By Gordon Whittington
Killing a big whitetail with a rifle is pretty simple, really. When he shows up, just put the right bullet into the right part of his body. He’ll die within seconds: same as any other deer will.
But getting the chance to prove it? Well, that’s another matter. A rifleman can go years between opportunities, especially in heavily hunted areas.
Fortunately, in some states and provinces you and your rifle not only have a legitimate chance to bring home venison, but also a trophy rack. The key is finding a place that balances opportunity with the right management strategy and favorable season timing.
You might doubt that such places exist, but they do. In fact, they’re fairly common. There are some in every time zone, though they do tend to become more abundant as you move westward across whitetail country.
This isn’t to say you can’t shoot a great buck in a heavily hunted area. It happens every year. It’s just that your odds of killing one are far better in places with lower pressure and a track record of giving up mature deer. This is a numbers game we’re playing, and the numbers favor those who are rifle hunting in places with a lot of mature deer.
My goal here is to point out some of these hotspots, so those looking for better hunting can do more in-depth investigation. Rather than list individual states or provinces, I’ve largely clumped them into subregions. Within each, the herds, habitat and rifle seasons are similar enough to address them together.
NORTHWESTERN GREAT PLAINS
This subregion includes parts of several well-known whitetail states: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. We could throw in western Kansas as well, but that state’s lack of a rut rifle season leads me to address it later in our rundown.
True Boone & Crockett bucks might be uncommon in the dry, open country on the western edge of the Northern Plains, and tags can be expensive and/or hard to draw. But once you have that tag and a rifle in hand, you should find some good bucks to pick from. A big plus is that there’s a lot of public land. To me, that makes it perhaps the overall most attractive region for nonresident rifle hunters seeking DIY adventure.
Despite the visibility of deer, rifle success rates on good bucks are encouraging. That’s because this is an extremely rural part of the U.S.; even though many locals hunt, that still means lower pressure than in most other places. Landholdings (public and private) also tend to be large, giving you more freedom to cover ground and pinpoint deer activity. The widely scattered agricultural plantings and pockets of cover are obvious, and that fact speeds up scouting considerably.
While most crop fields are on private land, they draw deer off nearby public lands in the evenings. And sometimes you can still get private land access at little or no cost. Of course, permission on private land is harder to get than it was years ago, but some quality outfitters operate in prime areas. Many offer hunts that can be for whitetails or mule deer, as the species coexist in many areas.
Be aware that some zones have been slammed by EHD over the past few years, and there’s a chance you’ll run into a late-summer die-off after drawing your tag. But for the most part, this subregion offers highly dependable away-from-home whitetail hunting.
Shooting skill is at a premium here; a big buck might pop out at 32 yards, but he’s far more likely to be at 320. If you have a flat-shooting rifle and know how to use it in windy conditions, you can hunt a lot of ground from one vantage point. Sitting on a canyon rim or edge of a vast winter wheat field gives you a bird’s-eye view and can let you make an unhurried shot at an undisturbed buck. Bipods, shooting sticks and rangefinders really earn their keep here.
SOUTHERN GREAT PLAINS
For our purposes, in this subregion I’ll include only western Oklahoma, that big chunk of Texas lying west of interstate highways 35 and 37 and adjoining parts of northeastern Mexico. We could throw in western Kansas, but again, its rifle season structure leads me to address it separately.
Like the aforementioned states to the north, this part of the whitetail world is largely made up of bigger cattle ranches and grain farms. But it’s different in the sense that fewer areas are open to public hunting. Western Oklahoma does have some state wildlife management areas and a few federal properties worth exploring, and the state’s recent boom in big deer has many hunters looking there. Whitetail habitat in western Texas is largely private, and all of it in Mexico is.
Overall deer densities tend to be higher in this subregion than farther north, especially as you move into the Rio Grande Valley. The herd has less vulnerability to EHD, and there’s a higher percentage of cover that isn’t totally limited to bottomlands. Plus, many bucks in this subregion are mature, with some true giants in the mix.
Texas, Oklahoma and Mexico offer over-the-counter (OTC) tags that are by “hotspot” standards reasonably priced. You also can rifle hunt the heart of the rut, though Oklahoma’s relatively short season opens a few days after what many would call the best of it. Baiting is legal and widely practiced on private lands throughout this subregion.
Shots here can exceed the limits of common sense. Some cutlines (called “senderos”) in the thorny Brush Country of South Texas and just across the river in Mexico can run for miles. That’s why such cartridges as .25-06 Rem., 7mm Rem. Mag., .300 Win. Mag., .28 Nosler and 6.5 Creedmoor have many fans there. Seriously flat shooters are useful in this world of elevated box blinds and long shots at doe-bumping bucks.
WAY DOWN SOUTH
Large parts of two states in the Deep South — Alabama and Mississippi — stand out as solid options for today’s rut-focused rifle hunter. What’s more, both these OTC states offer the plus of rut hunting extremely late in the season. In fact, with the exception of a few areas restocked with Northern deer, the best action tends to be from around Christmas well into January, and in weather almost any hunter would consider comfortable.
In much of Mississippi and Alabama you’ll find plenty of woods. But they’re interspersed with clearcuts, plus fields of winter rye and other small grains. Does flock to these as winter sets in, and bucks eagerly follow.
Many “greenfields” have enclosed blinds alongside, offering the hunter weather protection and a solid shooting platform. A steady rest certainly comes in handy when a buck steps out of the far tree line, as that can put him 300 yards or better from the blind. Flat-shooting rifles naturally find favor here.
One other Southern state bears mention for its uniquely timed rifle opportunity: South Carolina. In its case the window doesn’t stay open extremely late, but it opens extra-early. The rifle season in the coastal region known as the “Lowcountry” begins Aug. 15, giving the rifle hunter a chance at taking a velvet buck.
Every year some fine trophies are shot by hunters waiting on the edges of bean fields and clearcuts. Tags are OTC, and a number of outfitting services (often operating as “plantations”) offer quality hunts.
You can’t hunt deer with a centerfire everywhere along the Ohio River, which informally separates the South from the Midwest. But you now can use one in more places than ever, enhancing your ability to take a great buck.
Thanks to nearly a decade with a one-buck annual limit, Indiana has begun to flex its trophy muscles. The habitat ranges from flat farm fields in the north to hardwood hills along the Ohio River. With its recent expansion of centerfire legality and a gun season centered on the rut, the Hoosier State is coming on.
Kentucky has been a rifle hotspot for years now. Its November gun season covers the rut, and OTC tags are affordable. There’s also a lot of public land, and the habitat in the western half of the state is open enough to take advantage of an accurate rifle. To the east the land is far more rugged, with less cropland, but even there scattered fields, clearcuts and powerlines offer barrel-stretching potential.
Despite many years of rut rifle hunting, Kentucky has a lot of big deer. Its single-buck limit is the key factor in helping it maintain a good sex ratio and trophy production. Annual B&C buck numbers are the highest of any rifle state at least partly within the Eastern Time Zone. Many whitetail experts consider this state the model for balancing hunter opportunity with high trophy output.
While by law DIY hunting isn’t much of an option for Americans chasing whitetails in Canada — and COVID-19 has rendered that nation virtually off-limits to U.S. hunters in 2020 — two provinces belong on any list of rifle hotspots for trophies. Alberta and Saskatchewan have yielded some of the greatest bucks of all time, and riflemen shoot the vast majority of them.
In Alberta baiting isn’t allowed, so most giants are shot as they cruise for does. Whether moving on their own or in response to deer drives, these beasts can pop out of cover at great distance and then quickly vaporize back into the “big bush.” All this puts a premium on top-flight shooting components, mental preparedness and of course, skill.
In Saskatchewan, more restrictive rules on nonresidents make legal baiting the top tactic. With harsh weather and a heavy forest canopy in most nonresident areas, blinds generally sit at or close to ground level within easy range of grain-baited sites. Canadian deer can get big, but any rifle spitting a bullet of at least .257 caliber is ample.
We also could throw parts of British Columbia and Manitoba into the mix here. But they haven’t matched the sheer numbers of stud whitetails the two provinces between them keep cranking out.
OTHER SCATTERED HOTSPOTS
While the ideal scenario for trophy success is getting to use a rifle during the rut, select states produce tons of big bucks despite less favorable timing for catching them on their feet.
In particular, Kansas and Ohio leap to mind. With gun openers hitting in late November to early December, neither offers rifle hunting in what we’d call “prime time.” That certainly cuts down on encounters with mature bucks, but it also helps preserve the buck age structure and tight sex ratios that make these states elite for big deer. Legal baiting also can assist gun hunters who choose to employ that method.
In Kansas, as of 2013 any centerfire became an option for deer. Yes, any. In Ohio, the range of legal cartridges is limited to “straight-walls,” such as .357 Mag,, .350 Legend and .45-70 Govt.
Especially in years when rifle season in Kansas sees lingering rut activity, the hunting can be spectacular. Some of the world’s best gun bucks have been shot there. Tags aren’t cheap, and they’re becoming harder to draw, but the potential payoff is worth it. Meanwhile, in Ohio tags remain OTC and quite affordable.
Another place worth mentioning is northern Missouri. Rifles have always been legal during the November rut, but despite high overall pressure, big bucks are taken every November. As is the case in neighboring eastern Nebraska, trophy prospects vary with local management practices. Affordable OTC gun tags and higher hunter numbers lead many spots to get pounded, but in areas with less disturbance the rut can see good buck activity in legal light.
On the East Coast, Virginia stands out as an overlooked rut rifle hotspot. It doesn’t yield the number of B&C deer neighboring Kentucky does, but for numbers of older bucks — many with great spreads — it’s the top state on the Eastern Seaboard. Virginia’s big deer live all over, from the Blue Ridge Mountains down to the Tidewater. Tags are OTC and affordable, and there’s ample public land.
One other state bears mention. In Illinois, the first of two short gun seasons occurs as the rut is just past peak in mid-November. While centerfire rifles remain illegal for deer, the workaround is that certain deer-worthy handguns are allowed. Nobody can explain why a .44 Mag. handgun is OK for deer in the Prairie State but a .44 Mag. rifle isn’t — but that’s the way it still is. So if your heart is set on centerfire hunting Illinois bucks and you can draw a permit (issued by county), grab your T/C Contender or something similar and give it a go.
Some well-known rifle states and provinces obviously aren’t on my list. That doesn’t mean I think they’re poor choices — they’re just overall not quite as productive for big deer, in my view.
But your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. So if you like to spend rifle season sneaking along behind a track in Maine, glassing a powerline in Arkansas, watching a thicket in Pennsylvania or rattling on the edge of a Wisconsin swamp, rest assured I’m not slighting your spot at all. If you’ve uncovered a location where big bucks are on the move in daylight in rifle season, good for you. Feel free to send me those GPS coordinates. You know, strictly for . . . uh . . . research purposes.