Take a drive through the hill country of the top whitetail states and it is easy to see how deer grow old and gnarly. Steep bluffs and elevated hideouts provide bucks the ultimate habitat for survival. The historical Pope and Young harvest map clearly shows some association between big bucks being killed in hilly regions of the United States. Let’s look at where big bucks are being taken, and then find out how you can find and harvest a hill-country giant.
Harvest Map Analysis
By looking at the P&Y harvest map, it is easy to see that big bucks have been plentiful in hill country. Red indicates a high number of P&Y bucks and it is quite clear that many of them are harvested in hilly terrain. As mentioned, large hills can create the ultimate habitat for bucks to mature to old ages. Steep hills which meet crop fields, rivers and creeks create isolated areas for bucks to bed high and watch and smell for danger. From Wisconsin and Minnesota, to the rolling hills of Iowa and Illinois, big bucks can be a dime a dozen in these areas. While looking at the harvest map, you could almost point to a hilly region in the Midwest and expect to see a deep red color indicting a heavy Pope and Young harvest. Many times, big buck harvests occur at large landscape changes, such as a major river. Portions of western Illinois, northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota and Southwestern Wisconsin that meet the Mississippi River are perfect examples.
Big Buck Bedding
Most of my hunting experience has been in the large hills of southwestern Wisconsin. One particular bow hunt stands out to me during the 2012 season in mid-October. My destination was a treestand pinched between a bedding area and a large crop field on top of a large ridge. About one quarter of the way up a logging road leading to the stand, I spotted a deer bedded one ridge over, motionless. Sure enough, I pull up my binoculars, and the large-bodied buck is sleeping. I adjusted my gear to prepare my next move as he lifted his head and caught my slow movement. Before I could even think of what to do next, he was on his feet bounding to the top of the ridge. Had the buck not been sleeping, I’m sure he would have been long gone before I even knew he was bedded. Not five minutes later and within 50 yards of my treestand, I busted a different mature buck and sent him fleeing off to the neighbor’s land with no hesitation.
With both bucks being in the 140-inch range, it was an eye-opening experience bumping two mature bucks out of their beds. Both were not laying in some nasty, thick or impenetrable area. They were both in the wide open with visibility and a wind advantage on their side. Once I bumped them, there was no way of knowing where they ended up as the steep terrain blocked my view. If your stand access is incorrect in hill country — like mine was that evening — good luck to you. A hill-country buck is most likely watching your every move.
The No. 1 goal of a whitetail is to survive. To survive, bucks must find the best bedding locations throughout the hunting season. I have seen patterns change with the season and certain areas become hotspots during specific weather conditions. Throughout summer and early fall, bucks may be more inclined to bed in areas that provide a break from warmer, buggy conditions. North-facing slopes, ditches, and thick hillsides next to crop fields are prime summer bedding locations and can provide some reprieve from warm weather. During the brutal winter months, I see bucks utilizing sunshine to conserve precious energy. Bucks will spend daylight hours where sunshine melts snow and exposes bare leaves. The bare leaves soak up plentiful sunshine and allow south-facing hillsides to remain much warmer than north-facing hillsides. Hunters attempting to approach a late-season food source in hill country need to consider the sun and where bucks will be bedding in the afternoon hours — then access accordingly. Late-season bucks are educated and well-trained to human intrusion.
Getting on a buck on hill country can be a challenge if you fail to understand how access, terrain and wind work in a whitetail’s favor. It should come as no surprise that my best hunts in hill country have occurred when my access to the stand was easy and correct for the stand site. Hunting easy-to-access stands with appropriate wind have allowed me to see and kill the most deer. Recalling my best bow hunts, they have all occurred while being less than 80 yards inside the timber. On my property in Wisconsin, this goes to show I can hunt fringes and still have success. Of course, that is not true everywhere and you will need to judge how and where deer move in daylight on your property. If you can approach a stand by utilizing terrain to hide yourself, it is most likely a stand worth hunting when conditions are correct for the time of year you plant to hunt. For example, hunting forced travel routes that lead to food could be a great, spook-free location for early season if your trail cameras have been showing daylight movement. Hill country can also create the ultimate setup for up-close rut hunting. One of my tried-and-true rut locations is a long, narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides. This location creates a definitive pinch-point for rut travel. With bedding upwind of my location, this stand is an excellent choice for any sort of northerly wind, as most bucks swing downwind of this bedding area, This oftentimes puts deer in bow range.
Although many bucks are killed throughout hill country, there are exceptions of course. Areas like Kansas, Nebraska and Texas lack massive hills and ridges and consistently take big bucks year in and year out. Miles of brushy, thick terrain cover much of Texas. Long stretches of crop fields and grasses lined with a few fencerows make up much of Kansas. If you’re looking for an out-of-state big buck hunt, high tailing it for some hills is probably a wise decision.