feature By: Jason Books | November, 18
To my surprise, the mountain lookout revealed a buck with odd-looking antlers. Instead of the double fork of a telltale mule deer, this deer sported a single main beam on each side with tall tines coming off it. It was a whitetail, a present of sorts, as I had heard about the deer making their way westward for several years but had never seen one in the wild. After all, this was the Pacific Northwest, and the mountains to the east were the Rockies of northern Idaho. Mule deer were supposed to be in these high meadows, but whitetails are known to be very adaptable, and they are increasingly growing in numbers in the far west.
Washington and Idaho now have very healthy populations of whitetails in the region where the two states meet. Whitetails can be found all along the state boundaries, from Canada to Oregon. The Palouse region near Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho, are traditional whitetail farmlands. Wheat grows here to be shipped all over the world, and the various creek bottoms and deep coulees hold deer. Mule deer are found along the hillsides, but they have become a rarity in this arid land.
Farther south toward the towns of Clarkston and Lewiston, the confluence of the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers can be found. This is where explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis came through on their famed expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest. Here, more mule deer begin to dot the steep canyon walls, but once the top plateaus at the base of the Blue Mountains are reached, the whitetail takes over once again. Northeast Oregon shares this border, and it is the birthplace of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. Now it’s home to hayfields and soybeans, and whitetails.
My high-mountain buck, however, was in none of these regions. Instead it was in the northern part of Washington near the Canadian border. This part of the region features rolling hills that press up against tall mountains known as the Selkirks, the last home of the only Caribou herd in the lower 48 states. It rains often there, and when the rain turns to snow, it piles up deeply. Shiras’ moose roam the logging roads overgrown with aspen and alder saplings. Grizzly bears dig up rodents and feed on deer fawns and elk calves in the spring. This part of Idaho and Washington is rugged – not what a whitetail hunter who prefers to sit in a treestand would think of as “ideal habitat.” But the whitetails are there, and they thrive.
Hunts start in early September for archery hunters in both states, and Washington rifle hunters have a late season ending around Thanksgiving. Idaho hunters have seasons that run well past the rut and into the beginning of December, with an “either sex” option due to the large number of deer as well as the thick forest that makes them difficult to find. Sword ferns and alder thickets are common, and a hunter will feel like he’s hunting coastal blacktails instead of whitetails.
On the Washington side is Game Management Unit 113, the Selkirk unit, which lies almost entirely in the Colville National Forest. Only small logging and mining towns can be found along long stretches of two-lane roads winding their way through the mountains. The season for rifle hunters is October 13 to 26, with another chance during the late season from November 10 to 19. Archery hunters get an early season from September 1 through 28, and muzzleloader hunters have a prime rut hunt over Thanksgiving weekend with a late season that starts November 21 and ends December 8. The Evergreen State has a lot of hunters, and the deer herds are managed a bit differently than they are in Idaho, where seasons are quite liberal.
Unit 1 encompasses all of northern Idaho to include both the Kootenai and Kaniksu National Forests that make up nearly 70 percent of the land in this region. A general deer tag allows hunting from October 10 to December 1 for whitetails. Mule deer are found here as well, but the season is much longer for whitetails and allows for either bucks or does. Hunters can also purchase leftover nonresident tags to take a second deer. For those hunters who are traveling a long distance, this makes the hunt more appealing – especially when hunting during the rut.
Hunting can be challenging due to the terrain and heavy understory in and among stands of fir and pine. However, these are whitetails, and their faults are the same as their eastern cousins. Come late November, hunters do well rattling and sitting along scrape lines. My hunting partner Brian Chlipala likes to crawl into a thicket and sit for a while. Once the woods settle down, he begins a rattling sequence that includes banging antlers together, then rubbing them forcefully before they are separated then pounded on the ground to mimic a buck stomping. He follows this with a buck grunt, then silence. Soon antlers are seen coming across the small clearing with the buck making its way toward the hunter. Three years in a row, Brian returned to camp all smiles with a mature buck down. I can’t find the patience to sit and wait for a buck to come to me; I am a mule deer hunter by nature, so I often climb to a rock pile and look over the hillsides.
As I sit and watch for deer as the morning light allows me to decipher antlers from tree branches, I might break out rattling antlers to see if I can perk the interest of a nearby buck. During the midday hunt, instead of looking over hillsides, a hunter would benefit from a slow stroll through the pine forest. The telltale sign of a white flagging tail ahead means a deer was jumped from its bed. Catching up to the deer as it tries to double back will allow the hunter to see if it is a buck. Mule deer hunters are adapting to this region of the Pacific Northwest, and treestands are popping up along the various clear-cuts and alpine meadows.
When it becomes late in the season and temperatures drop to near zero degrees and colder, a bail of alfalfa is placed out for the deer. Baiting is allowed for deer in Washington. Some hunters might not agree with this tactic, but years ago, before the voters in Washington put an end to baiting for bears, I did this regularly. It allows a hunter to be certain of shooting a mature animal, thereby letting younger animals have an easy meal that might help them get through the harsh winter.
Whitetails in this region seriously declined in the winter of 2009 and 2010. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife adjusted the hunting seasons and regulations accordingly. A “four-point” restriction was put into place in some game management units where bucks had to have at least four points on one side – this is the West, and even the whitetails’ racks are counted “western style,” which is the side-by-side count instead of the “all points count.” Finally, in 2015 the agency relaxed the regulations and now allows the taking of does during special youth and senior hunts.
So far in Washington and the northern portion of Idaho, no signs of Chronic Wasting Disease have been found. Unlike the whitetails of eastern Montana, where disease has taken its toll, the Rocky Mountains have become a buffer of sorts to prevent deer diseases. Nonetheless, the deer do not have it easy by any means. In 1995 Idaho Fish and Game, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reintroduced wolves. Now both Idaho and Washington are home to the large canine predators. Idaho allows a liberal hunting season, but Washington has no season for wolves, and they remain protected. Moose populations are declining, and the famed Selkirk Woodland Caribou are almost extinct, thanks in large part to the wolves. It is inevitable that deer numbers will decline, but for now the whitetail of the Northwest is doing well.
You can hunt both states the same day if you wish and, with seasons that extend for weeks that include the rut, a whitetail hunter should head to the rugged mountains and climb to the ridgeline looking for a buck in the morning light. Mule deer might be found, but more than likely whitetails will prove to be more numerous. If you already know how to rattle and have the patience, find a thicket patch and sit for a while. I will be perched on that rock outcrop waiting for daylight and looking for the telltale sign of a single main-beam with tines protruding on top.