In Minnesota, deer hunting is like a religion, and the opening of Minnesota’s deer season is like a holiday. In some locations around the state, stores close early, kids are excused from school, and just about every café and bakery is loaded with orange-clad hunters and huntresses. Every deer hunter in the state is after the same thing: the big one. But, if you choose to bypass tradition at grandpa’s hunting shack with the rest of the crew and want to chase down a true “Booner,” where would you go and how would you go about it?
Game & Fish editors have worked with Boone & Crockett to research the top locations in Minnesota where hunters should look if they want to bag a record-class buck. When all of the info from the past 5 years was tallied up, there was no debating that there’s a stretch of the state — almost a direct line drawn from west-central to southeastern Minnesota — where the big boys are bagged. This line starts in Becker County in east-central Minnesota, extends down through Otter Tail, Douglas, Todd, Stearns and Morrison and then down through to Winona and Houston counties. Along that line, more record-class bucks have been taken than anywhere else in the state. A couple of those counties stand atop the hill and are definite places to look for the buck of a lifetime.
Otter Tail County
Standing alone at the top of the list is a sleeper county. Otter Tail is more well-known for its great fishing and abundant wetlands than its deer hunting for most… but not all. The locals and the diehards know that where there’s water and wetlands, the chance at a giant “swamp donkey” exists. In fact, they proclaim that Otter Tail County is the “Whitetail Capitol of Minnesota.” Otter Tail has 2,225 square miles full of opportunity, with 11 percent of those miles being water. The county boasts that in the land of 10,000 lakes, they are home to 10 percent of them.I reached out to people in the area, including Erik Osberg, the Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator for Otter Tail County.
“The abundance of trophy whitetail deer in Otter Tail County is no accident,” Erik said. “Many hunters practice selective harvest, allowing bucks to mature. In some circles, there is an unwritten rule that says a first-time hunter can harvest any legal deer. However, if you’ve gotten a deer before, you don’t get to shoot unless the deer has eight or more points.
“There are numerous places open to public hunting. Otter Tail County has 14,271 acres that are designated as Wildlife Management Areas, 21,400 acres of Federal Wildlife Production Areas and 2,287 acres of other public lands, including State Trust Lands. Maplewood State Park offers a special permit hunt as well.”
Maplewood State Park offers great camping opportunities, but if you’re into a little higher-end lodging, there are plenty of large towns in the county that have hotels and lodges available.
Adjacent opportunities exist in Becker County, which boasts the fourth-most Boone & Crockett bucks in Minnesota over the past 5 years.
With strict management amongst landowners, tons of private crop lands, and the 53,000-acre Camp Ripley, Morrison County is a place where big bucks can feed and grow to their full potential. The county is a modest 1,153 square miles in size but grows bucks of giant stature. Taking up a large portion of the county is farmland, but there are dotted WMAs and State Trust Lands, as well as some public county lands. Access can be tough for the public in Morrison County during gun season, so look to muzzleloader or archery seasons to go after the buck of a lifetime.
Camp Ripley offers a special lottery archery hunt that’s very strict and highly coveted by archery hunters statewide. They allot 4,000 licenses: 2,000 for each two-day season. The number of large bucks taken out of Camp Ripley over the years is no secret. Tim Krouth, the Outdoor Program Coordinator for Camp Ripley talked about how vast the military preserve is, and how the strict rules and limited permits make Camp Ripley a great place for bucks to grow.
“I think that the deer in the area know that Camp Ripley is somewhat of a safe haven, and they spend a lot of time roaming and growing there,” Krouth said. “They go out to feed if they see fit, and then come right back. That and the antler restrictions most of the local landowners have are a perfect recipe for giant bucks to reach their full potential.”
Applications and hunt information for the Ripley hunt can be found online.
If you’re going to chase that dandy on your own, camping at one of the many campgrounds in the area is an option, or check out Leblanc’s Rice Creek Hunting Preserve if you’re looking for a comfortable place to crash with all of the amenities a hunting crew could ask for, including a shooting range.
Adjacent opportunities exist in Todd County, which boasts the third-most Boone & Crockett bucks in Minnesota over the past 5 years.
With a large city like St. Cloud, and the urban sprawl around it, Stearns County doesn’t seem like a place that would hide giant deer, but it does. Stearns is 1,390 square miles. It’s a large county and is vastly made up of croplands and mixed forests. This makes for a good population of deer, and enough of everything for big bucks to slip through the cracks.
Wes Gall from Minnesota Outdoor Media is native to the area. He has hunted, guided and filmed hundreds of deer hunts in the area over the past 20 years. Primarily a bowhunter, Gall is passionate about Stearns and the surrounding counties.
“The fact that there are so many crops, such a diverse forest, numerous rivers and streams, and rolling hills leads me to believe that the area is made for deer,” Gall said.
Stearns County is loaded with lodging options, from high-class lodging in St. Cloud, to smaller mom-and-pop motels and lodges in surrounding areas. Camping areas also exist. There’s ample public land to hunt down that buck of a lifetime, and if you want, you can slide up over to Todd County, which is equally as productive when it comes to Boone & Crockett bucks.
The beautiful bluff country of southeastern Minnesota isn’t only appealing to the eyes; it’s also appealing to the senses. With the gorgeous bluffs, trickling streams and abundant wildlife, it’s only natural to be drawn to the area. The fact that it has put out the fourth-most Boone & Crockett bucks over the past 5 years isn’t exactly a deterrent either. At a modest 642 square miles, Winona County is a big buck paradise. Strict management set forth by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has set a trend that doesn’t go unnoticed. In 2009 a law which makes hunters take bucks with 4 points on one side allowed for huge growth of the younger bucks in the herd. Now, Winona County is a big-hitter when it comes to big bucks.Landowner Charles Casperson has noticed a difference since the antler point restrictions took effect.
“In my opinion, southeast Minnesota is a premier destination for trophy whitetail in the country,” Casperson said. “Being a landowner, land manager and a hunter for three decades, I can attest to a ten-fold increase in quality and better hunting experiences in general. The Minnesota DNR implemented an antler point restriction and the hunter limit of one buck. This has done wonders for the age structure of our herd. This is a go-to destination and is on-par with our neighboring Buffalo County’s reputation as a world-class hunting destination.”
While public land does exist in Winona County, finding a good spot might be tough. Whitewater State Park is vast, and if you are willing to travel hard each day, you can possibly find some unpressured deer. Otherwise, expect to see several hunters on any given day. There are several outfitters or farmers that offer daily or weekly leases. You can expect to pay $100-$500 per day for land access or guiding fees. Three- to five-day hunts will run you close to $1,000 with no guarantees. However, it might be worthwhile if you’re able to put a massive bluff country buck on your wall.
A secondary option adjacent to Winona County is Houston County, which has actually put out more B&C bucks over the last 5 years than Winona.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
Through all of my research, there were large commonalities between every county that made the list. Water was a major one. If you were to draw the line from Becker County to Houston County, you’d find a good chunk of the Mississippi River, and ample water sources in those areas without the river. A lot of folks in each county talked about how good the hunting was along the river bottoms and out-jutting creeks and streams. Another thing that really stood out was the fact that so many landowners work together to increase the quality of the deer in their area. While every county has public land, there are huge chunks of private lands. The landowners have a “gentleman’s handshake” agreement, or an unwritten rule. First-time hunters can take any deer; however, once you’ve bagged a deer, you can only take bucks with 8 points going forward — or does to help the buck-to-doe ratio of the herd.With the information in hand, you can start planning your next big buck adventure. Regardless of where you hunt, remember that there are two types of hunters: the lucky ones, and the ones who make their own luck. Hopefully this information helps you either way.
Exceptional Recorded Deer
TOP MINNESOTA B&C BUCKS
Hunter: John A. Breen
Owner: Bass Pro Shops
All-Time Category Rank: 9
Measurement: 268 5/8
Hunter: Mitchell A. Vakoch
Owner: Bass Pro Shops
All-Time Category Rank: 33