May 31, 2017
You've waited, scrimped and saved and now can finally afford that that once-in-a-lifetime hunt. But where should you go? Below I've prepared a list of my top ten to at least help you hone yours. To prepare this I relied on three primary sources:
1) Each year the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) compiles their annual Whitetail Report. It contains, among other things, a comprehensive compendium of recent deer harvest trends including overall buck harvest, buck harvest per square mile and a breakdown of buck harvest by age structure, for each state.
2) In 2001, Dr. Joel Helmer conducted an analysis of record book data from the Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young Club up to that point. The more recent whitetail boom prompted Helmer to go back and update his analysis, incorporating records from up to 2005 and fine-tuning his results with even more recent data.
3) I've been hunting whitetails across this great land of ours for more than four decades, and as a certified wildlife biologist have studied whitetail harvest trends for almost as long.
In a sort of alphabetical order, here are my top 10 for 2017.
Actually, it's more like "eh?" as in, "How many big bucks did you see today, eh?" Saskatchewan has experienced some winter kill in recent years, but it remains at the forefront of every big buck hunter's bucket list and with good reason.
Hunting with a reputable outfitter, you should expect to see dozens of deer a day, all day. Bagging a legitimate trophy is often a matter of being selective and patient as you wait for an opportunity.
For the money, it would be hard to beat an outfitted hunt in eastern Kansas, especially if you're willing to "settle" for something in the 150s. That's not to say there aren't plenty of bigger bucks out there.
You'll just have to show great restraint at passing up smaller ones. Licenses are relatively affordable with high odds of drawing. Bowhunters probably have slightly better odds of making the book, but I wouldn't pass up a gun hunt.
Kentucky was a sleeper until word got out about 10 years ago. It has since shined, largely on the strength of Western counties. It ranks second among QDMA's top five for greatest antlered buck harvest increase (2015 vs five-year average) and holds its own in the record books. Furthermore, OTC licenses are affordable and you might even find some decent public land hunting, though I'd still opt for an outfitter with well managed land.
Despite the fact that Illinois and Iowa didn't make any of the QDMA's "Top" lists, it would be folly not to include both as they are perennial producers of really big bucks. Illinois' Golden Triangle of west-central Pike, Brown and Adams Counties is the best region.
Some parts were hit hard by the 2012 HD outbreak but have, for the most part recovered, and a growing deer herd is always healthier than a static one. Outfitted hunts aren't cheap and some areas are over-hunted so do your homework.
Iowa too didn't make the QDMA lists, but like Illinois is a perennial frontrunner in the trophy club books (and a good many trophies probably go un-reported). With such tremendous potential it astounds me that a select group of locals engage in drives and party hunts. Even more amazing is despite that, the state continues to produce a bumper crop of bruiser bucks.
I'd lean toward the southeastern quarter with a more even mix of river bottoms, hardwood ridges, CRP, and agricultural fields, though Allamakee County, in the far northeastern corner has the most entries. The down side is a limited lottery that make take several years to draw, and guided hunts aren't cheap. Then again, you get what you pay for.
The first of my top 10 that offers the best DIY would be Ohio. For starters, it has consistently been among the record book leaders and OTC licenses are relatively cheap. The southeast region contains a good mix of both sizeable public lands and smaller private parcels.
The former is mostly hardwood (think, mast) while the latter is often a well-managed mosaic of mast-bearing hardwoods and food plots. private land permission is sometimes possible and deer don't recognize the boundaries of those smaller parcels. I'd advise public or private for bowhunters but strongly suggest you stay away from public land during the brief gun seasons.
Western Oklahoma is largely a subjective pick as it doesn't make any of Helmer's lists, but does show up in the QDMA report in fifth place for highest percentage of 3-1/2 or older bucks in the harvest. I've hunted there on several occasions and see it as a largely under-utilized resource.
You'll want to hire a guide, but on well managed land and under favorable weather conditions you should see plenty of bucks with a legitimate chance at something really nice if you're will to hold out. OTC licenses and outfitted hunts are reasonably priced.
Texas, particularly south Texas, is an aberration is so many ways — mostly good. It ranks third in QDMA's lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the buck harvest and not surprisingly, second in terms of highest percent of 3-1/2-plus bucks in the buck harvest, not to mention first in total antlered buck harvest at 290, 590.
By your license over the counter, pay a Brush Country outfitter and you're going to have a good hunt. You may have to pick through a bunch of bucks before finding the right one, but just seeing that many animals is worth the price of admission.
Though Illinois has more B&C entries, Wisconsin takes back the overall lead when P&Y entries are added. It also dominates the top-50 county table, with 26 counties, Buffalo being the highest in the nation with 520 entries. On the QDMA side, it ranks third in overall buck harvest with 152,701 and surprisingly, first in lowest percentage of 3-1/2-plus bucks.
That's telling, if hunters are killing that many young bucks and there are still plenty of big ones around. OTC licenses and public land hunts offer legitimate odds but I'd still go with an outfitter if I wanted to make the books.
No Place Like Home
Walking out your back door or driving a few miles from home just might offer your best odds for killing a trophy buck this year. Deer and trophy bucks are at or near all time highs right now and while certain areas offer a higher probability, the latter could turn up almost anywhere.
By hunting around home you can spend far more time gaining access then scouting the land and the deer on it. You may have to adjust your expectations based on what's best for that particular area, but the DIY aspect makes any good buck that much more rewarding.
Don't overlook southern Indiana, nestled quietly and largely unnoticed amongst three of our top 10 states: Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky.