Best Big Buck States for 2014: The Great Plains
October 31, 2014
Trophy deer are never easy.
They do not make many mistakes. If they did, they wouldn't make it to trophy status.
When there are a lot of deer, wise bucks might slip up just because there's more competition for available does. They may have to range farther to find does that are ready to breed and risk exposing themselves to hunters. The urge to procreate is about the only chink in a big buck's armor.
Other times they are ultra cautious, wary and usually nocturnal. They move from secluded sanctuaries when the sun has set, and they're back before the sun rises in the morning. When the numbers of trophy bucks are low, the chances of catching one making a mistake decline exponentially.
Hunters in the Great Plains are not going to see the number of trophy bucks that they have in past years. In fact, there may be fewer trophy bucks around than there has been in more than a decade.
Whitetails have been decimated by EHD and their trophy potential hindered by drought, especially in Kansas and Nebraska.
In places like North and South Dakota, if the drought and EHD didn't get them Old Man Winter did. Both states have endured severe winters across much of their prime deer range. Old, trophy bucks are often the first to succumb to harsh winter conditions going into the winter rundown, undernourished and exhausted by the rut.
Kansas continues to be one of the best locations in the country to ambush a trophy whitetail, in spite of the effects of drought and EHD the last few years. The number of deer and trophy bucks are down though.
Statistics show that a disproportionate number of trophy whitetails are taken in the eastern half of the state. Whitetails entered with Boone and Crockett for the 2013 calendar year from Kansas far outweigh the numbers entered in any other state. In fact, the numbers would eclipse all the other Great Plains states combined.
But B&C records may not give a true indication of trophy white-tailed deer abundance in the state. Like much of the Midwest, Kansas archers have a better chance of waylaying a trophy buck than gun hunters do.
Archery season takes place during the rut, and hunters are much more likely to encounter trophy deer then than during the firearm season after deer have been hunted for several months and move less during the post-rut period.
"Top trophy deer frequently come from units with relatively low to medium deer densities by Kansas standards," said Dr. Lloyd Fox, big game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
"Our highest density units are DMUs 5, 12, and 13. The units that produce the largest trophies are 9 and 10, and the units that produce the highest density of deer that could be entered in B&C or P&Y are DMU 14 and 16. Based on what I've seen recently, I still like DMU 5 and 15 as places hunters might try. DMU 6 and 7 were listed last year because they were west of the area where EHD hit in 2012."
The situation with mule deer is different, Fox noted. "DMU 1, 2 and 3 have both the highest density and the highest potential to produce a trophy deer," he said.
With mule deer trophies in Kansas the key is rough land, few roads and limited hunters, Fox noted.
"Kansas is not a trophy mule deer state," he said. "We have few mule deer. There are too many roads, and mule deer in our habitats are too vulnerable."
Fox noted that Kansas maintains mule deer because of limited entry for permits.
"Many of our permits that let the hunter take a mule deer are to landowners," he said. "We also allow entry for mule deer hunters if the hunters are willing to restrict their activities to specific equipment and or units."
Fox noted that the bottom line for Kansas is and always has been that anything can happen anywhere.
"We do not have an area with low soil fertility, poor habitat and over crowded deer populations," Fox said, noting that these are places you would expect smaller deer and few trophy deer.
"DMU 12 comes the closest to that, but still has some nice bucks being taken every year. DMU 12 is our area of cross-timbers, similar to the habitat in Oklahoma and Texas," Fox said, adding that the area has shallow soils on the hillsides, but rich soils in the bottoms. Those rich soils, he said, are frequently planted with soybeans.
"That's great for deer, but a lightning rod for deer damage complaints, especially during dry years," Fox said. "It is frequently our conflict area, especially where one neighbor is trying to farm soybeans and his neighbor is leasing deer hunting. We produce some good trophies in DMU 12 because of the deer age structure."
Trophy deer could grow anywhere in Kansas, Fox noted. Local hunting intensity could also keep deer populations from expressing their potential, he said.
"That is one reason to discourage concentration of hunters," Fox noted.
"When we concentrate hunters, there will be a portion of those hunters who will settle for smaller and smaller bucks through the years to avoid a season where they did not take a buck."
Fox noted that deer have relatively small home ranges, and mature bucks during the post-rut period can settle into a small area and become nocturnal, making them less vulnerable to hunters.
As a result, the hunting pressure, especially the archery hunting pressure, in an area during the previous two or three years has a greater influence on number of trophy class deer than would, for example, the county or DMU.
For more information on deer hunting in Kansas visit the KDWPT at http://kdwpt.state.ks.us.
Bryan Clines of TDT Outfitters (308-882-1379) in southwest Nebraska is lucky. His property is in a location where you might have a good chance of shooting a trophy-class buck in Nebraska if you already have a tag.
"In my area, the mule deer are in pretty good shape," said Clines. "There are some 150-to-170-inches bucks. EHD hasn't bothered the mule deer."
Every unit had declines, stated Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Big Game Specialist Kit Hams.
"Frenchman had the least decline of any unit for whitetail or mule deer and is probably the best unit for either species," Hams said. "However, mule deer permits are restricted and access is difficult to get."
Hams noted that hunters who want to hunt deer in Nebraska should scout the area first or ask a landowner about the status of the deer herd and about hunter success and habitat changes from the previous two years.
Units in Nebraska with the highest ratio of 2 and a half-year-old bucks in the harvest include the Sandhills (91 percent MD, 91 percent WT), Frenchman (90 percent MD, 84 percent WT), Keya Paha (86 percent MD, 86 percent WT), and Upper Platte (83 percent MD, 87 percent WT).
Justin Simmons typically produces some giant mule deer and trophy whitetails for the hunters that visit his Spring Meadows Ranch (www.huntsandhills.com; (308) 360-0545) in north-central Nebraska.
Thick-beamed mule deer pushing 30 inches and 180 to 200 inches are not uncommon, and whitetails that score in excess of 160 inches are typical. But last season may have been a true indicator of what three years of drought and a severe bout of EHD can do.
"We took one good mulie last year, and that was a freak with nine on one side and 10 points on the other," said Simmons. "Other than that, we didn't shoot any good mule deer. We had about 100 whitetails on the ranch at the beginning of summer, and about 20 of those were shooters. By the end of the summer, we probably had 10 whitetails left, and none of them were trophy bucks."
Simmons works hard a managing the deer herd, taking a limited number of trophy bucks from the property each season. Supplemental feeding ensures bucks have ample food and the nutrients it takes to grow impressive headgear.
Mule deer have fared better in recent years in Nebraska because they spend much of their time in the hills drinking from windmills. Whitetails tend to frequent the bottoms where they are more likely to encounter the infectious midge in stagnate water that facilitates EHD.
For more information on deer hunting in Nebraska consult the Nebraska Big Game Hunting Guide, which is available online at www.outdoornebraska.gov.
"Our deer numbers are way down," Bruce Stillings, big game supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "We had some very severe winters in 2008-2010 that were hard on the deer herd. The winter of 2012 was another rough one too.
Trophy bucks run down by the rigors of the rut are some of the first to die during severe winters. Add to that the drought and EHD and it's hard to be very positive about trophy deer in North Dakota."
Units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E, and 4F remain best units for mule deer, and the only units at or above objective for white-tailed deer are 3F1, 3F2, and 4F, Stillings noted.
It would seem logical that the units with the highest deer numbers would also be the most likely to produce a trophy deer or two.
North Dakota counties that produced multiple Pope & Young entries in 2013 included McKenzie, with one typical mule deer, one typical whitetail and one typical whitetail in velvet. McLean County gave up two trophy typical whitetails as did Ransom and McHenry counties. The largest North Dakota buck entered with Pope & Young from last season was a non-typical mule deer taken in Slope County that scored 176.25.
For additional information, please visit www.gf.nd.gov.
Like North Dakota, South Dakota has endured some horrendous winters in recent years that have impacted deer numbers in the state, especially the number of trophy bucks.
Northeast South Dakota has been especially hard hit and hunters looking for a trophy whitetail would be wise to head to the central and western parts of the state for wall-hanger bucks.
"White-tailed deer densities remain especially strong in the south-central units," said South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Senior Big Game Biologist Andy Lindbloom.
He noted that hunters can expect to see fewer good bucks in the southeast part of the state because of the cumulative effects of EHD on whitetails there. Reduced license numbers in many parts of the state may make it more difficult for hunters to get tags. Lindbloom said a stronghold for mule deer is along the Cheyenne River.
Both whitetail buck and doe harvest estimates decreased from 2012 by 4,087 and 8,507 respectively. Mule deer buck and doe harvest decreased from 2012 by 426 and 849 respectively. Mule deer made up approximately 12 percent of the total harvest. The 2013 overall statewide harvest success decreased significantly to 35 percent from 43 percent in 2012.
South Dakota counties with multiple entries in the Pope & Young record books last season include two typical whitetail bucks from Spink County and a non-typical and typical whitetail buck from Union County. The biggest South Dakota buck entered with Pope & Young last season was a giant non-typical whitetail that scored 196.125 taken in Clay County.
For more information on deer in South Dakota, contact the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks at www.gfp.sd.gov.
Hunters interested in tagging a trophy buck in the Great Plains this year have their work cut out for them. The only remedy is to scout, hunt hard and hunt long. A good dose of luck wouldn't hurt either.