For The Traveling Deer Hunter, It’s One Of The Most Hassle-Free,Affordable, Deer Hunts Available…
Quality deer hunting can be interpreted different ways by different hunters. To some hunters quality might mean having a lot of large antlered deer in the area. Others many define quality hunting as just seeing a lot of deer. Some though view the challenge, the hunt itself and the setting as the primary considerations in the quality equation. As an outdoor writer that contributes to lots of national magazines, I could hunt anywhere I want yet I choose the UP as my main hunting destination every year. In fact, I haven’t hunted much elsewhere in years because I just enjoy my UP hunting more than any other place I could hunt. My reasons are simple: I enjoy hunting the big woods and all the challenges that come with it in the UP.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an often overlooked, deer hunting destination for discriminating hunters and this year may very well be much better than anticipated due to several factors. It’s no secret that deer numbers are down across the UP after three successive harsh winters and a burgeoning predator population with wolves especially taking a big bite out of the deer herd there. All the bad press on deer there has driven a lot of hunters away from the area with hunter numbers at modern time lows in recent years. This year will likely see additional reductions in UP deer hunter numbers.
For the hunters remaining though, there will be a lot less hunting pressure to contend with in a region with pretty light hunting effort in the first place. Add to that the fact that a huge chunk of the UP last year saw big snows right before the firearm deer season, which kept most hunters out of the woods for the entire season. The lack of overall hunting pressure last year and in years past will pass along a lot of bucks into older age classes. Even though deer numbers are down, there should be a decent number of big bucks running around this fall with light pressure on them.
Last year I shot my limit of deer in the UP during the archery deer season. So, I spent most of the firearm deer season there trapping and also scouting deer hunting areas on public lands for seasons to come. What I found on public land was a complete lack of hunters in all of my main deer hunting spots. Since the ground was snow covered there all through the season, I was able to positively assess the hunting pressure in those spots as zero. I was the only one hunting those areas during the archery deer season too, so I actually had thousands of acres of land all to myself and this year should provide some very good hunting in those same spots for adult bucks. Sure deer numbers are low there, but there are still certainly enough deer to make for some high quality hunting opportunities indeed.
The UP is a sleeper region providing some quality, big-woods, deer hunting adventures with pretty high hunter success rates too; in fact some of the highest in the Midwest. The quality of the hunting is also outstanding with a buck age structure that is considered top shelf compared to other whitetail states. The UP also contains millions of acres of public land too (more than half the land mass), so finding a good place to hunt is certainly not an issue. For the traveling bowhunter, the UP offers one of the most hassle-free, affordable deer hunts available. With over-the-counter deer tags readily available, at very reasonable rates, deer hunters can just show up and hunt with minimum muss, fuss or expense.
November 8, 2014 was indeed a good day for bowhunting in the central UP. I almost felt guilty about sleeping in as I slipped into one of my favorite stands at a gentlemanly hour of 9:00 a.m. As the peak of the rut approaches though, with the typical cool weather patterns, I change my hunting strategy to take advantage of increasing daytime travel patterns. Skipping the early morning hunt is an especially wise hunting strategy on cold, crisp, still mornings when deer can hear hunters moving through the woods from a great distance. When the late morning breeze ruffles over the woods, a bowhunter can then sneak into a stand without being detected and messing up the hunt before it begins.
There was another reason to sleep-in too: With the presence of wolves now on much of the UP landscape, many deer have changed their movement habits big-time. Wolves mainly hunt during low light hours. Before wolves became numerous in my area, deer moved mostly during low light hours. Now that wolves are common, deer move much more during mid-day to avoid wolves. In fact, if it’s not warm, I now consider prime deer hunting time to be somewhere around 10:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. In the last 10 years, I’ve killed the vast majority of my deer during mid-day.
My treestand on that hunt was situated on public land along the edge of very remote cedar swamp flanked by some thick, brushy upland habitat. Perched 25 feet up in a cedar tree, I was extremely comfortable in my Guido’s Web sling style tree stand. This stand has all-day comfort and also allows for a true, 360 degree shooting radius, which makes hunting that particular spot much more effective since there are deer trails on all sides of the stand.
The weather was pretty nice early on in that hunt, but by noon, the winds had picked up and precipitation pelted me in a mixture of rain and sleet turning to all snow as the day wore on with the dropping temperatures. I was dressed for the occasion though in my Cabela’s Super Slam suit and the nasty conditions were blocked completely by the layers of waterproofing and insulation. I had only seen one fawn all day, but at 4:00 that all changed when a big doe came running past me. At first I thought a wolf might be chasing her, but when I heard a buck grunting in the distance, I got ready for action by grabbing my Quest Bow.
The buck came along a few minutes later on a different trail and when he stopped just 20 yards away, I quickly determined that he had four points on one antler making him legal, and then I sent an arrow on its way without hesitation. The buck dashed off about 25 yards, stopped, and then he just leaned against a fallen tree and expired without ever really falling over. I had that seven pointer aged by two DNR biologist with one estimating his age at four years old, but his compadre disagreed and guesstimated him at three. Whatever his age, he weighed 180 pounds dressed and he took me until the wee-hours of the night to extract him from that quagmire.
Being born and raised in northern Michigan, I’ve been hunting the UP for many years indeed. Having hunted other noted whitetail states like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and many others, I still consider hunting in the UP to be my overwhelming favorite. In fact, over the last 10 years, I have tagged my legal limit of 20 Michigan bucks, all of them from the UP; all of them nicely racked specimens and all of them with good sized bodies too.
I’m mainly a meat hunter though, and don’t really put much emphasis on antlers in my deer hunting pursuits. What really turns my crank is the body size of deer and the UP is well known for having big bodied deer. In the last ten years, I’ve taken a slew of big-bodied UP bucks that yielded 90 pounds or more of scrumptious, boned venison. I forgot to mention, I hunt a lot on public land in the UP too; in places where anybody can hunt.
Besides a high degree of success, the UP also provides a lot of true, wilderness deer hunting opportunities. There’s no denying that farmlands produce some mighty fine whitetail hunting, however; there’s something extra special about chasing whitetails in the big woods. I’m talking about hunting where you won’t hear any planes, trains or automobiles; where the only noises are the wind blowing through the trees and other natural sounds.
By the Numbers
From preliminary data, the UP experienced a hunter success rate on bucks of 22% during 2014, which compares favorably with the rest of Michigan and other noted deer hunting states too. It should be noted though that there are some deer management units in the UP that had over 30% success rates on bucks, which is outstanding anywhere.
The most amazing statistic is the UP’s incredible buck age structure: Fully, 66 percent of the bucks killed there were age 2.5 or older. I don’t know of any other whitetail state that can boast better. In fact, in most noted whitetail states, yearling bucks dominate the harvest. In many areas over 80 percent of the antlered buck harvest is composed of yearling bucks. In the UP though, many bucks survive to older age classes due to a combination of regulations, a let em’ go to let em’ grow hunter mentality, and also the remoteness of the whitetail’s range there and the corresponding light hunting pressure in many areas.
Winter severity is the single biggest limiting factor for the UP deer herd. Some areas of the UP seem to always get buried in snow and the deer there have developed migratory strategies as a survival technique. In some counties deer will migrate over 50 miles between their summer and winter ranges.
The UP can be divided into two distinct regions: Big Snow Country and the Banana Belt. The Big Snow Country is located in the northern half of the UP where lake effect snows from Lake Superior dump copious amounts of snow annually. The Banana Belt is in the southern part of the UP If you think it snows a lot where you live, consider that there are counties in the UP that average well over 200″ of the white stuff per year. In comparison, there are also areas in the Banana Belt that average just 50″ per year, which is quite contrasting compared to the Big Snow Region.
“The UP deer herd fluctuates between about 200,000 and 400,000 deer depending upon the winters.” says Dave Jentoft a Wildlife Biologist and UP deer expert for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He went on to say, “The winters of 2009/2010, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 were all very mild in nature and as a result the deer herd increased then. Those three successive herd growth years should provide very good hunting for older age class bucks despite the fact that the past three winters were pretty hard on deer.”
Dave Jentoft said, “Generally you’ll find higher deer numbers in areas of the UP that get less snow. Habitat will also influence deer numbers as well. Deer grow faster in areas with less severe winters and better habitat. Because of the winter severity, deer in the UP have slower overall antler growth rates compared to areas with milder climates.”
Where to Hunt
It might seem logical to assume that the best deer hunting in the UP is in the southern region where deer numbers are the highest. In some regards that might be true, especially if you are just looking to fill a tag. Keep in mind though that hunting pressure, especially on public lands, is typically much higher in areas of the UP known for lots of deer. Hunting pressure though is a relative term as the UP gets far less hunting activity compared to most other regions of whitetail country. For example, the most heavily hunted county in the UP gets a small fraction of the hunting pressure compared to the least hunted county in southern Michigan.
Still, the hunting pressure in high deer areas of the UP does take a toll, especially on buck numbers. Usually, the more hunters that you have in an area, the more the buck segment of the deer population get hammered. In areas with lower hunting pressure, more bucks will survive to live and grow into bigger, trophy class specimens. Therefore, I tend to avoid deer hunting in areas of the UP that have high overall deer numbers. I also avoid areas with very low numbers of deer too.
In my experience, units with moderate deer numbers have a lot less hunting pressure and therefore hold more older age class bucks. With diligent scouting, it is possible to find pockets of high deer numbers in those areas where you can have the best of both worlds.
Big Buck Areas
According to Commemorative Bucks of Michigan (state’s official record keeper of big game) Delta County and Marquette County (both located in the central UP) are the top counties in the entire state of Michigan for record book bucks. Ontonagon and Iron Counties (western UP) are also top counties in big buck production ranking fourth and fifth respectively statewide.
The Michigan DNR manages deer according to Deer Management Units (DMUs). There is one DMU (DMU122) in the UP that has been under strict, Mandatory Antler Restrictions (MARs) since the year 2000. As a result of MARs, DMU122 consistently produces more and bigger bucks than any other DMU in the UP but it also attract more hunters there as a result.
Areas to Avoid
Good concentrations of deer in areas with light deer hunting pressure are not too difficult to find in the UP. Some of those “good looking” areas though may not be all that great for deer hunting. In all the years I’ve been hunting in the UP I’ve never run into another bowhunter while bowhunting. I have however had many hunts ruined when bird hunters and bear hunters disturbed my bowhunting spots. Parts of the UP seem to have way more upland bird hunters than bowhunters, so it’s best to avoid bowhunting in areas where there are lots of grouse.
I avoid bowhunting in areas with young aspen stands (prime grouse habitat). Fresh clear-cuts often make good bowhunting spots, but after a few years, when the aspen sprouts start turning into small trees, birds will move in big time and so will the bird hunters.
Bear hunting is very popular in the UP during September up until the end of the season on October 25. Bear hunting is done with bait and dogs. A lot of bear hunters seem to be somewhat lazy and will not haul bait very far from a road or ATV trail. Dog hunters typically either start the dogs on baits, or drive down roads and trails letting the strike dogs detect where a bear has passed and then they turn their dogs loose. Basically, I like to bowhunt in areas where there is poor access for bear hunters avoiding spots where roads or trails make it convenient for bear hunting.
When to Go
There are three prime periods to bowhunt in the UP: The opener of Archery Deer Season, which we missed, is a great period for some high quality hunting. I’ve killed a bunch of nice bucks during early October. The deer are very relaxed at that time of the year and their movement patterns can be somewhat predictable and more concentrated during the cooler times of the day. Early October is also wonderful for a UP hunting trip because I love to hunt grouse and can combine bird hunting with bowhunting for a great overall experience. The first week of October, when the leaves are still falling, is considered to be a prime period for grouse hunting. You can also combine bowhunting, bird hunting and some world class trout fishing then too for a trifecta of outdoor entertainment.
Like everywhere, some of the best bowhunting of the season, especially if you are seeking an adult buck, occurs during the rut. The best UP rut bowhunts occur from Halloween until the beginning of the firearms deer Season (November 15). I’ve killed more UP bucks during the first week of November compared to all other times.
Another excellent deer hunting period is late season from December 15 until the close of the archery deer season on New Year’s Day. This wintery hunting season often provides top notch bowhunting opportunities. If it’s snowy then, Savvy hunters key in on migration routes to ambush deer as they travel from remote summer ranges to their wintering grounds. If early snows already pushed the deer to their yards, then hunting those
winter hideouts can be highly successful.
The UP is under Hunters Choice deer hunting regulations. Deer hunters must choose from two licensing options: Hunters can purchase a Combination License which includes two restricted tags. Bucks must meet certain antler point restrictions (3 points on one side for one tag and 4 points on one side for the second, restricted tag). The other option is to buy a single Archery Deer Hunting License good for one unrestricted buck; however you are limited to one buck for the entire season (gun or bow) under that option. In the UP, with archery gear, only bucks may be taken this year with a combination license or single buck tag. There are some bonus, antlerless deer tags available in three DMUs which are sold either in a lottery type drawing or over the counter, depending on availability.
With about 2/3 of the UP’s land mass available for public hunting, bowhunters can easily find a spot all to themselves. Camping is popular and free for hunters on both state and federal lands, although a free permit is required to camp on state lands. There are also dozens of state owned and private campgrounds available to. Hunters will find millions of acres of private lands enrolled in the CFA program where hunters have free access, although camping is not allowing on most CFA lands. A great interactive mapping resource for finding public lands in Michigan is at