Challenge Yourself: Hunt Western Whitetails
June 13, 2011
by Patrick Meitin
It's no secret that whitetails, garden-variety Odocoileus virginianus, inhabit a multitude of Western regions. What's less obvious is that from Northeast Washington, the Panhandle of Idaho and Western Montana mountains to Wyoming, Colorado and Montana prairies, the West quietly produces bragging-sized bucks every season. Perhaps it's the embarrassment of riches enjoyed here -- ready options such as elk, mule deer, black bears and pronghorns -- splintering enthusiasms, but Western bowhunters haven't quite succumbed to the whitetail mania that grips other regions.
While civilized woodlot and agricultural environments dominate the Eastern scene, Western whitetails are more often found in wilder country. You might think of the obvious whitetails found on the eastern extremities of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, bucks wandering endless grassland pasture and sprawling agriculture fields. Yet to me, true Western whitetails roam the big woods of Northwestern mountain regions more reminiscent of muley range than whitetail.
Western public lands are vast, meaning Northern Rocky Mountain whitetails normally have more to fear from mountain lions or wolves than orange-clad nimrods. Sport hunting has an impact, but because there's so much country to go around, individual deer seldom experience undue pressure and are only rarely ambushed from elevated stands. This can leave deer a bit naive, stand squeaks and rain gear rustles causing, at most, momentary pause but seldom snorting terror. And while true big-woods whitetails normally can't access bulk-producing crops like corn-fed Midwestern bruisers, Bergmann's Rule is in full effect; the colder a species' geographic range, the larger its body size. Western whitetails also wear antlers to match.
Although Western whitetail population densities tend to be lower than the Midwest, the upside includes a more defined rut through healthier herd dynamics (a higher percentage of mature bucks seeking a balanced ratio of receptive does). This results in abundant daylight movement and a realistic expectation for success while hunting scrapes and rubs, including mock scrapes, and using aggressive calling ploys (rattling and grunt tubes).
The reality of lower population densities also carries negative side effects. Fewer deer means fewer opportunities, longer sits between sightings and more demanding scouting. Deer can prove highly scattered, either because they have so much room to roam or due to hard winters and large predators. That said, it does seem, especially during the November rut, deer tend to pod up, persistent scouting revealing vast areas of seemingly prime habitat completely void of sign, while another areas, sometimes for no apparent reason, hold nearly every deer in a 20 square-mile area.
The good news is these areas of deer concentration remain consistent year to year. The bad news is that in the big woods, logging activity can change the situation overnight. My favorite whitetail ridge in northern Idaho, a place that produced my best Gem State buck to date, where trail cameras have captured more "shooter" bucks than any other single area around home, is being transformed from gorgeous whitetail habitat to ugly clearcut as I write this. Given a decade, it'll revert into whitetail nirvana once more, but for now I've lost a couple sure-thing stand sites.
Big-woods weather can also prove nasty. While deer often move best when precipitation flies and temperatures plunge, you must be tough enough to put in your time. This past November was a prime example. Early November and its prime, pre-rut dates arrived with non-stop mixed rain and snow; cold, soaking storms leaving you saturated and shivering after only a couple hours on stand. By mid-November, rain turned to heavy snow and sub-zero cold, prompting dusk-to-dawn deer movement, but making sitting a study in masochism. Even with the best cold-weather gear available, a few hours in -10 degree temperatures, buffeted by 20 mph wind, becomes a test in fortitude.
Weather of this sort, combined with big-woods logistics, can make accessing stands interesting. I keep a couple stands within walking distance of home for the worst of it, but my most reliable sites, and the biggest bucks, are normally reached only after 20- to 30-minute ATV rides followed by the same amount of climbing and hiking time. The challenge in brutally cold weather, especially in the dark of morning, is arriving in shape to function. Hand-numbing rides, followed by sweaty hikes and hours on a freezing stand, require some smart dressing up and down for assured comfort. When snow begins to pile up, getting there at all can be the trick.
The rugged, enormous scope of big-woods habitat can prove intimidating, the prospect of plucking a trophy buck from seemingly endless landscape appearing as hopeless as locating the proverbial needle in a haystack. This isn't Iowa or Illinois, where guarding obvious agricultural crops or acorn-bearing oak groves virtually guarantees deer sightings. The mountain whitetail's supermarket is less defined and more spread out. Highly physical, ground-gobbling scouting is the name of the game.
I concentrate my efforts on three basic terrain features: benches, ridges and especially saddles. Benches can mean wide, flat spots formed by ridge points or long shelves just below canyon walls. In timber country, benches also appear in the form of defunct logging skids and landings, which offer easier travel through thronged second growth or steep terrain. Ridge lines are also used by deer to traverse steep terrain with less effort, effectively concentrating movement. Saddles offer the path of least resistance between adjacent bowls, hillsides or valleys. As an added bonus, these also happen to be places where scent is most easily controlled.
Early-season scouting requires a sharper eye, as subtle tracks and droppings are not nearly as obvious as the rubs and scrapes you'll find closer to the rut. Water, normally secreted springs or seeps, can prove especially productive during early seasons, as well as north-slope benches bucks seek to escape heat. Trail cameras are especially helpful, as early-season bachelor bucks can prove relatively predictable once discovered, opening the door for a quick score.
Big-woods whitetail hunting really comes into its own with the approach of the rut. I used to believe Idaho whitetails didn't scrape or rub in any significant way. I also believed mature Idaho bucks were all but nocturnal, rarely witnessing trophy bucks, even on camera, until well after dark. All that changed when I began haunting higher big woods. Not only did I find scrapes in mind-boggling profusion, but when cameras were deployed, daytime events actually outnumbered flash photos.
More interestingly, some of those bucks, many 10 or more miles from home, were also showing up in my backyard with black night (food plots creating piles of attractive does). That blew me away initially. After all, it's universally accepted that whitetails occupy strict and limited home territories, right? Of course, these observations were formulated in the East, not in Western mountains where whitetails might migrate 30 miles in winter to stay ahead of accumulating snow. With more observation, it became obvious these mountain bucks cruised higher mountains by day and made reconnaissance runs into lower territory (where backyard hunting pressure is intense) by night to pick up does concentrated on more abundant food sources.
The Latest Intelligence
For this reason alone, I regularly sacrifice stand time to scout during open season. I travel light, with a recurve and handful of arrows, day pack carrying water bottle, topo-map equipped GPS for navigation and marking obvious hot spots, folding saw and a couple dozen screw-in steps to ready stand sites, plus several trail cameras to set as sign dictates. This game is all about covering ground, tracing out sinuous ridges, exploring remote benches and climbing to investigate obvious saddles. In a single afternoon, I might cover 20 miles on my ATV and hike another seven, mostly to accomplish nothing more than eliminating dead-end habitat. Sometimes, I discover the next hot spot and set about trimming to accept a quick stand and setting a trail camera to gather additional intelligence.
By now, it should be obvious I lean heavily on trail cameras. After all, seeing is believing, and you must believe when stands are accessed only with difficulty and cold weather guarantees discomfort. I own a dozen units, and I have developed a deep affinity for AA-powered models for the simple reason lithium batteries (unavailable in C or D cells) don't freeze and the cameras operate flawlessly even when temperatures plunge into the teens or below. Bushnell's Trophy Cam, StealthCam's UNIT, Moultrie's Mini-Cams and Wildgame Innovations' X6C I can vouch for, though there are certainly other good options. Owning a pair of 4 or 8 GB SD cards per camera also allows minimal disturbance. That way, you can wait weeks before revisiting your most inaccessible sites.
Lightweight hang-on stands equipped with backpack-style carrying straps are the top ambush option in demanding country. My go-to choices include models such as Summit's 14-pound RSX Eagle (which I killed my biggest buck from last fall) or Gorilla's 16.5-pound Kong HX (responsible for my second P&Y-quality buck in 2010). Ordering spare Talon Bracket straps for my Summit allows hanging multiple mounting brackets for use with a single stand at various sites.
Admittedly, my first deer seasons in Idaho left me scratching my head often as not. It wasn't until I abandoned the obvious farm habitat of my own backyard, gained some altitude and plunged into intimidating big-woods timber that I discovered just how good the area's whitetail hunting can be. It's more work, certainly, but two book-quality bucks in a single year shows I'm on the right track.