October 28, 2010
Why they're the undisputed king of big-game bowhunting.
Bowhunter Pason Hermson shows off the great Iowa buck he took last season. Even in otherwise tame farmlands, deer like this provide awesome adventure to bowhunters close to home.
I grew up dreaming of wilderness trips to far off mountains and tundra. With big packs on our backs, a friend and I would venture forth from the last point of civilization and shoot all manner of big and exciting game -- just like Fred Bear. As a child, I read hunting magazines and books by the hour. I even rigged a system using fishing line, the corner of my clothes hutch and some Scotch tape that allowed me to turn my lights off when I was done reading without leaving my warm bed. Hundreds of times I woke after midnight, face stuck to an open magazine, with the light still on. I loved everything about hunting, but most of all I loved the promise of adventure.
All that happened in a country home in Iowa, a place that was pretty much the opposite of adventuresome -- an area covered with tame farmlands interspersed only occasionally with a few mini-wilderness areas in the form of river and creek drainages. There was only one way I could live out the adventures I so longed for. I had to head to the best wilderness I could find and hunt the biggest, baddest game that lived there. Well, at age 13, that quest led me only as far as the woodlot a half mile from our house, and the baddest thing I could find was a whitetail doe.
I remember sneaking along the edge of the woods and peering into the cover. I knew nothing about deer hunting or archery, other than my Savora Super S heads were sharp and my Bear Whitetail Hunter was probably lethal (as long as the adhesive-backed Weatherest didn't fall off when I drew back). I shot instinctively with fingers and could hit a pie plate at 20 yards most of the time. I was ready for adventure.
When I rounded a small point and surprised a doe that stood there staring at me from 30 yards, I fell apart. I started shaking so bad I could barely get the bow back, and then the arrow fell off the rest. She laughed and trotted away.
I couldn't believe something this wild lived that close to my backyard. I did have adventure at my doorstep after all. I was hooked. From that day on, I was a whitetail bowhunter. I still dreamed of far off places, but I lived out those dreams in the small woodlots and river valleys within a short distance of home.
I'm guessing nearly every hardcore deer hunter has a story something like mine. The true addiction of whitetail hunting is the fact they are accessible. They bring excitement and adventure to hunters who spend most of their time in tame, human-dominated landscapes.
For that reason, plus the fact whitetails continue to elude us despite their proximity to civilization, they are legendary.
Even though I have hunted many big-game species all over North America, I would quickly give them all up to hunt just whitetails. I actually did that, more or less, when I realized the demands of parenthood would permit less time to travel. Our family made a final move, not to Bozeman, Mont., or Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, but to the tame lands of the Corn Belt. This is where we put down our roots -- in whitetail country. Argue all you want, but whitetails are the undisputed king of big-game bowhunting.
Whitetails can at times be incredibly reclusive. They can live right under your nose, but you'd never know it if not for the shed antlers that offer maddening proof of their presence.
You Can't Buy A Big Whitetail
Some farms are definitely better than others, but unless you hunt inside a high fence, you simply can't buy a giant whitetail. They fall to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places. I have spent a lot of money buying hunting land -- our life savings, in fact -- but we don't shoot the biggest bucks in our county. I love that fact.
A 15-year-old kid from Iowa named Tony Lovsteun killed the biggest buck ever shot by a hunter back in 2003. He shot it on the family farm within sight of an A&W restaurant and 150 yards off a major state highway! He paid the same amount for that tag as every other resident of the state. Only whitetails offer that kind of opportunity. Even if there was some kind of high-profile tag that sold for big money on auction in whitetail country, it is very doubtful the winner would shoot the biggest buck in the neighborhood where he hunted, let alone the entire country. It just doesn't happen like that with whitetails. You put your time in, make a few good decisions and wait for luck to even the score.
I write many articles about big deer taken by hunters. Often, they are the hunters' first deer or first with a bow or something like that. A few years ago, I wrote about a mailman who bought a used bow and six arrows after spotting a big deer on his route. A few weeks later, he shot a net 190-inch plus typical from a two-acre woodlot. The dream of a trophy exists in almost every deer camp across North America. It can happen anywhere at any time. The next snapping twig or crunching leaf could be the footfall of the biggest buck you have ever seen -- or the biggest buck anyone has ever seen. That is the allure of whitetails -- they truly are everyman's trophy.
Whitetails Are Amazingly Reclusive
Whitetails have learned to adapt to humans. If they don't want to be seen, you won't see them. I remember a story I heard from a friend who was managing a 1,500-acre, high-fenced deer farm. There was one buck they never saw during the several years my friend worked there. Each spring, they would find his antlers in the same general area, but no matter how hard they tried, they never laid eyes on that buck.
If that is possible in an enclosure, imagine how much more likely it is in an area where bucks can roam. I hunted one buck that was truly a ghost. He showed up a few times one summer near the house, and I was fortunate enough to see him right at dusk those evenings as he stood at the edge of the alfalfa field waiting for black dark -- in July. Not surprisingly, given that the buck was that wary and secretive in the summer (when other bucks seemed to have forgotten we eat them), I never saw him come fall.
You don't have to be rich to shoot a big whitetail. Chris Lane shot this great buck in 2004 while hunting on
public land in Iowa using a $27, over-the-counter tag.
I hunted hard and carefully, but he evaporated into thin air. Then, like magic, that winter one of his shed antlers showed up in the same place where I'd seen him during the summer -- right on the edge of our yard. Try as I might, I couldn't see that buck, though apparently he was there the whole time. What does that tell me? Either I am a bad hunter or that buck was extremely elusive. I hope it is the latter.
Trophy bucks can literally live right under our noses, and we never know they are there except for the antlers they leave behind. I find that aspect of their behavior amazing -- and maddening!
I am glad it works that way. I am glad they are hard to see and hard to kill. That is where adventure comes from. Other big-game animals have this same quality, but not to the extent of a whitetail. When whitetails decide to go underground, we simply aren't going to see them. They have learned to adapt to us too well to let us easily into their awareness zones. They avoid us. We keep looking and bumbling and the game repeats itself year after year until they die of old age. I like that too -- the fact that after two decades of intense research into deer behavior, we still don't have all the answers.
Whitetails Have A Small Range
Compared to most other big-game animals, whitetails have a very small home range.
Once they reach maturity, that range shrinks even more. That means you can realistically hunt a specific animal, or a few specific animals, on just a small amount of land. If you are lucky and the buck makes it through the season, you can likely even hunt the same deer in the same area again the next year. In the process, you can learn more about his habits and patterns. A true chess match develops in which you begin to piece together the puzzle and set increasingly better traps until finally you get him -- or he disappears forever. Either way, the challenge and the hunt are their own rewards. You aren't going to win every game of chess, and you certainly aren't going to shoot every buck you hunt.
No other popular, accessible big-game species lives in such a small range. You need to number your acres in the thousands to effectively hunt one big mule deer, elk or even antelope. But you can sometimes find yourself in a season-long chess match with a whitetail on just a few acres.
The fact whitetails have a small range turns a chance encounter into a multi-year game of cat and mouse. Before I started using trail cameras, I often hunted for a week, or more, just trying to see a buck I wanted to hunt. Once I found him, the season turned a corner and got much more intense. The biggest thrill for me is hunting a certain animal, or having a few of them on the "hit list." I hunt better when I have a goal in mind. Because of their relatively small range, whitetails offer this hope of head-to-head action to almost everyone who snaps an arrow into their quiver.
I Love November
Even before I got serious about bowhunting deer, November was my favorite month. I would give up every other month as long as I could live in November. When I was a boy, November meant there were ducks and pheasants to shoot. Now it's whitetails. If I ever stop hunting deer for whatever reason, I will find some other excuse to be outdoors in November. It is cold enough that the bugs are gone. The colors are still beautiful. The world smells of dropped leaves, and migrating geese honk overhead. The weather is sometimes raw, adding to the sense of adventure. I love the fact that the best month to hunt whitetails also happens to be the best month of the year.
In November, the bucks swagger around like studs, or bulls. They look cool and they act cool. They own the woods. It is fun to watch, and I love it.
Whitetails Are Made For Bowhunting
I have done a lot of still hunting, and I really enjoy it. But I also really enjoy climbing up a tree and sitting 20 feet above it all. There is always something to see. I just love being up in a tree. Granted, you can hunt other game from treestands too, and I have. But none of them are as custom-made for stand hunting as whitetails. And stand hunting is ideal for bowhunters of all skill levels.
You have to be a good stalker to sneak up on a bedded mule deer or a harem of elk, but you really don't need to be a particularly good hunter to sit in a treestand and shoot a whitetail. Sure, you need to know where to place the stand for maximum effectiveness, and you need to know the best way to get to and from the stand to keep from alerting deer, but that is just fine-tuning. The act of hunting is pretty simple -- climb up those steps and wait until he comes past. Whitetails are everyman's quarry; anyone can and does have some success bowhunting them.
Whitetail hunting is not an exclusive club, peopled by guys with special skills. It is inclusive, peopled by all my buddies and their buddies and the mailman and the guy who brings me my LP gas. I like that.
Whitetails are accessible, not overly hard to kill and fun to hunt with a bow and arrow. Without question, whitetails are best.