America’s Heartland is known for producing most of the country’s monster whitetails carrying outrageous headgear. States like Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas typically account for a major portion of the biggest bucks listed in the Boone & Crockett Club’s annual awards book.
“Book” white-tailed bucks are taken almost anywhere in these states, but two areas in the Great Plains consistently produce an inordinate number of giant whitetails. The corridor in eastern Kansas extends from Marshall and Nemaha counties in the north to Marion, Chase and Lyon on the south, with a bull’s-eye on Clay, Riley and Pottawatomie counties. These 12 counties produced a whopping 48 B&C whitetail bucks between 2013 and 2017.
And a sleeper hotspot for wall-hanger whitetails lies in central South Dakota, either side of the Missourri River — from Stanley, Hughes and Hyde counties down through Jones, Lyman, Tripp and Gregory counties. These seven counties gave up 16 B&C whitetails, with the out-lying counties of Pennington and McPherson surrendering five more.
KANSAS’ GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Deer hunting zealots with their sights set on a Kansas book buck do well to put a bull’s-eye on Clay, Riley and Pottawatomie counties. Of the 48 B&C bruisers entered in the book from 2013 to 2017, 19 came from the counties in the bulls-eye.
“The corridor in eastern Kansas from Marshall and Nemaha counties south to Chase, Marion and Lyon counties does stand out. It’s a lot of rolling hills, brush, timber, ravines and plumb thickets typical of the Flint Hills region where bucks can disappear. Ninety-eight percent of it is private (land), but there are some public land options.”
Three public hunting sites that stand out are the open tracts of Fort Riley Military Reservation, public lands surrounding area reservoirs, and land enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Hunting Access program. Outfitters are surprisingly scarce in the bulls-eye counties. The do-it-yourself option may be the best alternative for putting a “booner” in your sights.
Jaster first points to the potential for taking down exceptional bucks on Fort Riley, located in northeast Kansas, between Manhattan and Junction City on the northern edge of the Flint Hills region. More than 70,000 acres lie open to public hunting via permit, and the base gives up B&C quality bucks every year. Details for getting a permit are available at fortriley.isportsman.net or by calling (785) 239-6211.
All the green space that appears on the map surrounding Milford and Tuttle Creek reservoirs represents a lot of public hunting land and wildlife areas that are known big-buck bailiwicks. The cover is thick, isolated and collects secretive trophy whitetails, especially after the rut has ended and the rifle season starts.
Public land hunting options also extend from Kansas’ WIHA program (more info online at ksoutdoors.com), among the best such programs in the country. In the corridor, Marshall and Nemaha counties carry an abundance of WIHA lands; whereas, Lyon County holds very little. A modest amount of WIHA property is enrolled in Clay, Riley and Pottawatomie counties, and some of it occupies prime ground on creeks and rivers feeding the reservoirs or within the reservoir floodplain. You can view these lands’ boundaries using the onX hunt map app available from onXmaps online at onxmaps.com.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
Chris Barnhart of Tall Grass Outfitters hunts whitetail properties in Ottawa, Dickinson and Geary counties. He says Geary is the most consistent for producing B&C-sized bucks, but he admits his deer hunts last year were a little tough. “Our best was a 172 (inches), but in 2016 we took a 205 and a 189.” Outdoor personality Karlee Winkelman killed the 205-inch giant.
“One thing that makes Geary County so productive is the rivers,” Barnhart points out. “The Smoky Hill, Republican, Kansas and other creeks run through the region. The Flint Hills region has a lot of rolling hills and draws that don’t look like much, but some of them are 100 feet deep and give deer a place to hide.”
Another reason the region produces such exceptional deer is an abundance of oaks and acorns. “The area from Manhattan to Topeka is loaded with oaks ridges and acorns,” Barnhart says, “that provide an excellent acorn crop every year and are an important source of protein for growing mega antlers.”
Genes, too, are a critical ingredient in producing B&C quality animals and seem to be moving a lot of the local deer into the non-typical antler category.
“We’re seeing more and more non-typical bucks every year,” Barnhart says. “It’s probably about a 50-50 ratio. It seems the older deer tend to have non-typical racks and all the extra points you need to make the book. A classic 10- or 12-pointer one year will have stickers all over the next year for some reason.”
The Kansas rifle season is the first week after Thanksgiving, and in November the deer are cruising during the rut. Tall Grass Outfitters gets $3,995 for a six nights/five days rifle hunting, with room and board. Use former-client references to confirm their services.
SOUTH DAKOTA A Missouri Break
Most hunters don’t think of South Dakota as a place to harvest B&C whitetails. They’d be mistaken. Stanley, Hughes, Hyde, Jones Lyman Tripp and Gregory counties all produce deer that carry exceptional bone.
“I’m not surprised that region produced so many bucks,” says senior big-game biologist Andy Lindbloom of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “There are good deer in other areas, too. (like McPherson and Pennington counties). Overall, we have good deer densities in most units, but our objective is to increase the (deer) population using a conservative harvest. There’s a chance for trophy deer in most units considering the limited harvest.”
According to the SDGFP, Gregory County has one of the highest deer densities, and some great bucks are taken there annually. The area holds a mixture of croplands, cedar breaks, coulees and draws … just the kind of cover a trophy deer needs to survive.
A honeyhole for trophy bucks is along the Missouri River in the cedar breaks and marshes found near the river. Much of the land is property held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and stands open to hunting. Above the river, the land is generally private but provides good food resources for the deer that take shelter in the bottoms. A proven local hunting tactic is to run upriver in a boat and execute a three-man drive up the cedar breaks from a direction the bucks don’t expect danger to come from. One reason central South Dakota is such a stronghold for whitetails is the rivers. Besides the Missouri River, drainages like the Cheyenne and White rivers also provide classic whitetail habitat.
“The rut is hard on mature bucks, and they’re some of the first to succumb during a severe winter,” Lindbloom warns, but the central part of the state sees relatively mild winters and deer food is not an issue. An abundance of ground is enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, and the cattail marshes.
The South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas (online at /gfp.sd.gov) is a hunter’s guide to all South Dakota lands open to public access. Access includes federal and state-owned lands, school lands, and private land leased for public hunting access.
Far removed from the Missouri River, Hyde County still produces exceptional bucks with a little nurturing. Visit the website for Daybreak Outfitters near Highmore, and you will see some massive, thick-antlered whitetails. Three B&C bucks have been registered from Hyde County since 2013.
Jim Faulstich, owner of Daybreak Outftitters, says one of the best times to hunt the ranch for trophy deer is in the late season, if you can tolerate the weather. The habitat on the ranch is so superior to anything in the area that bucks come from miles around to winter there, he says, and growing the massive whitetails his hunters take down is pretty simple, he adds.
“Habitat and not shooting the small bucks,” he chides, and, of course, having access to great hunting land helps. Faulstich says, of the 8,000 acres on the ranch, approximately 3,000 acres are managed for wildlife. “It’s a unique area, habitat-wise, because we haven’t converted everything to farmland, and we still maintain marshes, fencerows, grassy bedding areas, food plots and shelterbelts. We highly encourage not taking any bucks under 150 inches.”
Water is always an issue for deer survival, and one more reason for the success of deer hunters who join Daybreak Outfitters. “We have several natural artesian wells that help us stay away from disease like bluetongue,” Faulstich explains, but he admits the operation lost some deer a few years ago during drought conditions.
In 2018, a six-day hunt with Daybreak Outfitters cost $4,000, plus tags/trophy fees. Former-client references can confirm their services.
MAKE A PLAN FOR 2019
The reality of deer hunting across the Great Plains means a record-book buck could show up at any time in the season, anywhere across the Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota or North Dakota. But you can up your chances for taking that book buck next season when you hunt the locations where big bucks historically are found. Get your application in, cross your fingers and if the deer hunting gods smile on you, put your taxidermist on speed dial.