Better Bigwoods Bowhunting: Think Like a Trapper

As a young lad who once ran a modest line of fox traps, I’ve known for many years the value of that formative experience early on in my outdoor career. To this day I’m convinced my stint laying steel helped me become a more observant, well-rounded bowhunter, and I’ve also used many of those lessons over the years to positively impact my many backcountry hunting, camping and fishing trips.

If it wasn’t the daily trap checks that clued me into the effects of changing weather on animal movement, it was seeing firsthand—each and every day—the monumental importance of scent. I learned both the immense power of deftly placed attractant scents, and the devastating effects of leaving behind a bit too much critter-alarming human scent. Rubber gloves, and a critical eye for the smallest details, became trusted friends.

Mark Melotik
Mark Melotik

My recent talk with successful northwoods whitetail outfitter Mike Noskoviak brought all those trapping memories back; I was happy to hear that Noskoviak also considers his trapping skills beneficial to his bowhunting. Noskoviak, 46, of northern Wisconsin, has been trapping bigwoods coyotes, bobcats, coons, mink, and beaver just as long as he’s been a bigwoods hunting guide—25 years. He believes few people are as clued into the movements of game animals as successful trappers, and with Noskoviak’s results (both on the trapline and putting clients on big bucks), you’d be hard-pressed to prove him wrong.

Wisconsin may be best known for churning out scads of record-book deer courtesy of its fertile, southern farmland, yet Noskoviak’s Superior Guides and Outfitters operates hundreds of miles away in agriculture-starved Ashland County. It is here, near the state’s northern tip, where the camp regularly churns out heavy-beamed bucks with racks stained a rich chocolate from rubbing local spruce and pines. The biggest bucks taken in Noskoviak’s wilderness camp have scored 213 (non-typical ) and 184 net typical—both taken by rifle clients—yet bowhunters regularly arrow bigwoods brutes measuring 150 to more than 160 inches, impressive deer anywhere they roam. Here’s how it happens – the secrets to his outfitting success.

Locating Big Bucks
“The very best thing to learn is to find where all the feeder creeks and ravines run through a given area, because those are deer travel corridors,” Noskoviak says. “The first thing you’re looking for is, where is the biggest river? Find the major river (or rivers), and then find where the major tributaries connect. Bigwoods hunting is very much like trapping; all of the area’s critters use the same basic travelways, just on different trails.”

Good Spots Are Consistent
“A lot of the scrape lines are in the same areas year after year, and it’s because a lot of these areas are natural good spots,” Noskoviak explains. “They’re in the travel corridors, they probably intersect doe bedding areas, and so lots of different bucks will hit the same scrapes.”

A Better Buck Trap
Much like many whitetail outfitters operating in the bigwoods of Canada, Noskoviak depends mostly on baited tree stand sets. Adhering to the state’s strict baiting rules means there’s never much bait (typically corn and/or apples) near each stand site, and to avoid turning bucks nocturnal, he typically opens the baits just seven to 10 days before the rut begins in late October.

“Soon bucks will have scrapes and rubs around the area and start scent-checking it (for does),” Noskoviak says. “And within six days, I’ll have a big one in there. I’ve done that forever, and the results are consistent as long as you stay out of there as much as possible. You could take a big buck in this area every year just hunting the hottest scrape lines, but that kind of hunting might take two or three weeks. I’ve got to get my clients on big deer in six days.”

What About Food Plots?
“They work excellent in the big woods,” Noskoviak admits. “But the problem is, so many deer come into them, that instead of being able to put 3-4 hunters in an area, now you can put just one. Any nearby baits went dead. That didn’t help me at all. If I was just one person hunting, a food plot would be great, it draws deer from a 3- to 4-mile area. But, what we found, is you’re only going to have one good spot, so there’s room for just one hunter. Also, deer up here just don’t like openings, not even pipelines. They don’t like to cross those, or expose themselves, until after dark. In that respect, they’re a lot like wolves. Bigwoods deer are used to living in the shadows and thick brush.”

Setting a Good Trap
Noskoviak knows his best and most-successful clients are the ones who listen to him and his guides’ tips consistently and without exception. Hunt with him and you’ll be expected to pull an all-day, dark-to-dark vigil. Rules on stand include never getting down to “scout around,” and avoiding use of any type of attractant scent (Noskoviak believes they spook mature bucks consistently).

Bigwoods Outfitter Mike Noskoviak (left) with a 2014 bowhunting client who scored!
Bigwoods Outfitter Mike Noskoviak (left) with a 2014 bowhunting client who scored!

Clients are expected to bring a urine bottle, and are instructed to defecate, if necessary, a full half-mile from the stand, after following the entrance trail out.

“Also, a lot of stands are set up where I can drive right to the base of the tree, and have clients step right onto the stand ladder. I don’t even want them stepping on the ground if possible. When I set my bow stands, the sets are perfect, but instead of putting a trap there, we’re putting a hunter 20 feet up a tree. When you have a really good hunter, you have a really good trap. When you have a bad hunter, it’s like trying to catch something in an old rusty trap.”

Bigwoods Challenges
“Easily one of our biggest challenges is access; keeping trails to good stands open,” Noskoviak says, of the many remote tracts he owns. “We’re using chainsaws a lot; we’ve got lots of blowdowns, and lots of low, swampy areas. Over the years we’ve probably had to build 150 rip-rap bridges, using [available downed timber] and pole barn nails. Most stands require a 4-to 5-mile ride on ATV; that’s a constant.

“There’s not a company out there that makes a 4-wheeler tough enough for us; I’m disappointed in all of them,” Noskoviak continues. “You get a few years on them and they have electrical problems, [and more]…most are made for recreational use. They really need to make the bodies out of metal—not plastic—and have better sealed bearings, bigger axles, bigger drive shafts; everything needs to be heavier-duty. We regularly wreck new machines in just two years and it gets frustrating.”

Mistakes to Avoid
“One of the biggest, is people get down from their stand, and walk around the area. Once that happens the whole area is contaminated, and nothing will be coming in for the next few days. If you’ve got a good spot, stay in your stand. You might not have any action for a few days, but the next time you might have the right conditions. I see it all time; after a few days a client will want me to move him and the next day a new hunter in that same stand kills a big buck. I like to give a spot four days. If you’re a stand hunter, you’ve got to be patient.”

Beauty of The Bigwoods
Why outfit in the bigwoods? The reasons are many, Noskoviak says.

“I have the best spot in [a four-county area] up here, hands down, it’s all bottomland and it’s natural whitetail habitat. Plus we’ve got the rich clay soil near Lake Superior. Its got high mineral content, so antler growth is exceptional. Really, it’s a big sea of brush. It’s where bucks grow old and you have your best chances for those deer that reach six, seven years. We’ve shot a lot of them at noon; I would guess half are shot at midday. They’re up on their feet, scent-checking the baits. When deer have people living around them, the people are going to dictate the movement. Those farm deer know when the school bus comes, they know when Joe Blow leaves for work. Up here, the deer move more naturally.”

Good luck to all Bigwoods Bowhunters!

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