Fall is just around the corner. In anticipation of the season, we take a look at North America’s 10 most popular game animals, both large and small.
By the time you read this, we’ll rapidly be approaching every hunter’s favorite time of year—autumn. Chances are, you’ve spent the dog days of summer checking trail cameras, planting food plots and waiting, perhaps impatiently, for the first hint of cooler weather.
Congratulations! You’re almost there.
In preparation for—and in celebration of—hunting season’s return, we’ve come up with a pre-season primer to North America’s top 10 game species (listed here in no particular order).
About five of every six hunters in this country pursue whitetails, so it goes without saying that these deer are the most popular of all North American game. Whitetail populations crashed around the turn of the 20th century because of indiscriminate and unregulated market and sport hunting. Today, however, there are 30 million deer in the United States. Seasons start in late August in some states (such as South Carolina) and continue on through the end of January.
Where to Hunt Them: States such as Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri are known for producing big deer. However, there are some sleeper states that produce giant whitetail as well—namely, Wyoming, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Guns: Guns include just about anything, including .22-caliber (where legal) and larger centerfires, handguns, shotguns and even air rifles in some states. Modern muzzleloaders offer superb accuracy and allow you to extend your season.
Did You Know? A whitetail fawn can stand in as little time as 15 minutes after birth.
In the 1500s, Hernando de Soto and his conquistadores came to the Americas in search of gold. They brought along huge herds of domestic pigs that eventually escaped and became the breeding stock for our current wild hog populations. Pigs are found in at least 39 different states, and their status as an invasive species means that most parts of the country offer liberal (or no) bag limits and lengthy hunting seasons. Some states don’t even consider them game animals, so they’re not regulated. This means there are no bag limits, and you can hunt them all year. Wild pigs—especially smaller animals—can provide excellent table fare, and the cost to hunt them is very low. In fact, many landowners simply want hunters to come and remove as many pigs as possible.
Where to Hunt: Southern states, such as Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, all have high pig populations, and there are plenty of opportunities to pursue hogs there. The first step is to decide whether you want to pay for a guide or hunt pigs on your own on public ground. The second decision you’ll need to make is how and when to hunt them. You can hunt hogs over bait from blinds, with dogs and even at night. In some areas, you can even shoot them from helicopters, which is the fastest way to take home a lot of pork.
Guns: Don’t underestimate the tenacity of wild pigs. A big boar can absorb a lot of punishment. Wild pigs are some of the few North American game animals that are truly dangerous, especially when injured. ARs are a natural choice, and calibers such as .300 Blackout and 6.8 SPC are great choices. Lever guns work well too, and the classic .30-30 will work wonders. If you’re using a handgun, a .44 Magnum, .45 Colt revolver and a 10mm semiauto will all do the trick.
Did You Know? A single sow can produce around 24 piglets a year, and females reach sexual maturity in about one year (although maturity can be reached in as few as three or four months).
A big mule deer buck has become one of the most coveted trophies in North America, and drawing a tag in units where big mule deer are common can be very tough. Likewise, guided hunts in the best mule deer areas are costly. But getting a good buck is still possible, even on your own and while hunting on public land. The vast majority of mule deer hunts are spot-and-stalk, so you’ll need a really good spotting scope or binocular, and you’ll need to scour the landscape for any sign of the animals. Some hunters believe that mule deer aren’t as wary as whitetails, but big, old muley bucks are still masters at avoiding detection. A lot of pre-planning and scouting prior to opening day are keys to success.
Where to Hunt: Muleys live in the Rocky Mountain states. Colorado, Arizona (especially around the Kaibab Plateau) and Utah have a history of producing really big deer. Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas and Washington all produce great bucks as well, and the most underrated mule deer areas in the country might be Nebraska’s Sand Hills, South Dakota’s Black Hills and northern Nevada.
Guns: On average, mule deer are larger than whitetails; and there’s a good chance you’ll have to take a long shot. My favorite cartridges are the flat-shooting and mild-recoiling .25s and 6.5s like the .25-06 Remington, .257 Weatherby Magnum, 6.5 Creedmoor, 26 Nosler and the new 6.5 PRC.
Did You Know? One of the easiest ways to distinguish mule deer from whitetails is that a mule deer has a distinctive black patch on its forehead.
For many hunters, no sound symbolizes the wilderness like the raspy bugle of a bull elk. Weighing up to 800 pounds, bull elk are the second-largest deer in North America, and there is probably no wild game meat that is as delicious as elk venison. In most states where elk are hunted, the season begins in September and carries through to the winter; rifle and muzzleloader seasons are often later in the year. Be prepared to hike while hunting these animals, because elk thrive in steep country. Understand that elk move great distances, and a particular patch of public ground or piece of private property might only hold animals certain times of the year. When the animal is down, there’s a lot of meat to haul out of the field—which generally means a lot of work—so be mentally prepared and have the tools on hand to accomplish a meat pack-out if you haven’t hired a guide or outfitter.
Where to Hunt: Colorado has the largest elk population and offers plenty of public land and over-the-counter tags. New Mexico and Arizona are known for producing monster bulls, but the archery world record elk was harvested recently in Montana. Wyoming and Idaho both offer opportunities for huge bulls in some units. Utah is also excellent, but drawing a tag can be tough.
Guns: You can certainly kill an elk with a small-caliber rifle, but don’t push your luck. The .280 Ackley Improved has gained a following among elk hunters in recent years, and I have every reason to believe that the 6.5 PRC will turn out to be an effective and efficient elk-killer. However, the .30-calibers are still the most popular option—from .308 Win. to the fast .300 Magnums.
Did You Know? Elk “ivories” are actually the vestigial remains of canine teeth.
Despite consistent hunting pressure, coyotes have managed to spread across North America. These canines now thrive in wilderness areas, on city streets and everywhere in between. There’s no doubt that coyotes take a toll on other game. These predators are especially fond of eating whitetail fawns early in the season, so anyone who hunts whitetails or muleys would be well-served to spend a few days each year set up behind an electronic caller with a small-caliber rifle. Coyotes are extremely intelligent and catch on quickly when they’re being hunted, so in areas where there are a lot of people, coyotes might not come in to calls at all. New thermal optics from companies such as FLIR make it easier and more successful to hunt these animals at night.
Where to Hunt: Anywhere. Coyotes are found from coast to coast and in every habitat, but my own experience has taught me that these animals prefer to use the path of least resistance when traveling from point A to point B. For that reason, I set up along game trails and creeks when I call.
Guns: Shotguns, rimfire and centerfire rifles all work for coyotes, but fast centerfire .22s are the most popular option. There are plenty of bullet options, and these rifles shoot flat and generate very little recoil. Optic selection is a major factor when hunting coyotes. Choose a variable scope with a high upper-end magnification, great lens coatings and superb low-light performance. That could mean you’ll have to pay a little more, but you’ll kill more coyotes.
Did You Know: Coyotes were originally found in the southwestern and western United States but moved farther east as other predators were extirpated there.
Black bear numbers are on the increase, and as more and more states offer bear hunting seasons, opportunities for hunters to pursue bruins are expanding as well. Baiting bears is the most common method of hunting; when done properly, it is quite successful. In some areas, particularly the Rocky Mountain states, spot-and-stalk hunting is effective, and in other areas, you can chase bears with hounds—which is far more physically challenging than most hunters assume. The goal is always to take a mature boar. Bear meat, when handled and prepared properly, is delicious. Additionally, you can render the snow-white bear fat for use in making pastries.
Where to Hunt: Idaho offers lots of land, three different hunting methods, lengthy seasons and lots of bears. As a result, it’s my favorite black bear hunting destination. But Maine, Wisconsin, Montana, New Mexico and other states also produce excellent bears. The absolute biggest bears, though, come from Pennsylvania and North Carolina. It’s not uncommon to see black bears that weigh more than 700 pounds killed in coastal Carolina. That’s more than the average interior Alaskan grizzly weighs.
Guns: Bears are dense and can be dangerous if your shot is off even slightly, so it’s a good idea to choose a caliber that hits hard and leaves a large enough hole to produce an ample blood trail. For spot-and-stalk, the .308, .30-06 and various .300 magnums make sense, and when hunting over bait or with hounds, a .45-70 works wonders.
Did You Know? Bears don’t hibernate—they estivate. True hibernating animals enter a deep sleep from which they do not awaken until their body temperature rises. Bears wake up in winter and occasionally even leave their dens.
Yes, we’re approaching fall, but the wild turkey deserves a spot on any list of the top North American game animals. While most people associate turkey hunting with the spring months, many states offer fall turkey seasons. Fall hunting requires different tactics: The breeding season is long over, and the birds are flocked-up and feeding in preparation for winter. The most common method to take fall turkeys involves running into a flock, scaring them into flight and then calling to bring stray birds back to the group. Wild turkey meat is darker than that of domestic birds, but when seasoned and smoked, wild turkey is among the finest of all wild game meats.
Where to Hunt: You can hunt turkeys just about anywhere (including Hawaii), but I’ve just returned from central Nebraska and have to give the area a solid recommendation. There is lots of land and plenty of birds, and Nebraska offers hunters a chance to take three different subspecies (Merriam’s, Rios and Easterns) in a single state. (And then, again, Hawaii might be a great Plan B.)
Guns: I recommend a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun loaded with magnum turkey ammunition. I prefer semiautos and over/unders, because they offer a fast follow-up. In addition, over/unders are particularly appealing, because they have a short overall length and can easily be unloaded when crossing fences or ditches.
Did You Know? Many of the wild turkeys in the United States have DNA from domestic birds. When Spanish explorers returned home from Central and South America, they brought the first turkeys to Europe, and the offspring of those turkeys returned to the New World. Many of them subsequently escaped.
The pronghorn antelope is the only true antelope species in North America. Because they are creatures of the open plains, pronghorn rely on their sense of sight—and that means hunters need to stay out of sight. However, pronghorn are also very curious and will sometimes approach a foreign object to determine what it is. That’s one of the reasons that decoying these animals has gained in popularity. Some people claim that pronghorn meat doesn’t taste good, but my experience is that pronghorn steaks, when handled correctly in the field, are among the most flavorful and delicious of any North American wild game.
Where to Hunt: Wyoming. Sure, there are pronghorn in several other western states, but Wyoming is home to more than a half-million of these animals. In fact, there are more antelope than people in this state!
Guns: A flat-shooting rifle is the key. The .243 Winchester, .25-06, 6.5 Creedmoor and .270 Winchester are all popular options—with good reason.
Did You Know? Pronghorn are, by far, the fastest North American ungulates and are believed to be the second-fastest land animals, just behind the cheetah. Why so fast? Because pronghorn were actually hunted by cheetahs (the now-extinct American cheetah) prior to the last ice age.
North America’s current waterfowl population numbers prove just how successful hunter-based conservation can be. Around the turn of the 20th century, market waterfowl hunters had decimated bird populations, and it seemed that North America’s seemingly endless supply of ducks and geese would soon dry up. But hunters helped lead the charge, and today, there are dozens of species of huntable waterfowl in every U.S. state. Early in the season, you can hunt small water for teal, timber for wood ducks, and later in the year, the annual migration will push mallards, gadwall, widgeon, pintails, redheads, goldeneyes and a host of other birds down from their summer range in Canada.
Where to Hunt: Early in the season, I enjoy hunting along the northern tier states of North and South Dakota or in southern Canada. Later in the year, consider the Gulf Coast—particularly Florida—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Texas’s Matagorda Island is my favorite winter duck hunting destination, because it’s warm and you can combine the hunting with excellent fishing for drum and sea trout.
Guns: I prefer the convenience and comfort of a semiauto, but I’ve also used pumps and over/unders with great success. You’ll also need to select a nontoxic load and pattern it through your gun to be sure it works well. Winchester’s Blind Side, Kent’s Fasteel and Federal’s Black Cloud are all great options. Also, a camo gun is a great idea—not just because it offers extra concealment, but because it’s another barrier between your gun’s steel and the water.
Did You Know? The mallard is one of only two wild duck species (the other being the Muscovy duck) that has been domesticated. Almost all domestic duck species trace their lineages back to wild mallards.
The mourning dove is America’s gamebird, and when September 1 rolls around each year, it’s a safe bet that hunters are lining sunflower fields across the country and are trying to shoot their limit. Dove hunting is accessible, affordable and very enjoyable, and it’s a great way to kick off the hunting season. Most hunters plant food plots—millets, sorghum, sunflower or some combination of those—and mow those fields just prior to season. But you can hunt around just about any agricultural field and expect to see at least a few birds. There might be no better wild game dish on earth than grilled dove breast poppers.
Where to Hunt: Doves need a few things: roosting cover, water, forage and grit. Birds spend much of their day traveling from one of these resources to the next, so set up on a travel corridor with a few decoys and be ready to shoot. Many states offer excellent dove hunting, but none matches Texas.
Guns: I recommend a smooth-swinging shotgun that you shoot well. I prefer a long-barreled 20- or 28-gauge over/under (which provides a smooth swing) or a 20-gauge semiauto. Doves are deceptively fast, so practice prior to season.
Did You Know? The traditional and recognizable “cooing” call is always uttered by male doves.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.