Father-son team makes an art of hunting suburban Minnesota bucks.
It’s early November, and Mark Herr knows he should be home finishing up the three deer mounts drying in his quaint, suburban taxidermy shop. But the whitetail rut has kicked into overdrive in the chilly Minneapolis suburbs, and Herr has other priorities this crisp weekday afternoon.
The day before, Herr and his camera-toting son, Kyle, were hanging off the side of a tree in one of their bowhunting hotspots when a beautiful 140-class buck suddenly appeared in response to a brief rattling sequence.
Looking for a fight, the thick-necked brute closed to within 15 yards of the Herrs’ stand. The puffs of white steam from the big deer’s flexing nostrils wafted in the still evening air. Shaking his head, Mark signaled to his son he was giving the buck a pass.
The next evening, Mark and Kyle were back in the same stand, hoping one of the bigger bucks known to haunt the tiny suburban tract would show.
Passing 140-inch deer with a bow is not for everyone, but the Herrs know their game cameras don’t lie. The antler-heavy walls of their trophy room offer proof.
Fact is, this talented trophy hunting duo has been fooling ultra-cagey suburban trophies measuring from 150 to more than 175 inches over the past decade or so, all on properties they’ve carefully ferreted out amidst intense competition. The pair knows that you can’t shoot top-end bucks when you settle for less.
“Our management philosophy is to let bucks grow to 4 or 5 years of age,” Mark said, explaining that a typical year will see the duo secure permission on anywhere from seven to 10 local tracts. And they’re always looking for more choice spots that hold the type of habitat that attracts top-end bucks.
“Good deer hunters are opportunists,” Mark continued. “If we find a spot that’s better than one we have, we’re going to try to get access.
“We’re constantly in pursuit of new and better properties, and it’s not necessarily just the metro area. It could be chunks of private land bordering parks or dumps, or a school property that provides security cover.”
“Last year, we passed up 30 or 40 bucks, some of them into the 130s and 140s – and in point-blank range,” Kyle added. “Some people think we’re crazy, but we were after several 170-class deer. That said, what we consider a shooter can change from year to year.”
Every year is different, the elder Herr said, but they like to keep their minimum to around 150 inches. More important, they look for a buck that’s 4 or 5 years old with a gigantic body.
“It’s sad, but on today’s outdoor TV shows, a 140-inch deer doesn’t even get anybody excited anymore,” Mark said.
The Herrs consider their 30-plus game cameras a huge piece of their suburban bowhunting strategy. They begin putting them out around the first of July.
By the start of the season in mid-September, the cameras have typically helped them locate anywhere from six to eight bucks they will target throughout the fall.
CATTAIL SLOUGHS ARE KING
Minnesota might be known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it also holds something like 30 million swampy cattail sloughs. They’re especially common in and around metro Minneapolis and its 3.5 million inhabitants. These sloughs just happen to be one of the key elements in the Herrs’ game plan.
The swampy marshes provide deer with the security cover they crave, even while houses line the high ground around many of the sloughs.
“Those big deer feel secure where the brush edges – especially cattail marshes – meet the woods,” Mark said. “That’s where we shoot most of our big bucks. They seem to linger there right at last light. I’m hunting right at that edge, looking out over the tops of the cattails.”
Mark said he can’t count the number of times he and Kyle have seen big bucks come out to the edge of the marsh and just linger – moving back and forth, 30 to 40 yards – until full darkness.
“And then, finally, they will move up,” he said. “We’ve learned that you must have lanes trimmed through that edge, or you likely won’t get a shot.”
To search out suburban hotspots, Mark and Kyle consider topo maps indispensable. They look for the terrain and features they know big bucks prefer. The Herrs have become so adept at finding these areas, they can often pinpoint actual stand sites right on the map.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve done that and had them prove to be every bit as good as we hoped,” Mark said.
For the Herrs, finding hotspots on a map is among the easier aspects of their intricate game. From there, they’ve got to secure permission, which can be a task in the hard-hunted metro area.
“It really starts by knocking on a lot of doors,” Mark said. “Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the landowner will tip you off to the presence of big deer, but that’s not common.
More often, a landowner will tell you they’ve never seen a big buck. Then, your first camera check shows the property holds several.”
The Herrs are soft-spoken and humble to a fault. They also come across as truthful and imminently likable. Those qualities add up to some potent land-access skills.
“I talk to UPS drivers, police officers, the highway patrol – people who are in their vehicles a lot at night,” Mark said. “I’m going to broach the subject with any person who crosses my path. I’m always asking, ‘Do you hunt?’ or ‘Have you seen any big deer in the area?’ It’s about making this kind of networking part of your life.”
One of their most memorable properties was secured after asking the landowner for access for eight consecutive years.
“By that eighth year, we’d developed a friendship,” Mark said. “I simply pointed out that I see car-hit deer lying dead on the road along the property all the time. Then I asked how three or four deer going to waste per year was acceptable, while letting us take one or two bucks was not.
“He needed to know we weren’t going to go in there and kill every deer we saw. We’ve been hunting the property ever since and have taken two monsters there.”
WHAT MAKES A KILLER STAND?
Having secured permission, the Herrs put their years of trophy hunting experience to work, including a unique observation about stand placement, established trails and prevailing winds.
“A few years ago when we started setting our stands where the wind is almost in the deer’s favor, we started seeing a lot more big bucks,” Mark said. “We’ve found that the better, mature deer typically travel crosswind.
“We work hard to find their preferred trails. In most cases, we set our stands so our scent is only missing those trails by 15 or 20 degrees. It’s kind of a risky tactic, but it’s led to some of our biggest deer. It also means that when the wind suddenly switches or starts to swirl, we have to back out of there.”
Mark prefers a stand set about 18 feet high, but he’ll work with whatever is available.
“I shot a 165-inch buck when I was just 8 feet off the ground, and that’s with two guys in the tree,” he said. “Just because a spot doesn’t have an ideal setup doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hunt it. If an area is holding big deer, you’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen.”
“Sometimes in very thick areas, we’ll go in with a bush hog and cut short trails for the deer,” Kyle said. “If you make some short, strategic trails in the thickest stuff, the deer seem to use them.”
HUNTING SAVVY LEADS TO DREAM JOB
Mark’s ability to find big bucks is so good it recently landed him a new career. Earlier this year, he left his 33-year job as head custodian at the local school district – and he even closed his successful taxidermy shop – to become a land specialist for Whitetail Properties, an industry leader in hunting, ranch and farm land sales.
Now he uses his knowledge to help others realize their dreams by providing his expertise during the land-buying process.
“If I was going to buy an ideal property, it would be about 700 acres, and it would feature about 60 percent high ground and 40 percent low ground – that swampy, marshy, gnarly stuff,” he said. “And you’re going to kill 90% of your big deer around the low areas.
“To illustrate that further, one of our best metro properties totals 40 acres, and we probably use only 8 acres of it,” he continued. “In Minnesota, almost everyone has low, wet, thick swampy areas, and when there is pressure, big bucks head into the thickest and nastiest of it. We’ve shot several big bucks that have had wet bellies.”
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This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.