Asking whitetail aficionados how to be a successful deer hunter is like asking football fans what’s the best team in the NFL. Depending on geography and personal preferences, the answer can vary wildly. Below are some tips that may work in various regions for deer but they are proven methods for the West’s varied topography and whitetail habitat. Try incorporating some of these ideas this fall to fill your tag on a mature western buck.
Get Comfortable with Your Rifle
Whitetail range in the west encompasses vastly different terrain, from traditional river bottoms to elky-looking mountains. That being said, having a rifle you are familiar with and know its trajectory can play a huge role when it’s time to squeeze the trigger. Hunting brush-choked bottoms might feel like you would be better equipped with a shotgun, yet if you nestle in the corner of an alfalfa field for an evening sit, there’s a good chance you will see deer well outside of your comfortable shooting range and everywhere in between. The more intimately you know your firearm the more you tip the odds in your favor.
Get More Elevation Than the Average Guy
Whitetails and treestands seem to go hand in hand in most areas of the country so this isn’t revolutionary. The difference being out west, we have a plethora of trees, banks, haystacks, etc. that are conducive to climbing without hanging a stand and committing. A hunter should still be safe and follow precautions such as wearing a harness, obviously, but it is much more conducive to tweaking a setup if you can just move to a different tree or stack if need be. There is a small piece of public land my family hunts where other people continually walk through. These people blow the deer out and onto unhuntable private land before even realizing the deer are present.
Our saving grace is a lone tree, which allows a view over the brush and climbing, sitting silently and letting the deer move naturally has put lots of venison in our freezers over the years. But when you’re hunting in the West, trees are obviously not the only option for elevation. Last year, I sat on a big cut bank (a bank created by river erosion over a long period of time) for several days with a natural funnel below me. The bucks chased does through the brush under me and when the right one came along, I had a clear line of sight over the river bottom debris.
Pick Your Battles
I am a big believer in a “less is more” philosophy. Here in Montana, we can hunt deer in October and November during our general rifle season. This usually translates into lots of two and three-year-old bucks going home in the back of pickups as soon as the first does start going into estrus. But I like to stay back and glass from a distance, not upsetting the deer movements and feeding patterns. The younger bucks aren’t shy about showing themselves while they try to get in on the rutting action. The bucks that are smart enough to not come out until dark are the ones I try to glass up. Finding them moving in staging areas, waiting to come out and intercepting them before the light fades can be an effective and consistent way to bump up the year class of deer you harvest.
That’s how I spotted the biggest whitetail I had ever seen in Montana. There was a herd of does and young bucks out feeding, and with patience and some luck, we found the big one back in the brush biding his time. After dark, he sauntered out into the field like he paid the mortgage on it. The next afternoon found my wife and I tucked into a haystack (more elevation again) as close as we dared to where I thought the buck would come. Through unfortunate circumstances, we didn’t get a shot at him, although we saw him with shooting light left.
Again, being patient, finding the right ambush spot, and waiting for the right circumstances before hunting a specific buck will pay off more often than getting in a hurry. Rushing the hunt with bad wind or cover can lead to blowing the more mature bucks out of there and force you to start your search over or settle for a younger year class of deer.
If you’ve done your job right, you should now be set up on a promising looking food source, travel corridor or staging area, with a rifle that you are confident in and comfortable with. It goes without saying that Fall can have drastically different weather systems in the span of a hunt so having the right clothing is of utmost importance. In a different article, I wrote, “a comfortable hunter is a deadlier hunter.” When your basic needs are taken care of, you are much more likely to keep your head in the game for the duration of the hunt.
Plan on spending some time at your stand and be prepared for whatever weather may come your way. I take a down coat because of its lightweight and insulation factor to put under my water-resistant layer if need be. Keeping my core warm enough allows me to glass and take an active role in the day rather than sit and shiver. If I plan on being on the ground, like a knob or cut bank, I pack a folding seat along, as it insulates from the cold ground as well as gives some back support for glassing. Giving yourself small comforts makes a huge difference in your mindset and keeps you in the field longer, enjoying the hunt rather than gutting it out.
If you are planning a whitetail hunt out west, try incorporating some of these tips on your hunt this fall. Glass from a distance and find your buck. when the time and weather are right, get in there with enough gear to wait him out, preferably from a higher elevation to sway the odds in your favor. Hunt safe, smart and hard.