Admit it. We're all desirous of tagging a trophy buck, though the level of desire, and expectation, varies from one hunter to the next. For some, a mature buck is a dream. For others, it's a goal. All serious bowhunters know the importance of scent control, learning the ways of the whitetail, picking the best equipment and practicing until you are proficient.
Trophy bucks could turn up just about anywhere, but you're more likely to encounter one if you hunt near a major waterway. The author took this 140-class whitetail in December while hunting at the Turley Ranch in Durham, Okla. The ranch lies within the Washita River drainage.
But regardless of how much effort you apply, the odds of success are still low if you hunt in the wrong place. Conversely, you can increase your odds dramatically simply by hunting in a location with high numbers of trophy bucks.
Dr. Joel W. Helmer has spent considerable time researching the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young record books and plotting the geographic distribution of trophy whitetails. The initial results of his work, released in 2001, showed some distinct trends. States with the most trophy bucks had firearms seasons that were relatively short (a week or less) and took place outside the rut. Furthermore, gun hunting in those states was limited largely to shotguns and muzzleloaders.
More recently, Helmer worked with the Quality Deer Management Association to produce two posters showing the distribution of record-book bucks. The latest version, which includes all records through 2005, is included in QDMA's Whitetail Report 2009.
In addition to acknowledging the impact state management practices and hunting regulations can have, Helmers pointed out another noteworthy trend. "The relationship between [record-book] entries and river systems is evident throughout the country, especially in heavily farmed states," he said.
In Iowa, for example, the best trophy counties border the Missouri, Mississippi and Des Moines rivers. They're not the most heavily farmed either, but tend to have a mixture of farmland and forest cover associated with rich, river bottom soils. Helmer noted a similar pattern recurs in many other areas along the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri river drainages. That's all well and good, but what if you don't live or can't afford to hunt in those states?
Closer To Home
About a dozen years ago, I did a little research of my own. My home state of Maine has two trophy recognition clubs. The Biggest Bucks in Maine Club recognizes hunters who kill a buck with a dressed weight of 200 pounds or more. The Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club, meanwhile, recognizes deer with antlers that meet minimum scoring criteria.
They use a measuring system similar to B&C and P&Y, though minimums are lower in each antler and weapon class. I decided to take several years worth of entries (as much as was available at the time) and plot them on a state map. Initially, I noticed trophy bucks were well distributed around the state.
As I added more and more data, however, a clear pattern emerged. The distribution of trophy bucks coincided very nicely with the state's major river drainages. Since then, the distribution of Maine's trophy bucks has shifted somewhat from northern areas to central and southern Maine -- largely a result of harsh winters and poor deer yard protection -- but still shows a strong affinity for waterways.
The Essence of Life
If you know much about ecology, the correlation between trophy racks and water shouldn't be surprising. Deer, like all animals, require three things to survive: food, water and cover. Where those things occur in closest proximity, you'll find the highest deer densities. And that occurs along waterways.
But it's not just about quantity. As Helmer noted, river bottoms also tend to have the richest soil. Hence, they also have the most nutritious vegetation.
Remember, antlers are a luxury. Any nutrition a deer takes in goes first to survival, maintaining bodily functions. If those requirements are met, excess energy then goes toward body growth. If both those needs are met, any surplus is then available for antler growth. It only makes sense that you'll find the biggest antlers in areas of greatest nutrition. All other things being equal, that occurs along river systems.
The importance of recognizing the deer/waterway affinity varies by region. In agricultural areas of the Midwest, it's almost a no-brainer. Food is not a limiting factor, and waterways are the only place with sufficient cover for deer. It is in predominantly forested areas that this relationship becomes more important. Deer occur, and we can hunt them, all over the forest. But you'll find the largest concentrations, and the largest individuals, around riverine habitat.
Waterways also provide an important environmental component that is often overlooked -- travel corridors. Animals need to travel safely from one location to another. This allows them to access other food sources when local supplies are limited. It also helps populations disperse, increasing genetic diversity. Again, this is obvious in open or agricultural areas. It's more subtle, but no less important, in the big woods.
The Take Home Message
Targeting major river systems can boost your odds of putting a mature buck in bow range. But it's only one piece of the trophy puzzle. You still have to factor in other variables such as state and local regulations, land management practices and hunting pressure. The highest human populations also tend to occur along river systems. The trick then becomes finding areas of lower hunting pressure, which may be miles from the city or literally within its shadows.