Big Ten deer hunting rankings? Minnesota isn't the powerhouse you'd expect.

When it comes to deer hunting, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania outshine the Gopher State in whitetail metrics.

Big Ten deer hunting rankings? Minnesota isn't power you'd expect.

Ever wonder how Minnesota stacks up against its peers in deer hunting?

Among the 11 states now represented in the Big Ten Conference, Gopher Nation stands out as a blueblood in the categories of opportunity and participation.

Minnesota boasts 8.2 million acres of public hunting land and has fielded an average of 476,000 deer hunters per season over the past 10 years. Those numbers are fundamental to the state's rich tradition of whitetail hunting. But when it comes to targeting monster bucks, tallying total deer harvest and measuring hunter success rates, the bragging rights belong elsewhere. Least flattering for Minnesota is its last-place finish in the category of total deer harvest per 100 hunters.

In the Star Tribune's first Big Ten Deer Hunting Power Rankings, Minnesota and Iowa share fifth place. Michigan is No. 1. Wisconsin and Ohio are tied for second, and Pennsylvania is fourth. Predictably, New Jersey ranks last, but even in the home of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, buck fever is for real. To tie Minnesota, Iowa helped itself with a second-place finish in hunter success.

Based largely on the 2024 Deer Report by the National Deer Association (NDA), we scoped out six different metrics associated with deer hunting in the Big Ten. Here's what we found:

1. Michigan

Strike up the band for first place in public land

In states like Iowa and Texas, deer hunting depends mightily on access to private land. States like Michigan and Minnesota were rewarded in our rankings for providing license buyers ample opportunity to hunt on public land. About 20% of the Wolverine State is open to hunt, the largest share in our review of each state's total land acres. (Minnesota ranked second, with 16.1% of its land mass open for hunting.) The public land data, as tabulated by Backcountry Chronicles, omits surface waters.

In Michigan, a state with 36.2 million total acres of land, 7.3 million acres are public. Michigan's bountiful harvest of 339,189 whitetails in 2022 was third most in the Big Ten, just a sliver behind Wisconsin and a fair distance behind No. 1 Pennsylvania. Then again, exactly half of all Michigan deer hunters shot at least one deer – by far the highest percentage in our rankings. To gauge the popularity of deer hunting in each state, we used license data and census data to determine the number of deer hunters per 1,000 residents old enough to hunt. Michigan was third best with a ratio of 60 hunters per 1,000 residents aged 10 and older.

2. Wisconsin and Ohio (tie)

Giving you a shot at a monster buck

In 2022, hunters in the Badger State killed 340,282 deer. That was second overall in the Big Ten and far greater than Ohio's deer harvest of 211,000. But Ohio outclassed Wisconsin in terms of hunter success. For instance, 41% of Ohio deer hunters shot at least one deer during the 2022 season compared to 27% in Wisconsin. In another measure of success, hunters in both states excelled at bagging trophy bucks.

In terms of typical and nontypical whitetail deer registered as trophies by the nonprofit Boone and Crockett Club, from 2012 to 2022, Wisconsin clearly was No. 1 overall with 655 registrations. Ohio registered the second-most number of monster bucks among Big Ten states, with 560. Bucky (not Brutus Buckeye, the Ohio State mascot) also scored high with a first-place finish in the category of deer hunters per population. Where Wisconsin boasts 117 deer hunters per 1,000 residents age 10 or older, Ohio ranks eighth with 22. With 93 deer hunters per 1,000 residents age 10 or older, Goldy Gopher flexes second-best.

4. Pennsylvania

Home of the biggest hunt

The Keystone State dominates the Big Ten′s overall deer harvest by taking almost 25% more whitetails per season than any of its peers. In the 2022-23 season, the year of our comparisons, Pennsylvania shot 422,960 whitetails, second nationally only to Texas. Over the past 10 years, Pennsylvania has fielded an average of 887,000 deer hunters per season. In 2022, 40% of those hunters shot at least one deer. The performance was fourth best in the conference regarding hunter success, but the intense hunting pressure hasn't equated to a ton of trophies.

According to Boone and Crockett, Pennsylvania ranks ninth among the conference's 11 states in trophy bucks shot by firearm from 2012 to 2022. Still, Pennsylvania hunters show a strong preference for shooting antlered bucks. Where the national average for buck harvest is 1.7 per square mile, Pennsylvania averages 3.7 bucks killed per square mile. In terms of deer hunting tradition, about 56 of every 1,000 residents age 10 and older buy a deer license in Pennsylvania, good for sixth place.

5. Minnesota and Iowa (tie)

A split decision with different strengths and weaknesses

Where Minnesota's virtue as a deer hunting state lies with its sizable public land mass and its popular quest of putting wild venison on the table, Iowa came up the power rankings by virtue of scoring well in four of the six judgment categories. As previously suggested, Iowa is dead last in the Big Ten for public land. Less than 1% of land in the state is open for public hunting. But the Hawkeye State is second only to Michigan in hunter success with 42% of its hunters shooting at least one deer. In a recent state-administered survey of Iowa deer hunters, 74% of respondents said they were satisfied with the quality of deer hunting their state.

Can you imagine what the response to that question would be in Minnesota? From 2012 to 2022, Iowans registered 406 trophy bucks with Boone and Crockett, 24% more than Minnesota. The Gopher State's total harvest of 172,265 whitetails in 2022 (fifth overall) exceeded Iowa's deer kill by 57%, but Minnesota finished last in total harvest per 100 deer hunters. In that category, Iowa took 66 deer per 100 deer hunters (fourth overall) compared to 37 deer for every 100 Minnesota hunters. Also unique to Iowa? Archery season is the most preferred season to hunt deer.

7. Indiana

Large bucks provide an asterisk to a modest hunt

For a state with a smallish overall deer harvest, Indiana registers a lot of monster bucks. From 2012 to 2022, hunters in the Hoosier State (also home to the Purdue Boilermakers) registered 475 trophies with Boone and Crockett. That's third best in the Big Ten. Indiana ranked seventh in overall harvest (121,800 whitetails in 2022), yet 40% of hunters shot at least one deer to secure a fourth-place ranking in hunter success. According to a separate analysis by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Hoosiers have been top Boone and Crockett producers in recent years. The number of trophy deer harvested there has been on the rise since 2001. On the downside, only 2.2% of Indiana's land mass is open to public hunting.

8. Illinois

Chicago's population thins the ranks

Like Indiana, Illinois lacks public hunting land. But hunters in the Land of Lincoln are highly productive. Illinois ranked third overall in the Big Ten for total harvest per 100 deer hunters. The state's total deer harvest was 158,000 whitetails (sixth overall) but for every 100 hunters, 67 deer were bagged. That was good for third place in efficiency. Illinois also edged Minnesota to grab fifth place in the trophy deer category. Over the decade in question, Boone and Crockett accepted 342 large bucks as trophies for the Fighting Illini. Minnesota's tally over the same decade was 327. More than half the population of Illinois lives in the Chicago metro area, which helps explain why the state ranks ninth in deer hunters per 1,000 residents age 10 and older.

9. Maryland

Despite barriers, its tops in efficiency

The fast-paced urbanization of Maryland's landscape has created deer management challenges that can't be overcome with the help of hunters. The state's wildlife managers have had to focus on nonlethal techniques to resolve conflicts. But across the mostly private landscapes where Maryland hunters still pursue deer, they have the most success of any state in the Big Ten. Maryland is No. 1 in total harvest per 100 deer hunters. The state's total harvest of 76,687 whitetails in 2022 meant that for every 100 hunters, 118 deer were killed.

Not counted in the rankings but of interest to hunters, Maryland has a geographically limited herd of sika deer coveted for their delicious venison. Sometimes referred to as "little elk,'' the diminutive deer are challenging to hunt because of their nocturnal leanings and preference for marshy, coastal habitat.

10. Nebraska

Not a lot of deer, and middling interest, here

Whitetails are the prominent deer species in Nebraska, but the Cornhusker State also supports herds of mule deer. Nebraska ranks fifth in the Big Ten in terms of deer hunting enthusiasm. For every 1,000 residents of hunting age, 58 are licensed to hunt deer. But with a limited overall population of hunters, the whitetail harvest in 2022 topped out at 40,289 deer – just a couple of thousand more than are shot in New Jersey. Nebraska hunters harvested 23,000 antlered bucks in 2022, but in 10 years of record-keeping at Boone and Crockett, only 37 were accepted as trophies. Regarding opportunities, only 1.4% of Nebraska's land acres are open for public hunting.

11. New Jersey

Hunting deer in Jersey? It's worth a double-take

Despite occupying the cellar in our Big Ten Deer Hunting Power Rankings, the Garden State deserves credit for its holdings of public land. Nearly 16% of New Jersey's land area is available to hunters, an amount good enough for third place. That's 750,000 acres of hunting grounds under various public ownership – all located within a U.S. state with the highest population density. Moreover, the land is spread fairly evenly around the state. Still, only nine of every 1,000 New Jersey residents of hunting age take an interest in harvesting deer. And those who do aren't very successful compared to hunters in other Big Ten states.

Just 28% of New Jersey deer hunters shot at least one deer in 2022. However, a third of the state's overall harvest that year happened in style during the fall bow season.

About the methodology: Most rankings here were derived from datasets published in January by the National Deer Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Georgia. The metrics, centered around the 2022-23 hunting seasons, were chosen from a broader menu of deer hunting data to measure state-by-state whitetail harvest, number of hunters, and hunting success. To account for population differences, we included "total harvest per 100 deer hunters.''

Also for fairness, we created our category of "deer hunters per 1,000 population aged 10-plus'' (a typical state minimum age for hunting). We favorably ranked states that offer public land for hunting and added a ranking based on each state's production of trophy bucks. Our rankings cover the 11 states home to 14 Big Ten universities. (Michigan, Illinois and Indiana each have two schools).

Star Tribune Graphics Director C.J. Sinner contributed data analysis for this story.