Hunting Whitetails in Mule Deer Country
TWO EXPERTS SHARE THEIR TRIED-AND-TRUE TACTICS
Leave behind your Midwestern strategy
Most of us envision vast cornfields and tall cottonwoods when we think about white-tailed deer country, classic midwestern habitat. Get on the left side of the Missouri River, though, and all that changes. Still, the western states are great places to kill whitetails where the buffalo roam and the mule deer and antelope play.
Of course, different habitat means a different hunting approach. I connected with two western whitetail hunters with a track record of tagging out to discuss how they find deer among the buttes and mountains.
Low Country Whitetails Among Mulies
Mark Kenyon, founder of Wired to Hunt, consistently succeeds by abandoning his Ohio and Michigan properties early in the season to chase whitetails in the overlooked lowlands of Montana and Wyoming.
“When it comes to whitetails in western states, the major difference is threefold: there
“Most of us envision vast cornfields and tall cottonwoods when we think about white-tailed deer country …”
are more deer, higher ratios of bucks and more diverse age classes,” Kenyon said. “This is definitely attributed to the lack of hunting pressure. In states like Ohio, whitetails are the focus of nearly every landowner and hunter. Conversely, in western states like Montana, whitetails are an afterthought, with the attention being on elk and mule deer.
“It’s extremely noticeable, too,” he continued. “For example, I often see 50-60 deer a night hunting public lands in Montana, whereas in Michigan, on private lands, I must hunt a dozen times to reach that number. The buckto-doe ratio in those western state lowlands always seems to hover around 50-50, which is astonishing when you consider that I usually see 10 does in Michigan before I see a buck.
“As far as age class, the diversity reigns supreme in western states, too, where the number of 3-, 4- and 5-year-old bucks far outnumber those of the Midwest,” Kenyon shared. “With western whitetails, the October lull also seems less prominent. This is likely due to lack of hunting pressure. That factor, combined with the fact that deer in western lowlands have fewer places to hide, makes for better opportunities before November arrives.”
How to Find Them
“When looking to identify whitetail areas on an aerial map, the best thing you can do is look for green growth,” Kenyon said. “Green indicates water, and water does more than provide a place to drink. To find green areas, look for depressions around mountain ranges. These are often some of the lowest elevations in the area surrounded by hills and buttes that drain to the valley.
“The green there signifies three things: water for deer, cover for bedding and irrigation for food,” he continued. “Find those three things, and you’ll be in a whitetail honey hole.
“As far as other qualities to look for, some of the same rules apply to western whitetails as they do to eastern ones,” Kenyon said. “For one, the farther from civilization, the better you’ll be. I once scouted two areas that had all things equal, except distance from a population center. One piece of public land was 45 minutes from the nearest town, while the other was 90 minutes. The extra 45-minute drive made a huge difference in the number of whitetails, as well as buck quality.
“When it comes to scouting, the ideal scenario is to glass alfalfa fields,” Kenyon shared. “Deer will congregate to those food sources in the mornings and evenings, as they represent some of the only sure-fire eats in the area.”
How to Hunt Them
“Like hunting the Midwest, targeting western whitetails is ruled by the time of year you hunt,” Kenyon stated. “Early season is probably my favorite stretch to target them for numerous reasons. For one, evenings present
the best chance at bucks on their feet. This is mostly because they have long distances to travel from bed to food, needing to leave the river bottom cover to find agriculture. Because of this, I like to scout in the mornings and hunt in the afternoons.
“I implemented this exact strategy last season, and it paid off on my third hunt of the trip,” Kenyon remembered. “The first morning, I glassed from a distance to identify travel routes. That night, I hunted an area and realized I was too far north. The second morning, I glassed again and found a new area to throw up a stand, which turned out to be too far south. On the third morning, I felt more confident than ever with my intel, and confirmed their pattern that night with a new stand where I arrowed a mature buck. The key for this hunt was definitely mobility. I hung a new set each evening, and tore it down after each hunt if it wasn’t fruitful. It can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, but when you’re hunting unfamiliar areas, it’s a necessity,” Kenyon said.
High Country Whitetails Among Mulies
Josh Boyd, a service technician with the U.S. Forest Service, annually spends more than 200 days afield in the mountains of Montana, which gives him incredible insight on the behavior of high-elevation whitetails.
“While low-elevation western whitetails act similarly to those of the Midwest, they do so in slightly different terrain,” Boyd told us. “Highelevation whitetails are an entirely different story, though.
“The biggest difference for mountain whitetails is their massive home range,” Boyd continued. “Like other mammals that inhabit the mountains, whitetails will sometimes travel dozens of miles between their summer range and winter range. This is largely determined by food and weather. Not all whitetails migrate like this, and typically the ones living lower on the mountains can be hunted in the same area all fall. I prefer to target those deer.
“Predators also play a big role with whitetail management at higher elevations,” he continued. “Living in a predator-rich environment, the deer must constantly be wary of wolves, bears and lions. In my lifetime, the wolf population is higher than ever, which causes fluctuations in the deer herd. Some
“… you’re spending money with local folks, and in return, they might willingly share some places to hunt or at least to begin scouting …”
years the wolf population will be way up and the deer population way down, with other years being inverse. Most other areas don’t see their whitetail herds go through the radical waves like we do.”
How to Find Them
“When you’re looking to target deer on the mountains, remember that they prefer the easiest travel routes just like all other whitetails,” Boyd suggested. “For starters, that topo imagery, along with aerial imagery, are crucial to effective scouting. Mountains with less severe features will hold more deer, while the more extreme areas won’t.
“Other features to consider while studying aerial maps are distance from roads and water availability,” he said. “Not every mountainside offers streams or lakes, though, but deer can subsist on seeps, springs and wallows, which you likely won’t find until you walk the ground.
“Other ungulates present can also indicate whitetail populations,” Boyd mentioned. “Mule deer and whitetails rarely overlap in range on the mountain, while elk and whitetails sometimes do. High densities of either one usually does not bode well for whitetails, though.
“The ideal setting for mountain whitetails is a fresh clear cut or burn,” Boyd suggested. “These offer new growth for forage and easier
travel for deer. While numerous factors determine an area’s productivity, the best clear cuts and burn areas are usually ones that are anywhere from 2-15 years old. Clear cuts younger than that won’t have the deer quite yet, and older ones can be too difficult to hunt with the regenerating forest.”
How to Hunt Them
“Like anywhere else, hunting mountain whitetails during the rut gives you your best chance at tagging out,” Boyd outlined. “This is ideal for gun hunters, as most western seasons fall during midnovember when deer are breeding.
“For archers, though, you can still implement tactics used in the Midwest, such as calling,” he continued. “Grunts and snort wheezes can be effective, but rattling is the go-to move to bring in deer that aren’t within eyesight. It’s likely you’ll get a better response from deer in the mountains than you would elsewhere because of their lack of human encounters. For this reason, don’t be afraid to call aggressively.
“Hunters often get too hung up on deer sign in the mountains, though,” Boyd warned. “Since deer have massive home ranges here, you could be hunting scrapes and rubs of a buck that is now miles away. Because of this, your best move with deer sign is to mark its location and return the following year.
“Many bucks will find themselves using the same area season after season, and it’s a way that I’ve killed some of my biggest western whitetails,” Boyd concluded.
Plan and Tag Out
As Kenyon and Boyd shared, western whitetails are a different type of deer than those we hunt in the Midwest. As a result, special tactics and approaches will ensure best chances for success.
It’s a fact: Some of the best hunting in the Unites States can be found west of the Missouri River. Much of this country is known for elk, antelope and mule deer, which renders whitetails an often-overlooked species. Employ the tips covered in this article and point your vehicle west. You could experience one of your most productive and successful hunts ever.
Western whitetails inhabit low-lying river bottoms and mountains. This country looks far different from that of classic whitetail country in the Midwest. PHOTO BY SPENCER NEUHARTH
Josh Boyd, service technician with the U.S. Forest Service, hauls out a monster mountain buck.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSH BOYD
(below) Josh Boyd annually spends 200 hours afield for his line of work. The intel he daily absorbs shapes his mountain-whitetail-hunting success.
(opposite) When you hunt whitetails in the West, expect to spend hours behind glass to find ideal hunting locations.
(above) Mark Kenyon, founder of Wired to Hunt, took this beautiful western 8-pointer while bowhunting overlooked public lands. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK KENYON (opposite) Sometimes western whitetails can be had using mule deer methods, including spotting and stalking. PHOTO BY SPENCER NEUHARTH