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Rut Road Trip for Big Whitetails in the Midwest

Don't let deer hunting's prime time pass you by. Head to one (or all) of these hot spots for a shot at your biggest buck ever.

Rut Road Trip for Big Whitetails in the Midwest

Filled your resident tag early? No good hunting near home? Tired of sitting the back 40? Check out these deer rut hot spots. (Photo by Mark Kayser)

November marks the peak of the rut across the Midwest. During this tumultuous time in the deer woods, bucks, stoked by biological necessities, behave far more recklessly than they normally do. As a result, it's one of the best opportunities for hunters to bag their biggest deer of the season -- or their lives.

While many hunters are content setting up on their own ground or a nearby public parcel, there are many great places throughout the region for those who wish to travel to prime whitetail country. This month, consider a rut road trip, and explore some new turf in an attempt to hit paydirt on a big buck. We've outlined several of the region's top big-buck destinations to get you started.

KENTUCKY

Once somewhat of a sleeper, Kentucky has risen in the ranks as a trophy whitetail state. Boone and Crockett aside, it's a great state to hunt due to the number of whitetails living amongst its varied landscape. Forests interspersed with agriculture create a patchwork of habitat that keeps whitetail densities high. More than 130,000 whitetails are taken annually in the state of "unbridled spirit," and approximately 71,000 of those deer are antlered bucks. Best of all, in most areas you can purchase a license online or over the counter without applying. The only areas that require an application are state parks and some wildlife management areas.

November hunting seasons include both archery and modern firearms. The firearm season runs concurrently with the rut, beginning in mid-November and ending in late November. A lightweight treestand you can pack with you is a bonus for quick sets in Kentucky's wooded environment. Hang a Golden Scrape-soaked scent wick upwind and wait for the magic to happen.


The north-central region adjacent to Indiana and Ohio, and encompassing the Bluegrass Region, is a sound choice for great whitetail hunting. Its calcium-rich soil is why so many horse farms exist in the area and why it creates a whitetail windfall. Much of Kentucky is privately owned, but this area hosts 15 wildlife management areas. Outfitters are affordable, and the region is hunter-friendly.


Larger towns, like Frankfort and Shelbyville, and small towns like Cynthiana and Owenton, put you firmly in the heart of whitetail country. With a rich history of hunting, you will find sporting goods stores within a short drive. Small-town dining abounds in the region, with favorites like Biancke's Restaurant in Cynthiana offering heaping dishes of comfort food after a long day of hunting.

If you want to explore other areas of Kentucky, consider hunting some of the military land scattered about the state. Some options include Fort Campbell and Fort Knox military reservations, plus the Blue Grass Army Depot. Special licensing and regulations apply, but the deer hunting is excellent throughout the state.

Deer-Rut-Road-Trip
Hit these whitetail destinations individually or road-trip to all four. Wisconsin tends to have the earliest peak in rut activity, so start there.

WISCONSIN

Wisconsin's trophy buck heritage is well-known. Buffalo County stands out, of course, but big-buck listings come from across the state, with numerous high rankings in both the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young record books. Deer densities are high throughout most of Wisconsin due to a mixture of hardwoods and agriculture. The highest densities occur in a swath across the central part of the state from Minnesota to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Purchase a license online and receive an antlerless permit without the hassle of preference points, like you might encounter in states like Wyoming. Counties like Trempealeau, Wood, Shawano and Waupaca, to name a few, have deer densities from 20 to 50 deer per square mile. That means filling a cooler is relatively easy; plus, you'll have a good chance at encountering a true trophy buck.


Depending on the county you're hunting, you'll receive antlerless tags with your deer license purchase. The exact number of antlerless tags varies with each county. Regardless, after purchasing your license, you can go online or to a physical location that sells licenses, and potentially pick up one or more bonus antlerless harvest authorizations. These became available starting back on August 17 and are first come, first served. Hunters can purchase one per person, per day, until the unit authorization is sold out, so get on this quick if possible, or be ready ahead of time for next season.

One thing to consider for a November Wisconsin road trip is that the archery-and-crossbow season extends through most of November. If you wish to hunt with a firearm, you'll have to join the orange army the last week of November.

Farmers with deer-density issues might grant you permission, or you may have to pay to play. Fortunately, Wisconsin has scattered public lands throughout that allow hunting. In Trempealeau County you can find 17 such areas, including wildlife areas, natural areas and state parks. Other counties include anywhere from 4 to more than 20 such areas open to public hunting. The roughly 15,000-acre Navarino Wildlife Area in southern Shawano and northeastern Waupaca counties is one specific option to consider. Either way, add a hunting app like HuntStand to your smartphone to help you with property boundaries on scattered public parcels.


Communities like Wausau, Shawano and Marshfield offer ample amenities for comfortable and economic lodging, plus you can camp at state parks still open for the season. Wisconsin is known for its taverns, cheese curds and brew. You'll find tasty food and lots of it across this region. Ida's Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Wisconsin Rapids is one such spot. Stop in for a fish fry on Friday nights, but be sure to get there early—it goes fast.

OHIO

The Buckeye State has been something of a whitetail powerhouse for the past couple decades. Deer hunting has always been popular among locals, but with increased management comes bigger bucks, and that's what is drawing more non-residents to hunt this wooded oasis.

A November road trip to Ohio will have to include archery or crossbow tackle; the firearms season doesn't open until the last day of November. Licenses are easy to acquire ($180.96 for non-residents, $19 for residents), with no quotas, and if filling your freezer is a priority, Ohio sells either-sex permits at a true bargain for non-residents ($76.96). The number of deer that hunters can harvest in a season varies by county, so be sure to check regulations for more specific info.

The highest harvest rates come from the east-central part of the state in counties such as Coshocton, Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Guernsey and a handful of others. You can possibly gain access by talking to locals at the feed store and searching for someone irritated by nuisance deer. Or, you can research public hunting options.

Throughout the region you'll find wildlife areas, parks and state forest lands. Most are open to hunting, but check specific regulations for each. The biggest draw is the Wayne National Forest on the southern edge of this area, with more than 230,000 acres of woodlands open for hunting. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it promises a big-woods-style hunt without having to head up north. Hills, deep coulees and small openings define the terrain; you'll likely need a mapping app and a bit of savviness to find travel patterns. Also, ditch the rubber boots and go with a lace-up version with a bit more support for firm footing in steep terrain.

Like in much of the Midwest, you'll find both small towns and small cities to be inviting to hunters. Sporting goods stores are found throughout and even some convenience stores and hardware stores carry useful items for your hunt. Larger cities, like Newark, Zanesville and Coshocton provide the standards for lodging and eats. Off the beaten path you'll find small dining gems like the Clay Haus in Somerset. Try the Sunday buffet or the Reuben with a touch of old-world German flavor.

Deer-Rut-Road-Trip
An app like HuntStand will help you navigate public-land parcels and leave the crowd behind while on your rut road trip. (Photo by Mark Kayser)

NEBRASKA

To know why this state stands out for deer hunting, look no further than its nickname. Rich soil, vast swaths of agriculture and sprawling grasslands make the Cornhusker State a deer Disneyland. Licenses are over-the-counter for most areas, with a few exceptions for mule deer zones in the west. Antlerless tags are affordable enough ($70 for ۬non-residents) to keep you busy making jerky all winter. Hunters can purchase two, provided the quota has not been met. Best of all, Nebraska offers a 9-day firearm season starting the second Saturday of November. That gives you a chance to hunt deer with a rifle during the peak of the rut. Archery season is open throughout the month. What's not to like?

The biggest gripe could be Nebraska's lack of public lands, though National Forest Service parcels in the western part of the state offer good access. For a true cornfield experience, look to the northeast corner with the Missouri River as a border. Knock on doors and talk with locals to see who may be experiencing deer depredation. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission even keeps a list of hunters willing to hunt antlerless deer, so that landowners can invite them onto their land if they're experiencing damage issues. For public land, look to wildlife management areas, state recreation areas, some state parks, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land and Nebraska's innovative Open Fields and Water Program that opens private land to public hunting. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Gavins Point Project at Lewis and Clark Lake is one such public option, with 6,307 acres of public land in Knox County.

Lodging options are as rustic or sophisticated as you desire. Some state campgrounds remain open, though some facilities might not be functional due to cold weather. Mom-and-pop motels and nationwide chains provide comfortable rooms. Towns like O'Neill, Niobrara, Bloomfield, Creighton and Norfolk boast a wide range of bunking and dining.

For the best of Cornhusker cuisine, stop at the Country Café in Niobrara. You can't go wrong with a wide selection on the buffet when available, but the homestyle cooking means everything tastes like mama used to make.

You don't have to settle for the same old whitetail season this year. A rut road trip across some of the best whitetail hunting America has to offer is easier than you think.

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