By Christian Berg
America is blessed with an abundance of big-game animals for bowhunters to pursue, but it’s no secret whitetail deer are No. 1 on the list. Thanks to their relative abundance and wide geographic distribution, whitetails draw more bowhunters afield each year than any other species — by a wide margin.
The quality of America’s whitetail hunting has increased dramatically over the past several decades, thanks largely to a tremendous rise in the adoption of quality deer management principles by state wildlife agencies and private landowners alike. As a result, there are now many states that regularly produce the kind of world-class trophies historically only associated with a handful of whitetail hotspots.
Given the whitetail’s tremendous popularity and the number of bowhunters who travel long distances each year in search of a trophy buck, we thought it would be fun to take a look across the nation and identify the top five deer-hunting destinations for the next five years.Although we didn’t want to limit our search too much, we felt that — in addition to great bowhunting — any state that made our list also had to offer good non-resident license availability (sorry, Iowa) and enough public land to make the whitetail resource accessible to blue-collar bowhunters (sorry, Texas).
Although we don’t claim our rankings are an exact science, they are based on a combination of research and input gleaned from an informal poll of 10 nationally recognized whitetail experts: Kip Adams, conservation director at the Quality Deer Management Association; Ralph Cianciarulo, co-owner of Archer’s Choice media; Eddie Claypool, DIY whitetail guru and BOWHUNTING field editor; Levi Morgan, world champion archer and co-host of Bow Life TV; Rick Mowery, communications manager of the Pope and Young Club; Dan Perez, chief executive officer of Whitetail Properties; Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute; Jason Snavely, owner of Drop-Tine Wildlife Consulting and BOWHUNTING Whitetails columnist; Bill Winke, co-owner of Midwest Whitetail and BOWHUNTING field editor; and Dr. Grant Woods, renowned whitetail biologist and host of Growing Deer TV.
The experts certainly didn’t agree on everything, but when combined with a review of whitetail trophy data and other deer-hunting information, there were some clear trends involving states that kept popping up again and again. So, without further ado, here are our picks for America’s top five whitetail destinations for the next five years:
Ask the average bowhunter what species comes to mind when you mention Montana and the most common answer is likely to be elk, probably followed by mule deer, moose or even mountain lion. Therein lies the beauty of Montana as a whitetail-hunting destination, as this stunningly beautiful Western state harbors a whitetail resource far bigger than its reputation.
“When you consider all variables, Montana should be No. 1 as far as I am concerned, because I can’t think of a state that beats it,” Snavely said. “I don’t mind hunting the Midwest, but there are a lot of reasons I think Montana is much, much better.”
According to Snavely, a professional deer manager and BOWHUNTING’s Whitetails columnist, Montana’s best whitetail hunting is found along the numerous river drainages in the eastern half of the state — most notably the Missouri, Powder, Tongue and Yellowstone rivers. “The solitude and remoteness of those magnificent river bottoms is unmatched,” he said. “It just blows my mind every time I am out there. Eastern Montana is the last, best-kept secret” in the whitetail world.
In addition to stunning natural beauty, Snavely said the wide, open river bottoms allow local ranchers to grow a plethora of corn, alfalfa and other crops that combine with copious natural browse and cover to create an ideal whitetail habitat. “Colliding with that, we have … lower hunting pressure [than most other states] and an abnormally high density of good bucks in that sweet spot of 150-180 inches,” he added.
As an added bonus, Montana’s archery season structure — running from early September to mid-October — makes it one of a handful of states where bowhunters have a legitimate chance to take bucks in velvet. Another big factor working in favor of Montana whitetail hunters is a mind-boggling amount of accessible land. Nearly 30 percent of the state — some 28.2 million acres — is public. And the state’s block management program makes an additional 7.3 million acres of private land available for public hunting.
Montana may be the most expensive state in the nation when it comes to non-resident deer tags, which will set you back roughly $625. And, they aren’t necessarily the easiest tags to get. Still, if you are looking for an outfitted or DIY deer hunt that offers a great combination of quantity and quality, Montana is hard to beat.
More Information: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; fwp.mt.gov
Similar to Montana, Oklahoma is a high-quality whitetail state that has largely flown under the radar on a national basis, at least until recent years. Long overshadowed by its neighbors to the south (Texas) and north (Kansas), Oklahoma isattracting growing attention from non-resident bowhunters.
Dan Perez, CEO of Whitetail Properties, said the Sooner State is particularly attractive to hunters looking to invest in hunting property that doesn’t carry the same kind of premium price as deer dirt in states with bigger reputations for trophy bucks. “Our goal as a land company is to get ahead of the curve,” Perez said. “If you are interested in buying whitetail ground, Oklahoma is a really good place to invest. It’s a great state. Four or five years ago, you and I probably wouldn’t even be having a conversation about Oklahoma. It has just been kind of a sleeper.”
Because Oklahoma can be susceptible to extended periods of hot, dry conditions, Perez said most of the state’s best deer hunting is concentrated along river corridors. “The best habitat follows water,” he said. “You might be hunting an area that is fields and fencerows and kind of open ground, but along those waterways it is just lush vegetation. Those small pockets sometimes holdtremendous numbers of deer.”
Oklahoma offers a fairly liberal season structure and bag limit for bowhunters, with an archery season that runs from Oct. 1-Jan. 15 and a bag limit of six deer, including two antlered deer and four antlerless deer. Non-resident archery deer permits are $300 and available over the counter.
Oklahoma is home to a growing number of whitetail outfitters that offer quality hunting. DIY bowhunters, meanwhile, can find ample opportunity to explore via a statewide network of Wildlife Management Areas and the Oklahoma LandAccess Program (OLAP) that makes significant acreage of private ground accessible for public hunting.
More Information: Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; www.wildlifedepartment.com
Now we are breaking into our top three, and honestly, you won’t find any surprises here. Truth is, figuring out exactly what order to put our final three states in was a real chore, because an argument could easily be made for putting any one of them at the top of the list.
Ohio, for instance, takes a back seat to nowhere in monster whitetail production. The Pope and Young Club’s record book proves that — Ohio has produced the No. 3 (198 3⁄8) andNo. 6 (196 6⁄8) typical whitetails and the No. 1 (294 0⁄8) non-typical whitetail. And it’s not like these bucks were killed a long time ago. The No. 1 non-typical was taken in Greene County in 2000. The No. 3 typical was taken in Muskingum County in 2004, and the No. 6 typical was taken in Adams County in 2006. So, if you’re looking to kill a truly giant buck — especially if you’re an archer living in the nation’s heavily populated Northeast Corridor — Ohio has to be at or near the top of your list.
Another great thing about Ohio, especially when compared to other well-known whitetail destinations in the Midwest, is how friendly it is to visiting bowhunters. Non-resident archers can get guaranteed hunting licenses for $146.12, with an either-sex deer permit costing just $41.60 more. So, for less than $200, you can bowhunt the Buckeye State to your heart’s content during a lengthy season — roughly four months, from the end of September into February.
“Ohio has been awesome to me,” said Levi Morgan, world champion 3-D shooter and Bow Life TV co-host. Morgan grew up in North Carolina and currently resides in Pennsylvania, but his family owns a 200-acre farm in southern Ohio where, several years ago, he killed a giant buck that sported numerous drop tines totaling 26 inches of antler.
What makes the Buckeye State so good for whitetails, Morgan believes, is an almost perfect blend of rugged terrain covered in hardwood forest, along with plenty of agriculture to boost deer nutrition. With plenty of places to hide and plenty of places to eat, Ohio bucks are difficult for hunters to pinpoint, allowing many to reach full maturity and develop giant racks.
Ohio also doesn’t have a centerfire rifle deer season, restricting gun hunters to shotguns and muzzleloaders. Better still, from a bowhunter’s perspective, is that the firearms seasons are relatively short and don’t coincide with peak rut. “So,” Morgan said, “that saves a lot of big deer.”
There are plenty of outfitters and leasing opportunities in Ohio, but a quality, DIY hunt isn’t out of the question. In fact, Ohio offers access to public land throughout the state via Wildlife Management Areas and other properties owned by the Department of Natural Resources.
More Information: Ohio Division of Wildlife; wildlife.ohiodnr.gov
Over the last decade, Kentucky has gone from a sleeper state to one that is routinely mentioned among America’s most desirable whitetail destinations — and for good reason. Kentucky ranks No. 5 all-time in Boone and Crockett whitetail entries (ahead of both Ohio and Kansas). And if you look at just the past decade, Kentucky’s 418 B&C entries rank No. 3 nationally.
Clearly, the Bluegrass State has a lot going for it when it comes to whitetail hunting, starting with a conservative bag limit of one buck per hunter, per year — regardless of residency or land ownership. Simply put, “a lot of bucks reach maturity there,” said Dr. Grant Woods, noted whitetail biologist and host of Growing Deer TV. “Each hunter is not taking three or four bucks, and when you are only allowed one buck, you tend to be more selective.”
Sure, Woods said, Kentucky has great deer habitat, including almost impenetrable forests in the eastern end of the state and a great mix of woodlots and agriculture in the west — a region Woods fondly refers to as “Little Iowa.” But, Woods notes, Kentucky’s neighbor to the south, Tennessee, has almost identical habitat but produces only a fraction of the trophy bucks Kentucky does due to a much more liberal bag limit on bucks. And while it is true that Kentucky offers a relatively long, two-week rifle season that coincides with the rut, Woods said even the impact of that is mitigated by the one-buck bag limit. “If you kill a buck in bow season, you are only doe hunting in gun season,” he said.
Kentucky is also a very hunter-friendly state, with inexpensive license fees and seasons that give sportsmen plenty of time to enjoy the outdoors. Non-residents can purchase an annual hunting license for $140 and deer permit for $120 over the counter. The deer permit includes the ability to take one buck and up to three antlerless deer, depending on the county where you hunt. Kentucky also offers an extremely long archery season that runs nearly five months, from Sept. 1 to late January. Plus, the early bow opener makes Kentucky one of a handful of states where bowhunters can pursue whitetail bucks in velvet during the first week to 10 days of the season.
Finally, Kentucky offers plenty of public ground for visiting bowhunters to explore, with an extensive network of Wildlife Management Areas statewide. There are also other state and federal lands, such as the massive Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, and numerous private properties open to public hunting, particularly in the eastern portion of the state where many mining and timber companies make large tracts available for public recreation.
More Information: Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources; fw.ky.gov
Many times, the best answer to a question is the most obvious one, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to selecting Kansas as the No. 1 state on our list. Outside of Iowa, which we eliminated from contention due to the difficulty of obtaining non-resident licenses, it is hard to imagine anywhere that rivals the Jayhawker State for producing big bucks.
The great thing about Kansas deer is they have giant bodies to match their giant headgear. If you’ve ever sat in a Kansas deer stand on a frosty November morning and watched one of those tank-sized, 250-pound bucks chase a doe across a CRP field, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, you need to add a Kansas whitetail hunt to your bucket list!
Interestingly, Kansas doesn’t have a single typical whitetail in the top 10 of the Pope and Young Club’s all-time records, but it accounts for four of the top 10 non-typicals, with bucks that scored 264 1⁄8, 257 0⁄8, 255 6⁄8 and 250 6⁄8. That’s more than 1,000 inches ofantler from just four animals!
“We all have different goals, but if yours is to really have an opportunity to harvest a trophy of a lifetime, I don’t think there is any place that you have a better chance than Kansas,” Whitetail Properties CEO Dan Perez said.
Big whitetails can be found across the state, from the more heavily forested and hilly terrain of Eastern Kansas all the way through the classic prairie terrain of the state’s middle and western sections. Although hunting pressure is a bit higher in Eastern Kansas — where the bulk of the state’s population resides — it is still only a fraction of the pressure deer face back on the East Coast.
“I go to Kansas because … I can drive around for miles and not even see another vehicle parked to indicate another hunter is out in the field,” Perez said.
Kansas also has a one-buck bag limit for residents and non-residents, which encourages hunters to be selective in their harvest decisions. It’s this lack of pressure, combined with great habitat and genetics, that allows Kansas to produce the kind of bucks most bowhunters only dream about. “It can just consistently, year after year, produce giants,” said Bow Life TV’s Levi Morgan, who counts his annual Kansas whitetail hunt as a highlight of the year. “You shoot three or four giant deer off a farm, and you show up the next year and have three or four more on the very first trail-camera pull,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Where do they come from?’”
Kansas’ archery season runs from mid-September through December. Non-resident deer licenses, which include either-sex and antlerless tags, are $442.50 and must be obtained via an annual draw system. Licenses aren’t guaranteed, but draw odds are at or near 100 percent in many units, with decent odds in others. So, visiting bowhunters have a good chance of obtaining a deer license every year. In addition to the deer permit, non-residents must also purchase a general hunting license for $97.50.
Kansas offers a good supply of public ground statewide and also operates an extensive Walk In Hunting Area (WIHA) program that makes lots of private ground available for public hunting. A searchable map of public-hunting areas is available on the state wildlife department’s website.
More Information: Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism; ksoutdoors.com