Whitetails May Have Adapted To The Open Country, But They Are Still Best Hunted In Cover
The slow-moving, turbid river bubbles and churns past my tree stand. A flock of geese noisily flap and cackle in their watery beds, their excitement building to a crescendo as they rise to feed in nearby fields. I, too, am shivering with excitement, as I see a buck steadily working toward my perch, unaware of our fateful encounter.
During the past 15 years, I have been fortunate enough to see this scene replayed many times as I’ve hunted the major river bottoms of the western high plains. The mighty Missouri, Platte and Arkansas rivers wind their way through some of the best riparian cover west of the Mississippi. Thick river bottoms, surrounded by wide-open vistas of grassland, winter wheat, alfalfa and an occasional cornfield, create ideal deer hunting habitat. Use these tried and true methods to find your own high-plains whitetail wonderland.
When you begin searching for river bottom country to hunt, nothing beats an area with a past history of producing big whitetails. Most states have bowhunting record books listing the date and general location of harvest. While searching these references. look for the names of counties that the big rivers flow through, corresponding with the recent harvest of big bucks. Next, visit those counties and purchase aerial maps from the county soil conservation office. Look for areas of thicker cover and trees surrounded by favorite whitetail crops such as corn, alfalfa and winter wheat. When you’ve located a few good-looking stretches of river bottom on paper, visit those spots in person to see the actual lay of the land. Occasionally, there are some high bluffs nearby to gain a better vantage point for glassing the terrain. Look for thicker areas of Russian olives and cedars intermingled with a few cottonwood trees. An ideal setup will have this cover adjacent to an island covered with thick brush and surrounded b y cattails. Deer use these natural refuges as bedding cover during the day, making them logical places for stand placement to intercept their morning and evening travel.
Next, try to find out who owns the land. A farmhouse located on the property of interest is a natural starting point, but what if no one lives on the property? One source I use is a county plat map, which can be purchased at the county extension office. This guide lists the landowners for different plots of land. Consult the local phone directory and keep a lookout when driving country roads for like surnames posted on rural mailboxes. Sometimes a relative will own property nearby and will know how to contact the actual landowner to gain permission to hunt.
Remember to always be respectful of the farmer’s time. Usually he is busy trying to make a living. Let him know you are a responsible hunter and will show him common courtesy. When hunting, call in advance, close all gates and only bring a friend or two with you. Tell him what vehicle you will be driving and ask where to park. Inform him of any stray animals or trespassers on his property. Offer to lend a hand if you think he might need some help. In short, let him know you will respect his property as if it were your home too.
Scout From The Outside In
Once you have gained permission, ask the landowner where he usually sees deer, especially any big bucks. Usually, there will be a few key entry and exit points along the field edges where the deer congregate at dark. Start to scout there, noting the prevailing winds. Try to find primary trails indicated by a large number of deer tracks leading both into the field and back into the woods. Sometimes, a large, lone tree located near a field edge will serve as a guidepost to deer. Brushy fencelines and points of cover jutting into open fields are also areas to check for high deer activity.
Many times there will be a faint secondary trail 30 to 50 yards downwind of a primary trail. If the wind is not blowing into the cover, hang your stand over one of these trails for an afternoon hunt. I like to hang my tree stand on the field side of the tree because this reduces the likelihood of deer spotting me on their way to feed. If you do not get a crack at the buck you want, or if you see him use a different trail, move your stand.
I like to work my way in toward heavier cover. Most afternoon stands are located near open fields, so try to pick out thicker spots located farther back into the woods for morning stand sites. Frequently, I will follow a trail into thicker cover after an unproductive morning hunt, looking for fresh scrapes and crossing trails.
One year, I used just such a method to harvest a nice P&Y class buck. On the first afternoon of hunting, I passed on a couple of smaller bucks using a secondary trail but saw some deer using a trail about 100 yards downriver.
The next day after an unproductive morning hunt, I scouted the other trail and found a few rubs and scrapes along its path. I hung my stand about 30 yards downwind of the biggest scrape, yet still over this new trail. The next morning a nice nine-pointer was working the trail, nose to the ground, searching for a receptive doe. I grunted twice, and he beelined toward my deadly setup. A spine shot anchored him on that very trail.
Hunt The Thick Cover
This is probably the most fundamental thing you can do to increase your odds of drawing on a huge whitetail along a high-plains river bottom. Years ago, veteran whitetail hunter Wynn Fontenot told me, “Find the thickest cover you can, and hang your stand there. That’s where the big boys will be.” His words rang true the next fall. I was scouting a new area in some fairly open river bottom country. As I followed various deer trails, they all seemed to converge toward a thicker group of trees and brushy cover. I found a few rubs and a couple of beds. It was still pretty thin cover there, and I was fearful that the deer would pick me off in my tree stand. However, I heeded my friend’s advice and hung my stand over a trail meandering through the middle of the thickest spot.
The next morning, a group of does and fawns passed beneath the stand at first light. About an hour later, a nice 10-pointer walked under my elevated position. A razor-sharp broadhead caught him behind the shoulder, and he went down within sight of the stand. A month later, a big 13-point nontypical walked down the very same trail. As he stepped into the shooting lane, a five-yard shot presented itself and down he went for good. Hunt the thickest cover you can find; that is where the big boys will be!
Grunt, Rattle And Roll
The whitetail rut typically kicks into high gear along high-plains river bottoms around mid-November. Rattling and grunting have each pulled in curious bucks for me both before and during this period of increased buck activity in the high plains. First, start out with a few soft grunts. If you do not see any deer approaching, try some light rattling for about 30 seconds. Wait about five minutes, then try some aggressive grunting and rattling. Keep an eye open behind you for a buck sneaking in to check out all the commotion.
The key is once you have the buck’s attention, stop calling. It is far too easy to work a buck over too hard with a grunt tube or rattling horns only to see him melt away in the thick cover. Bucks know where the sound is emanating from and will eventually check it out if their testosterone level is high enough. One word of caution: Always have your bow in your hand between calling segments. Bucks have the uncanny ability to sense when you are not ready and will choose that moment to appear in your shooting lane.
Your best chance of taking a big high-plains whitetail buck is typically the first time you sit a stand. If you are hunting near scrapes, and not seeing any daytime buck activity, move your stand. Chances are the deer have patterned you or the wind is wrong and you have spooked your intended prey. Typically, I hunt a river bottom stand no more than twice in a row and then will only hunt there again if there is additional promising sign. If you do insist on hunting the same stand, let it rest a few days between hunts.
The one exception to this rule is during the rut. Does will sometimes bring a buck in tow right underneath your stand, no matter how many times you have sat there. Be ready for this gift from above; if you see a doe approaching fast, get your bow up and ready. Your next trophy might be close behind.
Keep An Open Mind
Sometimes, unforeseen circumstances will put an open country buck in your lap when you least expect it. One year I was hunting a nice stretch of river bottom near several alfalfa fields. I was in a twisted tree overlooking several deer trails when I caught movement about 100 yards out. “Great, a duck hunter walking through the I thought as I waited in vain for a big buck to show. The next thing I knew, a 140-class P&Y buck trotted down one of the trails leading toward my tree stand. My bow was hung just out of reach, and the fast-moving buck was on me quicker than I could say “spit.” Indeed, the buck was accidentally pushed out of his bed right toward my position.
The point here is that I should not have given up when I saw that duck hunter moving through the river bottom. Many times, surprises in the woods can create an opportunity where you thought there was none. A wandering cow, a farmer on a tractor or some squirrel hunters can all change things, sometimes in your favor.
When you are on stand, stay alert and don’t give up if things do not seem to be working out as planned.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Remember that whitetail hunting can be tedious at times. Cold mornings on stand without so much as seeing a deer can dampen your enthusiasm and take the edge off your hunting. What you need to realize is that a hunt can go from the worst to the best in a matter of seconds, so stay alert.
One trick to use to stay “frosty” is listening for game. If a squirrel chatters, tell yourself, “Get ready, a buck might be approaching.” If a crow calls out, get ready. If you hear the leaves rustle, a twig snap, or have the overwhelming feeling a deer is nearby, get ready. At those times, scan the woods with as little movement of your head and body as possible. If you have the slightest feeling that a deer may be in the vicinity, slowly pick up your bow and get ready for a shot. An additional benefit of this game is it allows visualization practice, so when a big buck finally does materialize you have been through all this before.
The morning I harvested the 10-point buck mentioned above, I was seconds from leaving the stand too early. It was cold, and I was not confident that any big bucks were using that particular stretch of river bottom. The cover was sparse, and there was not a lot of sign. I kept playing the visualization game, imagining a big buck was approaching, until it finally happened!
Hunting the high-plains river bottoms has never been better. Lots of game concentrated in thick riparian cover makes this a hunter’s paradise. Start doing your homework now; there is a whitetail wonderland out there waiting for you!