August 21, 2017
East and West Coasters jetting across the U.S. often refer to Nebraska a "fly-over" state. They look down at it from their window seats at 34,000 feet but don't exactly wish they could grab a parachute and drop in.
It's understandable that the average person would have little interest in spending time in the state. But we whitetail hunters should know better. And especially if we enjoy chasing big bucks in bow season. Nebraska is an overlooked hotspot for Pope & Young trophies.
Just how bad can a state that gave us a 38-year archery world record really be? It was in Hall County, along the Platte River, that recurve shooter Del Austin made P&Y history on Halloween 1962. Hunting from a board platform in a river-bottom tree, he downed the legendary buck widely known as "Mossy Horns." The 9 ½-year-old deer scored 279 7/8 and stood as bowhunting's No. 1 non-typical until Mike Beatty got an even bigger one in Ohio in 2000.
Not surprisingly, given the Nebraska deer's size and how few people over the last 30 years have hunted with recurves, he's easily remains the world's best ever shot by a traditional archer.
No, Nebraska's not overrun with bucks resembling that former title holder. No place is. But when you look at some of the habitat in this state and factor in the small human population, lack of publicity, hunter-friendly seasons and over-the-counter tags, it's easy to imagine that the Cornhusker State might offer hidden whitetail opportunity.
Much of that potential takes the form of prairie river bottoms, including not only the Platte but also the Republican, Loup, Dismal and Niobrara, along with smaller streams. The slopes of these drainages are too steep to cultivate, so they've largely been left in grass, brush and timber. While landowners let livestock roam most of these river and stream habitats, they're still magnets for deer.
Typical of states across the Great Plains region, in Nebraska moisture and vegetation decrease progressively as you go west. Annual precipitation is about 35 inches in Nebraska's southeastern corner but only 15 in the northwest. So it's not surprising that in the eastern half of the state whitetails rule, with more pockets of mule deer in the higher, drier western counties.
Muleys are most common in the rugged Pine Ridge region of the state's northwestern corner and the wide-open Sandhills that make up a good chunk of west-central Nebraska. But even in those places you'll find quite a few whitetails mixed in.
Interestingly, though Hall County yielded the world record in '62 — only two years after the Pope & Young Club was founded — it doesn't rank among Nebraska's top counties in terms of total entries. Hall is about midway between Omaha and Grand Island on the Platte River, and for the most part, the counties with the highest P&Y entry totals lie east of there.
In fact, several are right around Omaha. Sarpy County is the all-time leader in entries with 64, while Gage has 58, Douglas 47, and Cass and Keya Paha 43 each. Entries since 2010 largely follow the same pattern.
What makes eastern Nebraska such a steady producer of P&Y bucks is its blend of cover and agricultural crops. The overall habitat more closely resembles typical Midwestern farm country. Being flanked on its eastern edge by the mighty Missouri River with its many brushy fingers and crop fields certainly doesn't hurt.
The obvious outlier out on the accompanying map of hotspots is Keya Paha County, which borders the lower end of the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. Again, it's just more evidence that major drainages are the best places to bowhunt whitetails in this state.
In 2014, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission yielded to bowhunter input and moved the start of bow season from its traditional Sept. 15 to Sept. 1. This was done to allow hunting of bucks still in velvet. So that's another plus for planning a bowhunt here. Not many places offer better odds of taking a velvet trophy. Archer tags are available over the counter, and the season runs through Dec. 31.
For details on bowhunting whitetails in Nebraska, visit: outdoornebraska.gov. To learn more P&Y's records for whitetails and other North American big game, go to: pope-young.org.