At every convention, including ours just past, there are certain questions I’m sure to be asked, usually several times. One goes like, “What’s your favorite game animal?” That’s not an easy one because there are a lot of hunts I really like. I love buffalo and I’m crazy about bears. While I don’t subscribe to the superiority of sheep and goats as game animals, I love mountain hunting. But, deep down, just like 10 million other American hunters, I reckon hunting whitetails is pretty hard to beat!
They’re wary, tricky and frustrating, and although most whitetail hunters pursue them close to their homes, thus in whatever type of country they happen to live in, the whitetail is also incredibly adaptable. Excepting the Arctic tundra, there is no North American habitat type I can think of that doesn’t have whitetails: Forests, swamps, plains, mountains…heck, I’ve seen Coues whitetails on the desert floor, and they’re found in the suburbs of every American city within their vast range.
For some years now, like most whitetail hunters, I’ve done the majority of my whitetail hunting on my home turf, my place in Kansas. Because of this, I haven’t traveled to hunt whitetails as much as I used to; it’s been some time since I hunted Coues deer, or went to Canada to try for their northern giants. This past season, however, I got around a bit more, hunting whitetails in several distinct habitats.
My whitetail hunting started in October with a tropical whitetail hunt in the jungles of Campeche, southern Mexico. Talk about a different whitetail hunt! The weather was blistering hot and humid, and these whitetails are so tiny they make Coues deer look like monsters. But they’re whitetails. They rub and scrape and give alarm snorts…and in that thick cover they disappear real fast! I hunted at Nicte-Ha, a private UMA (hunting area) reachable only by boat, and it was truly a marvelous experience. There were lots of deer but, like a lot of whitetail hunting, other than a couple of fleeting glimpses all we saw for several days were does. Still, we were seeing enough deer that I was pretty sure we’d eventually get a shot. Finally we did, a really nice six-point (two-by-two plus eyeguards).
The next month, in November, I hunted whitetails in both Wyoming and Montana. I guess these habitats were similar in that the majority of the whitetails congregated around big hayfields. However, the Wyoming hunt was in the northeast corner, in Wyoming’s portion of the Black Hills with Ralph Dampman’s Trophy Ridge Outfitters, so we were hunting in valleys between ridges cloaked in black timber. In Montana, I hunted the Highwoods Range out of Great Falls with my friend Pat Fisher of Hawaii Safaris. As in Wyoming, we found the whitetails in the valleys and on the lower foothills, but the ridges above were a whole lot taller and, a bit later in November, it was colder and we had some snow.
There were lots of deer in both areas, and lots of bucks. I saw no giants, although both areas probably have them. On both hunts I turned down some nice bucks for a couple of days, then quit shopping when I found good, mature ten-pointers. Neither buck was the largest in camp, but also not the smallest. I was pretty happy, and was thinking it was shaping up as a great whitetail season.
Then I went to Kansas, where I’m my own guide and outfitter…and I got my come-uppance! My neighbor and I do a small-scale outfitting business, but I get out on stand myself between hunts and when there’s time. In the eight years I’ve had the place I’ve taken a buck for myself each and every year, and was feeling pretty complacent with my home-court advantage. This year I was especially confident! The rut was late, the moon wasn’t bright, and it was clear and cold when rifle season started. The first few days we had wonderful buck movement…but a predicted warm front arrived right on time and the mature bucks shut down like turning off a switch. Although this was a very bad deal for our remaining hunters, it didn’t impact me because I just plain screwed up. Had the chance, blew it. I suppose it had to happen sooner or later, right?
The last few days of the season it stayed warm and the older bucks remained elusive. My younger daughter, Caroline, came down from KU for three days and we sat mornings and evenings…and she studied for finals in between. Like most of us, for sure she would have taken a big buck if one stepped out, but she really wanted a deer for the freezer. Although the big bucks were laying low we were seeing lots of young bucks, but even for Caroline I was reluctant to take a young buck with promise. I’d seen a couple of odd-antlered younger bucks that perhaps could go, and there was one fork-horn that, in our area, was at least a year too old to be a forkie. I figured we had time, and since her tag was either sex, I also figured she take a last-minute doe if it came down to that.
So we were patient, sort of, and we let some deer walk. Then, suddenly, it was the last afternoon of the season, and we were down to the last ten minutes of shooting light, sitting in a box blind. There had been some does earlier, and one baby buck, and I was figuring Caroline’s ace guide and dad had messed up. Two more minutes passed…and then, as if on cue, that forkhorn I’d been looking for walked into the clearing from the left. Although he was on my side Caroline had already seen him, so I just curled my index finger in the trigger-pulling motion. I was a pretty proud pop; she got the barrel of her shocking hot-pink 7mm-08 out the window slowly and silently, gently pressed the safety forward, and pasted the buck right on the shoulder. He turned and ran, and I lost sight of him in the trees.
It was getting dark fast by the time we got out of the blind, but the shot had looked good, and the 140-grain Hornady hits hard. Instead of waiting or looking for blood we used the remaining light to make a quick cast ahead, and we found him just 30 yards into the trees. It had been a long and varied whitetail season, definitely with its ups and downs…but what a great finish!–Craig Boddington