I’ve always felt that I’ve been especially blessed as a deer hunter. Not necessarily because of my success, though I’ve had my moments, but rather because I’ve been able to experience so much of the deer hunting world. I grew up in Vermont, had family property in New York and Indiana, and when I was in my mid-twenties, I moved to Montana to become a guide. I’ve been lucky enough to hunt deer in a variety of different states, utilizing a collection of different hunting techniques, allowing me to completely immerse myself in an assortment of different deer-hunting cultures.
I’ve sat in tree stands on the edge of cornfields with my bow, tracked and still hunted big woods bucks across snowy ridges, spotted and stalked muleys and whitetails on the open prairie, and even slipped between small woodlots and open fields with a shotgun, bow, and muzzleloader in middle of suburbia. I’ve been a part of family deer camps, planted food plots and placed stands, taken part of massive deer drives, and hunted and worked with a variety of hardcore backcountry outfitters and guides.
Throughout all this experience, I’ve met deer hunters of every size, shape, and color, each with their own preferences for hunting methods and styles. These men and women come from dozens of different states, and nearly all of them have declared their methods to be the best. All of this has led me to ask a very pertinent question—Which states actually produce the best deer hunters?
Like baseball, bass fishing, and arguing about politics, deer hunting is an American pastime. As the country’s most plentiful big game animal, almost every state in the country has a native deer population. Even states without any, such as Hawaii, have introduced the animals so that its citizens can participate in recreational hunting. This means that almost every hunter out there, from your weekend warriors to your world-class pros, has all cut their teeth in the deer woods at one point or another. That being said, this doesn’t mean everyone who goes out to harass their local buck population is a good deer hunter.
We all know those guys and gals who just seem to half-ass it in the woods. They show up late to camp, roll out of bed at 9 or 10 a.m., and then simply take their gun for a walk down a trail. The thing is that while a lot of these hunters get skunked, in a lot of places these hunters actually manage to kill quite a few nice bucks. On the other side of the coin, we also all know a few hunters who are out the door before everyone else, going father, staying out longer, and simply hunting harder, who still never seem to manage to get a deer. Now we can say that these hunters are simply lucky or unlucky respectively, but what it really comes down to is whether or not these folks are good deer hunters.
Being a good deer hunter isn’t necessarily about hunting harder, nor is it just about knowing a lot about deer behavior, nor is it about carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot in your pocket. Rather it’s a combination of all of those things. Good deer hunters are willing to push themselves a little harder, know how to put themselves in the right place at the right time, and can adapt their hunting strategy to create their own luck. They can pick the perfect spot for a stand, wait patiently on a buck for hours or days, track, still hunt, and stalk. They hunt areas with low deer densities, where the buck-to-doe ratio is completely out of whack, and still manage to take a good buck year after year. You can take a truly good deer hunter, blindfold them and then shove them out of a plane to parachute in on any piece of ground in the country, and they’ll be able to find and kill a buck. While these true masters exist in every state in the country, some certainly have more than others.
Harvest numbers show you a lot about which states have the best deer hunters, though not necessarily in the way you might think. It may seem obvious that the states with the highest number of harvested deer must have the best deer hunters. However, there are a lot of other factors involved. Most states with high deer harvest numbers also have incredibly high populations of deer and are places with good forage and habitat where deer populations can thrive. The simple fact is that in states like this deer hunting becomes easier and consequently it takes less skill to be successful.
One of the regions with the highest success rates in the country is the Midwest. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin record some of the highest antlered buck harvest rates in the country, with Pennsylvania topping the charts in 2021 with estimates of 145,320 harvested bucks. While this data doesn’t exactly state that good deer hunters don’t come from this region, what it does show is that hunting in the Midwest is simply easier than hunting in areas with lower deer densities. So much so that many hunters from other parts of the country actually travel to different Midwestern states, simply to have an opportunity to shoot a buck they wouldn’t have in their own state.
“I go to Ohio every year because the sound of a snapping twig or the ruffling of the leaves always has me on edge because I might be about to encounter the biggest buck of my life,” avid Vermont and New York deer hunter Adam Shepard said. “That’s why I go to the Midwest. That feeling that any moment I could see and potentially harvest the buck of a lifetime. I’ve hunted Vermont my whole life, and I’ve only gone to Ohio a handful of times, but in that handful, I’ve seen more big bucks there than I have in Vermont in my entire lifetime.”
High harvest numbers also help to eliminate other regions from states with top deer hunters. In the South, states like Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi show buck harvests between 80,000 and 140,000 animals. Similarly, states like North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado also boast incredibly high success rates for their regions. Of course, when you’re talking about harvest numbers, it’s impossible to leave out Texas. The Lonestar State boasts the highest deer population in the nation with over 5.5 million deer calling it home. Consequently, the second-largest state in the US also boasts the highest harvest numbers in the country with hunters harvesting over 450,000 bucks in 2021 alone.
Of course, none of these numbers necessarily reflect the skills of the hunters that live in these states. I’m sure there are some absolutely fantastic deer hunters that come from all of them. However, what the numbers do show is that these states have high deer densities with states like Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have over 30 deer per square mile. This means that your average deer hunter, possessing only an average set of skills, has a better chance to go to any of these states and consistently kill a buck. While this makes these places fantastic deer hunting states, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these places produce the best hunters. It’s a long-held belief that bad deer hunting makes for better deer hunters.
While all the states in the union can be challenging to hunt for a variety of reasons—from having rough terrain to low deer populations—there are a few that truly stand out. These states all have their own unique sets of challenges for those that hunt them which forces these men and women to become better deer hunters if they want any chance to stock up on venison. Accordingly, the hunters who can consistently kill big bucks in these states are quite possibly the best deer hunters in the country.
The three states that make up northern New England are all lumped together because the hunters from these states there all face the same challenges—wide swaths of thickly forested land with extremely low numbers of deer and a lot of hunting pressure. All three states have some of the lowest deer densities in the country with the northern regions having between 5 to 15 deer per square mile. Additionally, the few deer that live in these states face a lot of hunting pressure with between 50,000 and 150,000 hunters taking to the woods after them every year. This makes finding and harvesting big bucks in northern New England a special challenge, one that consists of covering a lot of ground to find small pockets of deer, giving even the best hunters only one or two opportunities to be successful per season.
“Northern New England challenges a person’s deer hunting skills second to none,” Rodney Elmer, host of the Mountain Deer Podcast and YouTube Channel said. “It’s like a deer desert, but at least in a desert you can walk, you can see forever, and you have plenty of room to shoot. None of that exists here, so you have to be good to be successful, which means hunting hard because nobody seems to come here and show us a better way to get it done.”
While Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine may seem like a black hole in the deer hunting world, the state’s challenges have forged some of the best and most celebrated hunters in the nation. Famous trackers and hunters like R.G Bernier, Hal Blood, and the Benoit family, the patriarch of which—Larry Benoit—was actually declared the best deer hunter in America by Sports Afield Magazine in 1970, all come from northern New England.
Like most other Mid-Western states, Michigan has an incredibly high deer population with around 1.9 million deer calling the state home. However, it also has an incredibly high population of hunters as well. Over 600,000 hunters head into the rolling hills, dense northern forests, and agricultural fields of Michigan to try their hand at taking a buck every single year. Like the New England states, this high density of hunters forces deer into small pockets of land which sees a lot of hunter activity during the season, shutting down much of the deer activity during the day.
“Michigan has some of the highest hunter participation in the country, and in the southern half of the state (where most hunt) the huntable land is parceled out into small pieces, each with numerous hunters,” Mark Kenyon said. “All of this makes for some of the heaviest experienced hunting pressure in the country. If you can consistently kill deer in Michigan, you can do it anywhere.”
Despite its challenges, Michigan has managed to produce quite a few world-class hunters including Kenyon himself along with MeatEater’s own Janis Putelis and of course Steve Rinella. Other hunters like Andy May, John Eberhart, and perhaps the greatest bow hunter ever to exist, Fred Bear, all call the beautiful peninsula home.
Low deer densities and hunting pressure present their own challenges, but sometimes it’s the deer you’re chasing that makes hunting in a certain state so difficult and forces you to become a better hunter. While there are a lot of different deer species and subspecies in a lot of states, there is perhaps no greater challenge to a deer hunter's skills than hunting Coues deer in Arizona.
“If I had to pick a state that truly forges good deer hunters, it would have to be Arizona,” avid deer hunter and hunting guide Willie Dellwo said. “Coues are just such a challenge to find and to hunt. If you really want to kill one, you have to learn how to earn them.”
Often called the gray ghost, Coues deer are a small subspecies of whitetail that are able to slip in and out of cover completely undetected with subtle and small movements that are barely perceptible to a hunter’s eye. They also live in some of the most challenging terrain in the country, preferring thick stands of brush surrounded by steep open terrain where there is little cover for approach. They are an especially wary deer that require those who hunt them to plan their stalks perfectly, for one misstep can send a Coues buck flying into the next county, never to be seen again.
“We believe that hunting mature Coues deer is the most difficult hunt in North America,” Waylon Pettet said, who along with his cousins Cash, Steel, and Levi Armstong runs the Arizona Ground Pounders Outfitter in Payson, Arizona. “It requires the highest level of skill sets to be successful. Every hunt requires the ability to glass for long amounts of time, a high level of physical fitness to climb steep, rough terrain, and the ability to make long-range shots at the animal known as the grey ghost. The margin for error on a Coues hunt is little to none.”
Arizona was the home hunting ground of one of the most renowned big game hunters on the planet, the late, great Jack O’Conner. O’Conner hunted hundreds of game species all around the world, but in one of his early articles he once famously wrote, “If I had to pick the American game animal that has given me more real pleasure than any other, I think I’d choose the Arizona whitetail.”
Though it’s mostly known for its big cities, surf culture, proximity to Disneyland, and being filled with Hollywood celebrities, California actually has quite a few deer hunters as well. In the northern part of the state, there are also multiple different deer species including the mule deer and the Columbian Blacktail deer. Both species are incredibly popular with California deer hunters, but hunting in the state can be incredibly challenging due to hunting pressure, environmental and political factors, and the difficulty of the terrain, making the hunters who successfully pursue them some of the best deer hunters in the country.
“In order to be a successful deer hunter in California it takes months of scouting and planning and a willingness to change your entire plan at the last minute,” avid California deer hunter Brandan Niblett told MeatEater. “Due to the mismanagement of the forests, we are continuously facing wildfires and land closures that in the end often just bring success down to pure luck.”
The deer of Northern California tend to live in remote, hard-to-reach places surrounded by some of the most challenging terrain in the country. Here they not only face hunting pressure but almost continuous harassment from an abundance of predators like coyotes, black bears, bobcats, and especially mountain lions. This makes the deer of northern California incredibly wary animals that rarely grow to trophy sizes, making it all the more difficult for the state's deer hunters to find success regularly.
“The difficulty I have with deer hunting here is that there is no management on any of the predators,” California deer hunter Bruce Griggs said. “They devastate the deer population and make it truly difficult to find a legal buck to harvest. It’s not about trying to find a real trophy buck here, but just one legal buck to feed my family with.”
Though there haven’t been a lot of notable hunters coming from the state, the average success rate for California deer hunters sits between 11% and 22%. This means that those hunters who beat the odds by regularly finding success in the steep mountains and dense forests of the state are likely among the elite of the deer hunting world.
In the end, every state in the country presents its own difficulties and challenges that hunters have to overcome to be successful. However, we should all follow the example set by hunters who regularly find success in the more challenging places of the country by continuing to learn and to test ourselves as deer hunters.
No matter where you’re from or where you hunt, it’s important to continue to grow and evolve in the world of deer hunting. Not only will this make us better deer hunters, but by doing so, we’re assuring that our traditions will never die and that future generations will always be able to find and face their own hunting challenges in the deer woods.