There is an allure to the mountains. A siren call that draws us to gaze up at their towering magnificence with desire. The Adirondacks, the Appalachians, the Rockies…just saying the names of these majestic ranges sparks something within us all. We wish to climb them, to explore them, to immerse ourselves in their rugged beauty and discover what secrets they hold within their timbered realms. Some choose to ascend them with ropes and spikes, others to wander their seemingly endless paths and passes, and still others—a brazen and perhaps slightly mad few—choose to hunt them. For the mountains, with their rocky crags, thick timber ridges, and hidden glades and valleys, hide some of the biggest whitetail bucks in existence.
Mountain bucks are almost a different breed of deer. Far different from the bucks in the lowlands that wander along the edges of fields and through timberlines, past trail cameras and treestands like clockwork, the bucks of the mountains are almost ghostlike. Adapted to live in some of the harshest environments in which whitetail deer are found, big mountain bucks are opportunistic animals. They feed and breed when they have chance to do so, spending most of their time moving throughout vast expanses of territory searching to satisfy whatever cravings they have. To hunt big mountain bucks successfully, hunters have to operate more on instinct, guile, and woodsmanship than they would hunting the lowlands. Hunting mountain whitetails is deer hunting at its most challenging. But with the right tactics and planning, it can also be the most rewarding.
Planning the attack
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t find a big mountain buck by simply wandering up any old section of mountain range. The areas you choose to hunt have to be scrutinized, both on maps and by sight, before even setting foot on their slopes. Points of entry and exit have to be found, likely routes plotted, and areas need to be broken down into likely spots for a buck. Topographical maps are great for this early planning, but technology like Google Earth and phone apps like OnX are even better. Start by finding areas likely to hold deer. Look for food and bedding sources like hidden meadows surrounded by tree cover, and stands of hardwoods along pine ridges. Look for saddles in between peaks that deer are likely to use as travel routes. Look for lakes, ponds, streams and other water sources. Finding where the deer are is the first vital step to mountain hunting.
Do the legwork
Once you’ve mapped out a few places to hunt, get out and explore them. Head into the areas before the season opens and start looking for sign. Find deer trails between food sources. Look for rubs, scrapes, and antler sheds to give you an idea of which bucks frequent the area. Look for tracks in the snow or mud. Explore the area thoroughly and carefully, but try not to disturb it—you don’t want to drive the bucks away. While you’re exploring the area, start looking for places to set up stands and blinds. Plan routes to still-hunt and look for areas you can move into and get out of easily. You want to prepare for everything so when the season opens you can be ready for anything.
The real key to being successful in mountain hunting is being able to adjust your plans for the day to whatever the deer are doing. Unlike hunting deer in the lowlands, where conditions and deer behavior tend to stay consistent, the ever-changing weather and lack of consistent food sources in the mountains can cause whitetails’ behavior to change on an almost daily basis. In harsher weather they’ll stick to cover. On cold, still days they’ll tend to move more in the afternoon, and on warmer days they might not move at all. To be successful a hunter has to be able to adapt to what the deer are doing. Sitting in a stand all day may not be working, so a hunter may have to move to a different location. The deer may be sticking to thick cover, so a hunter has to go in after them. Being a successful mountain deer hunter means being able to find good stand locations, being a good still-hunter, being a good tracker, and knowing when to apply each hunting method.
Big mountain whitetail bucks are special creatures. They’re animals that have adapted themselves to the high country and survive in a world where food and water sources can be limited and the weather can be incredibly harsh. Yet they thrive, growing larger antlers and bodies than almost any deer in the lowlands. Yet, even for those that aren’t particularly massive, what makes mountain bucks truly special is that all of them are trophies. The challenges involved in hunting them and the beautiful places in which they live make every buck worth the pursuit—for those brave enough to answer the mountain’s call.