Mountain Deer Hunting, Western Style

May 9, 2014

Sweat was dripping from my brow as I leaned up against a tree for a much-needed rest. Deep snow and vertical mountain slopes created the excess perspiration, not hot fall temperatures. The scent of pine wafted on the breeze, sending shivers through my body. As my breathing returned to normal, I caught sight of movement to the right. A dainty doe bounded through the deep snow, almost in a playful manner. Was she bounding away from me or from another intruder? I didn’t have to mentally answer the question, as a whitetail buck busted through the snow right behind her. I lifted my .243, picked an opening in front of the buck and fired as he sped past. Was my aim true? Hustling over to the tracks brought on another round of sweat and disappointment — no hint of blood.

That hunt took place more years ago than I care to remember, but it was my first taste of mountain whitetail hunting. I’ve always had a soft spot for mountains, and the opportunity to hunt whitetails on the slopes lures me whenever the chance arises — despite the hardships mountain hunts present.

Mountain Living

Whitetails in the vertical mountain zone lead a different lifestyle than their woodlot brethren. They still require the basic necessities of life — food, water and shelter — but they have no problem shopping for these daily requirements in a different zip code as the seasons change. In short, mountain whitetails move to get what they need, and they’re not afraid to break the one-square-mile-home-territory rule. 

The two elements requiring big movements include food and shelter. Water is generally available throughout mountain ranges in the form of springs, streams, ponds and, at times, snow. The same can’t be said of food. Most forests have considerable quantities of conifers that create a dense canopy that allows little light to reach the ground for browse to sprout. In addition, the acidic nature of conifer needles does little good for soil conditions.

Forage thus comes from meadows, valley farm fields, creekside browse and scattered mast production. During the spring, summer and fall, mountain whitetails spread throughout the range to take part in the abundant bounty, but when snows invade high elevations, whitetails need to migrate to food. Valleys that harbored the occasional whitetail soon become a metropolis of whitetail activity.

In my backyard of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, this is visible each year as whitetails drop from the face of the mountain to take advantage of hayfields and other agricultural ventures from summer farming efforts. As snow piles up, regardless if it is in the Appalachians east of the Mississippi River or the Kaniksu National Forest in Idaho, whitetails will return to traditional wintering areas after dispersing for the summer.

Equally important as food is shelter. Although the mountains have unlimited nooks of whitetail cover, from October through April deer might have to vacate the premises due to heavy snow cover. Shelter and food fall hand-in-hand as animals drop in elevation to the meadows and valleys below. Resident whitetails suddenly have to contend with an influx of mountain cousins, and it’s not uncommon for a favorable location to double in population after a heavy snow event. Brushy draws and south-facing foothill slopes suddenly come alive with deer seeking winter shelter.

Although the vast majority of whitetails will abandon the high country, a few mature bucks might inhabit micro-environments with ample features that allow a few animals enough ingredients to survive a tough winter. Instead of dropping to the valley below, bucks might hold up on broad, south-facing slopes that melt off with solar daytime heating. They glean moisture from snow and browse on forage scattered on the hillside.

What does all this mean to the mountain whitetail hunter? You need to be fully aware of changing conditions and how they are affecting the local whitetail population. Whitetails you scouted in summer and focused on during early season archery hunts might suddenly have taken a “Beverly Hillbillies” cross-country trip.

Since hunting seasons occur during the window when snow is likely to inhabit the high country, you’re likely to be smack in the middle of a major whitetail movement. Bucks here today are gone tomorrow, and only the observant and reactive whitetail hunters find success.

Mountain Gear

Every trip into the mountains isn’t a life-or-death situation, but it doesn’t hurt to plan for the worst. Mountain whitetails will test you in different arenas than Midwest whitetails. Let’s begin with their environment. It’s unforgiving. You’ll encounter vertical slopes with grades of 50 percent or more if you access remote country. One of the most demanding whitetail hunts for me to date took place in the mountain slopes of the Snake River in western Idaho. Whitetails had no issues with running straight up to escape like the wily chukar partridge that also inhabited the unrelenting slopes. Meadows and whitetail cover existed on a vertical plane, and to be successful, you had to be in marathon shape. It wasn’t a hunt for the stump sitter who totes a folding chair and a large thermos of coffee to every stand.

This illustrates the need to move away from traditional hunting gear and instead look at the gear mountain hunters use for mule deer, elk and even sheep. Begin with gear that helps you, not the hunt. First, invest in a quality GPS that’s easy to use and gives you quick coordinates from hunting camp to whitetail hotspots. Garmin’s Oregon series offers one of the easiest to use formats that includes touch-screen technology, digital maps, wireless route exchange, computer interface capabilities, trip computer modes and various other features, so you’ll always know your location. Extra batteries as well as a compass and topographic map are also recommended. In addition, I rely on my Garmin Rhino GPS for its two-way radio feature and ability to capture weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mountain weather changes faster than Hollywood couples, with more serious consequences.

A GPS will tell you where you’re at, but what if you have to spend an unexpected night on the mountain? Take along a survival kit. A lightweight survival kit with first aid, fire-starting elements and emergency shelter can make a cold night on the mountain almost downright comfy.

Unlike Midwest hunts where a daypack might suffice, look into an internal frame pack capable of packing in your gear and packing out a buck. Many areas will require you to debone your deer and freight it out on your back. An attached scabbard is also handy if you need to stow your weapon and use two hands to scale a mountain hunting zone.

Hunting boots should also be researched. One word of advice — forget about knee-high rubber boots. You’ll need boots with aggressive soles, ankle support and waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex lining. Although scent-free qualities are warranted, rubber boots will eat your feet alive.

Optics are also key, regardless if you’re still-hunting a dog-hair stand of pines or side-sloping and glassing for whitetails in western Montana. There’s a major debate among hunters on whether you need more or less power. In short, more people can pick out game using a 6X or 8X binocular than with a higher power. An 8X binocular offers a wide field of view, 403 feet at 1,000 yards. That said, if you are as comfortable with a 10X binocular as I am, use it. A 10X glass not only allows you to pick apart cover, but if you have a stable glassing position, you can also field-judge by using the boost in power.

Toting a spotting scope often depends on how much extra weight you want to add to your pack. If I’m in a hot trophy area, I’ll bring the scope along to ensure I don’t screw up. It also saves me blisters by not having to cross canyons to get a closer look. If I’m hunting in “garden-variety” country, I’ll pass and use my 10X Nikon EDG binocular to help decide whether to shoot or not.

Climatic conditions might also warrant such extreme gear as snowshoes and even hiking staffs. It also pays to research the clothing mountain guides wear, and more now than ever, rely on polyester such as performance gear from Under Armour. Never underestimate the mountains. For the best hunt you have to plan for the worst.

Mountain Tactics

You can take a stand for mountain whitetails, but a more active, aggressive approach is my line of attack. Even when you find a valley attracting whitetails early or late, mature bucks might alter their route to access the field on a daily basis. Facing this dilemma, I’ll often set up in the highest-percentage location but leave myself a backdoor escape to stalk a buck that suddenly appears at another entrance.

One time while hunting the west slopes of the Bighorn Mountains I found myself in just such a situation. Whitetails, mule deer, pronghorn and even elk were feeding on low-elevation fields, often all at the same time. Although does often lounged in the brush all day long, bucks would drop from high-elevation bedding locations to reap the browse in the valley.

One evening I set up on the northeast corner of the field for both a wind and elevation advantage. Although I felt I was hidden well, a mature buck entered from the opposite side of the field and started to feed. Using a steep creek and occasionally wading in the shallow water, I was able to circumnavigate the field and ambush the hungry buck before the end of shooting light. Had I strapped myself into a stationary tree stand location, I doubt if I would have been as successful.

The previous tactic works anywhere deer gather for food or shelter, but you’ll need the excitement of the rut to take advantage of this next tactic — calls. Whitetail densities can vary in mountain situations. I’ve hunted areas where one to two whitetails per square mile is a high density and other regions where it’s not uncommon to have 20 or more whitetails per square mile.

To attract these deer to your location and to draw them out of the wooded backdrop, use rattling, grunts, bleats and wheezes. Like optics employed in a spot-and-stalk situation, calls allow you to cover more ground without expending the calories. Lure deer to you. Depending on the terrain and climatic conditions, deer hear calls much better than you do, simply because they have better hearing. Still-hunting and mixing calls into the strategy allow you to exponentially expand your hunting area.

A solid strategy involves hunting public land above private valleys and fields. Most mature bucks will retreat to the timber during the day, but feed and rut on the nearby private fields under cover of darkness. Of course, restless rutting bucks won’t stay bedded for long and will be wandering under the cover of publicly owned timber off and on during the rut. By sneaking along these zones and calling, you can have access to many of the same animals living part of their life on private tracts.

In more open settings where you can peer below the understory and see wide swaths of forest, I’ll rattle to send a long-range message to any buck in the neighborhood. If a new snow or light rain is present, I’ll often move into thicker stands of timber and rely more on grunts, bleats and snort-wheeze calls. In these situations, a bedded buck might be mere yards away and the crack of antlers could spook rather than lure him to me.

Two years ago my calls were falling on deaf years — not because of the lack of deer, but due to hunting the waning hours of the rut. I was hunting the fringes of the Black Hills of Wyoming and had to switch gears fast to tag a mountain buck. Instead of beating a dead horse, I returned to food sources, since tired bucks were now focusing on adding weight before the mountain snows arrived.

After two days of scouting, I found a small meadow garnering lots of whitetail activity due to the rich forage found on the slope. Since I was running out of time, I still-hunted in a rapid pace along the slope’s edge and almost ran over a good buck sneaking out to feed at sunset. I slipped behind a deadfall and waited for him to clear the timber’s edge. When he turned his attention to feeding, I eased up and ended the season with a mature buck straight from the mountain zone.