The Great Plains' 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Big bucks can pop up virtually anywhere in our region, but some spots do account for more trophies than do others. Here's a detailed look at the best places for you to score on a wallhanger this season. (November 2008)

Big bucks -- the deer of hunters' lifetimes -- roam all four of the Great Plains states. Doing whatever they can to encourage the kind of annual harvest that keeps deer numbers in line with available habitat, biologists in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas continue to manage their respective state's herds with as much focus is as possible on carrying capacity.

Throughout the region, that inevitably means that mature bucks are available to hunters willing to put in the time it takes to earn an encounter with one of those big boys. That's what this story is all about.

Last month, we looked at the areas in each state where hunters should look if their main interest is venison for the freezer. This time around, we're changing the approach to cover those areas in each state that appear to offer hunters a really good chance at getting a shot at a mature buck with large antlers.

Before getting into the state-by-state look, it's important to note that harsh weather hasn't been much of a factor. By and large, the Great Plains enjoyed another relatively mild winter that kept mortality from getting out of control. For the most part, nothing man can do will affect that. We have Mother Nature to thank for leaving Great Plains deer herds in good shape entering the 2008 season.

No doubt the weather has cooled where you live. As you read this, bucks are rubbing and scraping, at the very least beginning to feel the annual instinctive urge to mate. It's the most exciting time to hunt any deer season, and it's the time for big bucks to become most susceptible. All you have to do to get lucky is be out there.

If you've read these previews over the past few years and paid attention to the accompanying graphics, you'll see that North Dakota's has changed very little. And there's a good reason for that.

"We don't really have much information on mature bucks around the state because we don't manage for trophies," said biologist Bill Jensen. "We strictly manage for recreational hunting opportunities, not for trophy bucks.

"We know, though, that when you have more deer and healthy deer populations, you're going to have a higher number of mature bucks throughout their range. We believe that's the case in North Dakota, and we know that hunters are going to have encounters with nice bucks as the season unfolds."

What Jensen didn't mention when we talked specifically about big-buck opportunities is the fact that the state's overall approach to management inherently works toward creating more chances for hunters to see mature bucks. He and the rest of the state's wildlife managers work very hard at controlling population numbers. They've even implemented special early antlerless deer seasons in areas such as the northeast corner of the state, where populations are higher than they should be.

Reducing antlerless numbers in any deer herd improves the buck-to-doe ratio. It also can reduce the pressure on bucks as hunters fill antlerless tags to get those numbers down and, of course, to get venison in their freezers. All of this helps bucks stay alive longer, so they grow older and improve the age structure of the herds.

In North Dakota this season, hunters should be looking at "the usual suspects" when it comes to units in which an encounter with mature deer can happen. As you might expect, the eastern edge of the state will be best for whitetails, while the west-central and southwestern edges are the good bets for mule deer.

Whitetail hunters should be looking at management units 2F1, 2F2, 2G, 2B and 2C. In that pretty significant chunk of eastern North Dakota, the mature bucks continue to do well.

For mulies, look at management units 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F. Maybe more than any other state in the Great Plains, North Dakota's best mature-buck units are conventionally thought of as good, and so are easy to pinpoint.

No matter where you go, the hunting's definitely interesting. As Jensen noted, North Dakota is the least forested state in the lower 48. Hunters who find good cover in the units mentioned are likely to encounter mature bucks, especially during the rut. Areas of good cover funneling into feed-field or CRP acreage providing good escape cover should prove very effective ambush sites.

Jensen stated that deer numbers are highest in the northeast and southwest, so it stands to reason that mature bucks will be found in the mix. The season this year should be another good one here on the northern edge of the Great Plains.

Just south of North Dakota's prime mule deer country you'll find South Dakota's hotbed for big mulies; some big whitetails are found out there too. As for the latter, however, biologist Ted Benzon's comment about the East River management units is telling.

"On average," he said, "50 percent of the antlered bucks in the East River deer populations are 2 years old or older. We've been hitting the does so hard there, we truly are getting the buck-to-doe ratio close to 1:1."

That statistical threshold is deer-management nirvana. Combine it with an age structure that supports good numbers of bucks at least 2 years old, and the mix is great for big-deer hunters.

As a result, Benzon and his coworkers are seeing does that have become very efficient reproducers. A combination of factors affects that, but basically, aggressive doe harvest generally improves the overall health of any deer herd, as fewer animals are competing for food. The remaining deer in general get more to eat, and so their health improves -- and healthy does become fawn machines.

"We are seeing a number of fawns being bred in the East River region because of the lower buck-to-doe ratios," Benzon said. "And the mature does are all having twins."

Gregory is the only East River county that Benzon mentioned as a good destination for big whitetails, but Edmunds, Brown and Spink also have been good in the past -- and are included here again for your reference.

In the West River region, look to Meade, White, Harding, Perkins and Butte, with Harding and Perkins being especially good for big mule deer, too. Benzon was excited as he talked about South Dakota's mule deer population. "We are running an average of 90 to 100 mule deer fawns per 100 does, which is one of the highest ratios in the lower 48," he said. "Habitat plays a role in that. Overall, 2

008 looks like it's going to be another good season for us."

License numbers have gone up slightly in the West River region, too, with roughly 1,000 more available for 2008. Benzon noted that most of these are "double" licenses that provide hunters with one any-deer tag and one antlerless tag.

"We see harvest numbers that reflect about 70 percent of the any-deer tags being filled, and about 30 percent of the antlerless tags being filled," he said. "Our message to hunters is simple. We have deer and we have tags . . . and we want you to fill the antlerless tags. Shoot the does and make some venison jerky!"

It's a familiar message, really, and one that hunters are hearing more and more across the Great Plains -- and especially throughout the whitetail range in this country. Biologists are doing their best to bring deer populations into balance, and hunters play a critical role in that.

You're going to see mature bucks in South Dakota this season. To keep them available in future years -- and to have a chance at increasing their numbers -- it's important to heed Benzon's advice and take some does.

Biologist Kit Hams pointed to a couple of very impressive numbers as he discussed the current potential for finding big bucks in the Cornhusker State.

"Statewide, 76 percent of our mule deer bucks are 2 or older," he said. "And 64 percent of our whitetail bucks are 2 or older. In many ways, as these percentages reflect, our deer herds have never been better."

And, as is the case in the other Great Plains states, you're going to see familiar management units in the Nebraska mix again this season.

For mule deer, look at the Sandhills, Upper Platte and Pine Ridge management units. Plains was included last year, but Hams noted it as a good whitetail spot this season, which would seem to suggest that though it's only listed here for whitetails, hunters might encounter a nice buck of either species in that unit.

The other whitetail units that Hams named for this season include Frenchman and Republican, along with Sandhills and Pine Ridge. Apparently, a whole lot of western Nebraska is shaping up to offer some outstanding big-buck hunting this season.

North Dakota is the least forested state in the lower 48. Hunters who find good cover are likely to encounter mature bucks, especially during the rut.

When he talked about the resource in general, Hams didn't sound too different from his counterparts in the Great Plains region -- and the rest of the country, for that matter. He talked about the need for hunters to use bonus tags to harvest antlerless deer.

He also commented on one particular element of hunting in general that often goes unmentioned in stories like this. "Hunters really need to help landowners," Hams emphasized. "That is where the need to fill antlerless tags comes in. When you get in touch with landowners about the upcoming season, don't just ask them if and where they are seeing big bucks. Ask them about the overall population, and about the need to harvest does this season.

"Our consistent message to hunters and landowners alike is that it's up to them to manage the deer in their area. We can and do work hard to set harvest guidelines and seasons to facilitate that, but it's up to hunters to harvest the deer. Working with landowners toward that end is very important, and it will help us to keep the percentages of older bucks as high as or higher than they are heading into this season."

If you've ever watched the hunting shows on TV, you've at least virtually visited Kansas' Deer Management Unit No. 16. It's the "star" of hunting TV when the focus is on the Sunflower State, and that's OK. It's a good unit.

But it's also misleading.

Heading into the 2008 seasons, Kansas' No. 1 non-typical whitetail taken with a modern firearm remains the old, old buck that Joseph Waters took in 1987 -- not much more than the length of a football field from the Topeka city limits in Shawnee County. Others on the firearms non-typical list came from Leavenworth County in the northeast, and Republic County in north-central Kansas.

Biologist Lloyd Fox isn't really steering hunters away from Unit 16 -- but he's doing his best to make sure that they know about other really good units as the 2008 season unfolds. His top three units might surprise you.

"Unit 8 is always really good when it comes to big, mature deer," he said. "We know that Unit 14 has a lot of big deer, too. And Unit 5 in the Sand Hills region, along the Arkansas River -- it's simply outstanding."

Yes, of course, he mentioned Unit 16. "It's getting all the play in the media, and it's still good," Fox said. "Unit 12 also is worth a look because it has some great deer habitat. There's nothing wrong with Unit 18, either."

He also mentioned Unit 10, but noted that it historically draws a lot of hunters. A lot of deer just happen to be there, many of them mature bucks.

As for big Kansas mule deer, hunters will find management units nos. 1, 2, 3 and 17 to be top spots. Fox, however, is cautious in discussing these animals. "Talking about mule deer hunting in Kansas is problematic, because the population is small, and it's coveted," he said, noting that even residents must enter a permit drawing. "There definitely are more people interested in hunting our mule deer than we can provide permits to."

Kansas has actually reduced antlerless mule deer opportunities over the past couple of seasons, so taking a mature Kansas mule deer is now probably the most difficult of all big-deer hunts in the Great Plains region. It's doable -- but it it's not easy.

This season, all hunters, not only in the Great Plains but also all around the country, have a new issue to take into account: Gasoline and diesel fuel cost more now than anyone expected they would this time last year, which is making it increasingly difficult for the average hunter to plan and complete a long trip to hunt deer.

The maps accompanying this story indicate that many of the spots that biologists have selected as your best bets for a trophy encounter aren't necessarily all that close to home. Fortunately, you can find mature bucks near your back porch.

Yes, you may have to work harder -- scout more, for example, and spend time cultivating relationships with landowners -- but the bottom line is that deer populations throughout the Great Plains offer you the chance to encounter mature bucks just about anywhere you hunt.

If you're reading this and saying to yourself, "There aren't any big bucks where I live," then maybe you can start doing something about it this season. Harvest does. Let young bucks walk. Do what you can to improve the overall health of the deer herd where

you live -- just as Nebraska's Kit Hams suggested.

And if you do have a chance to hunt one of these great management units for a truly big whitetail or mule deer this season, make the most of the opportunity. Stay on stand all day, especially around the rut. Big deer can and will move all day when their necks are swollen and their bloodstreams are coursing hormones to ever cell in their magnificent bodies.

You'll definitely spend a lot of money on gas or diesel to make the trip, so get the most from your investment -- and hunt!

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