I closed my eyes and clicked my heels, hoping to safely set down in Kansas. The DC-9 jetliner lurched as the pilot banked to avoid a thunderhead on our approach into Wichita Mid-Continent Airport—the sound of rain pummeling the fuselage almost drowning the drone of its laboring twin engines. I tried to relax and think pleasant thoughts as I was being jostled in my seat—monster white-tailed bucks leaping single file over a woven-wire fence: one, two, three. … The plane touched down with authority—spooking the fourth buck—and taxied to the jetway. That wasn’t so bad—think I’ll rent a car for the return trip, though.
It was mid-September, and the Midwest was deep in the throes of a late-summer heat wave and the thunderstorms that often accompany steamy weather. The forecast, fortunately, called for a slight cooling trend that, we hoped, would spark early season whitetail movement. At the baggage carousal, I hooked up with hunting buddy Tim Herald, marketing manager for Under Armour outdoor apparel. We grabbed our bags and drove the 30 miles to TB Outfitters (email@example.com), where our hosts Travis Stephens and Bosco Gregor were eager to get us into the field. We quickly stashed our gear, checked the zero on our rifles and headed to the stand for the evening sit. It was an uneventful 3 hours but a pleasant shift of gears—from travel to hunting mode. As expected, most deer sightings—does and a few small bucks—occurred right before dark.
Kansas has received rave reviews in recent years from whitetail aficionados, and rightfully so. The Sunflower State has emerged as a big buck destination for discriminate hunters. Deer numbers and buck quality have increased dramatically during the past 20 years—the culmination of good genetics, plentiful food and sound management—and whitetails can be found throughout the state wherever suitable habitat exists. Highest population densities occur in the eastern one-third of the state, where whitetails have adapted well to Kansas’ contemporary landscape, taking cover in natural woodlands, shelterbelts, old homesteads and grasslands, and finding abundant food in adjacent agricultural croplands.
We would be hunting Kansas’ whitetail epicenter, where big-bodied, heavy-antlered bucks are the norm rather than the exception. “This is a noted big buck area—lots of 140-150 class deer,” Travis explained as he drove us to our stands early the next morning. “Our property lies between the Chikaskia River a couple of miles south of here, and the Ninnescah River about 7 miles north, with a lot of small creeks and streams in between. Deer utilize the cover these waterways provide to get from bedding areas to feed and really tear it up between the rivers when the rut kicks in.”
Travis says mild winters and plentiful food also have been influential in producing trophy antlers. “There’s good fertile soil here in Kingman County and it produces good corn and soybeans,” he said. “Hard white wheat provides a good winter and early spring food source, and we supplement that with Imperial Clover from the Whitetail Institute in our food plots. On top of that, we really don’t have the cold weather here and the deer don’t struggle during the winter, which helps them produce larger bodies and more nutrition goes into producing larger racks.”
Boone and Crockett Club data backs up empirical reports of monster bucks in Kansas, many of them killed in recent years. If fact, of the more than 250 Kansas B&C bucks listed—those with racks measuring 170 inches or better—most have been taken during the past 2 decades. And while killing a trophy-class buck is difficult no matter where you’re hunting, if you put in your time and you’re patient—and pass on smaller bucks—you really do have a good chance of taking a white-tailed buck of a lifetime in Kansas.
The early muzzleloader-only season, which occurs during mid-September and precedes the regular firearms and archery seasons, is a favorite among out-of-state hunters. “The bucks are still in bachelor groups—small spikes all the way up to the 180-class bruisers all hanging out together,” Travis said. “The bigger bucks are just starting to show their dominance. Basically, they’re hanging out in the food plots and sparring to figure out who’s boss.”
Hunting with a muzzleloader has its limitations, but my confidence soared as I planted ShockWave after ShockWave bullet in a 4-inch circle 200 yards downrange weeks prior to my hunt. My scoped T/C Omega was dialed in and ready to rock! A week later, however, I was back at the range with a scope-less ProHunter and my tail between my legs. It seems Kansas allows only open sights during its muzzleloader season.
It was a frustrating day at the gun club. Like many hunters with compromised eyesight (presbyopia), I have a difficult time focusing traditional open sights, and at 100 yards was barely keeping my shots on the paper. The solution was to remove the rear sight and mount a Williams peep (aperture) sight in its place. Aperture sights obscure the target less than nearly all other non-optical sights and require that the shooter focuses only on the front sight and target, rather than the three focus points required when using traditional open sights. The eye automatically centers itself in the rear aperture, which is seen only as an out-of-focus blur. Back at the range a few days later, I was shredding a 3-inch bull’s-eye at 100 yards.
Hunting the early season in Kansas is a test of will—long, tedious hours waiting out bucks that chiefly move at night. Deer are concentrated in low-lying woodlots and small creek lines, and success hinges on tactically placed ground blinds or treestands in funnel areas or overlooking food plots.
“The strategy is to camp out early mornings and evenings ’cause it’s usually hot this time of year and deer movement is minimal during daylight hours,” Travis said. “And they generally don’t travel far to feed, either, so you have to set up near their bedding areas—to catch them moving during those few daylight hours when they’re active.”
The Waiting Game
The next morning I was up at 4:30 a.m. and in my ground blind an hour before legal shooting light. It had cooled down to 48 degrees during the night but, even so, early morning deer movement was minimal. By the time Travis picked me up at noon it had been hours since I’d seen a deer, and I was several chapters into a Stephen King thriller.
We changed game plans for the evening, relocating to a stand in the corner of an open pasture. Travis told me he’d seen a couple good bucks there during the past few weeks and that was good enough for me. This had all the makings of a whitetail hotspot—nearby bedding cover, abundant feed and water, and perpendicular wooded fencelines that provided discrete travel corridors. Travis dropped me off mid-afternoon, and I quietly settled in for the wait.
I didn’t even have time to get back to my book before deer began meandering into the pasture, some stopping to graze on still-green vegetation, others making a beeline to a waterhole not 20 yards from my blind. I settled in and watched the show, but after several buck-less hours, and as the end of legal shooting light came and went, my optimism waned. I unloaded my rifle and settled back on my stool, determined to stick around to see if the bucks Travis had seen would eventually show up.
About a half-hour later, just as the harvest moon peeked over the tree line, three small bucks with what appeared to be a decent 8-pointer “materialized” close to the fenceline. I watched them for several minutes, and was getting ready to leave when, fashionably late, a larger deer cleared the low fence and joined the others in the pasture. Even in the declining light I could see he had good antler width and height—a definite shooter. I sat tight and, thankfully, the bachelor group of bucks drifted down the fenceline and out of sight, and I was able to sneak out of the area undetected.
The next morning I was back in my stand watching a hint of dawn grace the eastern sky—hoping that like a boomerang the buck had reversed course during the night and would venture back down the fenceline at first light as he headed for his day bed. It was still pretty dark when I noticed a doe sneaking in to my right, headed for the waterhole. As she slipped by my blind, I returned my attention to the fenceline—just as a huge buck stepped out into the open! Even in the dim light I could tell it was the same one I’d seen the night before. This time, though, he was alone.
Timing was critical. The buck was about 200 yards out at this point, plodding along a course that would bring him within my 100-yard comfort zone. The problem was that each peek through my peep sight raised my blood pressure a couple points—I still didn’t have enough shooting light. Every time the buck stopped to survey the field, though, he gave me precious minutes, and I was becoming increasingly comfortable I’d have enough light to make the shot.
When the buck got to 70 yards he stopped and gave me a broadside view. The light was still marginal but I could now make out the details of his shoulder through the peep sight. I centered the front sight halfway up the buck’s body behind the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. A curtain of white smoke partially obscured my view, but not enough to prevent me from seeing the buck go down hard and stay there.
He was a dandy—6 points on one side and 5 on the other, and I couldn’t have been more pleased as I knelt and tilted the antlers to reflect the muted morning light. I didn’t know it then, but with that early season buck the well had already run dry. By fall’s end, I’d have hunted four other states for whitetails without tugging the trigger or pulling the string on another buck, which made this Kansas trophy all that much more special.