Hunting Mountain Whitetails: Here are Fundamentals for Killer Success



The quest: hunting mountain whitetail with a bow.

By Jon Gabrio

I grew up in Washington, a state that is not known for exceptional whitetail hunting. I was introduced to hunting mountain whitetail by my dad and a few of his buddies in my teenage years. Now, in my early 30’s, I’ve truly grown to love the chase of the elusive Northwest whitetail.

Hunting mountain whitetails from above.
Hunting mountain whitetails from above.

Hunting Mountain Whitetails

Mountain whitetails aren’t your typical whitetail deer back in the Midwest over a cut cornfield or planted food plot. We chase deer in the rugged, mountainous country of the Pacific Northwest, thick, brush-choked drainages with windfall tall enough to swallow up a moose. Yet, these bucks love this country and find a way to call it home.

While we may not have 200” deer around every corner like most guys think the Midwest produces, we do have some respectable bucks that slip up every now and then. And just kidding about the 200” bucks in the Midwest, a 200” buck is far and few between anywhere you hunt unless it’s a high-fence hunt.

Now let’s dive into a few tips and tactics that I use.

Fundamentals

Scouting:

First, we need to find a place to hunt. I utilize several tools to make this happen. I start with a mapping tool where I can find land ownership; onX Maps and Basemap are great tools for hunting mountain game. Once I located some public chunks of land, then I will dive into Google Earth and pick the country apart.  I tend to look for big chunks of National Forest where I personally don’t have to worry about much private land.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of that in the PNW so you don’t really have to worry about hunting bucks down on a fence line.

However, that being said, some really good hunting can come from public chunks next to private as the deer cross back and forth. So, don’t throw this out the window. I’ve had great luck with stands on travel corridors to and from feeding areas.

Scouting is key for success

Trails and Rubs:

Bowhunting for mountain whitetails is tricky. The key to success is finding bucks, maybe not giant bucks, but bucks that are huntable in general. Look for areas running down a ridge top that have rubs or scrapes on them. I like to look for areas in the mountainous country that have several larger finger ridges that come together. The deer will generally travel down the tops of the ridges. If you have several that come together, you have better odds and finding a buck that comes down to the “pinch point.”

This area will generally have some rubs or scrapes.  Even if it’s just several trials coming together it can be a great spot for a stand. A lot of guys only do their scouting during hunting season for rubs and scrapes. A great time to actually go find them is in the spring as the snow melts before the green-up.  They are still highly visible and a great way to get out of the house and stretch your legs in the spring.

When looking for these trails, look 30-50 yards off the main trails for secondary trails. These can be great trails where a bigger buck will travel. They are usually downwind so he can smell the does walking the more primary trails.

You’ll often find scrapes and rubs on these as well. Generally, big rubs mean big bucks. Big bucks can make little rubs, but little bucks can’t make a big rub.  So, keep that in mind. Rubs can also be a locating tool for a staging area.  They may make a cluster of rubs in a circle 20-100 yards wide where they visit nightly before heading out into a feeding area, crossing a road or fence, etc. They will often stand there in the cover before heading out into more open space until it’s dark.

Find trails and rubs

Scrapes:

There are different types of scrapes. Community scrapes and dominant buck scrapes. The community scrapes deer will actually use year-round believe it or not. These can be a great find in the spring or summer as you know some deer are hanging out close by.

A dominant buck scrape will show up during the rut or prior to the rut and be hit hard.  It will often grow as the rut activity increases. If you find two, three, or more scrapes within a short distance, this is usually a dominant buck. HANG A STAND and sit tight.  He will be back to check those.

When it comes to hunting mountain whitetails, I’ve had great luck finding scrapes and setting scents along those. The bucks get curious and come back to check them out frequently. In mountainous terrain, bucks have to move around more to find does. In other words, they don’t live in a small 300-yard patch of brush their entire life. They have predators that push them around and keep them moving, so, they tend to roam quite a bit of country.

I’ve had bucks show up on a camera and the next day caught on a camera two mountain ridges away, over 7 miles as a crow flies.  I never would have guessed they moved that much, but the pictures don’t lie.

Scrapes expose dominant bucks

Treestands and Blinds:

In the Pacific Northwest, bowhunting mountain whitetails, I have long been an advocate for treestand hunting. I like the visibility it offers and getting my scent off the ground and up in the air is key with these deer. When looking for a place to set your stand I look at these main trail pinch points and try to set up on the downwind side. That way the deer are coming down and I’m always downwind and helping push my scent away.

One tough factor in the mountain country is the wind seems to never stay consistent. It likes to swirl. That being said, I like to put my stands at 20-25 feet up. At around 20-22 feet, the wind actually shifts from what it’s doing on the ground below.  So, if you can get above that mark, you’re probably going to be safer. I noticed once I started going to 25 feet, my chances of getting winded decreased dramatically.

A lot of people now are using ground blinds.  And for good reason. They conceal your movement better, help reduce scent, and a big one, they help keep you out of the weather. I don’t really care about the weather piece so much, but it is nice if it’s pouring down rain and snow dripping off the limbs on your like can happen in the PNW from time to time.

I never really used ground blinds that much until my sister started hunting with us and I can’t argue her success. They work plain and simple. I killed my second biggest buck out of one in 2017.  Sometimes ground blinds are necessary to hunt a certain location like my 2017 deer. Smaller trees, the wind is shifting all the time and it’s thick where you can’t get a shot from above down in.

Not my favorite choice in hunting as you’re limited to what you can see out the window. It makes the days seem longer, but it’s just part of it. I do have to say I love the ease and use of a ground blind though. They are much quicker to set up and tear down. Treestands take some time and you have to trim limbs on a tree on the way up usually which takes time.

Overall, find which one works best for you and use it. They both work and I’ve had success in each.

The author has had success hunting mountain whitetails in a treestand and ground blinds.
The author has had success hunting mountain whitetails in a treestand and ground blinds.

Trail Cameras:

I won’t spend a ton of time on these as most of you probably have some knowledge about them. Using trail cams plays a vital role in the success of whitetail hunting. I can find out when the bucks are coming by or does and what bucks are there. If I have a spot with a lot of doe traffic before the rut, I’ll typically focus on that spot more because I know the bucks will show up. Or if I have a spot with a big dominant buck, I might sit that spot until he shows again if he’s active there.

I like to set my cams to take 2 pictures every minute if I have a high traffic area. If it’s a slower area, I’ll set my cameras on a picture every 10 seconds to make sure I get as much data as possible. In my opinion, the more pictures you have the better.

When hunting mountain whitetails, I like to check my cameras every day so I can see if I have a new buck that shows up or one that is there often. While this might not be totally feasible in all locations as sometimes, I have stands spread out in different mountain ranges.  However, if I’m hunting the same general area I’ll hike in after dark and check the cams, so I know where to go the next day.

Intel is key, use it.

The author uses trail cameras extensively for hunting mountain whitetails.
The author uses trail cameras extensively for hunting mountain whitetails.

Clothing:

Clothing is a big factor for success hunting mountain whitetails, especially in the late season. I sit in my stands from an hour before daylight until dark. I don’t get down. Having clothes that will allow you to sit all day is key. Sometimes the temperatures are hovering in single digits.

Use two heavyweight long john base layers. This will help wick moisture walking in and trap heat at the same time. For your socks wear a pair of polyester socks followed by a pair of heavyweight wool socks followed by some sort of foot warmer on the outside in your boots. There are several on the market. The next key and this is a big one for your feet, get a heavy pac boot. Baffin makes excellent pac boots that are used by dog sled racers in Alaska.

For your mid-layers use a heavyweight fleece or wool top and bottom. Cabelas makes a thick Berber fleece that is quiet as can be and great for warmth. Then followed on your outer layers I use First Lite Sanctuary bibs and coat.  These help keep the main elements off me and trap as much warmth as anything I’ve found.

Also, don’t overlook a good pair of wool gloves and hand warmers. When you get cold the first thing to go is your extremities. Toes and fingers. Make sure to keep your core warm and all else will stay warm.  Using an external heat source helps wave off the cold long enough to get a shot when that big buck presents itself.

Having the correct clothing for any hunt is critical, especially in the late season.
Having the correct clothing for any hunt is critical, especially in the late season.

Hunting Mountain Whitetails Final Thoughts

Follow these tips on your next trip hunting mountain whitetails in the Pacific Northwest with a bow to optimize your chances of success.

The author took this buck while hunting mountain whitetail from a treestand.
The author took this buck while hunting mountain whitetail from a treestand.
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