By Gordon Whittington
If you’ve followed the hunting media in recent years, you might have concluded that a rifleman no longer has a place at the trophy whitetail table. And if you have, I can’t say I blame you.
Back in your granddad’s day, most deer woods were a rifleman’s domain. Seasons were short, and hunters often had to travel into “the sticks” to find whitetails. Once there, the best chance of killing one was with a gun effective out to some range. Thus, in most dreams of deer season, what came to mind was an adventure involving a Winchester 70, Remington 700, Marlin 336, Savage 99, Browning BAR or some similar centerfire rifle.
But that tradition began to fade in the 1970s and especially the ’80s, as whitetails became more entrenched in flat farm country, suburban areas and other places where there were safety concerns over airborne lead traveling too far in the wrong direction. As deer saturated smaller woodlots and creek bottoms, there was less perceived need to reach way out there to shoot one. Slug gunners and traditional muzzleloader shooters began to score more often, keeping deer numbers reasonably in check at closer ranges.
Meanwhile, along came compound bows. Many riflemen added them to their arsenals, along with better arrows, broadheads, sights, rests, releases, rangefinders, decoys, calls and scents. Portable tree stands were another big leap forward, as were food plots and feeders to concentrate deer into more predictable places and patterns. Trail cameras of course further refined productive stand sites and helped pinpoint the best times to hunt them.
The thrill of close encounters with whitetails, the convenience of quick day hunts near home and the relative ease of getting permission to bowhunt also began to erode the tradition of rifle hunting the backwoods. And media coverage of giant after giant taken with “primitive” weapons dispelled the idea that it still took big guns to kill big bucks. So did the fact that many of the places cranking out giants didn’t even allow centerfire use.
Put all this together and you had a winning hand for short-range hunting tools, including muzzleloaders and slug guns that were simultaneously evolving with more reliable designs, ammunition and optics. So by the time we’d begun fretting over the doomsday of Y2K, even a casual hunter had a fair chance of taking a deer without ever touching a centerfire. Using something other than a “deer rifle” had become the new normal for many.
The fact it no longer was a rifleman’s world had zero to do with a lack of advancements in the firearms arena. In fact, all this took place even as huge innovations in rifles, ammunition and optics were making centerfires more capable and dependable than ever. This only added to the irony that whitetail hunters with the most efficient tools began to feel they were actually at a trophy-taking disadvantage.
Key Factors to Consider
Since joining North American Whitetail’s staff in 1984, I’ve hunted with centerfires in 21 U.S. states, six provinces of Canada, two states in Mexico and multiple areas of Finland and New Zealand. While I haven’t shot whitetails in each of those places, my travels have reinforced in my mind the key factors affecting rifle success on big deer:
- 1. How heavy is the gun pressure?
- 2. Is rifle season open when mature bucks want to move in daylight?
- 3. Does the habitat allow for shooting at extended distances?
Answering these basic questions is at the heart of taking big, free-ranging bucks with a rifle. Only after you’ve found the right place do other factors, such as license availability and land access, even come into play. So let’s start by using this basic formula to see what most affects success.
1. A Master of Pressure
Logic suggests the highest hunting pressure is where the most people live. That’s not universally true, but it trends that way in general.
The Northeast has the highest human population density of any region in the whitetail’s range. And among states with centerfire seasons, Pennsylvania leads the way with an overall density of around 20 deer hunters per square mile. New York is second on the list, at around 15. From there, we head west to Wisconsin, which stands at No. 3 with a hunter density in excess of 13.
Next among rifle states are Ohio (12 per square mile), Virginia and Indiana (11) and then Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi (10). Ohio was long a slug/muzzleloader-only state but now allows the use of certain straight-wall centerfire cartridges. Indiana was for many years also a non-centerfire state, but within the past few years its rules have been relaxed to allow use of many standard rifle cartridges.
What about some other well-known rifle states east of the Great Plains? Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia all have produced a lot of big deer for riflemen over the years, and at least some portion of each state has allowed centerfire hunting throughout that span. Each has 5-8 deer hunters per square mile.
Moving even farther down the pressure list, to whitetail rifle states with under 5 hunters per square mile, we find all those from the Great Plains west. Oh, and Florida.
In case you’re curious, in terms of hunter density all whitetail provinces of Canada and states of Mexico are lightly hunted relative to the East, South and Midwest regions of the U.S. And all allow centerfire hunting in at least some zones.
Most hunters never leave their home state or province to pursue whitetails. So for many of you, tips on identifying rifle hotspots might not seem to matter; you hunt where you live, and if there’s a lot of pressure, well, that’s just how it is. But you still could benefit from understanding the factors involved.
A state or province’s overall hunting pressure isn’t what affects your odds — it’s more about how the spot you’re in has been managed and hunted. I’d far rather hunt the best land in the worst state than the other way around.
Lack of a centerfire season doesn’t make a state or property trophy paradise. Especially where parcels are small and human populations high, the cumulative effects of bow, slug and muzzleloader pressure can hurt deer numbers, sex ratios and buck age structure at least as much as light, cautious rifle pressure can.
Hunting pressure is measurable in several ways, and only one of those is hunters per square mile. “Heavy” pressure also can mean the relentless presence of a smaller number of hunters, no matter their hunting tools or tactics.
For instance, if one bowhunter spends 100 days a year hunting the same 40 acres, regularly spooking deer and shooting a couple yearling bucks, it might impact the herd more than two guys shooting one mature buck from the property opening weekend of rifle season but otherwise leaving the place alone all year.
So let’s not get the idea that a lack of rifle hunters automatically equates to buck heaven. Other methods also can skew the herd and make deer harder to hunt. It’s just that centerfires in indiscriminate hands can do so more easily — during the rut in particular.
2. Rifle Season Framework
It’s one thing to be allowed to use a .300 Win. Mag. — it’s another to feel you’re being given a fighting chance to fire it at a mature buck. Season timing is the most obvious factor determining just how good that chance is.
Most rifle season dates fluctuate a few days from year to year. Most openers are tied to a given Saturday (for instance, in Nebraska the second Saturday in November), so dates move as the calendar shifts. Moon phase is a wild card, never aligning perfectly with a given date two years in a row. Rifle season length of course is another factor, though places with longer seasons tend to have lower hunter densities.
Assuming normal weather, crop harvest timing, etc., in most places you’ll see more natural buck movement on Nov. 10 than on Nov. 20 . . . and way more than on Nov. 30. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but overall, the point holds. Where there’s a mid-November peak of breeding, you’ll usually see more daytime buck activity just before the peak. And that’s true whether there’s a November rifle season or not.
A trophy-focused rifleman also might want to consider another factor in the equation: the ever-present risk of antler damage. Sure, points or even entire beams can get snapped off at any time a buck is in antler, but most damage occurs from the late pre-rut on through the end of the main breeding phase. Every day brings greater risk of breakage. That’s a vote for trying to tag a buck on Nov. 8 instead of Nov. 28.
So all else being equal, a rifle season that starts a bit before peak rut will offer more trophy sightings and less antler damage. Of course, that’s only true if big bucks are there to start with — and this is where the impact of nonselective hunting pressure comes in. If rut rifle hunters are indiscriminate in what they shoot, and there’s even a medium level of pressure, the result will be an unbalanced herd with fewer older males. Nobody can kill the 5 1/2-year-old buck that died at 2 1/2.
Cooperative deer management, in which neighbors join forces to manage a shared herd collectively, is a great way to keep more young bucks alive. But when neighbors aren’t selective in what they shoot, a stingy legal bag limit can offer help.
Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana all saw improved buck numbers and age structure as they adopted single-buck annual bag limits. While Ohio has the highest overall pressure of these states, it benefits greatly from also being the only one with a gun season outside the rut. This reduces the negative impact of having so many hunters per square mile.
But going with a single buck tag isn’t the total answer. Minnesota has such a limit, yet its trophy production is a shadow of what it once was. That’s due to heavy pressure, a gun season (rifle in many zones) that opens in early November and the fact many hunters still have an “if it’s brown, it’s down” mindset. The growing presence of wolves and other predators hasn’t helped.
As Dr. James Kroll points out in his “Dr. Deer” column in this issue, wildlife agencies in some rifle states now use antler restrictions to limit the buck harvest. Regardless of hunter densities or season timing, such places tend to see improvements in trophy numbers. Even hard-hunted Pennsylvania has turned out some tremendous deer after having had ARs in place for nearly 20 years.
Of late, the claimed fear of chronic wasting disease has led some wildlife agencies to eliminate ARs; they contend that protecting young bucks could inadvertently contribute to more of the disease. For example, this move recently was made in parts of Missouri that had seen improved trophy numbers once a “4-point” rule went into effect.
Over time, perhaps we’ll determine if killing more young bucks really helps to curb CWD. Until then, what we can say for sure is that protecting them leads to having more big ones to hunt, whether in rifle areas or elsewhere.
So for those of us who enjoy using centerfires to hunt mature bucks, season structure matters as much as anything else. It directly affects how many big bucks are present, and it determines if we can hunt them when they’re vulnerable and free of major antler damage. Because the ideas of protecting bucks and being able to shoot them are at odds with each other, the trick is always finding a balance of regulatory framework, pressure and finally, habitat type.
3. The Shootability Factor
Thick cover is the great equalizer of hunting tools. When a buck is chasing a doe into and out of view inside 40 yards, you’re arguably little better off with a 6.5 Creedmoor bolt gun than with a 20-gauge pump. It’s not that the rifle is a hindrance in heavy cover, just that you can’t max out its advantages.
In many places, stand locations offering great visibility are rare. So rifle hunters often camp out on the few they can find. These tend to be “man-made” spots: crop fields, large food plots, fresh clearcuts or mowed powerlines.
If you’ve just dialed in a hot new rifle chambered in a celebrated long-range cartridge, it’s tempting to set up where you can see forever. You’ve spent early fall having a big buck taunt you from well outside bow range, and now you’re going to make him pay. But hunting open areas for that reason alone is pointless. If the buck isn’t going to be there in legal light when the woods are ringing with gunfire, even a great rifle’s range performance advantage is moot.
During the course of rifle season, in most places all a hunter realistically can hope for is one legal chance at a mature buck in ethical range. When you solve the centerfire equation well enough to give yourself such an opportunity to tag out, I call that a successful season.
Coming Next Month
So where are the best places to rifle hunt free-range trophy bucks? They’re not all at the far corners of the continent. In Part 2, we’ll name names.