Go West Young Man! — if you want to experience some of the most exhilarating whitetail hunting on the planet.
Even though I was staked out overlooking a Sooner State slice of whitetail utopia, the morning had been remarkably unremarkable. From my ground blind, perched high on a wind-washed bluff, I had a bird’s-eye view of a vista so grandiose it would take two postcards to capture its beauty. To the east was an expansive cut wheat field that melted into fractured fingers of wooded draws — cutting west through the rolling hills that extended north of my lookout.
Earlier, as legal shooting light approached, I had eased my rifle onto the bipod, getting ready for the action that was sure to come at first light. An hour later, that same rifle was leaning against the corner of the blind and my mind was beginning to wander in Grandpa Simpson fashion, as it too often does when the action is slow: Wonder what’s for lunch?; That sure is a dumb-looking bird; Stupid Lions, we should have won that game.
A short time later, a handful of does with fawns in tow wandered by and then, finally, I spotted my first antlers of the morning — attached to a smallish 2 1⁄2-year-old buck sneaking up the draw below me. Just for fun, I got out the rattling antlers and gave them a tickle. To my surprise, the youngster broke cover and trotted right up to base of the hill below my blind, looking for the source of the commotion. OK, I smiled, the rut is still on.
My guide collected me at lunchtime, and though I had seen only the one young buck I was optimistic. The temperature was the coolest it had been in weeks; I had several days to hunt; and even though it was late November, it was apparent we were still in the aftermath of the rut.
It doesn’t matter where you live, or where you hunt whitetails, the formula for growing big bucks with big antlers is consistent, the same in Oklahoma as it is in Iowa: Provide them with a nutritious diet rich in protein and let them reach maturity. While it’s true that genetics also dictate antler size and quality, if you want the best a region can offer, you need to give bucks the right groceries and the opportunity to reach 4 1⁄2-plus years of age.
I was hunting on a ranch in western Oklahoma with Todd Rogers, owner of Rut N Strut Guide Service. We were on 9,500 acres of groomed whitetail heaven, where a 130-inch minimum score is mandatory and the bucks consume more protein than a Daytona Beach body builder. That’s two of the reasons, Rogers says, why the quality of the bucks on the property has improved during his tenure there.
“The reason the hunting’s pretty decent is that we’ve had a 130 minimum on the properties and this is my fourth year of feeding protein,” Rogers said. “The people who had the property before me shot anything, and [initially] I was just putting in some smaller food plots. Now I’ve been working together with the landowner the past three years and we’ve planted 95 acres of wheat down on the creek-bottoms, which drew some deer in and made our numbers better.”
Rogers says it also helps that his neighbors are seeing the light and adapting management methods that are more in line with his — a practice that’s helping lots of like-minded land managers. “Including this ground we’ve probably got 15,000 to 18,000 acres where the neighbors are managing for mature bucks, too. So we’ve got a pretty good chunk of ground where everybody’s trying to shoot only mature deer.”
Go West, Young Man!
Horace Greeley might not have been a whitetail hunter, but his famous words: “Go West, young man!” resonate with many Eastern whitetail hunters today. Rogers says it’s largely the change in scenery and the quality of deer that motivate them.
“For many of them, 130 inches is probably the biggest buck they’ve ever killed,” he said. “We get a lot of guys from Pennsylvania and Michigan, where it’s tough to find places [to hunt] that aren’t pressured a lot.
“But here they can hunt five days [on managed, private land] and see 30 to 40 bucks during a five-day hunt — more deer than they might see in three or four seasons back home,” Rogers added. “And it’s totally different country. They’re used to hunting in big hardwoods and they come out here and can glass deer from 400 and 500 yards away — it’s just a totally different experience.”
Rogers explained that there’s a symbiotic relationship between outfitters, such as himself, and their hunting clients. During rifle and muzzleloader seasons, his hunters typically hide out in shooting houses and pop-up blinds, on high peaks overlooking drainages or deep draws — travel corridors where bucks are cruising for does.
“This is my eighth year on the property you’re hunting on,” Rogers told me over lunch, explaining that we were going to try a different location for the evening sit.
“I pretty much feel as though we’ve really got the blinds dialed in,” he said, “but I still listen to my hunters. I try to do a lot of scouting, but that hunter’s in that blind for two or three or four days, so he’s doing a lot of scouting for me. He can tell me if I need to move the blind 50 yards one way or another based on his observations. And sometimes that can make the difference between success and failure.”
Closing the Deal
My evening setup was similar to the one where I had spent the morning — a pop-up blind overlooking a deep draw with several grassy openings smattered about. I let things settle for a bit before pulling out the rattling antlers and getting to work — the vision of that small buck still fresh in my mind.
I think I was on my third series when I caught movement in a meadow some 400 yards to the north. A buck! And he seemed to be in a hurry. I got my bino up just in time to glass his white tail as it disappeared into a finger of brush. I turned my attention to the bottom of the draw. If he followed it down, he would mostly likely emerge below me at 150 yards or so, where I could get a better look at him.
Sure enough! About 15 minutes later I could see subtle patches of brown fur fading in and out of the wooded backdrop. The buck stopped at the edge of the cover, and stood stone still, as if weighing his options. While the buck’s body was obscured by brush, presenting no shot opportunity, I got a good look at his headgear and my heart skipped a beat. As I slid my rifle up on the shooting sticks something funny happened. Not funny ha-ha — funny strange. A couple of coyotes slipped in behind the buck and he bolted across the small clearing before I could even react. What the heck?
I had one last chance to anchor the buck — one more clearing that would put him in chip shot range should he continue to follow the draw. And as quick as I can say it, there he was! I wasted no time getting on him, knowing that his canine buddies were not far behind. A shot to the chest put him down.
The sun was nibbling at the horizon as I walked down the hill to check out my prize. He was a beautiful Sooner State buck, sporting 11 measurable tines. He was in good health, except for a deep gash in his right hind leg — obviously the reason the coyotes were hounding him.
Whether they were the cause of the injury or if the buck sustained it in a fight with another buck, or got tangled up in a fence, I’ll never know. I do know that the wound and the coyotes were probably the reason I was now sitting there admiring the buck’s antlers.
As I waited for Rogers to come pick me up, the coyotes fired up from across the draw, throwing their best insults at me — clearly annoyed that I had spoiled their fun. I smiled. Every dog has its day. But this wasn’t their day. This one belonged to me.
— Gordy Krahn is an avid whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and Editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine.