Big Bucks On The Great Plains
November 03, 2010
It's safe to say that if you hunt prime deer habitat in the Great Plains states this fall, you are dangerously close to a wall-hanger buck. Here's where you can find yours this season in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.
As most trophy hunters know, big bucks are where you find them. In a "hay stack" the size of the Great Plains, finding the needle can be a daunting task.
However, statistics don't lie. Big bucks abound throughout the region and 2010 should be another banner year for mule deer and white-tailed deer hunters.
More than 318 counties lay open to deer hunting in Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas, and trophy-class bucks are taken annually in all but a handful of them. In an area covering several thousand square miles -- most of it is public land open to deer hunting -- it's difficult to narrow the search for a trophy buck, especially when record-class deer may be found in nearly every county in the four-state region. It's safe to say that if you hunt prime deer habitat in the Great Plains states this fall, you are dangerously close to a wall-hanger buck.
Of course, every state has the potential to produce high-scoring deer. Over time, it's seen that big bucks can come from anywhere at any time. But, each state also has its traditional honey-holes, those areas that consistently produce trophy deer year after year.
Our goal this month is to help our readers narrow the search for that trophy of a lifetime. If you have the desire, determination and persistence to hunt as hard as you can for as long as it takes, you can expect to have one of the most enjoyable, if not productive, hunting seasons ever. We can't guarantee you a record-class buck (after all, it's called "hunting" for a reason), but we will put you within shouting distance of some of the Great Plains' top bucks.
Sunflower State hunters are still basking in the glow of concurrent "200-plus" bucks taken by gun and bow during the last few years. The state's population of mule deer is stable, with plenty of big bucks available in the usual deer management units (DMUs) in the western part of the state.
Traditional hotspots for great deer hunting -- such as DMUs 1, 2, 3 and 17 -- continue to provide excellent opportunities for big bucks. Except for DMUs 4 and 18, this means sportsmen may target the entire western half of the state. Toss in DMUs 8 and 14 in the east-central region and you have enough good hunting country to last a dozen lifetimes.
For trophy whitetails, Kansas biologists recommend DMUs 5, 7, 8, 14 and 16 -- generally, the mid-section of the state. Between recent trophy-deer applications submitted by hunters and gun and bow entries over the years, it's obvious Kansas is not lacking in hotspots for trophy bucks.
In general, the eastern part of North Dakota is best for whitetails, while the western regions are your best bet for king-sized mulies. The best whitetail hunting will be found in units 2B, 2C, 2F1, and 2F2, while the bigger mulies will be found in units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Hunters have their choice of habitats to hunt. Those who prefer the open prairie country can focus on river corridors where deer find refuge during the day after roaming the grasslands at night in search of food. These dense, wooded bottoms provide plenty of opportunities for close-range deer hunting, but it's not easy. Your trophy buck could show up 40 yards away and still be too far away for a clean shot.
DMU 10 in the northeast corner of the state is a great place to find this kind of hunting. DMUs 5, 7, 8, 14 and 16 offer tall-grass hunting opportunities in cover that, at first glance, seems empty and featureless. However, biologists call this "shrub and grassland" habitat, ideal cover for big bucks looking to avoid hunters. These lone trophies will bed on a high spot overlooking miles of open cover where they can spot and evade hunters who won't even know they are there.
Hunters who prefer to push and shove their deer into the open will enjoy the dense plum thickets that provide cover in the bottoms and draws throughout the north-central region. This is tough country to hunt, but hunters with patience can pick an advantageous stand site and wait for the buck of a lifetime to enter or leave the thickets at dawn and dusk. Don't be misled by small patches of thick cover. Bedded deer can be difficult to see even with the best of optics. Deer will get up and move around throughout the day, sometimes moving just a few yards to change vantage points or just to get a little more sun.
For this reason, hunters should plan to stay out all day. Sometimes an unseen big buck will get up, walk a few feet and bed down again. Blink and you'll miss it! One season I stayed put while the rest of my group headed for the nearest diner for lunch. As I fired up my butane stove for a second cup of hot tea, a nice buck crossed a small opening at the top of the draw, pausing just long enough for me to put a 180-grain Power Point through his heart. I finished my tea and then walked up the draw to tag the big 10-pointer, just in time for my friends to help me drag him out!
For trophy whitetails, Kansas biologists recommend DMUs 5, 7, 8, 14 and 16 -- generally, the mid-section of the state. Between recent trophy-deer applications submitted by hunters and gun and bow entries over the years, it's obvious Kansas is not lacking in hotspots for trophy bucks. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
For odds-on trophy hunting for out-sized whitetails and mulies (a rare opportunity for any hunter), Nebraska's Sandhills and Pine Ridge units are the place to be again this year. State biologists are also enthusiastic about the options for either-species hunters in the Upper Platte Unit, also in the northwest corner of the state. For whitetails the Frenchman, Plains, Republican and Upper Platte units continue to be highly recommended by state experts.
The units along the Missouri River also provide great trophy-hunting opportunities, but biologists are concerned about total d
eer numbers in this region and encourage hunters to take antlerless deer as well. Herd balance is critical to trophy antler production. If deer numbers get too high in this region, the quality of trophy bucks is likely to decline as a result. So far, hunters are doing their part, and the deer population has a good buck-to-doe ratio.
Biologists are also excited about the fact that hunters are becoming more selective about the bucks they shoot. In recent years, some 70 percent of the bucks taken by hunters were more than 2 1/2 years old. This is significant news for hunters planning to hunt Nebraska in 2010 and beyond. Knowing that high numbers of young bucks are being allowed to live into their third or fourth year means there will be more bigger bucks to choose from as time goes on. The odds of running into a deer in its seventh or even eighth year, a true bruiser, increase every time a younger buck is allowed to go and grow.
Other good areas to focus on include the Wahoo, Blue Northwest and Blue Southeast units, where numbers of trophy-class bucks have been increasing in recent years.
Once again this year, Harding and Perkins counties are the places to be for big bucks. The West River region in the northwest corner of the state is highly recommended, and there is some good hunting to be had in the northeast region, as well. State biologists claim that successful reductions of deer numbers in that part of the state has brought the buck-to-doe ratio to 1-to-1 in many areas, particularly Marshall, Day, Brown and Roberts counties.
Though there are rumors of habitat changes due to the increased production of corn in the region, most farms still hold substantial acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave more acres in grass and brush. This is good news for hunters, at least through 2010, because deer have learned how to utilize the overgrown fields for bedding and escape cover. As long as hunters continue to do their part by shooting more antlerless deer and utilizing CRP lands, they should have no trouble finding above-average bucks '¦ if they are willing to pass on smaller antlered deer.
Recent years punctuated by long winters and heavy snowfall have not had much of an impact on South Dakota's deer herd. There may be areas where winter mortality has affected the local herd, but in most cases only the does and yearling deer are affected. Big bucks manage to survive even the most horrendous winter conditions if they go into the season healthy and in good physical condition.
Although North Dakota wildlife biologists have not yet started to manage the state's deer herd for trophy production, there are plenty of big bucks roaming the state's best habitat. Although a lack of state-sanctioned record-keeping makes it difficult to track the state's "big buck" areas, the deer herd is large and healthy, which usually means plenty of older bucks on hand for hunters who have the persistence and tenacity to pursue the monarchs.
In general, the eastern part of the state is best for whitetails, while the western regions are your best bet for king-sized mulies. The best whitetail hunting will be found in units 2B, 2C, 2F1, and 2F2, while the bigger mulies will be found in units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F.
Biologist reports indicated that while there may have been some winter mortality in certain areas of the state, most of the deer herd was unaffected. Individual storms can have an impact on localized deer populations, but most of the worst weather is confined to the upper third of the state.
Overall, Great Plains trophy-deer hunters have much to look forward to this season. Good bucks exist in all areas of the region. With a wallhanger in mind, hunters who put in the time and effort should be able to fulfill their dreams over the course of the region's long bow and gun seasons.
A GREAT PLAINS
The best way to ensure a productive Great Plains trophy deer hunt is to spend time getting to know ranchers and landowners prior to the season. While most ranchers do allow hunting when politely asked by visiting hunters, there is certainly more to it than just having a rancher say, "Go ahead and hunt."
Spend some time with the landowner. Let him get an idea of what you are looking for and what you are made of. Are you a serious hunter or just another gate-crasher? Most ranchers are good judges of character, and there are benefits to impressing the guy with the hammer and roll of fence wire in his hand. These folks know every inch of their property and can save visiting hunters uncounted hours of fruitless scouting.
For example, on one (rather poorly) guided hunt a few years ago, my guide left me with a rancher while he went off to town to conduct some business. I got to talking with the rancher, who seemed impressed that I had not shot at a deer in 10 days. I told him I was looking for a particular kind of buck. We talked for quite a while over cups of coffee I brewed with my butane stove. When he realized I was not simply meat hunting, the rancher loaded me on his 4-wheeler and took me to a part of the ranch he hadn't mentioned to the guide. By the time my "professional" guide returned from town, the rancher and I had rousted a 200-class mulie from a secluded draw. On our way out we saw even bigger bucks in the distance that were tending does!
The point is simple: Visit with some landowners and get to know them. Don't just get permission to hunt and then run off and start chasing deer. Give the landowner time to get to know you. Be honest, courteous and polite and you may find yourself hunting a honey-hole that you would never have found in a season of scouting on your own