Great Plains'™ 2011 Deer Outlook - Finding Trophy Bucks

Great Plains'™ 2011 Deer Outlook - Finding Trophy Bucks
Photo by Victor Schendel

Having had the opportunity to hunt whitetails in both North Dakota and Nebraska, I can personally attest to the potential of quality of bucks that exists in the Great Plains states. Regardless of where you hang your stand, you legitimately have a good chance at what most would consider a trophy-caliber buck. While the "trophy" aspect is in the eyes of the beholder, if he makes you happy and he fits into your goals for the season, pull the trigger!

It's very necessary to consider the genetics and age when judging a trophy. Location, however, plays a major role as what makes a trophy deer in the eastern Midwest might not hold true in the Great Plains. Approach every big buck hunt with the mindset of creating and sticking to realistic goals. If you eat your tag because you chose to let lesser bucks walk, you have a lot to be proud of.

I won't sit here and pretend to tell other hunters how to fill their tag as that is up to the individual, but one thing is a fact, no matter how you slice it: Younger bucks grow up into older and larger bucks. It takes discipline and experience to let a younger deer walk, but just ask the hunters who have employed management efforts on their properties if the rewards are worth the sacrifices. They'll tell you "yes."

We don't all have the luxury of exclusive-access on private grounds, but sacrificing your standards simply to fill a tag is not usually the best decision. Even on heavily pressured public ground, deer reach maturity and outsmart hunters of all skill levels. If you put in your work and gain a solid understanding of where your best chances exist to harvest animals of "trophy" caliber, putting yourself in the right spot is the first step.

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From Kansas to North Dakota, hunters have a very unique opportunity at Boone and Crockett- and Pope and Young-class mulies as well as whitetails. In fact, there are locations where you can find both feeding in the same alfalfa field. While you shouldn't expect to find a Booner around every tree, each state provides a good chance at encounters with, if not shots at, quality, record-book animals.

There are several key ingredients that allow both mulies and whitetail bucks to reach their maximum potential. Adequate cover/habitat, ample high-protein food, low hunting pressure, quality genetics and, finally, an implemented management program. Without any of the above, true trophies will be few and far between. One of the greatest aspects about being a deer guru in the Great Plains is four of the five ingredients exist by default.

After talking with the head deer biologist in each state, it became clear that predicting where the best locations for giant deer would be a very difficult task. They simply felt big deer reside corner to corner and in every county throughout each state, with each having a very realistic chance at producing numerous record-book animals.

We are going to take a look at what counties/units have the highest chance of producing trophy animals and hopefully give you a headstart on tagging the buck of your lifetime. The reader needs to be forewarned: very little documentation exists (on the state level) on the actual trophy output per county, or even region for that matter. We have collaborated with the biologists and the Quality Deer Management Association to provide you with the most accurate and realistic locations for great big Great Plains bucks.

NORTH DAKOTA

North Dakota currently has no trophy deer management program in place, therefore there is very little NoDak-sanctioned harvest documentation. Don't let this deter you from investing in a whitetail or mule deer hunt as the habitat, matched with the abundant food and relatively low hunting pressure, allows bucks statewide to reach their potential. In fact, every year we seem to be hearing more and more about larger deer being harvesting on a regular basis from the Peace Garden State.

With small grains, corn and soybeans dominating the agricultural efforts, the deer have the protein needed to help produce sizable antlers each fall. With recent harvest numbers lower than previous years, the Game and Fish department has reduced annual harvest quotas. The past few winters have been tough on the weaker animals, but top deer biologists in the state feel the chance at trophy bucks is as high as it has ever been.

For mule deer not much has changed since their primary habitat exists in the western portion of the state. Traditional trophy mule deer units have been, and still are, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4E and 4F. The number of potential trophy outputs often parallels the highest harvest numbers as well, so focus your whitetail efforts on 2B, 2C, 2F1, 2F2 and 2K2, too.

In 2007, there were 36,445 bucks harvested in North Dakota, 2008 had 33,963, and in 2009 there were 29,707 bucks harvested. Averaged across the state, this works out to approximately 0.4 bucks per square mile (PSM). This shows a distinct decline in buck harvest, but don't let those numbers fool you. The hard winters played a major role in hunter success, as did the fact that more hunters are beginning to see the value in letting the smaller bucks walk, allowing them to reach their potential.

Based on further Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) trophy buck harvest evaluation in North Dakota, in 1999 there were an estimated .01 Boone and Crockett (B&C)-class bucks Per Thousand Square Miles (PTSM). In 2009, there were an estimated .03 PTSM, showing a 200 perecnt increase in trophy output. As far as Pope and Young (P&Y)-class animals are concerned, in 1999 there were .31 bucks PTSM and in 2009 there were .83 PTSM. This was the largest increase of any state or province at 168 percent. While those numbers seem very small, keep in mind it is an average taken across the entire state. In all actuality, what is taking place is very impressive, and North Dakota is growing bigger deer for sure. (This information was gathered from QDMA's Whitetail Report 2011, available at www.qdma.com.)

SOUTH DAKOTA

The Mount Rushmore State continues to produce some giant deer in both the whitetail and mule deer categories. Traditionally and currently, the northwest portion of the state, consisting of Harding, Perkins, Butte and Meade counties, has produced the highest numbers of quality animals of both species. The habitat along the Missouri River has been coming on strong and needs to be on the trophy hunter's radar. Some of the state's best whitetail counties will also include Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule, Bon Homme, Yankton, Clay and Union.

State biologists also believe "it can happen anywhere." Some of the world's finest whitetails have come from South Dakota counties that have no prior history of giant buck output. Quality mule deer hunting exists across the entire western third of the state, but the best hunting is concentrated in the northwest.

Based on QDMA buck harvest studies, it is estimated that in 2007 33,398 whitetail bucks 1 1/2 years of age or older were harvested in South Dakota. During 2008 33,413 and were harvested, and in 2009, 40,333. This shows a definite increase and an average of .5 bucks PSM.

In South Dakota, in 1999 there were an estimated .03 B&C-class bucks PTSM. In 2009, there were an estimated PTSM of .06, showing a 100 perecnt increase in trophy output. In the P&Y scoring system, in 1999 there were .30 bucks PTSM and in 2009 there were .57 PTSM, indicating a 91 percent increase in quality buck harvest. SoDak continues to remain one of the top states in trophy buck output for both whitetails and mulies, and that will only increase as the efforts going into quality deer management continue. (QDMA's Whitetail Report 2011.)

NEBRASKA

Home to the famed and current world-record archery non-typical Del Austin Buck, also known as "Ol Mossy Horns," Nebraska has proven year after year that it has the right ingredients spread out across the state to produce world-class whitetail hunting. While there is an age structure estimation program currently in place, it is done by hunter survey, making it impossible to adequately gauge exactly the best place to kill a big buck.

Again, Nebraska has the genetics, habitat and food to consistently produce large deer. Hunting pressure is slightly higher here than in the Dakotas, but the harvest rates are very similar. In general, the Sandhills, Platte River and Missouri River bottoms traditionally produce the best numbers of record-book whitetail deer, and the western panhandle will be the best pick for giant mule deer. Nebraska deer biologists feel the age structure and trophy output is improving due to quality deer management efforts continuing to catch on.

For mule deer and whitetail the units worth investing in are the Pine Ridge, Sandhills, Plains and Upper Platte units are excellent for both species. For whitetails specifically, Republican will be a top producer, but every unit on the eastern edge of the state along the Missouri River will produce large specimens, as well. The Missouri, Elkhorn, Wahoo, Blue Northwest and Blue Southeast units are particularly worth looking into.

Based on QDMA buck harvest studies in Nebraska, in 2007 there were an estimated 34,585 whitetail bucks harvested at 1 1/2 years of age or older. During 2008, 33,963 bucks, and in 2009, 34,768. This shows an interesting trend with an average of .5 bucks PSM. Overall harvest has gone up every year, and 2011 should be another record year.

In Nebraska during 1999 there were an estimated .16 B&C-class bucks PTSM. In 2009, there were an estimated PTSM of .10, showing a 33 percent decrease in trophy output. In the P&Y scoring system, in 1999 there were .47 bucks PTSM and in 2009 there were .79 PTSM, indicating a 69 perecnt increase in quality buck harvest. The Corn Husker State continues to produce some of the finest bucks in the nation and an increase in quality Pope and Young bucks illustrates that hunters are more willing to let younger deer walk. (QDMA's Whitetail Report 2011.)

KANSAS

The Sunflower State continues to be one of the nation's top five whitetail producers, and for good reason. This agriculturally rich state has an excellent balance of farm ground and timber, but above that they have the world-class genetics that hunters nationwide covet. Quality deer management has really caught on well in this state, offering both residents and non-residents an excellent chance at both Pope and Young- and Boone and Crockett-class animals.

Naturally, the western third of the state will be best for big mulies, with whitetails mixed in, but the best whitetail hunting will remain in the central and eastern portion of the state. For mule deer specifically, DMU's 1, 2, 3 and 17 will be your best bets, but keep your eyes out for a big whitetail.Big whitetail bucks will be most often found DMU's 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14 and 19. In general, focus your efforts on all river bottoms and long tracts of timber situated in canyons and low bottoms.

Based on QDMA buck harvest studies, in 2007 Kansas had an estimated 39,526 whitetail bucks harvested at 1 1/2 years of age or older. During 2008, 41,462 bucks were harvested, and in 2009, 39,629. The downward trend is not related to the number of quality animals being harvested. The statewide average is .5 bucks PSM. Kansas continues to dominate not only the Great Plains, but also much of the Midwest in overall quality buck harvest. 2011 won't be any different.

During 1999 in Kansas there were an estimated .34 B&C-class bucks PTSM. In 2009, there were an estimated .52 PTSM, a 54 percent increase in trophy output. In the P&Y scoring system, in 1999 there were 1.06 bucks PTSM and in 2009 there were a 1.91, an 80 percent increase in quality buck harvest. Quality deer management is greatly responsible for those impressive numbers. Kansas started out as a giant buck producer, but it continues to show improvement, which can only be attributed to an increased age structure. Hunters are letting the younger bucks grow up here, but the animals wouldn't reach trophy caliber if they didn't have the genetics to begin with. Kansas has it going on for big whitetails and mulies. (QDMA's Whitetail Report 2011.)

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As all the deer and big game biologists agree, there really isn't a bad spot for big deer in 2011. If you can combine the necessary ingredients of food, habitat, genetics and hunters' willingness to let the bucks reach their potential, you can't loose on the Great Plains. Giant mule deer and whitetails are available north to south, and the savvy hunter who understands what it takes to fill this year's tag will do so. But, the hunter who also hunts for next year will enjoy quality hunting for years to come.

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