March 29, 2023
By Matt Palmquist
Somewhere buried in the sea of kochia weed lay a very impressive 6x6 whitetail buck along with a hot doe. I contemplated my options and decided to loop around and set up on the edge of an adjacent cropfield, hoping to ambush the deer when they came out to feed in the evening. Many hours passed, during which I had several exciting encounters with mule deer that came to investigate the buck decoy I’d deployed out in front of me, but there was no sign of the magnum whitetail. The sun was setting and still no buck, so I waded into the thick kochia. I never did see the buck I’d spent all day waiting on, which left me pondering what I could have done differently.
Welcome to the world of bowhunting open-country whitetails, where scenarios like the one I just described happen often. Plains bucks live in large cropfields, CRP, and the weed pockets mentioned above. Large expanses of monotonous structure in open terrain can lead to exciting hunting, but pinpointing a buck’s location can be challenging. After years of hunting deer in open terrain, I have learned a few techniques that can increase your odds of success.
It really goes without saying, but good optics are integral when hunting whitetails in open country — or anywhere, for that matter. Equally important is utilizing any elevation you can find to provide a better vantage point when glassing. In parts of the plains, terrain — or lack thereof — can make this challenging and will force you to get creative. I have used oil tank batteries, machinery parked next to a cropfield, and even the roof of my pickup to gain an advantage when the topography is devoid of high points.
After you locate a buck to pursue, it’s important to mark his location before moving closer. Large fields, where everything looks the same, can make it difficult to keep tabs on your target. Oftentimes, landmarks that stand out to guide you to a buck’s location are lacking, and even if they are present, once you move, the landmark can be so subtle it’s hard to identify again.
That’s why I suggest using telephone poles or fenceposts adjacent to the field, counting them from the corner of the field and gauging their distance from the field edge to where the deer is bedded. When hunting in cropfields, terraces can help you keep tabs on a buck. Use aerial images from onX Hunt, HuntStand or similar mapping apps to make certain you know how many terraces are in the field, because you may not be able to see every terrace from your vantage point, which can ultimately lead to confusion. The bottom line is this: If you study the situation long enough, you’ll eventually identify multiple landmarks that will help you zero-in on your target as you close the distance.
As I alluded to already, it is easy for your landmarks to seemingly disappear as you stalk your target. Patience is the name of the game for success in these situations. If you aren’t sure exactly where the deer is located, it’s always best to hang back with the wind in your face until you relocate the buck. Deer will typically stand and stretch multiple times throughout the day, allowing you to dial-in and close the distance.
On the flipside, if you can see the buck and have adequate cover, it’s time to get aggressive. Deer can reposition, so it’s important to take advantage of the situation if things are favorable for you to get close enough for the shot. Identifying the time to be aggressive comes with experience and learning when to push the limits and when to pull back on the reins.
Early in my bowhunting career, I found myself 35 yards from an awesome whitetail with bladed tines and chocolate-colored antlers. I will never forget the image of that buck bedded in a plum thicket. My inexperience cost me an opportunity at that deer. Looking back, I was very indecisive about what to do next. I waffled back and forth between getting closer and staying put, preparing for a shot. As the sun dipped lower in the western sky, I felt I had to improve my position and forced the issue by crawling toward the buck — ultimately spooking him.
My takeaway from that experience was there are times to be aggressive and times to wait it out. If it’s the middle of the day, trying to get in the perfect position is warranted because you have lots of time to make strategic moves. However, if you’re within an hour of sunset, I would stay patient and let the situation unfold. I panicked on that buck because I didn’t think he would stand during shooting hours, so I pushed forward. In every situation where I’ve pushed the limits in the waning hours of daylight, the buck has either spooked when I moved, or he stood up on his own as I closed the gap — catching me out of position and unable to draw my bow. There may be times where you don’t get a shot due to darkness, but it’s more likely the deer is going to get up from his bed before legal shooting light expires.
Hunting open-country whitetails can provide opportunities that you won’t experience in other states, where escape cover is everywhere. Take my buddy, Kaleb Baird, for example.
A few years ago, Kaleb had located a dream, double-droptine buck in a large milo field. As luck would have it, the combines rolled in to harvest the grain, spooking the buck into a weed-choked drainage adjacent to the large field.
Kaleb watched for the buck to exit the weed patch, but the cautious buck never emerged — presenting Kaleb with a great opportunity to move closer. Kaleb relocated the deer in the ditch as he picked his way along the top of the drainage and was able to crawl into range.
While Kaleb continued his patient vigil, a coyote suddenly exploded out of the weeds between Kaleb and the buck — presumably due to a slight shift in the wind. The buck sprang to his feet and stood broadside, which gave Kaleb the opportunity he needed to make a great shot. Being persistent and not panicking when the buck spooked out of the large field was the key to my friend’s success on that hunt.
In a perfect world, deer will always stand up and share their location, allowing you to precisely plan your final approach. However, in the real world that doesn’t always happen, and sometimes, even if they do stand, the cover is just too thick to see them.
In situations where I can’t physically see the buck I’m after, I like to add decoys to my arsenal of tactics — especially during the rut. For best results, stalk into the vicinity where you last saw your target buck. Once in position, let out a grunt to hopefully entice a territorial response from the bedded buck. If nothing happens, then I recommend increasing the volume and aggressiveness of your calling.
Be diligent and allow plenty of time before rushing through the cover that you think the buck is hiding in. Every situation is different, and some bucks need the threat of an intruder to be close before it triggers the desired response. When I’m in the “zone,” I will then slowly move forward while continuing to search for a piece of antler, ear, etc.
Garrett Roe, owner of Heads Up Decoy, has been decoying open-country whitetails for a long time. His pursuits have resulted in a lot of close calls and plenty of success, but few compare to his hunt for a long-tined 10-pointer he named “Tall Boy.”
Garrett hunted Tall Boy for several years, with multiple close encounters and heartbreak. The buck became less visible as he matured but slipped up during the rut in Garrett’s third year of pursuit — showing himself while tending a doe as the sun set in the western sky.
Garrett glassed from that exact spot the following morning, spotting the buck shortly after sunrise, still being led around by his girlfriend. The pair was in a dense grass field, allowing Garrett to stalk toward a landmark close to where he’d last seen Tall Boy.
However, Garrett wasn’t 100-percent sure if the buck was still there, so he raised his buck decoy above the tall grass to make certain it would be seen and let out a loud grunt. Tall Boy was close, emerging from the grass with his ears pinned back while stomping his way toward the imposter! When the buck stopped at 22 yards, Garrett closed his three-year saga with the buck by sending a perfectly placed arrow through his vitals.
Garrett summed it up well in our discussion about hunting whitetails in the wide-open spaces when he said, “Each year is a constant internal battle between patience and aggression.” This statement really struck a chord with me as I thought about my experiences over the years, as well as those of my friends.
Take Kaleb, for example. He was patient in his approach; moving into position, and then content to wait until the shot presented itself. With a little help from his coyote friend, the wait was short-lived and Kaleb capitalized on his opportunity.
Garrett, on the other hand, aggressively moved into the buck’s comfort zone. Once there, rather than wait for the buck to make a mistake, he opted instead to present a challenge to Tall Boy with a loud grunt from an intruding buck. Both hunts resulted in happy hunters and two beautiful whitetails.
Reflecting on my own experience with the 6x6 in the weed patch, I should have gambled and gone into the jungle of kochia. Instead, I spent the entire day on the outskirts hoping that I’d get “lucky” and they would come out on their own. My panicked and passive approach in that situation ultimately cost me dearly.
Every situation is different, and decisions must be made. I truly feel erring on the side of aggression will lead to more success than staying passive will. It is a simple fact: The more you’re on the ground with mature whitetails, the more you’ll refine your spot-and-stalk toolbox — leading to more success!
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Every mistake you make will only lead to adjustments in your strategy that will ultimately result in more punched tags, more antlers on the wall, and more meat in the freezer!
The author is a regular Contributor to this magazine who resides in Kansas with his wife and children.