Still-Hunting Whitetails

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A hunting alternative for those that don’t want to sit in a stand

I’d venture a guess that most whitetail hunting in western Canada is done from stands or blinds located along major travel routes or the edges of feeding fields. Whitetails are one of the most aware creatures in the woods and all of their senses are highly tuned for detecting danger. They have incredible eyesight and hearing, and a nose that just can’t be fooled. To me, they are the North American animal that most tests the hunter’s prowess. If you know a hunter that has a collection of big whitetail heads, you can pretty well bet your bottom dollar that he has spent thousands of hours sitting silently in wait. It takes real patience and dedication to be an effective whitetail hunter.

And, there begins my issue with hunting whitetails: patience is not a virtue I posses and my meagre wall of trophy whitetails is testament to this. But, with that said, I do dearly enjoy hunting whitetails and have managed to take some pretty good deer over the years, all without sitting in a stand. We are fortunate to live on the edge of the foothills in Alberta and the terrain is a combination of rolling hills, open meadows, agricultural fields and small groves of trees. It’s a great place to be a still hunter. One can move silently through the hills while being afforded a good view of the surrounding landscape. Whitetails are often forced into the open as they move between groves of trees, especially during the rut.

We’ve got one particular valley that doesn’t seem to hold a single whitetail for 11-and-a-half months of the year, but come the last two weeks of November, things really heat up. For whatever reason, the bucks like to bring does there to breed and the valley bottom becomes a virtual highway for cruising bucks. What draws them to this location at this time of year is a bit of a mystery, but I suspect it has a lot to do with its remote nature. I’ve found a couple other spots like this over the years and they are definitely worth taking note of. While many hunters believe that whitetails just cruise randomly in search of does during the rut, I believe there is a pattern to it and identifying these hotspots can really stack the odds in the hunter’s favour. Watch for tracks in the snow throughout the season, document your observations and you might be surprised how many coincidences turn into patterns.

The key to successful still hunting is hunting the right types of terrain. While our little piece of foothill heaven is prime, I’ve used this same technique very successfully in the sand hills of Saskatchewan and in the mixed agricultural zones of Manitoba. The features I look for are some elevated positions to glass from and a good mix of open country and suitable cover. Too much cover or too much open country is not good, but if you can find that perfect blend that forces deer to constantly expose themselves when moving but offers enough cover that they feel comfortable, you are well on your way to successfully still hunting whitetails.

As shots can range from a scant few yards to some fairly long-range distances, the choice of rifle is critical. Over the years we’ve developed a system that works well for us. I prefer a fairly lightweight rifle, say something in the seven-pound range as it’s not uncommon to put on a lot of miles still hunting these rolling hills. Something fairly compact that will shoulder fast, but still provides a stable platform, is a lot to ask of a rifle and I prefer a bolt action with a composite stock and a barrel in the 22-inch range. I also prefer it chambered in something that isn’t too stiff in the recoil department, but still capable of delivering impact velocities in the 2,000-feet-per-second range at 500 yards. My latest pet is a 6.5 Creedmor that I had built specifically for this type of hunting, but most of the 6.5s, the 270s and 7mms will all fit the bill well, as will the venerable 30-06 and 308. The key is a rifle that won’t knock the stuffing out of you and a rifle that you are very comfortable with and shoot well.

On top of the rifle, a variable scope with some sort of ballistic compensation is a must. As shots can often happen fast with this type of hunting, I much prefer a ballistic reticle that does not require me to adjust elevation knobs for various distances. With a ballistic reticle, it’s just a matter of placing the appropriate crosshair on the target and squeezing the trigger. I’m very comfortable with my rig to 600 yards and, more importantly, it’s a fast system to use throughout a variety of ranges. With this type of still hunting, you need to keep things as simple as possible and that means range, aim, shoot.

The real key is spotting whitetails before they spot you and, of course, keeping the wind to your advantage. I like to traverse the high ridges, keeping myself just off of skyline and letting my binoculars do most of the work. Often, the deer will be holed up in the small stands of trees, but with some careful glassing it is often possible to pick them out. Vanessa has taken a couple great bucks in the past couple years doing exactly this.

Last year, for example, we were working a series of parallel ridges that the whitetails love to use as a travel corridor. After we’d exhausted one ridge, we’d quite literally belly crawl over the next to take a look for deer. Had we just walked over and skylined ourselves, we’d have been easy to pick out by the ever vigilant bucks, but by carefully glassing before going over the ridge, it put the advantage in our court. It was late afternoon and we’d walked a couple ridges without seeing any deer when Vanessa peaked over the last ridge in the series. She instantly spotted a nice buck making his way along a stand of aspen. With one well-placed shot, the buck was down. It was her third buck from that exact same ridge.

While still-hunting whitetails is never likely to produce big bucks with the consistency that patiently waiting for them will, it is an effective alternative for those that like to get out and stretch their legs. Find some terrain that is well suited to this type of hunting and carefully cover it both on foot and with your optics and you will likely be pleasantly surprised just how productive it can be. The longer you hunt an area, the more effective you will become. Whitetails, even big, old, rut-struck bucks are creatures of habit and if you can find one of those favoured rutting areas, count on it being productive for decades. With some fairly severe winter kill across the prairies last winter, getting out and wearing out some boot leather just might be more productive than ever.

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