The Great Plains' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

The Great Plains' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

More and more wallhanger-grade animals show up in our states each season -- so could this be the year that you score on that trophy of a lifetime? This information could be just what you need to find it! (November 2007)

Photo by Mike Lambeth

Last month, in Part 1 of the Great Plains deer outlook, we talked quantity; this month, quality is the focus.

And in the Great Plains, the quantity of the quality is about as high as you'll find anywhere on the continent when it comes to mule deer and whitetails. For many years that one fascinating element of the region's deer resource has set it apart from just about anywhere else you might go to hunt deer.

Sure, places with more trophy whitetails are likely to exist, as are places with more trophy mule deer. But it's not at all easy to point to a region whose combined trophy potential for both species is as high as, let alone higher than, it is right here.

Are better pockets out there? Probably. Is there another area as large where high numbers of mature bucks representing both species are available? Probably not.

In general terms, from the Dakotas south through Nebraska and Kansas, mule deer and whitetails entered 2007 coming out of yet another relatively mild winter. As a result, and despite near-record or record-level harvests in all four states, the region's deer numbers are strong.

You'll read below that the western one-third to one-half of these four states hold mule deer herds that number among them many mature bucks. You'll also read that each state has pretty much border-to-border potential to provide encounters with whitetails that practically any hunter would consider a trophy.

What you won't read about are the ways state wildlife managers focus on growing trophy bucks. They don't. Quality is the buzzword here. It's getting that way all over the deer world, and that's good news for hunters who want to focus on mature bucks. Here's the lowdown for hunters on trophy deer in the Great Plains.

NORTH DAKOTA

History suggests that North Dakota has areas that are more prone to offering hunters a chance at trophy deer. You'll see them on the map and chart that accompany this article, and also at the end of this section.

What you won't see is a lot of specific information on them or the state's approach to managing for mature bucks. That's because it's simply a routine part of the overall plan for whitetails. "We manage all units the same for deer," said state biologist Bill Jensen. "There are no trophy management units."

He called prospects for North Dakota's production of quality mule deer and whitetail bucks this season "fair to good." Think of that as a byproduct of deer populations, hunting pressure and available habitat.

It's easy to suggest that mature bucks just happen. But that's not true. As is the case in North Dakota, some elements have to come together for hunters to have a chance at an encounter with a fully mature buck.

You'll find good deer numbers throughout the state, and harvest statistics that show hunters doing their part to keep deer densities -- and age and sex structures -- from getting too far out of whack. When all of that's evident in a given deer herd, hunters inevitably will have a chance at encounters with older bucks.

Not surprisingly then, hunters should expect to find at least fair opportunities for a shot at a trophy buck all over North Dakota, including the regions that state wildlife officials are targeting for hunting pressure in order to help keep deer herds from growing more than they should.

"We are focusing hunting pressure in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state," Jensen said. Those regions happen to include units that are likely to be the best again this year for trophies.

Those after mule deer definitely should look to Units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F. The latter three units comprise the southwest corner of North Dakota. For whitetails, you should expect to find decent prospects for trophies in Units 2B, 2C, 2F1, 2F2 and 2G. Note that these recommendations did not come from Jensen for the 2007 season, but represent what appear to be the best bets from a historical perspective.

The units singled out here appear to be the best choices, but others too offer a chance at a trophy. The dynamics behind a given buck's reaching 3 1/2, 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 years of age will vary so much around the state that excluding any unit is a mistake.

SOUTH DAKOTA

When asked whether those searching for mature bucks should keep anything in particular in mind this season, South Dakota's Ted Benzon spoke volumes in a simple request: "Please harvest a doe along with your buck. Generally, we need additional doe harvest statewide."

Like its counterpart to the north, South Dakota doesn't plan any specific management emphasis on trophy whitetails or mule deer. Encouraging doe harvest, however, inherently contributes to the potential for trophies because it helps keep harvest pressure off younger bucks.

And when doe harvest takes place as biologists hope, it also helps keep the overall deer population in check. That leads to a herd with more balanced age and gender ratios, and those are key ingredients to deer populations with higher numbers of mature, trophy-potential bucks.

As evidence, consider that last year's buck-harvest data shows that fully half of all bucks tagged in South Dakota were 2 years old or older. There are plenty of states around the country, especially in the heart of America's whitetail range, where deer managers would be quite happy with numbers like that.

Harding and Perkins counties are again at the top of the list for mule deer, although Benzon also included Pennington, Gregory and Meade counties among the list for hunters after a trophy mulie.

If you're after a mature South Dakota whitetail, the list for 2007 also includes Harding and Perkins counties. It also includes Brown, Spink and Edmund counties in northeastern South Dakota. They're not right on the eastern border, but rather a tier of counties to the west.

From this information, it's tough not to look at Harding and Perkins in the northwest as the overall best bets for a trophy deer of some type. Benzon called overall prospects good for South Dakota trophy deer in 2007. He didn't note any significant change from historical trends because "South Dakota does not manage for trophy deer to a large extent."

As is the case throughout the Great Plains, South Dakota's philosophy appears from here to focus on balance, and on the concept of keeping deer populations at levels that available habitat can support. The goal of such a plan is not the production of mature bucks with trophy potential, but that production will occur when everything comes together.

Hunting pressure in this and most other areas of the Great Plains is not as high as you'll find in other parts of the country. That helps, too, because bucks are having fewer encounters with hunters and, as a result, have a better chance of surviving.

And Benzon noted that another mild winter kept cold-weather stress on South Dakota deer lower than in a "normal" year. Survival undoubtedly was good, then. That's all the more reason to plan on taking a doe with your buck this season because it doesn't take too much for deer densities to get way out of whack without population control.

That being said, South Dakota's herd still appears to be in pretty good shape. If you'll be going out after deer of either species this season, that general health should translate into encounters with trophy bucks for more than a few hunters.

NEBRASKA

The simplest way to look at prospects for trophy deer in the Cornhusker State is as follows: Northwest for mule deer, southeast for whitetails. It's the same as it has been. Nebraska impresses, however, with its percentages.

Biologist Kit Hams reported the following percentages of whitetail bucks harvested that were 2 years old and older: 78 percent in the Sandhills unit, 69 percent in Upper Platte, 68 percent in Pine Ridge, 67 percent in Plains and 65 percent in Platte. The mule deer numbers included 81 percent in the Sandhills, 69 percent in the Upper Platte, and 66 percent in Calamus West, Plains and Pine Ridge. Notably, Hams added, the Frenchman Unit has the highest mulie density, and also contains 58 percent of the bucks at 2 years or older.

He noted that losses over the past four years to epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease have caused some fluctuations in deer age-structures in some management units. The trend, however, is that the age of bucks taken in Nebraska has increased over the past 20 years. In other words, more hunters are taking older bucks today than they were in the mid-1980s. Hams added that the trend has stabilized somewhat in the past five years.

He also touched upon something that has been a common thread in this story. "Nebraska manages its herd for quality deer," he said, adding that disagreement and confusion often arise when hunters start talking about trophy deer.

"If you focus on hunt quality, shot selection, deer seen, successful stalks, landowner relationships, outwitting an older deer -- a buck or a doe -- developing friendships and improving your hunting skills, most deer are going to end up becoming trophies for you," he offered. He used the term "quality hunts" more than once, and noted that they are available to hunters this season in all deer units.

You'll see from the accompanying graphics that Calamus West, Sandhills, Pine Ridge, Plains and Upper Platte are the units highlighted for mule deer. Shift your focus to whitetails, and the top units become those in southeastern Nebraska: Wahoo, Republic, Blue Northwest and Blue Southeast.

"Trophy potential is increasing for both mule deer and whitetails," Hams said. "Increasing herd sizes and greater hunter selectivity is beneficial." It was impossible to know with certainty as this was written, but Hams speculated that Nebraska would enjoy another increase in the number of older bucks as the 2007 season opens -- if the state has been spared any new EHD outbreaks.

Another dynamic that directly impacts the number of mature bucks in a deer herd, regardless of species, is the decision a hunter makes. "The decision to let a buck walk is personal," Hams said. "We have quality animals in all units, and we have no problem with hunters taking any legal animal."

Keep that in mind as you head out to your Nebraska deer stand or potential stalking area this season. The Cornhusker State, like its Great Plains sister states, is blessed with strong deer numbers that include more than a few mature bucks with trophy potential. This season is shaping up to be another really good one here.

KANSAS

Let's get the units out of the way first, because you expect, and deserve, some guidance toward places with trophy potential in Kansas. For mule deer, look to the western deer management units -- specifically, DMUs 1, 2, 3 and 17. For whitetails, focus on DMUs 5 and 16 in south-central Kansas, and also DMUs 13 and 14 farther east. Little has changed in these units in recent years.

Little also has changed when it comes to the Sunflower State's whitetail resource in one major regard -- you will be fooling yourself if you consider the units already mentioned as the only ones with trophy potential. Every DMU has not only the potential to produce trophy whitetails, but every one of them has.

Mule deer, being mainly confined to Kansas' western third, obviously offer trophy potential only in that region. Whitetails, however, offer another story.

Having been blessed with opportunities to hunt the Sunflower State's whitetail country many times over the years, I know that big bucks roam virtually every county in the state. I've personally seen them in many places, and written about hunters who have seen and taken them in just about all those I haven't hunted.

Many things about Kansas' whitetail resource have changed over the past 15 to 20 years. Non-resident hunting has come along, and populations have grown, particularly in eastern Kansas. Huntable habitat there has shrunk before continued encroachment by residential and commercial development, especially in the greater Kansas City area.

Big bucks are still there, however, and they will be. It's easy to argue that, excluding humans, no species is as adaptable as whitetails when it comes to making the most of available habitat. In eastern Kansas, there are bucks growing old in places that might surprise some hunters.

The units noted here and in the graphics accompanying this story represent the Sunflower State's "best bets" when it comes to trophy bucks this season. They are about the same as they have been for some time. There are no surprises.

The point, however, is that Kansas really doesn't differ from the rest of the Great Plains region stretching north from here all the way to Canada -- for when it comes to mature bucks with trophy racks, every DMU in the state will provide at least some encounters for hunters this season.

KDWP biologist Lloyd Fox is no different from his counterparts in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota when pushed for specifics on trophy hunting. In Kansas, he's quick to point out, a big whitetail is liable to show up anywhere. History shows that they do show up in several spots around the state every season. You can focus your efforts on the top DMUs noted here, and you're

likely to improve your chances of an encounter with "Big Boy."

To what extent you improve those chances, however, is problematic. Kansas has that kind of trophy whitetail potential. In reality, so do the other states that comprise the Great Plains region. Mule deer tend to be more focused in western areas of the whole region, while whitetails are found statewide.

It's a pretty safe bet that hunters in our states know that the Great Plains is home to some consistently good hunting for mature whitetails and mule deer. All signs point to that being the case again in 2007.

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

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