Fresh off my annual multi-state fall hunting tour—part of the occupational hazard of being an outdoor television host, former magazine editor and book author (I know, it’s a dirty job…)—it seems an opportune time to assess the state of hunting. That is, with more Americans than ever ditching daily commutes for the chance to finally live where they can celebrate their lifestyle rather than simply earning a living, let’s countdown the 10 best states to be a hunter. This highly subjective dream list of places to move to if you love to hunt—or have always wanted to source tenderloins yourself—is derived from a couple of decades of traveling with rifles and shotguns, staying in motels that didn’t mind Labradors all the while visiting remote corners of our country. This ranking is based on the variety and abundance of available species, quality of game (size matters, after all), access to both public and private ground, hunting culture, and the simplicity—or complexity—of game laws in each state. Drum roll, please….
1.Alaska. If you’re already a hunter, this choice needs no explanation. It’s the Jurassic Park of big game hunting. Inside of every American hunter is the flickering flame of desire to one day travel to the wildest place on Earth, to walk the land that time seems to have forgotten. From brown bears the size of Volkswagen buses to vast herds of caribou, the biggest moose in the world, not to mention elk, sheep, mountain goats, grizzlies, black bears—oh my—the Last Frontier is the original sportsman’s paradise (sorry Louisiana). While Alaska has expanses of public lands larger than many European countries, accessing its vast, rugged wilderness is seldom a simple matter. Float planes or boats are most often the passports needed to get you to the best game lands, but those journeys are part of the magic of any adventure here. Once you arrive amid a natural cathedral—the kind only found in Alaska—you might just discover that what you’re really hunting is a chance to unplug from the modern world and reconnect with natural wonder.
2.Colorado. Far away from Denver exists the Colorado where people still wear camouflage in grocery stores and restaurants, camp on the side of mountains in the hopes of bugling a bull elk into archery range and climb to the peaks in pursuit of bighorn sheep and mountain goats. At the heart of Colorado’s hunting riches are the millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands—the state is blessed with a wealth of public hunting opportunities. While the mountains draw most of the attention from hunters, the state’s eastern plains are resplendent with big mule deer and whitetails—to say nothing of pronghorn, upland birds and some of the nation’s best duck and goose hunting. With the largest elk herd in North America, some of the continent’s biggest Shiras (mountain) moose, an abundance of mountain lions, black bears, and forest grouse, Colorado can take its rightful place near the top of this list. Add to that a state wildlife agency that promotes what hunters do for all Colorado wildlife species (through their clever Hug a Hunter media campaign), readily available over-the-counter elk tags and you have a hunter-friendly destination.
3.Montana. With a small population and plenty of vast, open forest and rangeland, Montana has forever been known to hunters as a pick of the litter. While the mountain goats, sheep, moose, elk, black bear, and deer dominate the western mountains, eastern Montana offers exceptional hunting for sharptails, pheasants, Hungarian partridge, waterfowl, and whitetail deer. Some of the deer densities around river drainages in eastern Montana are so concentrated, however, that the herds are susceptible to occasional disease die-offs. Too, there are roughly 2.6 million cattle in Montana—about three head per human in the state. To put it another way, you're about five times more likely to see a cow in Montana than an elk or deer. To be sure, in Montana they don't ask, Where's the beef?
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4.Arizona. Some of the largest elk in North America are found in Arizona, along with tremendous mule deer, desert and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, desert quail, mountain lions, some of the country’s best pronghorn and numerous other species. The vast national forest and BLM lands, lack of severe winters and good genetics make for exceptional hunting.
5.Wisconsin. Given that western states offer many more big game species and generally more acreage of readily accessible public lands, it’s tough for states east of the Rockies to compete in a countdown of destinations offering the best hunting. Wisconsin, however, boasts millions of acres of public lands as well—roughly 30 percent of the northern one-third of the state is public—and a mix of whitetail deer, black bear, and a budding elk herd make it a compelling big game state. Add to that plenty of big bucks coming from western counties, ever-growing turkey flocks, well-dispersed waterfowling from the Mississippi River basin to Lake Michigan, upland bird hunting (ruffed grouse, woodcock, and pheasants), and you have a hunter-friendly place you just may want to call home. Too, if the hunting is slow, you’re never more than a mile from a tavern. When the barkeep asks if you’ll have a Miller Lite, just say, ya betcha…and give me some of those cheese curds, and you’ll fit right in.
6.Kansas. From quail hunting across the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas to the mega-bucks that roam the western plains of the state, Kansas has rightfully earned its reputation as a hunter’s dream destination. A mix of eye-popping whitetails and mule deer make Kansas a great state for those looking to take the biggest bucks of their lives, but drawing tags is not easy. I’ll never forget watching one of the largest whitetails that I’ve ever seen running away with a tumbleweed caught in its antlers, flushing pheasants as it ran through cover like some kind of deranged Labrador. The state also is loaded with some of the Midwest’s most abundant pheasant populations, and Cheyenne Bottoms is legendary for some of the Central Flyway’s best waterfowling.
7.New Mexico. Because big game seldom die of winterkill here, the animals tend to live longer (re get bigger) than their cousins farther north. Elk, mule deer, sheep, exceptional pronghorn, black bear, and mountain lions are just some of the big game species available in New Mexico. Desert quail, waterfowl, and doves also offer big game hunters a reason to pack a shotgun when headed to the desert. The tarantulas and rattle snakes that you occasionally encounter just remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
8.Texas. If this were a ranking of hunting culture, Texas would top the list, for no place celebrates hunting as a lifestyle more than the Lone Star State—you can’t crack open a beer here without having a dove popper. While Texas is loaded with hunting opportunities—both high fence and free range—it is really a category unto its own. Unlike many western states, Texas is comprised mostly of private land and, as such, access is more difficult than other destinations on this list. Nevertheless, the state offers a diverse array of hunting for indigenous species like turkey, quail, doves, whitetails, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep as well as myriad free-range exotics like nilgai (an Asian antelope), aoudad (Barbary sheep) and axis deer (perhaps the best-eating venison on the planet). If the state had a hunting brand it would be, Go big or don’t shoot.
9.South Dakota. The prairies of South Dakota might be one of the most underrated hunting areas in all of America. Between an abundance of whitetails and mule deer, elk in the rugged Black Hills, plenty of pronghorn and some bruiser bighorn sheep, South Dakota is far more than a pheasant hunter’s paradise. Of course, for bird hunters, South Dakota has few rivals. A plethora of pheasants, prairie chickens, sharptails and Hungarian partridge make it especially inviting for upland bird hunters. The state is also part of the Prairie Pothole Region, aka the “duck factory” where the lion’s share of the continent’s waterfowl is produced. And what can you say about a state whose female Governor (Kristi Noem) loves to hunt…and isn't afraid to celebrate that fact.
10.Louisiana. More ducks are taken each season in Cameron Parish (county), Louisiana, than in the entire Atlantic Flyway. The zone where land and sea meet is a ribbon of life for waterfowl, and a hunting guide here once told me that he learned to blow a duck call before he could speak. That isn’t all that unusual in Louisiana. When it comes to hunting, just about anything that crawls, slithers, or swims is fair game—including alligators, boar, and nutria (an exotic rodent—think a lab rat exposed to nuclear fall-out). It isn’t so much that Louisiana competes with big game rich western states as it is the mere fact that hunting isn’t so much what Cajuns do as it is who they are. It’s hard to have more fun hunting than when visiting Louisiana and no creature is ever more than a sauce piquante away from gourmet status.
Honorable Mention: Nebraska would have made this list if not for a friend who threatened to break my arm if I included them. He didn’t want anyone outside the state to know about their exceptional deer, waterfowl, and elk hunting. There, you didn’t hear it from me.