Kansas, it was almost too easy.
John Butler was sitting in the “Hangover Stand,’’ a name given to the stand just 50 yards from the clubhouse.
For obvious reasons, it would be the first choice of anyone unable to get out of bed on time, but up in time to actually hunt.
Butler wasn’t hung over, though. He had spent the morning of Kansas’ opening day of modern gun season in another stand. The traditional opener falls on the Wednesday following Thanksgiving. While Butler hunted early on the opener, he had spent much of the day repairing deer stands, checking deer cameras and in general taking care of maintenance at his Buck Forage Deer Club.
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Even though Kansas’ deer season opens on Wednesday, the following weekend would be busy, following more of the standard opening-day bevy of activity. He along with fellow member, Dr. James Kroll, were working as much or more as they were hunting.
Butler would work through the day and have enough time to sit on the closest stand as opening day came to a close.
It would turn into a good choice. In less than an hour a big 10-point would saunter into the oat field in front of him. It wasn’t the deer that Butler had hoped for, but the accidental opportunity was good enough.
Accidental opportunities are a big part of Kansas’ deer hunting.
Dr. Kroll, known to many as Dr. Deer, loves to hunt Kansas. His services as the fore-most authority on deer management are in high demand all over the country, but when it comes to Kansas he’s not hesitant to point out that much of what drives hunters from all over to want to hunt here is by accident more than by design.
The state has never had to deal with an overabundance of whitetails, meaning the population issues of too many deer haven’t come into play. Added to that, when it comes to whitetails (the No. 1 hunted game animal in the country), hunting pressure and selection in Kansas puts the whitetail at No. 3 behind upland bird hunting (pheasants and turkeys) and migratory waterfowl (ducks and geese).
Historically deer have never had much pressure in this state.
“Deer numbers came back in the 1970s here and they started a season with just a resident-only draw,’’ Kroll said. “There wasn't very many deer and they've never had real heavy hunting pressure in Kansas as compared to the South or the Midwest.
“You had the nutrition and, my goodness, you've got the genetics statewide. So you've had an opportunity here because of extremely light hunting pressure, as compared to virtually everywhere else. The age structure is here as well as the rest of it. Then they’ve never had a gun season during the rut, and they still don't.
“There’s been a one-buck limit for years; you had to choose whether you wanted to bow hunt or gun hunt. A lot of the, let's say fanatical deer hunters, chose the bow so they could hunt during the rut.”When it comes to a rifle season, the pressure remains light, helped by a state that has an aging population, major changes in cattle production and remains largely rural.
“As you move from central Kansas, like around Hutchinson westward, you've got relatively low white-tailed populations, even to this day,’’ Kroll said. “There's certainly more than there used be, because what's happened is a lot of this ranch land is no longer grazed. It's succeeding into juniper and brush habitats because the big ranches are breaking up, and the younger family members are moving on.”
All of it provides better and more habitat for whitetails. But it also requires work for those looking to grow and build a whitetail herd that provides more than just an accidental big buck.
That’s where Butler and Kroll have teamed up. Their camp is in central Kansas and is basically reclaimed pasture.
“Most of this property out here was grazed to the ground,” Butler said. “It didn't have a cedar bush on it and very little brush. No cover at all. Just 1-inch tall grass in the fall after it was basically abused by having too many cattle on it.
“The first thing we did was took the cattle off of it completely. Then we started planting food plots. Immediately we put out a dozen or so corn feeders, primarily to give the deer and the turkeys something to attract them, to hold them on the property.
“The first food plots were Buck Forage oats. Later, we came in and planted alfalfa, which will grow very well here if it's fall seeded. Now we have it up to around 40 acres of alfalfa that we custom farm, and bale it as we can. This year we made around 20 tons, which is pretty substantial amount of feed, probably 400,000 pounds or more.”
Currently, the club plants 40 acres of Buck Forage Oats, mixed in with cow peas and another 40 acres of Alfalfa. With deer holding on the property, the club is religious when it comes to shooting bucks on an age-class basis.
“After you try to feed them more than they can eat, you let them get to be 4 ½-years, the bucks in particular, 4 ½-years old or older. And you leave them alone. Like this 800 acres, we just got a perimeter road around it. Very, very rarely do we get inside the perimeter of it during hunting season. So we have undisturbed whitetail deer as close as we can get.”
As close as you can get is just outside the door from the cabin in a stand known as the “Hangover Stand.”
Butler’s buck, a 144-inch 10-point, wasn’t shot because of its antler size. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t have been his first choice in any year at his Kansas club. Each year one of its members or guests shoots a deer in the 160-inch range, and every three years or so a 170-inch plus Boone and Crockett shows up on the records.
A 144-inch deer is a dime a dozen here. But this 10-point was 6 ½ years old, and past its prime. The hocks on its rear legs, an indicator of age and productive viability, were white instead of painted black.Always the manager, Butler took the deer out of the herd.
“People ask me all the time what are the secrets to killing big bucks?” Kroll said. “There's two: First one is you have to hunt where there are big bucks. That’s places that have good age-structure and great soil to grow them. Kansas has that.
“The second, though, is most important. When you set out to kill a big deer you have to be willing to lose. That means you sit for days without killing anything. And when and if you pull the trigger on a deer not up to your standards, you are helping yourself get closer to winning next time.”
In some ways, it almost sounds too easy.