The 5 Best Whitetail States

Every fall untold thousands of deer hunters travel to other states to hunt whitetails. Why would they do this when they almost always have whitetails close to home in their own states that they could hunt much cheaper? Well the answer is very simple and plainly obvious; many deer hunters want to hunt where they have the best chance to kill a trophy buck. A few states recognize this and try to manage a herd with good age-structure which allows more bucks to reach older age classes and thus grow bigger racks. Most states however simply manage deer numbers without any concern for quality. This is the reason their own resident hunters leave home in search of greener pastures … and bigger bucks.

A states deer herd represents income to the politicians who ultimately “run the show”. Most deer biologists recognize the importance of a well-managed herd where things like sex-ratios and age-structure are figured into carefully-crafted regulations. The problem is that too often politicians and lobby-groups get involved and tie the hands of good biologists. What the politicians fail to realize is that the true value of a states deer herd is closely tied to the quality of that herd. Few hunters are going to travel to hunt in a state with a poorly managed herd and that ultimately means that the state loses out on potential income from not only the sale of expensive non-resident hunting licenses but also the sales tax from the money those traveling hunters would have spent in their state for things like meals, motels, fuel, etc. Clearly, a well-managed deer herd benefits everyone as well as the state coffers.

A lot of deer hunters travel to other states for the chance to see a sight like this – a giant buck walking past their stand on a frosty fall morning.

So let’s look at my pick of the five best whitetail states. I am going to list them in reverse order and I am going to note what each state does right and also what they could do better. From the start I want to recognize that there are factors like soil fertility and climate that are unique to each state and are frankly out of anyone’s control. What I am focusing on here is regulation-type factors that could be changed either for the better or the worse.

  1. Kentucky

What Kentucky does right – 1 buck limit, allows supplemental nutrition

Room for improvement

The biggest thing holding back Kentucky from producing more mature bucks is its gun season. Having 2+ weeks of gun season (rifle) during the November rut takes its toll on bucks. If the gun season was changed to a 9-day season held in early December, the state would certainly see an increase in the number of giant bucks it produces.

  1. Kansas

What Kansas does right – 1 buck limit, allows supplemental nutrition, limits non-residents

Room for improvement

Kansas is one state that is doing almost everything right but is limited by its environment. There are regions within the state that are fantastic deer habitat but other larger regions are simply not prime whitetail habitat and thus do not produce many eye-catching bucks. There are a number of states that would greatly improve the quality of their deer herds simply by followings the Kansas template.

  1. Illinois

What Illinois does right – limited gun season during November

Room for improvement

Illinois was once home to the best deer herd on earth and could easily be once again with just a few regulation changes. It all starts with curtailing the buck harvest by whatever means – limiting non-resident numbers, limiting non-residents to 1 buck only, moving gun season out of November, etc. Illinois is living on its past reputation but those hunters over 50 years old who remember the “good ole days” will tell you that the state has taken a true nose-dive in terms of quality. There are a lot of miles between 170” bucks in the Land of Lincoln and it is more a result of private land management and Illinois fertile soils that the state has the big bucks that it has. It is worth noting that Illinois still produces some giant bucks IN SPITE of its deer management program, not because of it. With some state-wide management changes that focus on quality as well as quantity, Illinois could easily move up to #1 on this list.

  1. Ohio

What Ohio does right – 1 buck limit, December gun season, allows supplemental nutrition

Room for improvement

I have done a lot of consulting work in Ohio and have hunted there several times and even recently bought land in the Buckeye state. In my opinion, those who manage the Ohio deer herd have probably done as good a job as those in any other state. They are doing a LOT of things right. My only comment for making Ohio even better would be in regards to baiting during season. A lot of young bucks get killed over corn piles. I personally would hate to see the state totally eliminate supplemental feeding but allowing supplemental feeding only outside of hunting season would be a huge step towards helping Ohio crank out even more giants.

  1. Iowa

What Iowa does right – Severely limits non-resident deer hunters!!!, December gun season, allows supplemental nutrition outside of hunting season

Room for improvement

I see only one glaring hole in Iowa’s deer management program; they allow too many bucks to be killed per hunter. In certain instances a hunter can kill 3 bucks in a season. I realize that probably not too many hunters do kill 3 bucks but it is still something that could be addressed to make the state even better. I also don’t personally care for the “party-hunting” situation where a group of hunters can all be afield to fill a single tag. Overall, Iowa does a great job managing its deer herd.

Conclusion –

I should note that I feel that #1-Iowa and #2-Ohio are very solid in their rankings with Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky easily ranking below them. An argument could easily be made for swapping positions with those last three states. Your top-5 whitetail states may look a bit different than mine but I bet most of the states listed here are also on your list somewhere. You may also disagree with some of my suggestions for improving certain states. That’s fine, I just gave my opinion and certainly don’t have any influence with anyone managing a deer herd on a state-wide level so don’t take it personal.

When it comes to limiting the harvest of young bucks and moving more of them into older age classes, there are some key regulations that help do this. Limiting hunters to one buck is one way of doing it. I might note that three of the states on this list have a 1-buck limit.

Maybe the most important factor in managing a quality whitetail herd is limiting gun hunting during the November rut when young bucks are most vulnerable. Three of the states on my list don’t allow gun hunting until December while Illinois only has 3 days in November. Kentucky is the only exception and they are at the bottom of my list. Let me throw out an interesting fact to bolster this opinion; look at Indiana and Missouri which are not on this list. Both of those states are bordered on three sides by states on this list but yet they don’t make the cut. Why? It is very simple, both Indiana and Missouri offer lengthy rifle seasons during November. This one factor alone totally demolishes the buck populations in those states and in turn sends hunters and hunter-dollars fleeing across the state lines where they have a better chance to tag a trophy buck.

Hunters clearly have proven that they are willing to travel and pay more for the opportunity to hunt a well-managed deer herd. My hope would be that more state game agencies and politicians will see the added value in a well-managed herd and strive to make their herd the best it can possibly be. A whitetail herd with good age-structure and balanced sex-ratios benefits everyone and with well-thought-out regulations it can be achieved almost anywhere.

I have tried to avoid making this blog post as free of controversy as possible. In the coming days however I am going to tackle a couple of more controversial issues that all game management agencies will be dealing with in the near future. Be sure to “like” my facebook page “Don Higgins / Higgins Outdoors” to see them and all my other blog posts as soon as they are posted

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