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How Altered Habitats Produced the World's Most Legendary Bucks

What can we learn about habitat management from the most legendary historic bucks? More than you might think.

How Altered Habitats Produced the World's Most Legendary Bucks

While it’s true the term “food plot” didn’t even exist when bucks like John Breen’s previous Boone & Crockett world record typical were taken, it’s false that these lands weren’t influenced or altered by man. (Illustration by Van Gilden)

Every whitetail hunter has dreamt of finding some woods never touched by man. It’s logical to believe we can’t improve on Mother Nature, so if we could stumble onto such a location, it surely would be the ultimate whitetail destination. What could be better? To support this view, some hunters point to vintage bucks in the record books. These are the legendary bucks that lived long before the term “food plot” even was coined. They ran wild and free on open range, and they did so long before there was any effort to manage the habitat for their benefit. They were the glorious products of untouched land. Really? Think again.

True, it wasn’t until around 1970 that anyone started managing private habitat specifically for whitetails. But long before, man began changing the land to better suit them. Whether that was even a secondary goal is doubtful, but significant change did occur. Let’s delve into the background of a few legendary bucks to see how early habitat manipulation altered whitetail history.

How Northwoods Logging Produced Giant Bucks

If any major chunk of the whitetail’s range still feels totally wild, most hunters would say it’s the vast forests of the North. Mile after mile of virtually unbroken timber has a way of making you feel as if you’re the first person to ever lay eyes on a spot.

Yet almost nowhere is that actually the case. Even if we limit our historical review to just the period following European settlement, on the heels of thousands of years of forest clearing and burning by certain native peoples, this part of the world has been walked and worked by more folks than you might think. And over the past few hundred years, many of those people have carried saws and axes.

In colonial times, timber cutting opened up much of forested New England and the Mid-Atlantic region to farming and residential development. But it didn’t stop there. With the human population growing rapidly, there was a steady appetite for farmland, livestock pastures, paper, and lumber for construction—including shipbuilding.

The timber barons were happy to meet this demand. Their crews eventually cleared most forests east of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as in the big woods along the U.S.-Canada border from Maine westward into the eastern Great Lakes region. And they kept going. In fact, by the mid-1800s, even the huge pine, fir, and spruce forests of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were being timbered.

Locations along major waterways were first to be cut, as the big trees had to be felled by hand, then moved to the rivers by teams of horses or oxen. Most of this took place in winter, due to the relative ease of moving huge logs over frozen ground. At spring thaw, the huge rafts of logs were floated downstream to sawmills, then the cut wood typically was hauled to market by rail.

A percentage of the logged acreage was kept clear and became farmland. Major wildfires opened up still more of the forest. Thus, year by year, what had been a vast sea of towering conifers and hardwoods vanished. All this happened far more quickly than even the loggers had fathomed; in fact, by the time the U.S. Forest Service was formed in 1905, very little forest in the Great Lakes region was still “virgin.” A staggering 99.8 percent of Wisconsin’s huge forest ultimately was cut.

Whitetails everywhere were struggling then, with only a half-million or so survivors hiding out in remote mountain regions or swamps across the continent. Fortunately, those few in the Northwoods found the newly timbered lands to their liking. There had always been some browse in the woods, especially in areas opened up by windstorms or wildfires, but nothing to match this widespread surge in forage.

Combined with a regional reduction in predator numbers, the food boost led to a deer population boom. And so, by the early 1910s, the stage was set for a couple deer hunters—James Jordan and John Breen—to make their indelible marks on whitetail history.

On Nov. 20, 1914, just south of the Yellow River near the northern Wisconsin village of Danbury, James shot a 10-pointer whose rack was too big and massive to believe. The young rifleman was walking along the Soo Line Railroad south of town when an approaching train’s whistle startled several does and this buck from their snowy beds. The buck’s rack was of such great size and balance, that even after a half-century of drying, it still would be crowned as the Boone & Crockett world record, at a net score of 206 1/8.

legendary-buck-habitat-railroad
The James Jordan Buck was shot in an area similar to this. (Photo courtesy of Gordon Whittington)

The hunt zone is now a patchwork of aspen, birch, maple, and oak woods, mixed in with scattered hemlock and white pine, patches of native blueberries, and crop fields. It probably wasn’t much different when James made history in 1914. Even then, there were numerous small farms, most of them worked by settlers of Scandinavian descent. These families had been drawn by the opportunity to homestead the “stump lands” in the wake of the logging boom.

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If you’re ever in Burnett County, do yourself a favor and walk the 1.3-mile “Jordan Buck Heritage Hike,” as it’s officially named, along the old Soo Line Railroad right of way south of Danbury. I’ve ambled along this route myself, and it’s enlightening. You can’t help but find yourself walking in the hunter’s boots.

Of course, along with logging and farming, the railroad was in itself a major alteration of the habitat. Had it never been built there, who’s to say James even would have been walking the path he did that November morning? And even if he had been, would the deer have been there? Whitetail history often hinges on seemingly unrelated events coalescing into a single moment, and that’s certainly true of the Jordan saga.

John Breen shot his colossal trophy during the 1918 gun season near the village of Funkley, Minnesota, only 160 miles northwest of where James had taken his deer four Novembers prior. While the Minnesota giant’s antlers scored slightly less—202 0/8 net—he also spent time atop the B&C rankings, as he was officially measured several years before the Jordan buck was.

The record book shows this deer as having come from Beltrami County. However, it happened so close to the Itasca-Beltrami County border that there’s still some debate—not that it really matters, except for local pride. The habitat is similar on both sides of the line. Broken timberlands have regrown since the big wave of logging in the early days, with some small farms throughout the area.

John shot his buck while “on stand.” Likely he was hiding by a tree, the most common form of ambush in that era before tree stands or pop-up blinds. The hunter reportedly saw some does approaching through the timber and was about to shoot the buck behind them when he noticed a bigger one coming. John quickly switched targets and made whitetail history.

Nobody back then was talking about “timber stand improvement” for whitetails. But the logging boom’s effect was, in many ways, similar to what we achieve with today’s TSI. Vast areas of regrowth led to a boom in forage, sustaining rut-worn bucks with enough browse to help them survive tough winters and grow bigger antlers. Those logged openings also helped hunters access areas perhaps too remote to reach otherwise.

Today, well over a century after the great Minnesota pine boom faded, we look across this landscape and see what some might call “virgin” timber. But perhaps the only chunk of land fitting that description is a 40-acre Itasca County tract, known as the “Lost 40,” that was missed only because of a surveying error made in the early days. This legally protected piece of old-growth red and white pine woods offers a glimpse of what much of the Northwoods resembled before the loggers arrived.

How Human Expansion Impacted the Whitetail Record books

As the most recent glacier retreated from its southern boundary in northeastern Ohio, what colonized the flattened terrain were millions of hardwood trees. American beech in particular became so common that surveyors in the early 19th century listed it as the overwhelmingly dominant tree in many areas. To a lesser extent, various types of oak and maple, along with ash, poplar, elm, and pine were also common in this region of moist, well-drained, acidic soils.

Soon after those first surveyors finished their work, the landscape began to change. Families moving into Ohio’s northeastern corner (then known as Connecticut Western Reserve), cleared timber, and built homesteads. Their main crops were corn, potatoes, and other vegetables, but fruit orchards also were common. Some of those trees had been sold to locals by none other than John Chapman—the legendary “Johnny Appleseed”—who visited that part of Ohio in the early 1800s.

The great forest quickly became smaller and more fragmented. It also changed in composition, as shade- loving beech gave way to a higher percentage of oak and maple. This transition was beneficial to deer, as beech is a low-choice deer browse and only a sporadic mast producer.

Even so, the overall loss of cover, and continued pressure by subsistence and market hunters, caused deer numbers to decline. By 1900, whitetails were all but gone. And despite a lengthy statewide ban on hunting, even by 1940 the herd still hadn’t rebounded enough to allow a season. Yet several factors would merge to make that year legendary in northeastern Ohio whitetail history.

legendary-bucks-habitat-hole-in-horn-buck
In December 1940, just a few months after the security fence went up at the Ravenna Army Ammunition Plant, the “Hole in the Horn” buck was found dead just outside it. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Dobie)

For it was in late 1940 that an incredible deer now known as the “Hole in the Horn” buck would be found dead in Portage County. Until the so-called “Missouri Monarch” was similarly found dead near St. Louis in 1981, this 45-point Ohio giant was the world’s highest-scoring buck ever documented, at 328 2/8 inches of net score. Even now, he ranks No. 2 and is the biggest wild Ohio whitetail in any record book.

How might habitat—or, more specifically, habitat change—have factored into this huge whitetail’s story? First, as noted, the area had become a patchwork of small family farms. Roughly 40 percent of Portage County’s farms were at the time under 50 acres, and only a few were larger than 100. Most of these landowners were part-time farmers earning wages elsewhere in the area. There was none of the large-scale, highly mechanized agriculture typically seen today.

Cutting through this mosaic of small parcels were railroads. Since the 1800s, the Erie and Baltimore & Ohio lines had run across the area on generally east-west routes, facilitating commerce and travel across the region. And in the late 1930s, the presence of two rail lines along the north and south sides of a 21,000-acre block of farmland led to another development: Ravenna Army Ammunition Plant, known locally as Ravenna Arsenal.

With World War II looming, the U.S. military needed to build a large ordnance plant that was out of enemy bombing range of the coastline, had multiple rail lines in place, was home to a reasonably small number of residents, and was obtainable at a fair price. All those elements came together in the aforementioned area. And so, the government promptly bought all the land, relocated the 1,300 people living on it, and enclosed the arsenal location with a secure perimeter fence of 8-foot-high chain link.

As thousands of workers turned the 21,000 acres into a military installation, their presence and activity surely proved unsettling to local wildlife. That must have included any whitetails living in the area, including the greatest buck in Ohio history.

In December 1940, just a few months after the security fence went up, the “Hole in the Horn” buck was found dead just outside it. Presumably, he had been hit by a passing train. Exactly where this occurred has been lost to time, but the village of Windham has been mentioned as a possible landmark.

This is an obvious case of habitat change impacting whitetail history. There’s no reason to think the shift in land use led the “Hole in the Horn” buck to grow his jumbo rack, as there wasn’t enough time for that. But it’s easy to see how the commotion of thousands of people operating heavy equipment and moving construction materials for months on end would have altered local deer patterns.

Perhaps this great buck was pushed from his home ranges within the 21,000-acre block onto some surrounding tract. Then, while chasing a doe or simply trying to get back to familiar habitat for the winter, he ended up on the wrong part of the wrong train track at the wrong moment.

Reflecting on events from so far back always takes some speculation. There were no known sightings of this beast prior to his demise. Nor, apparently, did any shed antlers ever turn up. And of course, another half-century would pass before the invention of the trail camera. Still, we can look at those railroad tracks outside now-defunct Ravenna Arsenal and imagine how a blend of natural and human events led to a watershed moment in whitetail history.

Portage County is hardly in the heart of the Midwest; in fact, it’s nearly as far east as Miami, Florida. But for going on two centuries now it’s been productive farmland, more like Illinois than the nearby hill country of Pennsylvania. Replacing the original beech forest with oaks, maples, and thousands of acres of farm crops perhaps helped one of the world’s most legendary deer reach his immense potential.

Prairie Improvements That Grew Legendary Bucks

The fertile farm country of the Midwest is known for magnum whitetails, having turned out many of history’s finest bucks. It’s also become a hotbed of habitat management for deer, as thousands of hunters and landowners seek to grow big, healthy animals.

Habitat enhancement is no newcomer to the region, and neither are its effects. One of the most obvious examples is the magnificent Illinois typical taken by recurve hunter Mel Johnson during the 1965 archery season. With a net score of 204 4/8 inches on the B&C scoring system, this beast easily became the world record by vertical bow. He still is, nearly 60 years later.

Nothing was being marketed as a wildlife-specific habitat product in those days. But what you could buy at the local farm co-op was the seed of an exotic plant from Asia: the soybean. Mel shot his buck as the deer walked through a Peoria County field planted with this high-protein legume.

We can’t prove that crop was the deciding factor in the Johnson buck’s rise to the throne. But growing large racks takes a lot of the right nutrients, along with age and solid genetics. And soybeans certainly are great whitetail food, whether we’re talking about green forage or mature seeds. Compare a map of record-book entries to one showing where soybeans are heavily farmed, and you’ll see a clear overlap.

While the Johnson buck is by far the best typical to have come from the Prairie State in those days, a bit over 500 miles to the west another great example of “accidental” habitat enhancement turned up. The spot was Custer County, Nebraska, and the year was 1959.

legendary-bucks-habitat-the-general-buck
In Nebraska, the legendary “General Buck” world record shed antlers were found in Custer County. (NAW Staff photo)

The deer in question was never killed, but evidence of his historic size comes to us in the form of a matched set of sheds. An anonymous rancher found them while searching for a lost calf. The massive bones stayed on his ranch house wall, unknown to the outside world, for well over three decades before outfitter Tim Condict stumbled onto them in the mid-’90s.

After acquiring the sheds, Tim had them officially measured . . . and the world had a new No. 1 typical set, as officially recognized by North American Shed Hunters Club. The buck has since become known as “The General.” In addition to ranking at the top for sheds, he’s one of those great “what if” whitetails.

We can’t say for certain what his inside spread was, but with an intact rack, he’d still be the clear No. 1 typical in the world. No way would his net score have been under 217, and that would easily outrank the 213 5/8 of Milo Hanson’s 1993 Saskatchewan world record.

Being on the southeastern edge of the vast Sandhills region, that area has a reliable supply of shallow ground- water. However, overlying this moisture are native prairie grasses and other plants better suited to native bison, pronghorns, or mule deer than whitetails. There’s actually very little woody cover, with the exception of widely scattered plum, cottonwood, ash, and elm. So, how did this place produce such a stupendous set of whitetail antlers so long ago?

Again, we see that nature had help. In Custer County, many acres were planted to small grains. Oh, and the county ranked as the state’s No. 1 producer of alfalfa hay. This long-lived, drought-tolerant legume is native to Eurasia, but since the late 1800s it’s been a popular livestock forage plant on the Great Plains. It’s also a great crop for deer. In fact, I’ve heard my friend Dr. James C. Kroll (“Dr. Deer”) describe it as “maybe the perfect whitetail forage.”

legendary-buck-habitat-alfalfa
Alfalfa, origionally native to Eurasia, is regarded by some to be the perfect whitetail forage. (Photo by B. Brown | Shutterstock)

Given the abundance of alfalfa, along with the amount of land in small grains, it seems likely The General had easy access to plants far more nutritious than those in the area’s native habitat. Custer County was in essence a huge, diverse food plot—though that term was still decades from coming into use.

Just three years after those jaw-dropping sheds were found, another southern Nebraska whitetail made history. In 1962, Del Austin arrowed his magnificent 279 7/8-inch non-typical along the Platte River in Hall County. The farm on which this giant was taken by recurve bow is only about 75 miles southeast of The General’s old stomping grounds and similarly is in an area loaded with agriculture. Even back then, soybeans and corn grew lushly along the Platte.

Had no high-protein “exotic” legumes ever been brought to Nebraska or other trophy hotspots in the center of the U.S., would that region have produced three of the most legendary whitetails of all time? I know what I think.

legendary-bucks-habitat-delaustin-buck
Del Austin’s 279 7/8-inch non-typical (taken 1962) came from an agriculture-rich area in Nebraska. (NAW Staff photo)

Conclusion: Habitat Alterations Benefit Big Deer

When turning back the pages of whitetail history, it’s common to uncover gaps between perception and reality. So, it is with habitat management. In truth, tweaking of the landscape has been going on since the early days of European settlement. If we count the frequent burning done by certain native peoples, it’s been going on even longer than that.

Whether we call our use of the land “logging,” “farming,” “ranching,” or even “national defense,” the effects can be quite like those of what we now refer to as “whitetail habitat management.” While it’s silly to say nature doesn’t know best, time and time again we’ve seen whitetails not only tolerate man’s impact but apparently benefit from it.




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