The buck eased out of a riverside thicket, his rack shining in the late-day sun. He stopped and pawed a scrape. Perfect!
I used the break to calm my nerves and tighten my grip on the bowstring. When the 40th buck I had seen in three days of hunting finally turned broadside, I drew and zinged an arrow.
There’s nothing better than seeing so many quality deer that you can be choosy and wait for a 10-pointer like this one. But here’s the kicker. The previous evening, hunting from the same tree stand, Michael Waddell of the Realtree Camouflage company shot a high, heavy 4 by 4 that grossed nearly 150 inches. Two Pope and Young Club whitetails from one setup in less than 24 hours! Man, that’s big-time proof that the river bottoms of eastern Montana are prime destinations for trophy whitetails.
The habitats along the Milk, Missouri and Powder rivers are choked with cottonwoods, ash, wild rose and willows, ideal cover for wary bucks. Many ranches occupy the river bottoms, providing deer with fields of lush, green alfalfa along the rivers and creek drainages. The food and cover draw the game. Biologists have found that roughly 10 times more whitetails inhabit the river bottoms than inhabit the bordering hills and plains.
On a typical hunt here you’ll spot a lot of bucks in the 110 to 130 class. Glass long enough and you should find some 8- and 10-pointers that score in the middle to high 140s. And during fall after a mild winter you’re apt to see even larger racks. Last October Waddell and the Realtree team returned to the Milk River and shot bruisers that scored in the 150s and low 160s.
The best opportunities are on private ranches that grow crops and limit hunting pressure. But there are blocks of state and federal land scattered across the region. Scare up a place to hunt, either on public ground or private land with a friend or an outfitter, and you’ll find some of the best deer hunting going these days.
**Heartland Hat Racks **
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Iowa and Illinois are two of the hottest states for trophy whitetails. Iowa currently ranks second and Illinois third to top-ranked Minnesota for total bucks in the Boone and Crockett Club book. Even more encouraging, of all the Iowa and Illinois typical bucks in the P&Y; records — that’s about 4,200 racks between the two states — nearly half of those trophies were arrowed during the last five years.
The best way for a nonresident to squeeze in on the action is with a bow and arrow. You can hire an outfitter or go solo on public land. Iowa has 340 state wildlife areas, and Illinois offers many state-managed forests, not to mention the enormous 260,000-acre Shawnee National Forest in the southern tip of the state.
No place offers hunters a better chance at a wall-hanger than the Hill Country of South Texas. There’s virtually no public land in the region, but you can have an awesome time hunting for a “management buck” with an outfitter.
The goal of many Texas ranches is to grow whitetails with 10-point racks that will someday score 160-plus B&C; points. To do that, they must remove from the gene pool a number of “inferior” bucks each season. That’s where you come in. You and a guide hunt and rattle for three or four days and look over more bucks than you might see in five years of hunting back home. Finally, you shoot an old eight-pointer that should score in the 130s or 140s and would be a hunt-club record just about anywhere else.
Best of all, your hunt for a management buck will be about half the price of a trophy Texas 10-pointer. That’s a sweet deal and a great way to hunt the state that many hunters consider the whitetail capital of the world.
**Oh Canada! **
Saskatchewan is my favorite place to hunt north of the border. Sometimes I wonder why. You bbundle up like the Michelin Man and sit freezing in a blind for days. You might see four or five deer. Or one or two. Or none. Ah, but all at once a stick will snap deep in the spruceäa doe will flash across an openingäfollowed by a muscle-rippling buck the size of a Black Angus bull! His tines will be tall, thick as ax handles, the color of mocha. You’ll have a fleeting chance at the deer of a lifetime. I’ve shot bucks scoring 150 to 170 points up there, and all the hunts played out pretty much the same way.
Most nonresidents hunt the forest zones north of Saskatoon and North Battleford, where biologists say the herd is growing. Americans must hire an outfitter, and it’s not cheap. When all is said and done you’re looking at $3,000 to $5,000 for a five-day hunt during the November rut.
For that, you’re guaranteed not to see many deer. What you’re paying for is the chance to glimpse a 300-pound buck with 150, 170, maybe 180 inches of antler on his head. In the back of your mind is the seductive little thought that maybe, just maybe, the next world record could step out of the bush and into your sights.
If You go
The Internet is the best place to start planning your trip. Visit www.outdoorlife.com or www.dnrlistings.com and go to state or provincial Web sites for deer-tag applications; hunting regulations; public areas and other information. Call or E-mail a state or provincial deer biologist for the inside scoop on big-buck trends and harvests. And check out www.huntingoutfitters.com for a list of prospective guides, but be sure to check references.