East Meets West: Western Backcountry Whitetail Strategies in TN
One of the many benefits of being a traveling hunter or fisherman is the exposure to all the different styles and traditions of an area and its people, learning from them, and applying those skills in new places and scenarios. Mother Nature never stops teaching, and the more you listen and learn, take some chances, and try things beyond your comfort zone, the more successful you’ll be. In this article we’ll focus on two drastically different ways of hunting whitetail – Eastern Stand Hunting, and Western Spot-and-Stalk, and how learning from them both helped lead to success on public land in the rugged mountains of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau.
Whitetail are the most popular big game animals in North America for many reasons. They live over a huge range and varied terrain, are plentiful, and have healthy, tasty meat, but they are a challenge to hunt, especially older, pressured deer. Because of those factors, how people hunt them also varies quite widely. Stand hunting in the East is commonplace, while spot-and-stalk and still hunting techniques are common in the West. Sitting a stand for hours on end, or even all-day, is normal for many in the East, while sitting anywhere for more than an hour drives some of my Western friends to the point of insanity. Each has its traditions and style, both of which are largely shaped by geography and access.
Eastern whitetails tend to hang out in cover. Eastern terrain tends to be much flatter, and even in the mountains, glassing anything miles away is rarely even possible as nothing is above tree line. Life is often viewed while elevated in a tree, from a climbing stand or tower blind. Most of the areas I hunt you’re lucky to even be able to see a couple hundred yards, let alone get a shot through the underbrush at long distances. Stalking up to a deer through noisy underbrush is extremely difficult, and once jumped from a bedding area, getting an ethical shot is nearly impossible. Eastern access and hunting styles tend to focus around single day outings. You scout for sign, or a natural or planted food source, and ‘hunt’ for a place to sit or hang a stand, then wait for the game to come to you. Hunting strategy is largely based on feeding and bedding areas and game travel in between, more than geography. Stand selection is often based on wind any given day. Game is often killed with a few hundred yards of where a vehicle can access. Getting fallen game out of the field is usually whole by dragging, truck or ATV, not backpack. The Eastern mindset is find an area, find sign of game, sit there, and wait for game to hunt.
Western whitetails also like cover, but with the terrain much more open and mountainous, more time is spent sitting while glassing open county with views for miles, than sitting while waiting. Still hunting by slowly walking through river bottoms where jumping a deer is likely to push them into open terrain that still yields a shot is also common. Elevated stands of any kind are rarely used. Hunters scout for a place to hunt more than sign to hunt. Hunting strategy is largely based on geography, funnel points, or climate zones that yield the ideal habitat, and water sources tend to be more important than they are in the East. Deer are physically spotted first, then strategies made to get in position. Shots are much longer, and if you do sit and wait, it’s usually on the ground or from a good vantage point on the ground. Wind dictates how you hunt, and where you hunt, with thermals playing a major role in the dynamic of the day. Game is often killed miles from, or in places vehicles simply can’t access due to challenging terrain. Multi-day backcountry hunts are far more commonplace due to the massive areas, and bringing quartered game out from the field by backpack is far more common, and necessary due to the distances often covered on foot, and sizes of most Western big game like elk, bear, or mule deer. The mindset is find an area, find the game, be mobile to hunt the game.
That’s two quick high level comparisons – techniques for calling, scents, decoys, trail cameras, weapon preferences, etc also vary a bit, but they all ‘work’ everywhere when done and timed properly. The fact is, very successful hunters live everywhere, there’s no ‘right’ way to do anything, but your chances and odds of success improve with more tools and techniques and strategies in your tool bag.
So, how does any of that help me hunt in Tennessee? We’ll look at the various factors from a Problem/Solution perspective.
1) Problem: Where to hunt deer in TN near our new home.
Solution: I moved from Vermont to Tennessee the winter before this hunting season, so all local public areas are new to me, but I’ve done some asking around and know there’s good deer taken regularly in local counties. The terrain of the Cumberland Plateau is woodland with relatively little agriculture. There’s a lot of hunting pressure. Spot and stalk hunting would be extremely difficult with little chance of success, so that means scouting for sign, Eastern style. I know most other hunters are out for morning or evening hunts, so they aren’t going very far. Fresh sign that I can find farther from any roads the better, and if I’m willing to spend the night and pack and animal out, the less hunting pressure I’ll have, Western style. Time to hunt for a remote place on a map, then scout it for sign to hunt.
2) Problem: Where to hunt in the area I choose.
When it comes to finding where to hunt, the modern age of Google Earth, USGS topo maps, phone apps, GPS, etc gives us a lot of tools for scouting from your couch than ever before. Topo maps don’t offer much help for finding natural funnels when hunting the flat, lowland swamps of coastal Georgia, but they certainly do in mountainous terrain of Tennessee. When deciding on a place out West to hunt, it’s often as simple as finding the farthest place from any roads on a the map, and going there. Rough terrain, cliffs and rivers often mean no roads, wherever you are. No roads and rough terrain probably means very few people are willing, or capable, of going there. Western strategy of getting away from roads, reinforced by Eastern hunter tendencies to avoid those places, translates to a canyon region of the plateau, a few miles from roads, requiring hundreds of vertical feet down and up for ingress and egress, and a river crossing. Normal obstacles for the West, but not so in the East. No vehicles can get in, so hopefully few people will.
3) Problem: What to hunt.
Solution: I’ve been fortunate this Fall with a couple Alaskan caribou, salmon, and other game already filling most of the freezer, so I can afford to be a bit picky. That means going the extra mile to look for older bucks, which reinforces the solution to Problems #1 and 2.
4) Problem: When to hunt.
Solution: Aside from the obvious answer of ‘hunting season’, the main factors here are allowing enough time to get in and out, and geographic limitations like river levels. If it takes a day to get you where you want to hunt, a morning or afternoon window isn’t enough time. If there’s been a lot of rain, wading across a cold, raging river on foot isn’t realistic, or safe. There’s not much point in hunting an East-West canyon from the West, with a Westerly wind, funneling your scent right to the game you’re after. So I plan for an overnight or full day affair, Western style, when the prevailing winds are favorable for my direction of approach.
5) Problem: How to hunt.
Solution: Before scouting the area, due to the physical nature of access, packing a climber in and out to hunt a stand Eastern style would be possible, but require a lot of effort, and probably translate into multiple trips in and out in the event of harvested game. So instead I chose a hybrid approach, of studying the terrain to look for funnel points that would be the most likely to show me good sign of game in the area. Due to the dense vegetation, an elevated stand site would still be best to gain some visibility, but with no climber, that means finding a rock outcrop or other natural feature to serve as a natural stand, overlooking a trail with fresh sign, at a funnel point, where prevailing winds would be in my favor.
6) Problem: What to bring.
Solution: Due to access, the prospect of spending a night in the woods is a real possibility. That means an ultralight overnight bivy kit, a little food, and a pack capable of hauling it all, and a quartered deer out of the area. Game bags and field processing equipment would also be necessary. Clothing selection should be lightweight, waterproof, quiet, and with multiple layers to deal with big temperature swings from below freezing to warm and muggy. It’s already rifle season, and while using the bow would be wonderful, to start things off I’ll choose my trusty Marlin 45-70 1895SBL, they ultimate brush gun for short range shots, with a heavy 325 Hornady bullet this is unlikely to deflect much from any underbrush.
That outlines the plan pretty well, combining Eastern and Western styles for a fun, exploratory hunt in TN, but the destiny of a plan is execution. So what were the results? As you can probably already tell from the photos, with a little patience and luck thrown in, everything worked out as planned.
Using the terrain as a guide, I was able to locate some very fresh and strong buck sign in my target area, find a few elevated areas to sit, and eventually figure out the wind to be at the right place at the right time to drop the hammer of the 45-70.
A few failures happened first with the wrong wind or noisy travel spooking game before shot opportunities, but patience and mobility at the right time eventually helped solve the prevailing winds vs thermal winds riddle that happens in mountainous terrain.
On a cold Thanksgiving morning, after spooking one deer, I shifted positions to a secondary site about a half mile away where winds would be more favorable after the sunrise was warming the air in the canyon floor. About a half hour after sitting down under a fallen tree there, out from the brush appeared a nice, palmated buck near some rub and scrape sites in the flat area 60 yards below me. Happy Thanksgiving.
After a very short tracking job, it was time to thank the buck with a traditional German ‘Letze Bissen/Last Bite’ prayer and get the knives and game bags out and get to work. I prefer the ‘gutless’ method of processing game in the field, starting by opening the cape right down the spine. The shoulder, ham, neck, and backstrap is removed from one side, then the animal is rolled over, and the same is repeated on the other side. The tenderloins can be removed by reaching into the area between the last rib and pelvis, along the spine. This keeps all the meat very clean, and quickly off the animal and into game bags and cooling before any bugs can get to it. I deboned all the meat in the field to cut down on pack weight, and quickly caped out the skull for a European style mount.
Packs designed to carry meat are really beneficial in scenarios like this by keeping the bloody meat away from other gear, and tight to your back for optimal weight distribution. The game bags were dropped into the pack’s meat chamber, and rack strapped to the outside. After some quick hydration from my Orion Liberty Bottle, it was time to start the long hike out of the canyon and put the legs and back to work.
A couple hours later I was opening the Orion 65 cooler in the back of my Jeep and transferring meat for the ride home. It was Thanksgiving after all, which means a couch and football and a dachshund and a wife and Thanksgiving dinner were waiting at home.
Happy Hunting Holidays,
- Pack: In this case, I’m using an Eberlestock M107 Dragonfly, with a large center meat compartment that unzips and opens when needed. It also has a built in rifle scabbard, which is very handy to keep that weight off your arms but within reach on long hikes. www.eberlestock.com
- Knives: My knives of choice for trips like this are the Buck Alpha Crosslock ‘PBS’ (Portable Butcher Shop), and Havalon Piranta. The Buck PBS has a very well sized knife blade, but also a saw with built in gut hook. I use the gut hook to do the back cut and minimize any cut hairs contaminating meat. The primary blade is used for big cuts, and the saw can be used to remove racks, go through bone, or is very handy cutting brush for natural blinds, clearing shoots lanes, making meat poles, etc. Made in USA at the Buck factory in Idaho. Paired with the PBS is the Havalon. With its small surgical blade, the Havalon is great for detail meat work, getting through joints without needing to saw them, and caping skulls. www.buckknives.com, www.havalon.com
- Game Bags. My game bags of choice are TAG bags from Alaska, which are lightweight, washable for reuse, allow for great airflow, but have a tight weave to prevent any bugs or larvae from getting to the meat, even when hung for days. www.pristineventures.com/products/synthetic-game-bags.html
- Clothing System. First Lite merino. Packable, quiet, and with comfort over a wide temperature range and natural scent control, wool has been a favorite clothing material of hunters for a long time. First Lite has systems for any style and region of the country. I was using the Kanab Pants, Llama and Chana shirts, Labrador Sweater, and Uncompahgre Puffy insulation, and Boundary Stormtight rainwear in Realtree Max-1. www.firstlite.com, www.realtree.com/realtree-max-1-cam
- Weapon. Marlin 1895SBL 45-70. Classic, versatile, accurate, brush gun capable of hunting anything in North America, or the world for that matter. An amazing rifle that has served me well on caribou at 300 yards in Alaska, to stare downs with snow-tracked bucks at 10 yards in Ontario. Paired with Hornady LEVERevolution 325 grain ammunition, it’s an extremely effective combination. For optics, the removable Leupold VX-2 , 3-9 on top serves me very well. Also Made in USA, with the addition of quick release rings, it’s pops on and off the Marlin’s Picatinny rail easily, so changing from a hunting rifle to a quick-draw bear protection rifle is quick and painless. www.marlinfirearms.com, www.hornady.com/store/leverevolution, www.leupold.com
- Headlamp. Princeton-Tec Vizz. Backcountry hunts often mean moving or working in the dark, and batteries are heavy to pack, so a rugged, light, versatile, long lasting headlamp is very helpful. With a red light beam that doesn’t spook game, high beam for long distance visibility, strong LEDs for close-up work, waterproofness, and long battery life, the Vizz has everything needed for long trips in the field. www.princetontec.com
- Navigation. A printed map and compass, Gaia GPS app on an iPhone with pre-downloaded USGS topo maps, a Garmin Rino, and a SPOT tracker/emergency beacon. That’s a lot, but getting lost isn’t fun, and cuts into hunting time. The Gaia App is great for marking sign, navigating, and mapping game sign. The Rino is a GPS and radio that works anywhere, with a long battery life. Emergencies can get serious quickly when traveling alone in the backcountry, and a SPOT system, even though you may never need it, will at least help your loved ones sleep better at night. www.gaiagps.com, www.garmin.com, www.findmespot.com, www.apple.com/iphone
- Camera Gear. Capturing memories in the field is one of the best parts of hunting. Modern compact cameras let you capture thousands of images quickly and easily, in any conditions. I always carry a GoPro to capture images and video, an Olympus TG still camera, and use the iPhone camera quite a bit (you can save sign images at their GPS location on the Gaia App). With a small tripod for the still camera, and GoPro Jaws Clamp, every branch becomes a tripod. www.gopro.com, www.olympus-usa.com
- Cooler. Orion 65. Fits in the back or on the roof of my Jeep Wrangler, with plenty of room for transporting quartered game. orioncoolers.com
About the Author, Damon Bungard:
With a kayak, fly rod, camera, bow, or gun in hand, exploring the rivers and mountains of the world keeps Damon on the move and in search of his next adventure. Growing up as a military dependent, travel and exploration is in his DNA. Damon has traveled from Chile to the ends of North America in search of the next rapid to run, river to explore, fish to catch, game to hunt, and memory to make.
As Product Manager for Jackson Kayak and Brand Manager for Orion Coolers, his passion for the outdoors translates directly into the products we offer. Damon, his wife Ashley, and mini-dachshund, Tripper, make their home base camp near our factory in Spencer, TN.