Kansas: The Gem of Prairie Deer Hunting
October 24, 2018
“Friday, September 12th, 1806 – Commenced our march at seven o’clock. Passed very ruff (sic) flint hills. My feet blistered and very sore. I stood on a hill, and in one view below me saw buffalo, elk, deer, cabrie (pronghorn), and panthers (mountain lion).” — Lt. Zebulon Pike
Everyone knows the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition explored the northern and western regions of the Louisiana Purchase. Less well known is the Zebulon Pike expedition to explore the southwest section of the real-estate deal. The description above is an entry from Pike’s journal, written in the Flint Hills of Kansas, probably in either what is now Chase County or Greenwood County.
One hundred years later, nearly all the animals in Pike’s journal entry would be absent from Kansas. The wild prairie of Kansas had become agricultural land, largely privately owned. The last grizzly bear, once relatively common in Kansas, is thought to have been killed in 1904 just north of Dodge City. White-tailed deer all but disappeared, and for decades there was no deer season in Kansas. There were virtually no whitetails.
But, over the years, the quality habitat of Kansas pulled deer from other areas. One persistent rumor states that, sometime after World War II, a group of sportsmen released a small herd of whitetails in an effort to help re-establish a population, but that story can’t be confirmed. The state has no record of it and, certainly, did not participate in the effort. So, deer in Kansas did what deer everywhere do — they flourished in the vacant niche in the edge habitat of agricultural lands and the riparian woodlands. By the time the first deer season of the modern era opened in 1965, some monster bucks ran among them.
The biggest deer I’ve ever seen in person was in northeast Kansas, but big-game biologist Levi Jaster of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism tells me that any region of Kansas is capable of producing big deer. A Boone and Crockett record book deer (a typical whitetail with antlers that collectively measure 170 inches) or a typical mule deer (measuring 195 inches of antlers) is rare in any herd. A buck like that likely must survive to 6 or more years old and have the genetics and habitat to thrive.
However, Kansas is in a good place geographically to grow large deer. Deer no longer struggle to survive here, in part because Kansas produces an abundance of food deer use and need to live long and grow large. The rarest of the rare — 200-inch deer — have been taken several places in the state. Just don’t expect to come to Kansas and watch a parade of 170-inch deer. Every hunter must moderate his own expectations. Some people hunt for meat while some hunt for a record-book deer. Others have expectations somewhere in between. One certainty is that if you want a trophy deer, you have to let other deer walk.
Speaking of rare, six states have recorded free-range non-typical whitetail bucks that measured more than 300 inches, and Kansas is one of them. A monster buck with palmated (having a shape similar to that of a hand with the fingers extended) antlers — measuring 312 1/8 inches non-typical — was found dead and recovered with a salvage permit. The hunter who recovered this deer is an avid shed hunter and found two sets of sheds from the same deer in prior years. The official state-record typical mule deer measured 202 2/8 inches and was taken in 1999 in Kiowa County. The state-record typical whitetail measured 198 2/8 inches and was killed in 1974 in Nemaha County. See more record-book deer at KS Outdoors.com and search for “Kansas Top 20 Deer Records.”
It’s deer like these, however, that some say are leading white-tailed deer hunting toward an endangered sport — a sport of the wealthy, especially in Midwestern states, like Kansas, which have developed reputations for trophy bucks. Quality hunting grounds are either purchased or leased, and the days when you could knock on the door of a farmhouse and ask for permission to hunt are virtually gone.
The lack of access to land suitable for hunting also is, at least partly, responsible for the decline in hunter numbers. The KDWPT set out to remedy the access problem in 1995 and began a pilot program of walk-in access to private ground. The pilot was so successful that, in 1996, it became a statewide program. By 2004, the Kansas Walk In Hunting Access (WIHA) program enrolled 1 million acres. The program has hovered around 1 million acres ever since and has become the envy of other states.
KANSAS WALK-IN HUNTING PROGRAM
It is easy to understand why the WIHA program has become so successful. Kansas is 98 percent privately owned. Of the remaining 2 percent that is public land, roughly half is available for hunting. That 1 percent amounts to about 300,000 acres and includes state wildlife areas open to hunting, designated national wildlife refuge areas, and lands around reservoirs operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allow public hunting.
In the WIHA program, Kansas pays landowners to open their land to hunters. It’s a little like being on a big lease with a lot of your friends. Private leasing competes with WIHA for quality hunting grounds. The advantage to landowners enrolled in WIHA is that the state becomes responsible for payment and enforcement of access and game laws, and farmers, ranchers or landowners can concentrate on their primary business. KDWPT maintains a committee to improve landowner participation and make it more financially rewarding for landowners to enroll and improve the quality of habitat in the program.
In the Walk-In Hunting Access program, Kansas pays landowners to open their land to hunters. It’s a little like being on a big lease with a lot of your friends.
KDWPT publishes an atlas of walk-in hunting areas that can be picked up from any KDWPT office and many other locations. It’s handy to have a hard copy of the atlas in your vehicle, but there’s a better, modern option available. The atlas is accessible on-line at KSOutdoors.com, under “HUNTING,” complete with GPS coordinates and satellite imaging. Find the link for “HUNTING ATLAS” and select “FALL HUNTING ATLAS.” From there, you can view maps, scout locations and look at habitat from your computer without leaving home. You can zoom in to see crops, streams, topography, woods, watershed ponds and more. Then you can load GPS data from your online scouting onto your handheld GPS unit. A list of compatible GPS units is published on the website.
In addition to WIHA land, other state and federal lands are open to public hunting. In 2012, the Voluntary Public Access program began in partnership with the federal farm bill. This program enrolls land in long-term, multi-year contracts tied to the conservation reserve program (CRP). CRP has been a huge benefit to wildlife. Deer, turkey, and upland game birds — as well as non-game wildlife — flourish in CRP.
And Kansas is not the flat, boring, fly-over state of popular myth. The Sunflower State is the home of the last remaining tallgrass prairie. Prior to settlement, the tall grass prairie covered millions upon millions of acres of the Midwest. Now, just 4 percent remains, all in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The prairie ecosystem consists of grasslands, hills, valleys, wetlands, riparian woodlands and, surprisingly, old-growth hardwood forests.
Kansas does not hold many natural lakes; in fact, there’s just one— Lake Inman — but wetlands are abundant here. Manmade reservoirs, built and managed by the Corps of Engineers, lie all over the state and provide a variety of habitats open to hunting. Those located in north-central Kansas may be the most interesting and scenic. Reservoirs here hold good to great hunting topography — rocky shorelines and canyons — surrounding lakes like Wilson and Kanopolis, but don’t neglect Glen Elder, Lovewell, Webster and Norton reservoirs, or Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge.
Two reservoirs — Milford and Tuttle Creek — in northeast Kansas offer thousands of acres of public hunting. Tuttle Creek, the second largest reservoir in Kansas, with 100 miles of irregular wooded shoreline, offers 12,200 acres of wooded recreational land open for hunting. Milford Lake Wildlife Area contains 19,000 acres of public hunting land around the reservoir’s west side and north end. And eight newly formed wetland areas lie along the Republican River, north of Milford Lake.
In an effort to better manage these and other public access areas, Kansas created iSportsman, a digital reservation system — online at KDWPT.iSportsman.net — complete with a check in/out function. The system allows real-time management of your reservation and access information and helps prevent overcrowding.
MANAGED FOR SUCCESS FOR ALL
Deer hunting in Kansas is popular. You can’t say that loud enough! Archery deer hunters and duck hunters probably account for the majority of the use of much of our public lands, and resident hunters have it best.
KDWPT works hard to balance the needs of a variety of stakeholders. They must consider crop damage, wildlife-vehicle accidents, and herd quality and health while providing sustainable hunting opportunities. Some private guides and outfitters encourage or enforce buck size and age limits, but the state itself does not.
Kansas manages deer hunting using 18 management units, and Kansas hunters hold several hunting options across those zones. The 2018 Kansas archery deer season opens September 17 and runs through December 31. Along the way, the muzzleloader season runs concurrently with the early part of archery season through September 30. The firearms hunting season opens November 28 and closes December 9. A “whitetail antlerless only” permit also is available for hunting after Dec. 31, but it also is valid in any season with legal equipment for that season. In fact, KDWPT offers several “special” and “extended” season options, which are outlined, along with complete hunting regulations, in the 2018 Kansas Hunting & Furharvesting Regulations Summary, available online at KSHuntFishCamp.com.
Since 1994, any non-resident hunter — archery, muzzleloader or firearm — has been allowed to apply for Kansas deer permits. However, not all options are available to non-resident hunters, and non-residents must select the season and equipment choice at time of application. Other restrictions may apply.
All hunters born after July 1, 1957, must hold a certificate of hunter education. Kansas accepts hunter education certificates issued by any state or Canadian province and some other foreign countries. There are exceptions for youth hunters, 15 years old and younger, when hunting under the direct supervision of a hunter-education certified adult.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This year Kansas began a Deer Survival and Habitat Use research project in the state’s northwest region. This is an area that was formerly the home of mule deer but is now a mix of whitetail and mule deer. A total of 120 deer have been fitted with collars for the project.
Hunters in this area are encouraged to treat these deer like any other. If a collared deer is one you would normally choose to take, then you should. Likewise, if a collared deer is one you would pass up, then pass on the shot. Hunters who take a collared deer are asked to contact researchers to provide harvest information and, possibly, samples for disease testing.