Where the Big Bucks Grow
October 18, 2019
Kansas is a deer-hunting gem and should be on every whitetail addict's must-hunt list.
“They must be pretty dang proud of their deer,” said a hunting buddy a few years back when Kansas nudged the price of its nonresident deer tags from $315 to $443. Of course, that fee doesn’t include the cost of the required nonresident standard hunting license, which will set you back $97.50.
My response? “They should be.”
I wasn’t angry when Kansas raised their prices. I love the Sunflower State. There are few places on the planet where you can find so many big bucks lurking across 82,277 square miles of varied habitat. The herds are thriving, and though the state’s eastern one-third boasts the highest numbers, the entire state promises solid populations and monster bucks. Each year, reports pop up about massive bruisers plucked from various regions of the state. One I saw recently showed a 205-inch non-typical harvested from a small, 10-acre, brushed-over homestead. That’s what makes Kansas such a gem. Deer can be found in the hardwoods of the east, along the many river and creek drainages in the north and south-central parts of the state, and in the vast, rolling pasturelands of the west.
GETTING A TAG
Though Kansas is a deer-rich state, its wildlife personnel don’t take the resource for granted. Nonresident tags are on a limited-draw system. Don’t let this deter you. The state offers an abundant amount of nonresident tags. When applying, you can select up to three units as long as the units border one another. If you strike out on the draw, leftover sales typically occur about a month after the normal draw.
Last year was the first year I didn’t enter the Kansas draw. I had other hunts on the horizon and opted to sit out a year. But every year that I’ve applied, I have drawn a Kansas deer tag.
ROOM TO ROAM?
When it comes to public land, Kansas ranks near the bottom in the nation. Most of the land in Kansas is privately owned. Again, don’t let this deter you. Incredible work done by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism puts the state near the top when it comes to Walk-In Hunting Areas (WIHA). Walk-In Hunting Areas are tracts of private land — some as small as 40 acres and others that push into the thousands of acres — that have been leased by the state for public access. It’s an incredible program. One look at the Hunting Atlas, which can be accessed by clicking the “Where to Hunt” tab on the state’s website, provides an aerial view of the thousands of WIHA tracts across Kansas. Adding icing to this already sweet cake is the fact that you can click on each tract and retrieve important information, such as the size of the tract, dates the tract is open and the methods of harvest allowed.
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Another thing I love about WIHA properties is the fact that you have to walk. Over the years, I’ve strung together some real deer hotspots on WIHA properties, most of which I’ve never seen another human access. Though many hunters flock to the larger tracts, few are willing to tote a stand or blind very far off the beaten path. Also, don’t ignore those smaller tracts, especially those found along wooded waterways and creeks. Small blocks of timber are also winners, as are cedar windbreaks surrounded by a golden ocean of CRP.
Add the above info together, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Kansas is a whitetail hunter’s paradise. With everything the state is doing to promote hunting and provide a quality experience, I don’t mind shelling out a few extra Benjamins.
This region doesn’t flash on the radar of most traveling bowhunters — unless, that is, they’ve pulled a much-coveted mule deer stamp. However, the vast, rolling western hills and flats dotted with cedar windbreaks and massive ag fields hold whitetails. Lots of them.
Invest some time behind the glass — a quality spotting scope is a must — and pay attention to public CRP fields surrounding private ag. Whitetails love, love, love CRP. This thick, sometimes neck-high grass provides quality bedding and allows bucks to flee in any direction at a moment’s notice. These fields and pastures often have shallow drainages that deer will use to travel to and from various locales. Also make sure you investigate thick stands of cedars — the ones you look at and say, “Boy, that’s in the middle of nowhere.” Deer love the shade and sanctuary these windbreaks provide and prefer to travel the edges of the tree line and the CRP. If you find a row of cedars blazed with rubs sporting scrapes every few hundred feet, I’d situate a stand or build a natural blind.
Many hunters, like my friend Danny Farris, like to decoy bucks in the open.
“Decoys can be your best friend when hunting western Kansas,” Farris said. “The deer can see a decoy for a long, long way in this open country, and if you catch a buck in the right mood, there’s a good chance we will come to you.”
North-central Kansas is great. There are lots of WIHA tracts and State Wildlife Areas to choose from. As for the terrain, there are some large blocks of timber, but also pay attention to isolated patches of cedar, locust and various other tree types sprinkled along small, winding waterways or bisecting pieces of CRP. Deer love to follow lines of timber and wander in and out of the CRP whenever they want. These areas can be hot spots during the rut as bucks wander from place to place. If ag fields are nearby, these areas can be early-season hot spots as well.
My friend, Terron Bauer, is a whitetail expert. A resident of south-central Nebraska, Bauer lives about 10 miles from the state line. He hunts north-central Kansas a lot and had some great advice.
“If I was going to show up in the north-central part of the state and hunt public property, I would stay away from the big tracts of land,” he said. “There is lots of public land, and a little prospecting on the state’s parks and wildlife webpage will reveal plenty of smaller acreage surrounded by larger acreage. Most large-acre farms are managed really well for deer, and if you can locate a few areas to bounce between, always keeping the wind right and your human footprint low, you have a great chance to arrow a wall-hanger.
“Another tip, and this one would work well during the early season and the rut, would be to bring a hay bale blind. This is a very high-producing hay area, and hay bale blinds situated on a hayfield can be great. Always read your regulations, as many WIHA areas discourage hunting right on top of the crops. However, many WIHA areas have crops planted on them, and a hay bale blind in the middle of some CRP along a high-traffic area where deer enter and exit hayfields can be money. This is a great tactic for muzzleloader and rifle guys as well.
“Don’t forget about hedgerows. Hedgerows are huge. A hedgerow is basically a thick line of trees and brush that separates boundaries. Most often, hedgerows run along fence lines between CRP, pastures and ag fields. These hedgerows offer thick cover and are major travel routes during all times of the year.
“Lastly, hitting the horns together and doing some grunting is never a bad idea.”
This area of the state needs no introduction. Towns like Stafford, St. John and Hutchison will be forever rooted in deer lore. Bucks get huge in this area of the state thanks to a unique habitat mix, piles of nutrient-rich ag like corn and soybeans, and massive stretches of CRP.
I have hunted this area of the state more than any other. I’ve seen rubs so large they scared me and scrapes the size of Volkswagen hoods. I’ve put glass on lots of deer over the 160-inch mark and two seasons ago had a 190-plus-inch buck stroll past me moments after I loosed an arrow on a dandy 140-inch 7-point. To date, the 7-point is the oldest, biggest-bodied deer I’ve harvested.
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Access can be a little tricky, and thanks to the fact that seemingly every bowhunter knows about the area since it made the “big-deer” map in the mid-90s, getting permission to hunt private property by knocking on doors is virtually impossible. There are lots of leases and outfitters. With that noted, there are some public tracts of land, and, yes, I’ve hunted many of them successfully. Hedgerows lining CRP can be a very productive location, as can isolated stands of cedar trees. A few years back, I found a small depression in the middle of large section of CRP that had filled with water. Tracks were everywhere. Upon finding the location, I built a natural hide and hunkered down. Two hours later, I missed a 170-plus-inch brute. It happens. Just remember: big deer will be anywhere they feel safe and have access to food and water. When looking at prospective public-land areas, don’t just focus on the obvious tracts.
I’ve also had success accessing land in central Kansas by swapping hunts. I’ve met some fantastic people through social media, and I’ve traded out a Colorado pronghorn hunt or two for access to central Kansas deer nirvana. It’s an opportunity worth exploring.
You will find lots of deer and plenty of public tracts to chase them on in eastern Kansas. The terrain, however, will be very different from what we’ve covered thus far. Eastern Kansas has some big timber with long, hardwood-lined ridges and deep hollows. Longtime eastern Kansas big-buck killer Brian Strickland offered some advice.
“There are a lot of deer, but there is also lots of big, deep timber to hide them,” he said. “During the early season, when it’s hot, I like to focus on secluded water sources in the timber. This may be a small pond dugout or a waterway like a small creek. Whitetails love to follow waterways all year long and posting up on a good creek crossing can create an early-season encounter with a big deer. Staging areas are also solid early-season finds. I like to follow trails off ag fields back into the timber. I don’t want to press so deep I get into a bedding area, but I like to find small openings close to primary bedding where bucks will wander around before hitting the ag fields for the night.
“During the rut, I focus a lot on waterways and fresh rub lines. If a buck has a line of trees blazed, that’s a good place to be.”
There you have it — one great whitetail state and four solid regions to explore. Put it all together and you, too, can have your own Kansas success story to tell.