Two years ago, I spent quite a bit of time roaming the Loess Hills in southwestern Iowa with a turkey tag in my pocket. I was trying to shoot a gobbler in the face, no doubt, but the main reason I was down there running and gunning on public land was to suss out whether the area was worth the nonresident deer tag points and expense.
It was good-looking ground, but not what I wanted to burn my points on. This past April, I returned to Iowa to the central part of the state for round two of the turkey and deer mission. The gobblers cooperated much better, and the deer sign gave me all kinds of warm-and-fuzzies. In 2020, I’ll turkey hunt there again and cash in my points for a deer hunt.
Iowa isn’t the only state I’m interested in whitetail hunting, either. Montana is in the running, and I’ve been digging into the opportunities Wyoming has as well. And then there are the standbys that I try to hunt every year like the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. It doesn’t take long to realize there are plenty of options out there for the traveling hunter, but success on the road doesn’t come by accident. It comes through due diligence and plenty of research.
When most folks consider an out-of-state whitetail hunt, the first thing they think about is cost. This is also the first deterrent. Take Iowa, with its tag that will run you well north of $500. That’s a lot for a deer tag, but what if you can camp for $9 a night and make the drive in half of a day? That might mean a week’s hunt will cost you maybe $800, provided you’re willing to hunt public land.
I am, and that’s my go-to strategy out-of-state with pretty much all of my trips. Plenty of other states will sell you a cheaper tag, say in the $150 to $300 range. If you’re into camping and cooking your own food, you might make a hunt happen for $600. That’s a pretty good deal for an out-of-state adventure. It’s also a great way to get over the first hurdle we run into when planning a hunt.
Deer ground is what you make of it. By that I mean if you’re only happy with 170-inch deer walking by every day, you’re probably not going to enjoy an over-the-road trip. Although to be fair, you might not enjoy any hunt that isn’t conducted inside of a fenced enclosure where the bucks are genetic mutants that sport ear tags.
If you want to enjoy the experience of whitetail hunting with a few buddies and have a chance at killing a deer that will make you happy, then you’ve got hundreds of options. This is the part the off-season is perfect for, because you can scour internet forums and aerial photography and really dial in some potential spots.
If you do go to the forums, be advised that you might get terrible advice. You might have other hunters lie to actively discourage nonresidents from coming into their state. You might also get an expert opinion from someone who has never killed a buck bigger than a forky, so take it all with a grain of salt. Most of the time, I prefer instead to try to suss out properties with potential on my own, just through proper mapwork.
Where Deer Live
There are so many myths and misconceptions in the whitetail world it’s hard to know where to start when considering where deer live and where you should hunt them. But here’s the thing - if you spring for that once-every-three-years Iowa tag, you won’t be overrun with huge bucks. There is nowhere you’re going to hunt on public land where killing a mature buck is easy.
You’ll have to work, and part of that work is identifying spots on your map that are worth ground-truthing either through actual scouting or when you get to your hunting destination and strap a stand to your pack.
My latest trip to Iowa involved one day of hunting an easy spot and not seeing a turkey and not being overwhelmed by deer sign. That night in my tent I went on onX and found a different parcel that had one access point and would allow for a nearly 1.5-mile hike to the far end of the property. The bird I killed an hour into the morning was a stud with 1.25-inch spurs - a beast on public land during the last season - and better yet, the deer sign on that parcel was ridiculous.
I occasionally arrow deer on public land in easy spots, but it doesn’t happen very often. Instead, it’s almost always a result of plenty of research and the mindset that I’ll need to hunt where a decent percentage of my competition won’t go. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not easy either.
If you’ve dreamed of a traveling hunt but most of the options, like a guided hunt, are out of the question financially - don’t fret. Anyone with the motivation to work during a week’s hunt can find a state within a day’s drive that will provide a quality whitetail experience. It may not result in a 165-incher dead on the ground, but if you do your homework, you should earn an opportunity at a deer that will make you smile all day.
That’s worth a lot more than you’ll end up paying for it.