Public land HOTSPOTS!


August 01, 2013

I was hunting along the Maple River that held several bucks I captured on my Stealth Cam Skout trail camera. The habitat is highlighted by tall pheasant grass, thick brush, cattail swamps and oak ridges bordered by standing corn fields and alfalfa.

The morning air was still, tendrils of fog held over the marsh nearby as I slipped into position and began calling with my mouth making several deep guttural burps that sound like a buck grunt. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement in the tall grass as a big 8-point walked directly toward my call. My heart raced and I could feel blood pounding through my fingertips as I eased the crossbow to my shoulder, flipped the safety off, put the cross hair on the buck’s shoulder and released the arrow. The buck jolted from the impact, made a mule-like kick with its hind legs and sprinted for nearby cover. I eagerly watched as the big bruiser made a short circle in the underbrush, stood motionless a few seconds, and then fell to the ground.

The above anecdote best describes the fun filled deer hunting adventures that await Michigan hunters this fall. The outlook for the bow season looks promising and you can expect excellent action if you scout and select a stand site at any of the following public hot spots.

Shiawassee Refuge

One of Michigan’s best kept secret trophy buck hot spots is the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is huge, roughly 9,500 acres filled with natural areas that conserve a wonderful complex of river wetlands, large agricultural fields, thick flooded woodlots, and huge cattail marshes enclosed by a series of dikes. The rivers that come together on the refuge drain 22 different counties–the largest watershed in Michigan. Wetlands and backwaters of the Flint, Shiawassee, and Tittabawassee and Cass rivers provide fantastic habitats for a vast number of adult bucks. This mosaic of natural areas is home for 1,200 to 1,400 whitetail deer during the fall hunting season. What is amazing is several studies have indicated that the buck to doe ratio is 1 buck to around 1.4 does!

The entire refuge is open to hunting. Wildlife managers use a lottery system and hunters must apply for a permit. Directions to National Refuge Headquarters: From Saginaw takes M-13 south 5 miles to Curtis Rd., turn right (west) and proceed 1 mile to Curtis Rd. Refuge Headquarters: (989)777-5930. Closest towns: Saginaw and St. Charles in Saginaw County. For registered drawing rules, refuge maps and hunt information go online at and click “hunting” or write Shiawassee NWR Deer Hunt, 6975 Mower Rd., Saginaw, MI 48601. Permits cost $15.

Western Upper Peninsula

According to the DNR, the deer population in the Upper Peninsula has increased slightly during the past three years due to relatively mild winters. The extreme western reaches of the U.P. offer a wide variety of choices. You can find agricultural areas bordered by cedar swamps and tamarack forests that hold adult bucks. The trick is to scout and locate a mature buck and this remote portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is legendary for holding mature deer with long legs, broad chest and impressive headgear.

Bowhunting should be best in Gogebic, Ontonagon, and Baraga or Houghton counties. Ontonagon holds the highest number of deer with plenty of mature bucks mixed in and Gogebic ranks second. Public land is found just about everywhere and wise hunters also take advantage of the National Forest land.

Eastern Upper Peninsula

Finally the DNR is recommending a decrease in doe permits across the Upper Peninsula which will help deer populations to rebuild. Mild winters and reduced doe harvest could transform the UP into the whitetail promise land it should be. Archers over the past few years harvested more deer, and buck sightings have gone up around 20 percent, and this fall figures are expected to increase because of the milder winter. Southern counties from Naubinway west to Escanaba should have more deer this fall. The northern counties had an average winter, and hunting should be productive. Many U.P. hunters head to oak ridges that offer food. This year the acorn crop is outstanding.

Northeastern Lower Peninsula

Northern Lower Michigan has more than 20,000 square miles of public hunting land open for archery season. With the taking of less antlerless deer odds increase toward a better buck/doe ratio, and in this region some DNR biologists figure that ratio to be 1 buck / 4 does. The archery season should be exciting because there are more 2 ½ year old bucks, meaning the younger bucks are getting a chance to grow older.

Northwestern Lower Peninsula

Author with dandy state land buck that was attracted by his deep grunts or vocal burps that mimic a rutting buck calling to attract a doe.

Looking for a place to hunt? This unit contains thousands of square miles of state and federal lands open to bowhunting. Look at Wexford, Lake, Mason, Osceola and Missaukee counties for good public hunting land. There have had increased car/deer accidents in Osceola, Leelanau and Benzie counties, an indication the population is rising.

Archers planning to hunt bucks in northwest Lower Michigan this fall will need to look closely at antler size before they release the arrow. A new mandatory antler point restriction was approved by the Natural Resources Commission for 12 counties including: Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Osceola and Wexford counties. According to Brent Rudolph DNR Deer and Elk Specialist, “Hunters will be allowed to shoot bucks with at least three or more 1-inch points on one antler”. They go into effect this fall 2013 and stay in place for five years. Seven out of 10 hunters surveyed wanted the antler restrictions and reduced doe harvest according to the Northwest Michigan Quality Deer Management Association.

The Leelanau area has had several outstanding bow seasons in a row because of the antler restriction program. Archers in the know have kept the fantastic buck hunting under wraps. Some say it is as good as Illinois or other big buck states.

Manistee River SGA

Found close to the City of Manistee, this State Game area is best known for excellent waterfowl hunting. But those who understand big bucks have had a field day chasing mossy-horned mature whitetail that hide in the sloughs, bayous and cattails along the Big Manistee.

Dave Bruce from Bath has a cabin close by and he loves to chase bucks in the region. “One of my best spots is off River Road, close to a series of several small islands bordered by thick cattail marshlands, too thick for a person to wade but mega-bucks use the habitat for cover. Duck hunters tend to motor along the main river and push the deer to the cattail outskirts where I’m waiting for a clear shot. The state owned land is bordered by the expansive Manistee National Forest that is open to hunting. I literally have hundreds of miles of open land to chase bucks. By pre-season scouting the hardwood forests, I can generally find an oak ridge covered with acorns. Not just any acorn but big white oak varieties that draw big bucks like a magnet. If my marsh is flooded, I’ll stick to the acorn ridges,” explains Bruce.

Gratiot/Saginaw SGA

“With over 20 square miles of state owned land found in the Gratiot/Saginaw SGA, you can expect to find some excellent hunting. The habitat is a mixture of prime whitetail deer country highlighted by wetlands, small lakes, cattail swamps mixed with acorn-rich hardwoods and bordered by agricultural crops,” explains Jim Wilson, a well-known area archer.

“I like to concentrate on the edges of corn fields in the early bow season or close to apple trees or where deer tend to concentrate near food. As the season progresses I’ll slip into the big woods found off Woodbridge Road where bucks like to visit oak trees that are loaded with acorns. Come prime rut in late October through November the big bucks are chasing does, moving during broad daylight, and I hunt several stands set up along Buchanan Road. Big bucks tend to be very difficult to locate until rut time, and then they vacate area hideouts and search for receptive does. That’s when I’ll spend all day in the woods, and I cover plenty of ground, sneaking through the underbrush making tending grunts to draw the attention of love sick bucks,” explains Wilson.

“On opening day of duck season I’ll set up away from local ponds, lakes, waterways and the hundreds of pot holes in the SGA that holds wood ducks and tends to draw a multitude of wader-clad nimrods in search of ducks for the grill. Most hit the marshlands long before daylight, and they will chase the bucks to surrounding woodlots that have no duck ponds. Duck opener is like opening day of gun season and when the boys get shooting at woodies the deer run to adjoining woods that offer cover. Last year on opener I saw 7 bucks, 2 were shooters,” said Wilson.

Maple River SGA

This huge area open to public hunting borders the meandering Maple River from Gratiot and Clinton counties to Ionia County. It is comprised of nearly 10,000 acres of prime deer land bordered by private farms. The properties are in a hodgepodge of shapes and sizes along the river for a distance over 20 miles long. If you plan to hunt deer here you better get a state map that lays out the lands open to public hunting a: and click on “where I can hunt”.

I’ve hunted the Maple for over two decades and know the system intimately. Let me tell you, there are plenty of deer in the region and some big’ole stompin’ bucks to boot. While other state owned lands might have few deer, Maple River is simply overrun. For instance, last year on opening day I saw 33 deer, with several bucks mixed in. The second day I saw 36, 7 carried racks. Bowhunting is certain to be excellent this year because the population in the area is booming. Local farmers hunt deer, sure, but they tend to harvest few and the remainder are left to breed. Most does give birth to twin fawns and come archery season the woods is crawling with deer. Runways are large and filled with fresh tracks and finding buck sign is a breeze. No matter how many hunters cram onto state land, the deer simply dash to nearby private ground where they are protected.

Now, if our goal is to arrow a wall-hanger, I’d concentrate on the sections found west of Maple Rapids. From Wacousta Road to Hubbardston Road, on the Clinton county line, you will find some of the best hunting in Michigan. This is not a cake walk, you’ll need state and county maps to identify public land parcels and you will need to do plenty of scouting to find runways, bedding areas and deer hot spots, before you set up.

One trick is to find state land that borders farm agricultural fields of corn, soy beans, and alfalfa or apple groves. Next, scout the area and locate buck rub lines, bedding areas and set up close to the food sources. My favorite buck haven is bordered by standing corn and the state land has thick brush, tall marsh grass and several creeks that form islands in a low land swampy, muck-filled dense forest. The habitat is ideal, found far from the road, has little hunting pressure and the thick brush is home to adult bucks.

Allegan SGA

The archery outlook is excellent for the entire Allegan region. This area has a history of producing huge record book bucks, but there is a good reason that adult whitetail deer are located here. Found close to Allegan, this state land is best known for the fantastic goose hunting it offers. In addition, the waterfowl managers have set-aside several refuges to protect ducks and geese that have turned into deer magnets. Big buck sanctuaries are difficult to find in Michigan, especially on state land but Allegan has several and the huge bucks that roam the countryside are awesome creatures with impressive head gear. Sanctuaries are found at the Fennville Farm Unit, Bravo Unit, and High Banks Unit or Swan Creek Wildlife Refuge.

In addition, the surrounding habitat is ideal for big bucks. Allegan state land is full of rolling hills, ridges covered with oak trees, steep hills, small swamps, creeks and hideouts in thickets. Second, much of the land that borders the Kalamazoo River is difficult to hunt unless you use a canoe, or pram. And lastly, the surrounding private property holds plenty of big deer that find sanctuary in standing corn, pine groves and thick brush. This is rough country, unlike most of the flat farm country found in southern Michigan. The deer have thrived by jumping from ridge to ridge and the soil is rich with iron, calcium and other minerals to help average deer to grow impressive racks. Try the buck hot spot between 124th Ave. and New Richmond, along the Ottawa Marsh Unit. For information contact the Plainwell DNR Operations Service Center at (269) 685-6851.

Dansville SGA

“Archery season should be outstanding on the Dansville SGA because there was more standing corn this winter than past years and a lot of deer lived on the planted food source,” explains Edward Carlin, from Grand Ledge. “I hunted the area the entire early bow and come late bow the deer were charging the standing corn found near Williamston and Lienhart road. While driving Ewers Road after dark two big bucks crossed in my headlights. They were headed for standing corn planted on state land. I set up in the area and saw a lot of deer, several bucks but the big boys never showed. I hope to see them this fall. I think the crop plantings on the state owned land has helped deer to survive winter. Come spring does are healthier and should have twin fawns,” said Carlin.

“I own 40 acres of land close to Dansville and the local deer population seems to be on the rise. Last bow season I arrowed a fat 130s class buck the fourth day, after seeing almost a dozen bucks. Then after gun season I made the move to the Seven Gables swamp found near Hewes Lake in the center of a huge state owned section. I parked at the DNR lot on Dexter Trail and hiked a mile into the swamp, where I took stand. Come dark a large buck walked past but I missed the shot because I got over-excited when I saw the rack and jerked the trigger. That buck was a huge deer and should score Boone and Crockett this coming bow season. The Dansville SGA is so large that many deer can disappear into distant swamps that seldom get hunting pressure. The habitat is ideal, acorn ridges, alder thickets, creeks and swamps are home to big bucks with large antlers,” explains Carlin.

Michigan has a vast whitetail deer population and some excellent hunting is available to those willing to scout state properties, find buck sign, set up in hot locations and score on deer. In most cases the key to success depends on how well you understand whitetail deer and their habits, how well you execute smart woodsmanship and how close you can get to your target for a shot–on any property, in any environment under a variety of conditions. The goal of most archers is to harvest a deer, any deer, doe or buck. Fresh venison draws many hunters outdoors, yet other hunters go afield in quest of a trophy buck. As for me, I’m sticking to state land in southern Michigan with bow and camera, where the whitetail population offers dandy bucks and there is ample land available where I can chase them.