The most commonly hunted big game animal in North America is the white-tailed deer. These ever-adaptable animals literally inhabit our backyards as well as the outback across the continent. Whitetail of one subspecies or another is hunted in more than 40 states, eight Canadian provinces and Mexico.
As common as they are, hunting whitetails – especially mature bucks – is as great and exciting a challenge as you’ll find in the sporting world. Whether you choose to hunt whitetail with a rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader, bow, crossbow or spear – you’re participating in a true North American tradition and one of hunting’s greatest pursuits.
There are some 14 or more recognized subspecies of white-tailed deer ranging in size from the bucks of the northern prairies that frequently weigh-in at more than 250 pounds to the tiny Keys Deer of Florida and the Carmen Mountain whitetails of the higher elevations of the Southwest and Mexico which never tip the scales at more than 70 pounds live weight. The greatest commonality among them all is the unmistakable snow-white undersided tail that flashes a danger warning to other deer. Experienced deer hunters read a whitetail’s demeanor and status in the herd by how it carries its tail during any encounter.
In most habitats, whitetails are browsers, which means they like to move along and feed on buds, leaves, grasses, forbs, bark and other succulent forage. In many locations both hard and soft mast are favorite foods during the fall and on into winter. Of course, whitetails adapt well to agricultural areas, where crops such as alfalfa, corn, oats and wheat provide nutritious forage that grows fat deer and big racks! Yet in the broadest sense whitetails are nearly omnivorous. On Anticosti Island off the coast of Quebec, for example, deer eat fir trees (needles, small branches and bark) as well as kelp washed up on the beaches by winter storms. In other cases, whitetails have been documented to eat spawning suckers from creeks in the spring.
Any whitetail rack is a thing of beauty and a hunting trophy of which to be proud — graceful, sweeping antlers with polished tines thrusting out from a main beam. Bucks shed their antlers annually, and begin growing a new set as soon as the old ones are shed. By August the velvet-covered bone (which can grow up to an inch a day in the peak of summer), is hardening off. In early September, bucks polish this velvet off on shrubs, small trees and even fenceposts, and are ready for the rut.
Bucks mark territory with scrapes in the ground, scent marking, and rubs on trees. Scrapes also serve as calling cards for does. White-tailed bucks don’t gather harems. Rather, a buck will seek out an estrous doe and stay with her until they breed. Then he’s on to another conquest. The hunting strategy of rattling mimics bucks fighting for the attention of a doe. It works well because these confrontations are frequent as bucks tend does during this phase of the rut. Fawns are born about 6-1/2 months (200 days or so) after does are bred.
The superiority of the whitetails’ senses is undisputed. That’s why he’s such a worthy game animal to hunt. A whitetail will smell you at a half mile, see every hand twitch or head jerk you make while on stand, and hear any clunk of gear.
While most whitetail hunting is done “in state” in traditional camps or even simply on “the Back 40”, experienced deer hunters know the best odds of encountering trophy-class white-tailed bucks are on hunts with an experienced, highly rated outfitter. Many of these operations manage hunting areas specifically to produce trophy bucks through both careful control of the land and agricultural practices, and selective harvest of animals in the herd. The best whitetail outfitters find or create situations in which white-tailed bucks are allowed to reach the 5, 6 and 7 year old age classes at which they will reach their maximum trophy potential. It’s nearly impossible for this to occur on public areas that are heavily hunted and in which deer face daily pressures like crossing public highways. Unmanaged, very few bucks make it to maturity.
Stand-hunting is by far the most common – and effective – method of hunting whitetails. Sitting still and waiting in a good spot is usually the best way to intercept a whitetail. However, because of the whitetail’s expansive range and habitats a quality outfitter can also provide exciting opportunities to pursue white-tailed deer by still hunting, glass-and-stalk hunting, pushing the bush, tracking, rattling and/or baiting. Many outfitters have a specialty method of hunting, so be sure to connect with an outfitter that offers the kind of hunt you wish to make.