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Deer hunting in Buffalo County from the perspective of an outfitter and landowner

This is the second in a three-part series on Buffalo County's unique place in deer hunting history

Nov. 11, 2011   |  
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Buffalo County — by the numbers:

(2010 data)
Population: 13,587
Square miles of land: 671.64
Persons per square mile: 20.2
Gun harvest: 5,788 (2,064 bucks)
Bow harvest: 1,946 (1,156 bucks)
Ag acres in corn: 67,500
Ag acres in soybeans: 24,000
Ag acres in oats: 7,000
Ag acres in alfalfa: 3,600

About this series:

Data for this article was compiled with assistance from Boone and Crockett Club’s online trophy database, and from the Wisconsin Buck & Bear Club’s Director of Records. For more on B&C’s Trophy Search or its 13th edition of the Records of North American Big Game, visit www.booneandcrockettclub.com or call (406) 542-1888. For more on the Buck & Bear Club, including its 500-page trophy records book and the 2011 Whitetail Classic magazine, visit www.wi-buck-bear.org.

On the web:

Visit Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com’s deer hunting page for headlines and photos from around the state: http://www.wisconsinoutdoorfun.com/section/wof07\

The Wisconsin DNR’s deer hunting page http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/HUNT/deer/ contains a wealth of whitetail hunting information.

Buffalo County's website:

http://www.buffalocounty.com

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Read the first and third parts of this series on Buffalo County.

An outfitter's perspective

Buffalo County is located in western Wisconsin along the upper Mississippi River valley. The more than 1,000 bucks it has listed in the Pope & Young records book is a testament to the land and the hunters who had the self-control to let younger or smaller-racked bucks walk.

Tom Indrebro of Alma has been hunting there for more than three decades, and guiding hunters for nearly 25 years. Today he hunts year-round with a camera, binoculars or spotting scope, preferring to save bucks on the land he leases for his Bluff Country Outfitter customers.

Nearly two decades ago, Indrebro’s “Bucks of Buffalo” video series — Monarch Valley, Legend Lane and Monster Alley — opened the eyes of thousands of hunters at Whitetails Unlimited events, sport shows and archery shops, helping fuel Wisconsin’s Quality Deer Management movement.

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Today he offers the historic footage as a trilogy on a single DVD for $23, including shipping and handling.

“It was more or less my year of hunting,” Indrebro said. “I’d condense 20 hours of video down to an hour, give a tape to neighbors and they’d show their guys. It just took off.”

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Indrebro said he didn’t plan to guide when he moved to Buffalo County. Pat Reeve, who would become one of the many faces of a growing trophy whitetail hunting industry, soon joined him. It wasn’t long and all of Indrebro’s footage went to televised hunting shows that were springing up, like North American Whitetail and Buckmasters.

At his peak, Indrebro managed about 6,000 acres. Today he’s down to guiding on the best 2,500 or so, saying it’s even more than needed.

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“I used to do about 150 hunters September to December,” Indrebro said. “Now I’m down to about 60. I was the original outfitter. Today there are probably 20 or more.”
Indrebro enjoys scouting, and benefits from having the eyes of up to a dozen clients on stands that he might be hunting, if not for his outfitting.

“You’re always looking for a sign and trying to figure out the best place to intercept an older buck,” Indrebro said. “If you ever really mastered it, it would be boring. It’s the challenge that keeps you going.”

When he began hunting in Buffalo County, Indrebro said it was all old school.
“You’d go out and if you shot a deer, it was great,” Indrebro said. “A little bit at a time, things began to change.”

As the area began producing more monster-size bucks, people came in from outside the area and bought land with trophy deer in mind. They tried to manage it themselves, but Indrebro said many hunters didn’t understand which bucks they should let pass if they want a chance at a truly world-class whitetail.

“What we used to think was good management wasn’t,” Indrebro said. “It made hunting better as far as the age class of bucks go, but if truly managing deer they should be shooting the numbers (of does), too, and targeting bucks that didn’t have what it took to get that gigantic rack.”

Most of the bucks — Indrebro estimates as many as 80 percent — will never grow into top-end trophies no matter how old they get. He’s seen bucks aged at 6 to 10 that were only 120 to 130 class deer. On the other hand, the world record typical was aged at just 3.5 years.

Genetics on both the buck and the doe are equally important, Indrebro said, making it impossible to really have a handle on true management.

“This isn’t inside a fence, where they’ve figured out how to grow 200-inchers all the way up to 400-plus inches now,” Indrebro said. “In the wild there’s stress, and breeding is haphazard, not a controlled thing.”

Outfitters sometimes get a bad rap, but Indrebro said 5-day hunts on leased land over the course of a long bow and gun season allow a lot more people the chance to hunt Buffalo County than if a parcel were owned and hunted by a small group of hunters.

“For a lot of people, they’d have no access here without outfitters,” Indrebro said. “They don’t have the time to scout, set stands, check trail cameras. They’re working people, or they don’t have places to do it. So they take a vacation and go hunting.”

Outfitting means big bucks to the region. For example, Indrebro said locals are often hired to put in miles of roads, access trails, ponds, and facilities to house hunters. Area hotels, bars, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses also benefit.

Some visitors who’ve bought land for hunting get frustrated when the very biggest deer seem to get shot around them. Indrebro said sometimes that can be traced to not taking out the right deer.

“Those big, old, heavy eight-pointers, some of them 250- to 300-pound deer, they’ll drive off the younger bucks that maybe had better genetics,” Indrebro said. “My feeling is after doing it for years, we’ll usually suggest one or two deer not to shoot to see what they’re going to turn into the next year.”

That doesn’t always work, Indrebro admits, with a high mortality rate. Some bucks die when shot on neighboring lands, some get hit on roadways and a few even get locked with other giants and die, or get so stressed from the battles and breeding that they might not make it through the winter.

Even in Buffalo County, hunting can be feast or famine when bowhunting the rut. If one lucky hunter has a hot doe around, he might see a half-dozen big bucks that day on the stand while others aren’t seeing any trophies.

“We’ll move everyone in that general area and invariably someone gets a shot,” Indrebro said. “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, even more so when the does are in heat.”

A landowner's view

Steve Ashley's longtime friend and fellow measurer, Stan Godfrey, lives and breathes deer hunting in Buffalo County.

The 69-year-old has been scoring bucks for both Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young for 30 years.

About 18 years ago, he sold his hunting land in Waupaca County and moved from his home in Walworth County to a 240-acre farm in Buffalo County.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” Godfrey said. “I paid $238 an acre for what many might consider junk land. Today they’re getting $3,000 to $5,000 an acre here.”

Even though Godfrey believes the trophy hunting is just as good in Trempealeau County now — and getting better throughout the state — he’s glad he made the move.

“These river systems are where your big bucks are in any state,” Godfrey said. “It’s just straight up and down, and no matter how good of shape you’re in, it wears on you pretty fast.”

The wind — and the whitetail’s ability to sniff out human presence — also plays a key role in allowing more mature bucks to survive, Godfrey said.

“It goes in seven different directions in this bluff country,” Godfrey said. “That saves more of these bucks than anything.”

Godfrey puts some food plots on his property to attract deer late season, when they shed antlers. He finds 40 to 50 sheds some years, with most of the bigger bucks dropping from early January to early February.

“I found a Boone and Crockett set on Jan. 3 one year,” Godfrey said. “He had showed up on the trail cam, and then he disappeared. If he’s a mile and a half away, he might as well be on the moon.”

The buck might have also died in winter, something Godfrey says may be more common than most would think.

“They really get run down during the rut,” he said. “If you get a hard winter, that’s tough on those older bucks.”

Godfrey said hunting has changed a lot in the county since its reputation for "Booners" grew. Very few hunters walk out or “drive” their land any more, afraid of pushing big bucks to neighbors. Most sit, and some won’t shoot a doe unless forced to.

“I think earn-a-buck was a good thing every now and then,” Godfrey said. “We shoot five or six antlerless for every buck. The numbers are down from where they were, but they should be. There were way too many deer. We’re getting big-bodied bucks now.”

One of those was a 268-pounder, dressed weight, taken with bow. Another, shot by one of the many kids Godfrey has allowed to hunt his property, went 238 pounds dressed during this year’s youth hunt.

“When there are too many deer, stress and competition for food holds them back,” he said.

Godfrey said when he was young, he dreamt about hunting southern states where you could shoot a deer a day. Today, herd control units offer nearly unlimited opportunities in Wisconsin, and CWD zones offer multiple buck opportunities.
All the venison, though, was a mixed blessing.

“Guys are burning out, they shot so many,” Godfrey said. “And I know women who told their husbands, ‘You’re not feeding my kids those deer’ (after CWD was discovered), and they don’t hunt any more.”

Some have chosen to move outside the CWD zone, and Godfrey said those who’ve chosen Buffalo County are likely paying the price.

“Knocking on doors (to ask permission to hunt) is pretty much a thing of the past,” Godfrey said. “They get bombarded by somebody that wants to lease their land every day. Forty to fifty (dollars) an acre is pretty common.”

Public land offers some possibilities, but floodplain pieces tend to harbor few resident deer, and areas that do have decent populations get hit pretty hard, Godfrey said. An exception might be if someone uses a boat to check out some of the islands.

Even though he owns a solid chunk of Buffalo County real estate, Godfrey says it’s not all huntable due to the terrain. He shares it with family, friends and youths each year.

A 206-inch non-typical was filmed on his property, but shot elsewhere. He’s had a 195-class triple drop tine photographed on his land, and has seen typicals over 160 inches.

“The biggest one off my farm scored in the high 150s,” Godfrey said. “It’s certainly not like there’s a Booner everywhere. I know I’ve never seen one in a hunting situation, but I know guys who see a “180” every time they go in the woods. Truthfully, a 140-class buck is a good one here or anywhere in the country.”
When he hunted Waupaca County in the 1970s, Godfrey said it was like most Wisconsin farm country at the time.

“It was the land of dinks (small bucks),” Godfrey said. “It was just a zoo. Now they get some dandies there. It’s not food plots. It’s just letting ‘em grow, that’s all it is.”
Godfrey said he’s never had much luck with scents or “scent-free” clothing, but has some friends who do use it and swear by it.

“I’m a huge believer in the wind, and hunting certain spots only when it’s right,” Godfrey said. “I never really learned about wind until I came here. In these bluffs, it can go every which way. We hunt the tops.”

Most recently, Godfrey has enjoyed training a small terrier mix dog to track blood trails, and she’s already been used with success. One of his friends out West has a dog that has over 100 finds, and after reading a book on tracking wounded deer with dogs, Godfrey was hooked.

Like a challenge? Go public

For the hunter willing to do the research and scouting — and think outside the box, such as using a canoe to access islands or get away from the parking lot crowds — there are some options for public hunting in Buffalo County.

The biggest state property in the county is the Tiffany Wildlife Area, about 13,000 acres along the Chippewa River between Nelson and Durand. About one-sixth of it lies west of the river in Pepin County.

Tiffany contains one of the state’s largest, continuous bottomland hardwood forests. Beaver dams create a maze of ponds and wetlands, and there is a significant amount of meadow and grassland habitat as well.

There’s also the Whitman Dam Wildlife Area, a 2,253-acre piece three miles southeast of Cochrane across main river channel from Merrick State Park. Floodplain forest and marshland dominates.

The smallest state property is the 796-acre Big Swamp Wildlife Area five miles west of Mondovi. There is limited access on the south side. The property consists of upland hardwoods and marsh.

Finally, the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge offers plenty of potential for those willing to jump through the hoops needed to figure out all the regulations and access areas.

To start your public hunt search, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/wildlife_areas/county.htm and www.fws.gov/midwest/UpperMississippiRiver/.

More from Kevin Naze: Field Guide columns | More outdoor columns | More outdoor blogs

Read more about what makes deer hunting in Buffalo County special tomorrow on Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com.

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