With the rut over and seasons closing, Northwestern hunters look ahead to a long winter
Idaho bowhunters still have a week or two to hunt in some far-north Panhandle units, though the rut is definitely in the books for 2020. The best opportunities for success at this point are mountain areas where bowhunters can stake out migration routes as newly arrived snow pushes deer to lower elevations. This mode of operation requires serious scouting to discover that just-right spot, but many bowhunters have found consistent success hunting in this manner.
Those closer to civilization — and with a place to hunt — might also take advantage of deer venturing into suburbia while seeking handouts. With true winter having arrived and the rut now wrapped up, deer will be looking for survival food of any kind. With natural foods dwindling many deer venture into the edges of town to feed on landscaping.
I'm still seeing many apple trees holding fruit due to the teen temperatures we experienced in mid-October. Give the tree a shake before climbing into your stand, or hunt just after a windy night, and you should see some hungry deer. At lower elevations where snow has not accumulated, volunteer winter wheat can prove a big draw, though pinning deer down on huge north-Idaho fields can prove challenging. Snow-covered or muddy areas help make entrance routes more easily detected. All-day sits are the norm during late seasons, which can be a serious challenge in the cold.
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I'm having a difficult time remaining upbeat for the coming season in my immediate area. Deer numbers are down in most areas I have long hunted in northern Idaho and eastern Washington, with fewer mature bucks appearing even on scouting cameras. Good bucks are still out there, but not as many as I had become accustomed to seeing in years past. Doubling my efforts has resulted in half the reward.
Washington's particular problem seems to be predator-related, as Washington voters (mostly along the coast) chose to outlaw hunting large predators like mountain lions with hounds, the only viable way to bring populations in check with habitat capabilities. Wolves are becoming a problem in some eastern areas, as Washington wolves are currently protected, and will likely remain so. The result is fewer deer in many units.
Idaho whitetail populations have taken hits from a couple blue-tongue outbreaks during droughty summers, conspicuously reducing mature buck populations. Wolf populations are expanding, but in my opinion wolves are less of a problem than pursuing bucks with rifles during rut dates and an obscene number of depredation tags issued in an attempt to placate farming interests. With ever-increasing hunting pressure due to a growing population, Idaho Fish & Game recently took steps to protect rutting bucks in units like 10A — northern Idaho's largest hunt area — closing deer season November 20. But this has only served to shift hunting pressure to adjoining units. Replacing rifle seasons with lower-impact bow hunts during the rut to assure continued license sales and needed revenue isn't likely to occur, as Idaho is decidedly rifle-centric. A wet but mild winter and spring that arrives on schedule, instead of lingering well into June to threaten newborn fawns, would do well to help deer in the region rebound.
Montana and Wyoming have been faring much better, having received the moisture needed to make feed, and allotting tags on a lottery to better manage the resource. Friends and outfitters in these states have been reporting excellent hunting across the board and they expect that trend to continue — barring a killer winter or droughty summer. Trophy quality has remained strong in Montana and Wyoming for the past several years and that should hold into next season barring unforeseen circumstances.
Longtime Realtree.com contributor and archery expert Patrick Meitin lives in Idaho and has bowhunted big game all over the world.