Hunt­ing White­tails in Mule Deer Coun­try


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Spencer Neuharth

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.

The Dif­fer­ence

“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.

The Dif­fer­ence

“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.

Josh Boyd, ser­vice tech­ni­cian with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, hauls out a mon­ster moun­tain buck. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF JOSH BOYD

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


(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...

(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...

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