“Capt. Clark and myself killed each a buck immediately on landing near our encampment; the deer were very gentle and in great numbers on this bottom which had more timber on it than any part of the river we had seen for many days past, consisting of Cottonwood, Elm, some indifferent ash and a considerable quantity of a small species of white oak which is loaded with acorns of an excellent flavor … we sent three hunters out who soon added eight deer and two Buffaloe to our stock of provisions.” — Captain Meriwether Lewis in his journal, September 16th, 1804, near present-day Chamberlain, S.D.

While the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-06 discovered a variety of new game on their epic trip up the Missouri River, the adventurers also encountered an animal very familiar to them — the white-tailed deer — in astounding numbers. Though known only as “deer” or “red deer” to the company’s hunters, the whitetail’s importance as a food source was critical. Hundreds of deer were hunted and killed to feed the hungry men.

More than two centuries later, the Missouri River corridor continues to produce volumes of white-tailed deer — and delicious venison — for modern-day hunters. But today’s hunter is interested in something else as well: antlers. This deer-rich region consistently produces big bucks, with states bordering the Missouri River offering some of North America’s finest hunting for true Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett record-book bucks.

So come along on a modern-day journey up one of North America’s longest rivers, through the core of whitetail range, and into big-buck country. Maybe you’ll decide to venture to the heartland for a big-buck hunt — or expand your efforts if you already live here — to find your buck of a lifetime.

Impressive Deer Country

From where it flows into the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Mo., to its origins at the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison rivers near Three Forks, Mont., the Missouri River drains some of the continent’s best whitetail country. Here’s a look at its vast habitat types.

Missouri — The flood plain is wider and gentler in Missouri than it is elsewhere on the big river, but plentiful bottomlands and rich croplands grow big bucks.

Kansas — Only four counties in northeastern Kansas abut the Missouri River, but the rolling country is whitetail heaven.

Iowa — The Missouri River forms much of Iowa’s western border, and the hill country sloping down to the river is full of big whitetails.

Nebraska — The countryside on the river starts getting steeper and rougher in Nebraska, and bucks grow big. Nebraska is probably our most unsung state for big whitetails.

South Dakota — South Dakota is big, lonely country, and Dakota whitetails grow huge. Steep breaks roll and fold away from both banks of the river and its reservoirs.

North Dakota — You’ll find some of the continental United States’ most secluded areas in the western part of North Dakota, along the banks of the mighty Missouri River.

Montana — From the steep country around Fort Peck reservoir to somewhat gentler breaks in the eastern part of the state, the Missouri River harbors big Montana whitetails.

Big Buck Central

If you’re after a B&C or P&Y record-book buck, consider these statistics and insights when planning your next big whitetail hunt.

According to Boone and Crockett Club records, 11,894 whitetails (both typical and non-typical) are in the all-time “book.” Of that total, 2,855 deer came from the Missouri River states of Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. In other words, 24 percent of all whitetails in the Boone and Crockett Club’s all-time record book were shot in the seven Missouri River states. While these are good-sized states, consider that together they still comprise only about 10 percent of the whitetail range across North America. A disproportionately large number of big bucks come from the Missouri River states.

The Pope and Young Club’s records tell a similar story. Of 51,796 whitetails in the archery “book,” 12,174 were arrowed in the seven Missouri River states. That’s another whopping 24 percent of all the bucks in the P&Y record book. Clearly, the Missouri River corridor is producing more than its share of big bucks for bowhunters.

That’s all fine and dandy, you say, but those states all have a lot of land that’s far from the Missouri River. That’s true. But major portions of these states drain into the Big Muddy.

Let’s ratchet the numbers down to the narrow corridor of the river itself — those counties bordering either side of the Missouri River from its source in Montana to its mouth in Missouri — and see what happens. Consider these facts, utilizing trophy whitetail numbers from B&C records:

92 counties border the Missouri River from source to mouth. (Note that there are 587 counties total in all seven states, and the 92 Missouri River counties represent about 10 percent of the land in the region.)

1,723 typical record-book bucks were shot in the seven Missouri River states. Of those, 336 — some 20 percent — came from the counties directly adjoining the river.

1,132 non-typical bucks were shot in the seven Missouri River states. Of those, 183 — 16 percent — came from the counties directly adjoining the river.

Just as the Missouri River states produce a disproportionate number of record-book bucks overall, the river itself provides a corridor of big-buck country. More than 18 percent of all typical and non-typical record-book bucks (529 of 2,855) from an already-great region come from a narrow one-county strip on either side of the river.

The Missouri River states — and the Missouri River corridor itself — offer some of North America’s best hunting for big whitetails. Both the Boone and Crockett Club and Pope and Young Club record books prove it. Whether you’re after a “book” buck, or just a big mature whitetail that will make your heart race and your hand shake, then this is the place to do it. The Missouri River country is big, lonely and full of deer — just like hunters like it. Pick out a state and make a pilgrimage to the core of whitetail country, and create your own heartland adventure for big bucks.

Top Missouri River Big-Buck Counties

While virtually all of the 92 counties in the immediate Missouri River corridor have trophy bucks to their credit, several stand out in each state.

* Missouri — Warren, Callaway, Saline, Atchison, Carroll, Saint Louis, Montgomery

* Nebraska —Otoe, Washington, Richardson, Boyd, Burt, Cass

* Kansas — Leavenworth, Doniphan

* Iowa — Monona, Harrison, Woodbury, Fremont, Mills

* South Dakota — Gregory, Clay, Lyman, Yankton

* North Dakota — Morton, McKenzie, McLean

* Montana — Richland, Fergus, Valley

In this region these five counties take top honors as Boone and Crockett trophy producers:

* Monona, Iowa (26 bucks)

* Warren, Missouri (21 bucks)

* Callaway, Missouri (20 bucks)

* Gregory, South Dakota (16 bucks)

* Harrison, Iowa (16 bucks)

Editor’s Note: Data for this article was compiled with assistance from Boone and Crockett Club’s online trophy database. For information about this very valuable information service and other Boone and Crockett Club activities, please visit their website at www.booneandcrockettclub.com or call (406) 542-1888. The Pope and Young Club also contributed important data for this article. Please visit their website at www.pope-young.org or call (507) 867-4144.