Last season saw a number of record deer harvests throughout the Midwest, and 2004 should be every bit as good. But to get deer populations down, more game agencies want you to take a doe, or even two. At the extreme end of this management philosophy is Wisconsin, with its Earn-a-Buck program in about one-third of its hunting units. Hunters must bag an antlerless deer before taking a buck.
Will other states follow suit? Only time, deer populations and hunters’ willingness to harvest does will tell.
ILLINOIS Hunters in Illinois bagged 104,000 deer during last year’s firearms season alone, and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) deer biologist Paul Shelton considers 2003 to have been a very good season overall. For 2004, additional hunting opportunities include a firearms deer season in the western third of suburban Chicago’s Kane County and 15,000 nonresident archery tags, up from 12,800. Shelton notes a “slight upward creep in the deer population the last couple of years,” toward 800,000 deer statewide. Trophy-buck aficionados usually do very well in the triangle formed by Adams, Brown and Pike counties in west-central Illinois. Central counties like Fulton, Knox and Peoria make big contributions to state record books, too.
INDIANA Though not generally recognized as a trophy-buck state, Indiana is seeing large bucks come from an unlikely area: the heavily populated northwest. Communities with too many bothersome deer are looking to archery hunting for relief, as happened in 2003 at Beverly Shores. “I would expect that since it was a protected herd up to that time, a number of older animals were taken,” says DNR deer biologist Jim Mitchell of the hunt at Beverly Shores. The 2003 harvest of nearly 107,000 deer was a 2.5 percent increase over 2002’s take, and Mitchell expects another strong harvest this season as trend analysis finds deer numbers stable to rising.
IOWA Iowa’s 2003 harvest of 175,000 deer “was a record by a long way,” says DNR deer biologist Willy Suchy, “mostly because of the extra antlerless tags available to hunters.” Gun, muzzleloader and archery harvests were all up, with the deer herd at 305,000 animals after the hunt. Suchy says the management philosophy over the next few years will be to focus on boosting antlerless harvests to take the pressure off yearling bucks and whittle the herd down in selected areas. Iowa is still a trophy-buck haven, especially in the southern third of the state, the northeastern corner and the western border units, says Suchy.
KANSAS With more private lands under hunting leases, and the change to one antlered deer per season in 2000, the Kansas deer harvest is in decline, says Department of Parks and Wildlife big-game biologist Lloyd Fox. The 72,500 deer taken in 2003 were 10,000 fewer than in 2002 and well below 2000’s harvest of 111,000 deer. On the upside, there are more bucks than ever that are at least 2 1/2 years old, especially in hunting units 2, 3, 12, 16 and 18. But don’t be fooled by age ratios of bucks in any one unit, Fox warns. Two seasons ago, for example, more than half of the bucks taken in Unit 5 were yearlings, yet a hunter still bagged a bruiser toting a 249-inch rack.
With a herd of 1.7 million deer, Michigan is looking for another solid harvest like last season’s total of 497,000. The muzzleloader hunt saw a big jump in 2003, to 43,000 deer killed–nearly a 50 percent increase.
The mecca for Michigan trophy bucks has traditionally been the western Upper Peninsula, including Baraga, Gogebic and Ontonagon counties. While these areas still grow some massive deer, “We have as big a buck in southern Michigan today as we have in the U.P.,” says Rodney Clute, DNR deer biologist. He adds that with milder winters and abundant agricultural forage, “southern Michigan bucks can obtain that large antler development one to two years ahead of U.P. bucks.” The bottom two tiers of southern counties are producing impressive numbers of big bucks.
MINNESOTA Minnesota’s 2003 harvest of 289,000 deer was a state record, and the pieces are in place for an equally strong season this year. With a deer herd of 1.1 million and growing, DNR big-game biologist Lou Cornicelli says antlerless permits will again be easily available. Trophy-buck odds are highest along the Transition Zone, a band of broadleaf forest that divides the state’s prairies from its pine forests. Yet, Cornicelli points out, Winona County, well east of this zone, is the top area for record bucks, followed by Washington County, adjacent to St. Paul.
MISSOURI Several harvest records were set last deer season, from the 290,000 total deer taken to the 19 percent increase in the muzzleloader harvest to the 13 percent jump in the archery kill. Missouri’s deer herd holds steady at 1 million animals. This season 29 counties are under an antler restriction (four points to one side). “It’s an attempt to shift harvest pressure from bucks to does and allow bucks to get older,” explains Lonnie Hansen, Conservation Department resource scientist. Trophy bucks are most common in the hardwood hills north of the Missouri River. The popular urban bowhunts yield some exceptional bucks.
NEBRASKA Whitetail numbers were down in the western two thirds of Nebraska in 2003, thanks to drought and epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). This resulted in a lower-than-expected harvest of 53,000 deer, 9,100 of them mule deer, says Kit Hams, big-game program manager for the Game and Parks Commission. Deer numbers are stable, if a bit down in western units, with at least 50,000 mule deer and 200,000 whitetails. Big bucks are found in every unit. Hams adds that the last two seasons saw an above-average percentage of older bucks harvested, and since drought and EHD probably took a big toll on yearling bucks, “it may take a few years for trophy-buck numbers to rebound.”
NORTH DAKOTA Deer numbers are trending up in North Dakota, including mule deer in their core habitats of the far-western Badlands. Nearly 92,000 deer were harvested in 2003, including 5,500 muleys. The overall hunter success rate was an astounding 79.6 percent, with the success rate for muley bucks at 79 percent and whitetail bucks only five points less. Game and Fish Department big-game biologist Bill Jensen says a record 145,000 deer tags will be available in 2004. Best trophy-whitetail habitats include the J. Clark Salyer and Lake Alice national wildlife refuges, plus timbered areas along the Canadian border such as the Turtle Mountain plateau and Pembina Hills.
The east-central and southeastern counties produce many trophy bucks, thanks to prime habitats and lower hunting pressure. These include Guernsey, Licking, Muskingum and Washington counties. DNR wildlife research biologist Mike Tonkovich says, “The opportunity to harvest a deer in these portions of the state has never been higher.”
Bucks in the heavily agricultural northwestern part of the state average 156 pounds field-dressed, 20 pounds heavier than their brethren in other counties. The herd should enter the fall about 700,000 strong. Tonkovich expects a 2004 harvest similar to 2003’s 197,000 deer taken. Twenty-six counties have a three-deer bag limit this season, while 34 counties have a two-deer limit. There is a one-buck limit throughout the state.
OKLAHOMA Oklahoma’s 2003 harvest of 100,577 was just 2,000 shy of the state record. The population is steady at 475,000. Mike Shaw, Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife research supervisor, notes that the gun season was extended from 9 to 16 days in 2003, allowing hunters to spread out their time afield. For trophy bucks, Shaw recommends southeastern hunting units, where a longer season might help as the difficult terrain makes any hunt more challenging. “The northwest has the greatest potential for producing trophy bucks in the future,” he adds.
SOUTH DAKOTA Nearly 70,000 deer were taken in 2003, an increase of 7,355 over 2002’s take. Ron Fowler, big-game coordinator for Game, Fish and Parks, hopes the abundant antlerless tags available this season will fuel another solid harvest. The buck take should be good; Fowler notes that hunters are reporting increased numbers of mature bucks across the state, including mule deer in their Black Hills habitat. Hunting units west of the Missouri River, including drainages of the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche rivers, are home to big bucks, both whitetails and muleys.
WISCONSIN Ready or not, it’s “Earn-a-Buck” time in 46 of Wisconsin’s 130 deer management units, where hunters must first take a doe before they can bag a buck. This includes 22 units where chronic wasting disease regulations are in effect. However, “for each antlerless deer you take here, you can obtain another buck tag,” says Brad Koele, DNR assistant deer ecologist. Last year’s harvest total was 490,000 deer. The herd is currently at 1.7 million animals. Buffalo, Dane, Trempealeau and Vernon counties are very good bets for a trophy buck, as are the large blocks of federal, state and county lands in the Northwoods.
ILLINOIS: 217-782-6302; http://dnr.state.il.us
INDIANA: 317-232-4080; www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/index2.htm
IOWA: 515-281-5918; www.iowadnr.com
KANSAS: 785-296-2281; www.kdwp.state.ks.us
MICHIGAN: 517-373-1263; www.michigan.gov/dnr
MINNESOTA: 651-296-5484; www.dnr.state.mn.us
MISSOURI: 417-895-6880; www.conservation.state.mo.us
NEBRASKA: 402-471-0641; www.ngpc.state.ne.us
NORTH DAKOTA: 701-328-6300; www.state.nd.us/gnf
OHIO: 800-945-3543; www.dnr.state.oh.us
OKLAHOMA: 405-521-3851; www.wildlifedepartment.com
SOUTH DAKOTA: 605-773-3485; www.sdgfp.info
WISCONSIN: 608-266-2621; www.dnr.state.wi.us
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/destinations
Forget money. Forget your job. Forget all obligations. Suppose you had the next four months to devote exclusively to deer hunting. Here is the ultimate road trip to the best public-land deer hunting in the Midwest.
It starts at noon, September 3, with North Dakota’s early archery season at Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area, southwest of Williston. Located in McKenzie County, a major Pope and Young locale, Lewis and Clark’s 8,100 acres receive moderate to heavy bowhunting pressure, says Kent Luttschwager, area wildlife supervisor for North Dakota Game and Fish. This is because bowhunters regularly tag great trophy whitetails (and the occasional muley) here. However, says Luttschwager, the mosquitoes are so thick that “most of the locals won’t hunt here until there’s a killing frost.” Come early and use plenty of bug spray.
Between September 11 and 24, be sure to hit Elk City Wildlife Area in Elk City, Kan., for a rare early muzzleloader hunt. Kansas’s public hunting lands get hit hard during the regular gun season, but the pressure is noticeably less at this time, says Elk City manager Darin Porter. Hilly country, numerous hardwood stands and many tributaries wind through these 12,000 acres.
October 1 to December 3, it’s off to Lake Red Rock for Iowa’s archery season. The area’s 50,000 public acres are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The rugged ground holds many big bucks, according to Iowa conservation officer Jason Sandholdt. “There’s not as much pressure as you’d expect,” he says. “The die-hard bowhunter who’s willing to hoof it back a ways will find some very good hunting.”
From October 28 to 31, it’s time for a gun season tune-up at Wisconsin’s Tiffany Bottoms Wildlife Area. Tiffany Bottoms is 12,500 acres of thick bottoms land, sloughs and bluffs straddling 12 miles of the Chippewa River in Buffalo County, one of the nation’s premier trophy-buck counties. But you’re here to fill the freezer during the early antlerless, or “Zone T,” hunt. DNR wildlife technician John Schlesselman says big-bodied does abound.
November 15 to 30 is the regular firearms season in the big woods of Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Take a map and a GPS, as the forest sprawls across nearly 1 million acres. Trophy bucks flourish in the steep terrain and thick woods. Better yet, you may well have a piece of Ottawa all to yourself. “We’re so far north that a lot of people just don’t make the trip,” says Linda Sybeldon of the supervisor’s office.
November 19 through 21 is the shotgun-only season at Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in Chandlerville, Ill. For the last seven years, Jim Edgar has been under a quality deer management program, with a four-points-per-side minimum. Therefore, bucks get older and bigger here than in many public areas, says site manager Mike Wickens. Mature forests, grasslands and about 4,000 acres of agricultural crops make up the terrain. Hunting is residents-only now; weeklong nonresident archery hunts ran from October 22 to November 18.
Christmas…and more deer hunting! December 27 through 30 is Ohio’s muzzleloader season at Tri-Valley Wildlife Area, east of Columbus in Muskingum County, a top trophy-buck destination. The regular gun season was in early December, but area manager Mike Zaleski says many big deer should still roam Tri-Valley’s 16,000 acres.–Brian McCombie