Best Deer Hunting States: Five Factors for Success

October 23, 2019 | Hunt

There are a plethora of articles and information about which states are best for filling tags with big whitetail deer. You likely have heard that Wisconsin leads all states (by a large margin) when it comes to Boone and Crockett bucks this century, and you’ve probably also heard that Iowa, Kansas and other Midwestern states are known for sizeable deer. But do you know which states have the highest success rates for hunters, or which states have the largest number of deer per square mile? Do you know which states have seasons that extend into February?

Taking a trophy deer is not the only way to have a successful hunt. Defining success on a hunt is a personal decision and while many factors are involved, often we find hunters define success as taking a large, mature buck.

Other times success is defined differently. Many people have different goals for different hunts throughout the season. Sometimes hunters know a specific big buck is in the area and the focus is on matching wits with him while letting smaller bucks walk and passing up chances to fill the freezer with a doe. Other times, however, you may be on a “meat hunt,” you may be looking to find new land to hunt, or you may be taking a youngster out with you and the goal is to see deer and/or get a shot at one, be it a doe or a buck.

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This was the case with me last year, when I took my 13-year-old nephew hunting for several days, and then a few weeks later took my nine-year-old son out for a handful of sits in a stand. Both of them found it hard to sit still for the first few hours in the stand but after we saw some deer, they settled in and were able to be still and quiet in the stand for the next few days. They both ended up taking their first deer ever, and these are two of the most memorable hunts I have ever been on.

In this article we will shine the light on some of the places you may want to eyeball when searching for places to hunt. These states aren’t always known for big bucks, but as a whitetail hunter you should be aware of them for other reasons. No matter your goal, you can find a place (hopefully nearby) that fits your criteria for a hunting location.

Best States Based on Hunter Success Rate

For this category, the approach is fairly simple: the number of deer harvested (from this QDMA report, with estimates based on previous years where data was incomplete) compared to the number of hunting licenses sold. Not all of these hunters were hunting deer (for example, South Dakota has a lot of licenses sold to people that hunt pheasant), but data on estimates or totals for deer tags sold in many states was unavailable, so we factored in hunting licenses sold for this article.

Some people shoot more than one deer, so this doesn’t mean that a certain percentage of hunters were successful in shooting a deer. But it does give a good look into which states give you the best chance at putting meat in the freezer. South Carolina, Delaware and Texas all come in at .80 or above (meaning for every 100 hunters, 80 deer were harvested), while Maryland and Virginia come in right near .70.

Graphical representation of what states are best for deer hunting based on deer harvested per license sold with South Carolina being the best coming in at 0.87 deer harvested per license sold, Delaware at 0.82 deer harvested per license sold, Texas at 0.80 deer harvested per license sold, Maryland at 0.69 deer harvested per license sold, Virginia at 0.69 deer harvested per license sold, Mississippi at 0.65 deer harvested per license sold, New Jersey at 0.64 deer harvested per license sold, Georgia at 0.61 deer harvested per license sold, and Arkansas at 0.60 deer harvested per license sold.

Best States Based on Deer Per Square Mile

Here we are looking at the deer population and the size of the state. Different parts of the state will have different deer population densities, therefore we suggest doing a bit of research on your own to further narrow your hunting location. However, on average these states lead the way when it comes to the number of deer in the woods per square mile. Mississippi tops the list at almost 40 deer per square mile, but Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan all show an average of more than 30 deer per square mile. Indiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky all have 23 or more deer per square mile.

Graphical representation of what states are best for deer hunting based on deer per square mile with Mississippi being the best coming in at 38 deer per square mile, Pennsylvania at 34 deer per square mile, Wisconsin at 33 deer per square mile, Michigan at 31 deer per square mile, Indiana at 28 deer per square mile, Alabama at 25 deer per square mile, South Carolina at 24 deer per square mile, and Kentucky at 23 deer per square mile.

Best States Based on Public Land Availability

States in the West lead the country in the amount of public land available, with states including Wyoming, Utah and Idaho making more than 50% of the state available to the public to hunt. Whitetail hunters should note that while there are whitetail in just about all of the Lower 48 and parts of Canada, for the purposes of this post we are focusing on states where whitetail are the primary big game species.

This data primarily comes from a report by Backcountry Chronicles and includes lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and the state (with sources and assumptions listed at the bottom of the report). Many states also have “walk-in” programs—essentially, private land made available to the public through some agreement between the landowner and the local or state government. These walk-in lands were included as well, although most programs list a rounded estimate of the land in their walk-in program, and the number of acres can change often or may be based off state data that may be a year or more old. Therefore, the walk-in program is a best estimate based on scouring individual state websites, but small differences don’t change the overall takeaways from this data.

Michigan is the only state offering more than 20% of its land to hunters (coming in at 20.3%), but New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Jersey each make available more than 15% of the state to hunters, while Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York are between 12% and 15%.

Graphical representation of what states are best for deer hunting based on public land availability with Michigan being the best at 20% public land, New Hampshire at 17.3% public land, Minnesota at 16.2% public land, New Jersey at 15.7% public land, Wisconsin at 14.9% public land, Pennsylvania at 14.6% public land, New York at 12.7% public land, Arkansas at 9.7% public land, West Virginia at 9.6% public land, and Rhode Island at 9.1% public land.

Best States Based on Number of Acres Per Hunter

Some states have many hunters in the woods, while others offer relative solitude. The density of hunters often changes based on weapon; rifle season can be the most crowded time of year for most hunters. Some states, however, simply have fewer hunters in the woods than others. We compared the size of the state to the number of hunters (according to this data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). This formula gives the number of acres per hunter, which is as low as 30 to 40 acres per hunter in some states. On the other end of the spectrum, four states have more than 200 acres for each hunter, and 10 states have more than 100 acres per hunter.

Graphical representation of what states are best for deer hunting based on acres per hunter with North Dakota being the best at 315 acres per hunter, Nebraska at 280 acres per hunter, South Dakota at 217 acres per hunter, Kansas at 213 acres per hunter, Iowa at 162 acres per hunter, Texas at 146 acres per hunter, Maine at 119 acres per hunter, Illinois at 113 acres per hunter, Oklahoma at 102 acres per hunter, and Mississippi at 101 acres per hunter.

States Where You Can Hunt into Late January or February

Seasons vary within many states based on unit or zone, and also on the type of weapon used, but these states each offer the hunter a chance at sitting in a stand well into the new year. Not only is the season longer, but the rut may be much later in these states as well, offering you a chance to hunt the rut in your home state and then hunt the rut again in another state. Seasons vary each year, so do additional research on any state you may hunt. If chasing whitetail in late January or February is what you’re after, explore these states.

Graphical representation of what states are best for deer hunting based on the option to hunt into January and February with Texas, Delaware, Rhode Island, Ohio, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Maryland closing in January. Alabama and Mississippi deer hunting seasons close in mid-February. And Arkansas' deer hunting season ends in late February.

Best Whitetail Deer States Overall

So what states are best for whitetail deer hunting? The best states in which to hunt deer are going to be different for different people. The state that is best for you is the one that’s going to lead to the type of hunt you are looking for and also on how you define success for your hunt.

For further research check out Hunt Central and the QDMA 2019 Whitetail Report.

Click here to view the research behind this article on The Best Deer Hunting States conducted by onX’s own Tom Anderson.

Header Image: Wyatt Cole