It’s becoming increasingly common to travel outside of home states in pursuit of 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. Pack up your truck camping gear and hit these destinations this fall.
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 public ground whitetail habitat 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.
You can hunt the Bluegrass State for half that cost. 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.
South Dakota has affordable tags and lots of public ground, but isn’t the most friendly state to non-residents. While residents get to start bowhunting on Sept. 1 and gun hunt the entire state, non-residents don’t begin until Oct. 1 and gun hunters are relegated to the western half of the state. The ingredients for a great DIY deer hunt are there, but regulations make things tough. Head a bit further north and you’ll find one of the best whitetail states in the region.
Tag Fee: $250
Season: late August to 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, fluctuating 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, for example, 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, 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: $305
Season: early October to mid-February
Public Land: 1,268,000 acres
Boone & Crockett Trophy Ranking: 14th
Mississippi has one of the most unique ruts in the nation. In general, the further south you get in the state, the later the rut. Hunters along the Tennessee and Arkansas border witness breeding as early as November, while those on the Gulf won’t see rutting activity until late January. Mississippi also has one of the strictest antler point restrictions in the nation, which has helped hunters harvest more mature bucks in recent years.
Even the most savvy deer hunters will struggle in the Magnolia State, though. This isn’t textbook whitetail country—instead of oak ridges and corn fields you’ll be hunting bottomlands and swamps.
The learning curve for this true Southern whitetail hunt is significant, but the big herds and big bucks are too. With over a million acres of public hunting opportunity, Mississippi is one of the best DIY options for whitetailers looking to fill a tag in December or January.
Tag Fee: $250
Season: mid-September to 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 feel bigger than what they actually are.
Like the rest of the region, Ohio lacks ample 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, 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: $160
Season: early September to early January
Public Land: 5,167,000 acres
Boone & Crockett Trophy Ranking: 1st
The only whitetail states with more public land than Wisconsin are its neighbors, Minnesota and Michigan. So why do Cheeseheads have superior hunting to Minnesotans and Michiganders? Wisconsin has a bigger herd and bigger bucks. They also offer cheaper tags and reduced rates for first-time license purchasers.
The downside is that Wisconsin has one of the largest hunting populations in America. Even with all that public land to roam, you’re still bound to bump into fellow hunters. They also have major CWD issues that mean your venison may not come with a clean bill of health.
Just plan accordingly and you should be able to avoid the crowds. Show up on a weekday in October and you could have thousands of acres of public earth to yourself. Hit the woods on gun opener and you’ll probably see more hunters than deer.
Tag Fee: $240
Season: early September to 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 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 find 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’ll be loading up my Decked drawers this fall and spending part of my 2021 there, along with a few other states from the list.