Gone West

Posted on December 23, 2014

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“The moon is up, and yet it is not night; sunset divides the sky with hera sea of glory streams along the Alpine height of blue Friuli’s mountains; heaven is free from clouds, but of all colors seems to be melted to one vast Iris of the West, where the day joins the past eternity.” – Rochdale

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“Go west, young man, go west” they say. Well, I’m not so young any longer, however, despite the lack of youth I still went west for nearly a full month’s stay. It was indeed an adventure that filled my senses with awe-inspiring vistas, rugged, challenging terrain and more game than I’d ever seen in a single season.

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The beauty, as Rutledge once penned, did “hymn lyrically to the primitive in me.” From the valley floor, all the way to the highest pinnacles, this vast wilderness had a romance about it that enchanted the heart and invigorated the soul. A landscape of high meadows dotted with giant ponderosa pine, river bottoms that hold centuries-old red cedar extending more than a hundred feet into the air, craggy, majestic snow capped mountains collectively echoed an ardor of pristine splendor, sullied only by the corduroy road system that threads through the terrain.

 

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Why West?

 

If you’re going to have a chance at killing a mature buck you have to hunt where they are still alive. Sadly, following the brutal winter of 2013 & ’14 most places from the Rockies east on either side of the international border experienced significant deer mortality due to winter kill. So severe was last winter, that close to 80% of the herd in Western Ontario, where I’d been hunting for the past several years, was now gone. Also, because of my style and methodology of hunting, I need to be hunting areas that offer endless miles of wilderness habitat.

 

What I Found

 

Whenever you embark upon a do-it-yourself hunt in a strange and far-off location, it will entail lots of research beforehand, and even more ground pounding once you arrive. My determination of the nucleus of where I’d begin my hunt was based entirely on two components: water and available food for the resident whitetails.

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To say I did due diligence during my month-long stay would be an understatement. First off, I’m glad I had unlimited miles on the Jeep Wrangler I rented, as it took a lot of driving to pre-qualify the woods; over 2,000 miles logged. The logging roads were basically one-lane switchbacks that weaved up the side of mountains. Navigating these roads is not for the faint of heart, especially when you look out the driver’s side window…yikes! Keep your eyes on the road, Bernier!

 

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The biggest difference between hunting whitetails in the west as opposed to back east was the number of other deer species that share the same habitat, mule deer, elk, moose, and elevation; everything was either up or down with relatively precipitous grades.

Once I found where the forest had or was being logged, I put between 5 and 10 miles of boot work on the ground. Of course, this would mean hiking up, across and eventually back down. On some days I would be near the 6,000 foot mark in elevation, while other days would find me much lower following a creek along the bottom-land.

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Each day was as different and variable as the weather, and regardless of where I hunted I saw game, lots of game. My daily sightings included elk in various size groups, moose, wolves and deer; 140 whitetails to be exact. All this along with some spectacular scenery made for delicious solitude.

 

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However, before you conclude that I’d found whitetail utopia, allow me the opportunity to share the underbelly of what otherwise was a magical trip. Despite the deer density, there is quite a disparity in the buck-to-doe ratio and a real lack of mature bucks. For every buck I saw there were at least ten or more does. The buck population is comprised of mainly 1 and 2 – year olds, hence not much competition. This resulted in a minute amount of buck sign (rubs and scrapes). That’s not to say I did not find the spoor of any mature specimens, but for all the country I covered I only located three.

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Why this is the case is only conjecture on my part, based only upon a month’s observations. I can easily dismiss hunting pressure as I observed very few hunters and encountered no one in the woods. Winters are relatively mild, hence the reason for me selecting this area. It would be my opinion that wolves, the canines that according to Teddy Roosevelt are, “the beast of waste and desolation,” are playing a huge role in why mature bucks are at a premium. They become easy targets following the rut. They are at their most vulnerable as they try to recover while early winter snows begin piling up, forcing them to migrate to lower elevations.

 

Bittersweet

 

Although it took nearly three weeks to uncover, I finally found what I’d been hoping for since my arrival: competition amongst bucks. While driving a meager turnout road I saw a couple of fresh rubs. Once I began investigating this location I counted no less than 27 rubs on three species of trees along with a half-dozen classic scrapes. This sign was all concentrated in a sloping valley, next to a creek, between two mountains.

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Following my initial trek through the area, I returned a few days later and set up to rattle. Light snow was falling with no wind as I positioned myself with good views on the three sides. I expected a buck to appear. Behind me, the least likely direction I figured one would appear from, was relatively thick with one small opening you could see from your knees.

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My rattling sequence began with a grunt, followed by a long snort-wheeze, some stomping on the hard frozen ground, another grunt and then clashing of the antlers, breaking brush and more ground-pounding. This whole procedure lasted about two minutes. I waited about a minute and rattled another thirty seconds before breaking the antlers apart; a few stomps, a couple of grunts and then silence.

It did not take long for the action to begin. I first heard deer blowing from behind me and to my left. And then  what sounded like a stampede came directly at me. While still on my knees, I spun around to face the onslaught with gun up and safety off. Like missiles being shot out of a cannon two does ran past me at breakneck speed not 15-yards away. I could hear the next deer coming, which I was assuming was a buck. With my rifle shouldered and pointing towards the one opening, I peered in the direction from whence the sound was coming.

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Sure enough, glimpses of orange antler floating through the green undergrowth was enough evidence for me to conclude he was at least a three-year-old. Concentrating on the same spot the does ran through, finger tightening on the trigger as I anticipated him following the same course until…one bound short of him filling that opening he suddenly slammed on the breaks, whirled a complete 180 degrees and motored back in the direction he’d come from. I made every attempt to find a hole in the thick green canopy and fired one hail-Mary shot in desperation and hopes that somehow the bullet would find its way through. Unfortunately for me, that would not be the case as he escaped unscathed.

 

Afterthought

 

Many reading to this point would come to the conclusion that this trip was a disaster and a waste of valuable time and money. Understand, no matter how hard you hunt, you cannot shoot what’s not there, and you won’t know unless you go. I feel sad for those with the mind set, one that suggests – no – demands that unless you kill something the entire event is a wash. Gene Wensel rightly expressed, “In my opinion, hunting deer has very little to do with killing animals or hanging heads on the wall. It has minimal relevance concerning numbers, measuring tapes, or competition amongst ourselves. It does have a lot to do with challenge and personal satisfaction.”

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In order for one to understand those lines, and to realize it is far more than a cop-out for eating tags, it will require maturity and a just appreciation for every dawn, every sunset, every moonlit forest and a view of the entire experience as a gift from above. (More on this with our first post of 2015.)

 

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer