Salmon River Whitetail

In this article from February 1972, Jack O'Connor tells of his first northern whitetail, taken in 1971 along the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The northern variety of the whitetail deer in its various forms is the most widely distributed big game animal in the United States. Found from Maine to Oregon, it furnishes more sport to hunters than any other big-game animal and is responsible for the sale of more rifles and ammunition for the manufacturers and more telescope sights for the scope makers. And, because sportsmen buy licenses to hunt it, the money it brings in keeps most game departments functioning.

But until recently the Northern whitetail was to me as strange a trophy as the greater kudu, the desert bighorn, and the ibex are to most hunters. I have hunted all of these fine animals and others just as exotic, but the Northern whitetail had always eluded me.

Of all the varieties of Northern whitetails' the one least known is the one found in the Northwest. The more plentiful mule deer and the elk sell the out of state licenses and get the publicity. In fact, many hunters do not even realize that some of the largest whitetail deer in North America, and some of the best trophies, come from the Northwestern states of Idaho, Washington, Montana, and Oregon, and from the Canadian province of British Columbia. These Northwestern whitetails are probably just about as heavy as the famous whitetails of Maine, and their heads compare favorably with those of whitetails shot anywhere. The No. 4 listing in the 1964 edition of Records of North American Big Game is a whitetail shot in Flathead County, Montana, in 1963, and I have seen handsome and very large antlers nailed to barns and garages and poorly mounted on wells of backwoods bars and country stores. Mostly these big whitetails are taken not by trophy hunters but by backwoodsmen and farmers who are after meat. These whitetails of the Northwest are classified Odocoileus virginianus ochrourus.

I grew up in the country of the Northern whitetail's little Southwestern cousin the Sonora, Arizona, or Coues whitetail. I have hunted these fine deer in Arizona, in Sonora, and in the Big Bend of Texas, and I have taken many handsome bucks of this diminutive species. Such small skill as I have at hitting running game I owe to the Arizona jackrabbit and the Arizona whitetail. I have also shot the small but quite different Texas whitetail found around San Antonio. But a good Northern whitetail was one of the few major North American trophies I did not have.

I had never laid eyes on a Northern whitetail until I moved from Arizona to Idaho more than 20 years ago, and then it took me about three years to see one. I'll never forget the first one I saw. I was hunting pheasants with a wonderful Brittany spaniel named Mike. He had been cruising through a field of rich golden wheat stubble when he went on point at the edge of a grassy swell. I thought he had pinned a cock pheasant, but when I got up to him he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and wore the sneaky expression he assured when he was doing something he knew he should not do.

I picked up a stone to flush whatever it was, and threw it at the spot in the grass where Mike's nose was pointed. Out burst a little whitetail doe. Most dogs are convinced that they have been born to be deer and rabbit hounds, but Mike almost fell backward in surprise.

Another time Mike hauled up on the edge of a brushy draw on solid point. I walked in, kicked the brush. A pair of cackling roosters came barreling out. I shot, dropped one of them, was about to take the other when a big whitetail buck sailed out of the brush and headed across the stubble toward a patch of woods. For the rest of the bird season, which mostly at the time ran concurrently with the deer season, I carried a couple of rifled slugs in my pants pocket so that if I jumped another whitetail I could jerk out a shot shell and slam a shell loaded with a slug into the chamber. But the news must have got around; I never saw a buck.

A farmer I kw told me he just about had a big whitetail buck tied up for me. He said that the old boy lived in a canyon that bounded one of his wheatfields. That buck fed on wheat all summer and by the fall feasted on the sweet, stunted little apples that fell in an abandoned orchard in one comer of his place.

So I spent about 10 days hunting him off and on during the season. His tracks were everywhere -- in the orchard, in the wheat stubble along the deer and cattle trails among the brush and trees and on the bank of the little trout stream that ran through the bottom of the canyon.

Keeping the wind in my favor, I still hunted cautiously and quietly along the trails, taking a few steps, stopping, listening, watching. Once I heard something moving quietly off through thick brush, and I found his bed below a ledge in a warm spot where the sun had melted the frost off the ground. Another time I heard a crash below me and caught a glimpse of his white bag flying. I sat for hours with my back to a tree waiting for him to show up. He didn't.

"I can't understand why you can't see that buck," my farmer friend said. "I seen him yesterday when I was looking for a stray cow, and Bill Jones seen him from his pickup when he was coming back from getting the mail four or five days ago. Said he wasn't a danged bit wild; stood there looking at him. He could have hit him with a slingshot."

Another year, while scouting for good pheasant areas in eastern Washington, I found a pretty little valley full of trees and brush and with a clear brook wandering through it. It lay between two grassy hillsides that ran down from rolling wheatfields. The valley was full of pheasants. The hillsides supported several coveys of Huns. Quail roosted in the trees. And the valley also contained a herd of whitetails. I saw a doe, a fawn, one small buck, and also the tracks of a big buck.

I made up my mind to be in a strategic spot in the valley as soon as it was light enough to shoot on opening day. So when the day came I parked my station wagon along the road half a mile from the valley and left my Model 21 Winchester 12 gauge and my puzzled, whining Brittany spaniel locked up. Wearing a pair of binoculars around my neck and carrying a light 7 x 57, I walked through a wheatfield toward the head of the valley. I was almost at the spot I had in mind when I heard the crash of rifle fire. A startled doe streaked by me. Running along the grassy hillside and up into the wheat stubble were the dim forms of about a dozen deer flaunting white tails. I sat down and got them in the field of the binoculars. All were does and fawns. Then something caught my attention just under the skyline about a quarter of a mile away. I put the glasses on whatever it was. It was a big buck sneaking along. When he topped out I saw heavy antlers.

About 20 shots had been fired, but now the last deer was out of sight. I could hear voices coming from the valley. It was quite light now. I walked a little farther. Then I saw four men gathered around a small and very dead buck. One was gutting him. I talked to the men a few minutes. Before long they departed in triumph, each holding a leg of the buck. I went back to my car and stowed the rifle and the binoculars. Then I let my joyful dog out and set off to see if I could have any luck on birds.

In Arizona and Sonora the Coues deer are found high. In southern Arizona they are seldom lower than the altitude where the evergreen oaks the Mexicans call encinos grow -- about 4,000 to 4,500 feet. The desert variety of mule deer are out in the mesquite and cactus of the flats and the low rolling hills. Out on the flat Sonoran desert west of the railroad that runs south from Nogales, Arizona, the mule deer are on the perfectly flat sandy arboreal desert where they range among the mesquites, ironwoods, and chonas. Low hills and little ranges rise from the desert floor, and on all of them are (or used to be) whitetails. Sometimes the whitetails are in easily navigable foothills of the tall, rocky, desert-sheep mountains.

But in the Northwest, at least in areas with which I am familiar, whitetails are found lower than the mule deer, on the brushy hillsides near wheatflelds, and in the wooded river bottoms back in the Elk Mountains. They are bold but furtive, and they'll live all summer in a farmer's woodlot.

Some of them grow to be very large. I once knew a man who ran a meat locker in Lewiston, Idaho, my hometown. He told me that the heaviest buck ever weighed at his plant was a whitetail. As I now remember he said its field-dressed weight was around 335 pounds. I have heard of Northwest whitetails in Washington as well as Idaho that were about as heavy. I have never seen a deer of any sort that I thought would dress out at anything like 300 pounds, but now and then one undoubtedly turns out to be that heavy.

I started closing in on my first northwestern whitetail in the fall of 1969 when my wife and I drove to the ranch of our friend Dave Christensen on the Salmon River downstream from Riggins, Idaho. Dave operates an elk-hunting camp on Moose Creek in the Selway Wilderness Area and lives most of the year on the beautiful Salmon River ranch. When I first knew the elk-hunting camp it was Moose Creek Lodge, a luxurious bit of civilization out in the wilderness. A hunter could go out after elk all day and return at night to a drink around a fireplace, a good meal served with silver and linen, a hot shower, and a sound sleep on an inner-spring mattress. But the area was declared a wilderness. The federal government bought the lodge and burned it down. Now in the fall Dave's dudes fly in to a U.S. Forest Service landing strip a few miles away and hunt elk from a comfortable tent camp near the spot where the lodge used to be. I have shot five-, six- and seven-point elk out of Moose Creek. Dave and his father Ken took the money they got from the sale of the lodge and their land and put it into the Salmon River ranch.

As my wife and I drove in that November day in 1969 we saw a whitetail buck in a field a mile or so from the ranchhouse. Not long afterward we saw some whitetail does and fawns.

"You must have a lot of whitetails around here," I said when Dave came out to meet us.

"Plenty," he told me. "The whitetails we mostly low down along the creek and in the brushy draws that run into it. The mule deer are higher."

The season around Dave's place was closed then, so my wife and I had to forgo the whitetails. We hunted mule deer in another management area about 20 miles away. But we made a promise to take a run at the whitetails.

Along in August, 1971, Dave called me.

"You haven't forgotten our date to hunt whitetails?" he asked. "No?n all of them are (or used to be) whitetails. Sometimes the whitetails are in easily navigable foothills of the tall, rocky, desert-sheep mountains.

But in the Northwest, at least in areas with which I am familiar, whitetails are found lower than the mule deer, on the brushy hillsides near wheatflelds, and in the wooded river bottoms back in the Elk Mountains. They are bold but furtive, and they'll live all summer in a farmer's woodlot.

Some of them grow to be very large. I once knew a man who ran a meat locker in Lewiston, Idaho, my hometown. He told me that the heaviest buck ever weighed at his plant was a whitetail. As I now remember he said its field-dressed weight was around 335 pounds. I have heard of Northwest whitetails in Washington as well as Idaho that were about as heavy. I have never seen a deer of any sort that I thought would dress out at anything like 300 pounds, but now and then one undoubtedly turns out to be that heavy.

I started closing in on my first northwestern whitetail in the fall of 1969 when my wife and I drove to the ranch of our friend Dave Christensen on the Salmon River downstream from Riggins, Idaho. Dave operates an elk-hunting camp on Moose Creek in the Selway Wilderness Area and lives most of the year on the beautiful Salmon River ranch. When I first knew the elk-hunting camp it was Moose Creek Lodge, a luxurious bit of civilization out in the wilderness. A hunter could go out after elk all day and return at night to a drink around a fireplace, a good meal served with silver and linen, a hot shower, and a sound sleep on an inner-spring mattress. But the area was declared a wilderness. The federal government bought the lodge and burned it down. Now in the fall Dave's dudes fly in to a U.S. Forest Service landing strip a few miles away and hunt elk from a comfortable tent camp near the spot where the lodge used to be. I have shot five-, six- and seven-point elk out of Moose Creek. Dave and his father Ken took the money they got from the sale of the lodge and their land and put it into the Salmon River ranch.

As my wife and I drove in that November day in 1969 we saw a whitetail buck in a field a mile or so from the ranchhouse. Not long afterward we saw some whitetail does and fawns.

"You must have a lot of whitetails around here," I said when Dave came out to meet us.

"Plenty," he told me. "The whitetails we mostly low down along the creek and in the brushy draws that run into it. The mule deer are higher."

The season around Dave's place was closed then, so my wife and I had to forgo the whitetails. We hunted mule deer in another management area about 20 miles away. But we made a promise to take a run at the whitetails.

Along in August, 1971, Dave called me.

"You haven't forgotten our date to hunt whitetails?" he asked. "No?