Western whitetails lack respect, but the bucks are big and plentiful

April 15, 2013

Which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? Realtree or Mossy Oak?

When it comes to hunting deer in many Western states, you’ll face a similar selection dilemma. Whitetails or mule deer? Before you decide, consider the landscape and the hunting tactics that work best. Time of year is another important factor.

I’ve drawn deer tags in eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming. The landscape is similar in both locations. Cottonwood trees with trunks as big around as tractor tires follow the course of small creeks and rivers across the eastern plains of both states. Head-high willows and Russian olive trees crowd the banks of the waterways even more. But these life-giving riparian zones are surrounded by endless miles of rolling hills, fragrant sage, and yellow grasses that wave constantly in a strong Western breeze.

For the most part, whitetails thrive along the river beneath the tall trees while the muleys do just fine in the open sage and steep coulees. Tagging a whitetail in the brushy river bottoms calls for stand hunting. During the November rut, calling and rattling will increase your chances. Just a couple hundred yards away from the towering cottonwoods, spot & stalk is the best technique to arrow a big mule deer in the open. Ultimately the question is, would you rather sit and wait or make something happen?

In November 2000 I decided to focus on rutting whitetails in eastern Colorado with the help of outfitter Chris Cassidy. Less than one year later, in September of 2001, the focus would shift to wide-racked mule deer in eastern Wyoming. My host for that trip, Jimmy Fontenot of Wildlife Connections, assured me that early season was a great time to shoot a big mule deer with a bow. Pleasant weather and seeing lots of bucks in the open sold me on the September dates. Both hunts proved that Western deer hunting can offer something for any deer hunter.

Western Whitetails

The 2000 season marked my third whitetail bowhunt on Colorado’s eastern plains with outfitter Chris Cassidy. Cassidy leases some prime properties on the plains. I asked Cassidy for his advice on how to bow-kill a big whitetail in a Western river bottom setting.

“Hunting from treestands during the rut, the first few weeks in November, is by far the best way to score. The bucks move into the river bottoms in search of does during the rut. This concentrates them a little more as they come in and move up and down the river corridors looking for receptive does.”

Each year Cassidy limits the harvest of mature bucks on his ranches and encourages his clients to pass up younger bucks to let them reach their full potential. It’s a plan that pays off every year. Most of the bucks his clients shoot measure 135 inches or more into the 170-inch-plus range.

My November whitetail bowhunt ended the same day it began. As good as that sounds, the hunt was far from easy. I spent about 12 hours in a treestand overlooking several well-worn trails before punching my arrow into a behemoth-sized buck in the waning minutes of last light. The waiting was made even more challenging because of the numbing cold. When I got on stand before sunrise, the temperature was 10 degrees below zero. The warmest it got all day was 10 above zero. While the temperatures were bone-chilling, the rut was in full swing. Throughout the day I watched several bucks chase does through the crunchy snow near my stand.

Late in the day, when I was about to climb down, I noticed movement to the south. A good buck was crossing a creek, but well out of bow range. I grabbed the grunt call, chipped the ice from inside the plastic mouthpiece, and began grunting, loud. At first I couldn’t see the buck in the trees to even know if he had heard the sound, but then he appeared on my side of the creek, 150 yards away, staring in my direction. I let out another chorus of three deep grunts. He was coming my way.

At 60 yards he passed behind a cluster of trees, and I seized the chance to raise my binoculars and study his rack again. I could count 10 points. I dropped the binoculars and clamped my release onto the bowstring. At 30 yards I jerked my bow to full power. He stopped for an instant, then started to walk again just as I let the arrow go. The arrow impacted with a loud CRACK! I watched through my binoculars as the 250-pound 10-point took a few steps, then slumped into the snow.

Stand hunting during the rut is a very effective whitetail tactic in any Western river bottom. Set up stands in travel corridors and areas with lots of buck sign, scrapes, and rubs, and be patient. Be prepared for long days and very cold temperatures, and pack a grunt call and rattling horns to lure out-of-range bucks closer to your stand. That very tactic helped me arrow my personal best bow whitetail.