November 02, 2022
By Darron McDougal
The big 5x5 appeared on the skyline, then bristled up and smashed a tree on the edge of a thicket with his massive antlers. I’d been spotting and stalking all morning, and now it was noon. After raking the tree, he continued walking through the draw below me. I predicted his course, and when he was obstructed, I got in front of him before hunkering down, only shin-high prairie grass hiding me.
His antlers appeared 45 yards away behind brush. I hunkered lower and waited. After a few moments, I grew impatient and raised up. I caught movement 15 yards away. He’d followed a little ditch right to me. I immediately drew back, and when he came up out of the ditch and stopped 22 yards away, my arrow 12-ringed the 150-class buck. There wasn’t a tree in view that would’ve supported a treestand. I was on the prairies.
If you’ve mostly hunted whitetails in classic whitetail habitat — timber, river bottoms and agricultural lands — then the prairies will certainly serve up some challenges. The only way to be consistently successful is to adapt. Here are five ways to do it.
1. Spot and Stalk Them
Treestands and ground blinds have their places out west, but spot-and-stalk hunting can put you in the game when you’re faced with vast, rolling open country. Even if you’re inexperienced, spot-and-stalk hunting gives you the chance to stretch your legs, learn and occasionally succeed.
Either keep this ploy in your back pocket, or use it as your primary technique and forget treestands altogether. Regardless, if you spot a big buck that you’d love to kill, choose a good route, identify some landmark references along it, get the wind in your favor and then go. Every good prairie whitetail hunter I’ve known has bow-killed bucks by stalking in terrain where treestands aren’t an option. When executed well, it works.
2. Find Isolated Cover Amidst the Openness
Prairie bucks thrive in openness. Still, they seek security when possible. Try to identify features like an obscure draw dotted with junipers or a 20-foot-by-20-foot plum thicket. If you’re hunting on public land, seek draws or small thickets that are tough to access. Many hunters glass from roadways, so tie your boot strings and go exploring. I’ve found some really incredible spots this way.
Bucks will generally use these little cover pockets two ways. First, they’ll often bed in them during the early season. Second, they’ll dart between draws and thickets during the rut in search of does. If you find enough deer sign to warrant hunting, look for any possible setup on the downwind side of the cover and put in your time.
3. Hunt Them Over Water
Most of the prairie states are in a drought. I recently interviewed an Oklahoma hunter who arrowed a 168-inch buck, and he had 12 other bucks frequenting the area because a stock tank sits about 75 yards away from his stand. He reported that creeks are drying up and that deer are concentrated around any valid water source.
So, if you can find a reliable water source on the prairies far from any large rivers, lakes or reservoirs, you might have a pile of deer concentrated there, so long as there is plenty of food and some cover. Look for stock tanks and pond dams. Some should be visible on your mapping app (I use HuntStand Pro), but be observant while you’re out and about, too.
4. Decoy Them
I’ve had good success using decoys on the prairies. There are options. You can use a bow-mounted Ultimate Predator Stalker decoy (at your own risk) as part of your spot-and-stalk approach. You can use a 3-D deer decoy and hunt from a treestand, if possible, or tuck into the brush 25 yards away. Or, you can combine the two when there is little to no cover. Place the 3-D buck decoy, then hunker in the grass or next to a little tree 20-25 yards away on the downwind side of the 3-D decoy with your Ultimate Predator doe decoy attached to your bow (again, at your own risk).
With the third option, you’re portraying a buck locked down with a doe. If a dominant buck spots your setup, he’s likely to come on a string. I almost killed a big buck with this exact setup last fall in South Dakota, but the wind changed when he was 60 yards out. Before the wind changed, he’d totally bought the setup and was coming in with hair raised. My only cover was my bow-mounted doe decoy.
In 2020, I killed a dandy South Dakota buck at 20 yards that came to my bow-mounted decoy. I grunted him out of a cattail slough. A killer situation in which presenting the decoy as a buck — you can add or remove the antlers on the whitetail decoy — can be highly effective is when a buck is courting a doe in the open.
Try to stalk unseen to within 80-100 yards downwind of the deer. When the buck and doe aren’t looking, present the decoy. Have your grunt call handy, and if the buck doesn’t notice you, challenge him with a grunt. If he doesn’t come, issue a snort-wheeze. You’ve invaded his comfort zone; he’ll very likely come in. Be prepared to take a frontal shot once he’s within 20 yards, as it might be the only shot he offers before he runs you over (this can happen, and you assume the risks by using the decoy).
With sit-and-wait decoy setups, always try to present your decoy(s) where it(they) can be seen from at least 80-100 yards away. Never place a decoy in a place where bucks will be 25 yards away from it when they first see it, which typically alarms them.
5. Use Natural Features or Farm Equipment As an Ambush
You sometimes have to get creative when hunting on the prairies. There are many killer hunting locations that don’t support a treestand or same-day ground-blind setup. So, look for creative ways to hunt the spot anyway. Look for abandoned automobiles, barrels, farm equipment, hay bales, a slight depression, or a junk heap. Deer are used to walking by the equipment, bales or junk daily, so they’ll probably pay little, if any, attention to you or your ground blind, if you use one.
Pound a Prairie Buck!
Prairie whitetails offer a unique hunting experience if you’re accustomed to hunting whitetails in the timber or in agricultural areas. Deer tend to be more visible, which means you often get to see more animals. However, you have to adapt to be consistently successful with archery gear. The five tips I outlined here are a great start.