The November day Bill and Harvey saw the buck, they had walked through fields no longer thick with tall stalks heavy of ear. Tatters of rough-edged leaves, flotsam in the combine’s frozen wake, rattled in the wind. Late in the afternoon, the hunters came upon a patch of orchardgrass in corn that had flooded out and stood unpicked. They eased forward.
The deer held tight until the hunters were mere feet away. Then it blasted from its hide. Bill and Harvey opened up. In quick-step, nine Foster slugs from the smoothbores zipped past the buck as it sped across the stubble. At 147 yards, it stopped. Harvey nudged the shotgun bead over the buck’s back and fired his last round. The deer collapsed. “Longest shot I’ve ever made,” he told me 40 years ago.
Like the many pheasants I missed in my youth, southern Michigan deer leaned on corn for cover and calories. Birds roosted and bucks bedded in adjacent blocks of weeds, brush and grass — some in the Conservation Reserve Program, some just not worth breaking with the plow. Pheasants fared poorly when bramble-backed stone fencerows were ripped away to enlarge fields. Deer lost out too, but benefited from “no hunting” signs ringing properties once prowled by local lads with old shotguns.
Farther west, on tall-grass prairie and in badlands ill-suited to row-crops, whitetail deer had never been plentiful. In Kansas, where I would later edit the state’s wildlife magazine, deer sightings were rare through the early post-war era. Kansas had no deer season until the 1960s!
Now the prairie is alive with deer, from Kansas into the Dakotas. Still, many hunters dismiss it as marginal whitetail habitat.
So common now are images of heavy, long-tined antlers gripped by grinning hunters in front of corn, it might seem to an alien that the crop matures from blade to ear to deer. Hardly! Whitetails not only survive in the absence of corn, they can thrive. And because badlands and oceans of grass conceal deer as effectively as they tire deer hunters, bucks have a chance to grow old. Where I’ve hunted in Nebraska and South Dakota, growth in whitetail numbers has paced mule deer declines. Not that whitetails cause such declines (though whitetail bucks are considered more aggressive breeders). Heavier human traffic, better tolerated by whitetails, and changes in land use can shift deer herds and change an area’s species balance.
Hunting the prairie, you can employ the same tactics as in the corn belt. Climb a tree and wait, if you like. But you’ll find fewer suitable trees, and they’re farther apart. You’ll see only a few of the deer in a block, because unless your tree is on a path deer must travel, many will pass elsewhere.
I don’t like to sit. I get cold quickly, and ineffective. I’m also easily bored. When I’m not seeing deer, I want to see new country. There’s value in exercise too, a benefit worth repeating to yourself when someone with more patience and better circulation kills a big buck from a stand.
Grasslands draw me partly because I can walk. In corn country you hunt choke points. Move, and you kill the area. You must heed property boundaries that might encompass hundreds of arable acres, but few woodlots or fencelines or patches of marsh. The prairie is bigger. You’ll find places with borders so vast you can’t walk them in a morning, let alone hunt. Its heart comprises not just patches of cover, but expanses of it! And unlike forest that thwarts still-hunters when leaves are crisp, the prairie is a still-hunting nirvana.
You’re smart to hunt tall grass as if hunting rabbits, because deer hide like rabbits. Don’t assume deer need brush. In fact, pressured deer often avoid brush because that’s where hunters go. Quarter into the wind; keep low, sun to your back. Mind your shadow. Circle plum thickets instead of walking straight in, as bucks bedded there are more apt to sneak out the far side than to bound away. Keep orange clothing to the legal minimum. Deer notice it, and in open country, you’re always exposed.
Hunt badlands by moving just below ridge crest, popping over from time to time to glass off-side benches, basins and coulees. Descend to the benches gently. Deer often bed tight against the slope behind; you won’t see them until you’re close. Snake along the coulees, peering into pockets big enough to hold a buck. They needn’t be very big.
Still-hunt until you’re tired or clumsy or find yourself dismissing promising places as too far. Sit awhile and watch. Like corn-country whitetails, prairie bucks can become nocturnal. More often they will move sometime during the day. You might also spot one in an open bed, or standing to stretch or nibble. You’ll glass more effectively from a sit, and you’ll mentally hone your focus.
While the prairie might appear featureless, it is full of “hot spots” that draw bucks year after year. Last November, I walked toward dawn over hills that carried whitetail traffic from cropland to head-high cattails. I could have planted myself on a slope and waited for light; but though I had killed a buck there some seasons back, I’d since found a better place. I kept walking, forced by fencelines to keep morning’s sky to my face. In tall weeds I bounced a doe, so I continued on hands and knees.
Less than an acre in size, the swale had scant woody cover. Most was grass. But it attracted deer. At its crest, in cold fog, I’d killed a buck the previous season. Now, pausing, I lay in the weeds to listen. A doe eased by, crosswind. I saw her ears pass, just feet away. Then: trouble. She arced downwind. The snort and thump sent me scurrying ahead. Any deer in the swale would be alerted. A glint of antler came before I had a shot alley. The buck was hoofing it up the far side, 200 yards off. Suppressing an urge to rise and fire, I elbowed my way to a gap and got prone, then pasted the Weaver’s reticle on the leading edge of the buck’s chest. He kept moving after the 95-grain Nosler struck. Hoofprints took me the last 60 yards. With no exit, there’d been no blood trail.
I’ll hunt there again. As in woodlots near corn (and in haunts of mountain mule deer), any place that appeals to one buck will draw others. Sometimes you’ll identify features that make a spot attractive; sometimes it just looks “bucky.” Even if you’ve no idea why a buck was there, you’ll make another visit.
Certainly, hunting prairie deer is most productive during rut, when bucks are most active. But you can boost your odds at other times by looking harder. Deer aren’t gophers. They live above ground all the time. One blustery day, slipping along rugged breaks edging the Missouri, I spied the dark eye and white eye ring of a whitetail buck. He was bedded in thin grass fronting a small pine, almost entirely exposed. But so well camouflaged was he that only the bull’s-eye image of his eye caught mine. Another time, in tall grass we knew held a lightly wounded deer, three of us almost stepped on it before it rocketed off.
One trick that helps me spot deer is to focus a binocular of modest power — 7X or 8X — at modest distance. Novice hunters confronting open prairie use powerful glass to look far. Truth is, you won’t see many whitetails far away. Besides, deer that matter are deer up close. If you wanted to find them in yon basin, you’d be there, wouldn’t you? Hunt thoroughly where you are! Keep in sharp binocular focus the cover around you. Look to the side and behind as well as up front. Bucks often lie still to let you pass, or try to slip by. Each step yields a new perspective. Grass that hid a buck on your approach might not shield him from the side or behind.
The prairie endures less hunting pressure than woodlots in the Corn Belt. At least, what pressure it gets is less concentrated. But longer shooting educates bucks. Pressured whitetails use cover and distance to full advantage. They hide in thickets hunters skirt. They cross big water, knowing hunters won’t. They avoid the “corners” of their habitat, where converging hunters can trap them. They lie low in open places, to detect approach from afar.
No matter his habits or chosen habitat, a mature buck survives by keeping a cool head. Last fall a partner and I slipped into heavy grass on the lee side of a woodlot against a river. We posted a couple of companions beyond the trees. A crosswind favored us. We moved slowly, quietly, our plan to nudge deer, not push them. Still, as we neared the trees, a whitetail buck raced right toward us! We tried to turn him; he dashed by, a few yards away. Alert to our approach, he’d refused to move as we wished or box himself into the wood, no matter its concealment. How could he have known neither of us had a valid tag? He had taken a huge risk to avoid a perceived threat later. Uncanny!
Another time, still-hunting through riverside willows and cottonwoods, I heard a twig snap. Two does and a buck, bumped by my pal, stopped in a clematis tangle short yards away. The does quickly left. The buck stayed, nose up, ears turning like antennae. He had not drawn fire, but a wrong decision could bring bullets. He’d bought a few seconds and used them to sift options. His thick 10-point antlers would have pleased me — but I’d drawn for mule deer. I took a step. He sprinted, low and with purpose, dodging artfully on a new path through the thickets. Almost without sound, he was gone.
Gone. In the Corn Belt, deer vanish in standing stalks. Where corn doesn’t grow, the hook of a hill erases bucks as quickly. So, too, do plum patches and cattail bottoms. Even the ocean of grass. Come to think of it, that’s why whitetails ply the prairie. They have many ways to disappear.
That’s also why you’ll find fewer hunters there, and more and older bucks!