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Whitetail Deer Herd Health And Using the Winter Severity Index

by Neal McCullough 29. February 2012 02:42
Neal McCullough

Winter can be hard on wildlife—deer especially. During the winter months, wildlife agencies and departments in many states monitor the health of their respective deer herds using a system called the Winter-Severity Index (WSI).   This index is a simple calculation based on two key components of winter survival for whitetail deer: temperature and snow depth.  The index is a cumulative sum of the number of days with 18” of snow + numbers of days with temperatures below zero.  These scores are added together between December 1 and April 30.  Any total of 100+ is considered very severe, 81 – 100 is severe, 51 – 80 is moderate and anything lower than 50 is considered mild.  In Wisconsin, for example, the long term average for this index is 55.

The above chart shows this history of the Wisconsin WSI (1960 - 2010)

I spoke with Michael Zeckmeister of the Wisconsin DNR last week and at this point in the year, nearly all stations are in the single digits or teens; meaning this is shaping up to what could be a very mild winter.  This same time last year could have “gone either way” according to Zeckmesiter, with 60% of the stations reporting 16” of snow or more.   But last winter ended up staying around moderate for most stations (Wisconsin State Average = 47 for 2010/2011).  And this year we will probably end up mild or close to moderate unless, of course, we see some drastic changes in the weather.  Typically, the “tipping point” for winter is the 3rd week of February and as of today – we are starting March in a good place.

The above map shows WSI recording stations in Northern Wisconsin.

The above maps shows WSI recording stations in Northern Minnesota with measurements for 2011

Like any index, the WSI is not a perfect indicator of health of the herd; other factors do come into play.  These are a few additional factors that many wildlife managers consider:
•    Annual Summer Rainfall – Good rainfall in the summer and into the fall provides growth of summer vegetation that can help deer build fat reserves for the winter.
•    Arrival of Winter – The earlier arrival of winter (snow and cold in November or earlier) can have a significant cumulative effect on whitetail deer.  The longer winter waits to arrive, the better.
•    Type of Snow – Some snow storms may produce 10” – 15” of very light fluffy snow, through which it is generally easier for deer to travel.  Heavy dense snow or crusted layers of snow can make it difficult for whitetail deer to access food as well as escape predators.
•    Timing Spring Green-Up – This factor is probably as important as any; the sooner spring green-up arrives, the better the chances for herds to rebound after a long winter. 

The WSI is a great tool for wildlife managers to measure the current and/or future health of the whitetail deer herd.  However, it isn’t 100% accurate and they will make adjustments and use their discretion when determining how the deer herd is faring overall.  I always keep an eye out for these full reports in my home states of Minnesota and Wisconsin (typically they are ready at the end of April);  some DNR websites even offer current views of the Index as the winter progresses.

Current WSI (February 22, 2012) for Minnesota

Lets hope this mild season continues for not only whitetail deer but also for turkeys, pheasants, grouse, and all wildlife... Oh and this mild WSI Index also means that I don't have to shovel my driveway as much, which is an added bonus.

See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Sometimes You Have to Hunt in the Rain

by Neal McCullough 29. September 2011 14:20
Neal McCullough

I am one of those bowhunters who doesn’t get hundreds of days in the field every year; I don’t spend weeks in Kansas, Iowa, and Canada from September to December (although sometimes I wish I could). That said, I have learned over the years that you have to make your hunts count. I believe in the old adage “you can’t get one if you aren’t out there” but, more specifically, out there at the right time. This past Tuesday evening was one of those “right times”.

Grant Jacobs and I always try to do an early season bowhunt in our properties in Pepin County. It’s a little bit of a drive (About 1 ½ hours) so we do our best to coordinate our varied work schedules and the ever-unpredictable fall weather to select the best day to hunt. Tuesday, flexibility at work magically coincided with some other key factors to make for a perfect evening hunt. Following are a couple of things that made this week’s hunt work:

1. Moontimes– The moon’s affect on whitetails was a subject of a recent blog of mine and the timing of this hunt was set up to be one of the best days in September according to the solar calendar. The moon was setting at 6:30PM (sunset was at 7:00PM) and the “best time” to hunt was 5:30PM – 7:26PM

The solar lunar calendar can be an effective tool during early season.

2. Wind – The particular location of the stand we were hunting in we call the “Elevator Ridge” and any wind out of the N/NW gives us the best chance to get a deer.

A Wind Checker and can help keep track of shifting winds/thermals to know where deer can bust you in the stand.

3. Beans – Although beans have browned in nearly all areas where we hunt, we knew that some of the green was still on the stem and pod. This, along with falling acorns, made for an ideal spot.

This button buck showed on Tuesday evening feeding in the beans, any remaining green soybean fields should be hunted now.

4. Rain – The toughest part of the day was the massive low pressure system that decided to park itself right over Chicago for what seemed like days and days. The weatherman called for continued rain at our stand that day, nonetheless we decided to go for it.

This stubborn low pressure system took days to move out of the midwest.

5. Scent Control – The wind and rain combined created a perfect scent killing solution for us; our scent was pushed away from the deer and much of that scent was knocked down by the rain.

We always wear Scent Blocker gear while hunting, there is no substitute for quality scent blocking clothing. Notice parts of the soybean field in the background are still green.

In the end, the hunt was one of the best early season hunts we have had in a while. Right on schedule, three mature does and a buck fawn all worked their way to within 25 yards and if it weren’t for tree limbs and low camera light, we would have had a shot. Last year we spent hours and hours hunting bad winds, bad moontimes, and frankly, bad stand sites. This year we got in the right place at the right time and got the season off to a great start. Good luck with your hunting seasons and remember; sometimes you have to hunt in the rain.

See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Chasing Speed Goats in Wyoming

by Neal McCullough 30. August 2011 15:46
Neal McCullough

A few weeks ago Grant Jacobs and I had a great time hunting with fellow pro-staffers Dustin DeCroo, Dan Schafer and John Herrmann in Wyoming.  Grant and I left Minnesota bright (or not so bright) and early on a Tuesday morning at three o’clock and after a 10 hour drive, we arrived in a small Wyoming town just in time for an afternoon waterhole hunt.  As we walked out to our stand, we were greeted with the sight of 30 goats staged directly above what would quickly become our new honey hole.  After setting up our blind we waited with high hopes of spotting a good buck.  While we certainly glimpsed plenty of does and fawns that first afternoon and evening, day one left us looking for a good shooter buck.  Nevertheless, we went into day two with high hopes. 

Grant Jacobs waiting patiently with his Mathews Z9 ready.

On Wednesday, we sat the entire day at the waterhole with action on and off throughout much of the afternoon. The clear highlight of our second day in Wyoming was when a good buck sauntered straight in for a shot at 40 yards.  I was filming and Grant had the buck in his sights.  Unfortunately, a combination of warm temperatures and a long distance (especially for a Midwestern hunter) coupled with inexperience and resulting nerves on both our parts, Grant shot just over the back of that buck and missed him, what an awesome opportunity! 

This shooter buck watered at 30 yards... check back to "Bowhunt or Die" to see all the action.

It wasn’t until day four of the hunt (our final day) that we decided to take a doe if the opportunity presented itself.  Having spent the three prior days waiting for shooter bucks to come along, we agreed that a mature doe would be worth taking as opposed to taking nothing at all.  It took all day, but around four in the afternoon, a big group of does and fawns came to water and with the camera rolling, Grant made a great 20 yard shot on a mature doe.

Grant and I with our last day Antelope Doe

Getting the doe down was definitely the highlight of our Wyoming hunt; it was truly the culmination of a whole load of new and exciting hunting experiences.  Throughout our weeklong hunt, we saw plenty of other wildlife, picked up on some distinctively Western hunting strategies and techniques and were challenged daily with the new terrain, weather and game. 

We had all kinds of visitors at the watering hole including this Badger.

Overall Wyoming was an incredible experience for Grant and me and we have Dustin DeCroo to thank for most of it.  He set us on great spots and we had unbelievable encounters and chances.  Western hunting is not easy: long shots, tough terrain, hot temperatures, and goats with excellent vision definitely made for a challenging hunt.  I have a newfound respect for Western hunters; the experience was humbling and I feel grateful just to have been able to spend a little time with the pronghorns of the sage dotted plains of Wyoming. 

 See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Giving Back to Landowners

by Neal McCullough 7. June 2011 11:46
Neal McCullough

One of my favorite ways to secure a hunting spot is creating value with the landowner where I would like to hunt.  Over the years this has been a very successful way to not only find good hunting land but also meet great new people. This past weekend Grant and I spent the day helping a landowner clear trails at one of our best hunting spots in Pepin County Wisconsin.  It was a little bit of hard work, but I have found that creating that value for the landowner in return the value we are getting (hunting rights) was a great trade.  If you don’t have equipment you can rent from many local rental shops.

Local Rental Shops will usually have Brush Cutters/Mowers/Saws to rent for the day at very reasonable costs.

After getting the equipment for the day we loaded the truck and headed to Pepin to meet the landowner and help with trail clearing and brush cutting.

A little hard work and spending time with the landowner can go a long way.

This is just one example but below are many more additional tips for landowner relationships when getting/keeping hunting access.

• Gain permission on any land you plan to hunt, fish, scout, or even walk on. - This is a no brainer and be sure to respect the owners wishes; who knows maybe next year they will change their mind.
• Ignorance of land boundaries is not an excuse to trespass! – Spend the money on a plat book and learn the “lay of the land”

Plat Maps like this one are available for every county.

• Communication! Communication! Communication! – Keep lines of communication open (email/call/text) and let them know what you are up to, keep them in the loop.  Most of the time I’ve found they are interested in when you will be there and what you are doing.
• Watch out for tractors, gates, buildings, and other equipment – You are a guest on the property, treat it with respect.
• Keep the current crops/livestock in mind when you hunt – You are sharing the land WITH the farmer; remember they have a job to do as well.
• Offer to help the farmer in whatever way you can – Whether that is monetarily through a lease or just helping clear brush.  Always give be giving back!
• Pack in, Pack out – If you bring it on the land be sure to take it with you.  This applies to garbage, but also to your hunting equipment.  Make sure you talk with the farmer regarding removal your tree stands each year.
• Thank you notes – This simple gesture at the end of the season can seal the deal for next year.  Write a short note to the landowner; let them just how much you appreciate the chance to hunt!

After a hard day’s work, treat yourself to a bowhunters favorite activity... some deer scouting and trail camera hanging!

I hope this season you take a little time to appreciate the land you get access to, and more importantly, the landowner.
See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Preseason Scouting an Elevator Ridge

by Neal McCullough 29. April 2011 01:00
Neal McCullough

Nothing is worse than spring for a big time addicted whitetail hunter like me.  We spend all winter anxious to get out and see the woods, search for sheds, move stands, and try to find the new “perfect” spot.  Then, as soon as the snow melts the whitetail woods suddenly looks just as it did last November and you realize that it is 5 more months of waiting.  All that aside it really is a great time of year to see the woods as it would look before everything greens up.   We are in the second year of hunting this 80 acre parcel (actually our first spring) and have learned a ton.  One of the highest concentrations of deer occurred in one small area of the property; we watched countless deer go in and out of this particular area and this spring we investigated why.  It turned out to be a potential hotspot and a perfect example of an “Elevator Ridge” for next season.   The concept of an elevator as it relates to deer hunting is actually pretty simple.  Humans use elevators because we are lazy and would rather not scale 3 flights of stairs to get lunch every day.  This concept can be applied to deer as well; they prefer and usually take a path of least resistance (as long as it’s safe).  This newly found scenario brings bedding (creek bottom) to food (corn/beans) in the simple, fast and efficient method just like an elevator brings me to 4th floor every day. The blue lines in the photo below show the boundaries of the Elevator Ridge, the black lines are known deer trails and the red dot is the location of our new stand site.

Aerial View of the 2011 Elevator Ridge

Below are a few key characteristics that make this Elevator Ridge work well.

  • Bedding – Perfect bedding area to allow deer to feel safe and within ½ mile of a major food source can make for a great combination.

Creeks that flow year-round offer water/cover for bedding

  • Steep Ravines – The steep hillsides along creek effectively push deer directly up the “Elevator Ridge”

Sheer walls 40 feet high on either side push deer into the middle of ridge

  • Rubs – Fresh Rubs from previous season show areas bucks frequented in during the pre-rut.

Fresh Rubs in the middle of ridge indicate directional travel

  • Trails – Find a heavy doe trail worn to dirt and bucks will follow 

This trail follows the creek up to our “Elevator Ridge”

  • Stand Placement – Place your stand on the downwind side of as many major trails as possible.

Stand on the peak of the Elevator Ridge

In the end, this time of year can be hard because we can’t test our theories, but this new spot has all the makings of a fantastic stand for 2011.  During the Season 2 of Bowhunt or Die I can promise you will see us perched on top of an Elevator Ridge waiting for a chance at a monster buck! Do you agree with this setup?  Do you have an Elevator Ridge on your property to take advantage of next season?

See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Bowhunt or Die: 2011 Story Lines

by Neal McCullough 19. January 2011 12:22
Neal McCullough

On Sunday January 9, I looked out my window and watched the sun set over the suburbs of Minneapolis and let out a big sigh.  The end of the archery season (in Wisconsin) is always tough, the end of any hunting season is.   As a bowhunter – I spend so much energy and time preparing, hunting, changing tactics, and dealing with the cold, rain, snow, sleet, heat, and wind that I am exhausted by the time January rolls around. This December in Minnesota and Wisconsin was particularly difficult as we received over 30” of snow making some very tough hunting… snowshoes were a necessity and deer movement was limited. My highlight was November 7 – shooting my best archery deer to date (on film) in Wisconsin.  I made a great 30+ yard shot (heart) but didn’t know until the recovery; it’s always better to wait when you are unsure.  The hunt was featured on Bowhunt or Die Episode 7 and if you haven’t already check it out here.  I also was able to harvest a doe early season (here) in one of my metro spots. 

Pepin County Buck – November 7, 2010

Overall it was a great season but with the turning of the New Year it’s time to spend a bit of time on the storylines for my 2011 season:

 “Breaking the Streak”
Grant Jacobs is my hunting partner for the Bowhunt or Die series here on and he has been hunting hard since 2009 to get to deer down.  His last successful hunt was October 29, 2009 – he was able to harvest a nice 3 ½ year old buck.  Since then however he hasn’t had been able to shoot a buck or doe with his bow!  To his credit – he has had many opportunities but trying to get it on film is a unique challenge.  This year he will shoot a big buck, and I will be behind the camera to capture it.

Grant and I in the tree during the November Rut

“Big Surprise”
This is an individual goal for me – hunting the tough terrain of Houston County, MN  I only saw him during daylight hours once last year... and he will be #1 for me next year!

The latest photo of this monster – December 14, 2010 (After Shotgun Season)

“Turkey by Arrow”
This is an individual goal I had for several years now – I applied for Minnesota Turkey License and if I am drawn I would love a chance to get a turkey (on film).  For those who turkey hunt check out for all the latest turkey gear at:

“Gear, Products, Tools, and Ideas"

Finally, this year will be a year of testing new gear, new products, new tools, and new ideas.  Last year I spent lots of time trying to figure out new properties and setups; this year my goal is to focus on strategies and new gear to help make my hunts on my properties better.  This will start this spring with Turkey Hunting, Shed Hunting... then Summer Scouting with trail cameras and food plots, and finally fall bow season preparations. 

See you in the woods,

Neal McCullough

Aggressive Manipulation of Monster Bucks: Part 3 (Calls & Decoys)

by Neal McCullough 10. November 2010 14:50
Neal McCullough

It’s the middle of the week – and I am home for a day to clean my gear and regroup. We had a fantastic weekend of rut hunting in Pepin County Wisconsin this weekend. We easily saw 15 mature bucks (all different) chasing does. The “seek and chase” portion of the rut is definitely in full swing. We had unbelievable luck using a combination of calls and a decoy (converted to a doe). Tonight I am packing my gear and planning to get ahead of the cold weather/front coming in this weekend and heading to SE Minnesota to hunt 165 prime acres.

Below is what I use in the field when calling and decoying:

Buck Call:

A couple of tips regarding the use of these products:

1. #1 hands down is NO situation is the same – sometimes these things work, and sometimes they don’t. Calling, Decoying, etc. can be an absolute blast and depends highly on the deer you are hunting. The higher the Buck-Doe Ratio and the more “seek and chase” phase your area is experiencing the better. Some deer are aggressive and interested and others may be spooked – the chance you take when doing this technique.

2. Buck calls will scare does – especially this time of year. We observed several different does running scared – at all hours of the day. Big bucks, little bucks, all bucks are chasing does around this time of year – and most of the time they are trying to escape!

3. A decoy can be used as a buck (to entice a fight) or as a doe (to spark curiosity). If you are hunting a dominant buck – a doe or buck tending a doe can be a deadly combination. If you use calls frequently – considering adding a decoy to the mix; this gives a reason for the call they are hearing.

4. Decoys are basically scent stations for deer – When possible place the decoy upwind of your stand; this will force any interested deer to go downwind (directly in front of you) and hopefully give you a chance for a shot. Don’t skimp on scent elimination on and around your decoy, a quality scent killer and careful handling is crucial.

5. Buck decoys should face how you want them to approach (antler to antler) and the reverse for does. Bucks will come from tail end to scent check a doe; hopefully you will be ready @ full draw as he approaches.

The rut is rocking in my areas! I can't remember a time seeing this many mature deer! The weather may have slowed movement for you mid-week hunters – but it will start to pick up tomorrow with this cold front moving in… maybe even add a little snow to the mix.

Remember Bowhunt or Die!

See you in the woods,
Neal McCullough

Aggressive Manipulation of Monster Bucks: Part 2 (Drag Rags & Scents)

by Neal McCullough 1. November 2010 13:37
Neal McCullough

This weekend was an unbelievable weekend of deer hunting across the Midwest!  The prostaff put down 4 bucks and had countless encounters with lots of deer.  The cold weather and the start of November have the beginnings of a rocking rut!  In part 2 of the 5 part series I will discuss Drag Rags & Scents.   Below are a few of the products I use in the field during the rut:

Drag Rag: (Either commercially available or homemade)

Buck Lure:

Doe Estrus:


Scent Containers:



A couple of tips regarding the use of these products:

1.        When using scents (of any kind) keep them refrigerated if possible.  I have a downstairs fridge/freezer for game (and beer) and it also works great for keeping my scents cool and fresh.

2.      Remember to keep track of your own scent; if a big buck is following your drag rag or checking out your doe estrus scent station their senses are on high alert – make sure your aren’t leaving your own scent there as well.

3.      The use of scent containers is something I recently have done.  It not only maintains and holds scent for longer periods – it also allows you to seal on keep the scent for your next trip.  If you haven’t tried these out definitely give it a try this season.

4.      Finally, scents are one piece of the puzzle… They will not force a big buck (most of the time) to do something stupid – there is no substitute for being in the right area – at the right time – and being patient (I will post my tips for all day sits soon!). 


As bowhunters; this is our favorite time of year; I have 11 days of hunting planned; November 5 – 15!  Remember bowhunt or die!


See you in the woods,

Neal McCullough


Bowhunting Manipulated Monster Bucks: Part 1 (MOCK SCRAPES)

by Neal McCullough 20. October 2010 03:07
Neal McCullough

 Over the next few weeks I am going to write about the Manipulating Monster Bucks, Aggressively.  This is key… BE AGGRESSIVE.  Hunting dominate mature bucks requires a different mindset then the rest of the deer herd; my goal is to fire them up, make them angry, and to create a very angry monster buck. 

Part #1 – Mock Scrapes

Part #2 – Drag Rags & Scents

Part #3 – Decoying & Calling

Part #4 – Food – Cover – Food

Part #5 – Sit long/Hunt Hungry

By the time Mid-October rolls around hunters and big mature bucks have the same idea; the rut is ON!  The first rubs and scrapes start appearing along ridges, saddles and field edges.  This is a great time to introduce yourself to the dominant bucks in the area.  Creating mock scrapes in the bedroom of a big buck requires only a few items:

Scents: (I like Tink’s Power Scrape)

Pruners and Saws:

Trail Cameras:

Each hunter is different (just like every buck) so in my view there is no “right” or “wrong” way to create a mock scrape.  Remember to remain completely scent free, use gloves and scent elimination products.  If you want to shoot a big dominate buck, act like one.  Don’t be afraid to tear up the soil break a few licking branches and cover the soil with scrape starter and dominant buck urine (maybe even a few drops of doe estrus…).  I want the buck to know I’m there and that mean business.


Last weekend I deployed 3 mock scrapes in Minnesota using this technique and will be doing the same this weekend in Wisconsin!  I will update in a few weeks to see how many dominate bucks I angered.


See you in the woods,

Neal McCullough



Keeping Tabs on the Harvest

by Neal McCullough 23. September 2010 07:39
Neal McCullough

With opening weekend behind us; we spent the weekend watching mosquitos and corn/corn and more corn!  The biggest challenge of early season bowhunting is contending with crops.  We had limited interactions with deer over the weekend and we believe that many of our hit list deer were in the corn; and we may have to wait until harvest to hit our best spots in the timber.

One of toughest things an early season bowhunter contends with is a sea of unharvested corn.

One of the best sources of information on the harvest I use during the early season is a free website through National Agricultural Statistics Service through the USDA.  This website updates weekly the current status of crops (Corn, Beans, etc.) as well as weather, fieldwork and other information.  This is a great source of information for those who can’t make it to their farms every week to find out how the harvest is going.  The website and the Minnesota report/forecast are below:

Check it out @:

Minnesota Forecast:

 “The first reports of corn and soybean harvest have arrived, though wet

conditions continue to delay fieldwork, according to the USDA, NASS,

Minnesota Field Office.  As of September 19, corn was 1 percent

harvested, compared to 0 percent last year and 2 percent for the five-

year average. Corn silage harvest advanced to 83 percent, compared to 36

percent last year and 64 percent average.  Soybeans were 3 percent

harvested, compared to 1 percent last year and 4 percent average.  Other

harvest progress included potatoes at 50 percent, sweet corn at 92

percent, dry beans at 52 percent, and sugarbeets at 13 percent harvested,

all ahead of their respective averages.  A few producers reported that

wet conditions prevented the harvest of mature crops.

Temperatures for the week were unseasonably cool.  The statewide average

temperature was 3.5 degrees below normal, with some areas reporting a low

of 30 degrees.  Precipitation remains above normal for most reporting

stations.  Thunderstorms, along with some hail, lightning, and high

winds, prevailed Thursday.  Weekly precipitation was greatest in the

Central region with 1.3 inches above normal.  Statewide topsoil moisture

supplies were rated 59 percent adequate and 40 percent surplus, the

highest surplus rating so far this year.  Statewide 3.2 days were rated

suitable for fieldwork.

Crop Progress Table – September 19, 2010     

               Stage of                This   Last   Last    5 Yr

 Crop          Development             Week   Week   Year    Avg

                                                Percent      ___

Corn           Dent                      98     94     73     92

Corn           Mature                    49     28      4     37

Corn           Harvested                  1      0      0      2

Corn Silage    Harvested                 83     64     36     64

Soybeans       Turning Yellow            95     79     82     91

Soybeans       Shedding Leaves           68     37     44     63

Soybeans       Mature                    25      6      9     25

Soybeans       Harvested                  3     NA      1      4

Potatoes       Harvested                 50     34     35     47

Sweet Corn     Harvested                 92     83     82     88

Dry Beans      Dropping Leaves           93     75     NA     NA

Dry Beans      Harvested                 52     27     23     41

Sugarbeets     Harvested                 13      9      7      7


Do you have your own property, and plan your own crops.  Check out the full line of seed/supplements, keep up to date on the latest tricks/tips, and find the finest bowhunting gear here at

See you in the woods,



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