By Randy D. Smith
White-tailed deer are not normally associated with plains hunting, but as the population has expanded, more hunters are finding they need to employ open-country strategies. Where I hunt in central and southwestern Kansas there’s a mixed population of mule deer and whitetails, and whitetail encroachment into historical mule deer habitat is a growing problem. Because mule deer are off limits for hunters in many cases, target identification is critical. To hunt in this area, you must be able to quickly differentiate whitetails from muleys by their physical characteristics.
Whitetails don’t like to be exposed over vast stretches of open terrain, but they are highly adaptive and will take advantage of any favorable environment. Favorable whitetail habitat includes hiding cover, bedding cover, and escape cover. That’s why it’s unlikely to find much success hunting whitetails on open buffalo grass common in western areas. However, there are pockets of whitetail habitat even in that environment.
The average adult whitetail stands from 32 to 41 inches from the ground to the shoulder. That is belt buckle high for most of us. A whitetail buck can vanish in 4-foot cover. I have seen mature whitetail bucks lie down in foot-tall grass and completely disappear. I once found a wounded doe in grass no taller than 6 inches, and I didn’t even see her until I was within a few feet.
The writer took this muzzleloader mule deer at 30 yards in open grassland by crawling along terraces. The deer was hiding in a clump of brush and responded to a grunt call.
Whitetail habitat on the plains is normally associated with pockets of browse and cover. Narrow bands of extremely thick brush and thickets are often present in canyons and along rivers and stream bottoms. These pockets did not exist in the 19th Century when prairie fires regularly swept the plains. These are the areas where a hunter should concentrate. Whitetails tend to follow low ground when traveling from one pocket of habitat to the next. You’ll almost always find a well defined deer trail in these travel corridors.
One problem with hunting these corridors is mature bucks are especially reluctant to travel through exposed areas in daylight. Ground blind hunting will have limited success, but there are exceptions. One example is when you know that hunting pressure will force deer from one pockets to another.
I like to set up over escape corridors during the opening weekend of firearms season and let other hunters push deer to me. I set up at least 50 yards from the trails with a clear view of all sides. A pressured buck will break from a corridor and go directly over high ground.
Islands of brush on the plains make for perfect whitetail habitat. The writer likes to approach them from downwind, stopping often to scan with binoculars.
In my area, there are clusters of brush, usually sumac or plums that will be separated from any other cover. This is ideal territory for flushing bucks, especially if they are isolated or on hilltops. I approach with the wind in my face, and I always use a buck grunt call before getting close. I have often had bucks rise in response to the buck grunt. I also carefully glass the brush before approaching. Look through the base of the brush for signs of a buck. If I am faced with working brush up and down canyons, I try to work narrow canyons with the wind to my back and broad canyons with the wind in my face.
I will also monitor open ground along the shadowed side of hiding cover. That means that I watch the west side of cover at sunrise and the east side of cover at sunset. Bucks will often be in those areas very early and very late in the day. Any time I can observe such areas so that the deer will have the sun in his eyes, the better. When hunting deep canyons, however, I will position myself in the shadows looking down on valley floors.
Bedded bucks often will wait quite a while before bolting from cover, even if they know you are nearby.
I believe that the best strategy during mid-day is to try to surprise bucks from their beds. Look for heavier open-cover sites within a few hundred yards of heavy cover. Bucks tend to bed in those areas. They like to be in the sun during cold weather and prefer sites with multiple escape routes. This can be very subtle cover such as slightly taller grass or small concentrations of brush. It is surprising how small these areas can be and yet still hold a mature buck.
If cover is narrow such as along small stream beds I like to move right down the middle, hoping that bucks will flush into the open long enough to provide a shot. A dry stream bed is nearly perfect, because the hunter can move slowly and quietly with high ground all around him. I also follow deer trails down corridors. I am reluctant to leave a deer trail, especially if brush is so thick that I will cause excess noise. If brush is too thick and deer trails pass under overlapped cover, I move along the path of least resistance. This often means passing along the downwind side in the open.
Contrary to those who preach ultra long-range rifles, I believe that this is a perfect hunting scenario for using a fast-handling carbine. If a buck bolts from cover, the quicker you can get on target and take the shot, the better. Unlike a mule deer buck, a flushed whitetail buck will usually not stop until he is out of sight.
Last season, I used a Mossberg 464 .30-30 with a Weaver Gland Slam 1.5-5x scope. I kept the scope set on 1.5 and the rifle loaded with LeverEvolution loads in case I might need to take some longer shots. The last three whitetail bucks I have taken while still-hunting pockets of brush were on the move at less than 80 yards.
All of these tactics require a thorough knowledge of hunting terrain and habitat. That is why, especially on the plains, the better you know the country, the better your chances of success.
When scouting new ground, always keep bedding, hiding, and escape cover in mind. Decide which type of cover it is and at what time of the day it is most likely to be used. Plan your strategies from there.