Big Buck Hotspot: Why Southeast Minnesota Could be the Ultimate Trophy Whitetail Destination

Just across the Mississippi River from the famed Buffalo County, Wis., which has accounted for more Boone and Crockett entries than any other county in the United States, and just north of Iowa, where truly serious deer hunters move their families in order to claim a resident deer tag every year, lies southeast Minnesota, perhaps one of the most underrated, under-publicized giant buck destinations in the country. Southeast Minnesota's bluffs along the Mississippi provide a unique blend of hardwood ridges and brushy bottoms that ring fertile farmlands of corn and soybeans. Deer populations possess the genetics common to the upper Midwest where whitetail bucks grow into heavy-bodied, thick-wracked beasts. Yet, outfitted hunts can run a hunter a fraction of what one might cost in more publicized destinations. It's a place any serious big buck hunter needs to consider in his travel plans. I spent a good part of my season hunting this deer haven and learning about why it just might be the ultimate place to take a trophy Midwest whitetail. I also got to check out some of the biggest bucks killed here this year. This is what I figured out. All Photos By: Patrick Hayes
While much of the Midwest was slammed with near-record drought conditions this year, as well as rampant EHD outbreaks, rainfall remained closer to normal in Minnesota providing ample agriculture, like this expansive cornfield, to help deer grow healthy and BIG!
The region is also quite friendly to hunters, and locals value the business sportsmen bring to the area. A sign outside of the Witoka Tavern in Witoka, MN, welcomes hunters to the area, while stores such as Fleet Farm celebrated Orange Friday--the day before the gun season begins when hunters, both resident and nonresident, flood the store for last-minute gear and hunting licenses. The tavern doubles as a check station during deer season.
Treestands line the storage barn of RAM Outfitters, ready for a quick setup to match the changing patterns of bucks as they move off the feed and begin funneling through bottoms and other natural pinch points in search of a hot doe. Self-guided, four-day hunts, where several friends are given their own property to hunt, can be had for as little as $995 each. Even guided hunts often run less than across the river in neighboring Buffalo County, WI, making this an ideal area to hunt for big buck seeking, yet budget-conscious sportsmen.
Minnesota hunter Steve Roraff shows off his opening day trophy outside the Witoka Tavern check station. His buck was one of many to be checked on this day with such impressive size.
Wendell Dulek poses with his long-tined 10 point after checking it. Minnesota's DNR still requires hunters to check deer where they are weighed and oftentimes even scored in order to best manage the herd for optimum quality.
Every giant buck and future B&C candidate started out like this guy. Visiting hunters are encouraged to pass on smaller bucks in order to allow them to grow to maturity. One of the best things about hunting this region, besides the availability of affordable guided hunt options is the extremely reasonable cost and availability of a nonresident license--approximately $145 over the counter. That's a steal when compared to some states.
The steep hills and bluffs of southeastern Minnesota provide excellent timber and cover for whitetail bucks to hide in and grow big, yet also makes for some challenging dragging when a hunter has a deer on the ground.
RAM Outfitters operator Pat Gaffney (left) and an extremely happy client celebrate a successful hunt where the hunter took this wide-racked 10-point on the second day of the general firearms season. Hunters are limited in the area to shotguns and muzzleloaders, which some argue limits hunters' effectiveness leaving more bucks to survive.
Hunters gather around to see how heavy Stuart Keith's 170-inch class buck weighs at the check station. (It was 250 pounds by the way.) The genetics of the deer in the region account for the large physical size of the deer, necessary to survive the state's harsh winters.
Hunting buddies Stuart Keith (left) and Andy Kerr (right) fill up the bed of a pick-up with their opening day trophies--both 170-class bucks.
With an abundance of agriculture and expansive hillside forests, deer herds in Minnesota have great potential and are doing well. However, concerned that deer numbers needed to be boosted, the DNR this year restricted the number of antlerless permits to allow more does to survive the season. That combined with last year's mild winter should help herds rebound to previous highs.
An ATV with a wide rack or even better, pull-behind trailer, is almost essential gear for getting heavy-bodied bucks, many exceeding 200 pounds, up the bluffs and out of the woods before being taken to a check station.
A local hunter jumps in at the Witoka Tavern check station to help measure a buck brought in on opening day that would go on to green score 190 inches.
Here's a better look of the 190-inch buck being measured outside the check station. As you can imagine, the buck drew quite a crowd, even on a day that saw a number of 150-, 160- and 170-class bucks brought in for checking.
Diehard hunters in this part of Minnesota don't let a little thing like not having a truck keep them from the woods. Here the trunk of a Ford Focus makes for a suitable place in which to haul the owner's trophy to the check-in station and then back home for skinning.

Forget Iowa and Buffalo County. Southeastern Minnesota is the new destination for trophy whitetails. Doug Howlett spent the season there figuring out why.