Bowhunting The Midwest

By Randall P Schwalbach
Archery World Bowhunting Guide ’88
Is that a deer, or is that a horse?” Ben I exclaimed as the eight-point whitetail buck leaped in front of the truck. “Just an average Wisconsin buck,” my father replied. Two hours earlier, I had picked Ben up at the airport, and now we were within a couple miles of camp. Ben had come up from Texas for a November hunt with my father and I, and he couldn’t believe how large the first deer he saw in Wisconsin was. That deer didn’t stop and let us weigh it. but l said it might go 140 pounds dressed. Just an average Midwest whitetail. Now to put that in perspective; two weeks later, Ben killed an east Texas buck that scored 126-1/8 Typical — and weighed 88 pounds.
That’s why the Wisconsin buck we saw leap across the road surprised and impressed Ben. Midwestern deer not only have large bodies, they also have the potential for trophy antler growth. The all-time high scorer (206 1/8) was taken by Jim Jordan in 1914 in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. In the number-two spot is a Missouri buck (205) taken in 1971 by Larry Gibson. Next comes an Heinous buck, a bowkill that scores 204 4/8, taken by Mel Johnson in 1965. Just last year, another big Wisconsin buck came to the attention of Boone and Crockett scorers. Taken by Joe Haske in 1945 in Wood County, the buck scores 204 2/8 and ties for fourth place. Wisconsin is the only state to have produced two trophies scoring over 200. Not to mislead anyone, I must also point out that most midwestern deer never reach trophy size.
In Wisconsin, for example, the average whitetail supports a small six or eight-point rack. That’s because an average Wisconsin buck is a year and a half old. Very few bucks make it through their second winter because they are shot during the November gun season; a fact that archers who like to hunt bigger bucks have to deal with. If hunting big deer is your primary objective, your first challenge is to identify habitat that will hold big deer. Such habitat will have one characteristic: It must be overlooked  most deer hunters.
Finding The Bucks
To use my home state of Wisconsin as an example, some of the largest deer are taken from the southeastern counties surrounding the city of Milwaukee. Don’t let the number of subdivisions fool you. There are deer here Big deer. They become big by living in areas
where hunters typically don’t look for deer – in the shadow of development.
Gaining access to urban areas is admittedly difficult. To go out the week before hunting season and ask permission to hunt such farms is usually futile. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, you may learn of an opportunity not far from your doorstep. The point is, you are looking for a place that everyone else has overlooked.
Public hunting areas are sometimes also in the overlooked category, especially those places that are primarily marsh and river bottoms. It is likely that the only hunting pressure these areas get is from duck and pheasant hunters. Often you can use the waterfows and upland hunters to your advantage, by being there on opening day and letting the brush pants brigade drive the deer to you.
A third area in which to look for trophy bucks is the wildest, most rugged country you can find. In Wisconsin, steep hills, such as the breaks of the Mississippi river, and the big woods and swamps of the Nicolet and Chequamegon National Forests tend to keep hunter pressure at low levels. A standard rule of thumb I use in wilderness-like areas is: If you can get there by road, somebody else already has. Find a place where the roads are few, and then walk in.
Hunting the Midwest has a different flavor from deer hunting in other areas of the country. Unlike southern states, where liberal bags (some allow a deer a day) are common, the seasons in the midwest are far more restrictive. In Wisconsin, an archer is allowed one deer of either sex per season. This leads to a hunt where the bowhunter is likely to place more emphasis on killing a trophy buck. After finding an area where deer can live long enough to become trophies, the second step to shooting a big buck is to learn to pass up smaller bucks.
This should be obvious. But I know of many good hunters who do everything else right, and who always end up shooting deer with average size antlers. Then they ask why they’re never seeing trophy deer.
My first shot at a trophy was not by design. It was September, and the evening was hot. So hot that I began to feel ill while perched on an oak branch and had to kneel down on the branch (it was a big branch) and put my head low. While in this position, I heard a deer approach and looked up to see an eight-point buck, probably a yearling or 2 1/2 year old, walk by within five yards. Unable to get into position to shoot, I watched him walk away. Once he was out of sight, I regained a standing posture, in the hopes the buck would circle back. He didn’t. But on his backtrail came a much larger buck. I counted 14 tines, some of them appearing to be a foot long. I missed a five yard shot. Lesson one: Early in the season bucks travel together, so let the smaller buck pass if you’d like to see a trophy.
Time It Right
September is my favorite month to hunt the midwest. It is a perfect time of year,  when there is still abundant natural camoflauge left in the trees (leaves), yet the nights are cool enough to slow down the majority of flying insects. During the middle of these early autumn days, it warms up enough t0 make a nearby trout stream the place to be.
Beyond the  weather, I like September because the deer are still feeling relaxed from a long summer of undisturbed feeding. The first week of the bow season is when the element of surprise is in the hunter’s favor. I have taken more bucks with a bow during this first week than any other time, including the rut.
During the first week of the season, usually, the third week of September in Wisconsin, I concentrate my efforts on the oak  woods. That’s when the acorns of the white oak begin to fall.   These acorns are the sweetest of all the oaks, and they will also not last long on the forest floor before they begin to decompose. The deer know this, and they some to eat these acorns at all hours of the day.
The rut is probably the second best time to score on a buck. In the midwest, the rut occurs during the first two weeks of November. In central Wisconsin, the eighth through the 11th is when I look for the rut to peak. Given the recent increase in bowhunter pressure, however, the rutting behavior in my area has become more and more nocturnal. On the other hand, late-season hunting in December seldom sees crowded woods. A week or two after the gun season closes, the deer resume their normal feeding schedules.
The closer to winter, the more active deer seem to become, as if they are trying to put on a few more pounds before the real cold starts. This is especially true of big bucks that burned their energy reserves during the rut. If they are going to make it through the winter, they have to replenish those reserves.
Bucks start to travel together again in the late season. In this regard, it’s a lot like the early season. Don’t try and hunt the whole day during the late season. I find mornings unproductive then, because that’s the coldest time of the day and the deer remain in their beds. Afternoons when the wind dies early have been best for me in the late season.
Hunting the midwest has a charm because of the large variety of habitat types. This forces a bowhunter to be flexible in his hunting style. In wide open farm country, for example, the best use of a tree stand is not for hunting, but rather for scouting. If you spend a few evenings or mornings in a tree in a fence line, you will likely discover some patterns to deer movement. Perhaps you’ll see a small herd of deer using a corner of an alfalfa field. Try to determine the best natural funnel to that feeding area, and set up a ground blind in it.
Make sure you’ve practiced shooting from a sitting position, because you’ll probably use a stool in your blind. For a good blind, wear camouflage that matches the background, and make sure you can shoot over any kind of screen of brush that you place in front of you.
Another way to hunt farm country is to still-hunt through standing corn. This technique is best employed on windy days, when the corn is noisy. By moving across the rows, looking up and down each row before you proceed to the next, you will get amazingly close to deer, some of them bedded down.
Although I don’t personally own one, a suit of corn stalk and cattail camouflage would seem ideal for this type of hunting. Skyline or winter camouflage, with a lot of white in it, also works well, because bedded deer are looking up at the sky.
Midwestern states are full of rivers, and boat hunting is some of the most enjoyable hunting I’ve ever done. Both my father and I made our first bow kills from a canoe slipping
 silently by the alders, and both deer were shot in their beds. This technique is dynamite if nobody else is doing it. Once locals caught on to our technique, they gave the deer on that river a thorough education in what paddles banging on gunwales sound like.
The best river for floating is one small enough that allows you to shoot to either bank. However, I find it works best just to watch one bank, and let the person paddling watch the other. On my first bow-kill, Dad actually whispered to me, “Right bank,” and I still had time to locate the deer and release. One of the disadvantages of hunting from a canoe is not having prepared shooting lanes. You’ll get extremely close to a lot of deer that you’ll just have to pass up because there’s no shot. Wait it out. As you drift past, a lane may open up, or the deer may step into one on its own.
Probably the most unorthodox tactic I ever employed in a farm country situation was an amphibious ambush from a drainage ditch. I used the ditch as an approach to a cornfield where I knew the world record whitetail was hiding, then submerged my folding stool in a clump of reeds, and sat down with waders above my waist. Mallards whistled over me and sandhill cranes exulted the dawn with raspy, prehistoric voices. A family of raccoons wandered past, busy poking their hands into silt at the waters edge and never noticing me. And finally, the sound of deer feet, precisely placed on the sandy bottom of the ditch. Slow but steady, the deer approached.
I could see the reflection of his antlers in the ripples that pulsed toward me. And then, 10 feet away, his gaze met mine, but not for very long. There was no shot opportunity as the buck raced straight away from me, up the ditch and back into the safety of the corn. By that time, I was fairly chilled from the water (what did I expect from wet wading?) and went back to the car for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, which I chewed very slowly while planning my afternoon hunt. Finding a dry, leafy oak tree was what I had in mind.
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