You want to hunt big bucks on a tight budget? You can do it. Here's how.
The meteoric rise in popularity of bowhunting whitetails, particularly big bucks, has prompted many hunters to cross state lines in search of new opportunities. The desire for a chance at a big boy in one of the top whitetail states has not gone unnoticed by state game agencies. Iowa has led the pack with license cost increases, with Illinois and Kansas following closely behind. Others, like Missouri, are likely to follow once antler-point restrictions and management for herd quality show expected results.
Does this mean bowhunters on tight budgets, or those new to the sport, are out of luck? Nope. It just means anyone with the urge to travel in search of deer hunting opportunities had better start planning now. Maximizing scouting and hunting time is essential to make any hunting trip successful, and proper preparation is often the difference between grip-and-grin photos and a long drive home with a clean hunting knife.
Give Yourself An Honest Shot
If nothing else, bowhunters are dreamers, so it's important to stay grounded when you're deciding on where to hunt. Just because a state has a reputation for big bucks does not mean things will be easy. Deer in the top states get hunted hard, especially on public lands and on private lands that are not tightly controlled. Some variables you must consider before picking a state are availability of licenses (see sidebar), distance from home, land access, and available time for scouting and hunting. Let's look at each.
Travel Distance: If you have to drive 14 hours to reach your hunting grounds, the odds of your making numerous trips to scout and hang stands are low. Conversely, if you can make several weekend trips to a closer state, you might be better off choosing that state, even if it's not the best big buck state. Success while bowhunting on your own, especially in unfamiliar areas, requires a lot of time and effort. When planning your trip, be realistic about the amount of time and money you can invest.
When hunting out of state, do everything possible to learn the land you'll hunt come fall. Aerial photos, topographic maps, and scouting time on the ground all form the foundation.
Land Access: Arguably the single biggest obstacle facing out-of-state hunters is finding land worth hunting. While writers spill a lot of ink about shooting big bucks on public lands, the fact is it's really tough. Not impossible, but tough.
Before beginning any out-of-state hunt, and especially if you'll be hunting on public lands, do your research thoroughly. Aerial photos are a good start, but the most beneficial move is to get on the ground and start walking. Whenever possible, try to personally learn every square inch of the property you're going to hunt. That's the foundation of a quality hunt.
These bucks represent the kind of deer you might expect to hunt in quality deer states.
Time To Scout And Hunt: In 2009, I drew a much-coveted tag in Iowa. The property I had permission to hunt belonged to a relative of my good friend and hunting partner Adam Hermsen. Given the reputation of the Hawkeye State and the cost of the tag -- over $500 -- we planned our scouting/stand hanging trips, early hunting time, and prime rut-hunting time well in advance. Iowa took priority over the other states I would hunt because of my desire to capitalize on the opportunity.
In August, we spent four days hanging stands and glassing fields. In October, we spent four days trying to fill doe tags and tweaking our stand sites. Then we both blocked off the second week of November to ensure full days of hunting during prime rut activity. As it turns out, luck was on my side when I snort-wheezed in a beautiful 10-pointer on November 8 as he trailed a doe near the pond I was set up on. While the condensed version makes it sound easy, in reality we had hung seven stands and trimmed several trees for climbing stands to guarantee quality opportunities during all wind directions.
When my hunting partner Adam Hermsen and I drew tags in Iowa, we spent several days scouting, hanging stands, and hunting during prime rut time. Our efforts paid off when I shot this beautiful 10-pointer at seven yards!
Lodging is one of the biggest concerns for traveling hunters. Early to midseason hunting is often conducive to tent camping, which is typically the least expensive option. On the downside, maintaining scent control after sitting around a campfire for a few days can be nearly impossible. Also, meat care after filling a tag requires plenty of forethought. I've harvested big game animals while hunting in early September when the daytime highs were in the 90s, with no problems. In situations like that, you have to butcher animals immediately and figure out a way to keep the meat cool. Ideally, try to line up commercial cooling facilities, say at a local butcher shop or grocery story. To go this route, remember to pack sharp knives, a cutting board, and plastic bags or freezer paper. And arrange a place to hang your deer for butchering.
If you desire a bit more convenience, stay in a motel or hotel -- if there are any within reasonable proximity to your hunting area. On several trips across state lines, my hunting partners and I have found truly reasonable rates on motel rooms. In some of the more remote areas we've traveled to, some of the rooms we've run across weretoo cheap to pass up. Again, the downside is game care. Finding a local butcher or driving home to take care of a deer might be the only choice, but it's a good problem to have!
Another option is to call on a friend or a relative living in the area. Crashing in a house with a warm shower, place to cook, and other amenities is much appreciated after a day spent from sunrise to sunset in a treestand.
An Open Mind
Traveling to hunt whitetails on your own often increases the amount of pressure to fill a tag. Some hunters thrive under pressure, others crack. When the feeling of eating an expensive tag starts to get weighty, a lot of hunters will make mistakes that cost them anima
ls. They force methods, over-hunt spots, and miss easy shots.
Take time to prepare trees and set up multiple stands before the season.
While missing easy shots is fodder for another article, forcing methods and over-hunting areas are two things you can easily address. In my opinion, a lot of bowhunters rely too heavily on calls in most situations, and that's never more true than when they set up shop in a state known for big bucks. Rattling, grunting, snort-wheezing, and even decoying have their time and place, but these tactics should not be forced. The perception that rattling antlers or the latest grunt tube is a sure way to get rich quick has cost bowhunters plenty of deer. These should be recognized as tools for certain situations and nothing more.
Also, because scouting time and hunting time are typically limited on out-of-state whitetail forays, hunters tend to focus on a few good spots and hunt them to death. In-season scouting and trusting your instincts go a long way toward filling tags. To stay flexible and mobile throughout your hunt, perfect your skills with climbing stands and lightweight portables, and include a couple of ground blinds in your arsenal. You must be able to adapt on short notice. Last year I arrowed my Iowa buck from a climbing stand in a cottonwood tree my hunting partner and I had cleaned up well ahead of time. The wind that day was blowing 30 mph, which prevented us from using most of our stand sites, but it happened to be just about perfect for the pond site.
Author's Notes: On the Iowa hunt I used a 70-lb. Elite GT 500, Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows with Bohning Blazer Vanes and NAP Hellrazor broadheads, HHA Optimizer sight, QAD Ultra-Rest, Hot Shot release, Nikon optics, and Gorilla treestand and harness.