If you’re thinking this is your year to travel across state lines to hunt whitetails, you’d better start planning right now. It takes months to conduct the necessary due diligence so you don’t end up dropping serious coin on a non-resident license only to have the hunt totally flame out.

Here’s the thing: most people start at the wrong point in the process. They’ll hear about Iowa’s giant bucks or how Kansas has tons of untouched walk-in ground and decide it’s Boonerville or bust. But it isn’t so simple. Quite honestly, focusing solely on the states that boast the biggest bucks is a bad idea—especially if you want to get a tag this year.

What State?
Let’s say you ignore that last sentence and decide it’s southern Iowa or nothing. You want to go to a place where you can practically shoot arrows indiscriminately into the woods and hit a 160-inch deer (please don’t), but when you dig into the process to get a license, you’ll see that it’ll take at least three or four preference points before you can draw a tag. In frustration, you look up Nebraska or South Dakota and see that they’ll sell you an OTC tag for half the price, and with no wait.

The reality is, you can’t start planning a hunt until you know you can get a tag. Tag draws and purchases are a lot simpler than they used to be, and they start with a quick Google search. If the wording seems confusing on a state website, call them up. Even for a traveling whitetailer like me it’s difficult to decipher the difference between terms like preference points and bonus points, or over-the-counter tags and guaranteed draw tags.

You’ll also want to focus that research related to your weapon choice. In some states, an archery or muzzleloader license will be over the counter, while a firearms license will take a lottery pick. Generally, archery licenses are easiest to come by, followed by muzzleloader, then rifle. This isn’t always the case, so do your research accordingly.

Hunt Timing
When you decide that Wisconsin, Kentucky, or maybe Oklahoma is the destination due to tag availability, you’ll probably be tempted to pull up onX and start getting busy. Hold off for now, though. Think about timing before finding a location, because when you can hunt might affect where you should hunt.

Some states have restrictions on when non-residents can hunt. South Dakota, for example, won’t let non-residents hunt public lands the first month of the season. North Dakota has restrictions around their pheasant opener that will keep you off of certain types of public lands, too. It’s also a good idea to research youth hunts, small game openers, and anything else that might draw extra pressure into the woods or require you to wear blaze orange.

Whether you’re looking for a rut hunt with a rifle or a mid-October bowhunt, narrow down your dates before scouting out a location.

Getting Specific
If you have a rich uncle who owns a section or two of land, picking a place to hunt will be simple. For the rest of us, this will involve looking up public lands options.

We all know what we’re supposed to look for on aerial photography as far as food and cover are concerned. However, after a decade of hunting almost solely this way, I can confidently say that access is everything. Any decent cover will have bucks using it, but if it is easy to hunt, there will be other people. Ease of access always determines the amount of pressure. Nice two-tracks with state-planted food plots look amazing on satellite imagery, but they’re hunter magnets too.

Find spots with limited access that allow you to out-hike and out-work your competition. This isn’t rocket science, but it obviously will take some dedication to scout these places. And yes, you need to find more than one spot.

Give yourself some backup options and expect to get some of the scouting wrong. I’d say about 75% of the time I think I’ve found a can’t-lose spot on the map, it doesn’t look so good in person. Or, it at least doesn’t set up right, doesn’t have enough sign to get me to commit, or there are other people already hunting it. Without backups you’ll be floundering at the critical moment—which can easily ruin a trip.

Give yourself options so that when Plan A blows up, you won’t miss a beat and can move on to Plan B, C, etc. Eventually you should come across some land that offers quality deer and a quality hunt. When you finally lose an arrow into a buck’s chest, all of that time spent reading non-resident applications regs and clicking around onX will absolutely be worth it.

Feature image via Captured Creative.