For two decades, living in New Mexico’s best elk-hunting country, I hunted “Virginia” whitetails only by traveling. As long as I was being subjected to airline travel or days-long drives to reach these whitetails, I visited only the very best ground, so I never really understood the whitetail obsession practiced in, say, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, or Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. The whitetail formula was easy: If you wanted to kill a big buck, travel to big bucks are found, and the more killable, the better!
My attitude changed dramatically after moving to northern Idaho. I now enjoy whitetail hunting out my backdoor, and it didn’t take long to catch that burning whitetail hunting fever, especially in a state where gagger bucks reside but actually killing them is extremely challenging. This has everything to do with the terrain and conditions at hand.
This isn’t Kansas, where all you must do is occupy any line of available trees and every buck in the neighborhood will eventually show up. This isn’t Illinois or Iowa, where 2 1/2-year-old bucks regularly break Pope & Young’s minimum ceiling for the record book; where cut-and-dried bedding and feeding areas are sharply defined to make stand placement little more than common sense.
Here, whitetails share habitat with Rocky Mountain elk and not in the same sense as re-introduced elk in states like Kentucky or Pennsylvania. This is vast and unfettered elk country in the strictest sense, but whitetails also happen to live here. It is true: You will find Idaho whitetails in classic farmland habitats, but it’s also true that seemingly endless, mountainous big woods make up a vastly larger proportion of whitetail ground in this part of whitetail-dom.
This introduces inherent challenges in hunting but has also made me a better whitetail hunter. I must hunt longer and harder for success, read sign more precisely, and gather vastly more intel to piece parts together from an immensely larger puzzle. For me, this challenge also makes whitetail hunting more engaging and ultimately rewarding.
TWO IDAHO WHITETAILS?
White-tailed deer populations are scattered across Idaho, largely along riparian corridors in the state’s drier southern portions. Yet Idaho’s most reliable whitetail hunting, and some of its best-scoring bucks, is consistently found in the Panhandle region. A line from Weiser eastward to Salmon (following state highways 52, 21, 75 and finally U.S. Highway 93) establishes the southern boundary, which includes Adams, Valley and Lemhi counties. Again, there are pockets of whitetails south and especially eastward, but from this line, northward, whitetails reign, and mule-deer distribution grows increasingly patchy.
This is in large part due to hunting pressure. Human density thins as you move north, but my observations also suggest Idaho has two genetically different sets of whitetails.
Clearwater County, where I live, is what I consider a dividing line between these delineated genetics. We have what I call “Wyoming” and “Canada” genetics. Whitetail bucks with Wyoming genetics are burly, obviously prime 5 1/2- to 6 1/2-year-old animals wearing antlers scoring from only 115-125 inches. Conversely, you’ll occasionally tag 3 1/2-year-old bucks in the same area scoring 140-150 inches. This is less than a scientific observation, certainly unofficial, but many long-time area hunters agree. Even regional biologists say it’s feasible. In any case, Idaho shows a marked increase in recent Boone & Crocket record-book entries coming from counties north of Interstate 90 (and into northeastern Washington).
More specifically, it’s also safe to say Idaho’s biggest whitetail bucks, on average, generally come from more remote areas — protected and/or heavily-managed private lands set well aside. Idaho hosts a generous rifle season, to put it in the best light, and nearly excessive in some areas if you are being more honest. Many farmers in this region would prefer all wild ungulates to be eliminated from the landscape completely.
This is a long-winded way of saying open farmlands and prairies tend to be shot flat in Idaho, including liberal depredation permits and less demanding hunting conditions. Serious trophy hunters typically take the path less traveled when seeking outsized antlers. This takes some acclimation for whitetail hunters reared in classic settings, as this means addressing archetypical elk habitats — which also changes the playing field and how it is approached.
THE RIFLE HUNTER’S PLAYBOOK
Pursuing whitetails in mountain habitats opens opportunities for more pro-active hunting ploys — namely, spot-and-stalk. Northern Idaho is also logging country, translating into nearly limitless clear-cuts in various states of reproduction. As a general rule, whitetails are most apt to venture into these open areas where and when hunting pressure is least intense, or where hunter access to such habitat requires more effort. An overabundance of logging roads (closed to full-sized vehicle access) has infected Idaho with fatuous few hunters willing to venture far from motorized transportation.
Those who are willing to hike (and pack meat on their backs on return) typically find the biggest bucks. The deer rut also factors into the equation, as male-deer hormones seasonally cause otherwise wary bucks to take chances they wouldn’t during other times of the season. In general, Idaho’s whitetail rut runs a tad later than Midwestern dates, say, November 13 through end of season (December 1).
The age of clear-cut timber also factors into how attractive these areas prove. North Idaho timber is cut on average in 50- to 60-year cycles, appearing in any stage from a charred stump field to mature forest. There will be some small amount of use by whitetails across a clear-cut when fresh forbs emerge in the first couple years, but this is largely nocturnal movement or nibbling at the edges. As grass takes over, clear-cuts become less appetizing, say at the 5- to 10-year mark. After about 10 years, clear-cuts come into their own, offering enough cover to provide safety and enough brushy browse to make them worthwhile. You develop an eye for this perfect balance, but it is also revealed via abundant sign while scouting.
Finding a commanding vantage point and putting quality optics to work is the name of the game in clear-cut country. When a clear-cut is at the perfect regeneration phase, glassing is more than making random sweeps. It’s tedious probing, seeking not just feeding deer at the edges of daylight, but looking for deer bedded beneath patches of shade or sunning on open ledges. This is more feasible than might first seem apparent, as some of this country is tilted severely and easily penetrated optically from across canyon.
This is also why the average Idaho rifle hunter is long-range obsessed. You can locate deer from across canyons, but while moving closer you lose your vantage and/or find yourself in obscuring brush. Taking the long stab is often your only option for clean shooting lanes. The hotter 6 mms, 6.5 mms, 7 mms and larger .30-calibers give you an edge in these situations, maintaining velocity/energy longer and helping buck crosswinds.
Idaho also offers a generous early archery season (August 30 to September 31) and allows archers to bowhunt during general season. The first week of archery season presents the unique opportunity to tag a velvet-antlered buck, but after bucks go hard-horned, I normally keep an eye out for whitetails while also chasing bugling elk.
Early on, you’ll want to concentrate on food most of all, but water in areas where it is not overly abundant draws deer, too. The right feral apple or pear tree can prove an early-season gold mine. Alfalfa, peas and garbanzo beans are other obvious draws. If an area has a garbanzo bean field, you can bet nearly every area deer will focus its attention there. Field peas run a close second, while alfalfa is the universal deer magnet. The trouble with such settings is fields often run into the hundreds of acres, making pin-pointing movement problematic. Plenty of scouting, belief in your stand site (moving stands daily introduces the risk of alerting deer to your presence) and persistence pay off.
I isolate evenings for my hunts. This is the best way to avoid bumping deer while coming and going from field stands, because deer occupy fields by night, and entering the stand in the dark of morning will clear that field. Bucks are easiest to kill from stands when they’ve no idea they are being hunted. When hunting agricultural fields, I normally skip morning hunts (or stake out feral fruit) and get in my stands well before sunset.
And just because rifle seasons are in effect doesn’t mean bowhunting won’t relinquish success. I’ve killed most of my trophy-sized Idaho bow bucks in November while rifles sounded all around. These are stand hunts and normally include habitats rifle hunters shun. While rifle hunters gravitate to open areas where they can see and unleash long-range shooting skills, I burrow into the thick stuff and hang stands.
Stands aren’t hung randomly, and much scouting is invested before siting my stands. This mostly revolves around the modern wonder of trail cameras. In country this big, scouting becomes exhaustive but is invaluable. Stand sites normally hinge on funneling terrain features, and especially scrapes. Saddles are a common funneling factor, as well as ridgelines or points and benches (often defunct logging skids) that traverse especially brushy hillsides or a treacherous piece of topography.
What normally ties this together during the rut are rub and scrape lines, especially the latter. The white-tailed deer rut in north Idaho is truncated and fairly intense. Terrain is vast and deer are unevenly, or thinly, distributed. Bucks must travel great distances to check various doe pods or to simply find a doe at all in low-density areas (relative to the Midwest’s ideal). To save time, they travel routes allowing them to scent-check large swatches of ground (ridgelines, bowl heads, inside clear-cut edges) and create scrapes along the way as calling cards for receptive does. Scrapes aren’t territory markers, strictly speaking, but they are used by every social layer of the deer population. Some scrapes are simply a form of aggression displacement; others are community signboards used season after season. These scrapes funnel deer traffic from wide areas.
Trail cams help keep tabs on the situation, revealing which scrapes are hot and which are duds. You’ll also find a scrape can provide little buck traffic for days, until area does go into estrous. Suddenly, you have two or three behemoth bucks hitting that scrape like clockwork. That action rarely lasts long, so it’s important to check cameras regularly, aside from spending as much time on stand as possible, especially during inhospitable weather. Idaho’s November whitetails move best when climatic conditions turn brutal. I killed my two biggest Idaho bucks in November at 12:45 and 1:30 p.m.
Idaho isn’t Iowa (curtailing rut-time rifle hunting would help here), but it’s pretty darned good. And it’s not Iowa because pursuing whitetails in twisted elk country comes with more demanding criteria. But for the Western hunter looking for a taste of the whitetail experience, Idaho holds the top spot outside traditional strongholds, with high success rates and a shot at some mighty fine bucks … in country that aesthetically beats the East any day of the week!