Most whitetail enthusiasts’ bucket list hunts orbit around three Midwestern states. Decades of magazine covers, TV show features and record book entries have trained the general hunting public to believe whitetail dreams only come true in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas.
In the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to hunt several of these states, as well as numerous others. While I’ve had success hunting the premier destinations, I’ve had just as much success, if not more, in second tier locations, and those trips came with lower costs and less hassle. As I plan my next fall, I keep wondering if the top tier whitetail states really are all they’re cracked up to be.
Iowa, Illinois and Kansas are renowned for big bucks, and to a degree, the numbers back this reputation up. All three states are in the top 10 for Boone & Crockett typical and non-typical entries over the last decade. The same goes for their Pope & Young record book entries.
This degree of “quality” reaches even greater heights in high profile regions within these states where outfitters and private landowners manage and hunt for giant bucks. This gathering of like-minded folks results in hyper-managed zones that consume the attention of deer hunting media. Places like the Golden Triangle of Illinois, where three counties along the Mississippi River are heavily managed and outfitted, have become whitetail paradises.
In southern Iowa, famed hunters like Bill Winke, the Drurys, Lakoskys, Kiskys and others congregate on properties that produce some huge deer. That’s a whole prime time lineup of whitetail TV all hunting in the same small chunk of one state. If you can somehow find your way into one of these areas, then yes, you’re in for a special hunt. You’re also in a very slim minority.
My friend, and DIY traveling bowhunter, Andy May has concluded that these states justify all the attention. “Is it automatic once you cross the state line? Not necessarily,” he said. “But in my opinion these states offer arguably the best whitetail hunting in the world.”
If size matters above all, and you want the absolute best opportunity to kill a 170-inch buck, then these premier states likely offer you the highest odds. But this all comes at a cost.
The most notable downside to hunting one of these areas is price. Nonresident licenses in Kansas and Illinois cost around $500. Iowa recently increased their price to over $600. Additionally, drawing a tag in most Iowa districts requires multiple years of applications and $60 preference points.
If I choose to hunt Iowa next year, I’ll spend $210 on four preference points. Should those points usher me into a successful drawing, I’ll then spend an additional $634 on the actual license and deer permit. That’s $844 for the chance to hunt one deer, not counting the cost of travel and lodging.
Once I’ve spent all that money and covered all those miles, I still need hunting access. Given the notoriety these areas have developed, a large percentage of quality farmland is either owned or leased for hunting. These are also some of the most outfitted states in the country, with a single outfitter sometimes locking up tens of thousands of acres.
This makes by-permission access a tough task, though it can be done. Several years back I acquired access to two different farms in Iowa by knocking on doors, but I had to swallow a dozen rejections to get those invitations.
Suffering rejection, however, is probably your best bet, because public lands are few and far between in these states. Iowa, Kansas and Illinois are all ranked 45th or lower for public land acres per state. Some of these states, Kansas in particular, have private land access programs. Still, your options are relatively slim compared to elsewhere.
Maybe the juice is worth the squeeze, but the truth is that these states are not the only places to find quality deer and have fantastic hunting experiences. I’ve hunted Ohio, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Indiana and several other less publicized places and can honestly say that my overall experience in these second-tier locations was just as good, if not better, than their more renowned neighbors. Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, Missouri and Texas are all top 10 Boone & Crockett states, and you can throw Montana and Colorado into the mix for Pope & Young, as well.
Sure, your odds of killing an absolute giant might be slightly higher in one of the more famed locations, but how many of us wouldn’t be just as happy with a 140-inch, mature buck? Add in vastly larger swaths of public land, easier by-permission access, lower license costs and less competition, and the argument becomes much more compelling.
Avid DIY road trip hunter Tony Peterson has seen the same thing. “If you’re hung up on killing a certain class deer, then you might want to go to one of the Big Three,” Peterson explained. “But if you want an awesome hunting experience, you have so many more options. The idea that a good hunt is only possible due to the promise of a 170-inch buck being in the same woods as you is silly. There’s more to it than that, and a lot of states offer up reasonably priced DIY hunt options that most hunters would be satisfied with.”
I don’t hunt just to kill high scoring deer. The larger experience, along with the opportunity to see and hunt mature bucks, interests me most. Plenty of other states outside of the Big Three allow me the chance to accomplish those goals.
So, are the premier whitetail states overrated? Not entirely. In a lot of ways, they probably are just as special as we imagine them to be, but they certainly aren’t the end-all be-all of whitetail destinations. Ultimately, choosing where you hunt should be based on your own personal hierarchy of interests and goals. Just remember that you have more than three options for where you can go to achieve those goals.
Feature image via John Hafner.