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Best in the Midwest: good ground abounds in the heartland.

The Midwest gets a lot of play in television shows and magazine articles for the quality of its whitetail hunting. For the most part, it is well founded, but like any other location, the hunting is not all gravy in the Midwest. I'm sure many readers would love to know how realistic it is for an outsider to find good hunting in this area. This is a question I receive often when attending sports shows outside the Midwest. Many times the person wants to know what outfitter to try and they are surprised when I tell them that I would just go and hunt public land first before hiring an outfitter. There is some very good quality hunting on public land throughout the Midwest.

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Like everything else, it probably won't last forever, but it is worth the trip, at least for now. Of course, we are not talking about seeing lots of giant bucks and dragging out a 180 incher. While that could happen, it is very unlikely even with an outfitter on the best privately managed properties. It is even less likely on public land.

Realistically, you can expect to see several solid 2.5 year-old bucks with average gross scores in the 100- to 135-inch range and you will see the occasional 3.5 year-old bucks with scores ranging upward to 150 or 160 inches. It definitely depends a lot on the particular area and the time, but it is realistic to hope to see one such buck in a week of hunting.

While it is possible for a fully mature monster to wander through, whether coming from quality managed private ground nearby or just from a hidden thicket within the public domain, it is not likely. In fact, I wouldn't plan on seeing one such buck except maybe once every five or six years.

From the standpoint of hunting pressure, you can expect a very limited amount from other archery hunters. You will experience some competition to be sure, but it won't be standing room only at the access points. Access to private land is still reasonable in many areas of the Midwest for local hunters, so the majority of in-state hunters will opt for private lands. That means you will likely find yourself sharing the public areas with other out-of-state hunters.

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If you don't like the guys you are hunting around back home, you may not like the public experience in the Midwest any better because it is likely to be the same people. No, I am just kidding. You will find enough elbowroom in most Midwest public hunting areas to make for a quality experience. There is also something very satisfying about hunting public land. It is low-pressure, pure fun. Add a pop-up camper and a buddy or two and the experience is hard to beat.

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I hunted public land several times each week when I lived in the county where I grew up in eastern Iowa. Many of the guys from the local archery club did the same thing. That may surprise you when you learn that I had permission to hunt more than 60 different private farms in the same county. It was fun to hunt the public land, usually very scenic and I saw some nice bucks. That was about 10 years ago and things haven't changed much during the last decade. Private land ownership has changed, of course, but the quality of the public hunting is still good.

If this glimpse of a season on public land doesn't sound enticing then an outfitted trip is probably in your future. If the description sounds good, then by all means, plan a trip to enjoy the best free hunting in the heartland. You will enjoy the experience.

What follows are some starting points to help you get your feet on the ground in several Midwestern states. In most cases, I have highlighted only the largest public areas--the ones that will likely provide the least competition and the ones that can sustain the pressure I am focusing on them without undue burden. However, there is one thing you need to know about the Midwest: the small public areas are often as good (or better) than the larger ones. In fact, that is where I would end up.

You will have to snoop them out yourself because I'm not going to sell out my friends who love to hunt these small, isolated pockets by bringing national attention to any of them in particular. I know of a few right now that are nearly as good as any private land I've hunted. Once you get your feet on the ground at the big areas, don't be reluctant to look at some of the more overlooked, smaller areas as your comfort increases.

Wayne National Forest

Ohio: With approximately 220,000 acres of primarily rugged forested terrain, there are plenty of places in Ohio's Wayne National Forest to get away from other archery hunters. The forest is broken up into three units. The Marietta and Ironton Units, located along the Ohio River, are the most rugged. The more gently rolling Athens Unit is located in south central Ohio.

If you're willing to do some walking you can escape much of the hunting pressure. Access is from county and state roads, with all Forest Service roads closed to vehicles. Trophy potential is fairly good. Recently, bucks 3.5 years and older made up approximately 13-percent of the total antlered harvest (not including button bucks) during the combined bow and gun seasons. Baiting is legal but few hunters engage in it.

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For more information call the Ohio Department of Natural Resources at (614) 265-6300 or go to www.ohiodnr.com. Learn more about the Wayne National Forest by going to www.fs.fed.us/r9/wayne/ on the web. You can also call (740) 753-0101 for more information.

Mark Twain National Forest

Missouri: If a wilderness hunt in the southern Midwest interests you, then the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is your perfect destination. The forest is broken up into seven units with terrain types ranging from the rolling agriculture/timber transition of the Cedar Creek Unit to the very steep and rugged Ozark Mountains found in any of the eight walk-in wilderness areas. Hunting pressure is highest along the edges of these wilderness areas, but moderates as you go deeper into the backcountry.

Due to the availability of farm crops, the deer density is highest in the 17,000-acre Cedar Creek unit. All other units have moderate densities. Trophy potential throughout the seven units is only fair due to a lack of high quality food sources. Fair numbers of mature bucks exist, but they don't grow the huge antlers common to Missouri's more northern agricultural counties.

For more information on the Mark Twain Forest contact (573) 364-4621 or go to their dedicated website: www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/. You can contact the Missouri Department of Conservation by calling (800) 361-4827 or by going to their website: www.mdc.mo.gov/hunt/. You will also find a link on the left side of this page that will take you to a list of public hunting areas.

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Upper Mississippi Refuge

Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin: I duck hunted this area religiously as a boy. In 18 years of hunting the river every weekend during October and November I can remember only once seeing an archery hunter. That's one in 18 years! I'm sure there are a few more by now, but the refuge has 200,000 acres (about half of which is water) bordering Iowa alone, and nearly that much to the north sandwiched between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Some years we saw incredible deer sign while duck hunting the bottoms, and occasionally some nice trophies.

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Hunting strategies are fairly simple. Find a funnel between two pieces of water that connects larger blocks of timber (there are literally thousands of these spots scattered throughout this region). Stay all day. The rut of early November and the duck hunters (the best duck hunting in this area is also the first week of November) will keep the bucks moving during the bow season. Scout out the buck sign, but also look for signs of duck hunters. Then hunt places where the buck sign is heavy and the duck hunter sign is low. If you have a boat to access deep into the bottoms you'll leave 90-percent of the other deer hunters behind. One word of caution, high water can really ruin this plan. Check the water level and have a backup plan (higher ground nearby) if the bottoms are flooded.

There's only one downside: water level. During periods of high water, deer leave the bottoms for high ground and take awhile to drift back once it falls again. Check into all your options. Minnesota and Wisconsin may be a better choice than Iowa because those states offer unrestricted bow tags. Make sure to call your selected state's DNR to determine how the state boundaries are enforced along the river bottom.

For more information on hunting the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge and maps call (319) 873-3423 in Iowa or (507) 452-4232 for Minnesota and Wisconsin, http://www.fws.gov/midwest/.

Southeast Minnesota

Minnesota: There's a ton of public hunting in Minnesota. However, to the downside, the bow season often closes and the gun season opens before the rut even gets good. That means your best chance for success will come during the last week of October and the first few days of November.

The R.J.D. Memorial Forest is a widely spread public hunting area and home to many good bucks with lots of opportunities. Primarily located in the state's Mississippi River bluff country, this area has a typical mix of rough, wooded bluffs and draws and ridge top fields. It is highly interspersed with private land-holdings so there is plenty of available food in the form of crop fields for the deer.

Houston County has nine major units of the RJD. Fillmore County has eight. Winona County has five major units and also hosts the 28,000-acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. For information on all of these units contact (651) 345-3216 or go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_forests/sft00033/index.html. For information on the Whitewater WMA and other WMAs in Minnesota, contact: (888) 646-6367 or go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/wmas/index.html.

Shawnee National Forest

Illinois: Illinois has awesome buck hunting-nearly everyone who has ever watched hunting television or picked up this magazine knows that. There are also many progressively managed public areas. For a complete list go to the Illinois DNR website: www.dnr.state.il.us. Southern Illinois is home to the 250,000-acre Shawnee National Forest. If you look at the Shawnee on a map it looks like a grenade went off and scattered the public forest all over southern Illinois. The forest has a high interspersion of private land. This creates tremendous edge cover as timbered blocks border agricultural fields. The terrain varies from rugged, timbered slopes to rolling, grass covered fields.

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With a little homework, you can find undisturbed bowhunting. To beat the crowds, seek permission from private landowners to cross their land in an effort to access otherwise inaccessible corners of national forest. You will find the highest deer densities, and the best trophy potential in Union, Pope, Johnson and Jackson counties.

For maps and information, call the U.S. Forest Service at (414) 297-3600. On the web go to: www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee/. For state hunting information call the Illinois Department of Natural resources at (217) 782-6302 or on the web at: dnr.state.il.us/.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sources for Advanced Research

* www.recreation.gov: Locations of some nationally managed recreation areas. Many U.S. Army Corp of Engineers projects are also listed here.

* www.usace.army.mil: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers website. Has a link to locate recreational areas. managed by the Corp. You will find many of these throughout the Midwest. Some offer extensive public hunting while others are only available for other uses.

* www.iowadnr.com/forestry/forests.html: Lists many state forests in Iowa. Some counties also have isolated County Conservation Board lands that can be good, but are much harder to find.

* www.dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/hunter_fact_sheet/index.htm: Locations of public hunting lands in all parts of Illinois. Contact phone numbers are given on the individual site web pages for those units.

* www.ohiodnr.com/forestry/publications/default.htm: This page will give you links to all of Ohio's state forests, most of which are open to hunting. Another link within the ODNR site is www.ohiodnr.com/wildlife/Hunting/wildlifeareas/wildare.htm: has maps of all the public hunting areas in the state (and there are a lot of them).

RELATED ARTICLE: Inside Info

Illinois: Western Illinois is becoming very difficult to access without an outfitter, although some very good ones exist. Rather than trying to list them, you can search the internet under Illinois outfitters and other keywords. However, one service you may not know about is also worth considering. It is really just a leasing service in which Illinois landowners sign up and the service matches them with hunters willing to pay for a hunting lease. I was around when the service first went live, but since then it has grown off the charts. I can't vouch for the quality of the land you'll find here, but I'm sure it will be pretty good and likely very expensive. For more information go to: www.accessil.org/

Indiana: Many serious deer hunters in Indiana are frustrated with herd reduction policies that have done nothing to protect bucks while producing too many does in some areas. Despite these policies, Indiana still produces some fine trophies, especially in the more wooded southern one-third of the state. That is where you will find the giant 200,000-acre Hoosier National Forest. For information go to: www.fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier. For more information on general public hunting opportunities in Indiana go to www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/huntguide1/huntarea.htm or call (317) 232-4080

Kansas: Opportunities for do-it-yourself hunts are limited by tight access, Most of the state has good hunting, so anywhere you can find access to hunt will likely produce at least decent bowhunting. Kansas has the least public land of any state in the Midwest, and as a result is tough for most outsiders to crack. However, you can still find some hunting permission by knocking on doors though you will hear a lot of farmers say "No way" for every one that says "Yea, sure." The outfit-ting industry is growing and is worth investigating if you don't mind paying $1,500 to $2,500 for five days of good hunting.

Missouri: Consider anything north of Interstate 70 for trophy bucks. Hunting pressure is fairly high during the regular firearms season so buck age structure is not what it is in neighboring Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, but it is improving due to more progressive management on private lands. There are some public lands in the north, but the bulk is south where the bucks are generally a bit smaller.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin is a state full of deer hunters. Access is tough. The biggest bucks have traditionally come from the far north or along the Mississippi River where Quality Deer Management has taken a firm foothold. Limited outfitting occurs. Check out Tom Indrebo's Bluff Country operation near Alma in Buffalo County or Remington Outfitters just south of Mondovi. I would not go to Wisconsin with the idea of knocking on doors to find quality bowhunting, but I would check out large tracts of paper company land and other large areas that may allow general access.
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Title Annotation:2006 SPECIAL BIG GAME ISSUE
Author:Winke, Bill
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Article Type:Company overview
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:2661
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