Superior Whitetails in the Michigan Outdoors

Dan Donarski, outdoor blogger and enthusiast, offers tips and advice on hunting whitetail deer this season. Read more on Pure Michigan Connect!

With firearms, deer season is upon us and it’s time to choose a place to go. Here’s a look far to the north in Michigan, an area where the word “hunt” is, as it should be, a verb.

Looking for a new spot to hunt whitetails this year? Look north and heed the advice of two deer hunters who have hunted the back country of the Upper Peninsula for dozens of years.

“Do ya really wanna jump? Huh? Do ya?” said a maniacal Mel Gibson in a movie.

Gary and Jim ask in the same maniacal voice, “Do ya really wanna hunt? Do ya?”

If your answer is “yes”, then come prepared. These two guys live and hunt in the harshest environment of the upper Midwest: Lake Superior, watershed of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The area they are particularly asking about stretches from Silver City, northeast to Copper Harbor and then southeast to Big Bay. The Superior shoreline here takes in parts of Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga and Marquette counties.

Right from the start they’ll tell you this is not a numbers game. “Go somewhere else if you need to see a deer every day. That is not going to happen here,” says Gary.

“During a two-week hunt, we may only see a dozen or so deer. The farther north you go, the fewer deer there are. The climate’s just not right for them. You can tell that from a whitetail range map,” adds Jim. “Their natural range ends right here. Heavy snows come as early as September and often linger well into May. Twenty feet of snow each winter is a distinct possibility. It is so far up north that the range of the whitetail goes precious few miles farther in the direction of the compass needle.”

Besides preparing for the threat of heavy snows and sub zero temperatures during hunting season, come prepared to hunt. The habitat here is thin when it comes to food. Deer need to move around a great deal to fill their bellies.

Characterized by expansive stands of mature forests and swamps, the area can get downright ugly. Cedar and hemlock dominate with parcels of hardwoods scattered throughout. The swamps are often sink holes of muck and, if that’s not enough, add massive blow-downs to the mix.

Then there are the high granite hills. Moss and lichen covered, they are slick. Few trees have the gumption to push roots through the cracks in the rocks. In short, the area is hostile, rugged, and beautifully so.

So, the question begs, why hunt here?

“Because of the deer,” says Gary. “We may not have the numbers most other places do, but do we have the bucks. If I see a dozen deer in a season, six are probably bucks. Of those six, there’s certainly going to be one or two heavy-racked trophies.”

For Jim, it’s the deer, too, but there’s one other important factor. “It’s the hunt itself. This is no sitting-on-a-stand, watching-a-bait-pile hunt. This is a scout-pray-stalk-pray-shoot kind of hunt. It’s what hunting really is, you against the animal, and the deer has most of the advantages.”

Gary’s home is filled with photos and mounts of deer. Heavy-beamed, long-tined racks line a complete wall in his house giving the impression of a hunting lodge. The racks are stained dark from the tannin found in the bark of the cedars and hemlocks where the deer rubbed off velvet and then added its polish.

You need to know how to use a compass and a map; there are precious few roads in most of the area. The deep hemlock swamps can be real interesting, even if you do have a compass. If you are uncomfortable in deep and dark swamps then these will be very intimidating. Only fools hunt alone here.

The southern section of this area is characterized by massive chunks of the Copper Country State Forest and the Ottawa National Forest. For all practical purposes these lands are located south of Houghton and west of Baraga.

Specifically pinpointing an area would be unfair, but with all the public land hunters shouldn’t have any difficulty finding their own section. To get you started in the right direction, look at the land found near Forest Highways 1100, 16, 1360 and 2200 in the Ottawa. In Copper Country State Forest take a good look at Emily Lake Road and Pike Lake Road as good starting points. Contact the Ottawa National Forest office at 906/932-1330.

Going north into the Keweenaw Peninsula, things get a bit trickier. Very little in the way of state forest lands are found, and there are no national forest blocks. A new addition to Keweenaw’s mix is the new public land found at the tip of the peninsula around the Montreal Falls and river area. You’ll find a lot of Commercial Forest Act lands; lands that are privately owned, mainly by power and paper companies.

The owners get a major tax break for enrolling their property, and when the acreage is more than 40 acres, they must allow free and open access. Platt books are a necessity, as is a list of CFA enrolled lands. For information on how to get your hands on these, contact the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce at 906/482-5240 and the Dept. of Natural Resources office at 906/228-6561.

Moving east, the land from L’Anse to the Big Bay area is dominated by CFA lands, along with the Ottawa National Forest and Escanaba River State Forest. The McCormick Wilderness, part of the Ottawa National Forest, is located here, offering nearly 27 square miles of true wilderness.

There are a few places in this area where it is a bit more hospitable for hunters who want to experience the solitude of the far north woods. The AAA Road, on the way to the wilderness, runs through sections of the Escanaba River State Forest.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.

4 thoughts on “Superior Whitetails in the Michigan Outdoors

  1. Curtis Stone, are you the gentleman from the LPDMI meeting in Lansing that acted like a complete fool? You should be ashamed of your behavior.

  2. Dan,

    Just listened to you on Mike Avery Outdoors. I like the way you think. Keep up the good work. Check out Michigan SMART Hunters and our mission. Thanks,


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