Looking over your shoulder or sitting with a tree to your back, always on the lookout for some tawny bag of bad nature is part of hunting the massive mountain whitetails of Idaho and Washington.
I never did see that big cougar, but I saw the big buck I was looking for. I had wondered all morning why the does I had seen at dawn were so skittish and nervous as they crept through the woods, and why there were fewer deer tracks along the snowy ridge forming one of my favorite late season whitetail haunts. Then I discovered that the gigantic tom had taken up residence. The cat's tracks were so large I could shove my naked fist down 15 inches into the paw imprint in the deep snow, without touching the sides. It was discouraging, and I cursed myself for not scouting the ridge sooner, rather than counting on my repeat luck. I had killed two 4x5 whitetail bucks in a nearby spot in consecutive years, hunting a total of about three hours. Both were nice bucks, and my girlfriend had shot a much bigger 145-class, heavy horned, old monarch in the same spot.
This year, even my backup plan was failing me. I crept down the ridge and found a small saddle, a natural funnel, and took up a sentry position with the wind in my face. It was a place where I could keep an eye peeled. Like much of brushy northeast Washington, visibility was minimal, maybe forty yards. Suddenly a doe appeared where the ridge dropped off to the left. She crossed left to right, zipping through the trees at a quick trot broadside to me and dropped off the right side of the ridge.
Why is that deer moving so fast with her tail down, not appearing alarmed, I asked myself. I also realized that she was moving so quickly through the dense timber that I could not have made a clean shot. Then it all clicked, and my stomach knotted. The adrenaline kicked in as I raised my rifle, already controlling my breathing. Does run with their tail down when they are being chased by...
A loud 'urrrtt, urr-r-r--r-r-r-r-ttt, urrrt' grunting noise came from where the doe had appeared, and I could hear the heavy footsteps of the big buck as he blasted through the snow oblivious to danger. 'Ur-r-r-r-r-uuuutt', 'uuurrrrtt', he said with every heavy step.
Then a bright yellow, massive, forward swept jumble of tines that reached out past his nose blipped between trees as the buck trailed the doe, nose to the ground. I fought the crosshairs down through the fleeting glimpses in the brush and black timber, but never got enough deer in the scope. It was over in seconds, and I don't think the big cougar could have caught that pair of amorous whitetails.
Such is the suddenness and heart-stopping drama of hunting Northwest bucks.
The genetics are probably not better anywhere. I have seen a buck that scored 205 typical points entered into Spokane area horn shows, an animal that would have beaten the Washington state record had one of the horns not been snapped off and reattached. On the Idaho side, a friend killed a 27-inch whitetail, and the biggest buck I have ever seen was taken by an Idaho hunter who shot the deer as it walked out of the woods while a companion was field dressing a big five point (western count).
That buck was 25 inches wide and only scored 158 due to unevenness, but it was breathtaking with a huge box-shaped rack and beams that carried mass like your wrist clear to the ends. Bucks in the 140 to 150 class are considered nice deer here, but nothing special.
Idaho and Washington whitetails are on par with those of southeast Michigan, for sure, genetically. They are easier to hunt, and far less pressured because there is little out of state hunting in Washington, and locals get to choose between whitetail, black-tail and mulies. Across the border, most folks come to Idaho to hunt mule deer. There is far more public land here than Michigan will ever have, and the deer are more vulnerable due to the uneven terrain (they can be caught on ridge sides so much easier than on flat ground).
But unlike Michigan, the deer are not everywhere, and snow is a huge factor because it moves the deer around. My father and I figured out that the tremendous whitetail herd in the area we hunt is actually migratory to some degree, something conventional wisdom says western whitetails are not. Biologists say whitetails do not handle harsh winters as well as mule deer because they "yard up" and die rather than evacuate when severe weather hits.
They are right and wrong. We figured out in a hurry that year that most of our deer had simply disappeared to lower country when we found no tracks after four straight days of snow. "Well they have to start moving soon," I kept telling dad. "It's going to be great." They never moved because they had already left the area.
My dad saw a big buck down in the flats below camp that fall after four straight days of snow piling up non-stop. It was one that he had tracked unsuccessfully year after year. Our hunting companion, NFL punter Rick Tuten, saw a giant, non-typical -at point blank range- but could not get a shot.
But the the deer were simply gone from the high country. I saw a big, 230-pound 4x5 down in town, lying in a truck. It was one of many bucks the lucky hunter had seen in two days. He had been hunting further down the mountain where the deer had moved before the snow began to mass up higher on the slopes. The deer somehow know what's coming in this country.
The last winter I lived in Washington was one of the worst winter seasons in the decade, and it walloped the deer herds. It was the winter of 1997-98, and a terrible one. That was the winter when they should have moved down, but didn't. By the time winter had loosened its grip on the peaks, 80 percent of the whitetails in the state were dead. I found eighteen carcasses in the woods while turkey hunting that spring.
That was almost four years ago, and the herd -as always- has rebounded beautifully with successive mild winters and exceptional genetics. I have seen many 1 to 1.5 year old bucks with four and five point racks (western count).
There are not quite as many deer on the Idaho side. The winters are slightly harsher, the terrain a little more rugged, and there is less winter range. Additionally, Idaho lets hunters kill either sex whitetails and many locals pop the first doe they see. Idaho certainly has its advantages, though. The doe harvest is great for trophy buck and buck-to-doe ratios. There are proportionately more adult bucks in Idaho, less hunting pressure, a longer, more generous season and certainly infinitely more public land.
Idaho also has fewer cougars than Washington. Since Washington banned hound hunting in the mid-'90s, many hunters have been stalked and menaced, including a state biologist I know who was followed hundreds of yards back to his truck. He had been building a deer stand, pre-season. The cougar was actually attracted to, not scared of, all of his limb chopping and commotion.
Washington is so desperate for hunters to thin cougar numbers it scrapped its old, expensive, special draw permit system all together and started selling cougar permits over the counter for $5.
The bigger bucks in this country are just as slick as whitetails anywhere. During a recent hunt, my father stepped out of a backwoods trailer home we had rented for the season, situated below that same forested ridge I was hunting at the beginning of this article. He walked around behind it and through a patch of brush on his way toward the ridge.
It was only fifteen feet from the trailer, but it was a different path than the one we normally took. A trophy 5x5 whitetail, with about an 18-inch spread, exploded like a quail from under his feet. It stopped, dumb as a mule deer, broadside at 75 yards, but dad's 7mm bullet hit brush and the buck bounded off unharmed. He tracked it for two hours, missing it again at point-blank range in a swinging snapshot. "If I'd had my old double barrel and some buckshot I'd have nailed him," he said, smiling in admiration of the buck's sneakiness.
Of all the thousands of surrounding acres, this big buck just entering its prime had figured out the safest place to be -in our laps where we would not expect him. Hunting pressure, particularly in Washington, increases annually while habitat shrinks. Fortunately, most out-of-state hunters will save up for a trip to Alberta or Texas. But those willing to scout and hunt the sprawling national forests of the Northwest will find the kind of hunting most east-coasters can only dream about.
Where to Hunt
All of the north Idaho Panhandle is replete with various national forests, and most of them hold whitetails in the lower regions with some mule deer in the higher areas where giants of both species can be found. Locals generally believe that each sizable ridge is home to one monarch ("Booner", they call them). Whitetails are predominant and subject to swings due to winter kill. Successive mild winters have herds in both Washington and Idaho at premium levels.
On the Washington side there is more pressure, but plenty of public land, milder winters and many Boone and Crockett whitetails. As a general guideline, hunters cannot go wrong looking for whitetails from the Winthrop Twisp area -on the east slopes of the Cascades- clear to the Idaho border in the Okanogan Highlands all the way along Highway 20. Where this road cuts through the Little Pend Oreille Game Range, there is a tremendous amount of public land, great fishing in small lakes and the highest densities of whitetails in the Northwest. This terrific public brushy hunting reserve was set up specifically to preserve habitat for the western whitetail in the 1940s.
Licenses, Fees, and Seasons
Hunting Northeast Washington costs $394.20, with a season that typically runs for a week in mid-October, followed by the late season targeting the rut for three weeks in November. Hunters can harvest mule deer as well. North Idaho's seasons run from November 1 to December 1 in most areas, and a license to hunt deer costs roughly $370. Call (509) 456-4082 (WA) or (208) 769-1414 (ID) for more information, or check out our State by State section on line where you will find links to both Washington and Idaho hunting information.
Best Mountain Whitetail Methods: Still Hunting, Still the Favorite
Most hunters out here rely on still hunting or sneaking. For still hunters, the deer densities are high enough and the deer are active enough during the rut to make this least effective of all methods productive. Sneaking is often preferred because it is more active and late season can be so cold that it is difficult to take a stand for the long periods necessary to be successful. For me, sneaking is the most active, most challenging, and the most enjoying way to hunt deer. A rifle and a pair of Cabela's Compact Wide Angle Binoculars along with some scent retaining and soft exterior waterproof camouflage clothing such as Cabela's MTO-50 Whitetail Extreme
could save the trip.
Portable treestands that set above high traffic trail intersections and scrape-rich core areas are far more productive in the Northwest. It is popular to set up tree stands in areas where hunters are moving deer either with a concerted drive or by regular pressure. For under $100, the Cabela's Trophy Lite Pinnacle Treestand is a smart investment.
I know a guide in Northeast Washington that had a 150-class five point come so hard to rattling that his client missed two times with a .338 at less than 40 yards, and the buck kept coming until he killed it. This is unusual, but rattling works here. Hunters must have more persistence than a person calling turkeys, however, and this is where most fail. Grunt calls and scents are tremendous aids.
Although drives are the single most effective technique in the west, there is a science to this and it should never be performed like a Jim Corbett style tiger hunt, but that is another story entirely. Tree stands, using quiet pressure in core areas, are the best way to take the big boys using a drive, but tag-fillers can flush bucks like pheasants in fields and funnels from the Canadian border south to the blue mountain near Oregon. Occasionally a monster is killed this way too. This is a fun, active, social way to hunt independent of weather or rut conditions. A Cabela's blaze orange washed twill ball cap and vest is a far better accessory than camouflage for making drives.
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