4 DIY Western Whitetail Hunts

Hungry for a little do-it-yourself whitetail hunting action in the Wild West? Look no further than these adventure-rich destinations.

4 DIY Western Whitetail Hunts

When you have precious few days or weeks to devote solely toward hunting the whitetail rut, common sense says to play it smart and hunt ground with which you’re familiar. Maybe it’s a family farm or a secluded, public land funnel you’ve been hunting for years. Naturally, we gravitate toward locations where we’ve been successful in the past. There’s security in that.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is an entirely different approach. You pull up stakes and head for a far-flung western state to burn your rut vacation in parts unknown. Is it risky? Sure. Will it be an adventure you’ll never forget regardless of the outcome? Absolutely!

Of all the places I’ve hunted whitetails, the western states always serve the most memories and greatest adventures. Plus, grabbing your bow and striking out into the Wild West instills incredible freedom. Several states teem with whitetails and public lands, creating the perfect bowhunting storm.

There are many opportunities to bowhunt western whitetails, but for this article, let’s home in on four states in particular that offer easy-to-obtain tags.

Colorado

Colorado does not offer nonresident OTC archery whitetail licenses. However, it offers limited nonresident archery deer licenses in plains units with November seasons. Look at game management units (GMUs) 87-130, 132-139 and 141-144, which occur throughout central Colorado and sprawl eastward toward Kansas and Nebraska.

Whitetail densities in these GMUs are spotty; a bit more solid in the state’s southeast corner, however. As well, these GMUs consist primarily of private land, although public hunting options can be found using the right technology. It’s wise to consult with a Colorado Hunt Planner and the Colorado Hunting Atlas before you apply. This will ensure you choose a unit with fair deer densities and sufficient public land to hunt.

The Colorado Hunting Atlas provides many tools to simplify hunt planning, the most valuable being overlays of whitetail deer habitat, including areas where animals tend to concentrate. Whitetail concentration areas primarily follow riparian habitat. Whitetails also inhabit eastern Colorado’s prairie habitat, but bowhunting it can prove incredibly challenging due to lower animal densities and lack of trees and vegetation with which to craft an archery ambush.  

While draw odds vary by unit, some units are nearly a sure bet. Dan, a Hunt Planner with Colorado Wildlife & Parks, gave one example, “In 2018, no nonresidents applied for the GMU 104 archery either-sex license. If any had, they sure would’ve drawn since there was a 50-license quota for that particular hunt and zero nonresident applicants.”

Naturally, those stats suggest GMU 104 saw little hunting pressure on whitetails in 2018. “Yes, there was less pressure, but that doesn’t automatically equal an easy hunt,” Dan assured. “The plains units are typically very dry, which explains their spotty whitetail densities. Whitetails are generally most prevalent near water sources.”

The 2019 QDMA Annual Report states that for every 100 hunters in 2017, 37 antlered bucks were harvested with all weapons combined. In 2016 specifically, Centennial State hunters harvested 28,769 antlered bucks. Of them, approximately 8 percent were taken by bow or crossbow.

Though bucks like Vicki Cianciarulo’s 203-inch monster don’t hide behind every bush in Colorado, bowhunters annually tag impressive bucks on the prairies and riparian habitat in the state’s eastern sector.
Though bucks like Vicki Cianciarulo’s 203-inch monster don’t hide behind every bush in Colorado, bowhunters annually tag impressive bucks on the prairies and riparian habitat in the state’s eastern sector.

Hardworking hunters have arrowed some screamer whitetails in eastern Colorado over the years, making it a worthwhile place to spend the rut, if you do your homework.

Colorado Nonresident Deer License Fees: $396.75, license; $10, habitat stamp; $81.75, qualifying license. Visit: www.cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/hunt.aspx for more information.

 

Washington

Washington whitetails — it not only has a catchy ring, but also holds good possibilities for the hardworking bowhunter. Given Washington’s geographic location, I’d argue that many bowhunters from the South and the East don’t even realize that Washington has a huntable whitetail population. Perhaps that’s why Washington annually produces some outstanding bucks. Its whitetails simply don’t receive the same attention and hunting pressure as the Midwest states.

Washington’s general archery deer tags are valid in all GMUs and are sold over the counter. Season dates and legal deer vary by GMU, as do hunting season dates. The general archery tag is valid for both the early and late archery deer seasons. The late archery season in most GMUs opens in late November, giving you chances to capitalize on the rut’s tail end.  

Yes, Washington is primarily a blacktail and mule deer state, so if you want to chase whitetails, you must hunt where they exist. According to Sara Hansen, Washington’s state deer specialist, the premier location is District 1. “It has the state’s highest whitetail concentration,” she said. “District 1 occurs in the state’s northeast corner. It has plenty of public lands on which to hunt, too.

“The most popular is the 1.1-million-acre Colville National Forest, which holds many whitetails and offers generous hunting opportunities,” she reported. “Inland Empire Paper Company lands are also accessible to the public via permit and harbor solid whitetail numbers as well.”

Additionally, Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife helps connect landowners with hunters. It has Feel Free to Hunt Lands, which don’t require permission when a Feel Free to Hunt sign is posted. Register to Hunt Lands require signing in and out. These properties are at capacity when their parking lots are full. There are also Hunt by Written Permission and Hunt by Reservation Lands, and you can study the specifics regarding those on the Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

This is one of several mature bucks Washington bowhunter Chad Bowman has capitalized on in the Evergreen State.
This is one of several mature bucks Washington bowhunter Chad Bowman has capitalized on in the Evergreen State.

The 2019 QDMA Annual Report notes that in 2017, Washington hunters harvested 21,243 antlered bucks, down 6,686 from 2016, but up 11,131 from 2015’s antlered buck harvest of 10,112. Bowhunters accounted for 15 percent of the total whitetail harvest in 2015 and 2016.

Washington Nonresident Deer License Fees: $434.90, deer license. Visit: www.fishhunt.wdfw.wa.gov for more information.

 

Idaho

Whitetails are most prevalent in Idaho’s Panhandle. Good news: General whitetail tags are available over-the-counter in both the Panhandle and Clearwater Regions. While the archery-only seasons in most units runs from August 30 through September 30, unfilled licenses can be used later during the any-weapon seasons. During them, bowhunters aren’t required to wear hunter orange.

“Don’t expect an easy hunt along a cornfield like you’d experience in the Midwest,” Jeff Earhart of the Idaho Game & Fish said. “This region is heavily forested. The good thing is that 95 percent of the region is whitetail habitat, and approximately 80 percent is public land. Whitetail hunters have plenty of room to stretch their legs. And, if you get away from the roads — preferably behind gates closed to motorized vehicles — you’ll experience relatively low hunting pressure. 

“You’ll find occasional clear-cuts, and those serve as feeding locations,” Earhart continued. “Some of the private ground has large fields, so hunting forest service land adjacent to agriculture can be productive.

“During early November, bucks cruise ridgelines, making rubs and scrapes as they go,” he added. “I’m not talking about the main ridges at the top of the mountains. I’m talking about the finger ridges that run downhill toward the valleys. You’ll have to strap on your boots to find which ridges bucks are actively traveling. A good stand location that you can find on a map is where two ridges paralleling a steep canyon come to a Y. Here, you’ll capitalize on deer movement from both ridges.” 

Per the Idaho Game & Fish website, some units have relatively low archery success rates. For example, 535 archery hunters took 59 whitetails in unit 3 during the 2018 season, which constitutes an 11.1 percent success rate. Of them, 48 were bucks, and 24 percent had five or more points per side — good trophy potential. Unit 4 had an even lower success rate at 6 percent, but 42.6 percent of bucks harvested had five or more points per side. Keep in mind that unit 4’s stats also include mule deer, although whitetails contributed to 90.3 percent of the archery harvest. 

This heavy-antlered big-forest buck taken by bowhunter Tim Rode proves that northern Idaho is a destination worth exploring during the rut.
This heavy-antlered big-forest buck taken by bowhunter Tim Rode proves that northern Idaho is a destination worth exploring during the rut.

One final suggestion: Don’t choose a unit based solely on harvest stats. Unit 63A, for example, has a 37.2 percent success rate, which is good, but 80.67 percent of the unit is privately owned. Such limited access suggests residents racked up the lion’s share of that unit’s harvest.

Idaho Nonresident Deer License Fees: $301.75, deer tag; $154.75, hunting license; $20, archery permit. Visit: www.idfg.idaho.gov/hunt for more information.

 

Wyoming

Like Colorado, Wyoming has no OTC whitetail licenses. However, drawing a deer tag for northeast Wyoming, which teems with deer, is a good bet. Applicants with zero preference points enjoyed a 78.2 percent success rate in the preference-point draw for Region A General tags in 2018, while first-choice applicants in the random drawing were 100 percent successful. In 2018, there were even some leftover licenses available for Region A.

Region A consists of six hunt areas. They are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. In Region A, you’ll find a lifetime of acreage to hunt via state land, BLM and the expansive Black Hills National Forest. Don’t overlook the Hunter/Landowner Assistance Program, which connects hunters with private landowners for specific game species throughout the state. 

Towering ponderosa pines dominate the habitat in the Black Hills, so finding trees in which to hang treestands is easy. The Black Hills range from moderately rugged to practically vertical and feature draws and deep canyons. The terrain works to funnel deer, and you’ll probably find the most whitetails where forest service lands adjoin private agricultural lands, such as alfalfa. In these locations, you can catch does and fawns leaving their forest beds and heading for private dining, possibly catching a buck in tow.

Trophy potential is average. Don’t expect to see any monsters, although encountering bucks in the 115- to 140-inch range is possible, if you do your homework. 

To look at Wyoming from a broader perspective than just Region A, Wyoming hunters took a total of 9,375 antlered whitetail bucks in 2017, while 4,812 antlerless whitetails were harvested, per the QDMA Annual Report. Bow and crossbow hunters accounted for approximately 5 percent of the state’s total 2017 whitetail harvest. A total of 21,000 bowhunters took afield in 2017, proving Wyoming’s hunting pressure is astronomically lower than in the East, South and Midwest. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Bowhunter Ron Niziolek arrowed this mature buck in his home state of Wyoming, proving outstanding bucks can be had if you put forth the effort.
Bowhunter Ron Niziolek arrowed this mature buck in his home state of Wyoming, proving outstanding bucks can be had if you put forth the effort.

Archers can get a jump on late-summer feeding patterns during the September archery season, but those looking to hunt the rut can hunt Region A’s general seasons in November (dates vary by hunt area). All hunters must wear hunter orange during these seasons.

Wyoming Nonresident Deer License Fees: $374, deer license; $72, archery permit. Visit: www.wgfd.wyo.gov for more information.

 

Sidebar: Pack a Decoy for Western Whitetails

When hunting the Wild West’s open places, seeing a mature buck and getting one to walk by within bow range are very different propositions. Grunting or rattling can draw bucks in from a distance, but getting them to commit entirely can be difficult — they hear the calling but can’t see a deer. A decoy can visually engage a buck and coax him in for the final approach.

I get it — a decoy can be quite cumbersome, especially when you must hike a mile or more with your bow and possibly a treestand and backpack. I favor a good, realistic 2-D decoy such as the Montana Freshman Buck ($89.99). It weighs next to nothing (35 ounces including poles), folds up flat (20x13 inches) and can be stowed in a backpack for easy transportation. I haven’t killed a buck with it yet, but it’s there if and when I need it. It could be the piece of equipment that helps you close the deal.

The Freshman Buck from Montana Decoy measures 48x37 inches unfolded, but is compact and lightweight for easy carrying in a daypack.
The Freshman Buck from Montana Decoy measures 48x37 inches unfolded, but is compact and lightweight for easy carrying in a daypack.
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