Outdoor television’s exploding popularity in the past 15 years has caused some significant changes in the landscape for hunters. No doubt it has created a surge in popularity, and outdoor TV has also launched some products that wouldn’t have seen the same quick growth if they didn’t have the mass medium of TV to get their message to the masses.
Another noticeable impact of hunting television shows has been the eye-opening revelation about what’s available when it comes to deer hunting across the whitetail’s range. Hunters from the East Coast, the Southeastern United States, and other parts of the country suddenly became aware that the bucks they were shooting were puny compared to those being shot in the Midwest (where they have much better habitat and are allowed to grow to maturity).
Take Iowa for example. Before the Outdoor Channel became a household name, Iowa’s 6,000 nonresident deer tags were barely filled up each year. When TV hosts began shooting big bucks in Iowa, that rapidly changed. Today, expect to wait three to four years while increasing your drawing odds before you will draw a nonresident archery tag. Some states, like Illinois and Kansas, just increased the number of tags to meet the growing demand.
Still, there are hundreds of thousands of whitetail deer hunters watching big bucks on TV and dreaming about taking a trip just once to have a crack at a the kind of mature whitetail they would never have a realistic chance to shoot at home. Some hunters feel they can’t afford the trip, others simply do not know where to go, and others still are just intimidated by the thought of setting off to lands unknown to hunt in a foreign area. Well, if you are in one of those three categories, consider this your wake-up call, because I am about to crush your excuses.
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Excuse #1: I can’t afford it
If you can afford to shell out $3,000 to $4,000 for a good outfitter in the Midwest, then more power to you—but that’s more than most of us can justify. A do-it-yourself (DIY) hunt is the best and possibly the only option. You can do a hunt on a lot less than you think. Your primary expenses are going to be the deer license, gas, lodging, and food.
You have to eat whether you are at home or off on a hunt, so food costs are minimal. I often use a crock pot and toss a complete frozen meal into it when I leave in the morning, so I have a hot meal waiting for me when I get back from the day’s hunt. BBQ ribs, roast, potatoes, chicken breasts, you get the idea. Another option is to carry a small microwave to heat up some oatmeal for breakfast and a hot meal at the end of the day. You’ll hunt longer and harder if you are eating well.
Most of the small towns in the rural areas where you will be hunting have motels that cater to hunters and they are priced accordingly. I usually find one for less than $50 per night and I’m often able to work a better deal if I book several nights at once. Another option I have used is to pull a travel trailer. Many states allow you to camp for free in the parking areas at public hunting grounds. There are no facilities, of course, but if you have a self-contained camper or you are willing to rough it in a tent, your expenses are next to nothing.
That leaves your gas and your deer tag expenses. Just start saving now and be ready when the time comes; squirrel away a couple twenties a week and you will have your trip paid for in a year or less.
Excuse #2: I have no idea where to go
Here’s where I can help. I wrote a book titled The Freelance Bowhunter: DIY Strategies for the Travelling Hunter. Two-thirds of the book cover how to hunt on a budget and how to figure out a new property along with strategies for taking public-land bucks. The other third details the hunting opportunities in the 16 states I call “destination” states for whitetail hunters. It covers the counties that produce the most Pope and Young bucks, the availability of public land, what times are the best to go, how to draw a tag, and so on.
Also covered in the book are the properties that are not public but are open to public hunting. Two examples are the Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program in North Dakota, and the Walk In Hunting (WIHA) lands in Kansas. Several other states have similar programs and I have found that these lands do not get as much pressure from deer hunters as other public hunting lands. Some states have public lands that get a lot of bowhunting pressure, such as Illinois and Wisconsin, while others like the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas have abundant state and federal hunting land where the pressure is likely to be much lighter than you have at home.
The internet is an amazing resource for finding a place to hunt. Check out states’ DNR websites for lots of information. Spend some time on state hunting forums and ask questions. You might think that locals would be reluctant to help you find a good hunting area, but surprisingly I have found the ones who try to discourage you to be in the minority. Use Google Earth to analyze properties for their potential and evaluate specific hunting spots.
Excuse #3: I’m afraid to set out on my own
The best way to overcome your fear of the unknown may be to connect with others who have done it before you. The online hunting forums will connect you with people who can give you advice if you feel intimidated. I know I felt very intimidated before I took my first DIY road trip for whitetails. But once I got my feet wet I fell in love with the adventure, and I have now taken more than 20 of them.
My website bowhuntingroad.com has four bloggers (including myself) who travel to hunt, and they are happy to help answer your questions and encourage you. The only way to learn how to ride a bike is to get on a bike. It’s like that with a DIY hunt as well. Just plan the hunt and go have fun learning how to do it. I encourage you to not have unrealistic expectations the first time, just go and enjoy the hunt while learning the most you can. Your second hunt will be a lot easier. Many people before you have felt the same way and offered up the same excuses. Don’t be one of the hunters who uses one of these excuses to stay home and endure the status quo. Stop dreaming and start hunting!
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.