It’s becoming increasingly common to travel beyond the border of home states in pursuit of punching tags on North America’s most popular game animal. Although nearly every state hosts huntable whitetail populations, there are a few that stand above the rest. These states have exceptional public land opportunities, economical tags, good license availability, and trophy potential that should titillate every DIY hunter.
Narrowing this list down to three was damn tough. Here are some that didn’t make the cut but should still be on your radar. Montana has loads of public land and a deer hunting culture that skews towards muleys. For that reason, much of the whitetail public ground is overlooked and under hunted. However, it has one of the most expensive non-resident deer tags in the country at over $600, which will deter a lot of DIYers.
For half the cost you can hunt the Bluegrass State. Kentucky is one of the most well-managed states for whitetails, with solid herd numbers and great trophy potential. More folks are finding this out, though, and public land competition is way up in the last decade.
But for a true Southern whitetail hunt, I’d look to Mississippi. They have over a million acres of public land and the largest whitetail population in the country (based on deer per square mile). Tag fees are reasonable at $300, and the trophy potential is there thanks to a great age structure. This isn’t textbook whitetail country, though, which will cause a lot of hunters to struggle to kill a bottomlands buck.
Tag fee: $250
Season: late August – early January
Public land: 1,976,000 acres
Boone & Crockett trophy ranking: 19th
North Dakota has one of the earliest deer openers in the country, which fluctuates between late August and early September each year. Although rifle tags are tough to draw, archery whitetail tags are available over the counter. There’s a lot of space to roam, and fairly little competition. North Dakota has fewer deer hunters than all of its neighboring states; Minnesota kills more deer each year than North Dakota gives out tags.
Although there’s a ton of public land, not all of it is productive for whitetailers. Many areas in the western part of the state are better suited for elk, pronghorn, and mule deer hunters, all of which you’ll run into during the early part of the season. North Dakota isn’t considered a trophy state, but that’s usually not the focus of an OTC, DIY hunter.
North Dakota has quietly become one of the best whitetail destinations in the nation, especially for those looking to arrow a velvet buck. It’s hard to imagine The Flickertail State will stay a secret in the whitetail community for much longer.
Tag fee: $250
Season: late September – early February
Public land: 700,000 acres
Boone & Crockett trophy ranking: 4th
With one of the cheaper non-resident licenses in the Midwest, Ohio has been captivating DIY hunters on a budget for years. The state has some of the best trophy potential as well, with Boone & Crockett entries near the top of the book. The state has high quality public lands made up of rolling hills and thick timber that feels bigger than what it actually is.
Like the rest of the region, Ohio does not have an ample amount of public ground. You’re more likely to run into competition here than in other areas on this list. The Buckeye State also has a late archery opener, dropping hunters right into what some consider the lull of the season.
Short on public opportunity but loaded with big deer and cheap tags, Ohio is a low-risk and high-reward state that is exactly what out-of-staters should be drawn to. Find yourself in a treestand here in early November, and you’re likely to see some of the best public land rut action in the country.
Tag fee: $240
Season: early September – late December
Public land: 800,000 acres
Boone & Crockett trophy ranking: 13th
Nestled between Iowa and Kansas, Nebraska holds the genetics and nutrition to pump out mega whitetails like its neighbors. Nebraska has an early opener that appeals to archers, but also has a month-long muzzleloader season in December that favors firearm hunters. Whether you want to hunt with a bow or grab the smoke pole, Nebraska is a great option. It’s also an incredibly diverse state, with whitetails found among the large ag fields, rough river bottoms, and vast sand hills.
Public land in Nebraska isn’t as abundant as other Great Plains states, but walk-in hunting programs help make up for that. Although it’s also still recovering from recent bouts of EHD and hard winters, the age structure is still there to kill a mature whitetail.
There isn’t much to dislike about Nebraska, with big bucks that can be pursued early or late with the weapon of your choice. I’d consider it the top state for DIY deer hunters in 2020. I’ll be spending part of my fall there, along with a few of the other states from the list.
Feature image via Captured Creative.