Over the past 30 years, I’ve been blessed to pursue many different species of animals in many different types of habitat across our great land. From Alaska to Arizona and New York to Nevada, I’ve lived large and bowhunted hard. Every outing has presented its own unique challenges, and I’ve become a rich man from the experience gleaned. And though I’ve gone through many cycles of obsession with many Western species, one thing has never changed — whitetails have always been my favorite quarry!
Follow along as I use my experiences to take you on a mythical, two-month bowhunting odyssey across America in pursuit of our ultimate survivor, the whitetail deer. As you envision these hunts in your mind, think of the challenges involved — dealing with strange habitats, unusual deer behavior and the ever-changing weather encountered as autumn turns to winter. This montage is replete with respect for a very majestic animal and the habitat in which it lives. Whitetails rule.
September found me in Montana, pursuing elk, but I soon realized the high country of northwestern Montana also harbored a reasonable population of whitetails. My tag was good for deer also. So, after harvesting an elk, my attention turned toward deer. For a week, I pursued whitetails in the mountainous terrain. Since I was only interested in pursuing mature bucks, I covered a lot of ground glassing and employing spot-and-stalk tactics. The country was a good mix of mature forest and meadow, with brushy creek drainages sprinkled throughout. Although I was able to find a few groups of mature bucks, fickle mountain winds, thick vegetation and an extremely alert quarry always conspired to spell my failure. These mountain deer only needed to be slightly alerted to danger before disappearing for good. Though they rarely encountered humans, they were still whitetails — extremely quick to learn and adapt. I left Montana with my deer tag unfilled and a newfound respect for mountain deer.
Midwestern Farm Country
I arrived back at my Oklahoma home in early October, and after a brief rest pointed my truck northeast for new adventure. A few hours later, I found myself in one of my old haunts in west-central Illinois — deer paradise. Since it was early October, I knew harvesting a mature buck was a tall order, yet I was determined to give it my best effort.
An early-season cold front had moved through the area, so I set about hanging a few treestands in familiar places. With a few days of hunting under my belt, it became clear the odds were against me. Crops were standing, which meant deer only had to move short distances to feed and bed. And with the rut still a long way off, mature bucks were living an extremely survival-orientated lifestyle. I’d have to try something out of the ordinary if I hoped to get a mature buck under such conditions.
Employing a “surprise attack” approach, I soon found the ticket to success. Carrying a treestand and support gear with me, I began to slip into undisturbed spots, hoping to intercept a mature buck just outside his bedding area at first or last light. My first few efforts at this type of “low impact” hunting went poorly. I kept at it, however, and with time, I refined my approach. Everything finally came together one evening when I was able to harvest a mature, pre-rut buck. I’d matched wits with a supreme survivor — on his terms — and came out on top. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
With the onset of mid-October, I pointed my truck north and soon arrived in northern Illinois. I’d heard of the legendary bucks that made a living in the suburbs of large cities, and I was itching to see for myself. The Chicago suburbs seemed just the right place to explore — and it was in a bowhunting-only county!
My first few days in the area were spent learning the ropes in this new whitetail habitat. Urban sprawl was hardly my idea of a great place to spend hunting time, but I soon confirmed there were certainly big bucks around; I saw plenty at night in my headlights! Finally, finding a small acreage where I could hunt, I set about doing some scouting. Locating some huge rubs and tracks, I knew I had stumbled into the home of a suburban whopper. Hanging a couple of stands, I liked my chances.
Over the next few days, I got a crash course in bowhunting educated whitetails. These deer knew everything that went on in their world, 24/7! Every move I made, the deer were one step ahead of me. I was amazed at the super-refined survival instincts these city deer displayed. I swear they knew the exact schedule of every human activity that went on around them — including my hunts! Pursuing a more-than-worthy adversary in such close quarters soon took a toll on my state of mind. I was looking like a fool! After a week of diligent effort, I finally decided I’d met my match with these survival machines called “city deer.” I left Chicago with my tail between my legs.
Pointing my truck northeast once again, I headed for northern New York. I’d met a guy a few months back who invited me to hunt with him in the “big woods.” Arriving in the area in early November, I set about learning the rules of engagement in this new game. Boy, was I in for a learning experience!
It turned out that deer numbers were low and the country was big. Also, the deer that resided in this most beautiful habitat were very sharp in the art of survival — once again, it was going to be a tough row to hoe. On the plus side, the rut was starting to crank and I felt confident I could pull a big buck out. I had a week to try — time would tell.
As the first few days passed with limited action, I became restless and began to do a lot of walking. Can you say up and down? On the fifth day of my hunt, I came into an area that had a lot of fresh deer activit
y, interlaced with mature buck sign. The spot was remote and would require a lot of effort to hunt. Never one to back down from a good challenge, I started getting up very early, hunting long and getting to bed late. On my final day of hunting, while arriving at my treestand location just at shooting light, I encountered a mature buck chasing a doe. Getting off a shot at the buck from the ground, my arrow deflected off a branch, resulting in a miss. Climbing into my nearby treestand, I prayed for a miracle — no such luck. Climbing down at dark, I knew I’d once again tackled unfamiliar habitat, matched wits with a very sharp quarry and came out a loser. Oh well, whitetails are tough. Inside, I knew I wouldn’t have it any other way!
High Plains Drifters
Arriving back home in mid-November, I quickly put things in order to be gone again. Heading toward Wyoming, I looked for new whitetail adventure. I needed to change my luck.
Arriving in the high plains region of southeastern Wyoming, I wondered if whitetails actually inhabited this barren, arid habitat. Hitting the ground running, I soon gained access to a ranch with a small creek drainage flowing through it. Spending the first few days glassing, I soon realized there was a meager population of whitetails that spent a lot of their time drifting up and down the small drainage. Placing a treestand in a likely ambush location, I climbed aboard on my third evening in the area. In less time than it would take to tell about it, a nice buck waddled past, and my Mathews and I let the air out of him.
Clearly, these deer were less educated than their Eastern counterparts, and to tell the truth, I was very happy to knock off a “dumb” whitetail. Smiling inside, I wondered if there really was such a thing?
With a week of November still on the calendar — and a Kansas tag in my pocket — I pointed my truck southeast. I would stop in the prairie region of Kansas for a few days of hunting on my way home.
The rolling grasslands of Kansas seemed about as far from whitetail country as I could get, but I knew better. I’d been here before and knew the region held a good resource. Since the rut was waning, I also knew some bruisers would be on the prowl, looking for that last piece of the breeding pie. I wanted to serve one of those big guys some humble pie.
Sitting in a treestand far out in the rolling grasslands of the Flint Hills takes some patience. Spotting the occasional buck drifting to and fro at a distance, I frantically tried everything in my bag of tricks to lure a trophy into a long ride to Oklahoma. Too smart, too busy and too good for my tricks, these prairie ghosts floated about on their business. As the sun set on the last day before the firearm season was to open, I knew I had been defeated once again. Tucking my tail, I headed for home.
Whitetails are the most adaptive and widely dispersed of our deer species. They are also the species that lives in closest proximity to man. Thus, their skills at eluding our hunting efforts have evolved to a point that make them arguably the most “intelligent” of our deer. That’s why so many bowhunters look upon a mature whitetail buck as the most desirable and difficult trophy to obtain (under most conditions). I certainly agree.
If I live long enough to become physically unable to pursue my beloved elk and mule deer, I plan on still being able to go to the whitetail woods. And if the day should come that I can’t pull a bow anymore, I guess I’ll simply take pictures of these awesome, majestic animals. I love whitetails, and I bet you do too!