
New for the 2015 season, you may not get a chance to see most of the giants arrowed or shot with firearm. For the first time, Wisconsin is allowing statewide registration of deer via phone or Internet. As of press time, the DNR was trying to assemble an online database of past in-person registration stations that planned to offer phones or computers to hunters as a convenience and a way of getting them to stop in to continue a decades-old tradition.
Whether or not you succeed in tagging the buck of your dreams this fall, here's wishing you a safe hunt, many memorable hours afield, and a venison tenderloin steak sandwich!