Hunting > Whitetails

Canyon Whitetails

If you look for deer in the deep canyons of north Idaho, be prepared to sweat up and down steep terrain. You should also be prepared to make sharply angled shots.

Whitetail guide Shane Harris is a bit like Superman: mild-mannered, low-key, polite, self-effacing. But put out a call for a whitetail guide and he emerges from his phone booth as SuperGuide, able to find whitetails in the deepest, steepest, rockiest hell-holes a whitetail ever called home.

“There he is. Right where he’s supposed to be,” Harris said one bright, warming October morning after two days of rain and fog.

“Where?” I asked, doubting my guide was doing anything but pulling my leg. I hadn’t seen a decent buck yet, despite his calm insistence they were living in these steep, rocky canyons of north Idaho.

“See that big rock outcropping to the left of that long draw with the few trees in it?”
“Uuuh … yeah.”

“Just to the right and down. He’s feeding on that bush. Oops. Now there’s two of them. Better get the spotting scope set up.”

At 20X the big 80 mm Bushnell Elite scope revealed a dark, deep-chested buck right where Shane had been telling me one habitually hung out. Cranked up to 40X, the glass showed antlers spreading just beyond the ear tips, five tines to each side, some reaching 10 or 11 inches above the main beam. His companion was 10 inches smaller.

“I’m guessing 140-class?” I said.

“Pretty close. Might hit 150.”

The hunt was about to crank into a higher gear.

Operating clandestinely under the auspices of Boulder Creek Outfitters in the Grangeville and Lewiston, Idaho, region, Harris pretends to be a carpenter for much of the year. In reality, he’s looking, listening, learning, probing, scouting and locking down some of the best bucks in the boonies. Serious boonies.

You haven’t seen boonies until you’ve hiked a few of Boulder Creek Outfitters’ 60,000 acres of free-range ranch and forest canyon country. We’re talking canyons here, not coulees or ditches or even deep valleys. From the brushy, stony edges of the gurgling canyon creek bottoms to the breezy, grassy, rocky tops of the ridges, the land climbs 2,000 feet nearly straight up. The inclines are often so steep you are forced to grab shrubs and saplings to pull yourself along. Dry dirt crumbles under your boots. Wet dirt sags, but holds. Rocks and stones break and roll, taking you or your ankles with them.

“This sure isn’t the easiest hiking,” I complained early on.

“Keeps the riffraff out.”

This is important during the mid-October season when bucks are in hard antler but not yet in crazy mode. Instead of prowling day and night for romance, they’re mainly following summer habits, sleeping in familiar haunts where nothing disturbs them, waking at dusk and dawn to hike and feed where the dining is best. This is the transition season, and forage can change overnight. Crops get harvested. Rains fall and new sprouts shoot up. Apples drop. Frost changes the chemical composition of some plants, making them suddenly tasty. All of this mandates a hopeful hunter keep close tabs on local deer movement, which is hard to do from 250 miles away.

That’s where SuperGuide comes in. While I and other Boulder Creek clients do our things in scattered locales around the country, Harris is on site, watching, glassing, memorizing and taking notes. Month after month. Year after year. He knows not only the “buck of the week,” but the bucks over the decades. How they habitually respond to changing conditions. What thickets and draws they like to frequent. Where they go to hide.

The 5x5 described above bedded pretty much where Shane had seen him many times before—in a narrow draw dotted with a few small trees and plenty of weeds. The site perched halfway up the north canyon slope and between a couple of ranch yards. The ranches discouraged poachers or casual hunters from pursuing the bucks. Anyone approaching from directly below could be easily seen, giving the buck plenty of time to sneak out or blast over the top. An approach from above would send him careening around the bend in the bottom of the draw, instantly hidden by brush.

“We can come in from the boss’ driveway or crawl up behind that little hump on the right,” Harris suggested.

“I like the hump on the right. We’ll be too close coming in from the driveway side. He’ll probably hear us. The wind is better from that way, though.”

We discussed and debated, giving the newly bedded buck time to get sleepy. Then we made our cautious, futile stalk. The wind switched. Blew the alarm right up to him before we could break over the hump of ground from which we’d hoped to shoot. White tails flashing was our reward.

So it goes. But we were getting closer.

“I know another spot where I’ve been seeing a good buck—’bout the same size as this one. He’s usually in one of three side draws above the big canyon.”

We started from the bottom, using an ATV to scale a muddy, grueling old logging road that zigzagged up the incline, through horse pastures and old fruit orchards, around pine woods and brush pockets, past fresh bear tracks and bounding mule deer does. After 40 minutes we broke out on top beside a yellow wheat stubble field.

“We’re halfway there. Grab your stuff.”

I shrugged into my pack, strung my binocular ’round my neck, slung the .270 WSM Mossberg 4x4 and grabbed my bipod. A laser rangefinder was in the pack. It’s essential in country like this. The combination of wide-open fields and steep angles makes every deer look twice as far away.

Shane led the way along the wheat, into a small pasture, past a pond ringed with deer tracks and to a point that proved an ideal lookout. A doe and three fawns lay in knee-high grass atop a ridge on the far side of one draw. They watched us cautiously. Five coyotes loped over the opposite ridge and began hunting the edge of the brush, eventually coming within 70 yards of us before catching scent and slinking away. We moved along the rim, glassing newly exposed terrain, both high and low. “There’s a buck. Not too big. Looks like a decent 3-year-old maybe; 4x4.” As the buck loped out of the brushy draw, it alerted another. Both picked their way up a rock slide that might have given a bighorn ram pause.

“The big one’s around here someplace. Let’s try over the field and into another draw.”
He wasn’t there either.

My wife finally found the big buck for us that afternoon. We’d returned to the bottom and had driven the truck to the far edge of the ranch. We were glassing brushy draws in a huge wind when Betsy suggested we check out the antlers on the skyline. They seemed to be attached to a rather large, smug-looking whitetail buck.

“What the heck is he doing up there?” I asked. “There’s nothing but rocks, short grass and wind.”

“Cougar’d have a tough time catching him unawares,” Harris said.

The buck looked spectacular, so we started discussing how we might do what the cougar couldn’t. Before we could settle on an approach that would get us close enough to negate the effects of the gale, the buck leaped up and ran over the top.

“I know where he’s going. We’ll have to climb back to the top and come in from there.”
We did. It took nearly two hours. When we neared the suspect side canyon, Shane slowed to turtle speed. We thoroughly glassed every newly exposed foot of the ground as we stepped forward, seeing no deer in what looked like a largely naked draw. But it wasn’t. Eventually our guide had us crawling toward a rocky outcrop from where we could see nearly all of the deep hidey-hole below.

“I see a doe. She just stood up in that thicket there.” Shane pointed. I followed the line, glassed and finally spotted the deer. It looked a lot smaller than it should have. “She’s staring up at something pretty hard. Must be more.”

After 10 minutes we’d located three does and a small buck. No big one. Shane insisted it was there. “It wouldn’t leave these other deer. They’d make it feel safe. Quiet spot. No one disturbs them here.”

“But we can see every inch of it.”

Except, of course, we couldn’t, as proven a half-hour later when a buck—the buck—was suddenly standing and stretching. The laser read 287 yards and the angle was 15 degrees. The shot would land a half-MOA high, or about 1.5 inches. Not enough to worry about. The sun was nearly setting and the wind had died considerably. It might have been rushing 10 mph up the draw. At 3275 fps, a .270 WSM is fast and the 130-grain Winchester Ballistic Silvertip bullet carrying that velocity had a high ballistic coefficient of .432. But no bullet can completely overcome the deflecting effects of a 10 mph wind. I should have compensated for about 5 inches of deflection, but didn’t.

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