Hunting > Whitetails

Whitetail Hotspots: The High Plains

This is the prairie and High Plains ribbon habitat, perhaps the easiest place to hunt big whitetails in the world.

Sometimes where I hunt it's like Robert Frost's woods on a snowy evening. Big flakes sift languidly through bare branches that entangle the gray sky, clutching it to heavy trunks anchored to the good earth. This is a familiar environment, safe, a place where you could build a fire or even a cabin. Tails flash white between brown trees. Half an antler protrudes beyond a trunk, a single eye glinting. But 30 yards behind you it's like a Robert Service poem. Arctic blasts sweep curtains of horizontal snow over an endless expanse of snowfields merging seamlessly with the sky. You expect to see caribou. And 30 yards in front of you, it's as if you're sitting beside a Wisconsin cornfield, snow swirling around yellow stalks marching over a rise toward a gray wall of trees.


This is the prairie and High Plains ribbon habitat, perhaps the easiest place to hunt big whitetails in the world.


The first whitetails we saw on the farm in South Dakota hiked there on ribbons. Traditionally this had been the land of bison and prairie chickens. After sodbusters converted the prairie to crops and stopped wildfires, trees marched up river banks and so did whitetails, discovering a cornucopia of corn and the sheltering belts of trees settlers had planted around their farmsteads.


Those initial ribbons of trees crept ever farther afield. Brush sprouted along feeder creeks, fence lines and ponds, up pasture draws. As far west as the Rockies, riparian ribbons spun a web of whitetail habitat, creating a hunting paradise I wouldn't trade for any other.


Narrow strips of cover concentrate and funnel deer in predictable ways and places. Where do you suppose whitetails are going to travel and bed after dinner? This makes stand-hunting simple and quite productive. Plunk yourself in a belt of trees bordered by naked November fields and you can't miss. Well, you might miss, but you'll get your shots. Many cover strips are less than 40 yards wide.


A modicum of basic research should indicate where to find food and the thickest bedding cover. Set up on the travel route between the two with the wind right and be quiet. Your buck is on the way. I did this on the little creek that wound through our quarter-section late one October when bucks were getting feisty. I dribbled a bit of doe estrous scent along the trail to a green wheat field pocked with tracks. The 140-class 5x5 came sniffing along the first evening. The old Bear Razorhead took him from 20 yards. This was a half-mile from where I'd seen my first whitetail 10 years earlier.


We quickly discovered that linear cover made convenient avenues for driving whitetails. After a boring morning on stand-well, half a morning-we took matters into our own hands. Two or three of us assumed shooting positions spanning the cover while one or two others, who drew the short straws, beat the ribbon of woods toward us. Bucks and does practically ran us over. Some sneaked by, some pranced, some dashed, but we always saw them, always flung arrows at them, rarely hit them, but had our chances.


The same driving techniques work well in shelterbelts. Deer often spurt out the sides to escape cross-country, but if nudged along easy-like, they'll just as often tiptoe to the far end, following established trails.


The drier any country, the more productive riparian ribbons become. Deer just don't have many options. Irrigation waters might grow sugar beets, asparagus, corn and beans in former desert, but farmers don't waste it on vast patches of timber.


Deciduous cover is pretty limited beyond what hugs the waterways. Because of this, and because whitetails are innovative and intrepid, they'll often abandon all vestiges of cover and strike overland to reach choice forage. You may be a bit startled the first time you see a dozen whitetails trekking shortgrass plains a mile from the nearest shrub, but if you can get control of your emotions, ask yourself where they're going (the nearest ribbon of cover, most likely) and then hustle to cut them off. It's aerobic whitetail hunting at its finest. My favorite tactic for locating big bucks on the Plains is to sit high and scour the landscape with binocular and spotting scope. Once I spot a big buck, I race to cut him off or determine his bedding and foraging sites for a later approach.


If you don't think you can slip into dense strips of cover and get a clear shot, set up outside and wait for your quarry to emerge. Or creep to a downwind side and rattle or grunt. In standing cornfields, walk the end rows on windy days, watching down the long corridors for bedded deer. Then stalk within range, the wind and rattling leaves your audio camouflage.


Virtually any and every whitetail hunting tactic works here because ribbon cover concentrates the animals.


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