Big-Timber Whitetails of the Northwest

Big-timber whitetails of the rugged Northwest are ready and waiting. Are you up for the ultimate archery whitetail challenge?

Big-Timber Whitetails of the Northwest

It had been a waiting game to this point. I sat perched over the well-used northeast Washington deer trail, and remained hopeful that my five December all-day vigils would pay off. Despite the fact that temperatures barely cracked into the low 20s most days, there had been no shortage of deer. In fact, I was covered up with these “forgotten” whitetails on every single sit. However, it was the heavy-horned variety that were, as they always seem to be, elusive.

Time is often the great equalizer when it comes to the stick and string, and after 40-plus hours strapped to a frozen evergreen, my 5x5 prize finally materialized. When his wide and heavy mahogany-colored rack came into view, I knew instantly he was the buck I’d been waiting for. Although his rut-worn body told me November had taken its toll, he still had a hint of love on his mind as he kept the doe he was leisurely following in view.

Just as I had envisioned countless times over the past few days, a soft grunt caused the buck to pause, and in a matter of seconds the arrow was on its way. The crack of the arrow sent the buck to his knees, but as quickly as he went down, he jumped up and sent snow flying in all directions as he tore down the mountain. The high shoulder hit, with only 2 inches of arrow penetration, told me it was the shock of the hard-hitting arrow that initially put the mountain warrior to the ground. The long and sparse blood trail we picked up the following day turned up a buck with plenty of life. He hardly showed any sign that he’d been hit with a 400-grain arrow. All I would be taking home this trip was the memory of the adventure and some oh-so-cold memories.  

Unraveling the Pattern

When it comes to the traditional western whitetails, there are two categories to consider in my opinion. There’s the river-bottom whitetails of eastern Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas that frequent lush agricultural fields, and then there’s the whitetails of the rugged Northwest. I’ve hunted both multiple times, and not to offend my fellow whitetail brethren, but I find patterning and ultimately killing a mature buck from the big-timber region of Washington, Idaho and northwest Montana makes hunting the aforementioned river-bottom bucks look like child’s play. 

Northern Idaho resident, Troy Pottenger (photo above), has chased whitetails from a variety of regions, and with over 30 Pope & Young big-timber bucks to his credit, with several grossing over 160 inches, he wouldn’t hesitate to agree. “These are not your garden variety whitetails,” explained Pottenger. “They spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, trying to survive, and once one of these bucks reaches 5 or 6 years old, they become good at it. With mountain lions, wolves, black and grizzly bears constantly on their heels, they become extremely leery of their surroundings. The slightest unnatural sound or smell will send them packing. Unlike whitetails of the Midwest that may go only a quarter-mile to seek refuge when disturbed, big-timber whitetails can travel miles in rugged terrain. Heck, they might move three mountain drainages over. The buck you thought you had patterned may not show back up for weeks.”

Pottenger also bowhunts elk across Idaho, and enjoys those pursuits as well, but zeroing in on a big-timber whitetails is his passion. He spends countless hours every year locating, patterning and ultimately killing the most mature buck he can find. Like all successful bowhunters, Pottenger has a system, and although his system is more designed for residents because of the time involved with shed hunting and long hours scouting, many aspects of his deadly system can be used for the traveling bowhunter as well.

It's All About the Wind

First off, Pottenger strongly suggests bowhunters learn to read topographical maps and use aerial imagery resources like Google Earth. This is big country with seemingly endless chunks of big timber, and it’s extremely overwhelming at first glance. Because of this, a whitetail’s overall range can be huge. Being able to locate several prime areas is key. Start by looking at food sources like old clear cuts. Although relatively fresh clear cuts will have some of the best available groceries, Pottenger notes that clear cuts 15 or so years old also have excellent forage, as well as plenty of security cover to hold a mature buck.

Once food sources are located, ditch the idea of hunting them directly. Instead, focus more on likely to-and-from travel corridors. This may be a timber finger ridge, depression, saddle or bench, but remember that these mountain whitetails will virtually always use the wind to their advantage.

Because these bucks tend to live in dense cover where they can see only 50 or so yards in any direction, at any given time, they rely heavily on their ears and nose. Mountain bucks always bed and travel with a wind advantage, and Pottenger has kept detailed notes over the years proving this. At any one time, he has dozens of trail cameras operating across several areas keeping eyes on particular bucks. Countless times he has seen a mature buck alter his direction of travel based on the wind direction.

“I base my whole approach on the prevailing winds and how thermals work,” explained Pottenger. “When you hunt a particular buck, you have to hunt him with the wind he likes, so I always set up on the wind’s edge. This simply means setting up in areas that a buck is forced to move through with the hunter’s wind right on the edge of being good and bad. This may be near a terrain feature that a buck is forced to move through, or a particular sidehill he likes to travel. Either way, set up so your wind is just right enough to make the buck feel he has the advantage.”

Pottenger is also a big believer in hunting over community scrapes and licking branches.

Troy Pottenger, a diehard whitetail bowhunter from northern Idaho, has learned that to fool a wary big-woods buck, you must beat his nose.
Troy Pottenger, a diehard whitetail bowhunter from northern Idaho, has learned that to fool a wary big-woods buck, you must beat his nose.

“All these deer know each other, and they use these community locations to advertise their presence,” Pottenger said. “Although these locations can be hunted throughout the season because they are communication hubs, during the rut they can be magic as bucks check them regularly to see who has showed up in the area.” Pottenger also likes to use Buck Fever Synthetic Scents once the season arrives to throw a wrinkle into the mix. Suddenly introducing a new buck into an area will get the attention of the buck he’s after, and cause him to visit the location more often as he tries to seek out the interloper.

Rattling can also be effective for big-timber bucks, especially those 2- and 3-year-olds. However, what Pottenger really finds useful on mature bucks is a snort-wheeze call. Because doe densities are lower in most of these areas, mature bucks tend to be more aggressive when the breeding season starts. Pottenger never calls when a buck is in sight for fear of being picked off. Instead, he waits for the buck to disappear and uses the buck’s aggressive nature to lure him into bow range.

Lastly, bowhunting mountain bucks is tough and opportunities are often earned. Low deer densities coupled with bitter cold temperatures will keep most bowhunters sipping coffee at home instead of shivering in the stand. “Being mentally tough is key,” Pottenger reminded me. “You may get only one opportunity at a mature buck, so hunting all day, having good entrance and exit plans, as well as scent-control methods and being ready when an opportunity arrives are key elements to success.”


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