There’s a curious thing that happens when hunters romanticize big woods bucks and dream about entering thousands of acres of timber to shoot a dark-antlered bruiser. What they find, particularly if they come from an area with plenty of open space or deciduous forests, is that the big timber reality kind of sucks. Deer hunting claustrophobia kicks in, along with the sinking feeling that comes with dismal deer densities.
Most go once, and then never again.
The opposite is also true. The Eastern bowhunter hell-bent on killing a Kansas giant may not realize some units have about 23 total trees—and seven already have stands.
In both cases the mental hurdles are clear, but enough scouting and hunting will show you what is hardest to believe: The deer are there and the deer are killable. This is especially true when it comes to whitetails on the rolling prairie—just don’t expect a traditional hunt when you wade into a sea of CRP.
The Conservation Reserve Program is a federal subsidy through which the government pays farmers and ranchers to keep portions of their land out of agricultural production to provide habitat for wildlife. It is often open, rolling, upland, or grassland country that can hold big bucks.
When eyeballing vast expanses of prairie or CRP sections, public land bowhunting expert Andy May looks for a couple key terrain features: “Bucks always seem to bed in a three types of spots in the CRP: lone trees, old fence rows, and low spots. All three provide structure, from obviously better cover to the slightly more lush vegetation growth in the lower, wetter spots.”
This has been my experience as well, and I saw it firsthand years ago before wrapping my tag on a big Nebraska buck. The deer not only bedded in any cover they could find but seemed to always travel along it as well. It’s just like how walleye always seem to relate to humps, drop-offs, rocky reefs, or any other notable underwater feature. No matter how subtle the features may seem to you, walleye and whitetail use these areas when surrounded by nothingness.
It might be a patch of cedars deer browse through on their way to bed, or it might just be a slight rise in an otherwise featureless section. There is usually something they key on. The single biggest public land buck I ever laid eyes on was bedded in a tiny trough on some otherwise unremarkable CRP in South Dakota. That buck, a legit 180-class deer, was in a spot that didn’t look like much, but offered him a lot of options for spotting and smelling danger. In other words, it was no accident that he chose to bed in some grass instead of the wooded river bottom half of a mile away.
May also notes that CRP provides more than just good bedding options for big bucks. “They seem to feel comfortable traveling in the CRP, and this allows you to see them and often figure out how to set up for them,” he said. “Spot and stalk is viable for this situation, of course, but what’s even better is if you can find some CRP next to any type of timbered bedding cover that does will often gravitate to.”
In this case, you’ve got a hard edge to work with and it can be very good during the rut. When you don’t have trees, May’s advice on spotting and stalking is worth consideration. Most Eastern bowhunters will expect CRP is not going to allow creeping, but with enough wind or a little rain, it’s entirely possible.
You can also strap a bow-mounted decoy to your rig, like an Ultimate Predator Whitetail Decoy, and use it to help seal the deal. During the rut, this can be a great way to dupe a buck into range, or at least close the gap on some bedded deer. Just make sure there aren’t any firearms seasons open before you try this. You also have to practice plenty with the decoy strapped to your bow before flinging an arrow in a dynamic, moment-of-truth situation.
The key to killing in CRP or prairies is to rewire your brain to think about good cover in a different way. This starts with recognizing the fact that when you look at this type of habitat while standing on a hill staring through binoculars, you will be tempted to believe it’s flat and featureless.
CRP fields and expanses of grassland rarely are actually featureless, and anyone who has walked enough miles in waist-high grass knows that there are washouts, undulations in the terrain, and patches of random cover everywhere. The places that can hide a whole herd of traveling deer are subtle but numerous. This also means that observation at sunrise and sunset is your best friend. Post up with good optics before ever setting foot in the CRP and watch for an evening or morning (or both).
You’ll be shocked at where deer appear, and how hard they are to spot even when they’re on their feet. One productive session can tell you not only what cottonwood to hang your stand in or where to start a stalking session, but also how comfortable (and plentiful) the deer are. Without actually seeing the deer there, you might think it only holds cottontails and pheasants.
Anyone who has been behind a bow long enough knows another secret about CRP—it often houses the biggest bucks in any given section, even if it looks like it shouldn’t. Lay your eyes on one Booner in switchgrass and I guarantee it won’t be your last hunt on the prairie.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.