With large cities strung up and down the East Coast and some of the highest whitetail hunter densities per capita, there’s no debate where the most savvy whitetail hunters hang their hats. These hunters grew up with whitetails, honed their skills at deer hunting camps and devised tactics and strategies that have served them well.
As whitetail densities increased in the West, hunters there employed the same spot-and-stalk methodology they used for pursuing the mule deer, pronghorns and elk common in that neighborhood.
Does that mean Eastern hunters should leave their tried-and-true tactics at home when planning a Western whitetail adventure? No! That would be like going fishing without your favorite fishing poles. Whitetails are whitetails regardless of their street address. They might have a much bigger backyard out West, but the tactics that are lucrative east of the Mississippi will work west of the Missouri as well.
STAND AROUND FOR A BUCK
Regardless of whether you target Western whitetails in a mountain setting or a hayfield valley cut by a winding river, there are plenty of reasons to consider using a treestand or ground blind. Go back to your scouting basics. Use satellite images to scout from above for obvious feeding locations, funnels and pinch points. For mountain whitetails think meadows, south-facing slopes and brushy pockets of browse. In valleys look for irrigated agricultural crops and water sources. Even native hay pastures attract whitetails that might be living next door in a pine-needle environment.
Western hunting means you might also be confined to public lands if you can’t finagle a private-land entrance. No worries. Many public lands border whitetail havens and oftentimes resident deer feed on private property, but slink back to rough public grounds for bedding cover. Satellite scouting and on-site surveil- lance can quickly reveal patterns that are perfect for a stand ambush.
Once you have a general location established, consider whether a treestand or ground blind offers greater benefits. But don’t get too cozy with either. The terrain itself might determine your best approach. High bluffs, ridges and steep banks can provide a sniper perch you can’t always find on a Maryland farm. Plus, if you have to hike a considerable distance for public-land access, toting a treestand or pop-up blind quickly loses its appeal. Bottomland hunters with private access should think treestands, but if you have to hump to a remote location you’re better off trimming weight because you might be de-boning a buck and bringing it out caveman style.
A few years ago, I discovered a sagebrush basin whitetails preferred over a nearby river- bottom. It took me nearly an hour every day to hike in under the cover of darkness and an hour on the way out. On a drizzly, late-November afternoon, I glassed up a big buck hunkered in a gully. Keep- ing a low profile, I cut the distance to 300 yards and waited for him to stand and give me a clear shot at his vitals. Just before the end of legal shooting light, the wide buck gave me the opportunity I was waiting for. Luckily I remembered the conversation I’d had earlier with the rancher who offered up his ATV if I needed it to retrieve a deer. It saved me a long night of backpacking.
CALLING ALL BUCKS
If I’ve discovered anything during my tenure of hunting Western whitetails it’s that they respond to calls. My hunts across whitetail country oftentimes see mixed results with calls, but not in the West. One day while guiding two Easterners in Montana I rattled in no fewer than 15 bucks. They almost fainted from all of the action!
Use your calls to not only draw whitetails out of a wooded tangle, but to pull them across property-line fences from private to public parcels. The tried-and-true sounds of rattling, grunts, bleats and wheezes work just fine in Big Sky country.
You can also use calls to lure deer out into the open. My favorite tactic is to put my bino to work at sunrise to spot a buck and then, depending on the situation, use rattling or grunts to draw him out into the open. You can do this from a stand or after completing a short stalk.
Using calls while still-hunting exponentially expands your hunting area. A solid strategy involves hunt- ing public land above private valleys and fields. Most mature bucks will retreat to the public timber during the day, but feed and rut on the nearby private fields under the cover of darkness. But rutting bucks won’t stay bedded for long and will be wandering around the publicly owned timber sporadically during the day. By sneaking in and calling, you have access to many of the same deer that are spending some of their time on private tracts.
Check out this Classic DDH TV clip with DDH Editor-in-Chief Dan Schmidt discussing how to hunt with the wind:
DRIVING MR. WHITETAIL
Deer drives are as much a whitetail camp tradition as a fireside cocktail after the hunt. You can skip the drink on a rugged Western hunt, but bring along the deer drive tradition.
Locating an area that’s conducive to driving deer starts the process. Call upon your satellite scouting, plus any past hunting experience you can glean from hunting partners or locals. Driving deer might not be your first-choice strategy, but it’s a great backup plan when other tactics aren’t working.
If you’re starting from scratch, employ standard deer scouting techniques to locate areas with high concentrations of deer. More often than not you’ll be focusing on bedding areas or fringe cover next to a feeding area. During the course of any hunt, be sure to note the escape routes and current wind direction if you do accidentally bump deer. It could come in handy later while strategizing a deer drive.
Set up drives to move deer out of heavy cover and across openings for the best chance at a standing shot. Whitetails often pause at the edge of cover to survey for danger before advancing. Look for terrain features that deer feel comfortable following such as reservoir edges or canyon walls. Open-country whitetails might dodge across a field, but prefer to follow a funnel of brush or trees to escape from one patch of timber to another.
Finally, you have to consider the wind. Whenever possible, conduct the drive into the wind. If the wind is wrong for a particular area, it’s better to abandon the push and come back later when the wind is more favorable. Big bucks feel safer when they can smell what’s in front of them and will often run the direction you want them to go if you push them into the wind. That being said, it can be tricky getting the standers into position without being detected. Oftentimes, the standers will need to walk twice as far as the drivers to get into just the right position.
TROLLING FOR BUCKS
Still-hunting is becoming a lost art as more and more hunters take to the trees. Sure I said that you can bring your treestand out West, but if your grandfather taught you how to stay as invisible as a stealthy Sasquatch, there’s no reason to be stationary all of the time.
Many traditional whitetail managers frown on hunters traipsing through the woods for fear of bump- ing a homegrown buck into the lap of a neighboring hunter. There’s a lot to be said for that, but the West is a big playground, and if you bump a deer while still-hunting there’s a good chance it will remain on the same property.
The key to successful still-hunting is to ease through dense whitetail cover at a snail’s pace. I time myself, and taking an hour or more to cover 100 yards isn’t uncommon.
Get a quality binocular such as Nikon’s Monarch 7. I prefer a 10X model, but many Eastern hunters rely on 8X models. Either works excellent in timbered settings, but still has enough magnification to scan across canyons.
Pick apart the terrain, looking for any movement. Most times you won’t see the entire deer, but its ears, eyes, a shiny nose, the flick of a tail or the distinct horizontal line of its back are dead giveaways. If you don’t get into deer right away, put your calls to use.
One of my most memorable whitetail hunts took place at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, not far from my home. After several days of calling, still-hunting and spot-and-stalking, I set up on a haystack overlooking an alfalfa field. The perch was as Eastern as any treestand, but with a Western flair.
At sunset a brawny white-tailed buck slipped out on the field and bullied some younger bucks before scent-checking several does. I waited until he cleared the group and tugged the trigger, sending a Hornady SST bullet into his chest. The scenic mountain backdrop in the distance was icing on the cake.
— Mark Kayser is a hardcore whitetail hunter and outdoors communicator from Wyoming.
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