Hunting Western Whitetails

Whitetails west of the Mississippi River and beyond have all the wiles of eastern deer — and the bonus of big antlers.

Hunting Western Whitetails

“I saw a great number of feathers floating down the river . . . We did not perceive from whence they came.” So wrote Meriwether Lewis August 8, 1804. He later spied a sandbar crowded with pelicans.

The Corps of Discovery came to expect surprises. The West blessed them with meat by the ton, then tested them with weeks of privation. The fortunes of wildlife and the people relying on it shifted with settlement. Mule deer, common in much of the Louisiana Purchase, yielded to an insatiable demand for meat. The Homestead Act of 1862 sent waves of settlers, who stripped prairie creases of their timber, then plowed the flats bare. In 1879, John Wesley Powell suggested 2,560 acres as a viable plot for a family on the plains. Congress allocated 160. Overgrazing ensued. As bison numbers dwindled, market hunters sold venison to railroad gangs and steamboat crews. Brutal winters in 1886 and ’87 rested the range by killing 80 percent of its cattle. Deer died, too, however, and more livestock came.

Later, Depression and the Dust Bowl would ravage the plains, but as defeated farmers left, deer got a reprieve. WW II pulled men and their rifles to other tasks. From the late 1940s through the ‘50s, mule deer hunting was as good as it had ever been — and better than it may ever be again. Decades of heavy grazing had replaced grass with brush. Domestic sheep kept browse in early successional stages, nourishing deer. A series of easy winters coddled them. Trapping, bounties, poison and aerial gunning checked predators.

Such sunbeams of benevolence are unlikely to repeat anytime soon. Western ranges now harbor fewer sheep  and more coyotes. Fire control on plain and forest limits setback of plant succession. Elk have pioneered where once deer had no competition. Wolves have responded to re-introductions with lethal vigor, hundreds roaming far from Yellowstone, even across the Cascade Crest. Hunters are more mobile and equipped to kill at longer yardage. Meanwhile, a modern land rush imperils deer winter ranges. Each year, without immigration, we humans add 7,000 to our number. We pave 11,000 miles of roads and bury countless game trails under subdivisions. From North Dakota’s oil patch to Colorado’s ski slopes and the tinsel of Hollywood, mule deer habitat yields to human pressure that has nothing to do with hunting.

A labyrinth of coulees and the tall, thick grass on this Dakota prairie can hide loads of whitetails.
A labyrinth of coulees and the tall, thick grass on this Dakota prairie can hide loads of whitetails.

The fortunes of whitetails have taken a cheerier track. These adaptable animals have prospered on prairie and in second-growth timber that once held mule deer. While whitetail bucks are widely credited with more aggressive mating behavior, they do not “drive mule deer out of the country.” The success of eastern deer in the West has more to do with their ability to cohabit with humans. In fact, native grassland broken by cultivated crops is far more attractive to whitetails than is untilled prairie. Mule deer like farm fare, too, but they’re not as tolerant of human traffic as whitetails, and less adept at avoiding hunters. Big mule deer were so common in my youth that Colorado hunters got two tags and expected to use both on mature four-points. Now, such bucks are measured in preference points for the few areas where you might find one. Big whitetails, however, have proliferated.

In Yuma County, Colorado, on opening day of the 1978 season, Ivan Rhodes had wearied himself prowling the hills near Bonny Reservoir. He’d seen not a deer. Late in the afternoon, plodding back to his car, Ivan spied pale stripes at ground level in a thicket 30 steps away. Ribs on a dead cow, he concluded. Then they moved! Ivan shouldered his .30-06 just in time to kill the bedded deer. Scoring over 182 points, that white-tined whitetail rack was the state’s first to enter Boone and Crockett’s all-time records book.

No fluke, this. Yuma County proved a factory for big whitetails. In 1986 Jeff Mekelburg hunted a strip of sage quilted by fresh snow. Early in the afternoon he spotted the buck that had given him the slip during the previous two seasons. A half-mile approach gave him a 200-yard shot with his 7x57. The non-typical antlers taped 204 inches. And Jeff’s luck would hold. Three years later, after a week’s hunting, he spied a buck in a ravine edging a cornfield. A sneak put him within 20 yards. When the deer broke from cover, Jeff’s .270 was ready. Four shots tumbled the big typical whitetail. Its 180-inch antlers were Mekelburg’s second entry in Boone and Crockett’s whitetail records.

Seven years later, David McCracken would collect a buck of that caliber from farm-side cattails. With a B&C score of over 186, it topped all other typical Colorado whitetails.

Other western states have also yielded eye-popping bucks. Washington’s northeast quarter, where in another life I worked as a wildlife agent, comprises conifer forests that open to pasture and small farms. In 1987 archer J.C. Baker was hunting a buck he’d first seen 3 years earlier. Careful scouting and the discipline to pass up smaller bucks rewarded him on a cold November afternoon. On the trail of a doe, the buck eased from cover to offer Baker “a perfect shot.” His XX75 2315 shaft zipped through the animal’s chest. A bright blood trail drew the hunter to his deer, a non-typical whitetail that taped over 224 inches.

Riflemen in that corner of the state have fared as well. The top typical whitetail scores over 200! Like the five entries immediately below it, this deer fell in Stevens County.

Northeast Washington State yielded this outstanding buck. Whitetails can grow old in low- to mid-level conifer forests broken by small farms.
Northeast Washington State yielded this outstanding buck. Whitetails can grow old in low- to mid-level conifer forests broken by small farms.

Of course, big antlers are a bonus — and often owe much to privileged access and good luck. Few hunters will join Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young lists. But the West has good whitetail hunting on vast tracts of public land, as well as on corporately held timber-company blocks and native reservations. Once, still-hunting though a Stevens County logging, I paused to peer through light drizzle. The backline of a deer appeared across a draw, in willows beyond the conifer slash. The animal took a hesitant step. Easing my rifle to cheek, I found antlers and fired. Another time, near where that buck had dropped, my wife and I stopped in a small opening. As I dug for granola bars, she tugged on my sleeve. A whitetail buck ghosted by in the fog, 20 steps away. A bullet from my .280 Improved found its way through alders to the back of his neck.

Those episodes, like most others in whitetail country west of the Divide, could have played out in New England or Virginia or in an Iowa woodlot. Schooled long ago by crafty Michigan bucks, I’ve found those lessons useful wherever whitetails live. While environment affects deer behavior, the proclivities and reactions of deer as regards cover, forage, hunter traffic and weather are independent of geography.

“Look!” A buck and a doe burst from wind-rippled grass and flagged off over a hill. Travis and I walked fast in a long arc crosswind to head them off. Travis spotted them first, on a slope 350 yards off. They had stopped, watching behind.

“Too far,” I whispered. My pal shrugged. The unspoken message: A long shot is better than none.

I smiled back: A shot too long isn’t a shot at all.

We found cover in a coulee that, hundreds of yards on, brought me to a ridge. I bellied to its crest and poked the Ruger carbine through a wind-tattered sage. The 4X Zeiss quartered the buck’s shoulder at much more reasonable range, and I sent a .303 bullet. The buck took a step, then folded, rolled down the slope and lay still — one of several South Dakota whitetails I’ve taken in treeless places.

Had we not hunted the grass patch, we’d have finished that day without seeing a deer.

Prairie states hold deer in pockets often overlooked by hunters accustomed to eastern deer cover.

Small creases in the land can hide standing deer — let alone bucks lying low, head to earth. Plum patches and cedar clumps, with cottonwood draws and riparian fringes, conceal platoons of deer. Last November, after a buck had chased a doe past me into a cedar draw, I hiked into barren hills toward the draw’s head, then eased a step into its dark, dense interior. Presently, I heard the brush of a bough on deer hair. Antlers winked, the length of a fly rod away. Then the wind changed. The buck blasted out the far side and across the prairie as if bound for Wyoming.

I returned the following day and killed that animal in a coulee nearby.

However barren a landscape, or “unlikely” the looks of a place, a whitetail living there is loath to leave it. If you keep your footprint small, even a close encounter won’t send the deer far. Still, you must have the discipline to forego pursuit. A buck that scurries off after you’ve bumped him remains vulnerable only if unaware of your intent. One buck that moved just before I had a shot crossed an opening into dense conifers, wind to his tail. A big five-point, he was hard to leave. But given the conditions, odds for a kill had dropped to near zero. When you’re beaten, stop. Don’t waste time or sterilize fertile cover.

East and West, whitetails like streamside cover. For a better view, move on one side and look to the other.
East and West, whitetails like streamside cover. For a better view, move on one side and look to the other.

The most barren places can cough up whitetails. Once, hunkered at dawn in short pasture grass, I fought the urge to find trees. Then, suddenly, two dark forms hurtled by. As diving ducks on chop, they were swallowed in wink by the corrugated prairie. I dashed forward and flung myself on a hummock. The earth again disgorged the deer. When both slowed, I pasted the .270’s reticle on the buck’s rib. The first bullet struck home; he collapsed to the next.

Those whitetails had ghosted across open hills in the half-light before turning up within a few yards of me. They’d succeeded not only at hiding but moving in open country undetected.

The Dakota Badlands may not look like classic whitetail habitat. Even so, the author shot a Badlands whitetail buck the day after he took this photo.
The Dakota Badlands may not look like classic whitetail habitat. Even so, the author shot a Badlands whitetail buck the day after he took this photo.

In the Badlands, I’ve taken bucks from weed patches on the fringe of feedlots, from tufts of grass and along fencerows. I once came upon a buck standing in a coulee about 8 feet wide and as deep. He was hiding from a gang of hunters sweeping an apron of more likely cover, with riflemen posted on the cedar-studded hills above. He got away.

Weather moves prairie deer, but hunting pressure can push them to grass and coulees, away from more obvious shelter. A blizzard marked my first Dakota hunt. Snow plugged I-90; Deadwood recorded 45 inches. With my tribal guide (required on the reservation), I persevered, probing brushy draws pinched almost shut by drifts. I saw few deer. They’d found safety and thermal protection in little places I didn’t see in the snow-scape. My shot on that hunt came near the head of a steep, narrow cut after I’d struggled up through the snow to within mere feet of the buck. He took my .30-30 bullet bounding off at 18 yards.

The author snuck through farm-lot weeds in a snow flurry to kill this Dakota buck.
The author snuck through farm-lot weeds in a snow flurry to kill this Dakota buck.

As in the East, treestands in deciduous timber can deliver whitetail bucks that would otherwise be hard to kill. Cottonwood draws on the plains, with woodlots and orchards hemming homesteads, are prime places to ambush deer. Your options diminish in western forests, for a couple of reasons: Mountain conifers, from south-slope Ponderosa pine stands to Douglas-fir and lodgepole jungles on norths, blanket huge areas. While habitual, whitetails aren’t limited there to a few travel routes. Hunters accustomed to vigils over necks of woods between cornfields must re-think their strategy. A pal once hosted an eastern hunter who insisted on stuffing a treestand into the Cessna 180. Landing on a grass strip near a ridgetop camp, my pal helped his guest out of the plane. Across the Snake River rim to Idaho’s Seven Devils and west to Oregon’s Eagle Cap, roadless forest sprawled to the blue beyond in all directions. Deadpanned my pal: “Which tree do you think looks most promising?”

Another reason to stay mobile in such country is to explore it. That’s part of the fun of hunting in the West. Every day can be a scouting trip, every climb a chance to see new places and uneducated deer. While whitetails brook rifle fire where they can gorge on corn, I’ve seen them in designated wilderness as high as 7,500 feet!. After opening day, mature bucks often fade back out of the traffic. Still-hunting where other hunters don’t go, probing small places with a “deery” look, you learn more about deer and western deer country than you will watching a field fringe.

While still-hunting where you expect to see deer is best done at a glacial pace, you must open the throttle at times. Deer don’t expect hunters to move fast; if you do, you may surprise a buck. Also, low gear isn’t useful in empty places. Creeping across exposed ground or through cedars so thick you can’t move quietly or see beyond your rifle muzzle drains daylight. Hunters who move at fixed speed — slow or fast — miss opportunity.

The Old West in the wake of exploration was largely bereft of deer. The New West has growing numbers of whitetails in a variety of habitats. The distinction between these environs and deer haunts in the East is one of scale. Bucks still chase does in rut, and they’re most plentiful where the living is easy. They hide where hunters think there’s too little concealment and sneak away more often than they sprint.

If you can find a buck in Pennsylvania or Georgia or Missouri, you find one on the high plains, or in the shadows of the Rockies and its many spurs.

Hunt persistently. Leave faint footprints. Look in little places. Mind the sign as Meriwether Lewis did the feathers floating on the Missouri. Then shoot carefully.

Sidebar: DIY or Outfitted?

While guided hunts for mule deer date back decades, western outfitters have only recently begun to serve whitetail hunters. Two reasons for this: 1) Whitetails are new to many areas of the West; 2) Whitetails thrive in farm country, even on the hem of suburbia. Anyone can walk from roadside to places inhabited by mature whitetail bucks. But finding where big bucks live is hardly the same as killing one. And because the best whitetail cover is privately owned, and hunting privileges increasingly leased, DIY access isn’t assured. Outfitters are tapping a growing market for their services among whitetail hunters. In much of the West, odds for a big buck trump those in the East. If, like me, you like to still-hunt or explore the woods during the day, outfitters can often accommodate. You’re not limited to warming a treestand seat, as in much of the Midwest, or waiting in a box for a Canadian buck as the earth gets hard. Find out who’s guiding whitetail hunters in the West by contacting state wildlife agencies and guide/outfitter associations.

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