Roger Phillips: Whitetails deserve their skittish rap

Whether they’re intelligent or just paranoid, the deer are a worthy quarry.

rphillips@idahostatesman.comNovember 7, 2013 


White-tailed deer differ from their mule deer cousins in several ways. They sport their namesake white tail, and their antlers are shaped different from mule deer. One of the more subtle differences is the whitetail’s gait. Whitetails trot and gallop similar to a horse, and they can make impressive leaps when the need arises. But you will never see them doing the pogo-like “stotting” that is often how a mule deer flees when alarmed. Whitetails are incapable of the stiff-legged bounding that mule deer are famous for doing. The two deer species tend to prefer different habitats, but there is considerable overlap, especially in Idaho. Mule deer are found throughout the state, but whitetails are pretty scarce south of the Snake River.

ROGER PHILLIPS — Roger Phillips /

The forked-horn white-tailed deer was in my scope. All I had to do was pull the trigger and put my tag on it.

I had just gotten permission to hunt a field where he came out like clockwork every evening. I rarely ask to hunt private land because I find enough game on public land, and I don’t like to bother landowners.

But the whitetails were taunting me, and worse, defeating me at every turn in such a rout that if it were a game, I surely would have been benched.

The small buck obviously felt safe standing in the wide-open field, but I also knew there was a three-point roaming the area.

A small part of me wanted to pop the young buck as vengeance for the humiliation I’d been dealt, but I have a soft spot for forkies.

Let them grow, even though I knew this one would probably turn into one of those elusive bastards that make me feel as inept as the deaf, dumb and blind kid pulled away from the pinball machine and handed an Xbox console.

I’m a lifelong mule deer hunter, and I’ve worked hard to learn that craft and been fortunate enough to shoot a lot of bucks through the years.

I love pursuing them in steep, rugged, semi-open country where I can scan for miles and then stalk within rifle range.

But several years ago, I started hunting the overlap between mule deer and whitetail country in Central Idaho. Those whitetails piqued my curiosity, and I decided to hunt them, too.

I also came to the game with a grudge. I’ve long read how cunning whitetails are and how dumb mule deer are by comparison.

I took it personally and have long defended the honor of mule deer. They’re a different critter, and we can debate all day which deer is “smarter,” but tagging a mature mule deer buck has always been my personal challenge, and it’s rarely an easy one.

Seeing whitetails darting through the brush was intriguing, so I decided why not hunt both?

They have my grudging respect because they live up to their wily reputation, and I also understand why serious whitetail hunters concentrate their efforts on the rut — an option not typically available for mule deer hunters.

You have to find some chink in their armor, and as we know, libido causes the male of all species to make some moronic moves.

But hunting whitetails in October seems to be pursuing them during their peak paranoia.

It’s not that I didn’t see plenty of whitetails, but that’s often all I saw — a white tail. No clue what was on the other end, but it’s kind of moot because it disappears into the brush in a fraction of a second.

After experiencing that more times than I care to admit during my weeklong hunt last month, I kicked up a mule deer that ran about 100 yards, turned broadside and stared at me.

“See, that’s how a deer is supposed to behave,” I muttered to the doe, which nonchalantly walked away.

Whitetail does are less cordial. Some looked at me and with utter disdain, repeatedly snorted and stomped a hoof. Although not fluent in deer language, I’m pretty sure they were cursing me and my immediate female ancestors.

Seemed rather rude.

I can’t tell you how whitetail bucks act because I haven’t seen enough of them to judge any behavioral tendencies.

I think we may have seen one, but who knows?

My buddy and I bracketed a thin brush patch and tossed rocks into it in an attempt to flush something, which I eloquently call “grenading the bastards.”

My buddy was within 25 yards of me, and there was only a thin veil of brush remaining when I said, “Well, I guess that didn’t work.”

That was when a deer flushed practically at his feet and disappeared into thicker brush never to be seen again.

Was it a buck? We didn’t know and, again, it was kind of a moot point if it was because we couldn’t have shot it regardless of its gender or antler size.

I may retire the grenades and try napalm.

I’m kidding, all you whitetail lovers. Your dear deer lives up to their skittish reputation, and I am admittedly stymied.

I know the obvious answer is to do like every other self-respecting whitetail hunter. I could stake out a game trail, or put up a tree stand, but there hasn’t been a drug invented that could keep me still for that long. These legs were made to roam the earth, not sit and stare at a 2-acre patch of it for hours on end.

I could also pursue whitetails during the November rut, but then I would have to forgo my beloved October mule deer hunting. That hasn’t happened, and it’s probably not going to happen.

So whitey will continue to keep me down and, despite my common sense, I will probably keep chasing him.

When I am not roaming the backcountry for a majestic mule deer buck, it’s off to chase the jesters of the brush patch.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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