By Joe Blake
I was quartering into a stiff wind while easing along a dry wash in North Dakota’s rugged Badlands country. My objective was to slip within longbow range of an unsuspecting muley buck, but as the sun rose higher and turned the desolate landscape into a Dutch oven, it seemed less likely that I would find success on this late-August day.
I tried to keep a positive attitude and remain stealthy, but as the morning stretched into midday, I noticed that my pace had quickened and my attention span had deteriorated considerably. I still slowed to glass each cut in the landscape, but it seemed impossible that the wide-open terrain would hide more than a jackrabbit. The only real cover for miles was the grove of trees nestled next to a large stock dam that held my campsite.
Cresting a narrow point separating a pair of sandy washes, I let my eyes scan the shady banks and sagebrush clumps, and then, satisfied that nothing lay hidden in front of me, I took two steps around a dilapidated fence corner and all heck broke loose! Erupting virtually beneath my feet was one of the largest whitetail bucks I had ever seen! The shock had me frozen like a statue, dumbfounded at how such a giant deer could have been hidden literally in plain sight, but more so by the fact that this B&C critter was a whitetail and not a muley!
Eventually I snapped back to reality just enough to get my binoculars up to get a look at the buck as he trotted across the open countryside. Even to this day he sported one of the largest typical racks I’ve ever seen, carrying a 6x6 frame that would surely have stretched a tape into the 180s. While this was my first real experience with open-country whitetails, I have since traveled in search of the outstanding bowhunting that these areas have to offer — pursuing whitetails regularly in both Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Eastern Montana — and I can attest that these open-country destinations offer incredible opportunities to arrow a giant buck.
Everyone knows that whitetail deer are the most adaptable of our big-game species. They live and thrive all across this great country of ours, as well as across Canada and throughout Mexico. These resilient critters are the main focus of bowhunters everywhere, including in many wide-open parts of the country.
One of the beauties of open-country whitetail destinations is that many of these states offer over-the-counter tags, or high drawing odds, which affords bowhunters the opportunity to hunt year after year. Another plus is even though these hotspots offer incredible hunting, they still don’t get the attention that more traditional whitetail states like
Iowa, Wisconsin, or Illinois do. The upshot is fewer hunters, less competition, and better hunting. Of course, if you’re not used to chasing whitetails in open country, it can be a bit of a shock to your system at first. But keep these simple keys in mind, and you’ll definitely be primed for success.
Even in the most open of habitats, there are still pockets of cover here and there — or islands, as I like to call them. These islands typically consist of willows, poplars and cattails, and they are absolute magnets for whitetail deer. Oftentimes they begin life as a low spot that holds water in the spring, so they can’t be farmed. Over the years the grass, brush, and trees grow up to create the perfect location to ambush a big, open-country buck. One of my all-time favorite islands was a series of dry sloughs in North Dakota, the largest of which looked exactly like an hourglass from an aerial photo. I had a treestand in a big poplar on either side of that narrow neck to take advantage of changing winds, and I would regularly pass up as many as a dozen bucks from either of those ambushes on any given sit. Whitetails may well live and thrive in wide-open spaces, but they still enjoy heavy cover wherever they can find it, and the bucks still have the urge to rub and scrape as autumn progresses. These islands offer deer a perfect opportunity to do just that.
Everywhere I’ve ever hunted in open country the landscape is bisected by ribbons of water, either in the form of actual rivers or small creeks, or even tiny ditches that are dry most of the year. Just like an island oasis, these ribbons will grow up with trees, brush, and vegetation along their banks, offering perfect travel corridors.
During the rut, these ribbons are goldmines because bucks use them to travel great distances in search of receptive does, and a treestand or ground blind can be a hub of activity all day long. I have a favorite ambush in Kansas along a high creekbank that I’ve nicknamed “Booner Corner,” because the funnel will no doubt show me a B&C buck someday!
Actually, it already has, most recently in the form of a giant buck that I rattled in a couple years ago that had his left main beam snapped off just above his brow tine. If the missing antler matched the right side, the brute would have easily flirted with 170 typical inches. But I let him walk in hopes of running into him again with both sides intact — no doubt somewhere along that country ribbon!
The Fountain Of Life
Almost without exception, open country is dry country, and since all living things depend on water, it stands to reason that H2O is a key to bowhunting open spaces. Much open country is ranch country, and since cattle require water, ranchers go out of their way to improve or add water sources as necessary. Stock dams, windmills, and even manmade tanks draw deer for miles in arid regions, and can be exceptional places to set up an ambush. I’ve hung platforms on windmills, and even on power poles, with good success on whitetails — as well as on mule deer and pronghorns. But pop-up blinds are usually the way to go if there’s little or no natural cover.
Set up your blind well in advance of hunting and the game will become accustomed to its presence, providing an almost slam-dunk opportunity for the patient bowhunter. I set up an impromptu ambush inside a set of dilapidated corrals near a stock tank in Eastern Montana one season in hopes of arrowing a trophy pronghorn but instead, on a daily basis I watched as whitetail after whitetail, several of which were shooter bucks, quenched their thirst well within longbow range. Without a deer tag in my pocket, all I could do was enjoy the show.
Home Sweet Home
With little natural cover, open-country whitetails have adapted to using manmade tree plantings to their advantage for both food and shelter, and many of these areas of cover encircle rural homes. For hunters not accustomed to open-country hunting, it seems impossible to believe these homesteads, both active and vacant, will hold large numbers of deer. Not only that, but trophy bucks will often take up residence in the shadows of barns and other manmade structures.
When I lived in North Dakota, I had permission to hunt several thousand acres of farmland owned by a pair of brothers, but I was not allowed to hunt the farmsteads themselves. On many occasions I would stop by to visit and see big bucks feeding nonchalantly in the garden behind one house, or in the apple orchard behind the other, seemingly without a care in the world. Obviously, deer have little concern living in close proximity to man if they’re not disturbed, and if you can get permission to hunt such a setup, you’re one lucky bowhunter!
Probably my all-time favorite open-country ambush includes several of these features. It’s a treestand about 12 feet up in a big cottonwood, along a creekbank in northeast Kansas. The small creek provides the travel corridor of the ribbon — the life-giving water necessary for these deer to survive in this dry country — and it sits less than 150 yards from the rancher’s front door! I can’t tell you how many bucks I’ve passed up from this perch. Looking back through my notes, I see that I’ve regularly had double-digit numbers of bucks within longbow range of this stand when deer are on their feet during the rut. I can set my watch to the rancher letting his dog out in the predawn darkness, to his old Chevy firing up as he goes off to feed his cattle, and to his wife heading to school in town where she works, and on many occasions I’ve had bucks beneath my stand and they didn’t pay any attention to what was going on! Now that’s a deer hotspot the likes of which I may never find again, but you can bet that each fall I’ll head west to chase these open-country whitetails.