by Wayne van Zwoll
We once found deer “in the woods.” Deer got the message. Big bucks now hide on prairies.
PROBABLY WHILE I was looking behind trees, Bill found the deer. He saw only its nose, poking up from a clump of tattered brown grass, a black shine that drew his experienced eye. He eased closer, as he had no scope to confirm. But he was already very close. His .30-30 claimed that buck, a nine-pointer in a heavily hunted county that gave up mostly yearlings.
Why would a deer choose a pheasant’s hide over timbered swamps and hardwood thickets? Back then, 50 years ago, wooded wetlands reached far from the Pine River, and blocks of beech-maple forest equaled in size the tilled fields between. Bill’s buck got me to thinking that November’s tide of red plaid was pretty good at tagging young deer and educating survivors. Bucks learned where hunters looked and how they behaved.
Besides, the notion that whitetails are woods creatures is partly myth. Mature timber harbors few deer, because the canopy shades out the new growth that provides accessible, palatable forage. A clean forest floor has nothing to offer in the way of food or cover. Deer prosper where young plants prosper: on woodland’s hem, where sun can nurture shrubs and new trees. And grass.
My last whitetail, the best I’ve yet taken, fell in grass, far from trees. In fact, my last four bucks came from places that might hold prairie grouse. And no, I don’t perch to watch expanses of cropland or plain, to snipe at deer from afar. Such effort bores me. I’m a still-hunter. An average shot comes at under 150 yards.
The Homestead Act of 1862 didn’t benefit deer. Settlers sheared timber from creases in the great grasslands east of the Rockies, then fenced them, plowed them and turned their livestock loose. In 1879 John Wesley Powell suggested a viable plot on the plains comprise 2,560 acres. Congress allocated 160. Overgrazing ensued. As bison vanished, market hunters sold venison to railroad gangs and steamboat crews. Brutal winters in 1886 and 1887 rested the range by killing 80 percent of its cattle. Deer died too, though, and more cattle came. Depression and the Dust Bowl ravaged the prairie, but relieved deer of hunting pressure as defeated farmers left. The second world war brought another respite, men shouldering rifles elsewhere.
Meanwhile, whitetail deer increased in the Midwest, growing fat on cultivated crops and hiding in adjacent tracts not feasible to farm. From the late 1940s through the ’50s, mule deer hunting farther west was as good as it had ever been — and better than it may ever be again. Decades of livestock grazing had replaced grass with brush. Seasonal use by domestic sheep kept browse in early successional stages; deer thrived on the nutritious young growth. Poison and aerial gunning hammered coyote populations, and a series of easy winters bolstered deer herds.
Such benevolence is unlikely to repeat anytime soon. The West now has fewer sheep, and more coyotes. Predator bounties and poisoning campaigns have faded away. Fire control on public wild-lands limits the setback of plant succession needed to ensure constant renewal of browse. Elk have expanded their range, out-competing deer for winter forage. Re-introduced wolves add predation pressure. Deer hunters, now more mobile and more lethal at long range, are also more numerous. Most importantly, our own needs and wants gobble deer habitat at an increasing rate. Each year we add more than 7,000 to our number. We build houses where deer live and pave 11,000 miles of roads annually. From North Dakota’s oil patch to Colorado’s ski slopes and the suburban sprawl around population centers like Los Angeles, western deer range continues to shrink in the face of human progress.
Whitetails have adapted better than mule deer to changing habitats and pressures. Mostly, they’ve learned to live close to people. But they’ve also settled into new types of cover. You’ve surely heard that elk were creatures of the plains until shoved into the timbered hills by settlers — a logical move, as elk are grazers but need tree cover to elude riflemen. Whitetails are primarily browsers, and the woodlands that supply forage also screen them from hunters. So moving to meadow and prairie makes no sense.
Unless you’re a deer. Bill’s buck had grown old hiding in places that made no sense to hunters.
“Look!” White antlers parted a sea of rippling grass, then vanished. I dashed crosswind through the surf, sweeping wide, then emerging from the waves to climb a knob. Beyond, low hills saw-toothed the horizon. On a treeless slope 350 yards off, the buck stood, watching behind. Too far. I slipped into a draw, hurried forward and bellied to the crest of a low ridge. The buck came clear in my 4x Zeiss as the Ruger carbine nosed through a bush. When the .303 recoiled, the deer buckled, tumbling down the face to lie still. I dropped the No. 1’s lever and pocketed the hull.
Reservation land in South Dakota, where I shot that whitetail, comprises mainly prairie, some of it hard against corn and other grain crops. Much of it is cut by draws clogged with plum thickets and other low woody cover. Cottonwoods and oaks shade major drainages. Hunters in our camps have consistently fared better than whitetail hunters pounding eastern hardwoods and Midwest woodlots. Of course, if your in-laws farm a half-dozen sections of Iowa or have family roots deep in Pike County, Illinois, you’ll enjoy fine hunting in timber closed to the general public. But if like me you must bang on doors to hunt, or seek deer on public land, the prairie is worth a look. Where lotteries allocate deer tags, draw odds for whitetail licenses are generally better than for mule deer.
Last fall scheduling conflicts left me just one day to hunt a favorite slice of prairie. Under stars bright above an eastern blush. I strode to a wash and waited under the brow of a hill for legal light. Deer drifted through, but no old bucks. At dawn I still-hunted feeder draws. Morning’s magic was fading when I saw him, silhouetted atop a bluff nearly a mile off. I waited long minutes, hoping he’d move. When at last he slipped into the head of a coulee, I climbed for a peek into that hollow, skirting lesser bucks. Alas, I had made a rookie’s mistake. The big deer hadn’t bedded in the cut, but in grass on its rim. He lay low, watched me walk by, then jumped up and jetted down-slope.
That could well have been tale’s end. But just shy of the creek bottom, the deer slowed. Though chances for a second try were slim, I slipped behind a ridge and hurried down from the butte, dropping to hands and knees in weeds above the creek, glassing every few feet. By great good luck, I spotted antler tips before the buck pegged me. Shedding my pack, I bellied ahead to where the grass was thin enough to part with my .25-06. Still, only tines showed. The clock was ticking; a shift in the breeze would end all.
“Hey, buck,” I said in a low voice, sling taut and eye to the scope. “Hey, buck.” Ear tips twitched. “Hey, buck.” The antlers turned. He would launch or slink off, low. “Hey.” The tines swiveled. I exhaled, pressured the trigger. Wait… Now! The rifle recoiled as the deer half-rose to sneak away, a wink in time.
Wayne first saw this buck in a sea of grass. He stalked it twice, shot it at 200 yards, ridge to ridge.
Not all prairie hunts spool out that way. November weather can punish you and prolong a hunt as you wait for conditions to clear. A blizzard marked my first Dakota deer trip. Snow on I-90 piled to the over-passes; Deadwood recorded 45 inches. I persevered, probing brushy draws all but shuttered by drifts. Eventually a buck jumped from a draw and ran into a bullet from my .30-30. Its modest antlers were by then a great prize!
Pastures, CRP patchwork and pockets of grass in fencerows can be as productive as expanses of native prairie. Once, while I prowled a woodlot, a farmer drove his pickup to a riot of weeds at its hem — and shot a fine buck from the cab, his coffee still steaming on the dash… Another time, a pal walking to the rendezvous after an unsuccessful drive bumped a buck from weeds in a fence-line and made the easy shot… After yet another drive, my pal Ron trudged out of the woods, unloading his Winchester in a strip of grass when he got within a stone’s toss of his pickup. As the last cartridge fell into his hand, a buck leaped from underfoot and dashed away… Harvey and his gang had paused for lunch on a sunny hillside after a deerless hunt through hardwoods. Guns on the ground, sandwiches in hand, they could only watch as a many-tined buck vaulted from nearby weeds and made his exit.
Deer in grass escape notice largely because they appear as shards of the insignificant. Shadows impose confusing patterns on striated foreground. To cut through this veil, look between and beyond what you know is not a deer. Expect animals to appear as patches of earth-tone color on background that’s little different. A deer’s body texture — gentle folds and ripples, with fine shading — has a background look too. Slave to your thinking, your eye craves details peculiar to deer. Antlers, for instance. But such obvious clues may be hidden; to see more deer you must discern less distinctive parts.
Look close first, then far. A deer you miss nearby is a chance lost. Distant deer aren’t as quickly alarmed. Look low. Engaging other people, or watching computer screens, we’re used to looking straight ahead. Whitetails and mule deer stand 30 to 40 inches at the shoulder. Bedded deer lie ankle-high, their ears and antlers at the level of your knees. In short cover, bucks find depressions and hug the earth.
Wyoming’s bumpy, blue-green quilts of sagebrush lack the height of sage in the Great Basin of Oregon, where these shrubs grow tall enough to shade saddle horses. But Wyoming’s scruffiest stands still appeal to deer. Once, after muffing a chance at a fine buck, I watched him gallop across a flat and up a distant hill. Then, just before vanishing over the horizon, the deer sank into it! I wound my way to a cut and sprinted for that hill. Dodging prickly pear, I crawled, then bellied forward, my binocular a periscope every few feet. Suddenly: antler tips! I readied my iron-sighted Savage and struck the earth with my foot. The deer stayed still, so sure was it of its security. More thumps. At last it rose. My shot ended the drama.
Deer choose beds with an eye not only to concealment but to wind coverage, escape routes and thermal protection. All are important, but for hunted bucks, survival trumps comfort. A pal once killed a big mule deer on close-cropped pasture, after a season-long effort in nearby forest. This buck had lived there, hidden in ravines, as platoons of hunters plying more promising places.
You’ll see more deer in any cover if you mimic their surveillance tactics. A deer that wants to examine something stands very still. It knows it can’t see well when moving. Neither can you. Vegetation sliding by is a blur that obscures the flick of an ear or a tail. Stop often to look, where you can see behind and to the sides as well as forward — and where you have shot alleys and can fire in all directions quickly without moving your feet. Each step forward opens new windows into cover. Look before they close!
Remember that in the open your silhouette draws attention even when motionless. Hunt at cover’s edge where practical. As you can overlook a buck standing exposed in front of a thicket, so background brush can “hide” you. Low sun behind you illuminates deer ahead while hiding your image in flare.
A binocular is indispensable for spotting deer far away; but close is where you want to see deer. If you wanted to see them out yonder, you’d be out yonder. The value of a binocular lies in its ability to reveal detail. The resolving power that helps your eye sift deer from distant vegetation can also show you bucks nearby. The glint of eye or antler, the curve of an ear, a hyphen of back-line — these clues are easy to miss with the naked eye, even up close. I favor a lightweight, low-power binocular on a short strap. It’s easy to carry, and to tuck when I must crawl. More importantly, it’s easy to use, with a wide, bright field. The image doesn’t dance about when I’m winded — as it would at 10x. A 6×30 or 7×35 glass boosts depth of field too; you’ll see sharp images farther into thickets without adjusting focus.
Look, then look again. And don’t assume deer you spy at distance will stay rooted while you pull off a sneak. Once in Wyoming, I planned a straightforward ambush on a buck nosing low ground cover behind a ridge. Slowing at its crest, I glassed carefully as each half-step revealed more of the flat beyond. But I gave my flanks too little attention. The buck had moved. When at last I spotted him, in easy range, he was on his starting blocks. As I eased my rifle from a cradle carry, he rocketed away.
When glassing prairie — or hoofing back to your truck through a weed patch, or taking a shortcut through a pasture, or tramping a fencerow, or prowling a patch of CRP — you must look intently for deer. They can hide where you might instead expect rabbits or pheasants. And, often nowadays, that’s where you’ll find big bucks — especially when other hunters are off in the trees.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and roughly 3,000 magazine articles on firearms and hunting. Five of his most popular books are: Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics ($20), Shooter’s Bible Guide to Handloading ($20), Mastering Mule Deer ($25), Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting ($30) and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles ($20). Limited numbers are available, autographed, from Wayne at 2610 Highland Drive, Bridgeport WA 98813. Please add $4 shipping.