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Public hunting land bonanza


Lake Superior Watershed Hotspot...



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January 01, 2009
Don't tell anyone our secret; public hunting land in the northern Upper Peninsula (U.P.) offers some of the best whitetail hunting in the state. Deer numbers are not as high in the Lake Superior Watershed as they are in the U.P.'s southern counties, but there are plenty of mature bucks to go around, some of trophy proportions. Property open to hunting by the public is easy to find in counties bordering Lake Superior and hunting pressure is light to nonexistent.

Reduced hunting pressure coupled with at least two mild winters in a row have created the deer hunting bonanza on public hunting land in the northern U.P. The winters of 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 were mild, allowing for excellent winter survival of whitetails and good fawn production. The fact that supplemental feeding of deer during winter months is legal in the Lake Superior Watershed also helps. Even though the winter of 2007-2008 was on the rough side, supplemental feeding in the north increased survival and most whitetails that were at least 1 1/2 years old going into the winter were hardy enough to make it without help.

Success of the camp I've been hunting out of during firearms season in Keweenaw County for the last five years illustrates how good buck hunting can be on land open to the public in the northern U.P. There were six of us hunting out of a tent camp during 2008 and five of us bagged bucks. All of the bucks had racks because they were at least 2 1/2 years old.

Three of the five bucks were 2 1/2 years old. Two had 8-point racks and one was a 7-pointer. The 7-point had a broken brow tine, otherwise it would have been an 8, too. Besides the five whitetails we hung on the buck pole, we saw three more rack bucks we were not able to get.

Camp members passed up an additional three yearling bucks that had spikes or forks even though they would have been legal for them to shoot. Most camp members purchased combo deer licenses before the new antler restrictions went into effect. The reason the yearlings were passed this year is the hunters who saw them had already tagged rack bucks. In the past, yearling bucks have been taken when they've been the only bucks seen. Since no antlerless permits are issued for the northern U.P., gun hunters who want venison must shoot a buck.

The fact that yearling bucks have ended up on our camp buck pole in the past confirms that mandatory protection of spikes and forks is not necessary to produce older age bucks. Hunting pressure is so light on most public hunting land in the northern U.P. that many yearling bucks survive their first year with antlers. The reason public lands in that part of the U.P. are so lightly hunted is the slow economy combined with high gas prices and an abundance of deer in southern Michigan is keeping Lower Peninsula hunters closer to home rather than traveling to the U.P. And many U.P. hunters try their luck in southern counties where deer numbers are highest.

The fact that most deer hunters choose to hunt further south is fine with us. The us includes father and son Bill and Matt Westerbrink from Grand Rapids, Dave Menominee from Lac LaBelle, Bud Koljonen of Bete Grise, Bud's army buddy Bob Polly from Tennessee and me.

Due to low deer numbers, stand hunting with bait is the favored hunting method. Bait such as apples and corn attracts the does and the does attract bucks. But we've also taken deer by hunting natural food sources such as acorns, scrape hunting, stillhunting and snow tracking.

Matt started the season off in a big way for both himself and the camp first thing on opening morning by shooting his first U.P. buck, which proved to be his best buck ever as well as the camp's biggest ever. He scored on the trophy buck in an area no one else had hunted before. When Matt shot the whitetail, he knew it had a rack, but he didn't know how many points it had.

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Matt Westerbrink standing next to his 12-pointer on our Keweenaw Co. buck pole. Richard P. Smith photos
He was in for a surprise when he reached the fallen buck. The rack has 12 points. It has a typical 10-point frame, but the second point on each side is forked, giving it the two additional points. The deer is at least 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 years old.

What's even more amazing about Matt's hunting success on opening day is he saw a much bigger buck on his way to camp for lunch. He said the tines were much longer and the beams were wider than the one he shot. That's something considering the inside spread of the 12-pointer's rack measured 19 1/8 inches and some of the tines are 10 inches long.

Matt was riding his 4-wheeler when he saw the monster standing in a logging road. He said the buck walked 30 yards from the road and stopped but another vehicle came along, spooking the book buck.

On another day later in the season when Matt and Bud were heading back to camp in Bud's pickup truck, they saw a different rack buck that got away.

Bill was the second member of camp to bag a buck on opening day. He shot a 2 1/2-year-old 8-point around 10 a.m. from a spot where he's taken a number of other bucks in the past.

Two more bucks were added to the pole on day two. Dave downed a 7-pointer from his favorite spot and Bud connected on an 8-point. Both bucks were shot around 9 a.m. It took Bud three shots to collect his buck, but the first two shots were deflected by brush.

Both Bob and I had only seen antlerless deer through the third day of the season. Dave passed up a spikehorn and 4-pointer from his blind the third morning and then headed into town with his deer to butcher it. I hunted from Dave's blind that evening, hoping to see a bigger buck than he had during the morning, but didn't see anything.

Bob was hunting from a spot where he bagged a forkhorn the year before. The spot wasn't baited until he arrived in camp the day before the season opened. He also set up a ground blind then.

He only saw one doe each of the first two days of the season, but by the third day, there was an almost constant procession of does in front of his blind. Bob had a total of 17 deer sightings on the third day, three of which were fawns. Some of the adult does he saw probably visited his bait more than once, but there was still a tremendous amount of doe activity in the area.

On day four, Bob had the choice of staying where he was or moving to Dave's blind where two bucks were seen the day before. He was encouraged to go to Dave's blind and that's what he decided to do. Bob then graciously allowed me to occupy his blind. I was confident all of the doe activity was bound to attract a buck and that proved to be the case.

A doe appeared at 10:15 a.m. A few minutes later, a nice buck followed her to the bait. Thanks to Bob, I was able to put my tag on a 3 1/2-year-old 10-point.

Bill passed up a spikehorn that evening, too.

November 18 was Bob's last day of hunting. I sat in his blind on the fifth day of the season, too, and saw another buck with a small 6 or 8-point rack, but was not able to get a shot at it. I may not have shot that buck even if it would have given me a shot because the antlers were smaller than the one I got the day before.

The author has written a number of books about deer hunting. Refer to his web site www.richardpsmith.com for details.

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