Intermountain Whitetails

Move over, mule deer! You've got company. Massive whitetails are growing in several locations in the northern Rocky Mountain states.

Sitting with our backs against a wall of giant boulders, daylight finally appeared on the horizon. Deer soon began filing past, seeking relief in the mountain folds and shaded, rocky crags. But staring through the spotting scope and into the valley below, we noted that not all the deer had moved our way. In fact, they were slipping the opposite direction.

We were hunting the fringes of agricultural land, where the domain of the mule deer and whitetail intercept one another. While the mule deer sauntered by - with no bucks worth getting excited over - the deer in the alfalfa fields below retreated into the riparian section for the day. Close inspection proved them to be whitetails.

Dad and I had spent a few days scouting prior to the 2001 Wyoming deer opener and found some prime areas. But, like most Westerners, we'd not even considered whitetails. Given the size of some of the whitetail bucks we'd seen, we regretted our lack of thoroughness.

By the time we located landowners and found where the bigger bucks were known to hang out, a few more precious days had passed. Several ranchers would have gladly granted us permission to hunt, but we were a bit late in asking; they'd given permission to those arriving first, which is expected.

Dad did end up with a mulie on the final morning of the hunt, but it was the many whitetails we saw that impressed us. If Dad and I once again luck out on a Wyoming draw, hopefully we'll have our tags tied to a nice whitetail rack by the end of the month.

Wyoming is not alone when it comes to quality white-tailed deer in reasonably good numbers. For years, Idaho and Montana have been kicking out some impressive whitetails, and there are plenty of opportunities in each state for enthusiastic hunters.

Having been plagued with terrible drought conditions in recent years, whitetails throughout Wyoming are feeling the effects. Low moisture content means less quality forage, resulting in lower protein intake. The lack of a good forage base means deer aren't building the fat reserves they would otherwise. As a result, winter survival rates drop and antler quality diminishes on big bucks.

But there are some northern regions that came away with an 80 percent of normal snowpack accumulation last winter. This is good news for deer in these areas, but for those in the southeast portion of the state - where some of the nicer bucks have traditionally been harvested - a 50 percent of normal snowpack paints a grim picture.

But don't let weather discourage you. With deer spread across the state, much diversity of opportunity exists. The eastern portion of the state is, no doubt, the premier place for public land hunters. Of this area, land in and around the Black Hills National Forest harbors a strong population of whitetails.

According to Wyoming wildlife information officer Al Langston, for hunters seeking public land whitetails, it's tough to beat the Black Hills. "The pine and oak forests of this region, coupled with public-land access and many rivers, make for ideal whitetail habitat," offers Langston. He also points out that surrounding private lands at the lower elevations hold some respectable whitetails.

Moving west, the land around Sheridan on down to Buffalo also holds some nice whitetails. Big bucks are annually taken from this section of the state, and must be considered among the top areas for having the potential for producing big bucks.

Down around the Wheatland and Laramie areas, in the southeast corner of the state, it's no secret big bucks abound here. The current state record hales from the Laramie area, and many speculate the next state record will come from the same region.

For those seeking hunts on private land, the river systems between Cody and Riverton hold some nice bucks. If you do your homework, the chances are fairly good of gaining hunting permission and coming away with a respectable buck. Many of the better bucks hang in agricultural areas, but with some effort, you may be the one pursing them.

"Every season you hear of really big, record-book bucks being spotted, and there are some big ones taken, but they are spread out across the eastern portion of the state," Langston sums up. Whitetails have continued their westward expansion throughout all parts of the state, and when the drought conditions consent, look for quality bucks to be popping up in many places.

With moisture being of little concern in northern Idaho, whitetails are doing extremely well. Thick cover, plenty of water and good fawn recruitment have led to very solid deer numbers in the panhandle. Exactly how many whitetails roam the wild lands of Idaho is not certain, as thick cover makes conducting a census nearly impossible. But fawn counts, the tracking of radio-collared does, and what's seen from the air while conducting other big-game counts, leave little doubt Idaho's whitetails abound.

The Clearwater and Panhandle regions of the state are where you want to go for a crack at a record-book whitetail. Below the Salmon River, you enter into drier range - not typical whitetail habitat.

In the Panhandle Region, a late spring this year claimed some fawns, but many adult deer were being seen. Though there is some big country in this region, concentrate on low-elevation areas for whitetails. While 70 percent of the state is comprised of public hunting land, most of your whitetails gather in private sections.

"The best bet for tagging a big buck lies in units 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6," says regional biologist Dave Spicer. "Unit 1 and some of units 2 and 6 offer good public-land hunting, but the rest of Unit 2, and all of 3 and 5 are predominantly private. Considerable tracts of private lands border public, and knocking on doors is the best way to gain access. The people in our region seem to grant access more than in others."

In the Panhandle Region, there's really no spot that's better than another. It all holds big bucks, but due to the extremely thick cover, it's tough rooting them out. The fact many of the deer taken are aged from 5 to 7 years tells of the secluded lifestyles they live. And thanks to good genetics and an abundance of food, there are some whopper bucks.

Spicer points out that several deer in the 140-class are taken every season, with a few going into the 170s. The fact big bucks can pop up anywhere keeps hunters on the move.

In the Clearwater Region, private land and agricultural areas describe where many of the whitetails are found. "Most of the big deer are in units 10A and 8A, around the Dworshak area," points out Jay Crenshaw, regional wildlife manager. "Unit 8 is mostly private, as is 1

1A and 13, but there are lots of deer in these areas, especially at the lower elevations come the November hunt."

Unit 15, toward Grangerville, is also a good spot to find big bucks, according to Crenshaw. If the snows come early, it's worth spending some quality time near here.

The key to tagging a big Idaho buck is weather dependent. "If there's good snow in early November, the whitetails that are scattered about start moving down," says Spicer. "It doesn't take much snow to get these deer moving, and this is the key. Combine the fact all these deer are congregating in the lowland, with the rut being foremost on their mind, and you have ideal hunting conditions for big bucks. The deer are often so occupied with one another, hunters have little problem sneaking in for a shot."

With general rifle seasons commencing anywhere from October to early November in most regions, and ending around the 20th of the month, hunters have a good chance of hitting the rut, and most definitely the pre-rut. "Usually, by the third week in November, the rut is going," observes Spicer.

Early-season archers have no real advantage here, as the September hunt finds deer scattered, while the December hunt offered in some areas finds deer skittish because of recent pressure. But if you're set on hunting with stick and string or a blackpowder rifle, you're welcome to use them during the general season.

Idaho tags are issued over the counter to non-residents on a first-come, first-served basis. The last seven consecutive years have seen a surplus of tags sitting in the drawer. This season, the state has allocated 8,552 tags for non-residents.

Some restrictions on tags and where they can be used do apply. Says biologist Lou Nelson, "Tags bought for only the Clearwater Region are valid in that area, while Panhandle tags are valid statewide, except for the Clearwater and a few special draw sections. Be sure and note boundaries when buying your tags.

If you're set on an Idaho whitetail, your hunt should start prior to opening day. Given that so many of the deer occupy private land, it would behoove you to start ringing doorbells days in advance. Put in the time to scout, to locate deer and to seek permission from landowners.

Montana has traditionally been considered something of a sleeper for whitetails - no doubt overshadowed by mule deer - but of the three states looked at here, it carries the most representation in the record books. In recent times, more residents have taken to the field with their sights set on whitetails than ever before. In fact, lately, the annual whitetail harvest has surpassed that of mule deer; granted, this is due to restrictions placed on mule deer hunting, but it does indicate a shift among hunters toward whitetails.

For many years whitetails have been present in Montana, and their numbers are still rising. While no census counts are performed on whitetails, population trends based on harvest estimates and fawn recruitment put an estimated total of about 500,000 of these deer in the state. Whitetails have filled in pretty much everywhere in the state, and their current expansion is more in numbers than distribution.

The past three to four years, survival has been solid, but prior to that some hard winters hit the northwest and central part of the state, greatly impacting whitetail populations. According to Glenn Erickson, chief of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks management bureau, populations are rebounding and are nearing historic high population counts. "This is one reason we've not seen many record-book bucks taken the past few years," observes Erickson. "But that should start to change in a couple of years."

If you're a lucky tag holder, focusing on the northwest corner of the state - primarily around Kalispell within Region 1 - is the best bet for putting a buck in the books. In this wooded habitat, public access is abundant, and hunting logging roads and timbered terrain is where you'll find the deer. Though some private land exists in the narrow valleys in parts of this region, ample forage in the hills keeps deer from gravitating to the lower elevations.

Moving to the southwest, deer densities are good around riparian zones, but there is more private land here. If set on heading to this area, look to gain access in the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison counties for some of the more respectable bucks.

In the eastern part of the state, there are pockets harboring some big whitetails, and this is likely the second-best locale in which to focus your efforts for getting a book buck. Region 6 and the upper sections of regions 5 and 7 consist of a great bit of private land, but there are some quality deer here. Fish and Wildlife does work with private landowners to help grant public access, and some BLM land does exist, but apart from that, you'll need to visit ranch owners on your own to request hunting permission.

The southeast corner of the state is toughest of all to access. Unless you know someone here or book through an outfitter, you're better off focusing your efforts in the northwest and eastern portions of the state.

Tags for non-residents come through a drawing in Montana. Once you draw, you have the option of hunting a five-week archery season from early September well into October, and/or with a weapon of choice from the end of October through Dec. 1 this year. Dates for both of these hunts annually change by a day or two. If you opt to hunt with a bow and fail to connect, you can return and hunt with a weapon of choice during the general season, when deer are rutting.

As in Wyoming, drought is currently a major concern in Montana, and this can affect deer quality wherever it hits.

No matter which state you target, the chance of nailing a big whitetail is possible - but it's those who do their homework who'll likely be rewarded most.

Where The Records Fell
Because whitetails are scattered all about the northern Rocky Mountain states, new state records could potentially come from a number of areas. It is interesting to note where the current state records came from and when they were taken.

Montana's state record typical buck fell to Thomas H. Dellwo in 1974. The 199 3/8-inch Boone and Crockett buck currently ranks 14th in the book. It was taken in Missoula County. In 1968, Frank Pleskac took the state-record non-typical of 252 1/8 in Hill County. Flathead County, however, has given up most of the state's top bucks.

Idaho's state record typical whitetail comes from Boundary County, at the top of Unit 1. It fell to Aaron McNall in 1993 and scored 182 5/8 points. Unit 1 boasts the highest hunter numbers and still produces some of the state's best deer. James Reimer took the state's non-typical record in 1982 in Idaho County. It scores a whopping 268 B&C points and ranks 14th in the world. Boundary annnnnd Kootenai counties are the places to hunt for the big boys.


state-record typical comes from Albany County, taken in 1986 by Robert Ross. His impressive buck scores 191 5/8. A 247 2/8 non-typical was taken in 1977, showing what kind of whitetai, showing what kind of whitetail trophy potential this state has. Though whitetails are spread throughout Wyoming, the majority of bigger bucks have come from the northeast corner, in and around Crook County.

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