Today's Trophy Trends

By Brad Herndon

Deer hunting is exciting and especially so when you’re trying to kill your first trophy whitetail. Back in the 1980s, I remember opening the pages of a hunting magazine and reading about The Magic Triangle in Illinois. My eyes lit up as I read about a triangle of counties in west-central Illinois that were producing quantities of some of the highest scoring deer in North America. As you probably have, I could imagine myself posing with one of these magnificent animals.

As my knowledge about deer hunting increased, I began writing how-to deer hunting articles back in 1987. In addition, I put into place databases in which I could record various types of information pertinent to trophy whitetails. These databases included all Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett entries, typical and non-typical. With this wealth of information at hand, for the past several years I have been able to predict trends within North America, such as the hottest future locations for big bucks. In this particular article, I will share some trophy trends that will be both fascinating and surprising to you. I’ll even revisit that magic triangle of counties in Illinois to see how they are doing. On the flip side, I’ll also share some roadblocks I see ahead in the trophy-hunting road – problems that you will hopefully be able to avoid, or cure. Now let’s take a look at the first shocker.


Accompanying this story you will find a chart showing the number of square miles it took for a state to grow a Boone and Crockett buck, both all-time and over the past five years. For your information, to make the all-time B&C record book, a typical whitetail has to net at least 170 inches, and a non-typical buck has to net 195 inches or more. These are obviously brute bucks. The figures were obtained by taking the square mile figures for each state from a Rand McNally Road Atlas and then dividing them by the B&C entries from each state. These types of figures are important to us as deer hunters because, when coupled with other statistics, they more accurately reflect the true possibilities we have of tagging a book buck within each state. For example, one state may have a few more record book entries than another state, but if its land area is four times larger, it generally doesn’t present you with the highest odds of success. Going to the square mile chart, you will see that over the past five years Illinois has produced more Boone and Crockett bucks per square mile than any other state. This is probably no surprise to you. Kentucky, on the other hand, may raise some eyebrows with its No. 3 ranking. And when you see Delaware placed in the No. 6 position over the past five years, you may think I’ve lost my mind. Maryland may also be a surprise to you. Well, there are reasons why each state is currently ranked where they are in the chart. Let’s take a look at those reasons and what we can learn from them.


Illinois has a three-day firearms season in November and a four-day firearms season in December, a management strategy they have used for a long time. This low firearm hunting pressure during the rut allows many of The Prairie State bucks to grow to old age. Of course, the fact that Illinois contains outstanding deer genetics and some of the richest soil on earth also factors into the successful trophy- buck-growing formula. When it comes to top-end trophies, Illinois is unbeatable. Over the past five years, Illinois has produced 75 percent more typical bucks (28 to 16) scoring more than 180 inches than the second best state, Ohio. When it comes to non-typicals scoring more than 210 inches, Illinois has cranked out 140 percent more of these brutes (43 to 18) than the second best state, which is a tie between Iowa and Kansas. Regarding The Magic Triangle in Illinois, it’s still producing quantities of megabucks. Eight out of the top 10 B&C counties in Illinois are still found in this magic triangle. Kentucky, meanwhile, a state I’ve been telling hunters to watch for many years, cranks out B&C bucks at an ever increasing rate because of a change in management plans 13 years ago. This was when they switched to a one antlered- buck-only limit; and despite a fairly long rifle season during November, their record book numbers are truly impressive. Indiana switched to a one-antlered-buck limit three years ago, and over the past two years, Indiana and Kentucky have recorded the greatest percentage increase in bucks scoring more than 150 inches. Ohio just recently changed to the one-antlered-buck rule as well, and I expect an increase in The Buckeye State’s already great book entry numbers. Their firearms season in 2005 was from Nov. 28-Dec. 4. This season falls out of the rut, and with a short four-day muzzleloader season in December, high firearm hunting pressure is of short duration. Coming to Iowa, it can’t be beat for top-end typicals. In history, there have been 137 typical bucks that have netted 190 inches or better. Iowa has grown 22 of them, Illinois 15. The top Iowa typical is the Wayne Bills buck at 201 4/8 inches. With their buck firearms season not starting until December, great whitetail genetics and fertile soil statewide, farm-rich Iowa will continue to crank out topnotch bucks for the foreseeable future. In the near future, both Kansas and Wisconsin will continue to grow numbers of book bucks. Kansas because it has always had an excellent deer management program in place, and Wisconsin because it is taking serious measures to control their deer herd size (more on this later). In 2006 Wisconsin is proposing several novel changes, including a free antlerless tag with a bow or gun license in some zones and an unlimited number of anterless tags in some regions. And where required, the Earn-A-Buck program will be implemented, meaning you must harvest a doe before an antlered buck can be harvested. Before continuing, I want to mention Delaware and Maryland. Delaware is a small state (only 1,955 square miles). The Atlantic Ocean forms its eastern border. Maryland lies to the west. With 40,000 deer, and 85 percent of its land private, Delaware does its best to keep the deer herd in check with liberal deer harvest limits. It even has a quality deer management program in place; and as unlikely as it seems, some real boomer bucks roam this coastal state. The state’s top typical goes 185 4/8 inches. Maryland is also an excellent big-buck state and has been for many years. Obviously the biggest problem in these two eastern seaboard states is obtaining permission to hunt on the private land. If you have a relative who owns land there, consider giving them a call. You might be surprised what walks by.


Thus far, most states I’ve discussed have been from the Midwest, the breadbasket of bucks, so to speak. However, even in this hotbed of trophy whitetails, there is a danger lurking when it comes to growing trophy bucks, one that Midwestern deer managers – both at state level and individuals – must be on the alert for. This danger involves an everincreasing deer herd, a factor that can negatively alter deer health and antler size. Without doubt, the Midwest, overall, is the top producer of book bucks in our nation, especially the areas bordering our river drainages. In 1988 one expert I know mentioned that fact, and he also made some comments worth reviewing at this time. “It is my opinion,” he noted, “that areas in which the deer herd has exceeded the carrying capacity of the land and has crashed two or more times, that it never again will produce large quantities of quality animals.” Certainly this is a statement some hunters might not agree with. Let me pitch in another comment he made in 1988 before you judge his accuracy. “Recently, I conducted research in Kentucky, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers,” he said. “Never have I seen such potential for trophy buck production. Yet, the hunters of that region have not realized the trophy quality of the area.” Obviously he was way ahead of his time in realizing what makes, or doesn’t make, a big buck factory. Certainly he was right in picking Kentucky as a great book-buck state, and I agree with his statement regarding the consequences of too many deer in a region. Even back in 1988, when he was predicting big buck hotspots, he noted that “The Mississippi River Delta contains some of the finest soils and genetics to be found anywhere within the whitetail’s range; however, population and management problems in the extreme southern delta eliminate this region from consideration.” As you may have noticed, no state in the southeastern part of our nation has been one of the top picks for trophy bucks. Some say the genetics just aren’t there to consistently grow high-scoring whitetails. James McMurray of Louisiana would argue this point.


During the late 1980s, James McMurray was a member of a hunting club that leased the land now known as Big Lake Wildlife Management Area. It was typical to see 100 deer per day and never see an antler. Then the state purchased 20,000 acres of this private land, and the federal government bought 50,000 acres adjacent to it. The state opened this region to the public, and deer hunters flocked into the area and used either-sex deer hunting permits to dramatically reduce the deer herd. As the herd became smaller, hunters headed elsewhere. Soon there were few hunters and few deer, but an abundance of food was now available for the remaining whitetails. James McMurray realized the potential of this region, and on Jan. 4,1994, he dropped the hammer on a 29-point brute of a deer that scored 281 6/8 inches! It stands as the ninth best non-typical of all-time. This buck was tagged in Tensas Parish, which is located along the fertile Mississippi River basin. Again, consider what our expert said in 1988 about the Mississippi River Delta and the overabundance of deer. Also consider the results when the deer herd was brought down to the carrying capacity of the land.


In 2004, Tony Lewis dropped a 6x5 Dooly County, Ga., typical that stretched the measuring tape to 181 4/8 inches, making it the seventh best typical in state history and the highest-scoring typical killed in the state in 18 years. It’s not surprising this monster came from Dooly County since it has been under an experimental state quality deer management program since 1993. Certainly the McMurray and Lewis bucks show the potential of southeastern bucks if they are given the opportunity to grow to maturity in regions with a plentiful amount of highly nutritious food. Unfortunately, effective statewide quality deer management programs are not the norm in the Southeast. Alabama, for instance, had a 3-point antler restriction in only Barbour County during the Hunter’s Choice gun season in 2005, which ran from Nov. 19 to Jan. 31. The limit during this long season was two deer per day, and one could be an antlered buck. Certainly these regulations allow an incredibly high harvest of antlered bucks each year. And while these regulations also encourage hunters to kill a high number of antlerless deer, the state’s hunters don’t harvest a sufficient number to keep the deer herd in check. If we could suddenly switch the deer population of Illinois to 2,000,000 animals (Alabama’s present total), and give the hunters there a buck-a-day limit for 74 days, how many Boone and Crockett bucks do you think would be coming out of Illinois? I’ll answer the question. Not many. So while there are certain regions of the Southeast under quality deer management that do produce good bucks, a little research quickly reveals most deer management strategies in the Southeast are not geared toward growing more mature bucks. Fortunately, private property under management can be another matter, especially when surrounding property owners have a similar management strategy.


A few years ago I wrote an article about the high number of record book entries over the previous 10 years and how these high numbers were at least somewhat tied in to the food plot revolution started by the Whitetail Institute in 1988. They started providing the quality products and information and hunters started drastically expanding the use of food plots. I believe food plots played a big role in the 500% increase in record-book bucks, but in saying that, we must also remember that the deer herd in many parts of the nation at that time was still expanding, meaning excellent native browse was still available in most regions to complement the nutritious food plots. However, when it comes to whitetails, things change rapidly. In the past two years I have seen a continuing, and alarming, trend occurring throughout the nation. Namely, too many deer hunters, including hunters managing property, are not harvesting enough does. This results in the deer population getting out of control and the native browse being destroyed. Once this occurs, it takes an incredible effort to restore a region to its true deer-growing potential. An accompanying picture shows Henry Reynolds with a basic 8-point buck that grossed 160 inches and fielddressed 247 pounds. It was taken in 2004 in Indiana farm country with few deer. Only 34 miles away, deer hunters have leased a majority of northwestern Washington County hunting land. Mature bucks there will field-dress 100 pounds less and score 40 to 50 inches less in antler size because the region is overpopulated with deer. Other than farm fields, food plots and acorns, the thousands of deer in this county have very little food supply.


Nationwide, I see this trend happening in pockets in some of our best trophy whitetail states. Hunters must be educated to the fact they must harvest does, and quantities of them, or this trend will continue. Once the herd is under control, then products such as Imperial Whitetail Clover, Chicory Plus, Alfa-Rack PLUS, Extreme and others, can be planted in food plots to keep the deer fat and healthy while the native browse is allowed to recover. As I see it, the trend of the future will be for states to implement regulations that will in some way result in hunter’s taking a sufficient number of does each year to keep the herd in check. The states that do this job best will be the top buck states in the future. In addition to the Wisconsin regulations I’ve already noted, several more methods are listed in the sidebar. 

Illinois – Top 10 B&C Counties 1. Fulton
2. Pike
3. Adams
4. Morgan
5. Jo Daviess
6. Schuyler
7. McHenry
8. Greene
9. McCoupin
10. Jersey

Iowa – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Allamakee
2. Clayton
3. Dubuque
4. Jackson
 5. Jefferson
6. Appanoose
7. Marion
8. Monroe
9. Madison
10. Warren

Kansas – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Barber
2. Clark
3. Butler
4. Lyon
5. Stafford
6. Coffey
7. McPherson
8. Reno
9. Kingman.
10. Sumner

Kentucky – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Hart
2. Christian
3. Lewis
4. Henderson
5. Ohio
6. Butler
7. Grayson
8. Hopkins
9. Kenton
10. Casey

Ohio – Top 10 B&C Counties
2. Geauga
3. Highland
4. Licking
5. Preble
6. Pike
7. Portage
8. Clinton
9. Meigs
10. Fairfield

Indiana – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Warren
2. Porter
3. Franklin
4. Greene
5. Fayette
6. Putnam
7. Lake
8. Parke
9. Bartholemew
10. Jennings

Wisconsin – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Buffalo
2. Outagamie
3. Vernon
4. Waupaca
5. Shawano
6. Douglas
7. Chippewa
8. Crawford
9. Grant
10. Dunn

Missouri – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Pike
2. Adair
3. Macon
4. Lincoln
5. Callaway
6. Knox
7. Warren
8. Franklin
 9. Harrison
10. Mercer

Maryland – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. Charles
2. Kent
3. Queen Anne’s
4. Prince George’s
 5. St. Mary’s
6. Talbot
7. Anne Arundel
8. Caroline
 9. Wicomico
10. Baltimore

Minnesota – Top 10 B&C Counties
1. St. Louis
2. Lake
3. Otter Tail
4. Houston
5. Wabasha
6. Winona
7. Chisago
8. Todd
9. Koochiching
10. Morrison

My Top 10 Picks for a Pope and Young Buck

Illinois – Top 10 P&Y Counties
1. Pike
2. Lake
3. McHenry
4. Lasalle
5. Brown
6. Peoria
7. Jo Daviess
8. Kane
9. Will
10. Clark  

Iowa –

Top 10 P&Y Counties
1. Allamakee
2. Dubuque
3. Van Buren
4. Warren
5. Winneshiek
6. Appanoose
7. Linn
8. Marion
9. Des Moines
10. Monroe 

New Regulations >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> States can pass regulations to try and control their deer populations, but without the cooperation of the hunters, these regulations will be worthless. Iowa is one of several states taking serious measures to try and control their deer herd size. Last fall they had a three-day firearm season the Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving where only antlerless deer could be killed. In addition, in their southern zone, Iowa enacted a seven-day special rifle season in late January to shoot antlerless deer. They also allotted a total of 19,000 more antlerless permits. A hunter can buy an unlimited number of antlerless permits for $10 each, as long as they are available for his area. One bow hunter I know killed 16 does and two megabucks from his property last November in Iowa. Another killed 40 does from his property and only one monster buck. These are smart deer managers who are assuring their deer stay healthy by keeping the deer numbers within the carrying capacity of the land. You should do the same. In upcoming years, you will see more and more unique hunting regulations that will encourage the harvest of does. Here’s one of my ideas. When the deer herd gets too large in states with one-antlered-buck limits, 10 bonus points could be issued to a hunter for each doe harvested. Once a hunter accumulates 50 bonus points, he would be entitled to one more antlered deer for that year only. This rule would absolutely result in a higher doe harvest. If you’re reading this article, you obviously have an interest in trophy bucks. If you want to go to another state to kill a buster deer, the information I’ve listed in the accompanying charts will show you the top states and counties in which to hunt. Keep in mind when reading the charts that I consider many factors when making my predictions. B&C bucks per square mile are a factor, but so are the number of deer hunters in each state, the deer herd size and even the type of terrain in each state and how easy it is to hunt. Kentucky, for instance, contains vast stretches of hilly land, a type of terrain where the wind is tough for a bow hunter to shoot. Therefore Kentucky might rank much lower for the bow hunter than for the firearm hunter. If you can’t go out of state to hunt, then you will be concerned about what you can do on the property you hunt to increase the quality of your deer. The first thing you must do is be honest with yourself. Look at your forested areas and evaluate whether the timber is over-browsed. If you have what looks like a high-water line in your woods, then you have way too many whitetails. Similarly, if you can see 100 yards in the woods because it’s so open, you may have a deer overpopulation problem. If you can see 200 yards in the woods, you clearly have a problem. If this is your situation, you must take action, and quickly. Killing 10 to 30 does per year and properly taking care of them is hard work, but in many areas it must be done. You can’t see 100 deer per day and have trophy bucks too. It just doesn’t work that way. You must keep your deer herd within the carrying capacity of the land. I hunted in Indiana for 25 years before I ever saw a spike buck on private land. Now they are common in many regions. That indicates too many deer and not enough food. This brings up another factor you should consider – antler quality. If mature bucks 10 years ago were scoring an average of 135 inches in your area and field-dressing 180 pounds, and weigh 40 pounds less and score 110 inches, then you probably have a significant deer overpopulation problem, insufficient food for the deer, or both. As the deer’s food sources decline, you will notice the following change in the mature buck’s antlers: a decrease in inside spread; fewer points on their main beams; less main beam length; and less mass in the main beams, especially as they go past the midway point in their length.