Bowhunting whitetails is popular in many places today. But in Michigan, sportsmen have taken this rite of autumn to a whole new level. The Wolverine State regularly leads the U.S. in bowhunter numbers, with more than 300,000 taking to the field each year. And these archers tag a lot of bucks big enough to make the Pope & Young record book.
Michigan's vast, remote Upper Peninsula often comes to mind when people think of deer hunting in the state. And some big bucks certainly live there. But the fertile farmlands down south are particular good for P&Y deer today.
"In general — including both firearm and archery hunting — the bulk of Michigan's trophy deer are being harvested in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula," says Mike Everett, president of Commemorative Bucks of Michigan.
"As a researcher at Michigan State University, I did a side project a few years back to look at how this distribution has changed by utilizing CBM data," he notes. "I worked with a couple other folks here at the university, along with a GIS (Geographic Information System) package, to produce a series of maps from the mid-1800s to 2009. This will give you a sense of the highest-scoring animals per county and number of trophies from a distribution perspective.
"As you can see, once you hit the early 2000s, this distribution is largely found around the southern half of Michigan. However, keep in mind that entry into the record book is completely voluntary, making it difficult to quantify from a statistical perspective. Also, please note that this data includes both firearm and archery. This is not surprising, given the composition of Michigan soils and the differentiation between the farmland and northern forest continuum," the researcher points out.
"I do believe there is a shift to more archery hunting in Michigan, especially with the recent addition of crossbows (2010) as a legal implement in deer hunting. This provides all hunters a better opportunity to harvest a buck during archery season. I do not have any numbers to back that up, but would bet that the number of crossbow harvests in Michigan is way up.
"Certainly this does NOT get at the P&Y issue (crossbow-taken deer cannot be entered into P&Y), but does get at trophy harvest during the archery season. And since Michigan does not differentiate between crossbows and more traditional archery equipment, this is a confounding factor that adds to the complexity of determining P&Y hotspots."
Department of Natural Resources Region 3 — 32 counties lying roughly along or south of a line from Muskegon on the west side east to Lake Huron — includes all of Michigan's top counties for P&Y entries. And recent data show the prospects remain good, though shifting a bit.
"Among Michigan hunters, there is certainly a growing interest and increase of efforts to produce more and older bucks," says Dr. Brent Rudolph, DNR deer and elk program leader. "Some regulations changes have complemented this, but in the southern Lower Peninsula, the trends are being driven by changing hunter attitudes and behaviors.
"Opinion surveys we have conducted show a majority of all of our hunters now indicate they are voluntarily selective in their buck harvest. They at least report passing smaller bucks early in the season," Rudolph points out. "Looking specifically at hunters that indicate they only take large bucks, we documented an increase in this reported tendency over just the short period of time from 2006 to 2012.
"Among archers, this reported commitment to take only large bucks increased from 32 percent to 42 percent. Among firearm hunters, the change was from 28 percent to 36 percent. We left hunters to decide for themselves what constitutes a 'large' buck," the biologist adds.
"Some counties may be experiencing particularly strong, local shifts in these attitudes that could show up in P&Y and other trophy records. What I mean is that the ideas catch on among local, interacting groups of like-minded hunters, and they more likely shape actual hunting behavior when they become adopted as shared norms reinforced within social groups.
"Anecdotally, I'd suggest that may account for the rise in Clinton County P&Y entries, because that area has several sizable private-land deer cooperatives that have been promoting passing young bucks and placing a higher priority on taking does," Rudolph says. "Michigan appears to be a very popular state for cooperatives. We've conducted research on these Michigan cooperatives, and identified impacts in the form of higher hunter satisfaction and increased doe:buck ratios in the harvest of deer on cooperatives in comparison to the rest of the region.
"Apart from the fact that changing attitudes and practices are likely to be 'contagious' at a local scale, there is another factor I can think of that might explain why the increase in P&Y records doesn't show up among more southern Michigan counties," he continues. "Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, and Van Buren counties all have either been especially hard hit or repeatedly hit by outbreaks of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in recent years.
"During an especially rough 2012 outbreak, Calhoun was among the highest in public reports of suspected EHD mortalities," the biologist notes. "Cass had confirmed outbreaks in 2010, 2011, and 2012, Kalamazoo in 2012, and Van Buren was confirmed in 2010, with one or more adjacent counties confirmed in 2006, 2011, and 2012. Many of our southwest to south-central Michigan counties have had at least some areas heavily hit by EHD.
"Even though many of these locations are now recovering, it will take even more years removed from those outbreaks to see growth in the number of bucks that make it through to the older age classes necessary to produce P&Y deer. In fact, some other counties around the mid-Michigan region have a considerable number of cooperatives but also experienced substantial EHD mortality in 2012. We have a research project in place to monitor one of these areas. Deer numbers are on the rise there, but only very slowly.
"So," Rudolph concludes, "there's not exactly a smoking gun — or bow, as the case may be — to tie directly to these P&Y trends. But these should at least be indicative of some important factors working for or against the production of record-class deer."
Michigan's No. 1 bow typical came from Oakland County in 2012. Robert Sopsich shot that 182 1/8-inch 12-pointer. Aaron Davis holds the non-typical bow mark: a 225 7/8-incher from Hillsdale County in 2004. For more on Michigan's top bow and gun bucks, visit www.buckfax.com, official website of Commemorative Bucks of Michigan. Additional information on record-class archery trophies from across North America can be found at: www.pope-young.org.