Above- Pro Archer Mike Cullison with a great early-season buck Photo by author
Indiana is a trophy whitetail deer “sleeper” state. But what does that mean?
People in the hunting industry feel Indiana has whitetail deer just as big and plentiful as the high-profile states around us. It only makes sense that Indiana has the potential to grow big bucks as The Hoosier State has the same genetics, weather, and food sources as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Kentucky. So why don’t we see anything about Indiana in the hunting magazines TV shows? That goes back to the “sleeper” characterization. We have dream bucks roaming our fields and forests it’s just that the outdoor press didn’t know it.
That all changed in the fall of 2012 when Tim Beck shot his record-breaking 305-7/8” buck in Huntington County during shotgun season. All of a sudden wallflower Indiana is the belle of the ball and the star of every boy’s dream.
Out of the blue, our state is being featured in countless articles and discussions about quality whitetail hunting. Some magazines place us in the top ten in the nation, others in the top five, and one article even ranked us as the top place in North America to bag a trophy whitetail. Additionally, data from Boone and Crocket over the past three years ranks Indiana as one of the top states in registering trophy deer compared to our overall buck harvest.
I know what you’re thinking: “Great, Indiana grows trophy deer, but how do I find them?”
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? There isn’t just one answer so we went to three experts on finding big Indiana whitetails.
The first is Chad Stewart, IDNR Deer Research Biologist. “When you talk about trophy deer, you need to provide three basic tenets of management: nutrition, genetics, and age. Indiana has the nutrition and the genetics. The age is the hardest part to get from a deer.” What does that mean? It’s quite simple; it takes time to grow a trophy deer.
“Sportsmen should manage for a healthy, balanced herd using habitat improvement and taking a healthy amount of does. Pass up the 6-point this year and take a doe instead, and get your neighbors to do the same.”
Some will claim taking a small antlered buck will improve genetics for the area. This simply isn’t true, for two reasons. Deer are free-roaming and bucks like to travel during rut, so you have no control on who breeds does in your area. Second, studies have proven the theory once a spike, always a spike to be false. According to research done by the Quality Deer management Association (QDMA) a yearling buck’s antlers are dependent on four things; genetics, nutrition, age, and timing of the fawning season. In most cases small antler size is simply related to a buck’s age and health. In that same study pen-raised spike bucks grew normal antlers the very next year, and were trophy-sized by three and a half years of age. The biggest take away from the study? Deer stop growing once they’re in the freezer.
Luckily the attitudes of many hunters are changing. In the past hunters talked in terms of bagging a buck, any buck. If the beast had six, eight, or ten points, so much the better. Now hunters talk about class of bucks; 140-class, 160-class, 180-class, or greater, so the general trend is to pass on smaller animals and wait for a larger buck. Indiana’s “One Buck Rule” may be helping in this or it could just be a growing awareness that larger deer are out there if we just hunt a little harder and a little longer.
So where are these trophy bucks? The good news is that every county in Indiana has the potential for growing massive bucks. The bad news is that there is no official way to track how many trophy deer are taken and where. The IDNR doesn’t track the antler size of an animal during the check-in process. While records are kept by sportsman organizations like Pope & Young, Boone & Crocket, the Safari Club, and other, it’s all voluntary, meaning the hunter has to send in an application to register their trophy to be accounted for in the tracking data. I personally know of hunters that do not go through that process, even though they have trophy deer. For the purpose of this article, data from the Hoosier Record Book was used to achieve the results.
Using the data from the Hoosier Record Buck Program we determined the number of trophy deer harvested per square mile. In this manner larger counties wouldn’t be falsely inflated over smaller counties. The top counties at producing typical and non-typical trophy deer rank as follows:
1. Switzerland County
2. Ohio County
3. Parke County
4. Jay County
5. Jefferson County
6. Dearborn County
7. Steuben County
8. Martin County
9. Franklin County
10. Noble County
11. Vermillion County
While the map shows trophy density, some counties have bigger rack averages. To find the counties that produce the biggest bucks, the top ten scores were averaged.
According to the Hoosier Record Buck Program, the top counties with the top ten highest averages of typical antlers are as follows:
Parke County — 177 inches.
Ripley County – 176 inches.
Poesy County — 174 inches.
Porter and Warren Counties — 173 inches.
Dearborn, Franklin, Sullivan, Vigo, and White Counties — 172 inches.
Clark, Greene, Jennings, and Putnam Counties — 171 inches.
Jefferson, Monroe, and Switzerland Counties — 170 inches.
What the data shows is that trophy deer can be found anywhere in Indiana. However, your best chances are those areas that have a superior blend of agriculture and woods that offer a wide variety of year-round foods, and has terrain that allows them to reach maturity with little hunting pressure.
I place the emphasis on year-round food because of what some call the “corn desert” that runs through north-central Indiana. In those counties that are highly agricultural, little year-round food remains after the corn and soy beans are harvested. The same is true for cover. Once the combines are finished in November there is a vast tabletop with little to keep deer and other wildlife fed or protected. And, with the prices of corn reaching new highs, many farmers are clearing even more areas along streams, fence line and lowlands, leaving isolated river bottoms and woodlots miles apart.
With travel routes, winter food, and cover decimated we can only expect deer numbers to drop in some areas. Stewart agrees, “When you lose habitat, you limit the potential for the number of deer on the landscape. When trophy deer make up a small percentage of the deer population, you can see how the number of trophy deer can be limited, simply because there are fewer total deer on the landscape.” With that loss of cover, deer have fewer places to hide and grow which not only limits their ability to survive, it makes it easier for hunters to concentrate on key areas to find them.
The best places to go are where deer can find year-round nutritious food with good cover and seclusion nearby. One of the reasons that some counties are such deer factories is the fact that they have a patchwork of farm fields, woods, and rugged terrain for bucks to grow old in. There are endless areas that deer can grow unmolested and reach maturity with little interaction with hunters as the numbers prove. “I think this leads to a lot of de facto deer refuges,” Stewart said, “because hunters simply won’t want to walk in or drag a deer out of such rugged terrain.”
The good news is there is a great deal of public hunting ground in state and national forests in those same areas. Hoosier National Forest south of Bloomington and countless state forests and WMAs like Yellowwood and Big Oaks hold big deer as long as you’re willing and able to walk deeper into unmolested terrain than the other guy.
While the rural hills of Indiana make great deer refuges, there are a few more areas that savvy hunters go to when they want big deer. G5 Archery Pro-Staff Mike Cullison and Chris Byers regularly bag trophy bucks within view of the Indianapolis skyline and both are avid fans of the Urban Zone hunts.
What makes an urban zone so hot? First, the deer have ample year-round food from the shrubs, fruit trees, flower and vegetable gardens that suburbia has to offer. In many places the subdivisions are interlaced with row crops, green spaces, ponds, creeks, and parks. Moreover, deer are more likely to die from mini-van injuries and old age than by arrow and can grow to record proportions. Cullison is a big fan: “I feel the urban zones have been needed for a long time. They open up a lot of hunting opportunities. Look for areas that provide heavy cover or dense pockets in open areas. I feel some of the biggest bucks live in some of the smallest areas.”
Byers agrees. “I enjoy the Urban Zones for the fact that the deer are usually not pressured. They can also be a little less timid to the sounds and smells of a human presence. The biggest bonus for an Indiana Urban Zone is that you can harvest a second buck.” (You need to harvest a doe before bagging that second buck.)
However, being so close to large populations can raise concerns. “Finding land to hunt in urban zones needs to be taken very seriously,” Cullison explains. “As responsible hunters, we must take all things into consideration, property lines need to be respected along with landowner wishes. Knowing your equipment, being very proficient with it and knowing the anatomy of your quarry will provide for a quick, humane harvest as our quarry deserves. Stay in contact with surrounding landowners, if possible, to keep them aware that you respect their boundaries and want to respect their wishes, should any tracking issues arise.”
It doesn’t matter where you hunt; basic skills need to be used to increase success. Byers is modest when he says, “I don’t know any secrets. I scout for big bucks by first trying to find a feeding area, a bedding area, and a few good trails going or coming from both. After I have found these, I will usually hang one or two cameras to see what’s in the area. If I see any bucks worth pursuing, I note what days and times they are coming through to see if they have a pattern they follow.” Another key to Byers’ success is to have access points that allow the ability to move to his stand without spooking deer.
So what may be the biggest difference in finding a trophy buck? Cullison knows full well. “Be willing to hunt in obscure spots and willing to sacrifice volume of deer for quality. We all dream of mature bucks filtering through that big open white oak ridge top, but in most situations for me it involves thickets and low visual areas such as honeysuckle, olive oak and briar patches. I believe the biggest mistake made is simply timing. Hunters need to be diligent during prime times such as pre-rut and late-season cold spells.” While many hunters are heading back to the truck or house before noon Cullison makes it a solemn practice to stay put. “Plan to sit all day or at least into the early afternoon if possible. We tend to kick into ‘high alert’ around 10am- 2pm.” If you saw Cullison’s trophy wall you would take his advice as gospel.
So what is the key to bag your own trophy this year? Realize that once-in-a-lifetime buck could walk by anytime and anywhere in Indiana, so plan well, hunt harder and longer.
This may be the year that a dream comes true.