Off-season Trophy Search for Western Whitetails
by Darren Choate
When scouting for Western Whitetail, use the available tools to find a trophy buck or two to chase this season–and next.
Without a doubt, every hunter dreams of shooting a trophy buck. The bleak truth: not every hunter will convert his or her dream into a reality this fall. In fact, the majority of deer hunters will go home empty-handed this season. Don’t believe it? Read through your state’s hunt success records, and you’ll see that the odds are stacked against you. Let’s face it, the search for, and harvest of a mature, Western Whitetail buck is a challenging feat. Yet, many hunters seem to hang a trophy on their wall year after year. How is it possible?
The majority of hunters only devote a couple of weekend days, a couple of weeks prior to any given hunt to scout. Who can blame them? We live in a busy world, and the average hunter would likely prefer to take their vacation days to hunt—not to scout. Scouting is work; it takes time and effort. Here in the West, one’s hunting spot could be hundreds of miles from the city, which means several hours just in drive time, not to mention the time needed for actually scouting. Why make a big deal out of it? The search for a trophy buck can be rewarding; and, a successful harvest based on that search, the ultimate reward. That’s why! Dedicated hunters who are willing to free up a little time on their calendars this summer, to scout methodically, will put the odds in their favor this fall, with a chance to join elite company.
The Time Is Now, and Later
There is no better time than right NOW to begin your search for a trophy Western Whitetail. Why now? The spring and summer months are perfect for investigating your favorite whitetail hot spots, and for finding new ones. Although, even if you find a buck worth harvesting—depending on where you live—that does not guarantee you will draw a tag; nor does it guarantee success on your next hunt. The most important factor regarding when to look is that the search never ends. Make your search an ongoing passion to find the best buck(s) possible, and ultimately success will follow.
The Starting Point
The obvious starting point(s) to begin your search is near the resources that deer utilize regularly: water, forage, and cover. Whitetails use predictable travel patterns that connect these resources, which are commonly, based on topography, aspect, and vegetation. Deer are not willy-nilly creatures and tend to follow one type of topographic feature or another; a creek or river bottom, a ridge or a saddle, an elevation line to get from point A to point B. And, regardless of the life zone a whitetail inhabits—several are found across the West, from deserts to mixed-conifer forests—they tend to utilize similar vegetation-types more frequently. Depending on the specific location, deer may feed on a south-faced slope covered with plentiful forage in the morning, and bed on a north-faced slope in heavy cover for the remainder of the day. Focus your initial scouting efforts on identifying areas of high use, as well as identifying when and how the area is being used. Remember, your discoveries can be extrapolated to other areas too. Apply what you learned in one location to another; use maps as a catalyst for a second or third exploration location.
Whitetail deer, especially bucks, leave sign throughout their territory. All sign—tracks, trails, droppings, rub-lines, and shed-antlers—is important; however, some sign is better than others are. For example, a recently dropped, giant shed-antler found on a trail lined with rubs from the past rut, and that leads to a nearby water source is a “no-brainer.”
Here are a few tools to aid in the data collection process.
- Shed-antlers: There is no better excuse to scout an area than a shed-antler trip. First, it’s good exercise. Second, you will more than likely see some new country, and you may even find an antler of a trophy buck that you can add to your “hit list.”
- Trail-cameras: Placing a camera or two can aid in the scouting process in two ways: 1) identify shooter bucks, and 2) monitor buck activity throughout the summer and into the season. Their best feature: they will scout for you 24/7, while you’re back at work.
- High-powered Optics: Glassing distant whitetail hangouts is a great scouting tool. First-hand sightings of deer—hopefully, a trophy buck(s)—are the most definitive observation a hunter can make. Based on your optical observations, you will be able to identify potential spots for a shed-antler trip, to hang a trail-camera or to hunt this fall.
To make your dreams come true this fall, put some time into a scouting routine this off-season, collect the data necessary to find a trophy buck (or two) to chase this fall, next fall, and so on.
Darren is the Founder of Western Whitetail. Prior to his career in the outdoors, Darren served as an Airman in the US Air Force. As a freelancer, his articles have been published online and featured in magazines such as Western Whitetail, Western Hunter, Quality Whitetails, Cabela’s Outfitter Journal, Fur-Fish-Game, and Rocky Mountain Game & Fish Magazine. Additionally, Darren spent time as the Editor In Chief of Whitetail Journal, Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme, Archery Business, and Hunting Retailer magazines with Grand View Outdoors. He is a voting member and supporter of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA). Although he lives in elk and Coues country, Darren enjoys hunting across the country and writing about his experiences.