Severe weather, outbreaks of EHD, and, in some states, record harvests of both whitetails and mule deer are factors that have changed the landscape of trophy deer hunting in the Great Plains. Consider these factors when trying to pinpoint a place to take a trophy buck in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota.
If you hunt the regions with the greatest number of mule deer or whitetails, your chances may be better for taking a big buck. However, higher numbers of deer harvested may also attract increased hunter pressure.
A little extra effort in the form of researching your Great Plains hunting options this season can pay off if you get a shot at a real trophy.
Kansas consistently produces trophy bucks for both whitetails and mule deer. Lloyd Fox, big game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, explained that hunters can take one buck of either species.
Kansas' deer numbers are below the carrying capacity of the land, and some counties across the state have had both trophy mule deer and trophy whitetails taken in them.
"Kansas has very good numbers of memorable class bucks," Fox reported. "When we're forced to lower the number of deer in certain areas of the state, we provide more antlerless tags."
If Kansas had a mule deer-only permit, hunters would put more pressure on the state's mulies, Fox noted. Hunters probably would remain afield, until they each took one mule deer buck, he said.
"The same is true if we had a whitetail-only permit," Fox noted. "However, if a hunter is hunting for a mule deer and spots a very nice whitetail, then once he takes that whitetail, that's his trophy buck for the year," Fox noted.
"By using this system of one buck per hunter, we've found that our hunters are much more selective in the bucks they harvest," Fox continued. "This system allows both our whitetails and mule deer to grow to those older age classes before they're harvested."
The latest top 10 whitetails listed in the Pope & Young Record Book include four whitetails taken there — one from Reno County in 1988 (257 0/8); one from Miami County in 1994 (250 6/8); one from Pottawatomie County in 1998 (264 1/8); and one from Leavenworth County in 2004 (255 6/8). The Kansas whitetail population is scattered throughout the state, and hunters harvest trophy whitetails in various areas.
The highest numbers of trophy whitetails generally are taken in the eastern section, which has the potential to grow whitetails more than any other part of the state. There's also more hunting pressure in this area. However, according to Fox, "Kansas has had some spectacular white-tailed bucks taken close to the Colorado border."
The western third of Kansas has an abundance of CRP land, better habitat for mule deer and larger mule deer.
Top trophy regions where a hunter may take a mule deer and a whitetail are Gove and Cheyenne counties. Kansas does keep records of the top 20 mule deer and whitetails harvested in the state and does have repeat counties where nice trophies are taken.
In the last 14 years, the best mule deer have scored as follows: 247 6/8 in Lane County; 230 6/8 and 225 6/8 in Decatur County; and 230 1/8 to 184 5/8 in Finney, Graham, Greeley and Thomas counties.
The best whitetails have scored as follows: 223 0/8, 179 6/8 and 178 7/8 in Trego County; 240 2/8 and 185 0/8 in Geary County; and 180 4/8 and 241 3/8 in Rawlins County.
Several counties have scored high for taking trophy mule deer and whitetails, including: Gove County with a 183 3/8 whitetail taken and a 234 7/8 mule deer; and Cheyenne County with 190 0/8 and 180 7/8 whitetails taken and a 230 4/8 mule deer.
Nebraska has the honor of being noted in the Pope & Young Record Book with the second place whitetail of top 10 bowkills ever taken. The deer came from Hall County in 1962 and scored 279 7/8.
Nebraska's whitetail densities are heaviest in the eastern part of the state, but the EHD that hit Nebraska hard in 2012 means that the whitetail herd is still recovering from that outbreak. In some sections, only one whitetail may live per square mile, while in other places, 30 whitetails may live in a square mile. The eastern part of the state homes an average of about 10 whitetails per square mile, a lower number than most whitetail states.
To grow trophy whitetails, the bucks must have plenty of escape cover, and the hunters must be willing to allow the young bucks to survive until they reach maturity.
Kit Hams, Nebraska's big game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, reported that along Nebraska's river systems, which contain better deer habitat, more trees and more escape cover, you'll find more whitetails and more trophy bucks. Nebraska has 1,800 miles of rivers running through the state.
"Nebraska also homes sandhill rivers that don't have trees on their riverbanks," Hams said. "But the Missouri and the Platte rivers with their riverbank trees are where you'll encounter the most and the biggest whitetail bucks."
One of the largest whitetails taken in Nebraska came from the southeastern corner of the state, along the Missouri River. Another big buck was taken in central Nebraska along the Platte River.
Southeast Nebraska has numerous hills and cedar trees surrounded by farmlands. Richardson County produced a non-typical whitetail that scored 280 plus in 2009 on the B&C scoring. A typical whitetail buck was harvested in Butler County that scored 199 B&C points about the same time as the non-typical was taken.
Hams also mentioned that the best place to find a trophy mule deer in the state is the 4,000 square mile Frenchman Unit in southwestern Nebraska.
"This region dodged the brainworm and EHD losses, and we've been reducing the antlerless harvest here to enable the herd to increase, which it has," Hams noted.
The mule deer living in Frenchman Unit, which is close to Colorado, are known as plains mule deer and are smaller than the Rocky Mountain mule deer. But many bucks have been harvested here in the 150 and 160 Boone and Crockett ranges. A non-resident will have a very difficult time drawing a tag to hunt there. Even a resident hunter at best only may get a permit every other year.
Hams noted that the best deal Nebraska offers for hunting deer are the state's youth hunting permits, available for both residents and non-residents, that only cost $5 each.
"This great price gives an inexperienced hunter a chance to take a deer," he said. But a non-resident can't use this permit in the Frenchman Unit."
In the last 14 years, the best mule deer recorded in state records have scored as follows: 243 5/8 in Lincoln County; 201 7/8 and 183 4/8 in Hitchcock County; and 230 6/8 to 176 5/8 in Chase, Morrill, Blaine, Grant and Keith counties.
The best whitetails, according to the state's records, are as follows: Lancaster County with a 212 5/8, a 206 2/8 and a 197 7/8; and Douglas, Buffalo, Seward, Otoe and Gage counties with scores of 236 3/8 to 216 1/8.
Bill Jensen, a big game biologist for North Dakota's Game and Fish Department, said that none of the state's wildlife units are being managed specifically for trophy mule deer or trophy whitetails and that deer density is likely the best way to find the big bucks.
"We assume that most of our trophy deer come from the areas with the highest populations of either mule deer or whitetails. Right now the south/central portion of the state seems to have the highest density of whitetails."
North Dakota's northern and eastern sections have experienced several years of severe winters that have reduced the whitetail population.
The southwestern part of the state has been subject to EHD die-offs. In the northwestern portion of the state, the oil and gas activity has displaced whitetails.
The primary mule deer range is in the Badlands, extending along the Montana border in the western quarter of the state, with the mule deer population not extending much further west than the Badlands. The Badlands habitat is created by the Little Missouri River system. But some mule deer live in the southwestern and eastern parts of the state.
In checking the Pope & Young bowhunting records for the state, the top areas for the last 14 years are as follows:
The best mule deer have been taken by bowhunters in Billings County with scores of 194 3/8 and 178 6/8; Slope County with scores of 178 6/8 and 175 2/8; and McKenzie County with scores of 169 2/8 and 168 2/8; and other scores of 170 6/8 to 169 4/8 in Grant and Dunn counties.
The best whitetails have been harvested in Stutsman County with scores of 162 6/8 and 164 4/8; Morton County with scores of 163 0/8 and 164 4/8; and scores of 173 3/8 to 164 6/8 taken from McHenry, Golden Valley, Renville, Burleigh, Cass, Kidder, Wells, Richland and McLean counties.
The top North Dakota Boone & Crockett scores of 254 3/8 to 187 2/8 for whitetails were taken from Stanley, Pierce, Emmons and McLean counties.
Andy Lindbloom, the senior big game biologist for South Dakota's Game, Fish and Parks Department, explained that the state does not collect antler-size data. But he noted areas where hunters are finding lots of deer.
The popular theory is that higher deer density translates to a greater likelihood of locating a trophy buck, he noted.
"The Black Hills is one of our highest harvest areas," Lindbloom noted. "Last year, Brown, Edmunds and Faulk wildlife units had high harvest numbers. In the south/central section, Gregory and Tripp units had high harvests.
The highest harvest regions for mule deer were southern Perkins, eastern Meade, Haakon and east Pennington units. One of the reasons our state doesn't keep antler records is due to our not having check stations.
Our harvest data comes from post-season surveys when we contact a portion of all the hunters in each of our wildlife units."
South Dakota's whitetail population is down substantially due to high harvest rates, three substantial severe winters and severe EHD outbreaks in some sections.
South Dakota's mule deer population also was hit hard by the severe winters and heavy harvest the past few years. However, these mule deer sections are recovering better than some of the other parts of the state.
Top whitetail and mule deer harvest data can be located at www.southdakotahunting.com/record — a non-government-affiliated site.
The best mule deer have scored 203 5/8 to 170 3/8 in Walworth, Hand, Haakon, Meade and Harding counties, with Fall River County having a 197 4/8 and 189 1/8 taken. A 196 5/8, a 182 4/8 and a 171 4/8 were taken in Hughes County, and a 192 0/8 and a 185 taken in Pennington County.
The best whitetails have scored 182 7/8 and 170 1/8 taken in Lincoln County, and 172 7/8 to 171 7/8 bucks were taken in Spink, Minnehaha, and Aurora counties.
Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota all are home to big bucks. Wherever you hunt in the Great Plains this season, you should have a good chance at finding your trophy.