Stormy Weather Whitetails
by Scott Haugen
Four days of hard hunting, and all I’d seen was a handful of deer, and no bucks. Does and fawns nervously fed along timbered edges, here and there, but the bucks—even the number of does I’d expected—were nowhere to be seen.
That night, just as I was ready to call it quits, a storm front moved in. Temperatures dropped more than 30º, and when I woke up, eight-inches of fresh snow blanketed the ground. Taking to the woods with optimism, I started glassing some of the same draws I’d been hunting, days prior. It didn’t take long to see, the deer had been there all along.
Looking through my Swarovski spotting scope, the first three deer I saw were bucks, all feeding through wild rose hips. Two more bucks appeared farther down the same hillside, as did some does and yearlings.
As more snow started to fall, visibility diminished, so I began slowly hunting my way down a ridge. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, I’d lay eyes on over a dozen bucks, three of which were shooters, one of which was a monster pushing 160-inches. Unfortunately, the big buck busted me before I could get a shot.
Then I found a good buck, bedded in the open. I snuck to within 275 yards, and sat, patiently waiting for him to get up. Over an hour passed, the temperature rose and much of the snow melted. When a swoosh of air hit the back of my neck, I thought it impossible for the thermals to carry my scent from where I sat, above the buck, all the way to where he was bedded. But within seconds the buck was up and sprinting away, reminding me how truly sharp their noses are.
By now it was nearing noon, and snow again began to fall. I connected with Matt Craig, owner of Boulder Creek Outfitters (www.bouldercreekoutfitters.com). Matt had been with some other hunters, and once we joined up, rather than head in for a lunch break, we kept hunting. “This is the first cold snap we’ve had this fall,” confirmed Matt. “Deer could be moving all day long in this stuff.”
We were hunting near White Bird, Idaho; a place I’d hunted many times before with Boulder Creek. There’s a reason I keep coming back to this place, and plain and simple, it’s the number of big whitetails it holds on the private lands Boulder Creek has access to.
The year before we’d laid eyes on a giant buck, one I never got a shot at. His sheds were picked up later that winter, and they scored over 180-inches. Though I tagged a 150-inch class buck that season, he was dwarfed by the big buck I so badly wanted.
During that hunt, bad weather never hit, and the two times we saw the monster buck were right at last light. One time it was too dark to shoot, the other time there was enough light, but he was too far away.
Five years prior to that hunt, I was hunting the river bottom with Matt Craig. We’d spent seven days in the high country and saw a couple nice bucks, but nothing big enough to pull the trigger on. Then a cold snap hit, and we headed to lower elevations in search of bucks on the move. It was the same timeframe as now, late October, and the heavy frost put bucks on the move. That morning we saw multiple bucks, and I ended up tagging a nice one, also in the mid-150-inch class.
History was repeating itself; once the bad weather hit, the bucks started to move. It never ceases to amaze me, the number of bucks these hills hold. Even after several days of glassing, if bucks don’t want to be seen, finding them seems all but impossible. But once temperatures drop and the pre-rut escalates, the number of bucks that literally come out of the woods is mind-boggling.
Matt and I headed a couple ridges over, to a place neither he nor I had hunted that morning. On the way we saw more bucks, including some nice ones pushing the 130-inch mark. We hoped to find the massive-racked buck that gave me the slip earlier in the morning, but had no such luck.
We did, however, find a bachelor group of bucks feeding out of the bottom of a brushy draw. Though they were over 800 yards away, we could tell one was a shooter. A closer look through binoculars confirmed he was a mature, wide-racked buck. He only carried three points per side, but his eye-guards were impressive.
Watching as the bucks walked single-file, out the bottom of the draw and around the bend, Matt and I made a move. Matt wanted to get a closer look, to see just how big the buck was, but my mind was pretty much already made up; I wanted to shoot him.
Moving through the draw, up the opposite ridge and popping out on top, we carefully picked apart the land with our binoculars. Nothing. Inching forward, we continued glassing, but failed to see any sign of the bucks. “They must have gone around the corner, into the next draw,” noted Matt.
Grabbing our gear, we headed into the next draw and up the ridge. As we neared the top, Matt hit the dirt. “They’re coming back this way,” whispered Matt. “They’re still a long way off, but all of them are headed up hill, right toward us.”
Hunkering down, we sat still, out of sight for a good 10 minutes. The crosswind held steady and slowly Matt crept ahead, looking for our bucks. Seeing nothing, he motioned me forward.
“That’s where I last saw them,” Matt pointed, below and off to our right. Searching hard, we failed to find any of the five bucks. Slowly moving ahead, the back of a deer caught my eye, down and to the left. “That might be them, but I wouldn’t think they’d have moved that far,” shared Matt.
We were caught in the open, so just in case the deer fully emerged, I erected the Bog Pod shooting sticks, got the gun anchored and ready, and then waited. Soon the deer lifted its head, confirming it was a buck. Behind him, another buck raised its head, and then they went back to feeding.
“Those are our bucks,” Matt confirmed. “Do whatever you have to do to get ready, ‘cuz when the big buck shows up, it might happen fast.”
Fortunately, the snow had quit falling, and by now most of the ground snow was gone. Ranging the nearest buck, he was just inside 300 yards. I felt steady in the tripod shooting sticks, but still would have preferred a bit closer shot. But with no cover, and nowhere to move, it was up to fate.
Fortunately the mountain on which we sat offered a sold backdrop, and the two bucks we could see had no idea we were near. Soon a third buck appeared, followed by the wide-racked buck we were looking for.
“He’s not a giant, but he is a nice, mature buck,” Matt offered. “Take him if you want to, it’s your call.”
That was all the confirmation I needed.
Seconds slowly passed as the big buck fed on to a hillside of tall, yellow grass. The grass was too thick to chance lacing a bullet through, so I waited, and waited.
The buck was now within 260 yards, and he looked great in the scope, I just wanted a clear path for the bullet to travel. Then, finally, the buck started moving uphill, and stepped to his right. That opened up the shot window I was looking for, and soon the 180 grain Nosler AccuBond was on the way.
Five days of hard hunting had come to a close, but the thing that amazed me most, was how quickly deer appeared once the weather turned. I’ve seen it happen like this so many times, especially with western whitetails that congregate in large numbers in brushy draws, river bottoms and lower elevations within their range.
On day five of that hunt, I laid eyes on more than 20 branch-antler bucks, nearly a dozen of which would have scored over 120-inches, and three of those well over 130-inches. It was yet another lesson in never giving up on a hunt. Truth is, I wasn’t too optimistic after day four, but once the temperature dropped and snow began to fall, it triggered a great deal of pre-rut movement.
When this happens, bucks go on the move looking for does, as well as size-up what bucks are in the area, buck’s they’ll be competing with for breeding rights during the peak of the rut a few weeks down the road. Bucks will also spend more time feeding, amassing as many calories as they can in preparation for winter and the upcoming rut.
This fall, monitor storm patterns in the area you’ll be hunting. If days off work are limited, and you have the option, try arranging your trip around the first big cold snap of the season. Throughout Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Oregon, I’ve witnessed storms and plunges in temperature spur whitetail movement like nothing else. Put in the time, be patient, and hopefully all will come together in the form of a big whitetail buck, and some great eating meat for the family.