Most deer hunters in the Northwest immediately think of mule deer when you mention deer hunting. But a small-but-growing number of whitetail chasers have found that there are pockets of gold in them thar hills.
Golden opportunities, that is, for big whitetail bucks.
The areas that hold good numbers of whitetails may be small in the Northwest, but where you find excellent habitat, you'll find whitetail populations that are bulging at the seams with deer, and enough big bucks to keep you interested.
Disease, drought and fires have had some influence on the deer population in the Northwest, but there are plenty of deer to go around. Learn what to look for and you will find some great hunting in these key states.
A few hunters have figured out how to bag the giant whitetails in Idaho.
Whitetails are not particularly abundant, but the average size is good and the population is experiencing steady growth — especially in the Idaho Panhandle and the agricultural lands bordering Washington.
Deer need water so that's where the whitetails are found in Big Sky Country. The Milk River region of Northwest Montana is famous for its huge herds of whitetails and P&Y buck potential.
The irrigated alfalfa fields fill up with deer, making bucks easy to pattern. But this particular area has been hit hard by diseases in recent times and falls way down on the list of top places to pursue whitetails in Montana.
While the Milk River region recovers, consider the Powder River or the Tongue River in Southeast Montana, and the three forks of the Missouri areas in the South-central part of the state.
These regions have mostly escaped significant disease outbreaks and whitetail populations are still high.
Nearly all the best whitetail hunting in Wyoming is found in the northeast corner of the state. Here, the hills and farm fields provide the habitat whitetails prefer.
There is good news and bad news about hunting here, however.
The good news is that most of the deer in this part of the state will be found on private land. Landowners see them as pests, so they are quite open to hunters seeking permission to shoot them.
The bad news: Much of the best lands are leased by outfitters. Still, if you do some legwork and knock on a few doors, you are likely to find a nice place to hunt.
Wyoming is not known for producing the outsized B&C qualifying bucks found in the Midwest, but for a nice buck and a chance to see a lot of deer almost every day, it's hard to beat the experience this state offers.
This state is a real sleeper when it comes to whitetails. Not many people have Washington state on their list, but it has been getting better and better for the last 20 years. The numbers of truly giant whitetails are not large by any means, but the opportunity to shoot a respectable buck has never been better than it is right now.
Both 2014 and 2015 were a disaster for the forest areas of Washington State as wildfires ravaged the wilderness areas. How this will affect the whitetail population in the short term is hard to determine, but for sure, the whitetails will benefit in the long term.
At this point, most of the population is centered around rivers and the cottonwood bottoms of the valleys, along with the apple orchard areas of the central and southern parts of the Evergreen state. The forest fires should not significantly affect deer in these areas.
But forest fires do something amazing for wildlife. As the canopy opens, undergrowth abounds and creates a new type of habitat — a habitat that benefits whitetails. I predict a significant growth in the state's whitetail population over the next five years due to the large areas that have burned off.
How The Ratings Work
In determining which are the best states to hunt in each region, I looked at nine factors that influence the quality and availability of deer hunting.
Of these nine categories, I felt that some factors were more important than others, so I ranked four of them (license cost, license acquisition, deer population, and intangibles/reputation) on a scale of one to three.
The other five I ranked on a scale of one to ten (harvests per hunter, harvest density, amount of public land, and the ratio of B&C and P&Y bucks in relation to the overall harvest) because I felt they would weigh more heavily in the decision-making process.
Let's take a brief look at each of these criteria.
Nonresident License Cost: These ranged from $74 for Maine to $704 (including 3 preference points) for Iowa.
Difficulty of License Acquisition: States that offer over-the-counter tags were given more points than states in which it is hard to draw a tag.
Overall Deer Population: Your chances of seeing a deer is somewhat based on this factor. Several states made moves in this category, however, most were not for the good.
Harvests Per Hunter: This is a computation of the annual success rates for deer hunters in each state. It ranged from 1.607 deer per hunter in Mississippi, to .073 in Washington.
P&Y Ratio and B&C Ratio: This is a computation of the ratio between the record book bucks taken in relation to the overall harvest for the past five seasons 2010-2014. For example, more B&C bucks have been killed in Wisconsin than in any other state, but Wisconsin also has a very high deer harvest. If you look at the number of B&C bucks as a percentage of the overall harvest, Kentucky, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa and Indiana allrank higher than Wisconsin..
Hunter Density: This is the number of deer hunters in the state in relation to the amount of land. It's a good indicator of the amount of hunting pressure you will find on public land.
Amount of Public Land: This is a ranking based on the acreage of public land in the state that is suitable whitetail habitat. This includes Federal, state and private land that is open to public hunting. While western states such as Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado offer huge volumes of public land, most of the land there is more suitable to elk and mule deer than whitetails.
Since whitetails are mostly found on private farmland along the riparian areas in these states, that was taken into consideration.
Intangibles: This is a one-to-three subjective ranking based on a gut feeling. Seems like everyone wants to hunt Iowa, that's why there are nearly four applications for every available tag most years.
But deer hunting in the western states also has an appeal because of the unique experience and the difference in scenery found there. Very few nonresident licenses are sold in the southern states, which is another indicator of the intangibles.