5 Key Factors to Bowhunt Whitetails Successfully
I’ve been fortunate enough to have hunted whitetails across their range in North America, from Canada to the Carolinas, Montana to Mississippi. I’ve often been asked what is the difference between bowhunting whitetails in the East compared to the West. And while there are differences — more on that in a moment — it’s first wise to talk about the similarities.
No matter where they live, whitetails are whitetails. They have the same amazing senses of smell and hearing wherever they’re found. And they have the same basic needs — food, water, and shelter. They experience an intense rut, though it can be of a shorter duration in the north than it is in the Deep South, where it stretches over months. So as bowhunters, when planning a hunting strategy, it doesn’t matter where one is hunting, you must respect the whitetail’s senses and their innate wariness of people.
Bowhunting Whitetails: Five Key Factors
Because deer are deer, when planning a whitetail hunt I consider five things above and beyond all else — the time of year, deer densities, landmass, hunting pressure, and changing conditions.
- Time of Year: If you want to hunt the rut, you have to know when it peaks in the area. For example, while early November is gold in the upper Midwest, the rut is still a month or more away in the Deep South and Southwest.
- Deer Densities: Deer numbers are much greater in farm country than in the mountainous West or western Canada. Where there are lots of deer you can count on bumping them easily. In the West on public land, you may have to cover a lot more ground before you even locate a reasonable place to begin the hunt.
- Land Mass: Strategies are different when hunting a small family farm vs. a huge corporate farming conglomerate vs. a walk-in public hunting area vs. a million-acre or larger national forest in the West. Generally speaking, the smaller the landmass, the more delicately one has to hunt it.
- Hunting Pressure: While whitetails are whitetails and you cannot be careless in any way, shape, or form if hunting pressure is low — when hunting private ground, for example. In high-pressure public land areas, you must factor in other hunters and have an alternate plan in case somebody wrecks your plan A.
- Changing Conditions: Finally, Western bowhunters face constantly changing conditions. The weather can be hot and dry one day to cold and snowing the next, with big winds cropping up anytime. Also, large predators like mountain lions and wolves in areas can impact hunting. And unlike easterners that hunt over known food sources like crops, out West this changes as natural foods and habitats are altered by fire, drought, or farming activity.
Hunt Techniques for Bowhunting Whitetails
Perhaps the biggest difference between bowhunting whitetails in the Midwestern states versus Western states is a basic hunt technique. That is, in 99.9 percent of eastern hunting you’ll remain stationary in either a tree stand or ground blind of some sort. It’s mostly passive hunting. Westerners hunt this way, too, but here it is not uncommon for spot & stalk hunting to play a major role. It can be much more aggressive.
Both regions see hunters employ decoys at times, but Western hunters sometimes use portable decoys like those from Montana Decoy as part of their run & gun strategy. And while rattling and vocal calling work across the board, rather than it being a regional thing I find I choose to use calls based on hunting pressure more than anything else. Meaning, I rarely call to heavily pressured deer, but those that have not been hunted much I’ll call to a lot more aggressively.
You’ll find out in the Western plains that whitetails tend to follow rivers that flow through agriculture. In those situations you often cannot hunt mornings simply because the deer are in the fields all night and into the early morning, and getting into a stand undetected is virtually impossible. Although one time, I did hunt mornings by sleeping all night in a ground blind. Still, bowhunting whitetails here is mostly done in the afternoon.
Statistics compiled by the Pope & Young Club show that the average bow shot taken at whitetail deer is less than 25 yards. That seems about right for those hunting from tree stands or ground blinds in the thicker cover of the eastern two-thirds of the country. That means they can set their bows up specifically for these conditions.
It’s much different out West. While there certainly are some places where close-range stand hunting occurs, spot & stalk is the standard for bowhunting whitetails. Hunting takes place in open and semi-open ground where shots can be on the long side. This requires a bow-and-arrow set-up designed to shoot accurately much further than stand hunting set-ups. It’s so different that I actually have bows set up specifically for each situation. My stand bow’s draw weight is set at 65 pounds, which I can draw very easily with minimal movement from the seated position. My open country bow is set at 70 pounds and shoots a much faster arrow.
Also, eastern hunters just might find that the large-diameter, old trees out West like big river-bottom cottonwoods and ancient mountain evergreens are so big in diameter that many treestands and ladder sticks won’t fit them. Many have gnarly limbs and leaning, twisted trunks, too. That makes a ladder stand a viable option.
In the West, bowhunting whitetails require hunters to take advantage of high-quality optics and a spotting scope so they can glass for deer at distances of a mile or more, something you don’t have to do much in the East.