For most people, when the subject of Michigan white-tailed deer comes up an immediate image is flashed through their collective brains. That image is of a big old buck, more shadow than reality, skulking through some deep dark forest looking for acorns or leatherwood or some other such food.
Truth be told, while the deep dark woods are a good place to find a good buck, you are more than likely to look a long time before that antlered king comes by.
Over the past decade or so another type of habitat and a somewhat different hunting method, has taken the spot light when it comes to big deer.
Look to the tall grass and the river bottoms slicing through the tall grass for that big deer. And where to look for such habitat, you ask? Almost the entire southern third of Michigan fits the bill. And while naming an area is dangerous, in my opinion, the entire Thumb area region is superb. There, remnant prairies will be found, more than a little agriculture, a large amount of CRP lands, and the deer are more than a little fond of them all.
Chasing deer in the grass is unlike deep woods hunting. In the deep woods most folks sit and wait along a deer trail. In the tall grass the hunting is much more active. Yes, the deer still move on trails but you'll be much farther ahead hunting these deer the way you would hunt antelope. Think spot and stalk.
These grassland deer are masters of disguise. After eating their fill in the early morning they find an area in the tall grass and just sit. Sit, here, is figurative. While they will lay down and rest, they often get up to stretch before bedding back down again. Often, the only thing you'll see will be the tips of the antlers. Without a good set of binoculars you will not see them.
Once spotted it is up to use all your woods skills in the stalk, from downwind of course. Being quiet is essential and if there is a fair wind blowing, one that rustles the grass, so much the better to cover your approach. Keep in mind that even bedded down these deer are on high alert. Use every fold in the ground to conceal your movement and while it may look flat, it isn't.
This grassland hunting can be mind-numbing. Long hours of searching the golden grasses for the patch of golden fur on the deer, or the tips of the antlers, all through binoculars strains the eyes. And ones patience. If you get tired, quit. Rest awhile and then go back at it.
This grass hunting isn't for everyone. If its not for you still consider the area for your next deer hunt. Why? Because of those river bottoms.
River bottoms are like funnels. Dense shrubs and trees grow in wide groves grow along the waters edge intermixing with the grasses. Hunts here are generally early and then late in the day. The deer use these as their highways, and dinner tables, moving through them before retreating to the tall grasses. It is here, too, that they will most likely spend the night so an early morning hunt is generally better than a late afternoon.
Here it is much like the hunting done in the deep woods. You set up on the top of a flood plain bank, or some nearby hill and simply watch for the deer to begin to move. Remember that early morning? We mean early, as in a full hour before any sort of light breeches the eastern horizon.
The deer begin to move then and you don't want the noise you make getting to your perch to spook them into the next county. Once there, settle in, start searching with your binoculars and be ready for that big boy to come strolling by.
If you like to make noise and if the rut is happening, or soon to start, its time to break out the rattling bag and the grunt tube.
Plenty of does will be using these river bottoms, too. Bucks like does, thats why we have deer every year. Using a rattling bag, or rattling antlers, from a secluded hide does work. The rattling is meant to mimic two bucks fighting for dominance over an area. If a buck hears two other bucks going at it, that buck will often try to move in to steal the doe that the other two are fighting for. Pretend you are those two bucks and see who pops in for a visit.
Grunt tubes are used for the same basic reason. Bucks grunt when on the trail of a hot doe. Older bucks have a deep, guttural grunt. Younger bucks grunt in a higher pitch. Think of your snoring compared to your wifes. A dominant buck will come in to investigate a lesser bucks grunting.
That big boy doesn't want some young whipper-snapper buck to make eyes at his does. He comes in, chases the little guy away and walks off hoof-in-hoof with the pretty doe. Make like the smaller buck and watch for the big boy to come in through the brush.
No, its not the romance of the deep woods. But, hunting these tall grass and river bottom areas have become the go-to place for those big old mossy-horned bucks.
Hot Spots and a Reminder
Deer are where you find them. Generally speaking, the best place to find more info on a specific deer hunting location is by getting in contact with the various DNRE field offices and speaking to the biologist there.
Now the reminder. Michigan has changed the license structure again this year. In all of the UP there are antler-point restrictions in place. In the northern lower you'll find them, too, in the northeast section. And, state-wide, crossbows can now be used, as long as you get the free crossbow endorsement on your license. Finally, like regs everywhere, they are always subject to change; make sure you read the latest rendition to be on the legal side.
Written by Dan Donarski, a noted professional outdoor and travel journalist, September 2010.