Ever have a hankering for an early-season whitetail bowhunt while the deer still have velvet-covered antlers? Here are the top five destinations to make it happen.
Whitetails across North America tend to shed their velvet during the first week in September. Sometimes the fuzz can come off during the last week of August, but the majority will become hard-antlered between September 1 and 7. There are a handful of locations across North America where you can have a great chance of shooting a velvet buck in this time frame. At the tail end of summer, these bucks are in some of their most consistent and predictable patterns of the year. Here are my top five picks for where you can get a velvet buck for your trophy collection.
Public land in North Dakota
North Dakota is a gold mine for the do-it-yourself bowhunter. Public land is abundant and there are still places where hunting permission will be granted on a handshake. United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) land surrounds the Missouri River and its reservoirs, and all of it is open to public hunting. Much of it is grassland, but food plots, shelterbelts, and oak groves left over from century-old farmsteads attract whitetails.
Lake Sakakawea is a huge reservoir 125 miles long, and almost all of its shoreline is USACE land. You could spend a lifetime poking around looking for whitetails. Much of the area has a very low human population and little hunting pressure during archery season.
North Dakota also offers a program known as PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen). Landowners allow public access to their land through this program. The good news about PLOTS land is that no access by any type of vehicle is allowed—it’s walking only. The vast majority of this land is prairie that attracts bird hunters, but the deer hunter who does his homework can find small pockets of rarely-hunted whitetail habitat. Because it is walking access only, anything that is a mile or so from the nearest road may never see much human activity—if any. Most locals have a place to hunt where they don’t have to hoof it so far. Surprisingly, few nonresident hunters take advantage of North Dakota’s whitetail opportunities. You will have to do your homework and be willing to work hard to bag a buck in North Dakota, but if you like the challenge of a DIY road trip, this could be the hunt for you.
- Season opener: Noon on the Friday nearest September 1
- Licenses and tags: OTC—$215
- Website: http://gf.nd.gov/
While the northeastern part of Montana gets a lot of publicity for its whitetail hunting, the southeastern corner of the state has quietly been producing some really nice bucks. Because the season opens September 1, there is a short window of opportunity to bag a velvet buck. This area has escaped the plague of blue tongue disease and winterkill that has caused a crash of the deer population in northeastern Montana.
Look to the lowlands along the Powder River and Tongue River watersheds. This is arid country with river bottoms surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. The deer bed in the cottonwood groves during the day and move out into the irrigated alfalfa fields to feed. Their patterns are very consistent and the sheer number of deer in these areas is striking—it is not unusual to see 50-plus deer per sitting. The first week in September last year I saw nine Pope and Young bucks in velvet during a four-hour evening sit in 90-degree heat.
The majority of the properties with good deer populations are leased by outfitters. Most outfitters offer hunts for whitetails and mule deer, plus antelope if you want to combine the two into one hunt. This is one of those hunts that every serious bowhunter should put on their “Must Do” list—it’s that good. I bagged a great 10-pointer in 2012 with Blue Rock Outfitters and I can’t wait to get back there.
- Season opener: September 1
- Licenses and tags: apply between January 1 and March 15—$552
- Website: http://fwp.mt.gov/
Forest fringe area of Alberta
Alberta has long been known to produce trophy whitetails due to its low hunting pressure the cold northern climate that dissuades all but the hardiest hunters during the frigid rifle season. But for bowhunters, Alberta is not at the top of their destination list. It should be on your list because of the opportunity to take a whopper in velvet during the first week of September. In fact, there are some large areas designated primitive weapons only.
Nonresident hunters must be “hosted” by an Alberta resident. Unless you have a friend or family member in Alberta who has access to good hunting land, you must go with an outfitter. One other option is to trade a trip; you might find an Alberta resident who would be willing to host you in exchange for a hunt in your home area.
Southern Alberta is prairie land, the north is boreal forest, and the western part of the province is mountainous. Nestled between those areas is the “forest fringe,” commonly called the “Parkland” by Alberta residents. This combination of farms, open prairie, and patches of “bush” is where you will find the best early-season hunting. The deer tend to bed in the heavy cover of the timber blocks and feed in the open fields. They are quite visible and patternable in this flat country. Whitetail numbers are not high here, but the quality makes up for the lack of quantity.
Occasionally, bucks will bed for the day in open fields and can be taken by spotting them in the morning, watching them bed, then putting the sneak on them when they have settled in. This is not a high-percentage tactic, but it is exhilarating and it sure beats sitting around camp all day. Bagging a mature whitetail this way is one of the most rewarding feelings in deer hunting.
- Season opener: September 1
- Licenses and tags: Hosted—$196.57
- Website: mywildalberta.com
Much like southeastern Montana, this area in no way resembles typical whitetail country to the Midwestern or Eastern hunter. But the water and fertility of the land associated with the riparian areas produces whitetails in significant numbers, and a lack of local whitetail hunters allows them to get mature. This part of the West is not much of a secret any longer, so outfitters have grabbed up the majority of the best ground. There are a few places where you can get permission to hunt, but most of the landowners have figured out that people will pay to hunt the whitetails that they consider vermin. If you are willing to put in the time and knock on a lot of doors, you can find a place to hunt on your own.
Cottonwoods and alfalfa are the two main keys to whitetail location in the early season, although the bedding areas may be in a pine grove a mile or more from the feeding areas. It is common for whitetails to cross large areas while they make their way to the fields to feed in the afternoon. They frequently walk even two miles or more. This makes them very visible. A spotting scope is an essential tool for locating them. Once they’re found, it’s a simple matter of getting in position for their morning or evening trek.
- Season opener: September 1
- Licenses and tags: apply between January 1 and March 15—$338.50
- Website: http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/home.aspx
The western half of the state of Kentucky has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a quality whitetail destination. In the last two decades, the number of mature deer being shot by residents and nonresidents has been steadily rising. Hosting an archery season opener that falls on the first Saturday in September, the Bluegrass State offers yet another opportunity to bag a great velvet buck.
For hunters without the budget to spend on a fully outfitted hunt, this area offers an abundance of public land open to hunting. Western Kentucky features two expansive public areas in the 100,000-acre Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and the 65,000-acre Peabody WMA. In addition to that, there are several smaller WMAs ranging in size from less than 1,000 acres to more than 8,000 acres. The area is well populated and you will not be alone on public hunting ground, but if you are willing to do your legwork—get a mile or more off the road—you will find minimal hunting pressure.
- Season opener: First Saturday in September
- Licenses and tags: OTC—$190
- Website: http://fw.ky.gov/
The unique trophy of a velvet-antlered whitetail is one that can be found in only a handful of places. If you start your planning now, you have a chance to get yours.
Images courtesy Bernie Barringer