Surviving Whitetails: A Guide for Westerners Headed East
August 08, 2016
I squatted in the "comfortable" box blind and tried to turtle my neck and limbs deeper into my clearly inadequate jacket, blinking away wind-tears and struggling to maintain focus on the treeline on the far side of the half-acre food plot.
The clothing that kept me warm in my sub-zero western hunting grounds was clearly inadequate for a combination of high humidity and a stiff breeze in 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the eastern hunter going West to hunt elk or mule deer, good information on rifles, calibers, optics, boots, clothing, fitness, survival, and attitude is abundant. However, when it comes to knowledge for westerners heading East in pursuit of whitetails, we're bereft.
I'm here to rectify that.
Having hunted whitetails enough to make every fool mistake likely, I consider myself the ultimate authority on how not to hunt whitetails. But I have learned a lot along the way.
Now, I can't provide info on every angle from guns to underwear in the space of this column, but what I can do is give you enough to survive. Don't laugh — every year more hunters end up badly maimed or even take the short cut to the great food plot in the sky by falling out of eastern treestands than ever do from climbing steep western canyons in pursuit of elk. Not to mention going mad from boredom or from swarms of gnats tap dancing on one's eardrums.
Boredom + Patience = Success
Without argument, ambushing whitetails is the best way to bag your buck. The schizophrenic, over-sensitive deer are hard to spot in the thick cover they love and even harder to stalk. But they're creatures of habit, and a hunter with the patience to sit in one spot and remain vigilant against colossal boredom for several days stands a very good chance of tagging a buck.
The trouble is, most western guys are used to roaming free across the wide, wild expanses of the massive Rocky Mountains. Sitting still, let alone sitting still in one spot overlooking nothing but a bit of engineered shrubbery, is grievous hard.
I once perched in a prime treestand overlooking a cornfield finger in Illinois, and although monster bucks were rumored to roam there, the only visitor I had in a day and a half was a sluggish possum. I fell to the modern hunter's greatest temptation — texting — and was laboring over my phone when some belated sixth sense made me look up just in time to see a big 10-point disappear into the timber. Had I been vigilant, I'd have poked a muzzleloader bullet through his ribs.
Another time I climbed into a bow stand, and after allowing the woods a half hour to settle, I grunted a few times just to swing any prowling bucks my way. The hot early afternoon lulled me into complacency, and I was deep in my paperback book when a heavy-based 11-point strode purposefully into view 40 yards distant and coming fast. I dropped my book, stood, unhooked my bow from the tree, hooked my release on the nock loop, drew, and miracle of miracles, stopped that buck with a bleat one step from cover. Five minutes later I was taking photos with him.
I had been lucky.
Far and away the best thing I've found for stand hunting is audiobooks. They'll keep you entertained for hours on end, yet allow your eyes perfect freedom to roam around your stand. You'll spot movement the instant it enters your periphery, which gives you time — a critical element in scoring a clean, killing shot.
"Without argument, ambushing whitetails is the best way to bag your buck. The schizophrenic, over-sensitive deer are hard to spot in the thick cover they love and even harder to stalk. But they're creatures of habit, and a hunter with the patience to sit in one spot and remain vigilant against colossal boredom for several days stands a very good chance of tagging a buck."
Stuffing a set of speakers into your ear canals does restrict your hearing, so install only one, leaving one ear free to listen for crunching leaves or other sounds of movement.
Dress To Kill
When it comes to the eastern brand of cold (and by eastern I mean anything out of sight of the Rockies), westerners are craven wimps. Yes, I speak from experience.
The West is typically quite arid, and low humidity minimizes cold's ability to penetrate bones. Add to that the active, physical hunting methods employed in most of the West, and you've got a great recipe for staying cozy warm in minimal clothing — clothing that maximizes freedom of movement coupled with quietness.
In the East, where cold penetrates your skin and wind drives it ever deeper and hunters have to sit perfectly still for fear of alerting the buck that is hopefully lurking just out of sight, screw freedom of movement. It's better to dress like the Michelin Man and be warm than it is to be able to move.
In Kansas one December, I sat in the box blind described earlier. It was equipped with a tiny propane heater, but I couldn't get it to light. Even with most of the shooting windows shut, wind pushed through the cracks, burning my eyes and stiffening the skin on my cheeks. By the time night fell on my first day, I was so cold I could hardly climb down the few steps to the ground and hobble my way out to my pickup point. That night I bummed extra clothing, and three days later I shot a heavy 150-plus whitetail buck as he skulked through the frost-encrusted brush 130 yards distant.
When planning to sit for long hours on a whitetail stand, box blind, ground blind, or treestand, if the weather is even a little bit cold, I layer up and top that off with thick, insulated overalls and a parka. Take chemical handwarmers and footwarmers with you and use them. And if it gets really, obscenely cold, take a Heater Body Suit with you to the stand. It works incredibly well and allows you to wear light, unrestrictive clothing.
Strap In and Live
George Metcalf is a superlatively experienced whitetail hunter and outfitter in legendary Pike County, Illinois. When setting into a predawn treestand, he belts himself to the trunk with what he calls his "nap-strap" and settles in for a snooze until the first edges of daylight alert his predatory side that it's time to hunt.
Some years ago, he came out of his doze, shifted his weight, and somehow was airborne from a very high treestand. He can't recall losing his balance, slipping on the stand, anything. Ribs popped like matchsticks as his body impacted the frozen ground, one of them penetrating a lung, the jagged end flirting with the outer lining of his heart. Vertebrae fractured.
A clavicle cracked.
Struggling to breathe through a half-conscious fog of pain, he forced himself to move one arm, fumbling for his cell phone. It had fallen from his pocket
during the fall or impact, and he couldn't find it among the leaves.
For over five hours Metcalf lay in pain, unable to move, when finally his phone vibrated in the leaves nearby. He was able to locate it and call for help.
Although he was always a careful hunter, these days Metcalf makes doubly sure of his safety harness. And so should you. Climbing thin, short, often slippery-with-frost treestand steps in the dark is bad enough without risking an unintended skydive from your trusty tree-stand. Don't even think about hunting without strapping in.
Treestand harnesses are available in many variations, including everything from climbing-type butt baskets to hunting vests with crotch straps and enough pockets to stow supplies for a small expedition. Serious whitetail hunters own and use a couple of different types — light harnesses for early-season bowhunting in warm weather, vests for colder weather, and so forth.
Unless you prefer to shoot the rat-size mosquitoes that infest whitetail country from the Hudson Bay to the tip of Texas with your favorite 28 gauge, plan for rigorous insect-deterrent measures.
If you're in an open-air stand, nothing works better than a ThermaCell, which uses butane heat to vaporize an insect repellant called allethrin, which, according to the company, is a copy of a repellant that occurs naturally in chrysanthemum flowers.
Although it's very effective on insects, it won't harm people or animals. ThermaCell units create a cloud of invisible vapor, protecting an area of about 15 feet. Hang one on your chosen tree or lay it under your seat and bask in bug-free comfort.
No, you don't have to take up yoga. I'm talking about open-mindedness. Whitetails are a very different breed than mule deer, and whitetail hunters use very different methods than westerners are accustomed to.
Shooting a big buck is a chess game, not an obstacle course. If you use a guide, trust him, even though you may not see a buck for several days running.
Be patient, stay alert, keep warm, strap in, and keep the bugs away. Do those simple things and you might just survive your first trip East to hunt whitetails.