White-tailed deer hunting in the West is really no longer a novelty, as whitetails have expanded their range throughout most of the major river drainages in the plains since the 1950s. Along many of those drainages, whitetails now outnumber mule deer. It’s difficult to recommend hunting river bottom whitetails to anyone coming from the east, as it really doesn’t differ much from what you probably already have at home. And the tags will cost you a lot more, and it’s almost exclusively a private land operation throughout the plains. However, the west does have a few unique whitetail hunts on public lands, and that’s what I’m going to get into here today.
This is one of my favorite hunts, and one that I return to frequently. The real treat in this area is the high deer densities that I generally don’t get to experience throughout the rest of the West. These whitetails are primarily of larger Dakota subspecies, Odocoileus virginianus dakotensis. You’re looking at something on the order of 30ish deer per square mile when you include mule deer into the mix. Even if you exclude the mule deer, there is something close to 20 whitetails per square mile. While that may be nothing to the eastern hunter, much of this region is public land and easily huntable, creating an appealing hunt to guys like me who like a target rich environment on public land.
The Black Hills National Forest and Nebraska National Forest make up most of your public land opportunity here. These are primarily Ponderosa Pine forests, in rolling hills, with several areas offering over 1,000 feet of elevation difference within a mile. The Ponderosas are rarely so dense that shots over 100 yards would be difficult, and visibility in the woods can be several hundred yards. There are numerous openings, and combined with the elevation differences, it’s not uncommon to find a few points where you can see for several miles. The pine forests are bisected by many small drainages with denser vegetation.
Wyoming and South Dakota operate on a draw system, but Nebraska uses a first come-first served quota system for administering tags. The regular Nebraska firearm season is relatively short, at just 9 days in mid November, so this can be a high pressure hunt, especially on the opening weekend. If you prefer to hunt during a lower pressure season, there is a muzzleloader season that makes up the whole month of December and there is no cap on the tags. Both Wyoming and South Dakota offer a rifle hunt that covers the whole month of November, so in any of the three states you can get in on a rut hunt.
Northeastern Washington, Northern Idaho and Northwestern Montana are home to one of the better kept secrets in deer hunting opportunities. These states are primarily known for their mule deer, but in those dense forests, whitetails have taken over since about the 1970s. Elk and mule deer have become quite sparse, but the Northwestern Whitetail, (O.v. ochrurus), has grown to somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 per square mile. It’s difficult to come up with an exact number, but based on harvest-based population models, it seems pretty reasonable, though the densities may in fact be much higher in many areas. While those numbers won’t knock your socks off, they are competitive with much of the North Woods. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Northern Minnesota can’t do much better than that. Washington reports close to 20% of the bucks harvested in their northeastern National Forests as having 5 or more points to a side, and 63% of the harvested bucks are older than yearlings. In Idaho, they report 24% of the bucks having at least 5 points on a side. Montana reports more than 60% of the whitetails in Region 1 having more than 4 points to a side.
Public land opportunities abound in this region. Washington’s Colville and Kaniksu National Forests combine for over 1.3 million acres of public land, Idaho has nearly 2.5 million acres of National Forest land in the Panhandle between the Kaniksu, St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene, and when combining the Kootenai, Kaniksu and Flathead National Forests in Montana, you’re looking at an additional 4.4 million acres.
These are heavily timbered forests where still hunting, ambush hunts or stands with close range shots are the norm. Spot and stalk hunts are extremely difficult here, as large firs, such as Douglas, Grand and Subalpine firs dominate the landscape. The understory is dense enough here that you likely won’t have a chance to see much beyond 100 yards. The landscapes here are far more rugged than the Black Hills and Pine Ridge and 2,000 foot elevation changes are common. The elevations aren’t overly high, as little above 7,000 feet exists, but the combination of rugged terrain and dense vegetation can make for a tough hunt. However, for those willing to brave the terrain and the elements of a November deer hunt in Northwest Montana or Northern Idaho, there are some excellent bucks to be had in a unique setting.
Washington and Idaho both offer over the counter tags, but you’ll have to draw Montana’s buck deer tags. Montana has a 5 week rifle season, Idaho’s lasts almost 7 weeks, and Washington has a split season with either 9 days in mid October or 14 in mid November.
The Columbian Whitetail (O.v. leucurus) in Oregon is a real oddity in that it has been on the endangered species list, but is also overpopulated in parts of its range, offering a limited hunting opportunity. The only huntable population is in the Umpqua River area near Roseburg, Oregon. The whitetails here are mostly on private lands, but some opportunity to hunt them exists on the 980,000 acre Umpqua National Forest. Those lower elevation foothills are primarily composed of mixed hardwoods and conifers, so once again, this is mostly a short range proposition. Tags here are limited by a drawing. If you draw, you’ll be able to shoot a blacktail or a whitetail.
Hunting the Coues deer (O.v. couesi) has nothing in common with any other whitetail hunting. It’s much more akin to desert mule deer hunting. It’s primarily a spot and stalk affair, and the long rangers make it seem like long shots are the norm, but the desert thorn scrub vegetation that dominates much of the landscapes of Southern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico offer plenty of stalking cover.
A similar subspecies to the Coues deer, and one that I have a little more experience with is the Carmen Mountains Whitetail , or Sierra Del Carmen (O.v. carmini) of Texas and Mexico. It’s similar to the Coues, inhabits similar country, but tends to be even smaller with some minor coat and antler differences if you trust the subspecies definitions. Unfortunately, I do not know of any public land opportunities to hunt these little, so back to the Coues.
Arizona and New Mexico’s tags are all on a draw system. There’s no lack of public land to hunt Coues, as most of Southern Arizona is BLM land, plus a little bit of Forest Service. Forest Service holdings alone come to over 3.5 million acres in Arizona. In New Mexico’s units 23, 24 and 27, small populations of Coues deer exist on the Gila National Forest and surrounding BLM lands. The lands tend to be fairly rocky and mountainous, with bighorn sheep and mule deer having ranges that overlap the Coues. Tags are not too difficult to draw, as these deer are mostly a novelty still, despite the coverage they receive from the long range hunting crowd. It probably has something to do with the practical aspects of hunting them, as they are small bodied, have small antlers, offer difficult hunting conditions and their range overlaps very little elk country.
So there you have it, something a little different than the usual river bottom whitetail hunting. My preference is the Western Nebraska/Western South Dakota/Eastern Wyoming style hunts, as the deer are both plentiful and visible. I’ve hunted the Pine Ridge and Black Hills a few times, and have had plenty of opportunities at decent 2-3 year old deer, only to turn those down in hopes of catching up to some of the pigs I’ve seen on other occasions. In Nebraska, I’ve seen 150-160 inch whitetails with a gun in my hand, but have never been able to put them down, either due to does busting me or spotting the deer from a long way off and never catching up to them. But I still don’t go home empty handed…there’s no shortage of does offering up an easy target to the frustrated buck hunter or opportunistic meat hunter.