ALMA, Wis. — Professional deer hunting outfitters in Buffalo County don’t spare any frosting when tempting clients from around the country to buy five-day “sit” packages priced from $2,200 to $3,500.
“This area produces more record-book bucks per square mile than any other area in the world.’’
“Book a hunt of a lifetime!”
“Famous for massive-bodied animals with tremendous headgear.’’
“Together we’ll make your dream hunt a reality!”
Located in the towering bluff country just east of Winona, the most acclaimed whitetail haven in the Upper Midwest — if not the country — is still in the spotlight. Locals would rather keep it a secret and they dislike the ongoing expansion of commercial buck hunting, but they don’t disagree with the hype.
“I think our reputation is backed up by the Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett record books,’’ said Bob Jumbeck, local game warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “There’s no doubt we compete with any place in the country.’’
Longtime residents boast that Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre has hunted here, as well as Hank Williams Jr. and NFL Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent. Long-dead legendary bucks such as “Moses’’ and “Field and Stream’’ live on in local lore.
So mighty is deer hunting in Buffalo County — a rugged and isolated place with only one public stoplight — that the sport has crashed into the area’s real estate market to the point where 40 percent of all land is now in the hands of absentee owners. Buffalo County Land Conservationist Carrie Olson said many absentee-owned tracts sit idle for 11 months, visited only during peak deer season. It’s a land use that treads lightly on the environment, if at all, she said.
“We have very little development pressure,’’ Olson said.
Thirty-seven percent of Buffalo County is agricultural land, but the area’s steep slopes and narrow valleys can’t accommodate more farming, and the available crops are an excellent food source for deer. Some valleys are so deep and tight, they lack for sunlight.
Over the past 35 years, local land stewards say, the county’s woodlands have gone from being throw-ins on farm sales to becoming the top driver in most real estate transactions. The demand from well-heeled buyers in Minnesota, elsewhere in Wisconsin, other parts of the Midwest and such states as Texas and Washington has priced a lot of local residents out of the market, Olson said.
“That tells you that people who buy land here want to shoot a deer,’’ Jumbeck said.
Let ’em grow
In Buffalo County lexicon, a “booner’’ is a showy buck — one worthy of trophy certification from the 129-year-old Boone and Crockett Club if shot by firearm. The archery equivalent is the Pope & Young Club, another frequent reference in deer conversations.
There’s not a “booner” behind every tree, the hunters will tell you, but your chances of seeing one here are enhanced by a culture that steadfastly frowns on killing immature antlered deer.
“If you look at the average age of bucks shot in the state, we shoot older deer,’’ said Jumbeck, the game warden.
Other states, including Minnesota, have zones where quality deer management is mandated by antler point restrictions. In Wisconsin, the movement to grow bigger bucks has been organic and has spread to other regions, Jumbeck said.
“I really believe this county is the catalyst,’’ he said. “Let ’em go, let ’em grow.’’
When Eau Claire investment adviser Bill Bowers bought hunting land in Buffalo County’s Montana Township in 2000, the Quality Deer Management signs he posted said hunters on his land don’t kill 1½-year-old bucks. Soon, he said, local “guidelines’’ put 2½-year-old bucks off limits, and now the purists are letting 3½-year-old bucks walk by without shooting them, Bowers said.
“No wonder a lot of big deer come out of Buffalo County,’’ he said.
Bowers arrowed a massive 9-point buck on opening day this year, but he still has to resist the urge to shoot younger deer with marginally smaller racks. He said he’s starting to worry about bow-hunting pressure in the county because an increasing number of outfitters are guiding clients seven days a week before the gun season even opens.
Bowers has seen land prices rise tenfold from when he first started hunting in the county in 1989. Back then, woodland tracts could be purchased for $300 to $400 an acre, he said. Now, smaller parcels of 30 acres or less attract buyers at prices of $4,000 to $5,000 an acre, he said. And those smaller tracts are becoming more and more prevalent.
“There’s way more landowners here now than there were in the ’70s,’’ Jumbeck confirmed.
Twin Cities restaurateur John Tinucci has been bow hunting in Buffalo County for more than a dozen years. A conservationist and serious hunter, he helped form the Minnesota chapter of Safari Club International and he cherishes the emphasis in Buffalo County on watching forkies grow into bruisers.
‘We don’t have a set size, but we’re generally looking for 3½-year-olds that would score 140, 150 or better in Pope and Young,’’ Tinucci said. “Some people are more strict, but it’s hunting and it’s supposed to be fun.’’
Tinucci said he’s content to go a couple of seasons without harvesting a deer on the land he leases with his brother. He knows he’ll ultimately shoot something big. In the meantime, his outings are made enjoyable by the county’s gorgeous terrain, the short travel distance and deer-centric gatherings at the Tell Bar & Grill and other hangouts.
“The people are awesome, and you’ve got a chance to see a really good deer,’’ Tinucci said. “Everything is there for the deer hunter, especially archery.’’
Tinucci, Bowers, Jumbeck and others say there’s a mosaic of other factors that allow deer to grow large in Buffalo County. Vast woodland ravines are too steep for hunters to walk, providing excellent cover. Those same slopes misdirect winds in unpredictable swirls that also favor deer during hunting season.
Many say the soils in Buffalo County are uniquely loaded with minerals because the county is located in the center of Wisconsin’s driftless region, never scraped by glaciers. Fresh streams are abundant, oak ridges are plentiful and there’s an increasing arms race between neighbors who plant specialized food plots to nourish deer. Forest-regeneration projects also have provided continuous improvement of deer habitat in Buffalo County.
“They get a chance to grow big, simply because of where they live,’’ Jumbeck said.
The game warden said he wonders at times whether Buffalo County hunters are too focused on taking big bucks. When there’s too many female deer in an area, he said, the bucks don’t have to move around very much in search of mating partners.
“Are we shooting enough antlerless deer to keep the herd healthy?’’ Jumbeck asked. “Sometimes I question it. We still have people who hunt does for meat, but increasingly there’s an emphasis on bucks. They are after those antlers.’’