Growing up in Michigan, you’re keenly aware of the fact that November has more than one big holiday. Thanksgiving is nice and all, but November 15 is far and away a much more important holiday: it’s the opening day of firearm deer season. But for me and many other deer hunters, the real opening day comes on the first of October, when Michigan’s archery whitetail season kicks in.
Michigan has a wide range of hunting areas. The rugged and wild Upper Peninsula is full of thick woods that a person can get lost in without too much trouble. The Lower Peninsula mixes rolling hills and forests with rich farmland in such a manner that one can forget that the state is one of the largest agricultural producers in the nation. Is it any wonder that Michigan is well-known for deer hunting?
I chose to go to college and graduate school in the Upper Peninsula around Marquette. I remember reading an article in a popular hunting magazine which said that deer hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was like a master class in whitetails. You won’t see a ton of deer, but those you do see will be impressive. I lucked out in that I rented a house from a nice older lady who asked me one day if I liked to hunt. When I replied that I indeed lived for hunting, she offered to let me use their hunting cabin south of town. It sat on 40 acres of pristine Yooper deer land. It had mixed hardwoods, a swamp, a high ridge, and just about anything else a bowhunter could want.
While I was a student, I had a lot of time on my hands to hone my bowhunting skills. The most important of those skills was drawing back quietly. It’s amazing how well deer can hear, and my bow at the time was not quiet by any means—especially if you compare it to today’s bows. When I finally had the opportunity to draw my bow on a massive Yooper 10-pointer under a canopy of bright orange and red Michigan autumn leaves, well, let’s just say I learned a lot.
After college but before life took me across the country and back home to Michigan, I spent many a day in a treestand on the family farm in the western part of the Lower Peninsula—just below the first knuckle on your pinky, to my fellow Michiganians. The man who would become my father-in-law, Brian, is a hard-core bowhunter and laughed when I told my tale of being too noisy while drawing back. He gave me great advice on practicing my draw, clothing selection, and hunting deer at that range in general. I also learned something that stayed with me to this day: any deer taken with a bow is a trophy.
“You think it was hard drawing back on that buck,” Brian said. “Try drawing back on a big old doe. You’ve got to be on your game if you’re going to take a doe with a bow.”
A doe isn’t as concerned with the rut as a buck is. Here in Michigan, at least from my experience, the rut seems to really kick in during the last few days of October. The first couple of weeks of the season, you still have bucks in bachelor groups or still running with their original family units. Just a few days ago, I saw a nice 2-1/2-year-old buck still hanging around a doe and twin fawns. He’s going to be something in a few more years.
Brian was so very right, too. I have been busted by more Michigan does than any buck. In fact, while pursuing the last buck I took, I made enough mistakes that one could easily conclude I’d never been hunting before. I was still able to harvest the deer, but only because he had other things on his mind. If you don’t do everything right with a doe, you’re not going to get a shot.
Recently the State of Michigan began allowing hunters to use crossbows during archery season, which has led to a lot of debate between hunters. I use both, depending on where I’m hunting, and my wife prefers a crossbow. New this year around my area are antler point restrictions—another topic that is highly debated by Michigan sportsmen.
I was discussing these topics with a friend, a bowhunter from Nebraska. I mentioned how quickly some hunters become emotional when talking about them and my friend asked why. I think a lot of it has to do with Michigan’s rich archery hunting history. All one has to do is think of Fred Bear, a name synonymous with both bowhunting and Michigan. And of course we can’t forget Ted Nugent, the Motor City Madman. A more polarizing figure in hunting there is not, but Ted has his ways of getting his point across, albeit with the subtlety of an atomic bomb.
There are lots of things people think of when talking about Michigan deer hunting. For me, however, it’s not Ted, nor is it Fred. It’s not antler point restrictions, nor what type of archery tool I’m using. It’s not the latest disease threatening the nation’s deer populations, nor the old debate over baiting. No, when I close my eyes and dream about deer hunting, I don’t have a rifle in my hands and copious amounts of blaze orange on.
I think of October, the sweet smell of the woods in the fall, and advice from a wise bowhunter. I think of a young man sitting on a treestand near Marquette trying desperately to draw back 50 pounds of tense bowstring while staring at a set of thick antlers, which were soon followed by a bouncing white tail as the buck crashed off through the brush before the arrow ever left the rest. The disappointment lasted only for a moment before the rush of the encounter took over. What was left was pure passion for bowhunting in Michigan.
Images by Brandie Sigler