December 17, 2021
Question: As a nonresident, I want to hunt whitetails out west, but it just seems intimidating. Any advice you can share on how to make the experience worth the effort. Chuck Shaw, via e-mail
Answer: Western whitetails truly are the “forgotten deer,” and it’s nice to see traveling bowhunters willing to give them a try. Although most Western hunters tend to focus their attention on mule deer and elk, there’s no shortage of whitetails either — and there are plenty of places to find them. That said, anything you do with a stick and string out west takes planning, preparation, and even a little luck if you expect to strike gold.
The first step is deciding where to go. With pockets of whitetails found in Colorado and Wyoming, as well as in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, picking a spot can seem like a daunting task. However, if you’re making your decision based on sheer opportunity, Idaho, Washington, and northwest Montana are hard places to beat. These are not your typical whitetails. They live in big-timber country that often requires a different approach. However, deer numbers are solid in this Northwest stronghold, with some big bucks to boot. Best of all, most opportunities are found on public ground. While Montana tags are only offered through an annual draw, both Idaho and Washington have over-the-counter options.
Arguably, the most intimidating aspect of Western whitetails is the sheer vastness of the country in which they call home. With deer densities varying from region to region, targeting a specific buck and finding quality stand locations can prove difficult if you haven’t done your homework. Half the battle is knowing the when, where, and what the whitetails are doing during your planned hunt, and that ultimately takes intel. Food sources, travel patterns, and bedding cover can be wide-ranging compared to the smaller woodlots in Middle America. When you also throw in the potential for significant weather changes, migration patterns can also be a factor. That said, when it comes to scouting, you should take a more macro approach and let your eyes do most of the work.
Like any good Western hunt, spending time behind your glass looking for little details is always a great start. Take note of terrain features they are moving through, while also pinpointing specific areas within those features they tend to use most. Cover is often dense in the conifer hills of the Northwest, so finding clearcuts, burns, and small openings deer are spending time in is key. Having a good trail-camera strategy around these locations can help narrow down good stand locations.
Besides patterning an early season buck, the November rut is the best time to head west. Unlike Midwest whitetail regions, these mountain bucks have more room to roam and places to hide, and they tend to take advantage of it. Although this often means seeing less activity overall, it can also be a huge advantage for the hunter willing to employ rattling and calling sequences, as well as laying some estrous and buck scents. Just like everywhere else during the rut, find the girls and you’ll be into bucks. And with deer densities generally spread out more, breeding competition is high, which means a more defined and active rut. These bucks also rely heavily on scent to identify hot does, as well as other bucks visiting the neighborhood, so guarding active scrapes and rub lines can mean paydirt.
Lastly, determination is perhaps the most valuable asset when it comes to hunting these big-timber Western bucks. They can take even the most seasoned bowhunter to the woodshed, and they’ve done that to me more than once. That said, having a determined attitude and staying focused will keep you in the game both mentally and physically.