Kansas: Land of Ahhhs
September 22, 2010
Why has big-buck hunting in Kansas become so high profile all of a sudden? The truth is that Kansas has been great for a long, long time!
Two phone calls I remember from nearly 15 years ago really define the white-tailed deer resource in Kansas -- at least for me. I was living in Johnson County at the time -- one of two counties on the Missouri border that are part of the greater Kansas City area (Wyandotte County is the other).
This amazing array of meat pole contenders were taken off a Buck Forage Oats food plot in central Kansas during the '04 rifle season. The lucky hunters pictured are (from left to right) Gary Oliver, Morgan Butler, John Butler, Jake Butler, Bo Magoun and Mike Brown. Although the 140-class bucks may be the norm in Kansas these days, bigger bucks are not at all uncommon.
My desk phone rang, and from the other end of the line came a job offer that included relocation to southwest Missouri. I accepted the offer, thanked the man who'd just become my new boss, ended that call and immediately initiated another.
"Kansas Fish and Game," said the woman who pleasantly greeted me. "Good morning," I said. "I'd like to get an application for a lifetime license." (Note: A lifetime license enabled the author to continue to hunt as a resident, even if he lived out of state.)
I had to have it! I wasn't ever leaving Kansas, nor was I ever going to surrender my right to hunt what was then one of the best-kept secrets in the whitetail world. The Sunflower State had an amazing deer herd even back then. Big animals were everywhere. I'd written stories about some of them for Kansas Game & Fish, a sister publication to North American Whitetail. (That magazine later merged with several others to become Great Plains Game & Fish.)
One of the bucks I'd written about, taken in 1987 by Joseph Waters in Shawnee County, remains the No. 1 non-typical ever taken by a firearms hunter in the Sunflower State.
Two things about that buck have stayed with me over the past 20 years. First, Joe took that deer literally within yards of the Topeka city limits. Second, the buck was so old that Keith Sexon, Big Game Project Leader for the state at that time, wasn't able to accurately age it because the old buck's teeth were all worn down to its gums.
I remember Keith saying the old monarch would not have survived another winter and that Joe Waters had, indeed, been fortunate to take the giant whitetail. (Note: See the December '88 issue for the story on Joe Waters' great 280'‚4/8-inch non-typical, written by Duncan Dobie.)
Since that time -- really, since the mid-1990s -- Kansas has found a place among the top big-buck destinations in North America. If you don't believe that, just watch TV, where every season many of the outdoor shows feature televised hunts from Kansas. And North American Whitetail frequently runs stories about huge Kansas bucks.
I've been fortunate to write some of them -- like the one on New Jersey resident Bob Prickett's huge trophy, a 185'‚3/8 typical from 2005 that stands as Kansas' best ever buck by muzzleloader. (See the September 2006 issue.)
THE GREAT KANSAS MYTH
Every time I think about Kansas, plenty of big deer come to mind. All those mental images beg the question: Why has Kansas become so great all of a sudden? That's what this story is all about, but my answers may surprise you, because from my standpoint, I don't believe Kansas suddenly has become great.
Featured on last month's cover, 13-year-old James Livingston shot this 23-point megabuck on public land in northeast Kansas while hunting with his dad, Jerry, on the last afternoon of the 2007 Kansas Youth Hunt. It green-scored 238 5/8.
Instead, I believe that the Sunflower State's reputation as an amazing producer of mature bucks simply is showing up on the deer world's radar screen more prominently than in years past. One of the main reasons for this, obviously, is the regulation change that took place in 1994. That much-anticipated change allowed non-resident deer hunting in Kansas for the first time in the modern era.
When I lived in Kansas, no non-resident hunting was allowed and residents had to choose, annually, whether they wanted to hunt with a bow or a firearm. In almost a decade of hunting Kansas as a resident throughout most of the '80s, I opted for a gun tag only one time. I simply couldn't justify giving up weeks of bowhunting so that I could carry a rifle for a few days.
And, as still is the case today, I knew that my archery tag would put me in the woods during the rut. That alone made the annual decision easy -- especially after one particular trip to public land in the mid-1980s. It was the day after Thanksgiving. I decided to visit the tract open to public hunting on the east side of Douglas State Fishing Lake, just south of Lawrence. I liked to bass fish the lake, and I'd seen deer along the eastern shoreline in the fall, just a couple weeks before bow season opened.
What thoroughly floored me was the scent of the area. Today, given the proliferation of products marketed to attract rutting bucks with the allure of a doe in heat, I might have wondered who was doing product testing in a spot no more than 200 yards square, with the lake as its western boundary. To the east, a number of trails funneled down a ridge to what obviously was an amazing rutting area. Scrapes were everywhere -- active scrapes.
And the visual evidence was only exceeded by the scent left behind.
No hunter could ever find a spot like that and be willing to give up a chance to hunt during the rut. I had already hunted one season with a firearm in Kansas, and I knew I wouldn't hunt with a gun again until regulations were relaxed. Turns out, that change might be just around the corner. I'm told that in 2008 residents might be able to hunt bow or gun under one tag without having to make a choice.
A BIG-BUCK PARADISE
The 1980s and 1990s were decades when Kansas residents were offered regular opportunities to harvest fully mature, record-class bucks -- everywhere. And that part of the equation has not changed. For non-residents, Kansas Deer Management Unit 16 is the "Holy Grail." I believe that's because of publicity, period.
Lloyd Fox, currently the big-game biologist for the state's Department of Wildlife and Parks
, estimates the Sunflower State's deer herd at about 350,000 animals. There are pockets around Kansas with high deer densities, and the general trend is toward an increase.
But the fact remains that Kansas has one of the most balanced deer herds on the continent. Iowa game managers will tell you that Iowa is home to about 250,000 whitetails. And that's the only state recognized as one of the nation's "big-buck destinations" with a lower population than Kansas.
When you look at the quality of the bucks being taken across the state these days, Kansas truly is "the land of Ahhhs." These two brutes came out of central Kansas in 2005. Pictured are John Butler and Buddy Crews of Stuttgart, Arkansas. Buddy's buck on right is a main-frame 6x6.
Ohio, home to the amazing Beatty Buck, taken in 2001, has 750,000 deer. Illinois has 800,000. Kentucky has 900,000. These numbers came from data compiled for a special whitetail-only magazine published in the fall of 2007 by the Game & Fish Magazine folks. Kansas remains so good because its deer population remains relatively low and, in most areas, well within what the available habitat can sustain. And contrary to what many hunters believe, this isn't a new development. Kansas has been good for decades!
FEWER TOP-END BUCKS?
Here's another assertion that might surprise you -- most folks think that Kansas produces a lot of top-end monster bucks. But it's not as good as it used to be for the very "best of the best" when it comes to the record book. If you look at the top-20 lists published on the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Park's Web site, here's what you'll discover:
- Three-fourths of the bucks on the lists were harvested in the 1980s and 1990s.
- Only eight were taken in the 1960s and 1970s combined.
- Only 14 have been taken since 2000.
Here's what I believe has happened. The influx of non-residents increased hunting pressure around Kansas. However, those hunters knew the state had plenty of big bucks, so they were very selective. Residents have been this way for years.
What this suggests is that Kansas has become home to a fairly healthy whitetail herd in balance with its habitat. Like always, hunters continue to let young bucks walk because of the potential to see mature bucks. However, increased hunting pressure and a fairly consistent number of mature bucks has hunters taking quality animals every season -- they're just not top-20-class bucks.
In fact, probably more bucks scoring in the mid-140s are taken in Kansas now than 20 years ago. I believe there are two reasons for this. First, there are more hunters in the woods now. And second, those hunters are willing to harvest a quality buck even if it's not potentially a top-20 animal. Not every hunter who comes to Kansas is like Pennsylvanian John Payne.
I wrote about him a few years ago after he harvested a 245'‚0/8 non-typical during the firearms season. The outfitter was incredulous that John -- who'd never taken anything larger than a fork-horn in Pennsylvania -- had let a 160-class buck walk during his first hour on the stand!
Most hunters likely wouldn't do that, either. A 160-class buck has become a more common expectation than not in Kansas, precisely because of the publicity the state has received in recent years.
MORE DEER IN THE EAST
Lloyd Fox reports that Kansas' highest deer densities occur in the eastern third of the state, and those densities are likely to increase.
"Traditionally, most Kansas residents hunt deer close to home," Lloyd explained. "Few would even think about hunting multiple deer management units. And firearms hunters hunt very few days. When you add all that up and apply it to a region of the state that's not getting a lot of non-resident interest, it's easy to see why densities probably will continue to increase."
Here's a little secret for any non-residents reading this story -- Unit 16 isn't the only place you'll find nice bucks in the Sunflower State. If I were going to bowhunt in Kansas, I'd consider everything east of archery unit A5, which is identical to firearms Unit 16.
The bottom line is that the habitat, nutrition and herd dynamics in place throughout the eastern half of Kansas offers great opportunities at fully mature bucks with heavy racks.
You just haven't heard much about them, but they're out there. And for a totally different kind of hunt, consider archery Unit A1 and/or firearms Unit 2.
My friend Chuck Sykes, a private wildlife consultant and host of "The Management Advantage" television series, hunted Unit 2 last firearms season. He saw more than a few bucks that were 140 and above. These deer presented the ultimate challenge because of western Kansas' wide-open spaces.
A DIVERSE LANDSCAPE
One element of Kansas' deer resource that is under-reported is the tremendous diversity of terrain you'll find in the state. From the Missouri River bluffs in the far northeast, which rival any Northern U.S. hardwood forest habitat you'll ever hunt, to the "badlands" in western Kansas, to the native tall grass prairies of the Flint Hills region, the Sunflower State offers about any kind of hunting landscape you can think of. And just about all of those landscapes are home to big bucks.
"As we've put more hunters in the field over the past 10 to 15 years, we've continued to see that very selective approach to harvest," Lloyd said. "However, this added pressure has caused our deer to become much more elusive compared to other parts of the deer world. They weren't as elusive when residents were the only hunters in the woods, but they also weren't being pursued in the same ways they are now. As I said, our residents tend to hunt close to home."
Here's another fact about the Kansas deer herd that may surprise you.
"We actually have fewer bucks being harvested today than in the mid and late 1990s," Lloyd said. "This is true because some residents were taking two and three bucks by virtue of getting leftover permits."
Lloyd also noted that the only segment of Kansas' deer-hunting population that is likely to shift significantly as time goes on is the non-resident segment. "Our resident hunters are going to continue to hunt close to home," he said. "They're hunting family land, or a friend's acreage. They're hunting the same places they always have. On the other hand, non-residents are already on the road when they show up here. So they are much more likely to shift their areas."
If you're a non-resident reading this story, consider looking at other parts of Kansas instead of those you've seen on TV or read about. Wh
at you should know is this: Kansas as a "great deer place" isn't a new concept. Big bucks truly are everywhere, and they've been around for at least 20 years!