While they don’t get much attention, rifles still rule the world of whitetail hunting.
I don’t think outdoor television provides a very realistic representation of contemporary deer hunting. It’s not because they portray situations the average guy will seldom, if ever, experience, although there’s a certain element of that. It’s because most of what they show is bowhunting. Next on the list is muzzleloader hunting, followed a distant third by rifle and shotgun hunts. That’s hardly representative of what’s really going on out there.
I’ll admit bowhunting makes for good TV. It’s also the most rapidly growing segment of the hunting community. And it makes for a more challenging hunt. In fact, I love bowhunting.
But when and where the seasons allow, like the vast majority of North America’s deer hunters, I opt for the most effective and humane means of reducing my quarry to possession.
In most (if not all) states and provinces, regular firearms seasons still represent the foundation for both deer hunting and deer management. Gun hunters, primarily rifle hunters, outnumber bowhunters by a wide margin. They also purchase more licenses and take far more deer.
In order to pay tribute to this dominant segment of the deer hunting community, Buckmasters is proud to present a rundown of some of the best rifle hunting opportunities in North America.
Northern New England used to be near the top of the list of folks hoping for a crack at a mature whitetail. A lot has changed in the last 25 years. Deer numbers and quality have skyrocketed elsewhere, particularly in the Midwest, while New England’s deer herd has remained stable. In more recent years, it has declined measurably following severe winters and high predation.
On a more positive note, Maine has a new action plan designed to address some of the major concerns, like protection of winter habitat and predator control. If the plan works and they can string together a few mild winters, Maine could once again become a haven for mature, big-woods bucks.
Vermont, once the poster child for mismanagement, has been operating under a new scheme of antler restrictions for several years, and hunters seem to be satisfied with results so far. Age ratios in the buck harvest are going up, along with rack sizes and antler point counts.
Outside New England, New York recently expanded areas open to rifle hunting. For many years, use of rifles for big game hunting was restricted to the Northern Zone and eastern portions of the Southern Zone including the Catskill region. Since 2008, the state has opened additional counties to rifle use.
With a milder climate, a lot of agriculture and the state’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), much of upstate New York seems to have solved the quantity-versus-quality dilemma by offering both. Find access to lightly hunted private land, and you’ll be doing business with your taxidermist on a regular basis.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission went through radical changes several years ago aimed at reducing overall deer numbers and increasing the average age in the buck kill through mandatory antler restrictions. Let’s just say they accomplished both and leave it at that. The number of older, branch-antlered deer continues to rise. The regular season is short and public land is often crowded, but quality hunting exists within a day’s drive of the East Coast’s major population centers.
New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland are all shotgun-only states, leaving only Virginia for rifle hunters, where the season runs roughly from mid-November through early December in some regions and into late January in others. The bag limit is two deer a day with six per year east of the Blue Ridge Mountains; one a day and five per year on the west side. Only three antlered deer may be taken in both areas.
In Virginia, it’s largely a matter of quantity over quality. Hunters there kill more than 200,000 deer a year, slightly less than half of which are antlered deer. Of those, 80 percent are 2.5 or younger, and about half are yearlings. Public land abounds, mostly in the George Washington National Forest. The best bucks usually come from private, managed land.
Looking at seasons and bag limits, the Carolinas seem like a deer hunter’s paradise.
North Carolina’s rifle seasons vary by region but overall run from mid-October through early January with a season limit of six.
South Carolina’s season opens Aug. 15 and goes through Jan. 1 with no limit on antlered deer in most zones.
Each year, hunters in North Carolina and South Carolina take approximately 85,000 and 120,000 antlered deer, respectively. In both cases, the proportion of young bucks in the harvest is rather high, and the proportion of mature bucks fairly low, 20 percent at best. You can still find better quality hunting, mostly on private land. The preferred tactic is sitting in a shooting house over a greenfield.
THE DEEP SOUTH
The Deep South was not traditionally known for producing big bucks. That changed with the advent of quality deer management. Southern deer tend to be smaller in both body and antler size, but well-managed, private (mostly leased) ground is turning out bragging-size bucks, some that rival bucks taken anywhere on the continent.
Some of the earliest experiments with mandatory antler restrictions took place in Dooley County, Georgia. Results showed what the Peach State is capable of producing under a sound management scheme, which has been expanded over a much broader range. Your best bet is to target the rut, which peaks at various times around the state.
Alabama is still getting its house in order. Several years ago, they switched from a bag limit of one buck a day for the entire 70-plus day rifle season to a season limit of three bucks, one of which must have at least four points on one side. Early indications are it’s working. Lightly hunted and well-managed private land is already producing trophy-class bucks.
The Quality Deer Management Association’s 2010 Annual Report rated Mississippi tops in terms of the percentage of mature bucks in the harvest. It should be noted the data came from managed land and isn’t representative of the state as a whole. Several recent studies at Mississippi State University found the Delta Region consistently produces the biggest bodies and antlers. Managed land in that region is as good as or better than anywhere else in the Southeast.
What are you looking for in a rifle hunt? My friends in Michigan, where they annually kill a quarter million bucks, bemoan the fact they see and kill too many young deer, more than 60 percent yearlings. If my odds of a shooter are about the same as in a “better” big buck state, but I’m passing up far more young deer waiting for one, I’m having more fun. And I have no qualms about shooting a 130-inch 3-year-old if I know that’s probably as good as it gets.
Minnesota is a big state and offers the choice of quality or quantity. Southern farms produce the lion’s share of the 100,000 bucks killed annually, while the biggest bucks come from the north woods. If you can find the right mix of farmland and woodland in the north, filling both your rifle tags with big-racked bucks is a real possibility.
While Illinois and Iowa sustain their world-class whitetail hunting partly by limiting regular firearms seasons to shotguns, Kansas seems to defy the odds by allowing rifles and consistently producing good numbers of quality whitetails. That becomes even more impressive when you consider they’re killing half as many bucks, but a similar number of trophy bucks.
Missouri is another state that tends to get overlooked. Longer rifle seasons put more pressure on bucks, resulting in a slightly younger age distribution. Still, sorting through the more than 100,000 bucks killed annually to find the 25 percent over 3.5 is a welcome challenge, and a 2.5- or 3.5-year-old Missouri buck is probably bigger than anything you’ll shoot or see in Pennsylvania.
Western states don’t get much attention when it comes to whitetails for several reasons. Elk and mule deer still rule the roost in terms of numbers and popularity, although whitetails continue encroaching on both, sometimes to the chagrin of traditional Western hunters and most definitely to farmers. And for whatever reason, western states don’t seem to grow as many really big-racked bucks as the eastern states. Or maybe they just want us to think that.
Back when outdoor TV and videos used to show more rifle hunts, the Milk and Powder River drainages in eastern Montana were popular destinations. Nothing’s changed out there; we just don’t hear about it or see it as much. Water means crops, and the lush alfalfa and wheat fields suck whitetails out of the brush-choked river bottoms and foothills in numbers and quality equal to or above the best-managed grounds in the South. On a typical afternoon hunt, you might see a deer per acre, including multiple shooter bucks.
Texas stands alone in many ways. It’s an enormous state with a vast array of habitats, and management practices range from mere supplemental feeding on free-range deer to flat out animal husbandry of captive, pen-raised giants. This is rifle country, and in terms of trophy potential, you are limited only by what you can afford. For the most part, nonresidents are looking at a guided hunt, but the deer sightings alone are worth the price. For a modest fee, you can do a cull hunt and still get a buck worthy of mounting.
The above represent just some of the top rifle hunting opportunities in the nation. Don’t be discouraged if your home state or your favorite destination isn’t included. Deer populations are booming almost everywhere, and big bucks can turn up almost anywhere. A lot depends on finding the right combination of good habitat and low hunting pressure. If your state allows rifles, you can probably find good rifle hunting within a few hours’ drive. If you do, just don’t tell anybody.
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• Shooting Long Distance: Whitetail hunting isn’t always a short-range game. This article was published in the November 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.