By Jeff Johnston
By the third hour on the first morning of his $7,500 dream hunt, David McCoy's good time ran out. What inflated hope he had of shooting a 200-inch buck-of-a-lifetime became a casualty of the consuming pain in his toes.
It was the first stages of frostbite. He'd worn three layers of socks and $200 Pac Boots, but now he feared he'd over-layered and restricted his circulation. Maybe, but more likely it was just too damn cold for sitting.
At dawn that morning the thermometer in his guide's truck read minus 17. By 8 a.m., the 45-year-old welder from Arkansas believed it was colder, and, thanks to the wind, he was correct.
Could he last eight more hours? He had never called a hunt short in his life, but this time he had grave doubts. So he stared at the walkie-talkie as if it were the tap-out bell of Navy SEAL hell week and prayed for a buck – any decent buck – to visit the corn pile in front of him. He could always say he misjudged it.
Thinking food intake would generate heat – and at least take his mind off his toes for a minute – he reached into his pack for his turkey sandwich. It was rock hard.
Welcome to Saskatchewan, sucker!
Most likely if you're reading this you're a big-buck junkie like the rest of us. You read about the world's best places for Booner bucks in hunting mags, see them on TV shows, and argue over them with your buddies.
And despite the odds of you being one of 10 million deer hunters who combine to take around 750 officially scored and registered Boone and Crockett Club bucks each year, you believe that all you have to do is go to one of these places and hunt hard.
Joel Helmer, a whitetail expert who conducted a thorough county-by-county research of where big bucks have been taken and then mapped-out his findings, said that nearly any place that has a healthy whitetail herd has a chance of producing a Booner buck.
Wrote Helmer: "Though your odds are definitely higher in certain states and counties, the maps also show that entries come, literally, from all over. They have come from 1,443 different counties, half the counties in the forty-two states that have produced entries. So – there is always a 'geographical chance' of bringing home a record book buck!"
That's great, Joel, but I'd rather go to counties and areas that have produced the most big bucks, and most of us agree. Yet this attitude is why some historical big-buck hotbeds now get overhunted and aren't the producers they were only a few years ago.
Fact is, nature is dynamic and trends change. One bad winter or a change in a game law – such as a removal of an antler restriction – or a rifle season that happened to occur in the peak of the rut can affect an area's big buck production for several years.
Outfitters move in to take advantage of the area's reputation to grow giant bucks – not that they've actually seen any on the property – and this only adds more people and pressure.
So the key is to predict where the next hot area will be, not where it was. How do we do this? Rather than looking at an area's historical production, I examined its last four years in terms of officially registered B&C trophies (bucks scoring a minimum of 160 inches typical and 185 inches non-typical), deer harvest data, and number of hunters.
If the last few years are on an uptick in Booner bucks taken, then I'm on to something. But still, there are so many X factors – such as weather patterns, hunting season dates, and missing data like hunters choosing not to register their trophies with B&C – that Booner chasing will never be an exact science.
"I'm a firm believer that the next world record will not be where anybody is looking," said Boone and Crockett Club Director of Big Game Records Justin E. Spring, who studies this stuff for a living.
"Perhaps a swamp in northern Minnesota, a locked-up farm in the middle of the Midwest, or a Maine bruiser that no one has ever seen."
But what I have also uncovered, via the same data, research, and anecdotal evidence, is that traditionally great places are currently spiraling downward – places where you probably shouldn't pay big bills to hunt big bucks next year. Here are five former hotspots that are now overrated.
For 10-plus years, friends of gunmaker Ted Hatfield invited him to their traditional deer camp in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. A century ago the Adirondacks were considered by some to be the holy grail of deer hunting. Some people, it seems, are still holding on.
Each year Ted asked if they had any success the prior year, and each year they said no. Finally, Ted humored them and showed up in camp with his old Hatfield-brand flintlock. After a week of hard hunting, he finally killed a buck – by sheer luck.
The camp was amazed and happy because it was the only buck to hit the turf that week. Copious celebrations ensued. The next year, they asked Ted if he was coming back.
"Hell, no!" he said.
"Why not?" asked an exasperated friend. "You killed a good one!"
"Exactly," said Ted. "And I'm pretty sure it was the last one!"
In the last four years, all of New York State has accounted for just 10 registered B&C bucks out of approximately 900,000 deer killed. That's not saying it isn't a fine place to hunt – and certainly it's a nostalgic one – but you'd do better to trek elsewhere, like nearby Ohio, where 150 registered Booners have been taken in the same time frame.
Historically, Maine used to be a hotspot for big bucks, and it still is if you're a fan of 300-pound Bergmann's Law bucks. Penobscot County alone has accounted for 31 registered B&C bucks total.
But in the last four years the entire state has chalked only six in the official ledger. But there is little hunting pressure, and I give Maine points for that. But if my life depended on a Booner, I'd go to Kansas or Kentucky instead.
Sorry, Yanks, but the Northeast just plain sucks as a bona fide Booner destination. To its credit, however, it's better than Florida which has, in total, two non-typical whitetails in the record books since the Club started keeping records in 1840. But then again, you don't often hear Floridians bragging about how great upstate Florida is.
All told, Missouri is an excellent state for deer hunting and quality deer – better in every way than at least 35 other states – yet its reputation for being one of the very best is what lands it on the overrated list. Over the last few years it's been on the decline for B&C-caliber bucks.
Hunters there harvested over 278,000 deer in 2015, registering 29 entries into the book. That makes it No. 9 on the list – not too shabby – but well below the No. 8 state, Indiana, with 39. Then when you consider that over 600,000 hunters take to the woods there each year, the odds appear even worse.
Why is Missouri down? According to its Department of Conservation, "The 2014 – 2015 deer harvest of 256,753 was the second lowest statewide harvest since 2000. The statewide harvest total is a result of significant declines in central, northern, and western counties and increased harvest across portions of southeast and southwest Missouri compared to the past ten years.
Deer numbers have decreased over the past five years in many counties across central, northern, and western Missouri as a result of liberalized antlerless harvest opportunities coupled with significant hemorrhagic disease outbreaks in 2007, 2012, and 2013."
If the overall health of the herd is down, then so will be the Booners it produces.
While two non-typical entries came from Nodaway County in the northwest region over the last four years, typically the biggest bucks come from the northeast areas and those counties bordering the fertile Mississippi River. Like most states east of the Rockies, over 93 percent of land in Missouri is privately owned, so the bulk of deer hunting opportunity is on private land. This should come as no surprise.
If you live in Missouri or have access to private land there – or know and trust an outfitter that has a reputation for killing Booner bucks – don't hesitate to hunt there. Booners come from there every year. But while things might change in a few years, right now Mizzou isn't my first choice for a nonresident keen on making deer hunting history.
Texas is a wonderful state to hunt whitetails. It's so wonderful that roughly 700,000 hunters take to its fields and woods annually, making Texas's deer hunting force of armed men and women the sixth largest standing army in the world, right after Russia and before Pakistan.
Texas hunters and the wave of nonresidents (myself included) who hunt there each year do a terrific job of accomplishing their goal, as roughly 660,000 deer, bucks, and does were taken in 2014. Basically, you have to be either really unlucky or a really bad shot to not kill a deer of some type in Texas. But its trophy quality (not counting genetically modified bucks) is down.
"While Texas is well known, it hasn't produced a typical exceeding upper 180s in 10 years," said Spring.
While you must be extremely lucky to kill a Booner in Texas – like anywhere else – it's even less likely to happen unless you hunt in the southwest portion of the state or the extreme north near the Red River. The Hill country is for hippies, not huge headgear. In 2014, just 42 deer out of 660,000 taken on free-range ranches had antlers large enough to yell, "Whoa, Nelly!
Someone call the Club!" That's a pretty low average. Still, 42 deer is more than 43 other states can boast. And if you don't mind hunting in a high-fence scenario (Boone and Crockett won't recognize these trophies), Texas may be your best bet, because when you factor in all the giants taken behind high fences, it nearly certainly produces the most Booner-caliber bucks.
But before you book a hunt, know that a giant there could cost you $20,000 or more if the ranch's trophy fee is based on size measured after the kill. No thanks. I'll go north to Oklahoma instead.
Pike County, Illinois
This is another place that's overrated nowadays. Sure, it has had a fruitful past and earned its reputation as one of the premier big-buck counties in the nation. Therefore, it always has the potential for big deer. But the problem is everyone else knows it, too.
In 2014 Pike County hunters shot more bucks of any type than any other Illinois county: 2,576, which means that it was likely hunted more heavily than anywhere else as well. The state is 95.9 percent privately owned and usually rolls out 550,000 deer hunters annually who bag about 155,000 deer per year. Comparatively, that's a fairly low success rate, but that's not necessarily bad for big-buck business, because it may mean hunters were being choosy.
Do you know how many Pike-produced Booners were registered with the Boone and Crockett Club from 2013 to 2016? Imagine me holding up a big fat zero with my fist, saying, "This many." Zilch. One was taken in 2012. Other Illinois counties did better.
While Illinois is historically one of the best states in which to hunt big whitetails, we likely need to give Pike County a rest.
You might be surprised to learn that in the last year for which B&C has adequate data – 2014 – Saskatchewan ranks No. 11 in number of typical and non-typical Booners logged, just ahead of Illinois.
This doesn't mean it's impossible to take a big buck in Saskatchewan, but considering the trials you'll endure while navigating customs, the dismal style of hunting, and the sheer cold factor, it's not even in my Top 20. Killing a Boone and Crockett deer should be a lifetime-worthy bonus, but likely it's not going to happen, so you might as well have a good time while trying.
After dozens of hunting trips for outdoor writers that are sponsored by gun companies who pay for "the best" outfitted places, I know of no one who has taken a Booner there, which is not surprising given the odds mentioned in this story.
With that said, if you can marry into a Canadian farming family that has mass acreage in Saskatchewan, cultivate the deer and habitat, and hunt it freely, I don't think I'd waste my time anywhere else. But for the rest of us who don't have such luck, I'm going to Wisconsin or Minnesota.
From 2012 through the 2014 season (three full hunting seasons), Saskatchewan hunters registered 59 official Boone and Crockett Club bucks. That's better than many places, like Georgia that registered 15 during that time frame, but it's not a Wisconsin, which is No. 1 over the last four years with 258 registered B&C entries. And Buffalo County, probably the first or second most popular known big buck area (along with Pike County), was the No. 1 county in the United States for registered B&C trophies over the last four years with 15.
Of course, the standing world record still hails from Saskatchewan – Milo Hanson's 213 5/8-inch typical buck – and so that deer's genes are certainly still there. So if you venture there and find yourself freezing in a box blind wondering what you're doing, pass the time by looking around on the ground. If you find David McCoy's toes, gather them up and send them to me and I'll be sure he receives them as a cold consolation to a Booner-less hunt!
Only a few states came to mind when I thought of places with whitetails that seldom produce big ones. One was Florida, but it doesn't really count because Florida's small deer are almost a subspecies, and in fact its Key deer are. Here are three other states that have the potential to produce Booner bucks.
In the most recent four-year period of B&C data, Arkansas has produced 31 registered book bucks. From state harvest reports, I found that around 360,000 hunters took 213,000 total deer in 2014 and again in 2015, only a few deer off the all-time record in 2013. This means deer are thriving.
But for the first time, starting in 2014, the state registered more doe kills than bucks. This means that despite the booming population, bucks will have enough nutrition to grow big racks. That bodes well for its immediate future and trophy potential.
Also noted was that the vast majority of those hunters were residents, which proves my theory that the rest of us are overlooking this state. Certainly at this point Arkansas is not a known big buck destination, and so outfitter prices aren't crazy – yet.
Like most states with borders touching the incredibly fertile Mississippi River, counties bordering or close to it, including Cross, Lee, and Phillips of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, tend to produce the biggest deer.
The fact that much of this land is privately owned crop country plays a huge role, too. WMAs here feature lottery-style tag draws and so public access is limited. But if you can draw a tag, lease land, or gain access in Arkansas, you may not need to wait in a long customs line in Canada after all.
When most hunters think of South Dakota, they think pheasants, and rightly so, as each year hunters there harvest over one million roosters. But they should also think whitetails, because the whole state is flush with them – and big ones to boot.
In 2014, 15 B&C bucks were taken, including the second-biggest typical B&C buck scored anywhere during that time: a 194-inch giant. While the numbers might seem so-so at first glance, it represents relatively great odds when you consider that only around 60,000 people hunt deer there each year, fewer than that when you figure a portion of these hunters target the state's mule deer. In 2015, for example, only 46,600 whitetails – 30,000 of which were bucks – were taken.
South Dakota is divided into three zones by the Missouri River that roughly bisects the state down the middle: East River, West River, and the Black Hills region in the extreme western portion. In the East River portion, nonresidents can draw for a tag only from a leftover pool after residents have their crack at them. And while South Dakota is home to many farmland WMAs, as always, private land is the best bet for a monster buck.
Savage Outdoors's Mike Stroff is a whitetail outfitter in addition to being an outdoor celebrity. He has a whitetail hunting ranch in Texas, but he actually loves hunting both Texas and South Dakota. Each year his Western Ranch Outfitters operation in the South Dakota West River region produces some 160-class whitetails with potential for much bigger. Bow season begins September 24, and guided hunts – where both stand hunting and spot-and-stalk tactics are used – start at $3,000.
While midwestern deer hunters surely do not discount Minnesota's historical standing as a big whitetail powerhouse, I don't often hear "I'm gonna book a trip to Minnesota this year!" from southern hunters. Fact is, they generally think of Saskatchewan, Texas, and Illinois when it comes to finding a buck of a lifetime. But they shouldn't.
From 2012 to 2015, Minnesota accounted for 113 registered B&C bucks. That's 53 more Booners than Saskatchewan logged during that same time period. Of those 113, 44 were over 180 inches. Why anyone would want to go to gun-hating Canada when Minnesota is closer and better is probably due to two words: Milo Hanson.
While it is true that Minnesota's overall deer population is down due to extremely harsh winters several years ago – it now stands at around one million – the overall herd health is good. In 2015 hunters killed 160,000 deer, up from one of its lowest totals in recent history in 2014 when 139,000 were taken. Typically, the middle and southern portions of the state have higher densities.
Overall, Otter Tail County in the middle to western portion has produced the most B&C deer from 2012 to 2015, while Houston County in the extreme southeast is second. If this state can get a few milder winters, expect the population to explode right along with the trophy buck potential. If so, you should be there, in a tree stand, with a firearm or bow in hand.
The Essentials Gear Box.
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