Episode 013 Dr. Ken Nordberg a full-time whitetail naturalist, hunting method researcher


Dr. Ken Nordberg is a full-time whitetail naturalist
Dr. Ken Nordberg is a full-time whitetail naturalist

Bruce: Good morning, everybody, or good afternoon depending on when you’re listening to this podcast of Whitetail Rendezvous. I’m Bruce Hutcheon, your host, and I’m really excited today to have Dr. Ken Nordberg from Minnesota on the show with us. Hey, Ken, Dr. Ken, please say hi to our listeners.

Dr. Ken: Well hi, everybody. I’m happy to be here.

Bruce: Give us a background, will you? Just give us some background. What you’ve been doing in world of whitetails for over 50 years.

Dr. Ken: I guess, that’s for sure. Actually, 70 years.

Bruce: Oh my goodness.

Dr. Ken: I’m a retired dentist with three college degrees and two of those degrees helped prepare me for studying habits and behavior of whitetails and black bears. I began my unique hunting related studies of wild whitetails 45 years ago. Since then I’ve studied whitetails over much of North America including 17 years in parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. My studies are still ongoing. A lot of these studies have been first to introduce and describe the five stages of the whitetail rut. After using primitive tree stands for my earliest years of research, tree stands then are known, I’ve been encouraging whitetails to use them ever since beginning back in 1980 by magazine articles and books and college seminars and a 12-hour video series I created in 1986 entitled “Whitetail Hunter’s World”, which is no longer available.
Since then I’ve written more than 700 articles about whitetails and whitetail hunting for many popular outdoor magazines, introducing several new and much improved hunting methods. I’ve been a feature writer for “Midwest Outdoors” for about the last 25 years. Much of what you learn from articles written by others about whitetail hunter these days came from published results of my studies, which I’m rather proud of. I’ve also taught hundreds of hunters from all over America at my buck and bear hunting schools in the wilds of Minnesota. I’ve been hunting whitetail for 70 years. I took three deer my first year, at age 10, being a farm kid. I’ve been hunting mature bucks only with gun and bow for 45 years. Rare is a year during which I have not taken a mature buck since then. Though now 80 years old, I still have no plans to quit hunting or studying whitetails. I guess that’s about it.
Bruce: Thank you for that background information. Listeners, I’ve got my notepad out, I’ve got my pen ready to go because I’m looking forward to some really fantastic discussion today about something that we all love, whitetails. Let’s start right into the show. Dr. Ken, tell us your best hunting story. You know, you’ve been at it for a long time. What’s the number one hunting story that strikes you as having, let’s just call it the biggest impact on your pursuit of whitetails?

Dr. Ken: Well, my best story of that kind today is short and to the point. You might entitle it “Key on Mature Bucks Only” by hunting within easy shooting range downwind or [inaudible 00:03:40] wind of very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature, unalarmed, not driving or bounding, bucks. By doing this, it seems simple, doesn’t it? By doing this, you can actually hunt bucks near where they are every day rather than where you merely hope they are. How’s that for a tip? Sounds simple but it’s more –

Bruce: Let’s just unpack that because you gave a lot of information. I heard downwind. I heard fresh sign. I heard daily you can hunt a buck and I’m putting some information in here that is not disturbed if you’re hunting a similar area or a similar buck on a daily basis. Let’s talk about that a little bit more.

Dr. Ken: Well, in 1970 when I began my studies I came to the obvious conclusion, little deer have little hoofs and bigger deer have bigger hoofs and the biggest deer have the biggest hoofs. I began measuring hoofs and hoofprints of countless whitetails of both sexes and all ages and weights, live ones and dead ones. It didn’t take long to realize I could actually identify five classes of deer by the lengths of their hoofprints alone, including fawns, yearling does, yearling bucks and those two years of age or older. Both of them are the same size hoofs but what makes a difference is that does have babies and if you see smaller hoofprints, it’s a doe. Also, buck two and one-half years of age and bucks three and one-half to six and one-half years of age, those are the buck I like to hunt. Here in Minnesota, and it’s different for different states but this can be figured out for hunters in every state.
Here in Minnesota, any fresh track more than three and one-quarter inches long, it’s not only the track of a mature buck but it’s near, right now. We’re near where that buck is right now. Either that or soon will be near, at least within the next 24 hours. Now, by a track measurement, very fresh deer tracks, I can not only key on mature bucks, they’re the big ones. Ignore all the rest of those tracks but just hunt where those big ones are found. By our method of scouting inspired by our timber wolves, which we have a lot of up in northern Minnesota, I can keep close to them throughout a hunting season. That’s kind of amazing. That’s the biggest reason us northerners have been particularly successful at taking mature bucks in the last 25 years. Where we hunt right now, because of a couple really severe winters and the wolves, our deer numbers have plummeted 67% the last two to three years.
Bruce: Wow.
Dr. Ken: Whereas hunters in surrounding areas have only been able to take one deer per 10 square miles, we keep taking our usual four mature bucks. That’s, we have our, we set a limit of four each year so that we don’t overhunt our mature bucks in the four square miles we hunt. We manage to take that number every year. We’re doing something right. That’s for sure.
Bruce: Yes you are, Ken, Dr. Ken. Talk to me about your definition of a mature buck.
Dr. Ken: Well, my definition is any buck that’s more than, older than a yearling. You know, I don’t count, you know, yearlings have antlers. I don’t count them as mature because they’re still under the leadership and teaching of their mothers. They live on their mother’s ranges. They’re not yet able to live in the wilds on their own and so they’re, I count those as immature deer. Any buck or any deer, for that matter, that’s two and one-half years of age in the fall is a mature deer able to live in the wilds on their own. That’s the definition of what I call mature. Now, the bucks we prefer to hunt, we do take two and one-half year old bucks every now and then and, but it’s just the newcomers in camp. Those are their targets because they’re easier to hunt. Generally, my boys and I, we hunt only bucks that are three and one-half to six and one-half years of age. Those are the big guys.
Bruce: I’m taking, I’m just making down a short note there. So how long have you been going to the same hunting camp?
Dr. Ken: Well, the area where we’ve went now, we’ve been, it’s not only our hunting area but it’s my primary study area: three miles from the Canadian border. We’ve been going there now for 25 years and those north country mature bucks are the toughest bucks in the world, I think, to hunt. You have to be, you have to do a lot of things differently than you would do in other places in the country but we love it there. We love the country. We love the challenge of hunting bucks like that and we’re good at it so that keeps us going back to the same area.
Bruce: Tell us about your, the actual hunting camp. What type of building? Do you have outbuildings?
Dr. Ken: We have two big wall tents and we’re about to exchange one for a bigger wall tent. We heat those tents with barrel woodstoves. Cots, all sorts of things, and a dining room in one where we all get together at noon and the evening. I love those tents. I love camping. I think camping where we hunt is half the fun. We get some cold weather and with those woodstoves of ours we can keep warm in there when it’s as cold as 27 below zero. Last year we had a lot of 12 below zero weather but we can be barefooted an in t-shirts in those tents when we’re in camp so that’s great. I just love that kind of hunting where you can be right there. The camp is kind of established to other hunters that where we are and other Minnesota hunters are pretty good about respecting hunting areas of others and so we’ve had this area where we hunt pretty much to ourselves for 25 years.
We’re careful with that. Like I say, we don’t overhunt. We’re not interested in killing out. We don’t like that. Four big bucks a year is enough for us. We have most of it made into sausages, which we enjoy. Every year, of the four bucks we’ve taken, most years one of them will be a really big one. It’ll weigh over 300 pounds. We’ve got bucks that size in Minnesota. It’ll weigh about 305 pounds and it’ll be a 10 to, well, the biggest one was a 13 pointer, and whereas this area is not noted for record book racks, they have pretty nice racks and nice bucks. I was pretty proud take him. We can’t all get bucks like that every year. If we did that, we wouldn’t have any big, dominant bucks in our hunting area.
Bruce: You’d impact the gene pool. How big is the acreage?
Dr. Ken: Well, we have four square miles, not the entire amount of four square miles. One of those square miles is a denning area of timber wolves. We share our country with timber wolves but it’s about four square miles. Some of our stand sites are, from our more or less centrally located camp, up to two miles away so they’re quite a ways. We go to those stand sites in the dark and early in the morning. We want to be at our stand sites at least a half hour before first light in the morning so we don’t miss a minute of the first three hours of the day when we take 85% of our older bucks. We’ve had hunters there say, “Boy, you guys are really dedicated here. You’re kind of serious. You get up 4:00 in the morning?” [inaudible 00:12:40] Get ready to go and off we go about 5:30, while it’s still pitch dark out. We sit very still for the next four to five hours and then we come to camp at noon and then out we go again and that sort of thing.
Bruce: Dr. Ken, if there’s a foot of snow do you use snowshoes? Do you use snowmobiles? How do you get two miles away in a foot of snow?
Dr. Ken: Walk. I insist on it. I’ve got one son who’s been trying to introduce an ATV up here for years but I finally convinced him that’s wrong. If you make ATV tracks in snow, everybody with an ATV is going to want to follow those tracks and pretty soon we’ll be looking for a new hunting area so no, we walk. Our trails that we use are deer trails. One year we had three feet of snow. That was in 1992 and three feet of snow on the ground in the open area. We came down on Halloween night and we walked and it was one of our best years of buck hunting. We got some really, really great bucks that year. It’s work but it’s worth it. That’s the way we do it. We’re tough old guys.
Bruce: Wow. I’m just sitting here and we have listeners all around the Midwest, East Coast, down through Florida and through the Plains states. I hope you, everybody listening is hearing what I’m hearing. This is a camp that’s been established for 25 years on public land, four square miles, sharing with wolves, and they consistently take deer. I’m looking to have Dr. Ken on some other additional shows because he just proves that, no matter what you’re up against, whether other predators, you’re still able to take mature bucks.
Dr. Ken: Oh, yeah.
Bruce: Why do you love whitetail hunting so much?
Dr. Ken: Why do what?
Bruce: Why do you love hunting whitetails?
Dr. Ken: Well, there’s a lot of reasons. Partly, I’ve touched on them already. You know? I love, I think half the fun is our deer camps and we eat good food, we get good rest, we share all the work, we tell stories like all hunters do. To me, deer camp is the closest thing to heaven on Earth but there’s other reasons. You know, having become good at hunting older bucks has really made, I mean, whitetail is really fun for us. You know, just imagine that you’re out there scouting two to three weeks before the open like we do and you find a spot that, for several reasons, you think, “Boy, this is a good one and I’m going to take a good buck here with those tracks and droppings,” and all that kind of thing. Then, on opening morning, you get the buck just like you thought you would, I think that’s amazing. I mean, you just, you can’t smile wide enough when that happens.
We do that all the time. We consider hunting in two phases. The first two or three days are one phase. That’s before all the bucks we’re hunting realize they’re being hunted. Then from then on, when we get to phase two, then we change things. We have to move stands, move to different stand sites every half day because once they know they’re being hunted, they’re going to be changing their habits and behavior and range utilization daily. We’re able to keep up to them and stay close to them. They can’t shake us and there aren’t many bucks that can continuously avoid the hunter who hunts this way and so we do well. You can’t, you just look forward to that. It might seem like a lot of work and all that walking and all that but you look forward to it because it works and then it isn’t work anymore. It’s fun and we look forward to it. We can’t wait to begin again. Those are the reasons I really like whitetail hunting.
Bruce: Thank you for that. You mentioned stands. Now are you in ground blinds? Are you in tree stands? Tell us how you’ve got your camp set up.
Dr. Ken: Well, we hunted from trees when the kids first started, I think back in the early 1970s. We hunted from tree stands and back then they were primitive because tree stands were unheard of then. Nobody hunted from tree stands. Stand hunting was not as [inaudible 00:17:32] somewhere back then. It really worked well for my studies, which deer were really vulnerable to that back then. Gee, you could almost reach out and touch deer walking by. Our platforms were only six feet above the ground and deer would eat right under our feet and they’d go and lay down a few yards away. All my kids took really good bucks. One of my daughters took one of the four biggest ever taken by a Nordberg when she was thirteen from one of our early tree stands. By 1988 and ’89, we were starting to see things were changing.
All of a sudden, bucks were running away from our tree stands like they had never done before and they were avoiding them even if no one was in them and we could see things were not working out well. We weren’t seeing near as many deer. I started, in 1990, trying to figure out ways to restore buck hunting like we were used to. This thing was true of doe in estrus [inaudible 00:18:44] so I started experimenting with ground level hunting. After years of telling people, if you want to take big bucks you’ve got to be in a tree stand, and people say, “You’d never get me up there in a tree stand.” Well, now it’s the other way around. Nobody wants to leave their tree stand. We hunt at ground level using backpacks, tools, and natural unaltered cover only starting day three or four of a hunting season.
Some of the hunters in my camp still use tree stands during those first two or three days of a hunting season and it’s a great advantage but after that we start, because we’ve got to keep moving to stay with those bucks, we use backpacks and tools. Those can be carried without sound and they can be put down without sound and you’re a lot less likely to tip off a nearby buck that you’re near them. We just use natural cover. If you’re not used to hunting on the ground you think, “Oh, that’s terrible. How do you find that?” Well, there’s all kinds of natural cover, a lot more to hide your silhouette at ground level than up in a tree. No, our bucks up there are so good at, well almost everywhere nowadays, any buck two and one-half years of age or older will quickly recognize a hunter in any kind of stand on the ground or in a tree and begin avoiding the area.
During the hunting season, most times we don’t realize that’s going on because we don’t see it happening. Once we started the ground level hunting then things changed again and that’s our primary way of hunting deer after day three or four of the hunting season. We start with tree stands early and then, from then on, we’re on the ground.
Bruce: How long is your hunting season?
Dr. Ken: How long? Two weeks.
Bruce: Two weeks.
Dr. Ken: Yeah.
Bruce: So when you go into camp, do you get in there three days before, five days before, two days before?
Dr. Ken: Yeah, we get in there three or four days before and set up camp and cut wood and splinter and stack it for our stoves. We don’t do any scouting then. I remember, a couple years ago some new people bought the land that I’d been leasing for quite a few years and one day they stopped at camp and they said they bought that land over there. It cost them a hundred grand, 80 acres. They said, “We were really disappointed. When we scouted the day before the opening there seemed like there was plenty of deer in there but the next day there was no deer in there.”
Bruce: Oh my goodness.
Dr. Ken: That doesn’t work. It’s crazy. Anyway, they, yeah. We get up there early. I enjoy that. Us guys get plenty, that are in camp early, we get good nights sleep and we’re all set to go. In the morning we aren’t tired from driving 265 miles from home to get there. We’re ready to go.
Bruce: Thank you for that. Just to clarify, you mentioned leased land and then we talked about public land. So just clarify. Are you on public land or is some of the land you’re hunting leased?
Dr. Ken: Yeah. We’re on federal land where it’s illegal to make trails and blinds. I’ve done a lot of work around setting what kind of blinds work best. Three years ago, 50% of it was lodge. All we had was dirt and it was really disappointing. After it, we lost so many deer the last few years that half of that area that was dirt then has no deer in it at all right now. We’re anxiously hoping to see some improvement. This winter was mild so we have a lot of fawns this year. If wolves don’t keep eating three out of four or them, by November we’ll start to see some increases again. It’s all public land. We picked that, I picked that area because it’s especially rugged and roadless and it’s just kind of a mean area to hunt. Even if you wanted to use ATVs there it would be hard to do because of all the boulders and everything.
It’s all Canadian [inaudible 00:23:10] land. There isn’t much dirt on the rocks and there’s lots of rocks and boulders everywhere but it’s heavily forested. There’s beautiful areas in there and so we feel fortunate. Like I say, Minnesota hunters are pretty good about respecting hunting areas of others and our camps help in that regard. That’s one of the reasons that we do camp there.
Bruce: Where do the deer feed? Because they’re moving from their bedding areas to where they feed. Are there acorn crops or grasses?
Dr. Ken: Well, it’s all wild food. We don’t put in food lots because, which we could, because that’s not considered bait by our DNR but I think it’s bait. Food lots feed deer in spring, summer, and fall when they really don’t need extra food. They don’t starve then and so they eat natural foods and clearcuts, of course, are wonderful feeding areas. I used them at the beginning of the first year. That’ll be the best source of the thin-bladed grasses our deer love and there’s some clover out there, red clover growing in there, somehow gets in there. Then, after November, after the first week in November, they suddenly switch to browse up there and then their major food becomes red bark dogwood or red osiers and some other plants sort of like moose willow and young sugar maple trees. They’re red and deer love them.
When they cut in there, the stumps will be just bristling with those red suckers coming out of them. The deer love those. It’s natural food and in the wintertime is when whitetails find it hard to find food. They want, that’s when whitetails die from starvation, especially when the snow is so deep that they can’t get around very much. Anyway, so those red stems out there are their major food. They also eat white cedars along lakeshores up in our part of the country. But anyway, they’re stuck with natural food. There’s been some winters, though, since 1990 where we’ve gone up there and put food out in [inaudible 00:25:39] areas for whitetails to help get them through the winter. That’s a long story, too.
Bruce: Do you have yarding areas for carrying them over in the cedars or explain any yarding areas that you have on your area.
Dr. Ken: Well, we have so-called yarding areas. I prefer to call them wintering areas and some are small, maybe only a couple dozen deer are there during the winter. We’ve got some that are huge and there might be as many as 500 deer in there during the winter months. That’s along the north shore of Lake Superior. There have been years when I’m seeing, my brother and I, we go up there and cut trees, cedar trees and other types of food that whitetail want to get them through the winter. But wolves are awful hard on them in tough winters, too. They get into those yards and we’ve found places where as many as seven deer were killed by wolves in one night. I suppose that was all right because it helped the surviving deer find, look for more food for themselves. Those are the kind of things.
Usually they’re lowland areas with a lot of evergreens to give them protection from bigger, winter winds and deep snow and [inaudible 00:27:09] to areas that are feeding areas like [inaudible 00:27:13], red osiers and sugar maples and trees like that. They’re used year after year after year unless they get logged and one of our major wintering areas where we hunt was logged. It’ll be 40 years before it’ll be a wintering area again.
Bruce: Well, listeners, this is your host, Bruce Hutcheon, and I’ve got a page and one-half of notes from Dr. Ken’s discussions here today and thank you for taking us to your deer camp in northern Minnesota. At this time, Dr. Ken, can you share with our listeners how they can reach you if they want to go to see your website, see where your books are published.
Dr. Ken: Sure. Happy to.
Bruce: Just spend a few minutes here and tell us about how to contact you, where your information is available.
Dr. Ken: Okay. Well when my next almanac, “Whitetail Hunter’s Almanac”, comes out it will be on iTunes with Apple. Look for it there. Then, about most my books are available right now on the internet on Amazon, for example. You can go to my website and order them and I’ll autograph them for you. My website address is www and then it’s all small letters, drnordberg, that’s N-O-R-D-B-E-R-G, ondeerhunting.com. You go to that and you’ll find everything you want to know about me. I think a hundred older magazine articles that you can read for free and I’m on Twitter so you’ll find me there as well.
Bruce: What’s your address on Twitter?
Dr. Ken: It’s just, what is it, @drnordberg and you just type that in and you’ll find it. You have to go low on the list for me because a lot of my tweets on there are way down on the list right now but you’ll find all kinds of good information on that as well.
Bruce: Dr. Ken, thank you so much for being part of the Whitetail Rendezvous community. I look forward to having you on the show again. The welcome knowledge that you shared today certainly gave me a couple ideas and I hope our listeners agree. If you do, take a few minutes and tell us why you liked him. Tell us about why you liked it. Hit subscribe if you want to hear more. If you think it’s awesome, rate us as a five. The best way you can thank Dr. Ken for being on the show is to tell a friend. Social media allows you to impact a lot of people and I’m going to put a shout-out for Dr. Ken as soon as I get off this interview. Again, thank you for being part of the Whitetail Rendezvous community. Have a great day.