December 18, 2017
By Joseph von Benedikt
Many of the states in our glorious nation provide great hunting, but only a few have the whitetail genetics to regularly produce typical giants scoring 170 inches, or nontypical behemoths that measure 195 inches or more — the minimums to make Boone & Crockett's all-time record book.
The Top 10 trophy whitetail states featured here are the best of the best in terms of B&C entries over the past ten years. Several of these states always have and always will be in the Top 10; others have earned their current position via careful game management, favorable climatic conditions, and other beneficial factors.
While these rankings reflect what the best-available information indicates, trail cameras, aggressive management, shed antler hunting, and other trends now provide hunters with more information and a clearer picture of habitat conditions and deer quality than ever before. However,across the U.S., giant whitetails are still mysterious and unpredictable. No one knows where he next record may appear, but these 10 states are where I'd place my bet for a trophy buck.
Wisconsin offers giant-bodied northern bucks and arguably the best big-antler growing genetics in the world. The state is overwhelmingly in first place as a record buck producer — in the past decade three times as many B&C qualifiers have been registered as in the No. 10 state on this list.
As in all great big-buck areas, prime land is pretty much sewn up and access is difficult to obtain. However, Wisconsin does have a substantial amount of public land. Smart, aggressive hunters willing to do their research can find big bucks on state and federal ground.
It's a two-buck state, too. Firearm licenses are good for both rifle and muzzleloader seasons and include one buck and one antlerless permit. Archery licenses also include one buck and one antlerless permit. Each nonresident license costs $160. New this year: Hunters may print carcass tags and need not attach the tag to the carcass unless they temporarily leave it. Deer may be quartered (up to five pieces) but may not be boned out in the field, and the head must remain attached to one of the five arts. Deer must be registered by 5 p.m. the day after recovery.
With almost 500 new B&C entries in the past decade, Ohio handily scored second place in the top trophy whitetail states. And while the state's monstrous 328 2/8 top buck was found in 1940, Bradley S. Jerman shot his 201 1/8 typical in 2004, indicating that Ohio's deer herd health and genetics continue to thrive.
As in many Midwestern states, archery season begins well ahead of the rut and lasts several months — through the frigid days of January and into February. However, gun seasons are brief and post-rut, and only one buck per year may be harvested. Only shotguns loaded with slugs and rifles chambered for straight-wall cartridges may legally be used to hunt deer. Capacity is limited to a maximum of three rounds, and that includes one in the chamber. On the plus side, it's legal to use a leashed dog to track and recover wounded game.
To keep out of trouble, be sure to tag your deer exactly where it fell and get it checked in no later than 11:30 p.m. on the same day it's harvested.
I'm unaware of any state more beautiful to hunt. Rolling hills covered with crimson and vibrant yellow fall leaves, abandoned farmsteads haunted by nocturnal mature bucks, and healthy hard-rutting deer populations make the Bluegrass State one of my favorite whitetail destinations. And that's entirely aside from its well-deserved score as the No. 3 Trophy Whitetail State. Kentucky is a one-buck state, but unlimited antlerless deer may be taken in Zone 1 regions.
Interestingly, the state has approved certain types of air guns for use on deer. Specifically, those of .35-caliber or larger and using an external air tank and expanding projectiles are now legal. It is now legal to detach the head from the carcass prior to check-in, but proof of gender must remain attached to the carcass. Fill in a "harvest log" immediately and telecheck your deer before midnight the day of harvest.
I've hunted Illinois more than any other big-buck destination, and the historic monster-buck destination state leaves me conflicted. There are too many people, the politics (and thus gun/hunting laws) bite, and quite candidly, historic spots, such as Pike County, have been drastically overhunted for decades. That said; it's still a superb spot to seek a giant whitetail, as its No. 4 spot attests. Massive, high-scoring bucks are taken every fall during the gun and muzzleloader seasons, but the long archery season provides the flexibility to hunt during the peak of the rut and during the frigid late-season cold that drives big, nocturnal bucks to search for nutrition during daylight hours.
Centerfire rifles are illegal during the gun hunt; many savvy Illinois gun-hunt veterans in pursuit of a trophy buck opt to hunt with far-reaching muzzleloaders or long-barreled, scope-sighted revolvers. Both can offer 200-yard accuracy — a significant step up from most slugshooting shotguns.
The Hawkeye State is legendary both for its giant whitetails and the difficulty of obtaining a permit to hunt them. Tags are allocated via lottery. Unsuccessful hunters are awarded a preference point that enhances the likelihood of drawing a tag the next year. Leftover buck tags — and there often are a few — are available on a first-come, first-served basis until they sell out. On the plus side, buck tags also include a bonus anterless permit.
Only bowhunters have the opportunity to hunt the rut. All firearm and muzzleloader seasons occur before or after November. That said, if you can stand the cold, Iowa's late-season muzzleloader hunt can offer a crack at a monster buck forced by frigid temperatures to abandon his usual caution and feed during daylight hours.
Slug-shooting shotguns, muzzleloaders, handguns with barrels four inches or longer, and rifles firing straight-wall handgun cartridges of .357 caliber or larger are legal. Hunters 16 and under may not use handguns. Crossbows are legal only for disabled hunters. Successful hunters must report kills online, by phone, or at a license vendor by midnight the day after harvesting or before processing or delivering to a meat locker, whichever comes first. A confirmation number will be provided and must be written on the Harvest Report Tag and attached to the leg of the animal.
Iowa has about 300,000 acres of public land as well as an access program for participating private land parcels, resulting in better-than-average opportunities for hunters without access to private land.
A state that often flies beneath the big-buck radar, No. 6 Indiana churns out giant archery bucks.
While the peak of the rut occurs during the archery-only season, the first portion of the rifle/shotgun season catches the last few days of the primary rut and the bulk of the second estrus. Patient, savvy hunters with access to good habitat have an excellent chance of tagging a great whitetail buck. Focus in and around western Indiana's Parke County — which produced more B&C bucks in both the typical and non-typical categories than any other Indiana county over the past 10 years — for best big-buck genetics.
Centerfire rifles are legal for use in certain areas. Some of those regions allow straight-wall pistol-caliber cartridges only, and others allow common high-power hunting cartridges of .243 caliber and larger. Research and know regional laws prior to hunting.
Indiana offers hunters more than 55,000 acres of public land. Competition can be fierce, but big bucks are still taken from public areas each year. Hunters must report harvest within 48 hours after the kill via phone, Internet, or at a check station or license retailer.
Kansas first came on my big-whitetail radar many, many moons ago when a fellow hunter in a Kentucky camp mentioned stalking through brutal heat and humidity to kill 200-plus whitetail bucks during the Kansas muzzleloader hunt. I've never mustered the courage to follow suit, but I did take my best whitetail buck to date during the December rifle season.
Hunters aspiring to Kansas must obtain a permit through a lottery, and good areas can take a few years to draw. Put in, build points, and do your homework in the meantime to pave the path to hunt-worthy property access.
Alternatively, research top-rated outfitters and put down a deposit against the year you get lucky and draw. Buck permits are valid for the chosen unit and one specified adjacent unit. For best genetics, focus on units in the east central part of the state.
Baiting is legal only on private land, and Kansas is a one-buck state. All centerfire rifles (except full-auto) are legal for deer, as are all shotgun gauges. Nonresident hunters possessing a valid, unused muzzleloader or archery buck tag may hunt during the firearm season in specified units, but they must hunt with the tool specified on their permit.
My favorite thing about the state's approach to deer hunting? Youth — both resident and nonresident — ages 6 to 15may purchase a resident any-deer permit for the firearm season at half price. Yep, that's $8.50 for a legitimate chance at a stomper buck.
All centerfire rifles and all shotgun gauges are legal for deer, although capacity is limited to 11 rounds, including a cartridge in the chamber. Muzzleloaders must be .40 caliber or larger but may have multiple barrels or be cap-and-ball revolving firearms. Airguns of .40 caliber and larger are also legal, as long as they are charged from an external high-compression power source. Baiting and buckshot are illegal.
Missouri is a two-buck state, but one of the two must be taken with archery gear. For the most part, an archery permit is a better deal than the general firearms permit. Rather than offering just a single buck tag, it includes an antlerless tag, two either-sex turkey tags, and small game. There is no minimum draw weight for handheld bows, and crossbows are legal, along with illuminated and magnified sights and optics.
Antler point restrictions (minimum of four points on at least one side) apply in many counties, particularly in the northern half of the state. Deer harvested during opening weekend in certain CWD Management Zones must be taken to a designated CWD sampling station.
If you want to hunt big-bodied northern bucks during the peak of the rut, Minnesota is your pick. Focus on the southeastern corner of the state — right across the border from Wisconsin's legendary Buffalo County — for best genetics.
Approximately half of the state allows the use of all legal firearms for hunting, with certain appropriate caliber/bore size sanctions. The southern half, however, allows only slug-shooting shotguns during the firearm season.
Harvest registration is mandatory and may be accomplished online, via phone, or at walk-in registration stations. CWD sample submission is mandatory in certain counties during the first two days of the firearm season.
Minnesota has a few rather interesting regulations. Blaze Pink may be substituted for Blaze Orange. My favorite: Minnesota residents with a 100-percent armed-service-related disability may obtain a free small-game license and the deer permit of their choice each year.
In terms of numbers, Texas may produce more whitetail deer harvests annually than any other. However, aside from a relatively small region in the southwest portion of the state, most of the bucks taken wear antlers of rather modest size. That small region produces more giant bucks each year than the rest of the state combined.
Interestingly, while Texas barely scraped into the list of the Top 10 trophy whitetail states, three of the state's counties made it into the Top 10 of the trophy whitetail-producing counties in the country.
For pure fun, Texas is hard to beat. It's a three-buck state (aside from certain restricted counties), so savvy hunters can shoot a couple of cull bucks while waiting for a monster to appear. Antler restrictions apply in some counties, dictating only one buck with an inside spread greater than 13 inches may be taken, and other buck(s) must have at least one unbranched antler. Any legal centerfire rifle or appropriate handgun may be used on whitetail deer, with the exception of full-auto firearms. Texas has no magazine capacity restrictions.
Before transporting, deer must be tagged and proof of gender (head, skinned or unskinned), must accompany the carcass.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.