You don’t have to spend big bucks to hunt out of state for big bucks.
Lots of us dream of harvesting that one big buck before our hunting days are over — and usually that dream goes unfulfilled. Why? Simply put, most whitetail hunters don’t live where a majority of the big bucks do. Sure, an occasional local tags a monster, but he’s the exception, not the rule. If you want odds anything above hell freezing over for taking a record-book whitetail, you have to hunt where they live.
Of course, the two biggest reasons everybody doesn’t just pack up and head to the Midwest or Canada are time and money, or a lack thereof. Hunting out of state typically requires lots of both.
If you have the means to hunt with a good outfitter, it can be an experience to cherish for the rest of your life. If you’re part of the majority of hunters who simply can’t invest a couple grand or more in a deer hunt, however, you can still travel to big-buck country and up your odds of tagging a monster.
WHERE THE BIG BUCKS ROAM
Joel Maxfield, vice president of marketing for Mathews Archery, has hunted whitetails with outfitters and on his own. Maxfield has proven that you don’t need stacks of money to tag a big buck.
“Hunters who are serious about tagging a mature whitetail don’t need much money,” he said. “They just need to be willing to travel. West of the Mississippi River, the chances of tagging a large buck increase dramatically. There isn’t as much hunting pressure, and bucks often reach four or five years of age.”
Maxfield does plenty of research from home. “I typically buy topo maps or aerial photographs from the states I want to hunt,” he said. “Then I head to the hunting area a few days before I plan to hunt and begin scouting. I hunt private and public land and have been very successful on both.”
Maxfield arrowed four mature bucks in 2009, and most of them didn’t cost anything more than the tag, fuel and lodging.
KNOCK ON DOORS
Three of Maxfield’s favorite states are North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas. “Getting tags in these states is easy, so if I find a great hunting spot, I can return there every year,” he said.
When scouting, he often knocks on farmers’ doors and asks for permission. “Farmers west of the Mississippi are different from most folks. They don’t mind granting permission to hunt. I get turned down occasionally, but most of the time I get permission to hunt. When farmers say ‘No,’ I go down the road and ask the next guy. One year a farmer who owned thousands of acres said I couldn’t hunt. I found out that he doesn’t allow anyone to hunt on his property. A farmer down the road gave me permission, so I ended up hunting next to this massive piece of ground that was off-limits to hunters. It was like hunting next to a state park.”
Buying maps in rural states and putting lots of miles on his truck has helped put dozens of racks on Maxfield’s wall. “I shot some of my greatest bucks on the first day of a hunt in a place I had never been before,” he said. “Much of the farmland I get permission to hunt isn’t difficult to scout. It’s wide open ground with little cover. Locating deer in this type of terrain is much easier than it is in big woods in the East.”
He said the first sit of a stand is often the best. “I believe low-budget hunters can be successful, because when I hunt a new stand, I’m probably the first guy hunting that area, and the bucks are clueless about the stand being there. When I hunt with an outfitter, chances are that every stand on the property has been hunted many times. Finding public or private ground that hasn’t been hunted much is fairly easy and offers a better opportunity than hunting with an outfitter.”
John Eberhart from Michigan is another hunter who is not afraid to travel. Eberhart has published several books on hunting pressured bucks. When he’s in the mood for a low-cost hunt, he hunts public and private ground away from home. “A few years ago, I harvested a massive buck in Illinois on public ground in the late season,” he said. “I had less than $1,000 invested in the hunt. Everyone believes if you’re going to hunt in Illinois, you must go with an outfitter. That is not the case.”
PUT THE ODDS IN YOUR FAVOR
Eberhart has been on 14 self-guided, out-of-state whitetail hunts and has tagged 12 bucks. “I start my hunt months in advance by calling the states I plan to hunt and getting plat books for the area,” he said. “Before I order the books, I look at topo maps and try to locate rivers and streams near farms. When the crops are cut, the bucks will be concentrated near the river’s edge. That is where most of the cover is in many of the farm belt states. After the crops are harvested, the deer are forced into the watershed corridors, which is where I like to hunt.
PHONE A FRIEND
When Eberhart finds the type of terrain he likes, he uses the plat book to determine who owns the property and begins making phone calls. “When I call to order the plat books, I often ask the person on the phone if they know anyone who might allow someone to hunt,” he said. “A few years ago, a woman gave me the name of a farmer who let me hunt an 80-acre section of his farm in Missouri. I tagged a 160-inch buck on that property. Sometimes farmers say, ‘No,’ but they might tell me about some public ground nearby. Every tip helps.”
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Eberhart says his success depends on knowing when to hunt and when to stay home. “One of the main reasons I tag out is because I hunt at the right time. Timing is everything. If I go in the middle of October, crops will still be standing. If I go in December, finding the bucks will be harder. By going just before the rut in early or mid-November, I hunt a few days after the crops have been removed. That is when the big bucks are easiest to find, and since I have only a week to hunt, I need to find them right away.
Eberhart said many hunters hunt too early in the season, which results in tougher hunting and poorer results.
PUBLIC LAND OPPORTUNITIES
Eberhart says hunters from the South and East shouldn’t judge all public ground on experiences in their home states. “In Michigan, most public ground gets over-hunted, and finding big bucks is difficult. In states like Missouri and Kansas, the public ground isn’t over-hunted, and you can find big bucks that move in daylight.”
Tom Johnson, another Michigan hunter, has a knack for tagging bucks with lots of bone on their heads, including several public-land bucks that carried more than 150 inches.
“I spend extensive time scouting and hanging trail cameras to locate bucks on public ground,” he said. “Sometimes a well placed camera gives me the clues I need.” Johnson said he takes three or more cameras and does what he calls speed scouting — running several cameras at the same time to cover as much ground as possible.
He has tagged big do-it-yourself bucks in Montana, Nebraska, Iowa and other states. “I love going to new areas and hanging a few cameras to find out what’s there,” he said. “Finding big bucks with a camera isn’t hard; you just need to know how to read sign and locate deer. Out West, it isn’t difficult. The deer travel in the little bit of cover there is. Hanging cameras in the cover near travel corridors between bedding areas and feeding areas is often the way to find them.
“I also hang cameras near a scrape or a rub if it’s fresh,” he continued. “Scouting, having time to hunt and hunting in places where there aren’t many hunters has allowed me to tag lots of bucks on public ground.”
Johnson is self-employed and said that having two weeks or more to hunt an area has helped. “Often I tag out as my hunt is ending. It can take me weeks to figure out an area, and I will move my stands several times to be in position to tag a big buck.”
DON’T BE SHY
The hunters in this article have this in common: They aren’t afraid to ask questions and knock on doors. “Locals have taught me more about an area than I could have ever learned on my own through years of hunting,” Johnson said. “Many people still like helping hunters, and by asking the right questions, I find myself hunting in some amazing places where there are very few other hunters.”
THE OUT-OF-STATE LEASE
Johnson’s biggest buck came off a piece of property he and a few friends leased in Indiana. “There are big bucks in Indiana, but I didn’t think I would find the kind of buck I shot,” Johnson said. “A few friends and I pitched in a few hundred dollars and hunted a farm in Indiana that didn’t see much hunting pressure. After bow season ended, all of my friends went elsewhere to hunt. I decided to stay for the opening day of gun season, because the guy who oversaw the property told me that many deer get pushed there when the shooting starts.”
Johnson and his friends had seen a few decent bucks, but no whoppers. “I wasn’t expecting to kill a book buck, because we hadn’t seen one like that on the property, and because it wasn’t an enormous farm,” he said. “I shot a buck that scored 2187/8, and I had less than $1,000 in the hunt.”
If you have more elbow grease than money, you can tag a big buck. Like these three hunters, be prepared to put in some sweat equity.
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This article was published in the July 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.