Published by archerchick on 05 Jan 2011
Which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? Realtree or Mossy Oak?
When it comes to hunting deer in many western states, you’ll face a similar selection dilemma, Whitetails or Mule Deer?
In many western states a deer tag is good for one buck of either species, but not both. Before you make a decision on which species to target, consider the landscape and the hunting tactics that work best. Time of year is another important factor.
Story and Photos by Brandon Ray
Over the past two hunting seasons I’ve had the good fortune to draw deer
tags in eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming. The landscape is very similar in
both locations. Cottonwood trees with trunks as big around as tractor tires follow the course
of small creeks and rivers across the eastern plains of both of these western states. Head-high willows and Russian olive trees crowd the banks of the waterways even more. But
these life—giving riparian zones are surrounded by endless miles of rolling hills, fragrant sage
and yellow grasses that wave constantly in a strong western breeze.
For the most part, whitetails thrive along the river beneath the tall trees while the mulies do
just fine in the open sage and steep coulees. Tagging a whitetail in the brushy river bottoms
calls for stand hunting. During the November rut, calling and rattling will increase your
chances. lust a couple hundred yards away from the towering cottonwoods, spot and stalk
is the best technique to arrow a big mule deer in the open. Ultimately the question is: would you
rather sit and wait or make something happen?
In November, 2000 I decided to focus on rutting whitetails in eastern Colorado with the
help of outfitter Chris Cassidy at Alpine Outfitters. Less than one year later, in September of 2001, the focus would shift to wide-racked mule deer in eastern Wyoming. My host for that trip,
Jimmy Fontenot of Wildlife Connections, assured me that early season was a great time to shoot a big mule deer with a bow. Pleasant weather and seeing lots of bucks in the open sold me on the September dates. Both hunts proved that western deer hunting can offer something for any deer hunter.
The 2000 season marked my third year to bowhunt whitetails on Colorados eastern
plains with outfitter Chris Cassidy. Cassidy leases some prime properties on the plains and
he specializes in helping bowhunters score on big whitetails. I asked Cassidy, a man with 13
years of experience hunting Colorado`s plains for his advice on how to bow—kill a big whitetail in a western river bottom setting. “Hunting from treestands during the rut the first few weeks in November, is by far the best way to score. The bucks move into the river bottoms in search of does during the rut. This concentrates them a little more as they come in and move up and down the river corridors looking for receptive does.” Each year Cassidy limits the harvest of mature bucks on his ranches and encourages his clients to pass up younger bucks to let them reach their full potential. It’s a plan that pays off every year. Cassidy’s success with bowhunters on the plains runs right at 75 percent. with near 100 percent shot opportunities. Most of the bucks his clients shoot measure 135 inches or more. The biggest buck taken in recent years scored over 170 inches.
My November. 2000 Colorado whitetail hunt ended the same day it began. As good as that sounds, the hunt was far from easy. l spent about 12 hours in a treestand overlooking several well—worn trails before punching my arrow into a behemoth—sized buck in the waning minutes of last light. The waiting was made even more challenging because of the numbing cold. When l got on stand before sunrise the temperature was 10 degrees below zero. The warmest it got all day was 10 above zero. While the temperatures were bone-chilling, the rut was in full swing. Throughout the
day l watched several bucks chase does through the crunchy snow near my stand.
Late in the day. when l was about to climb down from my stand. I noticed movement to the south. A good buck was crossing a creek, but well out of bow range. l grabbed the grunt call, chipped the ice from inside the plastic mouthpiece and began giunting. loud. At first l couldn’t see the buck in the trees to even know if he had heard the sound, but then he appeared on my side of the creek, 150 yards away, staring in my direction. I let out another chorus of three deep grunts. He was coming my way. At 60 yards he passed behind a cluster of trees and I seized the chance to raise my binoculars and study his rack again. I could count 10 points. I dropped the binoculars and clamped
my release onto the bowstring. At 30 yards I jerked my bow to full power. He stopped for an instant, then started to walk again just as I let the arrow go. The arrow impacted with a loud CRACK! I watched through my binoculars as the 250-pound 10-point took a few steps, then slumped into the snow.
Stand hunting during the rut is a very effective whitetail tactic in any western river bottom. Set up stands in travel corridors and areas with lots of buck sign, scrapes and rubs, and be patient. Be prepared for long days and very cold temperatures and pack a grunt call and rattling horns to lure out-of—range bucks closer to your stand. That very tactic helped me arrow my personal best bow whitetail.
PRAIRIE MULE DEER
Outfitter Jimmy Fontenot has been guiding mule deer hunters in eastern Wyoming for the
past eight years on a 65,000—acre ranch. In those years of guiding, Fontenot’s bow clients
have experienced 100 percent shooting opportunities, and only one archer has left the
ranch without taking a buck. “A realistic goal for archers on my hunt is a buck scoring between 140 and 150 inches. A patient hunter might get a chance at a much bigger buck. Our biggest bow-killed buck scored about 180 inches.
“Optics are everything on this hunt. We start each morning glassing from the vehicle or a high vantage point. I like glassing from the truck at tirst light because it allows us to move quickly and cover more ground than if we were on foot. Once a buck is spotted we will watch him hed down then try a stalk. In the evenings we watch bucks come out of the ravines and coulees, then try to use
cover or breaks in the land to get close enough for a shot. On good days an archer will get one stalk in the morning and another in the afternoon.”
The first day of my September, 2001. Wyoming mule deer hunt was as good a of hunting as you could ask for. I saw 33 bucks ranging in size from young fork horns to a couple of Wide 4x4s that would make any archer drool. Early season means bucks are usually in bachelor groups and they are not nearly as spooky as they become later in the season. The bunched-up bucks are easy to
spot, spending lots of time in the open, but they are tough to stalk. Late in the afternoon
l attempted a stalk on a symmetrical 4×4 that we guessed would score about 160 inches,
but he was accompanied by six other bucks and I never got closer than 100 yards.
At noon on the second day of my hunt I learned a valuable lesson. You can’t shoot a
big buck if your bow is in the truck. Sounds simple, right’? Here’s what happened. From one of the main ranch roads l spotted a respectable 3×3 buck bedded in the shade of a row of willow trees. The tall willows lined a shallow ditch and provided the only cover for a quarter mile. The buck under the willows was too small to shoot this early in the hunt. but I decided to loop around with my camera and take some photos.
When I belly crawled through the sage and up to the lip of the ditch I got an unexpected surprise. Bedded less than 20 yards away and staring right at me was the same big -4×4 buck from the previous afternoon!
He was lying in a shallow depression that we couldn’t see from the road. I was aimed with only a telephoto lens and the buck obviously knew that. He stood for one long minute then casually walked out to about 40 yards and stood next to the 3×3 buck. I cranked-off a roll of film at both bucks. but wished for my Mathews bow instead of my Canon camera.
Finally. the two bucks galloped across the prairie. I spent most of the afternoon trying to
re-stalk that buck. but he was super alert and I never got within range. Lesson: Even if you
can see only one bedded buck, chances are good that during he early season he’ll have
at least one partner with him.
Late in the afternoon on day three I got a second look at old white-faced 4X4 buck
in a dark ravine. l passed this same buck on the first morning. but decided now that he
was plenty big enough. A short stalk and one long bow shot later and my tag was filled.
This time the camera stayed in the truck during the stalk and I was all business! The
buck’s live weight was about 225 pounds and his yellow-colored rack sported shreds
of dried velvet dangling off the beams. The date was September l7.
Western prairies might seem bleak and lifeless at first glance. with barely enough
cover to hide a jackrabbit. but find a stretch of tall trees and shallow water winding
across these plains and you`ll likely find bowhunting gold. Whether your passion is
rutting whitetails or early season mule deer, western waterways have something for
every bowhunter. The toughest part is deciding which species to hunt.
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