If you were asked to name the hunts you wanted to go on most before you called it quits, you might well list a bunch of species—and any number of faraway places—before the thought of whitetails ever crossed your mind. There are many glamorous big game animals to hunt, and most live far from what we tend to think of as “the deer woods.”
It’s natural for a hunter to fantasize about watching a leopard bait or stalking a mountain goat instead of going on another hunt for an animal readily available back home. But the whitetail’s range is so broad and diverse that it’s actually simple to come up with a cool “bucket list” for this familiar species.
If you want to sample some of the most memorable experiences our common deer has to offer, consider the following list of great whitetail hunts before you die. I’ve been blessed to hunt nearly 40 states and provinces over a five-decade whitetail career, and the hunts mentioned here are among those I’d gladly do again. Of course, they’re just one guy’s opinion, so feel free to go to the “comments” section and nominate your own whitetail dreams.
You can have a long, fulfilling whitetail career without ever venturing farther than your local woods. Most deer hunters do. But should you find yourself yearning for something more, consider the best whitetail hunts on this list. Even if you never fire a shot, they can help you hang some amazing whitetail memories on the walls of your mind. And in the end, those are the greatest trophies of all.
This makes South Texas a place you should visit before handing down that favorite deer rifle to your grandson. Almost every bit of the region is private land, and it’s either outfitted or leased to private parties for hunting. Unless you have a generous friend who owns a ranch, or you can get a nearly-impossible-to-draw permit to hunt the state-owned Chaparral Wildlife Management Area, expect to pay good money to hunt here. But even if it takes five years to save enough for a good rut hunt, do it.
This relatively flat thornbrush country is unlike anything else in the whitetail world. Mild—sometimes downright hot—temperatures, unique wildlife species, interesting plant life, great local cuisine and getting to see mature bucks do their thing in legal shooting light combine to make the Brush Country perhaps the most obvious bucket list entry of all.
Many North American hunters want to travel there to shoot a red stag. But New Zealand also has the world’s most far-flung whitetail population. Although just 18 were hauled there from the U.S. back in 1905, their descendants can now be hunted in two separate and very different areas.
Some of the deer were released in the scenic mountains west of Queenstown on the South Island. That pocket of deer ranges onto both private and public (“crown”) land, but numbers are fairly low and the hunting is tough. A much better option is to reserve one of many hunting blocks on Rakiura on Stewart Island, which sits off the southern tip of the South Island. You travel there from Invercargill by boat or small plane, then stay in huts provided by the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association. Every day you hunt your way out and back again.
You’ll be stalking over sand dunes and rocky outcroppings covered with bizarre plants, including 20-foot tree ferns and succulent broadleaf—the whitetail’s favorite forage here. Meanwhile, you’ll see and hear rare native birds, maybe even a kiwi or yellow-eyed penguin. And on a clear night, you’ll look out over the Great Southern Ocean and see constellations invisible to sky watchers in North America.
Of course, a unique view shouldn’t be any real surprise, considering the next real landmass to your south is Antarctica. Although New Zealand’s whitetails aren’t all that big by our standards, the experience is nothing short of gigantic. You can be sure of coming home with a story none of your hunting buddies can ever match, whether you squeeze the trigger or not. A DVD titled “The Whitetail Deer of Stewart Island,” available from South Coast Productions, will convince you I’m telling it straight.
Saskatchewan produced Milo Hanson’s current world-record typical 20 years ago, and it wouldn’t shock anyone for the next No. 1 also to come from that part of the world.
Published records suggest neither Saskatchewan nor Alberta yields more total B&C deer than Wisconsin or Kentucky, but that’s not the whole story. In the “prairie” provinces, you don’t have to sort through as many bucks to find one that’s world class, both in antlers and in body size. The dream of taking one of these giants lures trophy addicts north every November. Sooner or later, try to be among them.
Of course, that’s not to say you’ll kill a giant if you get there, or even see the tracks of one. But in that vast country, who knows what might step out of the willows next? It could literally be the buck of many lifetimes, and you have the option of hunting with a rifle the entire rut—a luxury enjoyed in few other prime trophy areas.
On top of potential areas for producing record racks, what makes Western Canada worth hunting is that, well, it’s Western Canada. Up there, I have no trouble imagining I’m hunting deer that have never seen a human. To hear wolves howling—and maybe even catch the Northern Lights flickering over a spruce swamp—is to be reminded you’re in one of the wildest whitetail habitats on earth. Heading home with a big buck is really just icing on the cake.
One frustration for nonresidents is that it just isn’t easy to get that bow permit, especially in southern Iowa’s highly touted zones 4, 5 and 6. But the sooner you start stacking up preference points in the late spring drawing, the sooner you’ll draw a tag.
Once you do, target the brushy drainages and CRP fields found throughout this rolling farm country. Most of Iowa is private land, and a lot of the best deer habitat is leased. However, there are some good outfitters. If you can afford to book with one, I would strongly consider that option. If not, try knocking on doors in the off-season.
As a backup plan, check out public options. Some huge bucks come from thick cover bordering Lake Rathbun and other reservoirs. Even if you don’t get a buck, there’s a fair chance you’ll at least see one that will live in your dreams from then on.
Depending on the exact location, that could be as early as mid-November, but it’s more likely to be around Christmas or even later. In Alabama, rifle hunting goes through the end of January. In parts of southern Mississippi, primitive weapons hunting runs to the middle of February. Some parts of each state feature good rut hunting right up to season’s end.
You might question being able to take a big buck at that time of year, but the late rut makes it doable. In fact, I just returned from southwestern Alabama’s Pushmataha Plantation, where I downed a heavy-racked buck at last light on Jan. 30. He stepped of a hardwood swamp and made a beeline for some does close to our shooting house on a food plot.
Part of the Deep South’s appeal is that the weather tends to be mild, even in mid-winter. Regardless of the temperature, though, at a well-run lodge great hospitality is always on full display. Friendly folks, tasty comfort food and a winter rut? That’s not such a bad way to thaw out while waiting for shed-hunting season to begin up north.