With the kids back in school and deer seasons starting, some procrastinating hunters may be feeling a sense of panic as they realize they haven’t made solid plans for putting the smackdown on a trophy buck. Or maybe some of you have simply come into a little extra cash that you feel would be best spent on finally taking that hunt you’ve always dreamed of.
No worries. Believe it or not, there are still some great whitetail hunts to be had, and the chance to score on the buck of your dreams—at a cost that is much less than you might expect—can still be realized this season. The trick is to simply know where to look and to have a little flexibility in your schedule.
Finding a Last-Minute Hunt
“A whitetail hunt that lives up to a hunter’s full expectations can be one of the hardest hunts to book because everyone wants a big deer, plain and simple,” said C.J. Brown, who with his father Carl, runs Outdoor Adventures Worldwide, an adventure trip booking agency that sets sportsmen and women up with hunting and fishing trips all over the world.
He says a hunter can indeed find a good whitetail hunt for the coming season, even this late in the game, and sometimes for a good price, though it will likely mean a hunter has to be willing to give something up in return.
“To get a bargain hunt, you generally have to sacrifice something, whether it is the overall quality of the hunt, the lodging or the dates of the hunt,” said Brown.
He cautions hunters to be careful about simply grabbing a discounted hunt without doing sufficient homework first. This late in the game, the slots that outfitters are trying to fill are typically not the best dates. This will vary from area to area, so ask prospective outfitters when the rut is and how many others will have hunted there before you. Also, ask how many will be in camp the same time you will. That can translate into more competition for key stands. In other cases, the hunting might be good, but the lodging will be bare bones or hunters may have to find their own, such as in a nearby hotel.
In some cases, the plain, ugly truth is that there’s a reason an outfitter has openings. It may be because he doesn’t warrant the repeat business required to keep his operation booked.
With today’s economy, however, that isn’t always the case. Oklahoma outfitter Todd Rogers, who owns Rut-N-Strut Guide Service, had a key corporate client drop a week that is normally filled with hunters—a key week right in the heart of the pre-rut. With the season approaching, he offered a considerable discount on the available hunts. Some lucky hunters managed to save nearly a third on the price of their hunt and will be hunting key weeks on land that harbors some huge bucks.
Greg Ray at NRA Outdoors, a booking service that works to help NRA members find the best hunts and best deals, says cancellation hunts can be a great way to go. They don’t happen often, though in the current economy, they happen more than most outfitters would like. In these situations, a hunter has usually cancelled out after paying a nonrefundable deposit. Typically, the outfitter will sell these spots for the balance that would have been due, meaning some hunters can save up to 50 percent on the cost of a quality hunt. Ray says they generally post such hunts on the company’s blog and include it in a newsletter they send to current and prospective clients.
Management hunts are another alternative. These are where outfitters—largely in Texas—want to remove 8-pointers and other deer deemed not likely to grow high-scoring racks. Some of these management bucks still score in the upper 120s to 130s and perhaps even higher—a darn good buck to most hunters.
“I was hog hunting in Texas just last week on a ranch where we had some management bucks coming into the feeders,” Ray said. “Some of these deer were ones I would shoot on a trophy hunt. Some were in the 120s and 130s, but there was even a couple that were getting up to the 150-inch area.”
Brown also recommends looking at archery hunts as they typically run $500 to $1,000 cheaper less rifle hunts.
“Again, you’re trading the range you can shoot with a rifle, but you’re spending less and may actually be hunting at a better time since most archery seasons are held before firearms seasons open,” he said.
Regardless of what method you use, both Brown and Ray agree that you should work with a qualified booking agent to improve your odds at finding the best hunt that meets both your budget and expectations.
“As agents, we have our ears to the ground for the best hunts out there and have relationships with outfitters and know what they can deliver,” Brown said. “Most guys researching individual outfitters are doing it over the Internet, which may not yield the most up-to-date information. A hunter doesn’t pay any more money to use a service like ours, so why not go through a booking agent who can be sure to help you find the type of experience you want.”
Best Bargain Buck Hunts
While every hunter wants to kill a record buck, he or she needs to temper expectations. The truth is, most have never even seen, much less shot, a deer in the 140 and 150 range and would be ecstatic to take something in that ballpark. As for those who demand the opportunity to hunt a place where records roam, both Brown and Ray also agree, it’s statistically rare that they will leave with one.
“Guys shouldn’t expect a B&C buck, even in areas where they are found,” said Brown. “There is a reason these deer got so big, and they don’t just walk in on many hunts. If they are that common to an area, you will pay for that chance. There is no way around it.”
Known trophy areas in states like Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, and provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta, all command prices in the $5,000 range and up. Brown says he works with outfitters who can offer hunters a legitimate shot at 200-inch deer, but those hunts can run as much as $12,000—not something the average hunter can or even wants to spend. So where should a guy with a few thousand or less to spend look for a shot at a great hunt and a decent trophy?
“I’m sending guys to Montana all day long on that one,” said Brown.
He likes the Powder River area for its number of deer and preponderance of good-sized bucks. An archery hunt will run around $2,500 and a rifle hunt about $3,500.
“A hunter here is going to see a lot of bucks and they’re going to kill a quality deer,” Brown said. “We go there every year and see more bucks than we can shake a stick at.”
Another top choice is Wyoming, which has great whitetail habitat and populations that offer relatively unpressured hunting for this big-game species. Brown and Ray both like north-central and northwest Missouri for it’s Iowa-like bucks and opportunity with over-the-counter licensing and un-Iowa-like hunt pricing. A quality Missouri hunt will typically run a hunter $1,000 to $2,000 less than that same hunt just across the state line in the Hawkeye State.
In Minnesota’s southeastern Bluff Country, just across the Mississippi River from the famed big buck destination Buffalo County, Wis., Pat Gaffney of RAM Outfitters offers self-guided hunts where he gives you and your friends your own property or area to hunt for as little as $995. Last year, one hunter moved to a stand I had hunted just two days earlier and harvested a 160-plus-inch eight-point!
Ray urges hunters not to overlook Texas either. The state is a perennial trophy producer. Besides the availability of management hunts, some that allow the taking of two bucks for less than $3,000, Ray said, “there are a lot of outfitters, tons of opportunity and as a result, some very competitive pricing.”
He’s also keen on hunting western and south-central Oklahoma (where Rogers runs his hunts). The region has big deer, but has yet to command the pricing like that found in Kansas. Like Brown, he urges hunters not to overlook Western opportunities. Northeastern Washington boasts some archery-only units where hunts cost less than $3,000 and offer a legitimate chance at a 150- to 160-class buck. Southern British Columbia, where hunts for big Canadian deer also scoot in below the $3,000 mark, offers similar opportunities.
Even if you can’t swing a hunt on such short notice this season, begin planning for next year. Some outfitters will agree to lock in current pricing, saving you money should prices go up to cover the growing costs of food and fuel. There has never been a better time to plan the hunt of your dreams. If nothing else, get on the mailing lists of several top booking agents and become familiar with top hunt areas and the costs they are bringing so when you do start shopping, you will be more knowledgeable.