Great Plains Deer Outlook Part 2: Our Top Trophy Areas

Great Plains Deer Outlook Part 2: Our Top Trophy Areas

Big bucks were plentiful across our region in 2004-05. But how will last year's successes affect your chances of harvesting a wall-worthy specimen this season? Here are some answers.

Photo by Billkenney.com

When it comes to trophy bucks, it's easy to see why folks call this region the Great Plains. Dandy bucks abound in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska.

From here, in fact, it's easy to argue that the Great Plains may be one of this continent's most underrated big-buck hunting destinations.

Think about it: Ask 10 of your hunting buddies where they'd go for the trophy hunt of a lifetime. Chances are good that their top picks won't be in the Great Plains.

You're likely to hear Canada -- Saskatchewan, particularly -- or northeast Montana, where bucks in the Milk River drainage grow to monstrous sizes. Someone might even say Ohio, home both to the largest buck ever taken by an archer -- Mike Beatty's amazing non-typical from a few years ago -- and the celebrated Hole In The Horn Buck. Illinois might be mentioned. And hunters at the game for a long time might bring up Maine, where, in some areas, mature bucks whose giant bodies tip the scales at nearly 300 pounds often wear racks to match.

All the places mentioned so far are highly regarded by whitetail hunters, of course. If you're talking mule deer, you'll undoubtedly hear guys pick spots in Montana's Big Sky country, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

When all is said and done, it might be good that so many folks just don't think of the Great Plains states as big-buck hotspots -- good, that is, for those of us who know that some really big bucks are wandering the four states in this region even as you read these words. Admittedly, Kansas' reputation -- especially for producing big whitetails -- has grown in recent years thanks, in large part, to changes in state laws that now regularly permit non-residents to climb into Sunflower State tree stands.

By and large, however, our beloved Great Plains won't be seeing the kind of pressure from trophy hunters that many other regions are getting. That's good news for us -- because the bucks are here!

Before talking about each state's prospects for the 2005 season -- and know, up front, that the regionwide outlook is good again this year -- let's talk about the factors that make for the presence of trophy bucks in good numbers. It's something previous years' previews have not touched on too much.

Generally speaking, the presence of trophy bucks can be traced to the relative quality of the deer herd in a given area. Trophy bucks generally are mature. They've been able to avoid hunter pressure and reach the age of 4 1/2 or older.

So the first fact about trophy bucks is that, when they appear in decent numbers, they represent a herd with a fairly healthy age structure. Let's face it: If your state had a buck harvest with an overwhelming number of yearlings, there just aren't going to be many bucks surviving to age 2 1/2 and beyond.

It's pretty much a rule of thumb, no matter where you hunt, that areas with low hunting pressure are likely to hold some really good bucks. This is especially true in the Great Plains states, where the deer herds in general are in the kind of shape that promotes development of trophy bucks in good numbers.

KANSAS

At the end of a conversation with Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks' big-game biologist Lloyd Fox, you can't help but reach the conclusion that the Sunflower State has better trophy-buck dynamics than any other Great Plains state -- and, possibly, more than the other three combined. But that's not necessarily a good thing.

"With the advent of non-resident hunting," Fox explained, "deer hunting became an important economic factor for many landowners in Kansas. It used to be that a guy would be hunting some of the best big-buck acreage around because the landowner was his uncle '¦ or his best friend's uncle. Now that uncle won't let you on the property because he's selling that access to hunters who are willing to pay for the chance to hunt a trophy Kansas buck. In terms of overall numbers or distribution, there hasn't been any impact on our trophy bucks as a result of non-residents coming in. From the standpoint of access, however, there has been some impact."

That impact concerns Fox. There are some big chunks of Kansas land where access has been cut way back because of the landowners' desires to make sure paying hunters have a chance at the kind of buck they're looking for. Overall harvest has been reduced as a result, and deer numbers simply have to go up because of it.

"We have some landowners who are making decisions that could lead to overpopulation," Fox said. "And no matter where you live, you have a number of folks who are non-hunters who get concerned with highway safety and other issues when deer numbers start to grow. They get concerned, and they get vocal about it."

As a hunter, you should be concerned, too -- simply because you can't dispute the science of out-of-whack populations. Even in a food factory like Kansas, more deer will mean less for each of them to eat, and that could impact the overall quality of the bucks in a given area.

On the other hand, Kansas' deer seem to be doing quite well. "Any unit in the state can and will produce trophy-quality whitetails," Fox offered. "I remember one year when I told a writer that Deer Management Unit 16 probably had the lowest potential in the state to produce a nice buck at that time. Later than fall" -- here he paused to laugh -- "a woman hunter killed a non-typical that scored 257 and change."

Fox included DMU 16 as one of his picks for the 2005 season, along with DMUs 14, 10 and 8. Just remember, however, every DMU in the state really can produce a trophy whitetail.

When it comes to Kansas mule deer, Fox narrows the field quickly. "Units 2 and 17 tend to have big mule deer year in and year out," he said. "There are always some dandies in Unit 2."

NEBRASKA

Based on information from Nebraska biologist Kit Hams, it seems as thought the Sandhills and Pine Ridge management units will be the overall best bets this season for trophy deer. Hams included both in his picks for whitetails and for mulies.

The Cornhusker State's whitetail population is still recovering from a natural disaster of sorts -- epizootic hemorrhagic disease. "We lost a bunch of deer to EHD throughout central Nebraska a few years ago," Hams explained.

EHD, which poses no threat to humans, i

s not uncommon in whitetail herds, and, though not considered to have nearly the potential for catastrophe as chronic wasting disease, it can have a major impact on deer numbers when it strikes, as it did in Nebraska. And, Hams noted, EHD doesn't discriminate with respect to age or any other factor. As a result, many areas in the Cornhusker State's midsection definitely lost some nice bucks -- and some potential trophies -- to EHD.

For this season, Hams said whitetail hunters should look at the Sandhills, Pine Ridge and Republican units. Hunters after trophy mule deer also should consider the Sandhills and Pine Ridge units, along with the Plains and Upper Platte.

"In the Sandhills," he noted, "25 percent of the bucks harvest are yearlings." So turn that around: You have a 3 in 4 chance of encountering a Sandhills buck that's 2 1/2 years old or older. Those are good odds no matter where you hunt.

On the other hand, Hams noted, prospects for trophy whitetails still remain in the Blue Southeast Unit, even though it is home to lots of yearlings. The bottom line is that it has more deer, period, than any other area of the state. You may have to wait longer to see a trophy there, but the higher numbers suggest there definitely are some mature bucks around.

Hams added that the areas hit hardest by EHD a few seasons ago have seen as much as a 10- to 20-percent shift in the ratio of yearlings in the buck harvest. Hunters are taking more yearlings because they're not seeing as many mature bucks. You can blame EHD for that -- but be aware, too, that the likelihood of the situation improving is high. Unlike some Eastern states, for example, Nebraska just doesn't get the hunting pressure that would keep a decent number of yearlings from surviving.

"We have our deer populations about where we want them," Hams said. "We can manage them at their current sizes with the hunters we have."

That should mean that you'll continue to see decent numbers of trophy bucks in the areas Hams mentioned, and that numbers will come back in those hardest hit by EHD.

SOUTH DAKOTA

South Dakota biologist Ted Benzon, in last month's installment of the 2005 deer outlook, noted that his state had increased the number of available licenses again this year to keep deer numbers under control. There's good reason for that.

"Our state is good for production of older bucks, due to a sex ratio of approximately one buck to one doe in most herds," he said. Make no mistake: Deer biologists all over the continent would love to have that 1:1 ratio. It's a wonderful indicator of the kind of deer herd that will produce mature bucks that will make any hunter happy to encounter.

Benzon called 2005 trophy prospects for whitetails and mule deer in his state "good." He narrowed the focus for hunters to the East River counties of Brown and Edmunds for whitetails, and Jackson and Butte counties in West River for mule deer.

Just don't think those are the only places you should consider as homes to nice bucks. Harding, Perkins and the Black Hills also have potential for whitetail hunters. If you're after mule deer, you should consider Harding, Perkins and Fall River counties.

NORTH DAKOTA

North Dakota biologist Bill Jensen quickly pointed out that, regardless of species (whitetails or mule deer), his state does not manage deer herds to produce trophy bucks.

"Ninety-five percent of our land acreage is under private ownership," he noted. "As a result, we manage within the tolerance levels of the private landowner in North Dakota. That's the focus here."

That said, the information he provided suggests that hunters should approach gong after a trophy in North Dakota as a kind of numbers game.

When asked where hunters should look for a trophy, Jensen answered very simply: "Deer numbers are highest in the northeast corner of the state."

The thought, then, appears to be that if you go where the most deer are, you're most likely to encounter a mature buck. For mule deer, you should focus on the Badlands region in western North Dakota.

BEST UNITS/COUNTIES FOR BIG BUCKS BY STATE
State

Whitetails

Mule Deer

Kansas

DMU 14DMU 1
DMU 15DMU 2
DMU 8DMU 17
DMU 10
Nebraska

SandhillsSandhills
Pine RidgePine Ridge
RepublicanPlains
Upper Platte
North Dakota

2B4A
2G4B
2F14G
2F24D
2G4E
4F
South Dakota

East River UnitsWest River Units
Brown Co.Jackson Co.
EdmundsButte Co.

More specifically, Jensen mentioned the "2" units in eastern North Dakota for whitetails, and the "4" units in the west for mule deer. If you're after a big whitetail, Jensen points you go to units 2B, 2C, 2F1, 2F2 and 2G. If you prefer a trophy mule deer, he said, you should head for units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E or 4F.

With so much land privately owned, it'll serve you well to spend some time talking to landowners in the area(s) you plan to hunt. Ask about their impressions of overall deer numbers, and whether they're seeing a lot of young bucks, or any older ones.

The more information you can get, the easier it'll be for you to pinpoint places with the potential for some truly nice bucks with racks equally nice.

In quickly reviewing the preceding paragraphs, I found that something said by Kansas' Lloyd Fox really hit home. Remember his comment that any unit in the state could well produce trophy whitetails?

It seems as if that statement is in fact applicable throughout the Great Plains. Those Nebraska areas hit hard by EHD are probably the only exceptions, and even they ought to rebound before too long.

You may not agree with every decision the deer managers in your state make from year to year, but it's really tough to disagree that Fox, Hams, Jensen and Benzon have, collectively, done a good job of managing deer numbers in their respective states. Good numbers inherently lead to trophy deer.

Many of you have likely heard the buzz phrase "Quality Deer Management," as it's becoming very popular around the country, notably so in areas in which deer and/or hunter numbers are significantly higher than in the Great Plains. One of the various objections to QDM -- some more informed than others --maintains that the term's just a fancier label for trophy deer management.

That's not quite true. QDM promotes the development of the kind of healthy deer herds that are more characteristic of the Great Plains than not. And mature bucks are inherent byproducts of healthy deer herds. Trophy bucks in free-ranging herds are definite signs that the herds are in pretty good shape.

And that's probably the best news of all heading into the Great Plains' 2005 deer season.

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