Tips for Hunting Mature Whitetails
Killing a smart old bruiser is a lifelong endeavor for most of us.
Over The Years I’ve taken some big whitetails, but just one amazing buck of a lifetime remains a bucket-list item. Chances are I’ll never get him. My failure isn’t for a lack of effort, but shortages of skill, patience, and luck may be key factors.
How Big is “Big”?
Any mature whitetail buck taken free range in fair chase is an awesome animal. Boone and Crockett’s measuring system is the traditional yardstick for North American big game, with whitetails a matter of beam and point length and four circumferences on each side, plus inside spread.
The all-time minimum is 170 inches for a typical whitetail. This is a giant buck, but extra or mismatched points aren’t uncommon on mature whitetails. The minimum for a non-typical is 195—a lot of extra bone.
I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a typical 170-inch buck while hunting, though, perhaps, I’ve seen ones that were close. However, I admit that I dream of someday taking a buck that tips that magical number.
In order to have any chance, it’s wise to hunt places that offer greater opportunity. Some areas have bigger deer. Then you have to hunt these places at the right times, often from one season to another. Finally, you need a bit of luck.
A mature whitetail that grew 140 inches of antler is a fine buck anywhere. But it needs 30 inches more of antler to reach 170. A buck with 160 inches of antler is a really big whitetail…anywhere. If typical, a 160 qualifies for B&C’s triennial “Awards Period” book. Many very good and dedicated whitetail hunters never see such a buck. Skill and patience count, but it depends on where you hunt and, always, how lucky you are.
I’ve hunted whitetails in some great places. Altogether, I’ve taken exactly four 160-class bucks. Forgive me if I admit that I’d like to see one that closes that 10-inch gulf to 170, but I probably never will.
There are lots of good places to look for big whitetails, but in the free-range world, there are no sure things. I have a farm in Kansas, one of those good places. From what you hear, you’d think there’s a B&C buck behind every sunflower stalk. Lord, I wish, but we’ve never taken one.
We have plenty of bucks, but just like most good places, a 140+ inch mature buck is good. I hate to see folks pass a buck like that because they might not see a better one. Every season we take 150-inch bucks. Upwards from there is less common. The last few seasons we have taken at least one 160-class buck, thus about one in 10 of the bucks we harvest. In our area, the occasional bigger buck is taken.
The record books provide excellent data as to where big stuff comes from, but it’s critical to use current listings. Outbreaks of EHD and CWD have clobbered the whitetails in several “big buck areas.” They will come back, but it takes time, and things can change quickly.
In August 2019, Boone and Crockett held their 30th triennial awards, honoring the best North American animals entered into their records system in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The 11 best whitetails entered were invited for display: six Typicals from 194 inches to 199 inches and five Non-Typicals from 260 inches to a whopping 312 inches! Three of these were from Missouri, two from Iowa, two from Ohio, and one from Indiana. Although a small sampling, that’s a strong showing from the Midwest. The remaining three were (one each) from Arkansas, Saskatchewan, and Tennessee.
This would seem to suggest the Midwest is a hotspot for really big whitetails, but there are other considerations. In this recent sampling—and across Boone and Crockett’s whitetail listings—the vast majority of really big whitetails are taken by locals hunting close to home, thus in country they know, with the entire season at their disposal. If you live in good whitetail country, this is great news.
My personal best whitetails (the 160s) have been from Kansas (two), Georgia (one), and Texas (one). I have a buddy with a great place in Georgia, but such bucks are anomalies in the Deep South. Well-managed ranches in certain parts of Texas regularly produce huge whitetails, but the prices for the hunts are princely.
As a Kansas resident, I have a 12-day rifle season and a 90-day bow season. If I were really serious about that bucket-list whitetail, I’d use that long season with whatever equipment was legal, watching the weather and the rut, hunting when I could, and concentrating when conditions were favorable. This is what North America’s serious resident whitetail hunters do, and they take most of the big bucks.
At the Right Time!
As John Wootters often wrote, “Any time you can hunt whitetails is a good time!” A big buck can step out any time you’re in the woods and will not offer a shot if you’re not in the woods. That said, whitetails are shy, wary, and sensitive. Given a choice, it’s wise to watch the wind, weather, moon phase, and status of the rut and concentrate hunting when conditions are favorable, especially if time is limited.
The vagaries of state-set seasons are such that you have little control. Our Kansas rifle season starts the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. Our rut peaks in mid-November so rifle season is tail-end or post-rut. Our archery season always catches the rut. Bowhunters enjoy a lower overall success, but bowhunters take a major share of big bucks because of the seasonal advantage.
Our best buck so far was a 165, rutting hard two weeks before rifle season.
Regardless of whether you prefer longbows, compounds, crossbows, muzzleloaders, or centerfires, one secret to taking a really big whitetail is to get out in the woods as much as you can, which should drive you to acquiring proficiency with various arms so you can maximize your hunting time and concentrate when conditions are ideal.
Going for the Long Ball in Canada
Folks who don’t live in whitetail country have to look for places that are user-friendly for outsiders. Because it’s an insider’s game, few serious whitetail hunters will draw you a map. Things to look for are areas with lots of public land or an active outfitting industry, that produce good bucks, offer available licenses, and have seasons that are long or set during favorable conditions.
Much of the Great Plains region is favorable, and there are awesome pockets of whitetails throughout the Rocky Mountain West, with plenty of public land. Texas has almost no public land, but whitetail hunting is a major industry.
Because I forego much of my Kansas opportunity, I’m more like the guy who thinks the grass is greener over the fence. This is not good thinking and, so far, not the best way to get that bucket list whitetail—but I like to hunt different places. For me and many others, the answer for a big whitetail has been western Canada.
The most popular provinces are Alberta and Saskatchewan, with a November season that catches the rut and available licenses. It isn’t “free” hunting, but there are plenty of good outfitters, and the lure of the Canadian giants is strong. Staggered down from my “best” whitetails are several 150-class bucks from various places. Two of them are Saskatchewan bucks. Body size was huge, and the antlers were heavy and gnarly.
Neither quite filled my dream of just one really big whitetail, but I knew that when I pressed the trigger. Given the chance I’d press it again—these are impressive bucks. There are bigger, so every few years I get the itch and try it again with the knowledge it’s going to be cold and chances aren’t that good. Deer densities are low up there, as low as one deer per square mile, and success is not high. I once overheard a famous Saskatchewan outfitter boast, “All I need is one big deer to fill my camps the next year.” Ouch!
But the giants are there. The second-largest Typical whitetail in B&C’s recent awards period was a humongous Saskatchewan buck scoring 198 6/8, taken by Chris De Villiers—of course, a local resident.
In 2018 I tried again, hunting in Alberta on buddy Derek Barnes’s ranch in southeastern Alberta. The hunt was the third week in November, and the rut was well on. But even with the best planning, weather remains a great imponderable. It wasn’t too cold, but we had four days of brutal wind, and nothing likes wind. This was big, lonely prairie country with lots of deer. Glassing from a bluff down onto brushy flats above a frozen river, we saw a lot of young bucks, but the big boys were bushed up.
Then we got a break. The last day dawned calm and cold with six inches of fresh snow. Perfect. This should have been the day,. In close sequence we had two opportunities at heavy-antlered mature bucks, surely mid-140s. It wasn’t my shot, so I didn’t have to make the decision. These were good, solid northern whitetails, but neither was my “bucket list buck.” That was that. Maybe I’ll try again in a couple of years.
A Bit of Good Fortune
Luck is a major factor. Luck with weather, luck in the right animal stepping out and offering a shot. Luck is random and can be good or bad. Windy days in Alberta were bad luck; having even one perfect day in mid-November was pretty good luck. Not getting a shot at a giant was neither good luck nor bad, just the way it goes when you’re looking for a really big buck.
It was just past sundown, on the fifth day of our 2018 Kansas rifle season. I thought I’d heard a shot, but in our oak ridges, sound is hard to pinpoint. The text read: “Jason’s got a buck!”
Jason Morton is vice president of marketing for CZ-USA in Kansas City and an old friend. He’s been coming to our place for several seasons, looking for a big whitetail. This has been a frustrating exercise. He’s passed nice bucks, and I was concerned he was looking for a buck that didn’t exist. Our first group cleared out early, so Jason drove down. We checked zero and got him on stand.
Two hours later, knowing what he’d been passing, I figured “this better be good.” I assumed it would be. We sort of knew this deer. Other hunters had been on this stand, our newest Redneck blind. A big buck had been seen twice, described as “high, wide, and heavy”—but no shot. I hustled over to admire Jason’s long-overdue bit of luck.
The buck was indeed high, wide, and heavy: a big and absolutely clean eight-pointer, an older deer with no hint of the tenth (“G4”) points that he never grew. Working with a little CZ 527 in 6.5mm Grendel, Jason had shot him perfectly. Because I had to know, the next day I put a tape on him: straight up 160 inches, a huge eight-pointer. That’s a really big whitetail!