3 Top Whitetail States

If you want a legitimate chance at taking a world-class whitetail buck, you must hunt where such bucks exist.

3 Top Whitetail States

Mentally, it’s captivating to dream of arrowing a magazine-cover whitetail buck. And while some are fortunate enough to live that dream, most do not. If that’s you, welcome to the club. I’m in my 20th archery season and have yet to best two dandies on my wall that go 150 inches apiece. I’m not diminishing the accomplishment of taking those two brutes; I’m just saying that arrowing a 170-inch-or-larger buck is a lofty achievement most hunters don’t realize in their entire lifetimes. Few hunters even lay eyes on such a deer.

Why are world-class bucks so difficult to harvest? First and foremost, they’re practically a different breed. Most bucks reach their antler-development pinnacle once they’re at least 5.5 years old. By that age, they’ve weathered the threats of wild predators, automobiles and hunting pressure, attaining an uncanny prowess for circumventing danger. That is, once they reach 5.5 years old, they make very few mistakes, even during the rut.

Next, their availability adds to the challenge. Even in states with strict management, many 2.5- and 3.5-year-old bucks are annually harvested, thus reducing the number of bucks that reach the older age class. In other words, they aren’t behind every bush in even the best whitetail states.

Of course, to kill a world-class buck, you must hunt where one exists, and some locations simply don’t have many of them due to poor genetics or lacking age class. That’s why you don’t see 170-inch deer coming out of, say, New York or Pennsylvania with the same regularity as the states I’ll review below.

If taking a world-class buck has been your lifelong dream, then you can give yourself a fighting chance to capture the goal by hunting in states that annually produce dozens and dozens of bucks scoring better than 170 inches. Based on my research, below are three top states where encountering a once-in-a-lifetime giant is well within the realm of possibility.


Ohio

Ohio has OTC deer tags but doesn’t exactly teem with public lands. That and fertile soils make it a top contender for record-class whitetails. Vast private lands, in general, allow for more selective harvest, thus reducing buck harvest and especially young-buck harvest for landowners practicing QDM (Quality Deer Management). In other words, swarms of hunters can’t rapidly deplete entire properties of bucks. Thus, many bucks reach ages where they can flaunt their antler potential. And the rich nutrition gives the herd the ingredients needed to thrive and bucks the ability to produce world-class antlers once mature. Genetically, Ohio has the goods.

Reviewing the Buckmasters Trophy Whitetail Records, standout counties that regularly produce 170-plus-inch bucks are Greene — the 312 3/8-inch (BTR score) Beatty Buck was killed there — Huron, Butler, Licking and Coshocton Counties, among others. Neighboring counties Licking and Coshocton are considered by many to be the best in the state. Bowhunter Hiram Cutter of New Hampshire traveled to Brushy Fork Outfitters in 2017 and took a 191-inch green-scoring buck on October 17. The location? Coshocton County. And, Ohio resident Jeffrey Payette laced a 172-gross-inch monarch with his crossbow in Licking County back in 2015.

Bowhunter Hiram Cutter of New Hampshire traveled to Coshocton County, Ohio, to hunt with Brushy Fork Outfitters and bow-killed this mid-October monster that grossed 191 inches.
Bowhunter Hiram Cutter of New Hampshire traveled to Coshocton County, Ohio, to hunt with Brushy Fork Outfitters and bow-killed this mid-October monster that grossed 191 inches.

The plus with Ohio is that deer tags are sold inexpensively over the counter. That means you can hunt Ohio every year without the headache of applying — just show up and buy your tag. Because Ohio has Iowa-type whitetail genetics, it’s perhaps the best state of all because you can accumulate history and experience faster since you can hunt there every year, if you so choose.

Going guided has its merits. Ohio outfitters such as Brushy Fork Outfitters annually put clients on world-class deer. But, if you want to get exclusive hunting rights on your little piece of deer heaven, get out your wallet and purchase or lease land. On the right properties, you’ll likely get to chase world-class bucks every single year.

Bowhunters get free run of the place during prime rut dates, while gun hunters take the back seat until the very tail end of the primary rut. Fewer bucks are likely to be harvested by long-range firearms since daylight buck activity is substantially lower during the firearms season than during the rut’s heydays. Further, bowhunters get a long season to work within. The 2020 archery season opens on September 26 and closes February 7. With that much time, you’ll get your money’s worth out of a Buckeye State lease, as long as your work vacation days allow.

Learn more: Ohio Department of Natural Resources (614-265-6565; www.ohiodnr.gov)

 

Kansas

Sunflower State winters are typically mild, nutrition for deer is high, and firearms season opens well after the peak rut. That late firearm season saves many bucks that would fall victim to a rut-based gun season. That combo is excellent news for bowhunters since numerous bucks reach older age classes and are susceptible to well-laid bowhunting plans. And while the entire state is capable of producing monster bucks, the best public land opportunities exist far from population centers.

Even on public lands, Kansas hunters have a shot at taking home their biggest buck ever. “We have several hundred wildlife areas (WAs) and about a million acres are enrolled in Walk-In,” said Mike Miller, chief of information with Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism. “Bowhunters do well on WAs with reservoirs and riparian habitat. The larger the WA, the farther you can hike from roads to evade hunting pressure. Near Emporia are multiple WAs with several reservoirs inside a 40-mile radius. That’s a good area, although the entire state offers quality hunting.”

Now, to increase your chances of a trophy encounter, spend time knocking on doors. You can potentially secure access, maybe for free or just a small trespass fee. While not every piece of private soil in the Sunflower State has equal potential, getting on private land usually tempers or even eliminates hunting pressure, and that is a huge benefit when chasing giants. If you’d like to make Kansas an annual stop (provided that you draw a tag), consider leasing property. Partner with another hunter or two on this venture to make it more affordable.

Another option is to book a hunt with a reputable outfitter like Rader Lodge, which is located in Unit 7 in north-central Kansas.

“We specialize in semi-guided hunts,” Jeff Rader said. “We provide the land, maintain it year-round, and get our hunters lined up with a treestand to hunt from. However, since it’s a semi-guided hunt, we encourage our clients to bring along a treestand or two of their own in case they want to tweak stand placement.

“The advantage of hunting with us is that fairly experienced hunters get a lot of freedom to do what they like. You get the latitude to play the wind and make small changes, as needed. It’s a great place to hunt, and we have some nice bucks around here. A 150-inch buck is a great representative for this area, but some of our hunters have taken much larger.”

Frank Pappas of Colorado owns and leases land in Kansas, where he took this world-class whitetail in November 2016.
Frank Pappas of Colorado owns and leases land in Kansas, where he took this world-class whitetail in November 2016.


Unlike Ohio, Kansas deer tags must be applied for in the spring. As for drawing a tag, the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s licensing department shared that tags are less difficult to draw than some folks realize. Many units can be drawn annually, while the rest can be drawn biannually, as one license agent told.

Once, drawing a Sunflower State archery deer license wasn’t so easy. Thus, hunting pressure has undoubtedly increased, given Kansas’ popularity. Still, Kansas is Kansas. Each time you climb a tree, seeing a monster is possible.

As for hotspots, Levi Jaster, big game coordinator for the Kansas Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, said, “Throw a dart at the map. All counties are capable of producing world-class bucks. As far as deer numbers, the southeast units have the highest densities.

“We fortunately haven’t had an EHD outbreak in Kansas since 2011 and 2012. It had hit eastern Kansas really hard during those years, but we’ve recovered really well. Since then, we’ve had only isolated reports of EHD cases. No counties have experienced outbreaks anytime recently. We are kind of on the rotation for expecting another outbreak, but as long as it doesn’t get too dry here, we’ll be in good shape.”

Learn more: Kansas Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (620-672-5911; www.kshuntfishcamp.com)

 

Iowa

Several factors make Iowa the whitetail king. First, the entire state has outstanding trophy potential with numerous habitat types, all conducive to whitetails. Expect steep wooded bluffs along the two major river corridors — Missouri River on the western border and Mississippi River along the eastern border. Southern Iowa has gentler timbered hills with rich nutrition. Western parts of the state feature rolling prairies and terraced agriculture, while seas of cornfields encompass much of the state. Riparian habitats can be found throughout, and these naturally teem with whitetails.

Iowa grows lots of corn — perhaps why Iowa deer are so huge and healthy. According to research done by www.iowacorn.org, Iowa corn farmers grew 2.5 billion bushels of corn on 13 million acres of land in 2015. Tallied, that’s 140 billion pounds of corn! Add to that the acorns, soybeans and hayfields, and Iowa deer don’t stress to find food; it’s everywhere!

Iowa distributes limited nonresident licenses for 10 separate zones through a spring drawing. Some zones can be drawn every other year for the archery hunt, but the most popular zones in southern Iowa require three to four preference points in advance. Hunters can elect to buy preference points only for $64.58 per year. If you’re new to Iowa, use the waiting time while building points to pinpoint potential hunting locations, even making a spring scouting trip or two.

Like Kansas and Ohio, Iowa’s firearms season opens well after the rut, again allowing lots of bucks to survive since they’re no longer running full tilt and making mistakes at the expense of breeding. Age class is stable in Iowa. Combine that with great genetics and limited nonresident hunting licenses, and it’s no secret why the state annually produces dozens of monster-class bucks.

David Holder (above left) of Raised Outdoors (www.raisedoutdoors.com) recently moved to Iowa when his wife took a job there. The move yielded quick benefits, as this monster 179 6/8-inch deer demonstrates.
David Holder (above left) of Raised Outdoors (www.raisedoutdoors.com) recently moved to Iowa when his wife took a job there. The move yielded quick benefits, as this monster 179 6/8-inch deer demonstrates.

Get out your wallet; licenses are quite pricey. At $644 (not including preference-point fees), you’re paying the price of an elk tag. But, that price centers you amidst world-class whitetail hunting with excellent prospects for encountering and possibly shooting the buck of a lifetime. Even public land hunters annually take giants.

Iowa manages dozens of wildlife management areas, and many of them border or encompass rivers, creeks, lakes and reservoirs — superb whitetail habitat. State forests like the 9,148-acre Shimek State Forest provide generous room to stretch your legs and evade hunting pressure.

Southern Iowa gets a lot of press, and so it has become popular. Lots of outdoor-TV folks manage farms in that southern sector and grow big deer, but that also means the public lands get hit relatively hard as blue-collar folks hope one of those prized private land giants roams through a public parcel. I’d know because I was one of the few dozen folks last fall in southern Iowa with that intention. That portion of the state, unfortunately, experienced some EHD die off in 2019, which had some impact on mature-buck sightings.

Rachel Ruden, a state wildlife veterinarian with the Iowa DNR, shared some information about areas that experienced measurable EHD die off.

“We have reports of suspect mortalities from 60 counties,” Ruden said. “However, the majority of EHD’s impact manifested itself among nine adjoining counties in south-central Iowa. That area accounted for 80% of the state’s mortalities in 2019. Warren County was hit hardest, accounting for 40% of the total documented mortalities. The good thing is that our deer are resilient, and I expect they will rebound nicely, not immediately, but over the next few years. We expect no long-term issues with our deer population.”

With that said, eastern and northeastern Iowa are also producing mega-bucks. Look along the Mississippi River corridor, which features great deer habitat with definitive terrain features ideal for bowhunting.

Like Kansas, the entire state of Iowa can produce monsters. The state-record bow-killed buck was taken by Deric Sieck in Fayette County, scoring 282 2/8 inches. Kyle Simmons waylaid the number-two archery buck in Jackson County, a monarch scoring 275 5/8 inches. Other regular producers are Monroe, Dallas, Decatur, Lucas and Guthrie Counties.

Learn more: Iowa Department of Natural Resources (515-725-8200; www.iowadnr.gov)

 

Final Thoughts

I’d love to take a buck over 170 inches within the next few seasons, which is why I’ll continue to hunt the states listed herein. Again, world-class bucks aren’t around every tree in them, but they produce enough giant bucks annually to make it worth your and my while to either hunt them as much as possible as a nonresident, or move to one of them so you can hunt every year and connect the dots to giant bucks.

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