May 25, 2017
The attraction of traveling to hunt whitetails in new places burns hot in many of us. For some, it's a chance to shoot a mature, big-racked buck when the opportunity to do so where we live is slim. For others, the appeal lies in seeing new country and experiencing new challenges. For yet others, it's the camaraderie that comes from doing something new with a few friends.
For me the appeal includes bits of all three of those, but the second is the strongest. I hunt alone most of the time, and I love a big rack in the back of the truck as much as the next guy. But if my goal were purely to shoot a big buck, I'd keep going back to the same places that offer the best odds. My boots keep taking me to new locations because of the appeal and challenge of trying new things in new environs.
When considering a whitetail road trip, these three factors must be part of the decision-making process. But there are also more practical elements to consider. Let's look at five major categories of components to your DIY hunt.
COST & DRAWING ODDS
If you don't live in Iowa and have no preference points already built up, you won't bowhunt that state any time soon. Every DIY bowhunter I know wants to hunt Iowa because of the low number of nonresident tags, quality public land and abundance of great bucks. But it will take you 3-4 years of applying to get that tag — and with the cost of licenses, fees and preference points, you'll have close to $800 invested before you ever walk out the door to load your gear into the truck. That's not for everyone.
Some other good states are quite proud of their tags, as well. Kansas just jacked up the price to right at $500, including the mandatory nonresident hunting license to go with your permit, and some others are north of $500 for nonresidents these days. So while the cost of the tag is only part of the overall cost of the hunt, it's taking a larger bite in some places.
States offering over-the-counter (OTC) tags have more appeal because you can go hunting without years of planning, and the costs are more manageable; you'll pay $200-$350 in most states in the Midwest and Great Plains, even less in the bulk of the East and Southeast. Do your research and choose what best fits your budget and timing.
Hunting the hardwood forests of Iowa, Illinois or Missouri feels a lot different than hunting the river bottoms of Montana or North Dakota. The plains of Kansas and Oklahoma offer yet another experience. You can pick something that's similar to home, or choose something totally new that will challenge you. It's your call.
PROXIMITY & TIME
How far are you willing to travel, and how much time do you have to do it? Heading out 1,000 miles from home when you only have a week off work means you'll spend half your time driving and half your time hunting.
Flying can make things difficult, due to the amount of gear we'd like to carry. But there are workarounds. As noted in a recent column, a friend from Maine hunts in Kansas with a small group of other guys. A few years back, they loaded all their gear onto a pallet and sent it to Kansas in a semi. Then it went into a rented storage facility. Now most of what they need for the hunt is there when they fly in and rent a couple pickups. What can't be included in luggage is there waiting for them.
If you plan to go hunt the same area every time you get a tag, this is a good option. But if you prefer to explore new areas, driving is best. Stay closer to home or take more time off, so you can have more stand time. Trust me, you'll certainly welcome any extra time to scout the land you'll be hunting.
AVAILABILITY OF HUNTING LAND
This is an overlooked aspect of many DIY road trips. I can't count the number of times someone has told me a story of arriving at a place to hunt and discovering the hunting pressure was extreme, or that disease had dramatically reduced the deer population, or that the property wasn't as inviting as it appeared in online photos.
The real problem was not having a backup plan — and then, a backup plan for the backup plan.
Choose a place with at least twice as much property as you could ever hunt in a week. I like big public tracts because most locals hunt evenings and don't have time to penetrate the depths of larger properties. But I've also seen 40- to 80-acre public tracts that were mostly ignored. Look for an area with a mix of property sizes and habitat types.
You might think this would be No. 1 when choosing where to go. But it's not for me. We're talking public land here, most of which gets quite a bit of pressure, especially during gun seasons. The vast majority of those really big bucks you see on TV come from private land. Most public ground gets run over pretty hard during gun seasons.
I've arrowed 4 1/2-year-old bucks on public land, and I've seen some real giants that made me gasp. But the reality is, a 3 1/2-year-old buck is a representative specimen on most public tracts across whitetail country. So I've learned not to set my sights too high. It's OK to hope for an eye-popping buck, but keep your expectations within the realm of what's likely to walk in front of you at some point in 7-10 days of hunting hard.
A distant DIY hunt can be fun — and, if properly planned, extremely productive. Analyze what motivates your desire to hunt away from home, then use these five criteria to help you pick the best hunt in the best state where your expectations are most likely to be met. You'll have fun and maybe even bring home a buck to remember it by.