Dakota whitetail. Just the name inspires images of big boned, heavy racked deer standing alert at the edge of a cottonwood bluff while the last vestiges of yet another spectacular prairie sunset fade overhead.
But is there really such a creature or is this simply a fabrication of our imagination bordering on elitism. After all, big-bodied whitetails have been taken throughout North America. Maine and New Brunswick regularly produce bucks that would pass as the whitetail equivalents of sumo wrestlers and the prairies certainly have no monopoly in the trophy department either. Texas whitetails regularly appear in the record books, as do Minnesota deer and Kentucky bucks.
No, book bucks that cross the magic 170-inch threshold into the Boone and Crockett record books are liable to come from anywhere the whitetail is found.
Nevertheless, that image of big-boned, heavy-racked prairie deer is not a fabrication. There really is such an animal. It's not that they are bigger or carry better racks than any other North American whitetail, but rather that they are consistently hefty and well-antlered. Therein lies the nuance, the fine point that sets the prairie whitetail apart. They're not bigger than the exceptions, they just tend to be big on average.
Dakota whitetails can be deceiving because their bodies are so large in relation to
their antlers. Nevertheless a trophy class buck is easy to spot and this is average at best.
But are they a species apart? Not a species, but scientists have validated them with status as a subspecies - Odocoileus virginianus dacotensis - which, to a large degree, defines their uniqueness compared to many of the 30-plus subspecies such as the diminutive Keys deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) of the Florida Keys and Coues deer (Odocoileus virginianus couesi) of the Southwest. As much as size is an easily recognizable attribute of both the Keys and the Coues deer, the Dakota whitetail is also easily recognizable in terms of stature.
According to biologists, the Dakota subspecies tends to be the largest of the whitetails, capable of reaching weights in excess of 300 pounds, standing 40 inches at the shoulder and measuring 95 inches nose to tail. The only subspecies which comes close in size is the boreal whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus borealis) which inhabit most of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well as the states surrounding the Great Lakes as well as the New England states.
Three provinces can boast being home to Dakota whitetails - Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In addition, the subspecies is found in the Fort St. John region of northeastern British Columbia as well as western Ontario. Nor does their range end abruptly at the Canada/US border. North Dakota, South Dakota, the western half of Minnesota, eastern Montana, much of eastern Wyoming and parts of northeastern Colorado are all recognized as having Dakotas. And the boundaries are blurred by the crossbreeding between subspecies.
By the same token, the forces of nature that molded the Dakota whitetails also serve to define their range. After all, their body size is a dictate of Nature, an adaptation to survive the harsh winter conditions that traditionally prevail five months of the year in the heartland. Deer the size of the Coues whitetail simply could not, would not be able to survive unless they very quickly adapted by bulking up to double and even triple their stature.
In the case of the Dakota whitetail, this is exactly what transpired, although the adaptation took many thousands of years. It's really a simple process - the deer equipped to meet the conditions survived and bred while those that were not achieved neither task.
Putting aside their stature, the Dakota whitetails are not much different than any other whitetails in that they are highly adaptable creatures. They thrive in the windswept, bald prairie where there isn't a bush to be seen for miles as readily as they do in the scattered woodlots of the grainbelt and in the hush of northern forests.
Surprisingly, the abundance of whitetails in the Prairies is a relatively recent development. You can still encounter veteran hunters today who can remember when whitetails were a scarcity and that the dominant deer by far were mulies. To some degree, human modification of their habitat played a role in tipping the balance, but I believe that climate change has played the pivotal role. Over the past half century, the heartland has undergone a subtle warming, softening the harsh bite of Prairie winters just enough to allow whitetails to expand their range northward. Today, in most areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, you'll see more whitetails than you will mule deer.
Biologists' surveys bear out that casual observation. Alberta, with an estimated population of 133,000 mule deer is also home to 231,000 whitetails. Neighboring Saskatchewan has 80,000 mulies and 350,000 whitetails. In Manitoba, mule deer are found near the western boundary with Saskatchewan and declining numbers have motivated Manitoba's Ministry of Natural Resources to close the season on these animals.
However, I've yet to hear a single hunter bemoan the abundance of Dakota whitetails across the Prairies. In fact, the presence of these big deer has created a definite level of hometown excitement. More than in any other region of Canada where I've lived and hunted, Prairie hunters comprehend the trophy scoring system and rate the trophy standing of their deer in relation to the score rather than the number of points or the dressed weight of the animal. Not that the heft of the boxes of venison they bring home from the butcher is ever forgotten, they're simply aware that they're in a land of big deer, both in terms of antlers and body size.
And they are big. A mature Prairie buck of 3.5 years or more typically weighs in at 300 pounds on the hoof and, according to biologists' records over many seasons, field dresses out at 171 pounds. For comparison, the average field dressed weight for a mature borealis buck - the second largest race of whitetails -- is 135 pounds.
Remember that we are talking about averages here, not maximum weights. Virtually every hunter can cite astounding exceptions to the rule. For instance, over the years I've heard of one eastern exceptional whitetail that dressed out at just over the 300-pound mark and several others that tipped the scales around the 250-pound mark. However, these exceptions have only a minute impact when you include them in a larger sampling of several thousand deer.
What about antler size? Let's set aside, for the moment, the fact that the current world record typical whitetail in the Boone and Crockett record books comes from Saskatchewan and that the best typical taken with bow and arrow comes from Alberta, both Prairie whitetails. I wouldn't want to wager a week's salary that the next world record will come from the Prairies. Outstanding whitetails are liable to come from anywhere. There's even the remote possibility that a buck allegedly taken in Michigan during November, 1998 by bowhunter Mitch Rompola may have outscored the Hanson Buck by two inches. However, by burden of Rompola's repeated refusal to present the rack for examination, is widely considered a hoax.
However, the point is that Michigan produces enough high-scoring whitetails that it could someday produce a new world record, as could Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa, among others. However, bearing in mind that big-boned bucks carry proportionally large racks, I maintain that the Dakota whitetails, which on average weigh in heavier than all other subspecies, have the edge.
The disconcerting part about these Prairie whitetails is that the body size and headgear are in perfect proportion, making it difficult to assess a buck on the run. To explain this, let's take the example of Texas deer. Typically, these animals might weigh about 170 pounds on the hoof. Now stick a 150-class rack on top of one and there's no doubt in anyone's mind you're looking at a fine deer. Maybe not record book, but there seems to be enough antler to push it right close. It's the illusion caused by a combination of small deer and big rack.
Now take a deer pushing 300 pounds and put a 150-class rack on top of it and quite the opposite takes place. Unless you got a real good look at it, it would be easy to dismiss the animal as a 130-class buck. The rack looks small because the animal is so much bigger, but two other factors come into play. Most important is the fact that, while Texas bucks grow a lot of height, Prairie bucks grow a lot of mass. Then there's the phenomenon that the antlers of Prairie bucks tend to be dark, making them more difficult to appreciate at a quick glance in low light conditions.
Now for the bucket of cold water. I've spoken with many disappointed hunters who booked a Prairie hunt in full expectation of tagging a buck of 170-inches or better. That's unrealistic. Those big, record book whitetails are smart creatures, often to the point of being completely nocturnal, even during the peak of the rut.
A wide range of calibers are suitable for Prairie whitetail hunting,
with the .243 at one extreme and the .300 Magnum at the other.
The reality is that, of the estimated 700,000 whitetails taken collectively in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba during any given year, less than a dozen exceed the 170-inch sill. The rest? Well, roughly 65 per cent are does and immature bucks of less than 2.5 years of age. What is significant, however, is the preponderance of deer in the 140 to 160-inch class taken every year. These are extremely fine deer, built like feed-lot steers and carrying dark racks that boast both size and mass.
I've hunted the Prairies long enough now to realize that the odds of taking a new world whitetail are microscopically thin and even taking a book buck requires a lot of determination combined with just the right circumstances. However, taking a 140-class deer is definitely attainable and that there are enough 150-class bucks walking around to make things interesting. As for 160s, I've had my crosshairs on a couple of them, but they got the better of me.
Of course, there's always the anticipation of the next season on the Prairies.
Spend time at the range if you plan to hunt Prairie deer to become proficient at
both long shots and running shots. It takes a lot more than just sighting in your rifle.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.