I remember when I decided to focus my efforts primarily toward hunting whitetails on public land. I’d grown enamored with the idea of hunting deer that faced lower pressure and had higher chances of reaching maturity, and I wanted to tackle different types of terrain and learn how deer travel through environments different than those around my home.
Public lands were the ideal solution for my situation, since I wasn’t in any financial position to buy or lease ground in multiple states. But public land hunting was still a bit of a mystery to me because there wasn’t much whitetail-focused information available at the time. In short, I viewed hunting public areas as a “Western” thing that belonged almost exclusively to elk and mule deer hunters.
Those early days were glorious, though. Hunting pressure for whitetails was low. Deer numbers in most areas were satisfactorily high. Trophy potential was really good, since I’d see more 4-year-old bucks in a week in some places than I could expect to see in a lifetime around home.
I want to exhibit a bit of hesitation in compiling this list of overlooked and underrated states, partly because I’ve seen major changes to deer populations since I first visited these places. Hunting pressure has increased exponentially, and the overall quality of the experience has waned as a result. The good ol’ days of public land deer hunting are likely over. But there’s still some fun to be had—you just need to look in places others haven’t yet.
I also hesitate because one of the great joys in this type of hunting is discovering something that others haven’t. By broadcasting some of these hidden gems, I’m almost ensuring they won’t stay hidden for very long. But, ironically, this is also why I enjoy reading these types of pieces: the discovery a new favorite place is an experience worth sharing. Here are three great public land deer states that have been flying under the radar.
West Virginia In order to wax poetic about West Virginian whitetails, I must lay some groundwork about Ohio whitetails first. I’ve spent a lot of time hiking the hills of southern Ohio in search of a mega-giant buck, and while I’ve never actually killed a buck there, I’m not really embarrassed by that fact. Hunting those Ohio hill country bucks is not easy. But considering the hundreds of trail cam pictures of world-class bucks I’ve captured in Ohio, the vast majority of which were taken on public land of typical deer over 170 inches and non-typicals that flirt with the magic 200-inch mark, I’d say Ohio has seriously big whitetails.
But Ohio faces a problem that West Virginia does not: Ohio public land whitetail hunting is not a secret. It was a known destination when I first started hunting there, and the visitation back then was nothing compared to what it is now. Today, I expect to run into plenty of hunters no matter what part of the state I hunt or how far back into the hills I hike.
West Virginia is different. It has much of the same Appalachian terrain and is even more rugged in many spots. This habitat makes bucks tough to kill but it also helps them live longer. With a seemingly endless supply of browse, acorns, and mineral-rich soils, these bucks grow substantial antlers.
West Virginia has something else Ohio doesn’t: a bow-only area in the heart of that harsh terrain that includes multiple counties. It’s no secret that killing a deer with a rifle is a bit easier than with a bow, so these areas see a lot fewer hunters.
There’s plenty of public land to be found in the Mountain State. You’ll need good legs and healthy lungs to tackle most of it, but the opportunities are considerable. Tags are easy to get and they come at a bargain price for nonresidents—about $160 apiece.
Oklahoma Oklahoma isn’t exactly a sleeper state these days, but I think it’s still overlooked in a lot of ways. That will likely change due to a massive uptick in people hunting Kansas and the still-growing interest on public land hunting.
For a period of time, Kansas was an almost-guaranteed draw every year, and many units had whitetail tags to spare. Three years ago that started to change. Applicants began failing to draw and leftover tags dwindled. This year, a record number of applicants entered the Kansas lottery. It seems the days of leftover tags are gone. In fact, I’d predict we are two to three years from most units requiring at least one (if not two) preference points to draw.
This will make neighboring Oklahoma more attractive. The terrain in Oklahoma is very similar to that of Kansas and the caliber of deer rivals Kansas in many areas. That open country features lots of cattle, few trees, and whitetails that will roam a very long way on a given day in the rut.
Deer tags in Oklahoma are roughly half the cost of those in Kansas and are currently available without an application or lottery entry. On top of that, in Oklahoma, hunters can also take two bucks instead of one. Of course this all could change if more hunters start flooding in.
Public land isn’t abundant in the Sooner State, but some regions have enough to work with. Leasing land is a common practice here, so access to private may be a bit tougher for those who prefer to knock on a door.
Indiana For a while, Indiana seemed poised to be the “next big thing” in deer hunting. The state adopted a one-buck rule and some hunting figures sang its praises while showing footage on TV. But that focus was short-lived and the Hoosier State is not nearly as popular now as it once was. That’s fine by me—I think Indiana is one of the best, most overlooked options for anyone who wants to hunt deer in the Midwest.
First of all, Southern Indiana has an incredible amount of public acreage. The big blocks of hardwood ridges provide habitat similar to Ohio and Missouri. Some of the terrain is pretty rugged, and agricultural ground is scattered throughout.
There are plenty of deer and some stud bucks, but they probably aren’t quite on par with Ohio because of the season structure. The state’s gun season rolls in during the prime of the rut in mid-November, a surefire way to knock back the age structure of the buck population.
With that said, Indiana still gives you a better chance at a buck of three years or older on public ground than many other states can offer. Hunters can buy tags over the counter and won’t spend too much money on them, less than $200 for the one buck you are allowed to kill.
Feature image via Captured Creative.