If the University of Nebraska football team was the Whitetails, deer hunting might get more attention in the Cornhusker State. Alas, when the school chose its team nickname, whitetails were probably as rare as moose in this prairie state.
Well, not anymore.
“How about that one?” my guide, Justin Nott, asked as we huddled beside his truck in north-central Nebraska, buffeted by both the 14-degree northern breeze and the roar of grain trucks passing on the highway.
“The 5x5 walking behind that doe along the fence?” I asked.
“No, the bigger one to the north. In the corner. Just came out of the trees by those six does and the 4x4 we were watching earlier.”
I swung the spotting scope toward the north. Like hay bales in an alfalfa field, deer after deer flickered through my view before I found a broad-chested, thick-necked buck laboring across the milo field under an impressive supply of thick, wide, heavy bone.
“Oh yeah, that might do,” I said.
“Well, the one we’re looking for is bigger.”
Justin, a Nebraska native, had returned to his home state in 2010 after a seven-year stint in the U.S. Air Force and began taking orders at Laughing Water Ranch Outfitters (LWRO) from Lance Kuck. Kuck is steering his bison ranch near Bassett toward the highest-quality hunting for free-range turkeys, grouse, quail, waterfowl, mule deer and whitetail deer, and Justin is his first officer.
“The kid is obsessed with managing this place for wildlife,” Lance told me last November during my second hunt with his outfit. “He’s taking soil samples, fertilizing, putting out mineral supplements, planting food plots in the river bottom, hanging trail cameras and literally cataloging every buck on the place.”
I can attest to the cataloging. When I walked into camp last fall for my second hunt with LWRO, I discovered dozens of trail camera photos of bucks Justin had captured and posted on the bunkhouse wall. Each animal had been given a name. Several, already shot by bowhunters before my arrival, had their scores added to the photos. Every hunter in camp was studying this dream gallery, selecting their favorites, all of which appeared to score 150 or more. “Heck,” I said after several minutes’ reverie. “I’d be happy with any of them.” And I was.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. During my first hunt with LWRO two years ago, there was no photo gallery. Justin just described bucks he’d been seeing then showed me them, live and on the hoof—a 140-class buck cruising a tree strip here, three 130-class bucks harassing a dozen does over there, a tall 4x4 eating alfalfa next to a fence, a 170-inch bruiser running from the middle of the grassland behind us.
“Where the heck did he come from?” I asked over the howling wind after the heavy buck and several does had disappeared over a rise.
“Must have been lying in that low spot we just passed.”
“That’s nothing but grass!”
“Didn’t seem to matter to him.”
“Him” was not just a big buck, but the big buck—the slippery giant Justin had glimpsed and had tried to corner all season. He’d pinned him down to an isolated, old grove of homestead trees clinging to life deep in the grasslands a mile from the nearest road where no sane hunter would look. But grassland whitetails aren’t sane. We were heading to the old grove when the buck caught us flat-footed in the open. There tomorrow, here today. Plains whitetails do crazy, out-of-character stuff like bed in a grassy swale. As we’d trudged toward the trees where he was supposed to be, our heads bowed against the wind, we’d walked right past him.
Nebraska whitetails are rather adept at living with lots of grass and minimal tree cover. Coyote hunter Lyndon Branson and I almost walked right through another big, grassland buck in west-central Nebraska once. We’d crossed a sandy hill, one of millions here, to surprise a whole herd of whitetails. At least three bucks and a half-dozen does scattered like quail, flickering through a thin strip of trees and clumps of tall grass, jumping fences and leaping yucca plants. Normally I study bucks with a binocular if not a spotting scope before shooting, but this one needed no study. It was wide, tall and handsome. Lyndon didn’t have to hiss, “Shoot that one!” but he did anyway. It didn’t appear I’d get the chance—until romance interrupted the escape. Four skips and a jump from crossing a ridge, one of the does turned back and stopped by a fence. The buck stopped to wait for her.
“Three hundred seventy yards!” Lyndon advised. I steadied the Mossberg 100 ATR over the stag’s shoulder, showing a bit of daylight under the reticle, and sent a 95-grain .243 Ballistic Silvertip his way. The 163-gross buck collapsed in his tracks.
While a spectacular buck, this one wasn’t likely to raise eyebrows at the local check station. These days Nebraskans are used to quality deer for at least three reasons: Bedding and escape cover have caught up to the forage base; landowners are willing to tolerate high deer populations and the crop depredation that comes with it (hay stacks in deep-snow winters suffer most); and biologists are managing the harvest to allow more bucks to grow old. (Or maybe the escape cover is now so dense that more bucks can escape.)
A little history is in order. Traditionally Nebraska was a vast bison prairie sitting on the western edge of whitetail habitat. Trees along the Missouri River sheltered whitetails, but you didn’t have to venture far up feeder streams to the west before the woods dwindled to grass. The famous Platte River, a mile wide and inch deep, was nearly treeless. A few cedars, plum thickets, cottonwoods and other deciduous trees clung to steep banks and damp ravines here and there, especially along the Niobrara River, but millions of grazing bison and ferocious prairie wildfires minimized whitetail habitat in most of the state. Then farmers came. Suddenly Nebraska was a whitetail smorgasbord with corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa and beans, but whitetails remained scarce into the middle of the 20th century due to a shortage of escape cover. But that was coming. Farmers were planting tree claims for firewood, for shelter around farmsteads and as windbreaks in fields. Simultaneously, the reduction in prairie fires enabled natural generation of brush species. Songbirds carried juniper (red cedar) berries from isolated canyon trees to fence lines and pastures across the sandhills. Now cedars are a major weed species choking out millions of acres of formerly productive grasslands. Ponderosa pines, native to the high ridges in northwest Nebraska, similarly advanced in the absence of fire. Rivers in flat, grassland areas like the Elkhorn, Loup, Blue and Republican became lined with deciduous brush. Willows and cattails flourished behind new dams as well as in rainwater basins in south-central counties.
Today Nebraska, while still covered with plenty of grasslands (prairie chickens and sharptailed grouse still thrive here), is also a brushy, whitetail paradise with all the agricultural abundance and productivity of famous Midwest whitetail havens. Landowners and outfitters like Lance Kuck are managing for older bucks, and their efforts are yielding results.
Hunters can approach Nebraska whitetails the same way they hunt Ohio deer, but Westerners incorporate mule-deer hunting tactics, too. While hunting the Platte River Valley near Paxton with Jim Martinosky of Central Nebraska Outfitters, I regularly scanned wide hay fields with a spotting scope. It was the most efficient way to find a good buck. Jim had dozens of stands in and around the riparian brush, but whitetails have so many feeding and bedding options that an impatient hunter like me does better by going to the deer.
One morning Jim and I spotted two good bucks working does along the edge of the river trees. Several does were feeding on fresh cheatgrass around a windmill 400 yards out in a flat, short-grass pasture. There was no way to get past them to the bucks, so we returned in the afternoon to sit in the grass and watch that cheatgrass patch. At 3 p.m. the largest of our bucks strolled from the trees and marched deep into our pasture, but far to the west.