Ask most serious whitetail hunters which state boasts the best odds for taking a buck with true trophy potential and most will offer an unhesitating "Iowa." It's also one of the hardest to get tags. Unlike most whitetail states that offer over-the-counter licenses, nonresidents must enter a draw to win a lucky permit.
That's the reason famed hunters such as Lee and Tiffany Lakosky and brothers Gene and Barry Wensel chose to uproot their lives and move to Iowa; residents don't need to draw! But Iowa isn't the only quality deer hunting state
that requires hunters to enter a draw for an opportunity at a big-racked buck.
Kansas, another top choice among trophy seekers, requires nonresidents to draw as does other big buck destinations. The trophy potential of Illinois is well known among anybody who hunts, thanks to Pike County and others gaining in fame, but if you're a nonresident who wants to hunt there with a gun or muzzleloader, you need to draw for a tag.
Montana's Milk River region has also put the western state on the map as a legit trophy whitetail destination, while hunt booking consultant C.J. Brown of Outdoor Adventures Worldwide likes neighboring Wyoming for the unpressured hunting and quality whitetail potential found there. Both of them require hunters to enter a draw.
A growing number of hunters, including Cabela's T.A.G.S. manager Eric Pawlak, are starting to look at North Dakota as a state with real sleeper trophy potential, and it also requires hunters to enter a lottery. Following is the breakdown on what you need to know for each state so you can improve your odds this year in obtaining a tag to one of these top trophy destinations.
To hunt antlered deer in Montana, a nonresident must draw a deer combo license. Success last year was 73 percent, and for those who held a preference point ($50) from a previous year, it was 100 percent. If you want to enter the more expensive elk/deer combo draw, because it is larger pool (and most likely more expensive) that draw is also 100 percent successful. Despite some of the challenges of disease along the Milk River over the years, it is still a much sought out destination where hunters can expect a great chance at shooting a very decent buck.
Application Deadline: March 15
Cost: $570/nonresident deer combo license (required to hunt antlered deer). — Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
The upper prairie states of South Dakota and North Dakota are destinations with real sleeper potential. With its limited-entry draw opportunities, North Dakota remains the more attractive of the two. When there are leftover licenses available, they go into a second lottery.
Or if you want to guarantee your chance to hunt this season, buy an archery tag (whitetail-only), which are available in unlimited supply. Of course, with the wide-open country of North Dakota, most hunters want to be able to stretch their shots out if needed, which means hunting during firearms or muzzleloader season.
Application Deadline: June 5
Cost: $205/nonresident gun license and application fee,
$13 habitat license, gallery=115 hunting certificate. — North Dakota Game and Fish Department
For most big-game and other whitetail states, the gun season is usually the most sought after. Not in Iowa. Here the archery season runs through the heart of the rut, making archery one of the harder tags to draw. Iowa's gun season is broken up into two five-day seasons during the first half of December and late muzzleloader, running from mid-December to mid-January.
The latter season has grown more popular because most hunters want to be there toward the end, since that is the best likelihood of cold, nasty weather, which gets the deer moving. As for zones in Iowa, Pawlak likes 4, 5, and 6, but expect it to take about three years to draw, even as you add preference points (you should purchase one every year). An outfitted hunt here can run upwards of $5,000, but for serious big buck hunters, it should be worth the price.
'Without a doubt, Iowa is the best state in the country to kill a big whitetail, ' says Pawlak.
Application Deadline: June 3
Cost: $493, includes doe tag plus $74.34 just to apply; bonus point, $30.59. — Iowa DNR
As long as you enter by the deadline in Kansas, with online or phone applications being accepted between April 1-26, with the exception of units 1 or 2 on the western side of the state, you should draw a tag, says Pawlak. There, draw success is about 80 percent.
Leftover tags are also a possibility in many units but don't go on sale until later in the year, leaving some uncertainty to your plans if you're using an outfitter. Big deer can be found anywhere in the state, but Pawlak likes central or south central Kansas the best (units 5, 15, and 16) as these areas are more remote and away from any population centers.
'Deer grow big and die of old age there, ' he says.
Application Deadline: April 26
Cost: $322.50 (nonresident). — Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism
Archery is a shoo-in at 100 percent draw throughout the state, but you still have to apply and the tag isn't cheap. Pat Gaffney, a Minnesota outfitter who travels to Illinois every year to hunt, says most counties now are also at or near 100 percent on your odds to draw for firearm, though not all are guaranteed.
Pike and the neighboring counties of Brown, Adams, and Schuyler produce some god-awful bucks, but so does the rest of the state. I've seen some incredible deer that no hunter would pass up hunting along the Wabash River area in New Haven, closer to the Indiana line.
Application Deadline: August 15
Cost: Archery is $410, firearm is $325; either-sex permit,
$28.50 five-day license, $3 habitat stamp. — Illinois DNR
C.J. Brown likes the Western whitetail haven of Wyoming for one simple reason: lack of hunting pressure. Bucks here in the drainages and lower elevations have ample cover and agriculture and grow big, particularly in the central and eastern half of the state. There are also a lot of quality ranches and outfitters, as well as abundant public land.
Book through an outfit like Cabela's T.A.G.S. or Outdoor Adventures Worldwide if you're not sure of where to go, as these services can match you with the best outfit that can meet your budget and expectations.
Application Deadline: March 15
Cost: $312/nonresident deer license;
$14 application fee. — Wyoming Game and Fish Department