2 BLACKTAIL DEER: Southwest Washington
Washington, the smallest state in the West and the second most populated, boasts three subspecies of deer-whitetails, mule deer and blacktails. The latter live along the highly congested I-5 corridor, where hunting pressure is heavy. I’ve taken a number of bucks on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the southwest region.
The forest has a decent road system that allows good access, but some roads are blocked by locked gates. My favorite strategy is to park at a gate hours before other hunters arrive and walk up the road in the dark as far as I can. There’s usually a clear-cut at the end of the road. I’ll climb a slope where I can look down into it as soon as it gets light enough to see. Deer feed in the clear-cuts all night and are often still visible at legal shooting light.
On one hilarious hunt I watched my buddy sneak up to a buck that was at least 600 yards away. He couldn’t see it as he advanced, but I could, so I kept giving him hand signals. After he got 50 yards away from the buck, he still couldn’t see it, in spite of my frantic waving. I was so frustrated I started shouting to him as loud as I could, trying to describe precisely where the buck was. The deer looked at me and stayed riveted to the spot. After about 10 minutes of shouting, the buck calmly walked off into the brush. My pal never even saw it.
Resident licenses are $39.42; nonresident are $394.20. Seasons run from mid-October to the first week of November. Contact: Gifford Pinchot National Forest, 360-891-5000; Washington Department of Wildlife, 360-902-2200.
3 ELK: Southern New Mexico
You’ve probably heard that New Mexico has plenty of big elk…and that they’re all on ranches you can’t afford to hunt. Happily, that’s not true. There are lots of great public hunting grounds, such as the Lincoln National Forest. I like to camp in the forest and hike up to ridge tops early in the morning. If you’re really adventurous, you’ll carry a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and gear on your back, and camp up where the elk are. There are some really big bulls here, some that will make therecord books. This country is choked with thick brush in the mid elevations, but up high the timber is more sparse. Here the elk bed in the evergreens. A good strategy is to watch a water hole late in the afternoon. Stay until the last minute of shooting light; elk often move just before dark.
On one hunt, I was solo on a ridge and saw a big bull walk by. My muzzleloader had a hang-fire, causing me to inadvertently push the firearm forward. When it went off, the projectile struck about a foot under the bull’s belly. Later that day, I centered another bull perfectly but had to shoot through some brush. The bullet was deflected and missed the bull cleanly. It was not a good day.
As elsewhere in New Mexico, this is a lottery draw for everyone. Bull tags start at $69 for residents, $481 for nonresidents. The season runs five weeks, from late October to early December. Contact: Lincoln National Forest, 505-434-7200; New Mexico Department of Fish and Game, 505-476-8000.
4 ANTELOPE: Northwest Wyoming
In a good year, there are more antelope than people in this sparsely populated state. Pronghorns live everywhere in Wyoming, except for the forested regions. Millions of acres of BLM land offer free hunting on federal property. My favorite region is in the northwest, where there are plenty of animals and good access on public land. I like the country from Thermopolis to the Montana border and east to the Bighorn Mountains. There are several units here, and a lottery draw is required for a tag.
This is big country where you can often see more than a hundred animals in a day. Use a good binocular and a spotting scope to evaluate the quarry. Don’t be afraid to park your vehicle and walk into hidden pockets and basins where there’s no road access. The biggest bucks are in places where they aren’t disturbed; most hunters drive and spot. Antelope know the road systems and avoid them. Wyoming micromanages wildlife; each unit has a specific herd management objective and a different season. The units open in September, October and November.
I like to scout before the season and look for an oversized buck. A few years ago I located an honest 15-incher with thick horns and long prongs. It took me three weeks, but I finally caught up to him. I was fishing when I located him. He walked up to the water for a drink, and I eased to my truck, exchanging my flyrod for my rifle. I took him home along with a mess of fish.
A resident tag is $27; nonresidents pay $226. Contact: Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.
6 PHEASANTS: South Dakota
This is the top pheasant state in the country, with a liberal limit of three birds per day and 15 in possession. To avoid crowds, don’t hunt the second week of the season if you’re a nonresident; only residents can hunt the first week. Nonresidents pour in the second week, but I prefer hunting a month or so later when there are still plenty of birds and more farmers willing to give permission. South Dakota has walk-in areas where you can hunt private land for free. I like to hunt these as well as national grasslands near Pierre.
Birds that have survived the first weeks are wary. If you use a dog, make sure you can control it so it works close. Birds will begin flushing when they hear a car door slam. Enter the field quietly and concentrate on heavy cover such as cattails and thick switchgrass. If your party uses drivers and blockers, be extra careful when the drivers move close to the blockers, since action can be chaotic when trapped birds erupt.
On one hunt, my pal had a dog that he was really bragging on. When we turned it loose, the dog charged into a brushy field, flushing literally hundreds of pheasants. An hour later we finally caught the dog, a half mile away. There were easily 300 birds in the field, but not one of those wily ringnecks hung around for us to get a shot.
Resident licenses are $29; nonresidents pay $110 for a 10-day license. The season runs from mid-October to early January. Contact: South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, 605-773-3381.
9 COUES DEER: Arizona
If you want a different hunt with plenty of challenges, try hunting Coues deer in the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona. If you’ve never tried them before, you’re in for a unique adventure. Plan on a lot of hiking, much of it up and down rocky rims and ridges, but don’t expect to see a lot of animals. Coues deer are commonly referred to as “gray ghosts,” and for good reason. They’re well camouflaged by the brushy cover they inhabit, and they don’t move much in the daytime. Most deer are spotted in their beds only after some hard looking with a high-powered binocular or spotting scope.
On one of my most memorable hunts there, we camped in tents and made long hikes of at least 10 miles a day. The biggest buck I ever saw flushed a few yards away from me out of heavy cover. I was so startled I threw my gun to my shoulder and fired a quick shot. The bullet took the animal in the ear; at least it appeared that way since the deer wiggled its ear vigorously as it bounded off. I looked for that buck for the rest of the hunt and settled on a smaller animal on the last day.
There are several seasons for Coues deer in Coronado. I prefer the last, which runs in December. Residents pay $25.50 for a license, $24.50 for a tag; nonresidents pay $113.50 for a license, $130.50 for a tag. Contact: Coronado National Forest, 520-388-8300; Arizona Game and Fish Department, 602-942-3000.
10 ELK: Colorado
Colorado is the only Rocky Mountain state where a nonresident can buy an elk tag over the counter. As a result, the state has more elk hunters than any other. It also has more elk-upward of 300,000, which is about a third of all the elk on the planet. There are millions of acres of national forest and BLM land to hunt here, but one of my favorite spots is the White River National Forest. Don’t expect to find much solitude here, or anywhere in Colorado, for that matter. There are no secret spots, unless you can draw a limited-entry tag.
The key to success is to hunt smart. Leave camp early in the morning and hike away from the road, positioning yourself on a distant ridge where you have a good view. The idea is to have other hunters work for you, pushing elk your way.
I did exactly that with a buddy years ago. We left our pickup by the road and hiked about a mile and a half into the woods the night before opening day. By the time legal shooting light arrived, hunters were pushing elk everywhere. My pal and I scored on two nice bulls.
Colorado has four elk seasons. I like the last one, November 16-20, which has the best potential for snow, but a lottery draw is required for this season. Residents pay $33.25; nonresidents pay $488.25. Contact: White River National Forest, 970-945-2521; Colorado Division of Wildlife, 303-297-1192.
Southern and Midwestern Hunts Worth the Trip There are a couple of other intriguing places I intend to hunt. One is the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, which has more than 3 million acres of land. I fished this region and am looking forward to hunting deer there, as well as ruffed grouse and snowshoe hares. Contact: Superior National Forest, 218-626-4300.
I am also very interested in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. I hunted squirrels there a few years ago and can’t wait to go back and try deer. Contact: Daniel Boone National Forest, 859-745-3100.
1 TURKEYS: Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana
If you really want to take out your frustrations on a bunch of turkeys, try the Merriams in this tri-state area. You can hunt them on public land without seeing many other hunters. In Wyoming you can base out of Newcastle or Sundance, and in South Dakota out of Custer. The nearby Black Hills National Forest has plenty of birds, and access is better than in years past due to recent logging. This is mountainous country with steep slopes that can make you think you’re elk hunting, but there are plenty of birds in the rolling terrain. Visibility is good in the sparse ponderosa pines, and most birds will roost on the ends of ridges that plummet into deep canyons and valleys. Once you’ve had your fill of the Black Hills, turn your rig north and hunt birds in the Custer National Forest in Montana, where smaller parcels offer good hunting over a wide area.
I had an unforgettable experience when I heard a turkey gobble across a canyon with sheer cliff walls on each side. I yelped and the bird responded. I could see him through my binocular, strutting and gobbling on the edge of the cliff fully a half mile away. I knew it was futile, but I played with him for a good hour since he was hot and kept responding. Finally, he shut up and I decided to try another bird. After walking 100 yards I happened to look back and saw the gobbler flapping across the canyon. He landed 15 yards from where I’d been calling.
In Wyoming you can take only one bird, and only two in Montana. You can take several in South Dakota if you want to venture away from the Black Hills and hunt in other areas. Contact: Black Hills National Forest, 605-673-9200; Custer National Forest, 406-446-2103.
5 WHITETAILS: Montana
There are two distinct types of whitetails in Montana-those that inhabit the eastern region, where they live along river and stream corridors and in ranch and agricultural areas, and those in the dense forests of the northwest. Most of the deer in the east inhabit private land, but those in the forests typically live on public land.
The Kootenai National Forest is my favorite spot, particularly in the last week of the five-week season. There’s more chance of snow then; if it’s deep enough, deer will be forced out of the higher elevations. This is steep, heavily timbered country where you might expect to see elk instead of whitetails. It’s tough to pattern deer here, because they roam throughout such big country. A good option is to find a well-used trail and watch it in the early morning and late afternoon.
I had a wild hunt there in the early 1990s when there was 3 feet of snow on the forest floor. The heavy snow toppled many trees, and deer were feeding on the long strands of moss that were normally out of reach. The only way I was able to travel was by following deer trails punched in the deep snow. I ended up with a nice nine-point buck.
Residents pay $16; nonresidents pay $340.25. Contact: Kootenai National Forest, 406-293-6211; Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 406-444-2535.
7 MULE DEER: Southeast Idaho
This is a choice spot for the muley of your life-the Boone and Crockett record book lists many huge bucks from this region. Many are taken on public land, specifically in the Caribou National Forest, adjacent to the Wyoming border. There’s good access in this area, but most big bucks are in the higher country, away from roads. To find them, you’ll need to do some hiking, the closer to timberline the better. Most deer will be up in the rimrock, where they have a good view below. I prefer to set up camp in one of the many draws close to the area where I want to hike up.
The Caribou National Forest is no deep, dark secret. Many people are aware of the big bucks, but most pressure is in the lower elevations and close to roads. I like to do a lot of glassing from one ridge to another. If I spot a buck, there’s a good chance he’ll stay in that area for days unless he’s spooked. Once I know where he is, I can then spend a day or two moving close enough for a shot.
On one memorable hunt I located a big buck just below thetimberline about an hour before dark. He was unique, with a long tine angling off his left antler. I went after him the next morning but couldn’t find him-that is, until I looked back to where I was the day before. There he stood, 100 yards from where I’d been glassing. I tried, but never got him.
Residents pay $11.50 for a license and $18 for a tag. Nonresidents pay $128.50 for a license and $241 for a tag. Residents simply buy a tag across the counter while nonresidents get theirs on a first-come, first-served basis until the quota is met. The season is from early to mid-October.
Contact: Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 208-334-3700; Caribou National Forest, 208-557-5760.
8 WHITETAILS: New York
The Adirondack Mountains in northern New York state are not the place to hunt deer if you want to see a lot of animals without a lot of hiking. This huge area, which is nearly as big as Yellowstone Park, offers around 2 million acres of public hunting on state lands. I cut my teeth on whitetails here and saw some bucks that would easily dress well over 200 pounds. My favorite technique is to hike into black spruce swamps, find a fresh deer trail in the snow and track it.
My writing career began here. Many years ago, while attending forestry college, I hunted a legendary whitetail buck named Old Joe. I never got him, though I crawled through some of the nastiest swamps in the country. I wrote a story for the college paper about the buck. It was well received and I wrote more. I’ve been writing about hunting ever since.
If you use a GPS, make sure you’ve got a compass and map as backup. There are few roads, if any, in some of this country. Most hunters who are unfamiliar with the region stay close to roads, but you’ll find the biggest bucks in places well away from them. Don’t forget to check out thick spruce-fir thickets. I once jumped a giant whitetail in such a place within a quarter mile of a road.
The northern New York deer season runs late October to early December. Residents pay $19; nonresidents pay $110. Contact: NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, 518-402-8919.