An End-Season Trophy, and Lessons Learned

Western whitetail bucks are no longer losing their minds and their body fat chasing does; they're losing antlers. The rut is essentially over out West. There are probably some outlier estrous does, but winter has set in, and deer seem to be moving into survival mode. They're also moving during the daylight to feed out of necessity due to cold temperatures and heavy snow in many areas.

The snow, so far, is not extraordinary, and deer across the West are experiencing a typical winter. Of course this can easily change with excessively deep snow and prolonged periods of extreme cold, but here on the eve of the solstice, if the trend in the weather holds, western whitetails should fare well carrying into spring. As I detailed earlier in the fall, herds are excellent, stable, or recovering across their expanding range in the West. The one exception is parts of Northeastern Wyoming, where EHD took a heavy but not crippling toll on whitetails in some areas, especially in river and creek bottoms.

Only bowhunters in Idaho are still pursuing bucks deer out West, and I'll end the season's blog posts with a report about one of them who scored. Nextbuk Outdoors' Troy Pottenger of Kootenai County, Idaho, took this beautiful Washington whitetail on December 15th, what he calls an "11th hour buck." Pottenger arrowed the deer from a natural ground blind on a travel route to food. He tells the story:

"With one week left in Idaho's late archery whitetail season, the deer have distinctly transitioned back to a recovery-based bedding and feeding regimen. Both bucks and does are lying up pretty much through the day with some minimal mid-day movement but not too far from the comfort and protection of cover. The majority of movement is right at first light back to bedding and then again about one hour prior to last shooting light.

"As the temperatures continue to cool and the snow mounts, deer in general will be biologically driven to get up on their feet and move towards feed a little earlier day to day. The deer are not expending as much energy as they did during the fall months in regards to distance traveled either. Most of the deer that I have backtracked in the snow this past week are only bedding 200-500 yards from a predominate food source, some even closer. Whether it be an old apple orchard, farm ground, mountain clear-cut or south facing buck brush (red stemmed ceanothus) infested mountain side, the food sources are hot right now.

"For the bow hunter, determining a logical entry and an exit route is crucial, followed by a well thought out wind advantaged ground blind or tree stand set. Setting up too close to the actual feed can be sketchy and often educates the deer immediately, especially if you're looking for that mature buck. Does and younger deer tend to always show up first, while older savvy bucks will hang back and enter once the others let them know the coast is clear.

"Using the snow to determine exactly what your deer are doing right now and or glassing or using an observation vantage point will really help you make a solid game plan. Snow reads like a book right now; there is no better time to use it to your advantage, and be careful not to follow deer and spook them. Back track instead so you can gather data on what they are doing when not being chased. Get in between that feed and bedding where they will move comfortably in the legal shooting light, and you just might get an arrow off.

"Saturday, December 15th I was fortunate to have the aforementioned play out over in Washington State on the last day of the season. I had been scouting the local deer herd heavily on foot after some fresh snow. Based on what I was observing and what my trail cams were indicating I could see the rut was slowing down and that deer were aggressively seeking solid food sources. So, I began looking for the best feed in the area and let the tracks in the snow show me where and why the deer wanted to be in specific areas. It didn't take long, and I was able to find a discreet saddle with a bluff on one side and an opening on the other, in the topography that was serving as a major funnel for deer traveling about 400-500 yards from an elevated ridgeline bedding area down to a cut bean field below.

"I sat up immediately once I found the spot; the sign was screaming "hunt here"! Like clock-work for three consecutive evening hunts, I had deer filter by me through the saddle starting each day at about 3:00 p.m. I had hunkered in under a big Douglas fir tree that made for a great natural ground blind due to the heavy snow weighing down the limbs nearly to the ground. I crawled in under the big umbrella so to speak and simply broke out a couple shooting holes to sneak an arrow through. Over the three day period and after a couple very close calls, passing up lots of does, 3 nice 3 year old bucks and having an absolute monster bust me while trying turn on my camera; I finally got a great shot at a dandy 4x5, 135-140 class grossing 4.5 year old buck. He didn't make it too far as my Bowtech Destroyer did its job once again on a big mountain buck."

If you've read my reports this fall, you might recognize Pottenger as one of scores of valuable contacts I've relied on to bring you the most up-to-date rut information I could find. Along the way, I turned up some pictures and stories of big bucks taken across the West, but the true gems I picked up were the words of wisdom from expert and lucky hunters alike. The following are my top-ten list of lessons learned in 2012 by covering successful Western whitetail hunters:

1. Rattling antlers can be deadly effective, but selective and sparse grunt calling is more subtle and helps to both intrigue unseen deer and to stop bucks already in sight, dead in their tracks.

2. The biggest of bucks are mostly nocturnal, and the best chance of seeing one in shooting light is from early November through early December, and during periods of extreme cold that force them to feed, even in the daylight. Rutting behavior was exhibited by early November in all six states.

3. The West's biggest-racked bucks are found in Southeast Colorado, where access is very limited, but trophy animals at or pushing 200 inches live in each state.

4. Wolves are a reality for Western big game hunters, both as prey during wolf hunting seasons and as fellow predators. Evidence out West shows that whitetails are more resilient than other western ungulates, and that the further colonization of landscapes by wolves will have lesser impacts than those seen on moose and elk populations.

5. Unseasonably warm weather delays rutting activity, and the sudden onset of cold can nearly instantly trigger a spike in rut sign.

6. Even during the peak of the rut, early morning and late afternoon are the most productive times to down bucks.

7. Finding does and then hunting near them almost as soon as scrape lines appear is very successful. The tactic becomes more effective as the rut progresses and all the way into the second rut.

8. A so-called second rut is a very real phenomenon in the West, as elsewhere, and can trigger aggressive behavior from even the biggest of bucks seeking estrous does. Those hunting in early December should not lose heart by wrongly assuming they've missed the rut and their chance at a buck making a mistake.

9. Spot-and-stalk opportunities exist out West, far more so that in the east and most of the Midwest. But most western whitetails are taken from tree stands or ground blinds, or by still hunters remaining totally stationary or moving excruciatingly slowly while looking and listening intently.

10. For outdoor writers to shoot bucks, they need to spend as much or more time patterning and hunting bucks as they do chasing down rut reports.