Road Tripping for Whitetails

Ever have a hankering to see new country and hunt whitetails where the big ones live? Heed this advice to quench your thirst for a DIY public land adventure.

Road Tripping for Whitetails

Imagine it’s the late 1990s and you’re sitting in front of your TV in North Carolina, Michigan or Pennsylvania, watching a young Michael Waddell shoot a huge buck in the Midwest. You’re thinking, “I could never hope to shoot a buck like that where I live.” Many wide-eyed viewers had no idea mature bucks were available in good numbers, and these sights kindled a desire in hunters to experience it for themselves. Over the past couple of decades, the growth of outdoor TV and online videos created an interest in hunting whitetails — in destination states — that has snowballed into a massive empire of outfitters and high-priced nonresident deer tags. And the reason comes down to this: the grass actually is greener over there.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 3 million nonresident hunting tags are sold each year. That’s triple the number of traveling hunters since the advent of outdoor TV and YouTube. There’s a tidal wave of people traveling to hunt.

Some people would rather hire an outfitter to experience excellent hunting, but others aren’t willing to pay the high price, or prefer the satisfaction that comes with going it alone. I’ve done 25 DIY public land bowhunting trips in eight states since 2006, and I’ve learned a thing or two about being successful in what I have termed, “freelance bowhunting.” If you’re interested in the challenge and thrill that comes with public land hunting in a state where you might bag a buck bigger than you’d ever shoot where you live, listen up, I have some advice that will help you make the decisions necessary to have a trip to remember.

Before loading the truck, however, you must first ask yourself a few questions, the most important of which is, “What do I want to get out of this?” Your ultimate goal may be to shoot a buck bigger than you’ll shoot at home. Or it may be to simply experience something new, see new scenery and try new things. Your goal may be to just enjoy some time away from home/work with friends, or it may be to learn a new style of deer hunting that you can employ to make you more successful at home. Maybe you would like to go hunt where the weather is different than at home. These are all possibilities and no one can answer these questions for you.

Success on a DIY road trip hinges on finding good hunting areas. The research done at home will have a big impact on the outcome of your road trip.
Success on a DIY road trip hinges on finding good hunting areas. The research done at home will have a big impact on the outcome of your road trip.

Pick a State

The first choice you must make has to do with how much money you’re willing to put into this adventure. The second has to do with how long you’re willing to wait for a tag.

Some states offer over-the-counter, nonresident whitetail deer tags, but others require an application process and a wait. For example, most hunting zones in Kansas can be drawn every other year. The same is true of Montana and Wyoming. Iowa is the most extreme case; each year, more than 20,000 nonresident hunters apply for the 6,000 tags available. To draw an archery tag in the most desirable zones will take 3 to 5 years off applying and accumulating preference points. Your final costs to be fully licensed will run upwards of $750. Iowa has the goods and hunters continue to pay up.

Generally, states that have the most desirable whitetail hunting offer limited entry for nonresidents and higher license fees. And let’s face it, most people don’t go to the trouble and cost of an out-of-state hunt for a yearling buck or a fat doe. Antlers are the draw, like it or not. States that produce the most B&C and P&Y bucks generally have the highest cost and toughest draws.

I spent a lot of hours going through Pope & Young statistics by county in the 16 states I consider to be “destination” states. I mapped those counties within each state and published the results in my book “The Freelance Bowhunter.” What I found was there are areas of each state that produce the most big bucks. These were also the areas where the buck tags are most desirable and difficult to draw. But there are some interesting pockets of great deer hunting that are not common knowledge and don’t get the press. And some of them are in states with OTC tags. Doing your research is worth the time. 

Public land is found in all states, but several states in the Midwest offer land anyone can hunt, which has the potential to produce mature bucks year after year. State, county, federal and even city land can mean great hunting opportunities.
Public land is found in all states, but several states in the Midwest offer land anyone can hunt, which has the potential to produce mature bucks year after year. State, county, federal and even city land can mean great hunting opportunities.

Elbow Room

Missouri is an example of a state with abundant public deer hunting land, and with an OTC tag at a bargain price of $225, it allows the hunter to take two deer (one antlered) and two turkeys. Because of this, the public hunting areas get a lot of nonresident pressure, particularly those near the Iowa border. I’ve pulled into a parking lot of a public hunting area in the Show-Me state and counted a dozen trucks with license plates from half a dozen different states. Ohio would be another state that falls into a similar category. There is lots of public land, good numbers of mature bucks and high numbers of hunters.

States such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Nebraska offer good hunting with reasonable OTC tags, and enough land to find some elbow room if you work at it. The ratio of public hunting land in comparison to the number of hunters is in the favor of the traveling hunter. On the other extreme is Illinois, where public land is crowded and tags are expensive. Want a sleeper? Indiana. Cheap deer tags, good numbers of mature bucks and decent amount of public land that is mostly broken up into small state and county management areas, plus some large federal areas along rivers and reservoirs. It’s not in the top 10 of most traveling hunters’ lists, but it deserves another look.

Here’s another tip: Some states have programs into which private landowners can enroll their land as public hunting areas. Examples of these are the block management areas of Montana, Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) of North Dakota, Walk-In Hunting Areas (WIHA) of Kansas, and many others; you get the idea. While most of these programs are designed to provide upland bird hunting opportunities, they really benefit the deer hunter who is willing to spend some time on aerial photos to find the honey-holes.

Once your research has helped you narrow down the state and some public areas within the state, the best way to learn about the hunting pressure and the opportunities is to make some calls. Talk to land managers, biologists and game wardens. They’ll have a feel for things such as the quality of the hunting, the amount of local and nonresident pressure found there, and even things like if food plots have been planted and deer population cycles.

Trail cameras are a big part of hunting away from home. A buck like this one will keep you coming back year after year.
Trail cameras are a big part of hunting away from home. A buck like this one will keep you coming back year after year.

Peak Times

There are a lot of options and locations. In my opinion, the best hunts fall into three categories: early season bowhunts, rut hunts and late-season bow or muzzleloader hunts. Each of them have their appeal and trade-offs. Rut hunts on public land can be when you see the most hunting pressure. However, the first 2 weeks of November provide the best opportunity of the year in the Midwest to catch a mature buck on its feet during the daylight, and everyone loves the action associated with the rut.

Despite the numbers of nonresident hunters in the Midwest at that time, you’ll find me in the woods, because it’s so worth it. I have learned to analyze where most hunters spend their time and how bucks adapt to it, which has helped me find holes in the pressure that the deer know about.

Another peak time is the late season. Many states have archery and muzzleloader seasons that run until the end of December and even into January. In the northern Midwest and Great Lakes states, harsh weather and snow cause the deer to bunch up around the available food, and their patterns become quite predictable as they seek out the high-carbohydrate foods needed to keep warm in these environments. This presents the hunter who’s willing to bundle up and brave the elements with some high-percentage hunting opportunities.

Possibly the most overlooked peak time for a bowhunting road trip is the early season in many states. Kentucky, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota are among the states that offer archery deer seasons opening on or about the first of September. At this time the deer are quite visible; they’re focused on daily food to bed routines; and they’re not thinking about hunters. A savvy hunter can arrive a couple days prior to the season to scout and catch a buck completely unaware on opening day.

It’s one of my favorite times to hunt because of the sheer number of deer that can be seen. Plus there’s always the chance to shoot a buck before he loses his velvet, something that’s on the bucket list of many traveling whitetail hunters. One downside: Be ready to battle mosquitoes and other biting insects.

Near or Far?

If you’re from the eastern half of the U.S., a hunt in the Great Plains states can really scratch your itch for experiencing an entirely new kind of hunt. Hanging a stand in a 300-year-old Montana cottonwood the diameter of a VW beetle while watching 60 deer feed in the alfalfa isn’t something you’ll experience many other places. Likewise, a hunt in the snarly crooked trees of a North Dakota shelterbelt can be quite an experience because it’s so difficult to find a tree to hang a stand. I learned this the hard way when I first went to North Dakota to hunt the Army Corps of Engineers public land surrounding the Missouri River reservoirs. Ground blinds turned out to be key along with a ladder stand that can be fastened to just about any crooked tree. Another reason to do your research before you go.

Of course, the hardwood forests of the states bordering the Mississippi River can offer a challenge to learn deer movements, but once you get a handle on how these deer use terrain, you can park yourself in a stand in a good spot for hours upon hours with the knowledge that the biggest buck you’ve ever seen in your life could walk within range at any moment.

Don’t overlook the value of crossing a nearby state border for a weekend hunt. You may or may not live in a good deer hunting state, so why not just hop over next door for a hunt in a new area? This may give you the opportunity to scout more and also may offer you the chance at a weekend hunt rather than using up a week of vacation to travel far and wide.

The author has been on more than two dozen whitetail trips away from home and has been successful on about a third of them, even though he holds a personal standard of taking no less than a 3-year-old buck.
The author has been on more than two dozen whitetail trips away from home and has been successful on about a third of them, even though he holds a personal standard of taking no less than a 3-year-old buck.

Just Do It

Here’s the best piece of advice I can give you: Just go. Do some research and pick a spot to go. Your first trip may not produce a buck, but if you go with an attitude that you’re going to enjoy the experience and learn some things, you will be successful. And if you decide to keep going, your odds of coming home with a decent-size buck in the back of the truck go up each time you hit the road on a DIY public land hunt.

Images by Bernie Barringer

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