Western Whitetails, Spot-and-Stalk Style
We made our way up the steep, rocky ridge in the pre-dawn darkness, picking each step with caution, knowing that one misplaced step could have serious consequences. I’d been up the ridge countless times over the 30-plus years I’d been hunting this property but didn’t take the ascent lightly.
As we crested the ridge, I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked out over the vast expanse to the east. Behind me, the high peaks of the Rockies stood stalwart 60 miles to the west. Before me, the foothills gave way to lush hayfields and the odd crop of oats and barley. We were in a transition zone of the foothills where ranchers ran cattle in the rugged foothill terrain.
The band of foothills that separated the mountains from the farmland was narrow here and served as a refuge for elk, mule deer, grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and a healthy population of Whitetailed deer. It definitely wasn’t classic deer habitat, but they seemed to be thriving. Hunting pressure was low, with most hunters concentrating on the agricultural zones o the east.
These foothills Whitetails are like a subspecies unto themselves. They are smaller in body and antler than the massive subspecies further to the east, and they are quite comfortable in the rugged foothill and mountain terrain they inhabit.
I was bighorn sheep hunting one time and picked up a nice Whitetail shed on the edge of an alpine mead- ow at around 8,000 feet of elevation. This was the domain of sheep and elk, but don’t ever discount how adaptable the Whitetail can be. I’ve been hunting these foothills deer for almost four decades now. If you try to apply standard deer hunting techniques to them, you will find yourself with an empty freezer in many years. But watch and learn from them, and they become fairly easy to pattern.
These deer are tailor-made for the spot-and-stalk hunter. Just like elk, they will often move several miles to feed each night and the key to success is intercept- ing them along their route. Unlike their eastern counterparts—that will travel the same trails day after day through the woods—these deer rarely ever take the same route twice. They seem to wander rather aimlessly through the open foothill terrain. While they often move just at dark on their way to feed in the evening, their return to cover seems much more leisurely in the mornings. Often, you will watch them take an hour or more to cover a couple of miles. This pattern becomes even more prevalent late in the season. They can’t seem to resist the temptation to feed along the way as November temperatures drop.
On this particular morning, we spotted a group of about a dozen on a hay field, two and a half miles to the east. Most were does, but there were a couple of smaller bucks plus one nice mature buck, which, in this part of Alberta, was way above the average. Through the spot- ting scope, I counted five points a side, and I could see he had good mass.
I called Vanessa over to the scope and I could see the smile growing on her face. She nodded in approval. The sun was still about 20 minutes from cresting the horizon and there was little we could do but be ready to move once the deer began to do so. It was a game of cat and mouse now. First, the deer had to come our way; second, we needed to be able to intercept them. While the land- scape below us was fairly open, there was enough cover to lose sight of the deer as they moved west. Getting the buck was far from a sure thing.
As the sun began to peak above the horizon in the east, the deer began to move to the southwest but with no urgency. The young bucks ran a few of the does around, but they were still two weeks away from show- ing any interest. The big buck lagged, content to grab a few mouthfuls as he walked, letting the young bucks expend their energy on the uninterested does. He knew he would need every ounce of his energy once the rut kicked in.
It took the group about 30 minutes to reach a small copse of trees situated about halfway to us. From there they could go in several directions unseen. I suggested to Vanessa that we move about a mile to the south and set up on an open ridge in a big stand of aspen. It was a long shot, but it was our best chance if the deer contin- ued on their current course.
The ridge was about three-quarters of a mile long and it was timbered on both sides. Once we got there, we slowed our pace. Rather than settling into a vantage point, we decided to walk slowly along the ridge, since we had no idea where the deer would appear. We crept along the ridge at a slow pace, watching both sides for the deer. When we were about halfway, we caught mo- tion off to our right. The deer had crossed over the ridge unseen and were headed down the other side.
Now or Never
It was now or never. Vanessa settled in behind the rifle and at the report of her 30-06 Tikka, the buck fold- ed up and fell on the spot. This is tough country to kill a deer in, and when a plan comes together, there’s reason to celebrate. It makes you forget about the other dozen stalks that didn’t work out earlier in the season. While this was a buck that would rarely rate a second look in most parts of Alberta, for the foothills, he was a dandy. Vanessa beamed as we walked up to the big buck.
Over the decades we’ve taken many deer in a similar fashion. A couple of years ago, a local landowner asked if we would take his nephew out to try for his first buck, as they’d had no luck trying to get him one. We only had one afternoon, so we set up early on a high ridge and broke out the spotting scope. For the first couple of hours, we saw nothing, and I could see the young lad was getting restless. I assured him that if he had patience, we’d see a buck. And then it happened. A nice 5×5 appeared out of the heavy willows to the north. He was close to two miles away, but he was moving briskly to the south. The rut was just starting and he was undoubtedly looking for a hot doe.
We gathered up our gear and sprinted about three-quarters of a mile to the west. There was a dry creek bed with a few trees scattered along it and it was the primary travel route for deer moving between two big adjacent hay fields. As we got to the creek, we couldn’t see the buck, and I was certain we’d missed him. Then, Vanessa spotted him just over 300 yards to the south. He’d managed to get by us, but he was still in range for the Creedmoor. Lewis extended the legs on the bipod and got into the prone position. I coached him
on where to place the crosshairs and asked him if he felt steady. He never answered. When the Creedmoor went off it startled me, but through the binoculars, I watched the buck hump at the impact, stagger a few steps, then fall over. Lewis had his first buck.
Evenings can be tough, since the deer often begin to move late, but they can also be productive if you’re able to move fast. A couple of years after this occasion we were set up on the same ridge where we’d spotted the buck for the rancher’s nephew. It was about 45 minutes before last light when a big buck chased a doe into an opening about a mile away. We didn’t even take the time to pack up our gear. We just took off at a run, knowing darkness was conspiring against us. As we crossed the dry creek bed, we watched the buck and doe run into the willows. Somewhat defeated, we continued forward. Suddenly, the pair reappeared, with the buck hot on the doe’s tail. Vanessa got her rifle set up on the bipod and as the buck paused briefly to catch his breath, Vanessa capitalized on his mistake. It was the biggest foothills buck we’ve ever taken, scoring a respectable 163 inches.
Our trophy room isn’t filled with giant Alberta White- tails but it’s the foothill’s bucks that adorn our walls.
They are a testament to the effectiveness of this spot- and-stalk style of hunting for Whitetails in the west.
We’ve taken a lot of solid bucks out of an area where most hunters struggle to even fill a tag. And I couldn’t imagine hunting Whitetails in a more beautiful setting than in the foothills of the Rockies.
The Key To Success
The key to success other than obviously, first spot- ting these deer, is more importantly understanding their movement. They rarely follow the same routes. There are days when they may walk casually across two miles of wide-open terrain and others where they will move from the tiniest piece of cover to the next.
The more familiar you become with these areas, the more you can increase your odds of intercepting them. A Whitetail in heavy wood-lot cover may live within a square mile its entire life, yet these foothills deer think nothing of moving two miles or more to feed. And with relatively low deer densities, l’ve seen bucks move five miles in a night in search of a receptive doe. These bucks become fairly easy to pattern but you can do so on a much larger scale than those that live in heavy cover. Their travel routes may only bring them past the same location once a week.
While getting up high and glassing is the preferred method, there are times when the big bucks will go to- tally nocturnal. In those cases, slowly walking the open ridges in more timbered areas is a great way to come across a big buck that is looking for does. These open ridges, surrounded by trees, are the main travel routes for rutting bucks. For the stealthy hunter, it can be relatively easy to take one while still hunting slowly along.
Quality optics are the key and a pair of 10-power binoculars are a must. I couldn’t imagine hunting these foothills deer without a spotting scope. While the scope is important for spotting deer, it’s also critical for evaluating antlers if you are looking for a mature buck. A fairly flat shooting rifle with a scope, with some sort of ballistic compensation, is a must. While an eastern hunter may never take a shot at a Whitetail over 150 yards away, it’s pretty common hunting these western bucks to take shots in excess of 300 yards. My two favorite cartridges are the 7mm Remington magnum and the 6.5 PRC, but any cartridge with similar bullet selection and ballistics will work fine. As this style of hunting often sees you walking several miles in tough terrain, a lightweight rifle is a must. My sheep rifles double as my western White- tail rifles in the foothills.