Lo­cate big Western white­tails in drainages and hay­fields

Hunt­ing white­tails in the Great Plains and be­yond re­wards those with good optics, stalk­ing skills, and an ac­tive imag­i­na­tion

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by AN­DREW MCKEAN

A DECADE AND A HALF AGO, back when the food-plot craze was sweep­ing deer coun­try and hunters started killing big bucks over man­i­cured stands of radishes and clover, I planted a white tail at­tract­ing gar­den.

This was in north­east Mon­tana’s

Milk River Valley, an area known for pro­duc­ing lots of white­tails, some of them wall-hang­ers. Though my food plot looked suc­cu­lent and had all the va­ri­ety of a sup­per-club salad bar, deer walked right past it on their way to their pre­ferred gro­ceries: the ir­ri­gated al­falfa that dom­i­nates the valley’s agri­cul­tural ground.

That was my first les­son in Western white­tail hunt­ing: Don’t rely on a sin­gle at­trac­tant. For the sec­ond les­son, I served as the ex­pe­ri­enced teacher. My friend, a ded­i­cated deer hunter from my home state of Mis­souri, showed up with his bow and a climb­ing stand. He stored his hunt­ing clothes in a scent-ex­clud­ing tote and show­ered with per­fume-free soap. He was gen­uinely per­plexed when I jumped in my pickup wear­ing work­worn Carhartts and a sweaty ball cap, and in­vited him to come spot deer for the evening hunt.

We drove to a bluff over­look­ing the Milk, leaned back into sand­stone rim­rocks, and glassed the valley below. Once we saw a buck worth chas­ing emerge from a line of cot­ton­woods, we as­sessed the wind, drove down to the valley, and crawled into an ir­ri­ga­tion ditch. With the wind in our face and our pro­files low, we worked down the ditch un­til we in­ter­cepted the tar­get buck. My buddy scooched into the side of the ditch and missed a 35yard bow shot at a dandy 4-point (which he kept re­fer­ring to by its Eastern count: an 8-point).

He’d never hunted deer from the ground but ap­pre­ci­ated the take­away: Deer in wide-open coun­try follow pre­dictable pat­terns but er­ratic routes, and so mo­bile hunters have an edge over those in stands or blinds. Con­sis­tent winds, gen­er­ally from the west or north­west, are the in­vis­i­ble friend of stalk­ers.

WHITE­TAIL PI­O­NEERS

The steady ex­pan­sion of white­tails out of Mid­west­ern wood­lands is an

old story. They’re es­tab­lished in most river­bot­toms of the West, share space with mule deer in CRP fields and dry prairie washes, and dom­i­nate lower-el­e­va­tion pine forests from the Black Hills to north­west Mon­tana into eastern Wash­ing­ton. The lit­tle “gray ghost” of the South­west, the Coues deer, is also a fla­vor of white­tail, but for the pur­poses of this story, we’re talk­ing about the larger, more typ­i­cal Eastern white­tail.

Hunt­ing white­tails in the West can be a gen­tle­manly af­fair. White­tails any­where are ner­vous in the open, but out here, because they are typ­i­cally re­quired to come into fields to feed, deer emerge from cover toward evening, gorge well into the night, then go back to that cover to sleep for much of the day. That be­hav­ior al­lows hunters to sleep in and get in place to in­ter­cept deer just be­fore twi­light. It also puts a pre­mium on good optics, which not only re­solve de­tail across long distances but also gather light for last-minute shots.

Optics are also key as­sets for hunt­ing up­land white­tails, which ex­ist in low den­si­ties over ex­pan­sive coun­try. The best open-coun­try deer hunters I know park their pick­ups on van­tages and use win­dow­mounted spot­ting scopes to pick apart the land­scape for hours. When they find a buck worth pur­su­ing, they de­vote sev­eral days to pat­tern­ing it be­fore they find a way to get within killing range. That brings up an­other tru­ism of Western deer hunt­ing: You’ll gen­er­ally take longer shots here, with a bow or a ri­fle, than you might in tight-cover coun­try.

The fi­nal les­son for this se­mes­ter: Western white­tails re­spond to calls more read­ily than their Eastern cousins. Maybe it’s because of the open spa­ces, but sound car­ries well here, and the per­cus­sive crash of rat­tling antlers or the bel­li­cose grunt of a buck call can draw day­light white­tails out of cover for those hunters who don’t cot­ton to sleep­ing in and hunt­ing the last light of a Western evening.

Whether you’re in a stand or on the ground, ex­pect to see big num­bers of deer out West.

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