During the "careers" of most deer hunters, a predictable transition occurs. At first, just shooting a deer — any deer — is satisfying. Then shooting a number of them becomes a priority. The third stage involves trying to bag a unique specimen of the species.
That might mean holding out for a true giant, or perhaps traveling in order to have a chance at a subspecies never taken. Then, too, it might mean trying to collect a buck with antlers in the velvet stage.
Whitetails across North America tend to shed their velvet during the first week of September. Sometimes the fuzz comes off during the last week of August, or even a few days prior, but the majority of bucks will become hard-antlered Sept. 1-7. If you really want a velvet buck, a week into September is thus about as late as you can feel you have a good chance.
That might seem to complicate matters, but in truth, the reverse is the case. The majority of states aren't in play as potential velvet destinations, simply because their seasons open too late. So you can eliminate them from the start.
From a purely DIY perspective, for U.S. residents even early openers in some parts of Canada — Manitoba, in particular — are out; hunting there requires you to employ a professional guide/outfitter. Of course, if that isn't a deal breaker to you, then by all means consider those areas, as well. There are many big whitetails in Canada.
Fortunately, while most states aren't in play for velvet on a regular basis, a handful of our most productive ones are. And there are several positive aspects to hunting then.
First, not only does the season open when the majority of the bucks haven't yet shed their soft antler covering, the deer are in some of their most consistent and predictable patterns of the year. They're still in bachelor groups and quite visible in daytime, compared to the shyness they'll exhibit once velvet comes off.
Also, they're focused entirely on bedding and feeding every day. The bucks follow a daily routine that makes them highly patternable. Getting a good shot at one is never guaranteed, but at this time it's about as close to a slam dunk as it gets in fair-chase whitetail bowhunting.
So where are these hotspots? Here are my top five picks for getting a velvet buck for your trophy room.
North Dakota Public Land
This state is a gold mine for the DIY bowhunter. Public land is abundant, and there are still places where hunting permission is granted on a handshake. (Note that the 2015 archery season opens at noon on Sept. 4, but that's still early enough to give you a crack at a velvet buck.)
Tens of thousands of acres of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) land surround the Missouri River and its reservoirs, and all of them are open to public hunting. Much of this is grassland, but food plots, shelterbelts and oak groves left over from century-old farmsteads attract whitetails.
Lake Sakakawea is a huge reservoir — 125 miles long — and almost the entire shoreline is ACOE land. You could spend a lifetime poking around it, looking for whitetails. Much of the area has a very low human population and little hunting pressure during archery season.
North Dakota also has a program known as PLOTS, which is an acronym for Private Land Open to Sportsmen. Through this program, landowners allow public access to their ground. The good news about PLOTS land is that no access by any type of vehicle is allowed; it's walking only.
The vast majority of this land is prairie that attracts bird hunters, but the hunter who does his homework can find small pockets of great whitetail habitat that rarely get touched. Because it's walking access only, anything a mile or more from the nearest road might never see a bowhunter. Most locals have other hunting places that don't require as much walking.
Surprisingly few nonresidents take advantage of North Dakota's whitetail opportunities. You have to do your homework and be willing to work hard to bag a velvet buck here, but if you like the challenge of a DIY road trip, this might be the bowhunt for you.
A nonresident deer license is only $215. Nonresidents must purchase the license online or by phone and have it mailed; allow 10 days for it reach you by mail. Bow season opens at noon on the Friday nearest Sept. 1.
While northeastern Montana whitetails get a lot of publicity, the southeastern corner of the state quietly produces really nice bucks, too. In fact, with populations farther north in the state still recovering from epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreaks, heading south makes sense. And because the season always opens Sept. 1, there's opportunity at velvet bucks.
Look to lowlands along the Powder and Tongue rivers for numbers of whitetails and a quality of deer that will surprise even the seasoned road-tripper. This is arid country, with river bottoms surrounded by sagebrush hills. The deer bed in lowland cottonwood groves during the day and move into irrigated alfalfa fields to feed in late afternoon.
Their patterns are very consistent, and the sheer numbers of deer are striking. It's not rare to see 50-plus deer per sitting. The first week in September last year I saw nine Pope & Young-class bucks in velvet during a single four-hour evening sit in 90-degree heat.
For a DIYer, the trick is finding a ranch that can be accessed without having to book a guided hunt. The majority of properties with good deer populations are leased by outfitters. Most of these offer hunts for whitetails and mule deer, plus antelope if you want to combine the two into one hunt. Regardless, this is one of those hunts every serious bowhunter should put on their "must do" list. It's that good.
Even if you got DIY, this isn't the cheapest state in which to bowhunt whitetails. Montana is proud of its nonresident hunting and charges accordingly. The tags and licenses will set you back $552 for the any-deer tag. This let you shoot a whitetail or mule deer.
You must apply by March 15, but you'll draw every other year and sometimes in consecutive years. You can spring for the more expensive elk-deer combination license (a whopping $980), and getting that guarantees you a deer tag; then, if you aren't going to hunt elk, apply for a refund of that portion of the tag.
One more note: In Montana it's illegal to use a scouting camera during open season.
Much as is the case with southeastern Montana next door, this area in no way resembles whitetail country to a hunter from east of the Mississippi River. But riparian areas in the region produce deer in significant numbers, and the scarcity of local whitetail hunters allows them to get old.
This part of the West isn't the secret it once was, as outfitters have grabbed up the majority of the best ground in the river valleys. With enough legwork you can get permission to hunt without an access fee, but most landowners have figured out that nonresidents will pay to hunt the whitetails they consider vermin, relative to mule deer.
Here, alfalfa fields are the main key to whitetail patterns in early season. However, the bedding area might be in a pine grove a mile or more from the feeding area. It's common for whitetails to cross large areas while they make their way to the fields to feed in the afternoon. They regularly walk two miles or more to a field, then go the other way in the morning. This of course makes them very visible, especially with a spotting scope. Once they're found, it's a simple matter to get into position to intercept them on their trek.
If you want to tackle northeastern Wyoming whitetails on public land, the immense Black Hills National Forest is one option. (Note that while much of the forest is in South Dakota, that state's bow season doesn't open until much later, when almost all bucks are out of velvet.) There are numerous developed camping areas and plenty of access roads within the hills, and whitetails are plentiful; however, there aren't nearly as many concentrated food sources as you'll find on private lands in the valleys.
Wyoming's archery deer season opens Sept. 1, but you must apply for your tag by March 15. Drawing odds are very good; you'll find a deer tag in your mailbox most years.
The western half of Kentucky has a deserved reputation as a quality whitetail destination. In the last two decades, the numbers of mature deer shot by residents and nonresidents has been steadily rising. With an archery opener that falls on the first Saturday in September (which in 2015 is the 5th), this centrally located gem is yet another place to bag a velvet buck. Plus, it's a bargain, at $190 for over-the-counter tags and licenses.
For hunters without the budget to spend on a fully outfitted hunt, this region offers an abundance of public land open to hunting. Western Kentucky features two expansive public areas, in 100,000-acre Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Management Area and 65,000-acre Peabody WMA. In addition, several other quality WMAs across the region range in size from under 1,000 acres to over 8,000.
Western Kentucky is well populated, so you won't be alone. But if you're willing to do your legwork — get a mile or more off the road — you'll find minimal hunting pressure.
Landowners here are generally somewhat open to allowing archers access to their property. (That's not so much the case for gun hunters.) While there are some outfitters operating in the western part of the state, there's no shortage of private land that remains unleased.
Patterning these big-woods bucks in September isn't nearly as easy as in the West. Much of the acorn crop is already on the ground, and browse is both abundant and spread across the landscape. This is often thick and steep country, so you'll need to work hard to get your buck. But if you have a good plan and execute it well with hard work and determination, you might see some great deer.
Thirty years ago, there were few whitetails in the Evergreen State. However, the population has exploded since the 1980s. Abundant irrigated cropland is home to large numbers, and big bucks are common. Most locals are into mule deer; in fact, while it might come as a surprise, whitetails are considered second-class citizens by many.
Among the top counties are Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Spokane. All share one feature that makes them home to large numbers of whitetails: the Columbia River and its tributaries. Water is the key in this relatively dry region, as whitetails use the bottomlands of the rivers and streams, which are home to large alfalfa fields and apple orchards.
Apple growers and deer don't mix, which can make acquiring permission to hunt easy if you find yourself in the right place and asking the right person. A few outfitters have popped up, but for the most part this state is overlooked as a whitetail destination. Some of the counties listed have abundant public hunting land, others very little.
Especially for a game animal that's not highly revered, whitetail tag prices are high. However, that's because the state doesn't differentiate between mule deer and whitetails when it comes to licensing. You can purchase a nonresident deer-only license over the counter for $434.30.
Alberta Forest Fringe
This province in western Canada has long been a renowned producer of trophy whitetails, due to great genetics, enough agriculture and relatively low hunting pressure. Most Americans hunting there go for the November gun season, but there's a lot of overlooked bowhunting potential early.
You have a real chance to take a velvet whopper during the first week of season, which kicks off in late August in some game management units. In fact, some large areas around the province are designated for hunting with primitive weapons only.
Deer licenses and fees are very reasonable, at $196.57, but the catch is that a nonresident hunter either must book with an outfitter or be "hosted" by an Alberta resident. One other option is to trade a trip. You might find an Alberta resident willing to host you in exchange for a hunt in your area.
Most of southern Alberta is prairie, while to the north you'll find boreal forest. Along the British Coumbia border to the west are high mountains that taper into foothills to the east. Nestled between those hills and the prairie is "forest fringe," commonly called "parkland" by residents.
This combination of farms, open prairie and patches of "bush" is where you'll find the best velvet hunting. Deer tend to bed in the heavy cover of the timber blocks and feed in the open fields. They're quite visible in this flat to rolling terrain. Whitetail numbers aren't high here, but quality makes up for any lack of quantity.
Occasionally bucks here will bed for the day in open fields. If you can spot one in the morning and watch him bed down, you perhaps can put a sneak on him. This isn't a high-percentage tactic, but it's exhilarating and sure beats sitting around camp all day. Arrowing a mature buck in this way is one of the most rewarding feats in deer hunting.
A velvet-antlered whitetail is a unique trophy that can be predictably obtained in only a handful of places. If you start planning now, you have a real chance to get one of your own.
Note that in addition to the states and provinces listed above, there's legitimate velvet opportunity for bowhunters in a few other places. For instance, Idaho also opens early (Aug. 30 in certain units), and several northern and central counties have big whitetails.
Plus, in 2014 Nebraska moved its bow opener to Sept. 1 from its traditional Sept. 15, based on bowhunters' interest in hunting velvet bucks. Check out the details on what that state has to offer bowhunters.