Best Deer Hunting State: Kentucky Takes Top Spot in New Whitetail Scale

Every year hunting magazines run stories about which states have become the latest trophy-­whitetail hotspots. There's a problem with all of these stories: They only look at the total number of trophy bucks killed.

The trouble with this is that states with higher deer populations and more hunters have an unfair advantage. Take Wisconsin, which has 1.5 million deer and about 14 hunters per square mile. In comparison, Kentucky has 900,000 whitetails and seven hunters per square mile. Given that about half of all fawns born are bucks, Wisconsin has about 750,000 bucks and Kentucky has about 450,000. You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that having more bucks and more deer hunters increases your odds of having more trophy deer harvested.

What's needed is a real-world barometer of trophy-deer trends, and that's what Outdoor Life is doing with our Whitetail Scale. It's a metric that evens out some of the huge discrepancies between various states and considers trophy deer on an apples-to-apples basis.

Instead of looking at total number of deer, our scale considers the proportion of each state's bucks that make the Boone and Crockett record book. Because looking at just one year of data can be misleading, we also crunched harvest data from the last three years, allowing us to spot trends.

And we look beyond the antlers. When deciding where to go to pursue the trophy of a lifetime, hunters consider other factors, like hunter density, the cost of a nonresident outfitted hunt, and even how accommodating each state's deer regulations are.

Factoring in these measures gives us a comprehensive and repeatable method for determining the top trophy states.

1. MEASUREMENT: Trophy Production

We started with harvest data from the 20 states with the highest number of Boone and Crockett bucks in the past three years. Each state received a score based on the percentage of harvested bucks that qualified for B&C registry. Then, because trophy production is obviously the biggest consideration for big-buck hunters, we weighted the scale to give a maximum of two points--twice as many as other categories--to states that consistently produce the most trophy whitetails. We gave the top states two points, the bottom states half a point, and the rest a single point. The way this metric works, to use the case of top-scoring Indiana as an example, is to take the total buck harvest (156,602 from 2009-2011) and divide it by the number of bucks (131) entered in the Boone and Crockett records for that same time frame.

States with top B&C entries as apercentage of total buck harvest
Indiana.................. 0 .084%
Kentucky.............. 0.082%
Kansas.................. 0.078%
Iowa....................... 0.078%
Illinois................... 0.065%

2. MEASUREMENT: Hunter Density

This metric calculates competition for a trophy buck. We divided the total number of firearms hunters in each state by the total land area in square miles. Hunter densities ranged from less than one hunter per square mile (North Dakota) to more than 11 (Ohio and Wisconsin).

Five states received one point for fewer than 3 hunters per square mile, seven got .5 points for 3.1 to 5.5 hunters, two got .25 points for 5.6 to 10, and three got 0 points for more than 10 hunters per square mile.

Firearms Hunter Density
North Dakota..............0.8/sq. mi.
Nebraska.......................1.0/sq. mi.
South Dakota...............1.1/sq. mi.
Kansas............................1.4/sq. mi.
Iowa.................................2.6/sq. mi.

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A 176 2/8-inch Kentucky typical killed by Brian Caubarreaux.

3. MEASUREMENT: Cost of Outfitted Hunts

Research shows that if you're a nonresident hunter, hiring an outfitter gives the best shot at bagging a trophy whitetail. Because outfitters' rates and offerings vary, as do the cost of nonresident hunting licenses, this evaluation was difficult to assess evenly. But it's more consistent than the other metric that we considered: the amount of huntable public land in each state.

For each state, we averaged the fee of three outfitters that offer a fair-chase, five-day, fully guided hunt (including lodging and meals) during the rut, and also factored in nonresident license fees.

Not surprisingly, outfitters and game agencies in states with reputations for producing trophy deer charge more than those in states that don't share that big-buck glow. At an average cost of $4,201, hunters will fork over the most money to hunt deer in Illinois, followed by Texas ($4,065), Kansas ($3,830), Nebraska ($3,800), and Iowa ($3,633). Kentucky ($2,590), Ohio ($2,783), and Indiana ($2,747) give hunters a good shot at a record buck for a lower price.

Cost of Outfitted Hunts
Under $2,600 = 1 point
$2,601-$3,500 = .5
$3,501 and over = 0

4. MEASUREMENT: Hunter Friendliness

Some states' nonsensical restrictions will leave hunters scratching their heads. We gave South Dakota zero points for prohibiting the use of electronic bow-mounted devices of any kind, including illuminated sight pins. Illinois lost half a point for requiring shotguns capable of firing no more than three slugs. Most other states received a single point.

The Winner: The Bluegrass State
After tallying scores, we found that Kentucky is the clear winner. The western part of the state, in particular, is producing a ton of trophy deer, and many big bucks survive the early rut. "Hunt late in the season," says Carl Doron, owner of Snipe Creek Lodge. "There's nobody here."

Here's our ranking of the top 10 whitetail states.
1. Kentucky............................4.5 points
2. Kansas...............................4.0 points
3. Indiana...............................4.0 points
4. Iowa....................................4.0 points
5. Minnesota.........................3.5 points
6. Illinois.................................3.0 points
7. Mississippi........................3.0 points
8. Nebraska...........................3.0 points
9. Ohio.....................................3.0 points
10. Oklahoma........................3.0 points