Your Dream Deer Hunt on a Budget

Here's How to Make Opportunity Meet Reality

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap
Research Different StatesComplete Applications and Pay FeesPick Public or PrivateUse Available ResourcesPick a Handful of SpotsResearch How to Hunt That RegionScout In AdvanceHave the Right GearWays to Maximize OddsWays to Minimize Cost

1 | Research Different States

The first step in making your dream deer hunt come true is to think about where you want to go. For most, that state is Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, etc. That’s all good and well. But some states will be right for some people and other states will be the ticket for others.

We recently released a feature on the eight best states for non-resident hunters. I personally plan to hunt deer in three of those states this fall. And I’ll do it all on a budget.

When trying to pick the “right” state, that decision should hinge on numerous factors. Distance from your home, license cost, public land availability, whitetail population densities, hunter-to-whitetail ratios, current and historical (relation between the two) harvest trends, and so much more should be considered. Simply put, it won’t be an easy decision. But few decisions worth making are.

As mentioned, whatever state you pick should be within a day’s drive. I live in Kentucky. So that “dream state” for me is Kansas. I can get to just about any part of the state within 15 hours. Not bad.

The next thing to consider is license cost. Every state is different. For example, Kansas charges non-residents more than $600 to hunt deer. Whereas in Kentucky, it’s only $260. Big difference in the amount of budget money spent. So keep that in mind.

If you aren’t hunting with an outfitter and don’t have access to private land, the only way to go is public ground. That’s where some states shine more than others. Wisconsin has an abundance of public. That’s why so many people go there to hunt.

Again, I can’t stress the importance of taking into consideration hunter numbers, whitetail populations, and harvest data. You don’t want to have to compete with a lot of hunters. And you obviously want deer where you go. Look at state, regional, and local harvest data throughout the last 10 years for each state you’re considering. It might just help you decide.

Photo credit: Josh Honeycutt

2 | Complete Applications and Pay Fees

Some states like Ohio and Indiana have over-the-counter licenses. That’s not the case everywhere. Iowa and Kansas have a draw system where you must accrue preference points in order to receive a tag. In Kansas, it takes most people two years (sometimes one) to draw a tag. It generally takes three years in Iowa. Talk about advanced planning.

The application process isn’t hard. But it does take a little time and money. So plan for it. The best thing you can do is to plan in advance and have everything mapped out before you do it. Know where you want to apply. And have a backup plan for another state with over-the-counter options if you don’t get a tag in a draw-only state.

Photo credit: Josh Honeycutt

3 | Pick Public or Private

As mentioned, this decision must be made. If you’re on a tight budget, an outfitter is probably out of the question. You’re left with three options. Get a cheap lease, obtain permission, or hunt public.

Don’t automatically write leasing off the list. Many farmers will allow a few days of hunting for a little cash. Short-term leases are an option. Find an unpressured piece of ground in rural America and there’s no need for an annual lease. Just pull out a Benjamin or three (literally two or three at most) and land access opens up real quick.

It isn’t entirely impossible to gain permission either. I couldn’t tell you how many acres of ground have opened up for me just from asking. Seriously. Make it happen.

And for those who are left with public land, or just prefer it, then there’s that option, too. And there’s not a thing wrong with it. As a matter of fact, some of the public lands I’ve hunted have held more deer than private land I have access to. Surprising, right?

Photo credit: Realtree

4 | Use Available Resources

Don’t forget to use tools available to you. Call DNR biologists, ask for their public land maps, contact locals, download apps, and anything else you can do to make locating a good piece of ground easier.

After all, nobody said this was going to be easy. You have to work for it.

Photo credit: Josh Honeycutt

5 | Pick a Handful of Spots

It’s best not to spread yourself too thin or confine yourself to one place, either. Once I’ve chosen a state, then I choose a region. Then I choose a county or two. Then I pick a handful of properties that I want to focus on. You never know, one (or most) of them could be a bust. It’s best to have several backup plans.

Photo credit: Realtree

6 | Research How to Hunt That Region

Don’t expect to know how to hunt whitetails in one place because you grew up hunting them in another. So many factors play in from state to state that make the deer hunting unique in each one. People use different tactics, face different challenges, and find different ways to overcome difficulties from state to state and region to region.

Research what the terrain will be like. Study up on what foods deer eat there. Figure out how deer read and use the landscape to their advantage, and how you should, too. It may not be the same as where you spend most of your time hunting.

Photo credit: Josh Honeycutt

7 | Scout In Advance

I prefer to drive to wherever I decide to hunt (when possible) and scout. The more you know about the place you’re going beforehand the better. Scout before you hunt.

When able, I post trail cameras and leave them until time to come hunt. Also, I scout the ground on foot and mark bedding areas, food sources, trails and possible stand sites on a map or GPS.

Going in blind is one of the worst things you can do. Make sure you spend time learning the property before moving in to hunt it. Even if that means taking a long weekend (two days driving and one day of scouting) to get it done.

Photo credit: Realtree

8 | Have the Right Gear

There’s nothing worse than arriving at hunting camp and not having what you need to be comfortable and successful. That’s why the bed of my Chevy gets loaded down on every out-of-state deer hunt I do. Below are just a few of the things I take with me.

  • Hunting licenses and tags/hunter education card
  • Firearm or bow
  • Ammunition or arrows/field points/broadheads
  • Release
  • Sling
  • Target
  • Three sets of camouflage (in case I get wet)
  • Socks
  • Boots
  • Odor elimination system
  • Backpack
  • Trail cameras
  • Knife
  • Saw
  • Cleaning kit
  • Gloves
  • Game bags
  • Cooler
  • Safety harness
  • Treestands (two to three)
  • Climbing sticks
  • Rope
  • Deer decoy
  • Calls
  • Binoculars
  • Rangefinder
  • Wind checker
  • GPS
  • Flashlights
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • First-aid kit
  • Lighter and matches
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Power chords
  • Light
  • Heater
  • Food
  • Water
  • Shower kit
  • Phone/chargers
  • Computer/chargers
  • Cameras/chargers
  • And the list goes on

Photo credit: Heartland Bowhunter/Realtree

9 | Ways to Maximize Odds

As a deer hunter, I analyze every situation before making a decision. Sometimes I decide to be passive. Sometimes I’m aggressive. But on short trips like these, I’m almost always aggressive unless I know for certain being passive will be more productive for me.

For example, unless I know a buck is making it all the way to a food source in daylight, I’ll get as close to its bedding area as I can. Another example, if I know or suspect there are several dominant bucks in the area, I get aggressive with calls and decoys.

There are other ways to make it happen. But those are a few. Do what it takes.

Photo credit: Kathryn Honeycutt

10 | Ways to Minimize Cost

Everybody likes to save a little money. It’s no different with this dream hunt. That’s why I’ve refined my actions over the last few years to save money when traveling to hunt. See tips below.

  • Buy cheap tags.
  • Drive. Don’t fly.
  • Drive a vehicle with good gas mileage.
  • Go with several people and and share the gas bill.
  • Sleep in a tent.
  • Don’t eat at nice restaurants.
  • Don’t eat fast food.
  • Pack cheap foods (i.e.: crackers and ramen noodles).
  • Borrow necessary gear from family and friends.

You’d be surprised just how much money you’ll save by doing these things. The first time I went all the way to Kansas, I went for a week and spent $1,000. That’s not bad.

Grant it, I didn’t kill a deer. But I came very close. And I had a lot of fun and learned quite a bit. I’m confident the next time I go out there I’ll knock one down.

Go here if you’re interested in more deer hunting stories and how-to’s. 

Photo credit: Russell Graves