December 01, 2020
By Bob Robb
The year was 1978, and I was a 20-something Californian making his first out-of-state deer hunting trip to eastern Montana. Hunting the head of a brush-lined creek in some sagebrush foothills, I shot my first-ever whitetail buck, an old 10-point that some pheasant hunters had unwittingly driven right past me. I was hooked…and still very much clueless about whitetail hunting.
Since that time, I’ve hunted whitetails in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. I’ve also hunted them extensively throughout the Midwest, East and Deep South. What I’ve learned is that the basics of hunting rutting whitetail deer are the same regardless of location, but that terrain and land access make pursuing western whitetails a somewhat different game. Hunting the heavily timbered forests of eastern Washington, Oregon, the Idaho panhandle and western Montana requires vastly different techniques than hunting the open prairie and sagebrush foothills of other western states where whitetails thrive.
With the rut, whitetail bucks turn their thoughts from food and cover to the business of passing on their genes. It’s no secret that previously very cautious, mostly nocturnal bucks begin to move more at all times of the day in an effort to find receptive does. Cooling temperatures make it more comfortable for bucks and does alike to move in their thickening winter coats.
When the rut arrives—generally in November in this region—locate doe groups and stay with them. Sooner or later a mature buck should appear.
To find doe groups, think about what pregnant does will need to make it through the winter and to raise a fawn in the spring: varied cover, prime food sources and at least some water. Habitat supporting the healthiest does will have all of these elements.
Bear in mind that whitetail bucks are not necessarily the "small home range" deer you read about east of the Mississippi River. In the West whitetails can, and do, travel many, many miles from winter to summer range, just like elk and mule deer. Bucks will also travel as far as necessary to successfully breed.
For that reason, hunters should stay optimistic. If you’ve been watching a local doe group but haven’t seen much evidence of bucks nearby, you can rest assured the rut will not pass without the appearance of bucks, some of which will have traveled long dis"ances to give you a chance to put your tag on them.
FIND AN EDGE
While whitetails can survive on natural foods found along the edges of thick timber stands, their populations explode when the edge cover is nutrient-rich cropland rather than sagebrush and native browse. They also thrive in and around the new subdivisions springing up all over the foothills and valleys of the West, where fresh landscaping and lawns and a consistent water source draw them like moths to a flame. The very best whitetail habitat is typically private farm and ranch lands that grow the nutritious crops deer love. The problem is that gaining permission to hunt behind the gate can be impossible in many cases. But there are ways to overcome such obstacles while remaining completely within the law.
The first question I ask when seeking out whitetails to hunt is this: Where is there public land open to hunting that’s adjacent to or near private croplands and suburbs?
I learned this strategy decades ago as a nonresident elk bowhunter in western Montana. Many rivers throughout the region flow through private ranches closed to hunting. But these ranches also often share a border with national forest or BLM lands. The elk would bed inside the timber on the public land but travel to the private-land crops and hayfields to feed. Whitetails do the same thing for the same reasons.
A map and a land records search showed me where there were public easements through these ranches to the public lands. The easements were rarely marked, but once I found them I had access to a heavenly elk hunting area where I never saw another hunter. I did have a couple of conversations with local landowners who didn’t like the idea of an “outsider” hunting “their” elk, but when I politely showed them my documentation and maps, they had to grudgingly let me go about my business.
Note that many western ranchers are perfectly fine with someone killing deer (or elk) that are eating their crops. These ranchers are trying to run a business, and crop losses to big game animals directly affect their bottom lines. Many traditional ranchers will be more uneasy about how strangers treat their roads, fences and gates. If you are using an easement, sh"w respect for the "oad and fences the rancher has to maintain. Stay on the road and don’t drive over his crops. Be sure to close gates you go through and, of course, practice gun safety. A rancher might have to let you use the easement whether he likes you or not, but if he does like you, he’s far more likely to tell you where he’s seen nice bucks entering his fields from public land.
As you scout, keep in mind that great places to search don’t just border big ranches. Some are public-land parcels that intermix with small private-land holdings and newly sprouted suburbs. Often the public/private land boundaries are not marked by fences. In fact, landowners often fence for convenience, not according to surveys. The public ground could possibly extend beyond a posted fence line, or vice versa.
That’s why it’s a good idea to use a GPS or specialized hunting app that can give you the exact coordinates of where you’re standing, as well as the exact property boundary lines.
After a few trips, you can build your own virtual library of hidden public-land gems you can hunt for years, often without competition from other hunters.
Scouting these areas is critical, as it is with all big-game hunting. Trail cameras, where legal and practical to use, can show preferred travel corridors to bedding areas, which in turn will suggest the best stand sites. Glassing from afar can help you discover travel routes, as well as favored trails leading under fences.
One note about this type of hunting around small private parcels: Always be respectful. During gun seasons, you must always be conscious of what is beyond your target, taking care to never shoot in the direction of dwellings, outbuildings, vehicles and livestock. I try to hunt as far off the property line as possible to limit the chance an animal I’ve shot will run back onto the private land and expire there. After all, not all states have laws that require private landowners to allow hunters onto their property to retrieve game.
Hunting whitetails in big timber is extremely challenging. Few people have the skills to still-hunt big woods, and it takes a whole lot of scouting to locate stand sites where deer activity is steady. Trail cameras are very helpful for this, as is boots-on-the-ground scouting. I have a friend who strongly believes that he needs to scout for two days for every one day he sits a stand in this country.
During the rut he looks for traditional rub lines that have been freshened up. He’s especially excited when he finds the junction of two different and distinct rub lines. He scouts obvious travel corridors, with saddles, points, hanging benches and abandoned logging roads all having potential—especially when pockmarked with scrapes, rub lines and/or food sources.
Because I do not have the patience to be a good still hunter, I prefer to hunt edges in timber country. Whitetails love edge cover, and in big timber this can include places where stands of timber meet open clear cuts, canyon breaks, wetlands and stream courses heading down into lowland private-land holdings. Satellite images and topographic maps (see sidebar) can show you openings inside big timber that create hidden edge pockets that are definitely worth exploring, as well as saddles and benches deer use to travel between mountains to avoid steep terrain.
And benches make terrific bedding locations.
Edge country is best hunted either by spot-and-stalk hunting or patiently taking a stand.
CALLING AND CAMOUFLAGE
During the pre-rut and rut, don’t be shy about breaking out the rattling antlers, grunt tubes and doe bleat calls. Rutting bucks are not only roaming far from home, they are listening for the sounds of deer talking to each other or fighting, as indicated by clashing antlers.
I call regardless of whether I’m hunting inside the dark timber, glassing timber edges or sitting above a private-land boundary on public land. I may tone it down some if there is a fair amount of pressure from other hunters, but when I am in an isolated area without others around, I remember what mom used to say: “Call often.”
When calling, you need to remain hidden. Even when hunter orange is required, camo matching the terrain as closely as possible just makes sense to help break up your outline. Some of my favorite patterns for hunting open country include Realtree Edge, Max-1 XT, Excape and Max-5. Whitetails are often overshadowed in the West by mule deer. However, mule deer populations in many traditional areas are hurting, while whitetail numbers are increasing across the board. The pre-rut and rut periods a"e the very best times to find success afield.
Apps & Maps
Resources for pre-hunt recon.
To help locate potential deer pockets and determine exact public/private boundaries, the use of satellite imagery and popular hunting apps takes the game to the next level. Google Earth and MyTopo.com are huge assets, while apps like onX, ScoutLook, HuntStand, Powderhook and others are very useful. Combine these with old-school topographic maps and U.S. Forest Service and BLM maps that show roads, campgrounds, outbuildings and terrain features, and you’ll find productive and unpressured places to hunt across the West.