Great Plains Deer Outlook -- Finding Trophy Bucks

Great Plains Deer Outlook -- Finding Trophy Bucks

If you dream of dressing up the den with a wallhanger, this could be the season that you've been waiting for! Here's inside info designed to help you score. (Nov 2006)

By the time you've made it to this page in this issue of Great Plains Game & Fish, it's an almost-certain bet that somewhere close to you, rutting activity will be under way. Without question, this is one of the most exciting times of the entire outdoor year. Bucks are sparring, and they're trailing and chasing does.

Activity will continue throughout the month, and hunters across the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas are preparing to spend plenty of time in search of mature bucks. Those are the bucks with the trophy potential that lifetime memories are made of.

One thing's certain: Few regions of the continent offer better prospects for encountering trophy bucks than our own Great Plains. And based on the information provided by state biologists, things appear to be showing continuous improvement.

That's good news no matter where you live or hunt in our region.

KANSAS

"As far as trophy potential goes, just pick a spot," said Lloyd Fox, a biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "There are mature bucks statewide, and hunters realistically have an opportunity at one no matter where they hunt."

No doubt that's true, but Fox got pushed to be a little more specific concerning the state's better places for running into a trophy buck.

"When it comes to whitetails, Unit 16 is our most highly sought-after unit, especially by non-residents," he said. "And the interest is due directly to exposure that part of the state receives in magazine stories, videos and on TV shows.

"Honestly, however, units 10 and 14 are just as good. I call those our best three for whitetails," Fox added, "and in no particular order."

His top units for big mule deer are, as you might imagine, in western Kansas -- specifically, units 1, 2, 3 and 17.

As noted in the first part of this year's deer preview (see the October issue), the KDWP has spent plenty of time in recent years managing the Sunflower State's deer resource to get on top of populations. Fox and his coworkers seem to have been quite successful in their efforts, and that's going to mean good things for hunters after mature bucks this season.

A big reason for that is lower deer density. And the lower density is borne out (near-pun not intended) by what Fox sees occurring in the field. "Our does that are at least 1 1/2 years old are producing two fawns," he noted. "None of them are going unbred; none of them are not carrying a fawn. They are very productive. We're not seeing single fawns in does that are at least 1 1/2 years old."

Biologists will tell you that such healthy production signals low deer densities. Those densities resulted from hunters listening to the KDWP and focusing on doe harvest. Younger bucks have thus been passed, and that in turn means that the age structure of Kansas' deer herd looks better.

The bottom line for hunters: More bucks are getting a chance to grow to maturity. In states like Kansas, it's not unusual for 2 1/2-year-old bucks to begin growing some pretty nice racks. In a story in this magazine a couple of months ago, outfitter Jeff Stevens, talked about 135- to 140-class bucks that are only 2 1/2.

No question, then, that hunters across Kansas are going to have better chances to see nice bucks this season than even three or four years ago. And it wasn't too bad back then!

How long the state's good hunting for trophy-class bucks will last depends on different factors. "To say we won't begin experiencing overpopulation in some areas is to ignore 100 years of history," Fox said. It will happen; it's just a matter of when and how many deer it will take to exceed the carrying capacity of a given area."

Don't consider that gloom and doom, however. Fox noted that Kansas hunters took as many as 99,000 deer in a season, back in 2000. There have been recent years when permits were sold in such a way that a hunter could legally harvest up to eight Sunflower State deer.

It's not like that now, but "Fox and Company" can bring that kind of population-reduction management back if necessary. That's not likely to happen any time soon, though.

For now, hunters around the state have good numbers of deer and even better numbers of mature bucks -- certainly in comparison to the situation several years ago.

One of the most interesting aspects of the search for trophy whitetails is the varying terrain in the units Fox noted. Unit 10, in the very northeast along the Missouri River bluffs, is wonderful timber that resembles acreage you'd expect to find in Pennsylvania, New York or Michigan.

Unit 14 offers a mix of small woodlots, rolling hills with pockets of cover near agriculture and, on its western edge, the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. Unit 16 is more wide open, with prairie and river-based timber habitat.

NEBRASKA

Imagine a hunting area with a deer density that some might think is approaching high, but with an age structure that clearly shows the opportunity to encounter mature bucks on a regular basis.

If you like whitetails, you'll find just such a place in Nebraska' Blue Southeast Unit. Figures from state biologist Kit Hams are pretty amazing.

"In general, the eastern areas of the state have higher deer densities that in the west," Hams noted. "Some places in eastern Nebraska can be as high as 15 to 20 deer per square mile."

Blue Southeast isn't necessarily that high, but it's also a lot higher than parts of western Nebraska, where density is as low as 1 deer per square mile. That said, data collected by Hams reveal that 60 percent of the bucks taken last season from Blue Southeast were at least 2 years old. The Wahoo and Elkhorn Units had percentages of 2-year-old-plus deer of 43 and 51, respectively. Those are outstanding numbers, and they suggest an age structure that favors hunters' chances of encountering a mature back.

When it comes to mule deer, you should look at the Frenchman Unit in the southwest, where 61 percent of the bucks were 2-plus years old. In the Sandhills Unit, where two-thirds of the deer are mulies, 76 percent of the bucks were 2-plus years old. And in the Pine Ridge, where it's a 60-40 mulie-whitetail split, 64 percent of the bucks were 2-plus years old.

"In the S

andhills, the whitetail population, which is only about one-third of all the deer, boasted 82 percent of the bucks at 2-plus years old," Hams said. "When it comes to the age structure of our deer herd overall, the percentages of older bucks are higher than they've ever been."

Given that, hunters who wish to have a chance at a mature buck of either species should remember the tag Hams mentioned last month -- the one with the admittedly premium pricing. It's an any-buck/anywhere tag that opens up a world of possibilities for hunters.

"The three hunter groups I have the easiest time pointing toward mature deer are the archers, the muzzleloaders and those who can afford this particular tag," he said. "Hunting pressure is not as high for the first two groups as it is for our regular firearms season, and that makes a difference. And a hunter who can pay for the premium tag has all kinds of options about where to hunt."

Hams did offer some advice to firearms hunters. "One of the best ways they can gain access to some great hunting, in my opinion, is to go after permission to hunt during the middle of the week. We all know what the hunting pressure is like on the weekends during the firearms season.

"Hunting in the middle of the week makes it more likely that you'll gain permission to hunt, and it also means you are less likely to encounter a whole bunch of other hunters."

You also could plan to hunt western Nebraska in general, where the pressure is always going to be lower; so are deer densities. But the age structure in those units is so good that encountering a mature buck might be as close to a certainty as anywhere you can hunt in the continental U.S.

Remember those percentages -- and what Hams said when asked about the deer density in Nebraska: "Our herds are nowhere close to approaching the carrying capacity of the land. We have the smallest deer herd of any state around us."

It also might be one of the best-balanced in terms of its overall age structure. That being the case, hunters after mature bucks with trophy potential should heed Hams' advice in particular when it comes to the units that will be best. In general, however, hunters simply ought to consider Nebraska. It may be on of the whitetail world's best-kept secrets heading into the 2006 season and beyond.

SOUTH DAKOTA

One thing's for sure when it comes to South Dakota's potential to produce mature bucks: There's nothing dark about the prospects in the Black Hills.

"There is no question that the Black Hills just keeps getting better," said biologist Ted Benzon. "Three or four years ago, 52 percent of the bucks in the region were 3-plus years old, and those numbers have improved."

But the Black Hills isn't the only part of the state with strong trophy potential. "We feel like we are on top of the herd in terms of population and gender ratio," Benzon said. "In the East River (the management unit east of the Missouri River), our buck-to-doe ratio is very close to 1:1."

Throughout southeastern counties in East River, the percentages of whitetail and mulie bucks older than 2 years are 53 and 52, respectively. Among the counties you should consider hunting there are Charles Mix and Gregory, which actually combine to straddle the Missouri. Gregory is in the West River region. Benzon also mentioned the northwest counties of Perkins and Butte, in West River, as being good bets for taking a mature deer.

Another big benefit of South Dakota's ability to control the population and, as a result, the sex ratio of the herds: The rut has shortened -- practically always a side effect of more balanced deer herds because it means there are less does coming into estrus at the rut, and more bucks around to breed them.

"The change in the Black Hills is a perfect example," Benzon noted. "In 1996, we had unlimited buck hunting in that region. And back then, does were dropping fawns anywhere from June 1 to the last week of July, because there were so many more does than bucks. They weren't all getting bred at the same time.

"The ratios stunk in there back then, and as a result, the predators had two months to pick up fawns. And the nature of a buck fawn is to get up and move around more than a doe fawn, so you know which gender the predators were hitting the hardest.

"Now, because of the population reduction and the balanced sex ratios, does are virtually flooding the woods with fawns during the first two weeks of June. The predators can't affect the recruitment the way they used to as a result."

Maybe the best news of all for hunters after a mature buck with a bragging-sized rack is that the shortening of the rut means the peak of the activity now routinely occurs during the third week of November, which is during the firearms season.

And finally, Benzon noted, another factor that has positively affected trophy potential in South Dakota: weather. "We know that the older bucks are going to go when we have a really nasty winter because they come out of the rut so physically depleted," he said. "All six of the winters we've had since I have been on this job have been mild. We really haven't had a real winter since 1997-98.

"I know this is a deer story, but our antelope population is another good indicator of how the weather affects us here," he added. "As a result of our mild winters, the population almost doubled last year, and it will be about the same number this year. And that is with a success rate of 70 percent overall for hunters on their first tag, and 57 percent overall on their second tag."

The bottom line is that South Dakota's big-game animals are thriving these days -- but Benzon knows full well exactly how tenuous that state of affairs may be; it's great for now, but it can't last forever. "That 'Great White Wolf' of a storm has to hit us sometime," he remarked.

NORTH DAKOTA

According to information supplied to Great Plains Game & Fish by North Dakota biologist William Jensen, information on the best management units for finding trophy deer is unavailable. Does that mean you're lost in this vast state when it comes to finding mature bucks?

Not necessarily.

For the purposes of this story, we can look at data suggesting that the same northeast and southwest regions mentioned in Part 1 as the best places to go if you want to fill a tag also ought to be good for encountering a mature buck with trophy potential.

Think about it. Jensen noted for the record that herd densities statewide are stable. That being the case, logic suggests that what was good heading into the 2005 season likely will be good again in 2006. You'll find those units noted on the map and in the graphic that accompany this story.

Keep something else in mind. Jensen also noted that in northwestern and southeastern North Dakota, deer densities are improving. It's all relative, of course: There's no

way of knowing how far out of whack the numbers might have been before "improving."

However, improving densities inherently suggest, in general terms, that there are lower numbers of deer in those regions. Lower numbers can definitely be good when it comes to locating and hunting mature bucks. If you live in, or have access to hunting spots in the northwest and southeast, it will pay you substantial dividends to spend some time scouting before heading out to hunt that trophy buck this fall.

Which isn't bad advice, no matter where in the Great Plains you'll be hunting this year!

Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com

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