In the past 15 years, the advent of outdoor TV has created quite a movement. I call it the “freelance bowhunter” movement. Many hunters living in the Eastern and Southern United States, where few bucks live to reach maturity due to extreme hunting pressure, have discovered the Midwest. And by that I mean they sat wide-eyed in front of their TV watching hunting show after hunting show where the host would travel to the great whitetail hunting destinations. They watched bucks being shot that they would never have a chance to ever see in their home state. These bowhunters want to experience great hunting for mature bucks themselves. A movement began, and the numbers of traveling bowhunters have grown in leaps and bounds.
I am one of these freelance bowhunters and I started a website a few years ago which provides info for the hunter-traveler, and it has exploded in popularity. I have taken more than a dozen out-of-state hunts and blogged them for my readers. I have learned some things along the way. If you are one of those people who lust after the chance to take a mature buck, but don’t have the coin to shell out $4,000 to an outfitter, I have some good advice for you. Here is your “Freelance Bowhunter 101” course to help you get on your way.
Obviously, your first step is to decide where to go. Several states are well-known for producing big bucks, like Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri. There are others that can offer a great hunt but don’t get as much ink, such as Kentucky, Ohio, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Montana. Each of these states has a lot to offer, but each of them have a different process for obtaining a tag.
If you want to hunt in Iowa, for example (and you do!), you must start acquiring preference points. It will take at least two preference points to draw a tag in the best zones, so you can hunt in Iowa every third year. Kansas and Illinois have drawings for tags also, but they offer enough tags that you can draw most zones every year. Missouri, North Dakota, and Wisconsin offer over-the-counter (OTC) tags, meaning you just show up, buy a tag at a license vendor, and hunt. Check each states’ website for details on getting deer tags. Most of the drawings take place in the spring of the year, although some have a deadline as early as January 31.
Keep in mind when choosing a state that you are looking for one where you can get permission to hunt or have public land to hunt. While most states offer a lot of public land, you will find it much more crowded in Illinois than you will in North Dakota. Research will flesh this info out for you. Sometimes a phone call to an area biologist or game warden will turn up some good information.
Once you choose the state, you need to narrow it down to an area to hunt. My website is a good place to start for this information. Go to bowhuntingroad.com and click on the Hunting Info tab. There you will find maps for several states that offer areas which hold the best trophy potential. The site also offers discussions on the amount of public lands, links to resources, and lots more info that will shorten your learning curve.
Once you have narrowed down the general area of the state, you need to refine your search to the specific parcel of land you are going to hunt. Most state DNR websites have information on the locations of public lands. You can cross-reference that with a look at the properties on Google Earth and learn more about what they offer. You will want to do as much of this research as you can before you ever leave home. If you have a week of vacation to hunt, you want to be able to arrive at the location with a game plan already in place and a general familiarity with the area.
Another great resource for information is a hunting forum. Each state has one or more outdoor forums that you can peruse for information. It is amazing what kinds of info can be turned up just by searching the discussion boards. And I have been surprised how willing hunters are to help other hunters coming to their state. Sometimes asking a question or two will return some valuable information.
The first time you go to a new area, keep your expectations low and just try to learn and enjoy the experience. Seeing those big bucks on TV can cause unrealistic expectations. Most of the celebrity hunters are hunting with an outfitter on carefully-managed land. You only see 15 minutes of a week-long hunt, which can lead you to believe that it’s a lot easier than it is.
I have found that to consistently take a mature buck, I can improve my odds by finding a quality area and go back there each time I can draw a tag. I learn more each time and the process becomes more effective. However, I also enjoy the challenge of learning a new area and seeing new country, so I like to try new places too. Only you can make the right decisions for you.
I encourage you to start doing some research online and take it from there. The old saying, “You can’t kill them from the couch” rings true here. Stop dreaming and start planning for that freelance bowhunter road trip!
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.
Images by Bernie Barringer