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Rough Country Whitetails

Rattling in canyons and cuts is an excellent strategy for tempting bucks to abandon cover.
By Randy D. Smith

-- It was early December and a chilling breeze wafted through the leafless trees lacing the lower shelves of steep canyon walls southwest of Clark County State Lake in Kansas.  The shadowed faces of two narrow canyons were coated with a layer of frost, and turkey vultures effortlessly took advantage of the updrafts. 

I dropped over the edge as quietly as possible and settled on a brushy ledge the first shelf down from the rim. I glassed the sunlit face of the far wall, working my way from one cluster of brush to the next down to the bottom 200 feet below. As I neared the base, I heard the faint crack of a rock rolling down the far wall of the canyon to my left. Three white-tailed deer, two does and a decent 10-point buck, were slowly trailing a narrow ridge around the next point toward the rim 80 yards across the canyon. 

The lead doe hesitated and cast her attention in my direction. The others following suit. I knew that this was probably the only good shot I would get at the standing buck. I placed the crosshairs at the back shoulder line midway up its chest, slipped the safety and squeezed the trigger. The round struck true, and the buck folded into the ledge. 

Nearly 20 minutes later, after working my way down through the heavy brush at the base of the canyon and back up the steep opposite slope, I rested my rifle across the buck's antlers and admired my prize. This was the best young buck I had taken in several seasons and certainly worth the effort.

Although the plains appear to be a flat, open landscape, the real situation is that there are many hidden canyons providing prime habitat for whitetails and mule deer. Rough country like this can be found throughout the prairie states from Texas north to Canada and offers advantages for any hunter willing to work, learn the country and develop some strategies. 

Many hunters do not like to walk these rough canyons because it is physically demanding. They are missing out on some good hunting. Competition from other hunters is greatly reduced, and it is probable that if you are patient the buck will do much of the work for you.

I hunt canyon country more each year as hunting pressure constantly increases. Normally, I pass up a lot of potential shots because it is much easier to take a deer in places where I don't have to pack meat out of an area on my back. I have also seen more trophy class bucks in the canyons with each passing season, especially after regular rifle season begins and hunting pressure drives them into more secluded hideouts. I am also seeing more bucks because I have learned how to look for them.

Shooting from cross sticks, a bipod, a well-braced knee or prone position aids in long-range accuracy.
I scout new canyons at least two weeks in advance of the season, but I already know most of the areas I hunt and do not disturb them. I want deer in the habit of resting and hiding there with the least human traffic possible. I am not only looking for prime buck habitat but also the best vantage points and the easiest, most discreet way to approach them.

I prefer a location where I can quickly drop over the edge to a vantage point below the rim for some glassing. I've been successful by remaining as high as possible. I begin canyon hunting at dawn just below the top of the rim, usually with my back to the east. In the evening I will position myself on the west rim of a canyon. I prefer the sun in the buck's eyes, and I like to be in the shadows.

I also plan my sites knowing that wind currents tend to rise in the morning and go down the canyon in the evening. Usually I am conservative in my movements, remaining as still and quiet as possible. I try to find brush located along ledges for concealment.

While cover is still important and unnecessary movement should be kept to a minimum, the strategy is more dependent upon long-range glassing and stalking. Narrow canyon hunts depend more on surprise and ambush of deer already in the canyon.

Canyon country is a good place to use a grunt call and rattling antlers. Rattling echoes through narrow canyons and will often entice a buck from its bed or lure it out of heavy cover. An alert buck will invariably work directly up and over canyon walls and only occasionally remain in low cover to work out of the base or the head of the canyon. Many times, though not always, a buck will halt about halfway up a canyon wall trail to look back down. That's when there will often be a credible shot opportunity.

Hunting canyons and cuts is both challenging and rewarding.
There are disadvantages to canyon hunting. Shots are typically long and shooting opportunities can be brief. I often shoot from a prone or sitting position using a bipod or cross sticks. I normally carry a long-range rifle. It is best to get into a comfortable shooting position before calling, rattling or glassing. After a buck starts moving it takes precious time to acquire a well-braced sighting position and it is surprising how quickly one can make an escape over the rim. 

If you pick the wrong canyons for that day, you may see nothing. Once you are busted you seldom see another buck in that canyon for a while. During times of rain or snow it can be difficult to move safely. Care and common sense must be used. A good emergency exit strategy can help prevent a serious injury.

Packing a deer out of a steep canyon can be challenging. When I take a big buck, I'll field-dress it on the spot, pack the head and antlers out first if it is a trophy, retrieve my pack basket then pack out the quarters and back straps in two trips. Carry a heavy line in your backpack. It can be handy for hanging or transporting a buck, and it can get you out of trouble in an emergency.

I enjoy hunting the rough country not only for trophy potential but also for the challenge, isolation and scenic beauty. Enjoying a sunrise from the rim of a deep canyon with only the sound of the wind for company is a deeply satisfying experience whether game is encountered or not. And, as I recently learned, a chance encounter with the buck of a lifetime is possible. I'll be back again next season with hopes of finding that buck again.

-- Randy D. Smith

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