We’re not in Iowa, Toto: Bowhunting Mountain Whitetails.

Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

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Okanogan River

Destination: whitetail hunting the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Growing up in the rolling hills of NE Iowa, I’ve hunted whitetail deer with a shotgun several times in the eighties and nineties; typically on small, partially wooded farms that were owned by friends or relatives. Now living in the Pacific Northwest, I don’t have the option of an affordable, private property hunt. So I did what any maniacal, masochistic hunter would do: I took up bow hunting— the same year I decided to chase the whitetails that roamed the public mountains of eastern Washington. To add to the challenge of hunting such an elusive beast in such a fashion, I intended to settle for nothing less than a mature buck, and I wanted to take him while hunting from the ground.

No trail cams. No food plots. No ground blind. No baiting. No guides. Oh, and I have to mention, in this state, over-the-counter bowhunters aren’t even afforded the opportunity to hunt the pre- or peak rut! Yeah, this is where the maniacal part comes in. I’d be honored and thrilled to hunt any deer in true “Midwest fashion,” but I just didn’t have the connections, pocketbook, or time to do it here. In addition, the mountainous, public-land geography of this state doesn’t lend itself to such an undertaking. Although my home farm in Iowa is now a whitetail bow-hunting Mecca thanks to efforts of my older brother, Larry; I have never hunted whitetails there with a bow or from a stand.

“It can’t be all that different than elk hunting,” I convinced myself. Ha. I’ve hunted mature elk successfully, and truth be told, this is a lot tougher. But I love to challenge myself, and I love the experience of having the experience. After several years, several encounters, and countless heart-breaks in my back pocket, I knew it could be done. It was only a matter of time before the perfect scenario would present itself.

 Day 1: Monday, 11/26/12.

There was nearly three inches of snow blanketing the forest floor as I left my truck behind in the darkness. It was parked on an old forest service road that my buddy Rich Sandstrom and I affectionately named, “The Number 2 Road,” for being the second area where you could pull off the main forest service road. It was 5:30 in the morning and the woods were black, but I knew the area well. I had been hunting this particular part of the Okanogan National Forest—in fact parking in the same spot—for six years in search of the wily animal. I’ve had several close encounters with true record book bucks, but I haven’t harvested a single deer in this area.

It was a dry and cold 17 degrees Fahrenheit, exactly 34 degrees warmer than my last experience at the same stand. But that’s a whole other, bone-chilling story. That’s also where the masochistic part comes in. I climbed to the top of the ladder and then up several small pine branches another three feet to reach my platform (In 2010, I broke down and hung a treestand, but to this day it remains fruitless). I hung my headlamp and bow, and started the ritual of dressing for standing still all day. Layers and layers of warm clothing, binoculars strapped on, range finder in my coat pocket, and on and on with gadgets and invaluable tricks of the trade.

It’s amazing how slow time travels when you stand motionless in complete darkness, 15 feet in the cold wintery air, waiting for light on this, my opening morning. Finally, after 30 agonizing minutes my surroundings began to make sense in the haze of first light. Then time accelerated, as I feverishly assessed each newly illuminated bush and stump and log and leaf as quickly as it came into view.

 “What’s that sound?” is perhaps the most frequently asked question to one’s self when hunting thick timber. This particular stand of forest resembled a mini version of the big woods of our neighbors to the north, often heard of in tales about massive monster bucks. We called the area “Saskatchewan,” justifiably so. One year earlier I had an encounter with two huge 170 class typicals with junk, on the ground, at seven yards, at 1 o’clock in the afternoon! This occurred about 30 yards from where the tree stand was now located.

The day was slow, quiet, and cold. In mid afternoon, one group of does skirted the area at 30 yards. I respectfully decided to pass on the opportunity, as I drew my bow and centered my pin on the shoulder of one of them; just for practice. A couple of hours later, darkness; the day in the tree stand was over.

Day 2: Tuesday, 11/27/12

The night before, I reminded my wife that 27 was my lucky number, so I expected something great to come of my second day. I decided to hang a small piece of camouflage material on the ground, near an area I call, “Shitter Mountain” (details of that derivation possibly disclosed at a later date!). Over the years, I learned that this was an oft-used travel route, and had encounters with bucks here on several occasions, as well.

At first light, a small forked horn began to make its way into the area; coming to within 25 yards. I immediately dismissed it, and watched as it eventually fed its way out of sight. At nine-thirty, a doe caught wind of me at 80 yards away, and snorted its way to a more aromatically-pleasing location. And then at 11:30, it happened. Well, I thought it was going to happen.

From the south, across a shallow draw between me and another small, sparsely wooded bench, came trotting a wide-racked, tall-tined mature buck. Its nose hovered 8 inches off of the ground as it made its way to me. At fifty yards, near the bottom of the draw, the buck veered off in another direction. From my left pocket, I grabbed the doe bleat and called out. Instantly, the buck began trotting in my direction to within forty yards, but quickly veered off in yet another direction looking for love. I bleated again, and the deer turned and started directly for me. There was a large tree between the buck and I, and my plan was to use it as cover to draw. Still kneeling behind the camo, I searched for the deer through the small holes in the material, but for a split second lost sight of it. Movement caught my eye. The buck was already on the other side of the tree—the wrong side! It eyeballed me as I peered at it through the mesh, and then it slowly walked right at me to less than 10 yards, nose to the ground. I was caught off guard by the speed at which it closed the distance, and was trapped kneeling on the ground facing the wrong direction, without having drawn. I was busted. Hoping for a miracle, I drew my bow anyway as I rotated and lifted above the material. But the big buck would have nothing of it. It spun and dashed to 60 yards where it stopped, looked back at me one more time in all of its majesty, and vanished up the mountain.

I was a tortured soul. Four years prior I had a similar encounter with a big-basket ten-point with kickers, just a few yards away from this set. I thought I had learned my lesson, but this episode proved that in the wilderness, animals rarely act the same way twice. To add insult to injury, I thought this deer was even wider and taller, albeit an eight-point. I had fortune on my side as my lucky number delivered as scheduled, but I failed to complete the mission. The overwhelming desire to “have that one back” sickened me, and I struggled to keep my spirits high, my attitude positive, and my body warm. The sky grew dark, and the mile and a half trek back to the truck seemed longer than usual. “If only I would have…”

hunting blind

My hide-out on the ground for most of the week.

Day 3: Wednesday, 11/28/12

Back to the ground set. Nothing. The highlight of my day was spotting fresh cougar tracks in the melting snow, some hundred yards away from the set during a warm-up walk. It reminded me why these whitetails were so extraordinarily nervous. Mountain lions live on deer in this area, along with an occasional moose or elk. I know from experience how skittish Midwestern deer can be, but I believe that the western mountain whitetail has an edge that is ever so slightly sharper. These tracks, along with black bear and even wolves nearby, explain it perfectly. It also reminded me to look over my shoulder a little more often, and to pay attention to the low-hanging branches as I walked under them.

Day 4: Thursday, 11/29/12

I wanted to give Shitter Mountain a rest and try another ridge on which I had seen bucks on several occasions. I had a great set-up going, with a narrow clearing on the ridgeline that served as a travel route from a few agricultural fields nearly a mile down the mountain. A small doe came in behind me at eight o’clock, but I held fast, and let it walk away.

At ten o’clock, the graying skies began spitting rain, and fog settled in. Soon it snowed and the wind picked up, and I had a hunch the deer would be holding tight. Plan B: I went back to where I busted the buck two days earlier; a spot that was fairly protected from the cold wind. As I approached the material strung between two trees, a buck bolted from the bottom of the shallow draw to the south. I never was able to get a close look at it, as it disappeared into the trees. “If only I would have…” And that concluded the day’s excitement.

Day 5: Friday, 11/30/12

Treestand time again. My intention was to spend the entire day perched in the forest canopy, but after seeing nothing for the first half of the day, visions of bucks in the “other” area kept dancing in my head. I vacated my stand at noon, and crept into my ground set area an hour later. Approaching 40 yards of my set, I spotted a very large-bodied and very heavy-horned buck on the edge of the bench to the south, perhaps 60 yards away. I froze, as it was in clear view, licking lichen off of the sagging evergreen boughs.

The rack was dark and massive, and at first glance appeared to be “not that big” because of the sheer size of the animal. I started to tremble just looking at the huge beast as I slowly lowered myself to a knee to lessen my silhouette. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement between me and the buck. Doe! She fed around a tree at only 30 yards away, raised her head into the air, and grew cautious. She knew something wasn’t right, and slowly but deliberately made her way up the hill past the bruiser, and vanished with bruiser in tow. ”If only I would have…” Aside from seeing a mature cow moose at 75 yards, the day’s events in the woods were over.

Cougar tracks made a hundred yards from my ground set, while I was there!

Cougar tracks made a hundred yards from my ground set, while I was there!

Day 6: Saturday, 12/1/12

My last day. Although I jumped out of bed at 4 a.m. with the same enthusiasm I had all week, the sand was nearly gone from the top half of the hourglass. Adding to that helpless feeling, part of me couldn’t help but believe that I had already “had my chance.”

Having spent so much of the week at the ground set, I figured it was hunted out. I began the morning in the treestand. It rained for an hour, and then started to clear as the wind shifted. Although the change in weather could only help, for whatever reason I just wasn’t feeling it. Once again I made my way to the ground set, sneaking in undetected by 9:00.

At 11:00, a nice 6-point came strolling down from the same familiar bench, skirting the area at exactly 52 yards. I slowly reached for my bow as the winds swirled. He stopped to nibble on a hanging branch, offering me his side as a backdrop to my bottom pin. No go. If it wasn’t for the fact my shooting lane between branches was so small, or that the wind was too unpredictable for such a distance, I would have taken the shot. Instead, it meandered off. “If only…”

The sun had brightened and the wind had calmed by 2 pm, when I decided to take a short walk to retrieve an annoying fluorescent-orange ribbon that was dangling from a branch some 60 yards away on the bench. I had noticed it every time it danced in the breeze, and after 5 days, I finally had enough of the distraction. Besides, I reminded myself before I began the short journey that when you pick up trash from the woods, good things will happen. I believe this whole-heartedly, and not just in a “good luck charm” sort of way. But that’s another story.

My biggest fear was spooking another deer, so I diligently snuck over to the big fir, untied the ribbon, and made my way back without being noticed. I hung up my bow as I looked around and told myself with sincerity, as those grains of sand kept trickling in my mind, that this was an awesome hunting trip no matter what. I loved time alone in the mountains, and I found myself in a moment of genuine appreciation, buck or no…

Buck! The sentiment wasn’t even complete when at 30 yards away, a wide and tall-tined buck materialized. I slowly reached for my bow as the deer stopped behind a downed tree, slightly quartering to me from right to left. It walked several paces, and at 20 yards it passed on the far side of a large ponderosa pine. I drew. There was a ten-foot opening before the next tree, and the deer kept walking. I was standing on the frozen ground motionless, with the camouflage material behind me. The deer paused broadside at 18 yards, and I released the arrow.

My first Pope and Young whitetail. It green scored about 145.

My biggest deer to date. Green scored mid 140′s.


Six years. Thousands of miles driven. Months of hunting. Dozens and dozens of icy peanut butter sandwiches and countless hand warmers. The arrow was on its way; through the shoulder, lungs, and out the other side in an instant. The buck jumped into the air, galloped 40 yards and stopped. It turned to look, as if to ask, “What was that?” as it started to sway. The big boy righted himself for a split second, and then toppled onto the snow for the last time. Six years in the making, over in 45 seconds.

The silent forest erupted with a pent-up, six-year-old “whoop!” I ran to the animal and stood in breathless awe. As only fate could author, it was the same buck that came in four days prior, the buck that haunted my psyche all week. Now it lay before me; my first whitetail with a bow, my biggest deer ever. Elation overcame me, and I took a knee by the magnificent animal. Then as only a hunter could understand, I cried tears of appreciation, of raw accomplishment, and of heart-wrenching sadness at the same time. I believe that to an extent, taking the life of an animal is a spiritual event as much as it is physical, and the weight of this particular experience was immense. I had killed many other big game animals before, but this was the most difficult of quarries, had been the longest time coming, required the most effort, and therefore was the most rewarding.

I headed out of the woods and phoned my close friends and neighbors, Craig and Marie, for help with the animal. Two hours later, the big buck lay in the back of my truck, still parked on the Number 2 Road. I floated out of the forest and off the mountain, and headed for the cabin across the valley. This extraordinary mission was finally complete.


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