Deer hunting is looking so good, it might be easier to say where the big bucks won't be in 2009! But here are the top areas for huge deer, according to experts. (November 2009)
There might be an easier and quicker way to write this story.
I could call it, "Where NOT To Look For Great Plains Big Bucks."
Combined, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota have 318 counties. And according to information compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association with data from Boone and Crocket and Pope and Young clubs, less than 13 percent of those counties did not produce a trophy buck from 1996 to 2005. That's 41 of the 318 counties.
But there is excellent hunting throughout the Great Plains. A big buck could pop up about anywhere in the four states we'll cover. The goal of this story is to help point you in the right direction to find the best of the best when it comes to areas that hold the potential to give you a chance at a healthy, mature buck with big antlers. Here are places to hunt, with a heads up on the places that haven't produced record bucks in recent years.
Biologist Lloyd Fox summed up the Sunflower State's big-buck prospects in one sentence.
"This," he said, "is a wonderful time to hunt deer in Kansas."
Fox went on to talk about the rack from a Morris County whitetail taken last season that he'd just finished scoring in his Emporia office. It taped 193 non-typical inches. He also mentioned two other bucks he'd scored over the past 14 days, both from areas northwest of his office, but not terribly far away.
One scored 202 and was taken in 2007. The other was a 2008 archery buck that scored 196.
"When I talk about just the deer I've seen, that's only scratching the surface of what we have available," said Fox.
Mule deer numbers in Kansas are stable, and the same management units show the best promise for trophy mulies year after year. The best include DMUs 1, 2, 3 and 17. This includes all of northwest Kansas and all the western counties that border Colorado except for the far southwest corner, which is part of DMU 18.
When it comes to whitetails, Fox pointed hunters toward DMUs 5, 7, 8, 14 and 16 for 2009.
If you look at the QDMA map showing B&C and P&Y entries from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, you also can add DMUs 4, 6, 9, 10, 13 and 15. Remember, however, that Fox didn't include those on his list. They represent an observation based on record-book applications from the counties in those units.
If anything, topography and habitat suggest that the units Fox mentioned just might hold the best of the best in the Sunflower State. They encompass a lot of native tall-grass prairie and CRP acreage. Hunting places like these is not like the deer hunting you find in many other states, especially east of the Missouri River, where wooded habitat provides great cover for deer along with at least decent amounts of hard and soft mast.
If you want to hunt country like that in Kansas, by all means check out DMU 10, which includes the Missouri River bluffs in the very northeast corner of the state. There is some truly amazing hardwood deer habitat up there, which I discovered during spring turkey hunts to the area when I first moved to Kansas years ago.
Three of the units Fox noted -- 7, 8 and 14 -- include portions of the famed Flint Hills region, which is home to the largest remaining contiguous stand of native tall-grass prairie in the country. Units 5 and 16 also contain plenty of wide-open spaces -- the kinds of places many hunters wouldn't expect to find many deer at all, let alone some real bruisers.
"Many hunters think of deer as a forest species," Fox said. "But in these units, they really are shrub and grassland species. These are the places where a big buck will rest out on a grassy knoll where he can see in every direction. If he needs to, he can get up and move in any direction and just disappear into the topography."
Fox also mentioned that these units, by and large, are home to some great plum thickets. I know this first-hand about DMUs 3, 7 and 8. There are some draws and thickets in that country that the buck of a lifetime could escape to and never be found.
Most of the great counties for trophy Nebraska bucks are found in one of six management units -- Frenchman, Pine Ridge, Plains, Republican, Sandhills and Upper Platte. These are the six units state biologist Kit Hams included again this year as the best bets for big mulies and whitetails.
It's significant to note that two units -- Pine Ridge and Sandhills -- appear on both species' lists of hotspots. That suggests that hunters willing to visit the northwest corner of the state have a chance at nice mature bucks of either species.
"Although, as I said before, we're still trying to catch Kansas!" Hams said with a laugh. "But deer hunting in Nebraska has never been better. And it keeps getting better, which is wonderful for our hunters."
Last season, 72 percent of the mule deer bucks and 66 percent of the white-tailed bucks were 2 years or older. Those numbers represent two very important elements for Great Plains hunters to consider if they're thinking about hunting Nebraska this season or in the future.
First and most importantly to the state's deer population, that means that hunters are letting many young bucks walk. That definitely is helping to enhance the overall age structure of the state's deer herd. It also means that, as a result, Nebraska's age structure has a chance to at least remain fairly stable, if not improve, on an annual basis.
When hunters aren't taking 1 1/2-year-old bucks out of the population, they grow to at least 2 1/2 and older. Biologists will tell you that bucks are reaching full maturity by age 3 1/2, and there is reason to believe (as suggested by the harvest percentages) that hunters in Nebraska are seeing many mature bucks each season.
Hams' suggestions for the best mule deer hunting are all in northwestern Nebraska -- the Pine Ridge, Sandhills and Upper Platte units. Pine Ridge and Sandhills also make his list for whitetails, along with Frenchman, Plains and Republican.
Hams encourages hunters to harvest antlerless deer in the units along the Missouri River to help keep the population in check.
They also represent a significant number of record-book bucks, according to the QDMA. From her
e, whitetail hunters should look at the Blue Southeast, Blue Northwest and Wahoo units. As was the case with some Kansas units, these three do not come from Hams, but rather from the QDMA trophy map.
As is the case in Nebraska, there are two areas in South Dakota that offer good trophy potential for mule deer and whitetails. Both are in the northwest corner of the state -- Harding and Perkins counties.
State biologist Ted Benzon pointed hunters to the West River region for big bucks this season, although he did note potential in the northeast part of the state.
"Any of the northeastern units could be good for whitetails because of the ratios of bucks to does we have up there," he said.
South Dakota's focus on trimming numbers in the northeastern part of the state have led to ratios that Benzon called virtually 1:1 bucks to does. Anytime that kind of ratio exists, there is the potential for big bucks. Brown, Marshall, Day and Roberts counties in the northeast look very good, according to the QDMA.
Like its neighbors to the north and south, South Dakota also boasts significant CRP acreage heading into the 2009 season. But biologists in all four states talked about the potential of significant losses in the not-too-distant future as landowners decide not to renew CRP contracts and return land to production.
A big reason for that is the increased interest in alternative fuels like corn-based ethanol. One of the biologists interviewed for this story put it very succinctly: "Ethanol is no friend to wildlife."
This season, however, South Dakota hunters won't see that habitat has diminished significantly. Instead, they'll face many of the same challenges hunters in the other Great Plains states face when it comes to hunting deer in country that is more open than wooded. Deer adapt very, very well to the topography, and in South Dakota that means lots of CRP with plenty of outstanding bedding and safety cover.
"All in all," biologist Benzon said, "I believe hunters across the state are going to start seeing older bucks because of the steps we've taken to get the buck-to-doe ratios stabilized. Both our mule deer and whitetail populations are in good shape, and there is plenty of CRP cover out there for them."
The state had a typical winter for a change, and there was no significant winter mortality.
Benzon said warming trends arrived at just the right times to offset the potential danger of significant storms that dumped -- and drifted -- lots of snow around the state.
"Everyone was getting worried about the impact of all the snow," he said. "Then we had the big February meltdown that handled most of the concern."
He also mentioned a series of three major blizzard events in the western part of the state, but each was followed by a warming trend that kept conditions more favorable than not for deer and other wildlife.
North Dakota biologist Bill Jensen said his state does not manage its deer resources with big bucks in mind. Rather, they strive to offer hunters the best overall hunting opportunities. North Dakota doesn't keep records of big deer taken within its borders.
That being said, Jensen provided an easy reference for hunters after big bucks this season -- go east for whitetails and west for mule deer. Specifically, he mentioned units 2B, 2C, 2F1 and 2F2 for mature whitetails, and 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F for mature mulies. If you look at the map on Page 20, you'll see the general east-and-west breaks. Units 2B and 2C include roughly 80 percent of North Dakota's eastern border counties. Units 2F1 and 2F2 add the east-central counties west of the border counties.
Units 4B, 4D, 4E and 4F represent roughly the southern two-thirds of the western border counties. Units 4A and 4C add additional counties in the west-central section of the state.
He said that winter mortality wasn't a factor in most of the state, although there were some losses in mid-North Dakota because of the tracks of major snowstorms.
"The first bands of heavy snow we got moved from southwest to northeast," he said. "And the later bands moved from northwest to southeast. They had real winter, all winter in the upper-central part of the state where those bands crossed."
QDMA's map shows that units 2B and 2C definitely are good bets for whitetails. However, it also appears as though the southern portion of Unit 2E also could be a good bet for an encounter with a mature whitetail.
In mule deer country, it's also important to note that good numbers of record-book applications for whitetails came from North Dakota units that include 3A3, 4A, 4B and 4C. With that in mind, the "4s" also appear to represent areas where hunters could have a chance this season to encounter mature bucks of either species. As with the other states, note that this is speculation based on a combination of biologist-provided information and the data used to create the QDMA map. It does not represent specific recommendations from Jensen. His, like those of his counterparts in South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, are reflected on the map that accompanies this story.
THE BIG PICTURE
When more than 87 percent of the counties in the Great Plains states are shown to have produced at least one record-book whitetail according to the B&C and P&Y data, it's difficult to suggest that there are large expanses of land in any of the states that are devoid of big bucks -- or at least the potential for big bucks.
North Dakota's southern border counties and Kansas' southwestern border counties represent what appear to be the largest contiguous chunks of the Great Plains without a record-book buck being taken.
Although other states around the country get at least as much -- if not more -- publicity for their big bucks and great hunting opportunities, the Great Plains states collectively provide as good a chance for hunters to encounter big mature bucks -- both mule deer and whitetails -- as any other state.