Whitetails are a delightfully different kind of game animal from mule deer. Those who try whitetails the first time are both exasperated and challenged by their skulking, brushed-up behavior. This is especially true in the earlier October hunts before the rut starts and while deciduous foliage is still screening deer movements.
by Richard North
Before we get into rut-hunting techniques, let’s take a quick look at how you might get a shot at a whitetail during pre-rut hunts.
The West is still predominantly mule deer territory, and the number one approach for these open-country animals is old-fashioned "still hunting" – walking around while looking for "still" animals. It’s not surprising that this is the method Westerners try first for whitetail. Unfortunately, eastern-states hunters have long since proven that still hunting is one of the poorest ways of gathering flagtail venison!
Whitetails are so spooky and cover-oriented most of the year that we average klutzes can rarely sneak to within firing range of them. If you insist on October still hunting, at least adjust your approach more to watching the edges of fields and glassing brushy canyons at dawn and dusk rather than stumbling about at random in thick woods.
Another classic method of hunting brushed-up whitetails is by organized drives. This works best in manageable patches of timber surrounded by relatively open terrain. Hunters are posted in advance at the ends and sides of such cover while other hunters walk slowly through the trees pushing animals ahead of them. Though the drivers may get shots if they move slowly and alertly enough, the blockers tend to burn most of the powder. Naturally all blaze-orange suited participants in a whitetail drive should be mature and cautious enough not to shoot each other.
Quite a few years ago I participated in several of these farm-country drives east of Moscow, Idaho. As a newcomer to that part of the state I was assigned a blocking position where two old logging roads crossed. I was cautioned to be ready for a snap-shot down either road at any time, but I had no idea how fast driven whitetails can move. I also committed the sin of moving a few feet to one side of my assigned stand so that I could see down only one logging road. You guessed it – a nice buck, its enormous white flag waving high, bounded across the road and into concealing brush before I could get my slack jaw closed. To make matters worse, a sweaty driver shortly emerged down the other road and asked why I hadn’t shot at several deer he was pushing ahead of him!
However you go about it, chasing jittery flagtails in dense brush is pretty tough. Pursuing north Idaho’s forest deer during their brief November rut, however, can be absurdly easy!
Sex-addled bucks in particular throw caution to the hormonal winds and move about constantly in open areas even at mid-day. They readily come to certain sounds and scents, and predictably travel known paths where they can be ambushed.
A rut-hunting technique which continues to grow in popularity in northern Idaho is antler rattling. This method involves the furious clacking together of last year’s harvested antlers to imitate the sparring of whitetail bucks. (Weathered antlers don’t sound as realistic, and you can now buy fake antlers, but I prefer the real thing. A small antler rack, of course is best, and you’ll need to saw off and smooth the tips so you don’t hurt yourself.) Hearing the commotion, a real buck comes in to participate in the local barfight – or to steal away any receptive does waiting in the wings. Even prior to actual breeding periods, whitetail bucks engage in all-out territorial disputes, so rattling can work well in early November. In conjunction with rattling, many hunters employ personal masking scents, doe-in-heat scents, clothing camouflage, blinds of various kinds, and even decoy-silhouettes of does posted nearby.
Antler rattling consists of about 45 seconds of clacking and brush-thrashing, followed by several minutes of observant silence, with the pattern then repeated up to about a half hour.
Commercial doe-in-heat scents (gathered from estral doe urine) is increasingly evident on Idaho sporting goods shelves. A popular and proven method back East, "scent stations," usually consists of multiple scent-saturated pads ringing a fixed shooting stand. Some hunters wear scent-saturated pads on their boots to leave an odor track to their stands and/or to cover human scent while they’re setting out their ring of pads. Others use slingshots to shoot multiple scent pellets in all directions from their stand after they arrive. Dawn and dusk, as usual, are the best times to try this method of "baiting" um… horny whitetails.
Simple trail-watching is another proven whitetail technique, especially during November when bucks are on the prowl.
Trail watching is best practiced in thick cover which is known to harbor whitetails. (In semi-open country even habit-minded flagtails don’t follow established trails reliably.) Simply select a position downwind of a promising trail, camouflage yourself well, and wait. It helps if other hunters are moving whitetails around, but rutting impulses alone should eventually send a buck down the trail and across your firing lane.
Some hunters add an additional twist to rattling, scent-stations, and trail-watching by using tree stands. These may be large semi-permanent wooden platforms hammered together in advance of the rut. (Be sure you have permission from land-owners before doing this.) Or, they may consist of little more than a "sitting board" perched 10 or 15 feet up a tree. If you don’t want to build your own tree stand, quite a few commercial designs are available through mail order catalogs, or in sporting goods stores, especially in north Idaho.
The purpose of tree stands is several-fold: to elevate the hunter
above whitetails’ ground-level scent line, to allow a better shooting angle down through thick brush, and to prevent hunter movements being seen by flagtails’ keen eyes.
Nearly every visiting hunter or local resident confirms that multiple dozens of whitetail deer can be seen every day by the most casual observer in the foothills and rolling wheatfields of central and northern Idaho. Serious buck hunters in most non-wilderness units north of the Salmon River recount instances of passing up many forkhorns and 3-points in their search for trophy antlers.
Where there is a doe season, a success ratio of nearly 100 percent is almost guaranteed. If you’d be satisfied with a late-season doe, check the Idaho Fish and Game Rules for doe-hunt units. And, keep in mind, that if you specifically want a trophy whitetail buck, there are many units in Idaho that have them, not just central and northern Idaho.
The northern November hunts (and a few in December) offer advantages to local residents. The obvious plus is that if a hunter doesn’t tag a deer during the October general hunts, he or she has several more weeks to chase flagtails.
If you’re not sure bucks are actually using the area you want to hunt, look around for whitetail "scrapes." These are mounds of forest duff several feet wide hooved together by rutting bucks and urinated upon. Scrapes are territorial calling cards to let other bucks know a mean macho is in these parts and to inform receptive does that their dream hunk is available. Unfortunately for expectant Casanovas, an actively-used scrape is also an excellent place for knowledgeable hunters to wait in ambush for the buck’s return. (Bucks may revisit scrapes several times daily to see if competition or estral does have responded.) Oddly, several bucks sometimes use the same scrape, which improves a waiting hunter’s chances even more.
In these northern units the year’s first snow usually arrives in November. This opens a final late-season flagtail technique – systematic snow tracking.
Given north Idaho’s high whitetail numbers, the forest floor can be quickly riddled with crossing tracks. If you plan to track a particular deer, it’s best to get out early in the day after a fresh night-snow. Another problem with this variation of still hunting is that over-plentiful whitetails are constantly jumping up ahead, which can spook the one buck you’re tracking.
Evidence is increasing that whitetail deer are spreading in numbers throughout the West. Many have been deliberately stocked to fill habitat vacancies and provide better and different hunting. Other flagtail concentrations are simply popping up from natural migration as these brush-loving animals move into logged-over hills and valley agricultural developments. Whatever their origins, Idaho’s growing whitetail numbers will probably tempt more hunters looking for a different kind of hunting experience.
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