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Western whitetails: chasing whitetails in the west is, in many ways, similar experience to hunting them in the East or Midwest. But it's different ...

* Mange eastern hunters who have no experienced hunting the Great Plains or Rocky Mountain states believe hunting whitetails there would be much different from hunting the more "closed-in" woods back home.

It's not. Yes, the West is more "open" than the East. And yes, if you have the right tools, you can certainly find ample opportunity to shoot a whitetail at greater range than you can in more traditional areas. But you can just as easily hunt them in tight spots in the West, and with the same techniques. Western whitetails like cover every bit as much, and use it in the same ways, as their Eastern cousins. And their daily feeding patterns are similar.

There are good whitetail populations in most Western states from the Missouri River westward into the Rockies, and the species' range grows yearly. Whitetails even are spreading as far into the Great Basin as northern Utah. But wherever you find them, they still act like whitetails. If you know how to hunt them in the East, South or Midwest, have a good chance of finding success out there.

In other words, you don't hunt them on featureless prairies or mountain-tops, but in the same broken ground, brushy cover, cropland borders and drainage margins you do elsewhere. At least, that's the way it has worked out in the three western states I've hunted for whitetails so far. Here's a look at what the hunting is like:


A classic, much-publicized example of Western whitetail hunting is to be found in Montana's Milk River country. That's way up in the northern part of the state, where the river (in reality, not much more than a strong Eastern creek) meanders through a mile-wide bottomland between its bluffs. The flats are broken with hayfields and margins of brush and cottonwood/ willow stands.

Such terrain actually gives the hunter an advantage, as I discovered a few years ago on my first trip to the Milk. I was using Thompson/Center's then-new G2 Contender pistol in .375 JDJ. A handgun might seem a disadvantage in such open country, but the relatively small area of river-bottom habitat the deer prefer makes for some close-range opportunities.

During hunting season, the whitetails tend to concentrate in the bottoms, bedding in the thickets and feeding in the hayfields during early mornings and late afternoons. From vantage points atop the bluffs, hunters can closely observe daily movement patterns, pinpoint specific bedding areas and even identify individual potential trophies with remarkable ease. Which is exactly how we spent our first couple of days, picking out the exact spots in which to hang our treestands during midday.

That day turned out to be one of the windiest of the season, with gusts up to 30 mph. Despite its size, the big cottonwood I had selected along the margin of one of the most heavily trafficked hayfields was really swaying. Fortunately, within 50 minutes of perching myself there, and before seasickness could really set in, a big-bodied, mature 10-point buck I'd seen in the field the evening before came doe-sniffing along a game trail leading directly under the tree.

Unfortunately, he chose the opposite side of it, passing behind me at about 25 yards. I was forced to shoot one-handed across and down over my off-side arm, which was holding onto the swaying tree for dear life.

The bullet entered the top of his thoracic area just behind the shoulder and penetrated downward through his right lung and liver before exiting the bottom of his chest. He staggered, then trotted directly away from me toward the edge of the cutbank down into the river channel proper.

From the deer's reaction I expected him to quickly drop, but when he reached the edge of the bank I hit him again. This shot was directly from the rear, with a solid-two-hand hold resting over a firm tree branch at 132 yards, rather than letting him disappear down into the willow thickets. The second shot impacted at the base of his spine above the tail and penetrated all the way to the base of the chest, destroying several vertebrae and collapsing him instantly.

My first Montana whitetail hunt was over in less than an hour in the stand--which was a good thing, as the weather continued to go straight downhill for the rest of week. Of course, the key was the two days of prior scouting and, once again, having been able to get a sense of the behavior of the quarry that allowed me to set up close enough.


The primary whitetail areas of Wyoming are a bit different. They range from the foothills of the Wind River Range eastward to the valley of the North Platte. But most of Wyoming's true trophy whitetails are concentrated in the northeastern sector of the state, where the Black Hills and the Bear Lodge Mountains spill over and down from South Dakota into the drainage of the Belle Fourche River.

The country is rolling, hilly and rugged, downright rocky and mountainous in places, with pine-forested slopes. At first glance it looks like prime mule deer country, and mule deer are indeed here. In fact, it is one of the few areas where muleys and whitetails significantly overlap. If a hunter is not clear-eyed about the differences between the two species, he can easily make a mistake--particularly with younger bucks.


But even here an Eastern whitetail hunter will find familiar tactics productive. Prime feedings areas still include small, grassy meadows or ranchers' hayfields in creek bottoms. Clumps of scrub oak scattered among the predominant pine woods can be counted on to attract deer when acorns are in season.

Early morning and late afternoon are still the primary feeding periods for Wyoming whitetails, just as with Eastern deer. Stands or blinds set up along the margins of the approaches to such feeding areas can yield the same types of success as the same tactics elsewhere.

And then there are waterholes. The one thing that has struck me as being the most different about hunting whitetails in more arid portions of the West, compared to the Midwest or Southeast, is the importance of waterholes as drawing points for deer traffic. In most other regions water sources are more plentiful, and the vegetation deer eat is itself more water-rich. Thus, deer rarely concentrate at particular water locations.

It's different on the dry western slopes of the Black Hills region, especially in drought years such as the West overall has recently been experiencing. A reliable water source in such areas can be a virtual magnet, whether it's a natural spring-fed pool or a rancher's livestock tank. Many outfitters and hunter-oriented ranchers supplement such locations with mineral blocks (legal in Wyoming), with makes them even more productive.

Hunting the Black Hills slopes last November, I was struck by the fact such waterholes serve much the same function as timed deer feeders on Texas ranches. That is, they're all-day active hunting areas. 'Typical "natural" deer feeding patterns concentrate in early mornings or the edges of evening, resulting in the common whitetail hunting pattern of morning and late afternoon stand-sitting sessions with a midday break, but a waterhole will usually be as likely to see traffic at noon as dawn or dusk.


As a consequence, many Wyoming whitetail outfitters place permanent box blinds in proximity to ponds or tanks, often in conjunction to natural feeding meadows as well, and put their hunters for all-day sits. "Proximity" usually means a spot that can cover about a 200-yard radius in all directions. The ideal cartridge for this type of hunting is 270 Win.

Hunting this way in the Belle Fourche region near Devils Tower during the 2012 rut, I saw a lot of deer--and, at all times of day. While I didn't see a buck big enough to motivate me to shoot, two other hunters in our party scored excellent bucks that way. One approached the water in late morning, while the other was sniffing a beaten water-source doe trail. "Water-hole hunting" is one of the few ways in which a Western whitetail expedition differs from a typical hunt elsewhere.


About ten years ago, I went on my first Colorado High Plains whitetail hunt. It was along the creek drainages of the Arkansas River valley, and my tool was an open-sighted .44 Magnum revolver. The idea of a short gun in such open country appealed to me. I knew bowhunters were having success in that area, so why not try a handgun?

The whitetail behavior pattern in that area was much like what I'd seen in the Milk River area of Montana. However, it was even more concentrated, due to the large amount of irrigated farming done in the Arkansas valley. But like whitetails in the corn/bean/woodlot terrain of the East and Midwest, for most of the day they hid in cover back in the drainage valleys leading down from the upper flats, moving away from fields in the morning and back in the evening.

In fact, the only real difference I could discern between the pattern in this portion of Colorado and the whitetails I'm more familiar with in Illinois is that these deer tended to feed in herds. And I mean big herds, with as many as 75 in a single group. And there would be several groups seen per hunt.

Sitting in a bowhunter's treestand in a treeline between the bedding grounds and bean fields, I watched deer move through in their morning/evening transitions in a fashion I can only liken to the drift of caribou herds in Alaska. It was steady. This was a pattern I had often observed hunting mule deer in the dry-farming plateaus of Southeast Utah.

The pickings were pretty rich, despite the 100-yard-diameter circle I had drawn for myself. I let several small to medium bucks pass by my stand the first two mornings and evenings, waiting to see if one of the bigger guys I had seen at a distance would get inside my umbrella. On the last morning, when a bachelor group of four medium bucks moved across my field of fire, I set up and waited until the best of the lot paused at a stump I'd previously range-marked at 50 yards. The buck gave me a quartering-away presentation, and I put the shot through his chest from the rear. The deer sprang away about 15 yards, opposite shoulder obviously broken, and dropped. All I could think was how much it was like hunting in Illinois.
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Author:Metcalf, Dick
Publication:North American Whitetail
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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