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What Do Hunters Hunt the Most? (Most Hunted Game Animals in the US)

mule deer in the mountain

There is no doubt that Americans value their time outdoors. The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation shows that more than 40% of Americans aged 16 and older participated in hunting, fishing, or wildlife viewing.

One in 10 of those people were hunters — a staggering 11.5 million hunters.

You may be wondering what types of game animals these millions of hunters are after. Here we look at reported harvest numbers to uncover what hunters hunt the most.

What Animals Do Hunters Hunt Most?

Two male deer hunters prepare to skin, dress and process the shot deer

What hunters hunt the most is a simple question, but it is one without an easy answer. Hunters pursue a wide variety of animals depending on their location, the time of year, and the type of equipment they are using.

Despite some variability based on location and timing, deer are undoubtedly the most hunted game animals. They represent the bulk of hunting licenses issued and tagged quarry reported. Turkeys and squirrels follow deer as the second and third most popular game to hunt.

Because hunting licenses are required in virtually all hunting situations, this is a very accurate and reliable way to track the number of hunters in the United States.

The table below highlights what hunters hunt the most. It includes the approximate numbers of hunters and animals harvested for the most recent year data was available (generally between 2014-2020). Quantities were rounded to a representative number based on our research. Data was pulled from various sources including records from USFWS and NSSF

What Hunters Hunt Most in the United States

Annual Statistics for Top Game Animals (Estimated)

Game Species Count Harvested Active Hunters
Deer 6,700,000 7,900,000
Turkey 400,000 2,000,000
Squirrels 8,000,000 1,500,000
Rabbits Unknown 1,300,000
Ducks 10,500,000 900,000
Mourning Doves 11,000,000 700,000
Geese 2,800,000 600,000
Upland Game Birds Unknown 1,900,000
Elk 180,000 700,000
Bear 50,000 200,000
Moose* 12,000 38,000

*Moose estimates based on 2014-2015 data according to a study by H.R. Timmerman and Arthur R. Rodgers published in the Alces Journal Vol. 53:1-22 (2017).

You will notice that deer, wild turkeys, and squirrels are ranked highest based on the number of active hunters.

Note: while there were more upland hunters than some other types, upland game combines several species of birds whose harvest numbers are not accurately counted.

What Big Game Animals Are Most Hunted?

Deer — white-tailed deer in particular — are the most hunted big game animals. When looking at what hunters hunt the most, deer come out on top every time. There were more than 8 million deer hunters in 2016, making up 80% of all big game hunting licenses issued that year.

Wild turkeys are the most hunted bird and they are generally classified as big game. They are also the second-most hunted big game animal overall. According to the 2016 survey, there were more than 2 million wild turkey hunters, which includes 18% of total big game hunters.

Coming in behind deer and wild turkey are elk and bear. In 2016, there were approximately 700,000 and 200,000 hunters of each animal, respectively, accounting for less than 10% of all big game hunters.

In some areas sportsmen can also hunt predators like mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes.

What Migratory Birds Are Most Hunted?

3 hunted ducks and rifle on grass

Migratory birds are considered under a separate classification. These are birds like ducks, geese, and doves. However, as a whole, migratory birds should not be overlooked for their importance to hunting and wildlife conservation efforts. Waterfowl hunters in particular are both numerous and passionate.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service manages migratory birds since, by their nature, these game animals cross state and international boundaries. Every hunter of waterfowl and doves must purchase a migratory bird permit and participate in the Harvest Information Program (HIP).

HIP is a reporting system where hunters are obligated to submit the quantity of each relevant species harvested. So the numbers here are pretty reliable.

Ducks and doves nearly tie for the most commonly-hunted migratory birds. While around 900,000 active hunters harvest nearly 11 million ducks each year, slightly more quail are taken by about 700,000 hunters.

Geese are also quite popular. Meanwhile, other birds like swan, coot, snipe, pigeon, and some sea birds are hunted in limited ranges and much smaller numbers.

Many passionate and involved bird hunters and organizations like Ducks Unlimited work tirelessly to promote conservation and responsible hunting at the local, state, and national levels.

What Small Game Animals Are Most Hunted?

As a group, small game animals may be the most hunted game animals collectively. Unfortunately, most states do not require hunters to report small game taken during a hunt, so exact numbers are not available.

Squirrels

When it comes to small game, squirrels are the most popular game to hunt. Between 2014-2016, an average of 8,000,000 squirrels were harvested in the US each year.

Many states, especially in the South and along the East Coast, have abundant squirrely populations and generous bag limits. This places squirrels among the most popular game to pursue in these areas.

Hunters in some places can take as many as six or seven squirrels per day during a season lasting several months.

Rabbits

Rabbits are another popular small game quarry. A few of the most sought subspecies include eastern cottontails, swamp rabbits, and jackrabbits.

Upland Game Birds

Upland game birds such as pheasant, chukars, partridge, grouse, and quail are certainly very popular among hunters. Regulations are few, bag limits generous, and populations generally healthy.

These upland critters draw in big numbers of active hunters, though it’s rare that a state requires reporting. So success rates and harvest numbers are usually unknown, or rough estimates at best.

Below is a chart of what the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the annual harvest and active hunter numbers to be for upland game.

2008-2017 Oregon’s 10-year Average Annual Upland Game Harvest Estimates

Oregon’s Estimated Annual Upland Game Harvest

Based on 10-year Average (2008-2017)

Species Harvest Rank Hunters Rank
Chukar 41410 1 5904 5
Ruffed Grouse 33427 2 13159 1
California Quail 33305 3 6522 4
Ring-necked Pheasant 24864 4 6744 3
Blue Grouse 14885 5 11896 2
Mountain Quail 9794 6 5078 6
Gray Partridge 5669 7 1571 7

Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

What Other Animals Are Hunted?

hunter with trophy elk in a grassland

While white-tailed deer, turkeys, and squirrels are the most popular animals to hunt, they are not the only beasts hunters seek. Other cervids such as mule deer, elk, and moose are popular among hunters.

These animals are abundant across large swathes of land, with elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope being prevalent in the western states. Additional deer varieties like black-tails and Sitka can also be hunted in limited areas.

More than half of the moose harvested by hunters in the US each year are taken in Alaska which is host to around 85% of moose hunters. In Canada where moose numbers are huge, five times as many moose are harvested than in the US.

Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are among the more elusive big game animals with very limited ranges. Not only are they extremely challenging to hunt, but there are very few hunting permits issued annually.

There also exist several hunts of introduced species in parts of the US where exotic animals were released into the wild. In places like the Southwestern states and Hawaii you can hunt oryx, aoudad sheep, goats, axis deer, and more. These hunts are often to help mitigate the impact these invasive species have on native plants and wildlife.

In addition, wild pigs (a.k.a. boars or hogs) are hunted in several locations with a very high success rate.

Localized small game hunting is mainly dependent on what types of animals are native, or introduced, to a given area. This category can include various animals ranging from lizards to mammals to birds. A few examples include javelina, quail, rabbits, and foxes.

What Animal Has the Highest Hunting Success Rate?

When considering big game animals that are regularly reported, the highest success rate for the most hunted game animals likely goes to deer.

On average, deer hunters have a success rate of about 40%. However, that ranges from rates in the low teens in states like Arizona and Maine to much more favorable success rates above 60% in North Dakota, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Normally, 50% of wild turkey tags issued are filled. So it’s no wonder that deer and turkey are the most hunted animals. They are abundant and give hunters the satisfaction and meat they’re after. This keeps many hunters coming back out for them year after year.

Elk success rates are generally highest in Western states with thriving populations. Washington has the lowest average success rate at just under 10%, while Wyoming boasts a success rate of over 40%. This is clearly illustrated in the accompanying table below.

Average Elk Harvest and Success Rate in 7 Western States (2018 – 2020)*
State Elk Harvest # of Hunters Success Rate
Colorado 39,800 218,782 18.2%
Idaho 30,107 161,348 18.7%
Montana 27,089 109,570 24.7%
Oregon 15,775 98,977 15.9%
Utah 14,703 61,359 24.0%
Washington 5,405 56,199 9.6%
Wyoming 24,742 56,817 44.3%

Source: Data provided by BackcountryChronicles.com

If you want to have a good chance of filling your tag, take a look at success rates for your target species and the region you will be hunting. These figures can vary quite a bit between areas and hunting methods, so be sure to check with the appropriate state wildlife agency to get current numbers.

It is also good practice to remember that, because many states do not require reporting of small game or feral animals, it is difficult to accurately assess the total number harvested or success rates.

Where Are People Hunting the Most?

hunters studying map in the forest

Many parts of the upper Midwest have a strong tradition of hunting. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan issued the most hunting permits in 2021. Combined, they represent nearly one-fifth of all tags issued in the U.S. that year.

Most permits were issued to state residents in all three states, with less than 10% issued to out-of-state hunters.

Alaska is arguably the best U.S. state for hunting. That is based on the number of state residents who hunt, the availability of public lands for hunting, and the variety and abundance of game.

However, there are many hunter-friendly states within the continental U.S. for those seeking opportunities closer to home.

Deer

If you are looking for deer, whether to fill your freezer or for a trophy buck, you have plenty of choices. Among the contenders are several Midwest states — Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri — and a large area across the South — Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Elk

According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, elk live in various habitats, including forests, desert valleys, and meadows. The RMEF claims there are roughly 1 million elk in the western U.S., with a range stretching from North Carolina to Oregon. Colorado, Oregon, and Utah are among the best U.S. states for elk hunting.

Moose

Moose hunting is most prevalent in Alaska, Colorado, and some Northeastern states, including Maine and New Hampshire.

Coyote

Coyotes are plentiful where they have easy access to food. In many cases, that means small game; however, it can also mean livestock. Top states for coyote hunting include Wyoming, Nevada, Nebraska, and Colorado.

Wolf

Wolves were once plentiful in the U.S., but their numbers declined in the early twentieth century. After a successful recovery, thanks largely to the Endangered Species Act, their numbers are rebounding, and several states, including Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, are once again allowing wolf hunting.

Wisconsin has also reintroduced wolf hunting, but its first two seasons have been somewhat controversial.

Wild Turkeys

Turkeys are abundant across most of the United States. Texas, Florida, and Alabama are among the top turkey hunting destinations. The National Wild Turkey Federation provides excellent resources, including a state-by-state guide, with what you need to know about turkey hunting in your state.

Bear

This depends on the type of bear you are looking to hunt. Black bears are commonly hunted across the country. The NRA recommends heading to North Carolina, Wisconsin, or California for the best chance at taking a black bear, which shows the amazing range of these adaptable animals.

Pigs

Wild hogs are a nuisance in many states across the southern United States. Texas leads the list of best places to hunt feral hogs, with hunters virtually guaranteed to bring one home.

Because of their abundance, both residents and visitors can hunt hogs in Texas any day of the year. Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana are also among prime hog-hunting destinations.

Migratory Birds (Waterfowl)

This designation encompasses a wide range of birds, such as ducks, geese, and swans, many of which are hunted around bodies of water. Thanks to their migratory nature, hunters can pursue waterfowl across most of the United States.

In a perfect example of their extensive territory, Ducks Unlimited lists Saskatchewan, Northern California, and Louisiana among the top waterfowl hunting destinations in North America.

Small Game

Small game hunting is available across the entire continent. Depending on where you are, you may pursue game including squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, groundhogs, and foxes. Many places also consider some birds, such as chukar and quail, small game animals.

How Are People Hunting Popular Game Animals?

hunting dogs and their owner in the grassland

There are several popular hunting methods used today. They include using firearms (rifles and shotguns), traditional or compound bows, crossbows, and traps or snares, although some hunters consider trapping a different activity.

Most big game animals are taken with a rifle or robust archery equipment. However, there are some exceptions. For example, many states have a black power or muzzleloader season for deer, and some allow shotguns with a slug or buckshot ammunition.

Crossbows have opened archery hunting up for many people who have difficulty with the heavy draw required to deliver a fatal shot with other types of bows. Most shoot bolts at speeds of 300 feet per second (or faster), which means they can effectively kill even large game animals like elk and bears. Crossbows have also raised a lot of regulatory and ethical questions among hunters, stirring up quite a bit of controversy in recent years.

Small game and birds are often hunted using shotguns. Special bird and game shot ensures a safe kill and reduce lead contamination in harvested meat. Some people also use small-caliber rifles when hunting small game like squirrels and rabbits.

Trends in Hunter Numbers and Conservation

The National Survey is a valuable tool that can help us uncover precisely what types of animals hunters are pursuing. This comprehensive survey has been conducted every five years since 1955, making it an excellent source of information regarding trends in outdoor activities.

In addition to tracking hunters, it also looks at anglers and wildlife watchers, and all of this information contributes to outdoor education and wildlife conservation.

The 2016 data demonstrates a slight decline in the number of hunters. However, there is encouraging news for proponents of the sport as other, more recent data sources indicate that the number of hunters has increased — and continues to rise — since the last survey was conducted.

For example, according to U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service National Hunting License Data report, more than 38.5 million hunting licenses, permits, or tags were issued in 2021.

Additional research by the Pew Research Center indicates steep increases in the number of hunters during the past couple of years. The pandemic likely fueled this jump, as people sought available outdoor activities.

The biggest challenge facing state wildlife agencies will be keeping these new hunters engaged and continuing conservation efforts from now on.

Conclusion

Hunting is a popular pastime for millions of Americans. Using data from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, we see that 11.5 million hunters enjoyed the sport in 2016. Many experts agree that those numbers are increasing.

Looking at what hunters hunt the most, we see that deer, wild turkeys, and small game, like squirrels and rabbits, top the list of most hunted game animals. Upland and migratory birds are also among the most popular game to hunt.

Changing regulations mean that wolves can now be hunted in several states, and based on the success of early seasons, the popularity of wolf hunting can be expected to grow.

If you are looking for the most popular game to hunt, white-tailed deer have a high success rate, averaging around 40%. However, depending on where you are hunting and what method you are using, other animals may be more abundant. For example, feral hogs are a popular quarry in areas like Texas, where they are plentiful.

Hunters use a variety of methods to pursue the most hunted game animals. The biggest game animals are often taken with firearms or crossbows, while shotguns are popular for small game. Deer and other mid-sized game animals are frequently hunted with rifles, shotguns, and archery equipment.

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