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Chasing Velvet Bucks in the Midwest

These three states offer a solid shot at bagging a velvet buck. Plan now to get it done this season.

Chasing Velvet Bucks in the Midwest

A velvet-racked whitetail is one of hunting's rarest trophies. However, the window for bucks in velvet is a short one, usually only lasting the 
first couple weeks of September. (Shutterstock image)

This article on deer hunting was featured in the Midwest edition of August's Game & Fish Magazine. Find out how to subscribe

He's one of the largest true velvet 8-pointers ever to live. His heavy mass, long beams, towering tines and monstrous spread were enough to drop the jaws of even the most veteran bowhunter among us. This Kentucky buck was the stuff of legend, and that's no stretch.

I'd known about him since the 2017 season; he showed up a couple weeks after I filled my tag. But in 2018, I was fully dedicated to either arrowing this deer or eating tag soup.

Deer season arrived, and after waiting for the right conditions I finally got my chance. Still unsure exactly what the buck was doing, I hunted from an observation stand. I saw him that afternoon but didn't get close enough for a shot.


The next afternoon, with newfound scouting knowledge in hand, I moved in closer and made my final stand. The deer repeated its pattern, and I arrowed the buck at 25 yards. Today, he's a top-five true velvet 8-pointer and is what velvet dreams are made of. That can be you, too. While there's no guarantee you'll tag a record-class deer, you just might have the velvet hunt of a lifetime in one of three Midwestern states.

KENTUCKY

Famous for its velvet whitetails, the Bluegrass State is one of the best in the country for those pursuing a fuzzy rack. The only downside is a somewhat low availability of public land.

  • The Basics: Kentucky's compound bow season begins the first full weekend in September (the crossbow season doesn't start until the 17th). Most years, this makes it a great place to capitalize on velvet bucks. Out-of-state deer hunters will need an over-the-counter non-resident hunting license ($150) and deer permit ($185), which is good for four deer, one of which may be antlered.
  • Target Areas: The best counties for top-end bucks lie in the western third of Kentucky, including those that border the Ohio River. Breckinridge, Butler, Christian, Daviess, Edmonson, Grayson, Hancock, Hardin, Hart, Henderson, Hopkins, Logan, Muhlenberg, Ohio, and Todd are great counties to focus on. Bullitt, Henry, Jefferson, Oldham and Shelby are good, too. Hunting outfitters are in great supply, and there are some decent public land options, too.

Those hunting public land should generally cast a broader net and consider various places all throughout the state. Thinking of hunting something a little smaller? In western Kentucky, Ballard and Peabody WMAs are some excellent spots to consider. The Pennyrile State Forest is good as well. In central Kentucky, Rough River Lake WMA and Fort Knox are solid contenders. In eastern Kentucky, Daniel Boone National Forest offers an abundance of opportunities.


NEBRASKA

Nebraska is another excellent option for velvet deer, and the hunting pressure is typically lower than in Kentucky. This is especially true for certain areas where there is some good public ground to be found.

  • The Basics: Bow season opens September 1. Archery permits ($37 for residents/$285 for nonresidents) can be purchased over the counter (started July 25). Hunters will also need a Habitat Stamp ($25).
  • Target Areas: In terms of potential hotspots, eastern Nebraska is the go-to region of the state. Cass, Cedar, Dodge, Douglas, Gage, Jefferson, Johnson, Lancaster, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Sarpy, Saunders and Washington counties are among the best. Farther west, Holt, Furnas, Keya Paha and Lincoln are good, too.

Unfortunately, the state is more than 97 percent privately owned, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC). Depending on where you want to hunt, and your expectations, that alone might push you toward an outfitter. That said, don't overlook the Open Fields and Waters (OFW) program, which offers public access to private lands totaling more than 370,000 acres. The Passing Along the Heritage Program (PATH) is good, too. Wildlife management areas, Platte River Recreation Access and other programs offer entry as well. Furthermore, the NGPC works with Pheasants Forever, Nebraska Environmental Trust, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nebraksa’s Natural Resource Districts and other organizations to increase public opportunity.




NORTH DAKOTA

Perhaps the most overlooked and underrated velvet buck destination in the region is North Dakota, which has an abundance of public land. You'll probably have a better chance of gaining permission to hunt private land here, too.

  • The Basics: The tentative start date for North Dakota's archery season is September 2nd. Here, any-deer bow licenses, which are good for whitetails or mule deer, are issued in a lottery system. Any-whitetail-deer bow licenses, on the other hand, are good for antlered or antlerless whitetails and can be purchased online, at the Game and Fish Department's Bismarck office or at participating license vendors. You can buy only one regular deer archery license per year. While the total deer population is largely unknown, most hunters feel that the deer-to-hunter ratio is good.
  • Target Areas: Not a lot of top-end whitetails come from North Dakota, but it cranks out many Pope and Young bucks. That said, those looking for high-scoring deer might consider west-central counties and the eastern quarter of the state. These regions are where the bulk of trophy bucks are taken. Select western counties produce solid numbers, too. Drilling down on specific areas, Burleigh, McHenry, McKenzie, McLean, Mountrail, Ward and Williams counties are historically among the best.

Furthermore, public-land deer hunters should consider the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) Program, which offers land access to hunters. The Sheyenne National Grassland can be good, too, and don't forget about Army Corps of Engineers ground that’s open to deer hunting.

Altogether, there are more than 2 million acres of open-access ground throughout the state. And while there aren't many whitetail outfitters, it's possible to find a few fair-chase operations. Do your homework to choose an outfitter that's right for you.

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VELVET TACTICS

Once you've chosen your destination, it's time to drill down on a game plan. Whether it's a private- or public-land hunt, it's important to pull together a good scouting plan. This is a multi-phase process for DIY deer hunts.

The first phase happens at home by e-scouting the property (or properties) of interest. Pinpoint likely hotspots and cross off obvious areas to avoid.

The second phase involves an initial scouting trip well before the hunt. I prefer to do this about two months beforehand, but three or four weeks works, too. Regardless, go to the hunt area and walk the spots that pique the most interest. These should include early-season bedding areas, which are often located in cooler locations. Many times, these are places that receive less direct sunlight, such as north-facing slopes. Check out low-lying areas near creeks, streams, rivers, lakes and other waterways, too. Early-season beds tend to be well-shaded areas that produce moderate wind flow.

You should also know where to find good food sources. Crops, such as alfalfa, milo (sorghum) and soybeans are great destination food sources. Keep an eye out for natural food sources, too, including honeysuckle, apples, pears, persimmons, plums, chestnuts, oaks and warm-season browse. Also, don't forget about water, especially if it isn't in great supply. Deer will focus on it. If water is isolated, consider those areas for hanging trail cameras and treestands.

If regulations allow it, post trail cameras in areas of interest as you find them. If necessary, make a mock scrape (depending on deer scent laws) to lure deer in front of cameras. Let these cams soak until you return to hunt.

The third phase comes later in the summer, just prior to the hunt. If your vacation time allows, get there about three days before the hunt begins, do one last camera check and drill down on specific target bucks.

Then, if possible, spend time glassing from afar in the locations you're most excited to explore. Observe where deer emerge. Consider where they come from and where they go. Then, think about where you'll make your stand. Think about the best entry and exit routes to reduce odds of bumping deer along the walks in and out.

Complete your scouting efforts by finalizing the plan, then prep your gear. Get ready for a hang-and-hunt mission. Pack everything up nice and tight so you can walk in quietly without gear clanging around or catching on foliage. Everything will be in place for your dream velvet hunt. Finally, visualize success as you slowly and carefully ease into position for that first sit of the trip.

ADD-ON ADVENTURES

Things to do if you tag out early.

If you're hunting with an outfitter, chances are you don’t need lodging. But if you plan to hunt public land on your own, you’ll likely choose to bring a camper or tent or maybe even rough it in your truck. I’ve done all three. And if you save money on accommodations, it frees up some budget to do other things. Fortunately, whether before or after the hunt, there are many attractions in Kentucky, Nebraska and North Dakota.

  • KENTUCKY: Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park offers a rare look at the longest cave system in the world. Thirty minutes west of there is the famous Corvette Museum. In northern Kentucky, consider seeing Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Horse Park and Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.
  • NEBRASKA: Chimney Rock Museum and Scotts Bluff National Monument are excellent natural places to visit. The Fort Robinson State Park (which allows some hunting) and the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari are interesting places to see, too.
  • NORTH DAKOTA: If hunting Roughrider Country, a visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park should be considered compulsory. The North Dakota Heritage Center and Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site are popular tourist attractions, too.

BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS

Here are some early velvet options for those looking to travel outside the region.

Already hunted the states highlighted in this story? Try another region. There are eight other states that offer quality velvet hunts. In the Southeast, both South Carolina and Tennessee have seasons that begin in late August. In the Northeast, Delaware offers an excellent early-September velvet window, and Maryland, which opens several days later, provides options, too. In the West, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming have opening dates in early September that provide at least a week of solid velvet hunting, and perhaps longer. Finally, don’t forget about Canadian provinces, including Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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