August 12, 2022
I’d been glassing the post-rut whitetail for days — catching him on the open sidehills of the Ponderosa pine-covered National Forest landscape as he scent-checked for unbred does. He fed and browsed on forbs, but his dark-chocolate 5x5 antlers gave him away just above the Sideoats grama around the Forest Service slash piles. After a few days, the buck finally made a mistake and I caught him in an opening close to where I had a blind located. The shot wasn’t far, and I soon was wrapping my hands around the antlers of a “mountain whitetail.” This was the third and final whitetail I’d managed to put a tag on during the late fall/early winter of 2021.
I’ve been blessed to travel and bowhunt quite a bit the past few decades, and I’ve spent several falls chasing whitetails in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and even in the Southeast. But my favorite adventures of late have been in Western states like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and even a bit farther east like the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. All have piqued my taste for adventure and wide-open spaces. Other than Kansas, these states certainly don’t have the reputation for top-end trophy whitetails, but don’t sleep on any of these states. They all produce good, representative P&Y-quality bucks. What’s more, you can hunt whitetails in most of them with archery tackle without having to deal with long draw odds. Each of the states I’m talking about is also blessed with quite a bit of publicly accessible lands. These states have leased private lands, state lands, BLM, and even U.S. Forest Service holdings. Here are a few things I’ve learned while spending time bowhunting in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
When looking at Western whitetail bowhunting, there are a variety of options. Many of the Western states open on or around September 1, and several of them run well into December and even later. You can also hunt whitetails in combination with antelope or elk in some states, so keep your options open. The mid and lower-elevation ranges of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming offer some fantastic whitetail bowhunting opportunities. These states are undersubscribed, and pressure on whitetails is often low. Most bowhunters in these states are looking for mule deer and elk in September. Colorado’s whitetail hunting is typically relegated to the Eastern Plains river systems.
An often-overlooked point in many of these Western destinations is that ranchers find whitetails to be a huge nuisance. I’ve been granted permission on private land more than once on an irrigated alfalfa field, specifically because I was after whitetails. Usually, other big game species, which the ranchers hold in higher esteem, are off limits.
Western whitetails are often a bit different in their movements than most Eastern whitetail hunters may be used to, so using Western tactics is something you’ll need to brush up on and keep in mind. I like to stay mobile and glass from high points at a distance. Drilling down on feeding patterns or rutting movements will help put the savvy bowhunter ahead of the curve. In these locales, there are often few trees and whitetails are used to traveling a mile or more from bed to feed. A well-placed ground blind or a decoy set have helped me place a tag on several whitetails out west.
I like to spend a few days scouting on each trip, after I do most of my pre-hunt scouting via onX Maps and Google Earth. Once camped in a general location, I start focusing on my previous efforts, making sure access points, roads, and trails that I’ve previously identified are legitimate and legal. I’m also getting the lay of the land with the elevations and looking over the varying terrain features. I try to visit with area residents, whether it’s at a local archery shop, coffee shop, or visiting with farmers and ranchers I meet at a local diner. I’ve also gotten a lot of great tips from rural mail carriers over the years.
When it’s time to put the pack on and hike into huntable areas, I usually do that during the middle of the day when game is bedded down. Make sure to pay attention to the wind. Walking around bumping deer or allowing your scent to flow through an entire area won’t do you any good.
Talking to a state biologist or local conservation warden is another method of pre-hunt scouting, but one of the things we bowhunters must also keep in mind with these Western herds is the awful effects of CWD and EHD. These insidious killers of wildlife have left a swath of death in their wake in much of this part of the whitetail’s range. I’ve had to change plans and adjust locations more than once over the past decade because of reports of huge die-offs. In fact, two of the ranches I’d previously planned to hunt on a permission basis last fall shut down all deer hunting because of EHD. Keeping abreast of information like this is very important for any bowhunter planning to travel a thousand miles in hopes of having a successful bowhunt.
When I travel west, the weather and time of year always dictates how I’ll camp. In the West, I’m usually bowhunting in September to mid-October. I may spend a few weeks tent-camping and cooking over a fire on National Forest lands or hunting out of the back of my pickup. A bit later in the year, I’ll be hauling my small travel trailer and cooking meals in a warmer propane-fueled camper with a nice comfortable bed. On the late-November and December hunts, the camper or hotel-type accommodations come into play. There are many small towns in these areas where camper hookups are easy to find, and cheap motels and restaurants become the norm for me. You can always save money by combining forces with a friend. Things like pre-cooking and packaging your meals will help make your hunting days stretch further while saving you money.
I like to glass from distant roads or high points while on the Western plains. Spot-and-stalk hunting is often the rule here, and that’s good because it’s an extremely exciting and challenging endeavor. I often employ that strategy in September and into early October. In the early rut period of November, I usually combine spotting and stalking with a mobile decoy like those made by Heads Up, Montana Decoy, and Ultimate Predator. If you can locate a buck that’s locked down with a doe in a swale, creekbottom, or brushy slough in early November, you can often get the wind in your favor and execute a stalk to pointblank range. These are exciting bowhunting tactics you should keep in your bag of tricks for use prior to the firearms seasons — for obvious safety reasons.
My second whitetail of 2021 was an adventure that kept me scouting to locate an ambush location. This particular buck lived in a mid-elevation range, not far from an urban setting. There were patches of public land and National Forest interspersed in between two small mountain towns. It also had several small private ranch properties mixed in.
The state’s firearms season was winding down, but I really wanted to use my Hoyt Axium instead of a gun. With all the human population and buildings, a firearm couldn’t legally be discharged, so most rifle hunters steer clear of this urban setting. Using the onX app, I found several of these small public-access points with 20 to 80 acres of public land in between housing areas.
Just after Thanksgiving, the beautiful dark-antlered buck I’d been glassing left a private sanctuary. He made his way within bow range of a ladder stand I had prepositioned on a freshly logged sidehill. My arrow slammed home, and the buck’s short death run ended next to a waterway. The late season had once again been kind to me after most bowhunters had given up for the year.
From Kansas up into the Dakotas, the public lands may not be quite as voluminous, but there is still plenty of it if you do your homework. Most of these states also allow a traveling bowhunter to purchase a license without points and a draw. I do a ton of research with onX maps, but Google Earth and each state’s game agencies often have mapping software to help you research their public lands.
I’ve found that watching crop rotation and looking for large agricultural fields like winter wheat and alfalfa is critical in these states. Waterways, with small ribbons of timber and shrubs, is where I’ve often found good whitetail hunting. Permission to hunt private property isn’t an easy thing to come by in this day and age, but that shouldn’t stop a bowhunter from inquiring. I spend about half of my time hunting private versus public here in the Great Plains states, but the public options are great. North Dakota’s PLOTS program is phenomenal, and the other three states have quite a bit of Walk-In lands that usually see more pressure from pheasant hunters than archery or firearms deer hunters.
The strategy I was using last fall on a mid-November bowhunt is one I’ve used successfully many times. The local grain harvest was really rolling, and the rut was in full swing. This kept pockets of deer moving from formerly loaded grainfields that were now stark deserts. By keeping tabs on which fields in the area were still standing or being harvested, I was able to target a location with standing cover and crops. I knew these areas would start to really pop in the next week. Packing in a few stands and hanging them in downwind locations between feeding and bedding areas, gave me hope I could intercept a nice buck.
After some unsuccessful rattling, I started trolling with grunts and eventually saw movement in the distant cover. Three bucks looking for a sweet-smelling doe eased into the brushy draw to investigate. One was a nice fat 4x4, about three years old, and I decided immediately he’d do just fine. Grunting lightly, he cut the distance from 150 down to 30 yards and then tried to cut downwind. I held steady and made a great shot. He quickly crashed 50 yards through the standing kochia weeds and tipped over before making it into thick cover. That was my first Western whitetail of 2021 — a pleasing ending to that weeklong trip to the plains. The best part was, I could drive my pickup to this buck, so there was no long drag off of a large public parcel that doesn’t allow vehicle traffic.
Western whitetail bowhunting offers some fantastic opportunities for those with a craving for adventure. Do as much scouting as you can online, stay mobile and flexible, keep your options open, have a great time, and find success!
The author is a retired USAF CMSgt, wildlife habitat management specialist, and freelance writer/photographer.
Author’s Note: My list of equipment used on the hunts described in this article included a Hoyt Axium bow, Carbon Express arrows, Rage broadheads, QAD rest, IQ Bowsight, TruFire release aid, Leupold optics, Danner boots, Badlands backpacks, and a T&K Hunting Bino Harness.