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    Mountain Whitetails

    A Season, Start to Finish

    Doing it the hard way comes with myriad frustrations that only make success all the sweeter. Last year’s Idaho whitetail season might best be characterized by the old axiom: “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Repeatedly.

    With generous deer hunting opportunity, including 32 days of archery-only season (only the first week of which I actually take advantage while seeking velvet antlers, concentrating on elk the remainder of September) and another 52 days of general season (Idaho does love its rifle hunters) it would seem tagging a white-tailed buck in the Gem State is a given. It might if I were hunting meat instead of meat and antlers (mature bucks eat just fine) and if I ditched the bow with the arrival of rifle season (which most hunters do locally, even self-professed bowhunters), and especially if I wasn’t talking about the challenging mountainous big woods of northern Idaho. Toss mountain lions and wolves into the mix, and all that rifle hunting, which keeps our deer tightly wound, bowhunting is obviously problematic.

    Trail cameras revealed Patrick’s targeted bucks, nicknamed “Stickers” and “6-6.” Tagging either of them might have proven easy from this stand, save the fact that it requires very specific winds that occur only rarely during early season, and only in the morning.
    Trail cameras revealed Patrick’s targeted bucks, nicknamed “Stickers” and “6-6.” Tagging either of them might have proven easy from this stand, save the fact that it requires very specific winds that occur only rarely during early season, and only in the morning.
    Please don’t misread my intensions. I’m setting the scene, not knocking rifles in any way. I’m about as passionate about shooting small varmints and predators with rifles as it’s possible to be. I even wrote a book on the subject (The Predator and Varmint Hunter’s Handbook, Krause Publications, 2018). I simply enjoy the extra effort, intimacy with the game and the shooting-practice relaxation that comes with bowhunting. And, odd as this might begin to seem as this tale develops, I’m not a trophy hunter in the strictest sense. It’s just that shooting a smaller/younger animal early in the game ends all the fun. Targeting a few “trophy” animals keeps me engaged and in the game longer. Bowhunting lends extra challenge and also leaves me with something to be prouder of when success is occasionally realized.  

    This pre-season bachelor group contains two of the targeted bucks, including “Stickers” in the middle and “6-6” bringing up the rear.
    This pre-season bachelor group contains two of the targeted bucks, including “Stickers” in the middle and “6-6” bringing up the rear.
    Festivities kick off in July, deploying trail cameras and checking them weekly. Buck-to-doe ratios in any area allowing wide-open rifle hunting through the heart of the rut are generally heavily weighted to the latter. Northern mountain habitats naturally relinquish lower deer densities due to winter extremes. While habitat is seemingly limitless, deer tend to congregate in pockets with lots of dead space between. Any degree of success enjoyed I directly attribute to trail cameras. I own maybe 30 working units, with most of them used at any given time from July through season’s end – many stranded until spring thaw by sudden winter snows.

    Feral fruit trees, mainly apples and pears, are a huge draw for Idaho whitetails. The trick is finding a tree where it is possible to remain on the right side of the wind while sitting.
    Feral fruit trees, mainly apples and pears, are a huge draw for Idaho whitetails. The trick is finding a tree where it is possible to remain on the right side of the wind while sitting.
    By mid-August I’ve established a hit list. My more distant hunting area is old stomping grounds bow hunted for a decade before moving. It is an area where big woods meet vast agricultural concerns, mostly grain crops, field peas and garbanzo beans. Peas and “garbs” are the big agricultural draws there, with feral apple trees also important to success. My new backyard includes no agriculture, though wild apples, pears and plums help funnel deer movement.

    The more distant ground would be my primary battlefield early on. My hopes and dreams revolved around two old bucks: “Stickers,” a heavy, narrow and tall 10-point (main-frame) with subtle sticker points and tine forks; and “6-6,” a 12 point. Best guess put green scores at 155 and 145, respectively. Both were at least six to seven years old – age as much a trophy for me as score.

    Early-season success is all about prevailing winds. A couple of my key stands, including my best apple-tree site, can only be occupied on eastwardly winds, a rare commodity early, more common late. My target bucks were showing from 8:30 to 9:30. I became obsessed with ScoutLook Weather, clicking through daily forecasts hour to hour, looking for beneficial “scent cones” around key stands.  

    September 3: Wind east-southeast 5 to 7 mph, temperature 42 degrees. All systems go!

    After a 2:30 a.m. wakeup and hour scramble, a mile-long uphill hike, I was on stand with enough darkness remaining for a catnap. The early arrival is not in anticipation of crack-of-dawn movement but is an effective entrance plan to better avoid detection. With daylight deer traffic proved steady if not prolific – a doe/fawn pair here, a forkhorn there, a couple of 115- to 120-inch bucks.

    For me at least, sitting takes practice. By 9 a.m. I was growing fidgety. Then, almost on cue, the 3½-year-old 9-point “backup” arrived, sauntering right in and scrounging for dropped apple leaves, earlier arrivals having consumed the scant green apples. Trail-cam intel had reveled this buck generally ran with the oldsters, along with a one-antlered buck with some age on it. I

    Bowhunting white-tailed deer in low-density habitat is a game of numbers. The more hours invested, the greater the odds of success, especially if you don’t score during early season when a bucks’ guard is temporarily lowered.
    Bowhunting white-tailed deer in low-density habitat is a game of numbers. The more hours invested, the greater the odds of success, especially if you don’t score during early season when a bucks’ guard is temporarily lowered.
    stealthily picked my bow off the hook and waited.

    My “6-6” buck ghosted into view 70 yards away, angling to my down-wind quarter, hard to my right. It continued onward, moving into range though there was nothing I could do about it, being right handed. There is no standing or shifting on stand in northern Idaho. Hitting full draw is challenging enough on these keyed-up deer, especially when bunched as they were. Old, rib-strung one-horn then arrived and was soon joined by a dry doe and then a spike. Things were getting pretty hectic beneath that tree, deer jockeying, occasionally rearing to flail hooves to claim a swatch of fallen leaves. In time “6-6” was directly below me, weaving along a barbed wire fence before making the decision to cross. My heart was audible in my ears. The buck soon walked to the fence and hopped the five strands of wire flatfooted.  

    I fought back initial panic as it walked toward the tree, quartered too severely for a shot, even if I could have hit anchor at that very moment. The buck was too close and the others were watching it, heads up. It stopped short, 17 yards away, and started nibbling. With each step to nuzzle another dry leaf it turned ever so slightly. Inching the bow into the ready position, fingers wrapped around the release handle, I put a dent in the bowstring. The buck took another step, showing just enough ribs to slip in a textbook quartering-away shot. I quickly took inventory, raised my bow arm, waited for another buck to put its head back down and

    As the rut kicked off in mid-November Patrick spent more time on stand, all day in anticipation of bucks cruising for the first receptive does of the year.
    As the rut kicked off in mid-November Patrick spent more time on stand, all day in anticipation of bucks cruising for the first receptive does of the year.
    eased the bowstring back. Then all hell broke loose before I could find my anchor . . .

    An ear-piercing snort blasted from directly beneath me and every one of those deer exploded into panicked runs, never pausing to look back. It was done. That stand went dead. It remained dead through early November when scrapes began to appear.

    I bowhunted deer near home until I began seeing more hard horns than velvet, chased bugling elk a couple weeks then allowed the hoopla of the opening weeks of rifle-season to subside. Trail camera traffic proved slow through most of October not an entirely unique situation in most whitetail country. Then there was the excitement of discovering the first major scrapes and rubs, seeing some of my target bucks reappear and edge toward daylight appearances. By this time I was growing increasingly anxious, sitting low-odds stands hoping for blind luck to intervene with the belief I was putting in my time toward later success, as if it was a

    The vast and low-density nature of northern Idaho big-woods mountain habitat means attractions such as feral fruit (early) and scrapes (late) become important. Here, the two converge.
    The vast and low-density nature of northern Idaho big-woods mountain habitat means attractions such as feral fruit (early) and scrapes (late) become important. Here, the two converge.
    savings account. This continued into early November, targeted bucks making sporadic appearances and sparking hope, however desperate. Scrapes were seeded, mock scrapes constructed, stands shuffled and more cameras deployed.

    Things were beginning to happen, but each season I must remind myself anew that the Inland Northwest isn’t the Midwest. Northwest whitetail fawns have a narrow window of opportunity between the last grips of icy spring storms and summer drought. Fawns must drop precisely if they are to have any chance of survival. June 15 is when most fawns arrive in my neck of the woods. With a 200-day gestation period, that puts insemination at or around the last week of November.

    By mid-November I was doing little else but sitting and checking cameras, pushing off work and straining matrimonial harmony. I was hunting near home exclusively by then, and a wide 8-point had become my latest Moby Dick, obsessions tempered by the fact it seemed able to anticipate my every move, even when I began operating out of a climbing stand to mix things up through mobility. I’d sit at one spot and the buck would show at another – always in broad daylight. I began to detect patterns, wandering into uncharted ground to discover new hotspots, leaves shed to reveal undiscovered apple trees bent low with fruit. The buck showed at one of these trees like clockwork and I hung the climber anticipating its mid-day visits. The buck moved to another apple tree. It missed appointments again and again. My wife noted I was growing grumpy. And then the season in our local unit abruptly ended, more or less sneaking up on me. Luckily a week of season remained in the farther unit.    

    I had not visited that unit in weeks. When I did my frustrations were redoubled after discovering Stickers (“6-6” had disappeared permanently) had been making sporadic appearances beneath one of my stands while I played the Captain Ahab in my quest for the wide 8-point. I consumed the final week of season with all-day sits – truly the most boring task in all of hunting – when winds allowed, only to come up blank. I vowed to shoot lesser bucks, even a doe, but when given the opportunity I’d pass.

    The final day of the season dawned with spitting snow and sleet. At home, when the alarm sounded I noted rain pattering on our roof and almost rolled over to resume sleep, utterly defeated. But then I reasoned the higher altitude at which my other hunting area sat would turn that rain to snow and vaulted from bed. That reasoning had steered me true… initially. By sunrise, with the sky growing woollier, snow and sleet slowly turned to rain. Before long it was raining steadily, a slow, icy rain a couple of degrees above freezing. I was determined to stick it out, to make the best of my last possible day of deer season. My wind-block-lined fleece outfit held up for a while but soon became saturated. I was quickly growing hypothermic. Still, I was determined to remain until I could no longer shoot my bow reliably. It was only 8 a.m.

    I finally reached the point of no return. I doubted I could even draw my bow, clenching my teeth and shivering uncontrollably. That was when I heard rattling, coming and going, clearly auditable one second, fading the next. I assumed another hunter, and as far as I knew I was the only one with permission to hunt that property at that point. The rattling reached my ears again. That’s got to be real, I thought.

    Later in the season, after blowing his early chance at one of his targeted bucks, this wide long-tined 8-point became an option.
    Later in the season, after blowing his early chance at one of his targeted bucks, this wide long-tined 8-point became an option.
    I began derricking gear out of the tree, still doubtful. On the ground I jettisoned my safety harness and pack and ran in place to get some blood pumping. I slung my quiver of arrows across my back, picked up my wet bow and sauntered toward the indistinct clacking of bone. The wind was in my favor. Inching forward, the binocular was used frequently, the rattling became clearer and I became more convinced I was experiencing the real deal. But as I crept closer and the rattling became quite distinct, I could still find nothing through the glass to correlate what my ears told me should be right in front of me.

    The two bucks abruptly appeared from behind cover, maybe 80 yards away. They appeared intent on killing one another. It was a shock. It was a miracle. I was no longer shivering. I hadn’t even taken a good look, instinctively falling to the soggy ground to put the bucks temporarily out of sight. I scrambled forward on hands and knees, tossing my bow ahead, abandon steeled by continued antler ringing. At the last of the easy cover I peered out to discover the two bucks locked up and momentarily stationary. My laser rangefinder was in my pack. I nocked an arrow, drew my bow parallel to the ground behind brush and slowly rose on my knees. The bucks were shoving but not spinning and grappling as they had been before.

    Patrick took this late-season buck after hearing rattling from his stand. Being hypothermic due to rain, the decision to climb down and make a stalk proved an easy one.
    Patrick took this late-season buck after hearing rattling from his stand. Being hypothermic due to rain, the decision to climb down and make a stalk proved an easy one.
    I touched my anchor and triggered a hasty shot after whipping my 50-yard pin into the buck’s armpit. The arrow arrived in its side, a bit too far back for comfort. It was a solid liver hit that would kill the deer but likely result in difficult recovery, especially in this weather. The buck backed away from its adversary – seemingly in shock and wondering how the other buck had gotten to him. I took my time on the next one, snuggling into anchor more solidly, quickly running through my pre-shot checklist and allowing the shot to happen in its own good time. This one found vitals. I couldn’t tell you what became of the other buck.  

    It was the 9-point of that first early-season encounter, seemingly a lifetime ago now. But taken in this way, on the very last day of the season, I was beyond happy to have it. That buck will become a cherished memory of a season that challenged me in every conceivable way to the bittersweet end.


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