The Great Plains region — Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota — is home to some of the biggest trophy deer in North America. Hunters across the region, and some from other states, too, are specifically pursuing these big bucks — from corn-fed whitetails to sagebrush-eating mule deer.
Benson County Whitetail
Hunter: Craig Blomster
Year killed: 2017
Score: 135 inches
The Blomster family of Leeds/Harlow, North Dakota, calls the big buck “35 Below.” It’s a name that couldn’t be tagged on a trophy deer from many other places in the continental United States.
That was the temperature — 35 below zero — when Craig Blomster took the deer just before Christmas. The landscape across much of this far-north state is windswept and barren in winter, especially so, when it gets so cold the deer range is void of even the most avid hunters.
While all the other hunters around him had either gone home or stayed home, Blomster said, he sat crouched in an old farmstead grain bin. It was a sort of “farm-country blind,” he said.
Man and beast slowed down as the temperature kept dropping lower and lower. Blomster said he was bundled up into a ball of insulated clothing, but it wasn’t enough.
“The biggest thing is trying to keep your fingers and toes warm enough,” he said. “You have hand warmers in your pockets and Thermacell insole heaters. Even at that, fingers are quick to go numb.”
As a bow hunter, Blomster knows weather like that can make things problematic. “You are just sitting still and not moving,” he says. “You have definitely got to contend with your breath, holding it, because they will see it.”
The terrain in north-central North Dakota is good for deer hunting. Rolling hills break up the landscape. Potholes and sloughs make it one of the best waterfowl-production areas left in the country, and those wetlands are very important to deer.
“Our saying up here is, ‘The whitetails are in the cattails,’” Blomster quipped.
The site was in a sort of “ghost farm,” he pointed out —– a long-abandoned farmstead, dotted with a dilapidated old farm house and a falling-down barn. There are many of these on the northern Great Plains. The old grain bin was a good place, he said, for him to stake out his watch.
In this case, the deer were heading to or from the cattails, to or from the bedding and food, when they crossed in front of Blomster’s blind and he made the shot in the bitter winter weather.
“More people are getting into the ground blinds than ladder stands,” he explained. “The hunt is transitional, (taking place) where the deer are going from food to bedding. Old farmsteads with trees are good.”
Butte County Mule Deer
Hunter: Kevin Cuff
Year killed: 2017
Score: 160 inches
In far northwest South Dakota, the deer and cows far outnumber the human beings, even during the fall hunting seasons when a lot of deer hunters descend upon this Western landscape in pursuit of trophy bucks. It was up here that Kevin Cuff of Newark, Delaware, bagged one of the larger bucks taken last season in western South Dakota.
This is ranch country. There is no shortage of deer roaming the landscape. Taking the best deer is a matter of knowing which one to let pass, and which one to take … or which one to try to hunt.
Neal Smith, a hunting guide out of High Prairie Lodge and Outfitters in Whitewood, South Dakota, had been keeping an eye on these herds during the fall rut. There was one buck in particular that drew his attention.
“There are a lot of deer there,” Smith said. “Before this hunt I had been in there a couple times,” he added, where the breaks and ravines were filled with deer. “At any one time at Haystack Butte, there are 75 bucks in there. I had seen 35 to 40 different bucks around that butte in the couple weeks before that. Once that rut starts, that is when the big boys come out. They come out of their hiding spots. They rule the roost.”
Smith and Cuff were looking over the area with a spotting scope, when the big buck came into view. It was 400 yards away — too far, and it walked off even farther. Their stalk began, and it was a good place for it, Smith recalled, because of the rough draws and ravines in the area. When a good shot finally presented itself, the deer stood 170 yards away.
“He was a big deer, an old deer,” Smith said. “He was one of the biggest mule deer I have ever walked up.”
Although much of the terrain in remote northwest South Dakota is cattle-grazing land, some farmers plant alfalfa fields in the bottoms, especially if water is available. The mule deer often move back and forth, feeding and lounging. Their white-tailed cousins tend to move from the creek bottoms to the alfalfa and back again. But the mule deer, Smith explained, tend to move to and from the open areas via the draws and ravines. Sometimes, during the rut, their caution fades.
“It is the rut that got him,” Smith confirmed. “For a (buck) to be up and running around at 10 o’clock in the morning, it has to be the rut.”
Sheridan County Mule Deer
Hunter: Mike Johnson
Year killed: 2017
Score: 198 inches
In the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills, one of the big draws for deer hunters are the large ranches nestled on vast stretches of the natural Great Plains landscape.
It’s an area that sees very few deer hunters who tend to hunt mostly private land — land where Mike Johnson of Monterey, California, had booked his hunt with Scott Kuhn of Deer Meadows Outfitters in Ellsworth.
The timing was perfect. The rut was in full swing. Big deer were growing more vulnerable as they competed for does. Kuhn said he spotted the deer on one of the 70 game cameras he has out across the landscape.
The big bucks here have a lot of room to roam, oftentimes crossing cattle country where they eat the high-protein pellets ranchers place for their cattle, so their growth is good.
The only additional requirement for reaching trophy status, Kuhn said, is surviving a few hunting seasons to grow into a trophy.
“This is in the Sandhills, not farm country. That is why we have big mule deer,” Kuhn confirmed. “We are very remote out here. That is where mule deer love to thrive ... in the remote areas.”
Much of the deer hunting in Sheridan County is spot-and-stalk, Kuhn said. The hunter can glass large areas in this mostly treeless terrain, where grassland has remained mostly intact because there is really no other choice. The soil is sandy and the rainfall sparse. Any soil disturbance can quickly evolve into a massive soil erosion problem. The ranchers run cattle and sometimes guide hunters on what typically are high-quality deer hunts.
Kuhn and Johnson were out very early in the morning, sitting in a good spot before first light.
“We got up early in the morning to sit and watch the sun come up and glass,” Kuhn remembered. “This particular morning, we were up high, and it was actually really foggy out. We had to wait for the fog to lift. We knew the area the (buck) was running in. We run a lot of game cameras. We knew he was in the area. We had seen him.”
Then, the sun bored down, and the fog burned away.
“Lo and behold, he was only about 450 yards from where we were sitting,” Kuhn said, “but we still waited an additional half-hour for the fog to clear.”
A successful stalk resulted in a 150-yard killing shot by Johnson.
Chautauqua County Whitetail
Hunter: Rusty Hernandez
Year killed: 2017
Score: 187 inches
The rolling hills of southeast Kansas is now considered one of the best trophy-deer areas in the Great Plains. That entire part of the state swarms with small farms, mixed crop and pasture lands interspersed with woodlands and a lot of whitetail deer.
It’s edge-cover hunting, and it’s good, especially where Rusty Hernandez of West Palm Beach, Florida, bagged a whitetail scoring 187 inches. Perhaps, the most interesting thing is, many more trophy bucks like that roam the rural areas here.
Jeff Brondige with Hickory Creek Outfitters in Howard guided the hunt. He said he already knew the deer. A year earlier, a hunter winged it with an arrow that struck its shoulder and mostly bounced off the shoulder blade.
“We get a lot of archery-wounded deer over the years, especially from a shoulder-blade hit,” Brondige pointed out. “It doesn’t get much penetration. It just cuts through some skin and hardly any muscle, or body cavity; so, it is, more or less, a flesh wound. They usually recover from it, more often than not.”
But this big buck was finally bagged during the firearms season last December.
Southeast Kansas gradually folds into the Flint Hills, that run from north to south across Kansas, crossing Cowley and Chautauqua counties before entering northern Oklahoma. These are mostly intact grasslands with topsoil so shallow, plowing for crop fields has never worked … fortunately. The environment takes on some of the characteristics of an Eastern woodland forest. Eleven species of oak trees grow here, and both deer and wild turkeys eat themselves to a gluttonous fatness on acorns that litter the ground. The deer put on big antlers.
Hernandez got his shot when the buck just walked by, oblivious, he said. “The deer walked through chasing the does,” remembers Hernandez. “He just gave me the opportunity.”
And the deer are fattening up once again on the acorns this fall.