In a bowhunting career that has taken him all over North America, Sportsman Channel hunting personality Fred Eichler has grown quite familiar with the annual autumn chase involving big-antler whitetails.
Sometimes that chase causes the Easton Bowhunting TV host to grab his Hoyt bow and load the truck up for a trek back east to the agricultural-rich states of the American Midwest in big buck hotspots like Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky.
At other times, Eichler will find his truck pointed south as he carries a quiver full of Easton arrows into the river bottoms and dense forests of the Deep South.
And sometimes, he’ll find himself in the big-buck-rich mesquite trees and prickly-pear flats of the Lone Star State, sharpening up a Muzzy broadhead for a chance at a bona fide Muy Grande whitetail deep in the heart of Texas.
But given his druthers, Eichler prefers to chase whitetails closer to home in the western part of the country he is so comfortable and familiar with.
Even if those deer sometimes don’t seem to resemble their Eastern cousins in terms of local habitat, daily movement and temperament.
“Yes, western whitetails are almost like a totally different species compared to what hunters face back east,” said Eichler. “Out west, they’re usually found following rivers and waterways (and such).”
Even then, Eichler says one western river is not necessarily like the next one when it comes to chasing whitetails.
“Bucks (in eastern Colorado), they’re typically coming from western Kansas and they’ll typically stay in the river bottoms and close to the agricultural fields,” he said. “For the whitetails here, they’re really looking for water and they are almost always near the rivers.”
Are all river bottoms out west the same when it comes to whitetails? “Not really,” said Eichler.
“Take the Realtree guys or Jackie Bushman, for instance; they generally hunt evenings on the Milk or Yellowstone River,” he explained. “One reason that those guys hunt in the evenings is that the deer are in the fields each morning, then they leave and drop into the trees.
“It’s very hard to get into a stand during the morning hours without blowing the deer out of a field. So they’ll typically go in during the afternoon hours, set up in treestands situated on the edge of alfalfa fields and catch them coming out to feed in the evenings.”
How about down in southern and eastern Colorado where Eichler ranches and guides (www.fulldrawoutfitters.com) near Trinidad?
“It depends on where they are bedding and feeding in a particular area,” he said. “Some areas in Colorado are better in the morning and some are better in the evening. Where I’m at, we try to hunt both, just come at them from different ways.”
If the time of day is one nuance of hunting whitetails out West, then so too is the ability to get a stand up in a tree.
Given so many river bottoms are filled with large cottonwood trees, Eichler says traditional treestands from back East don’t always work in his neck of the woods.
“Hunting in the cottonwoods, that’s the toughest part of hunting around here,” he said. “They are so big and wide and it’s hard to get a standard treestand up in them sometimes.
“And the bark is so thick that it’s often difficult to get tree steps screwed into the tree. Plus the wood is kind of weak, so the step(s) might pull out on you.”
What’s the solution?
“Ladder stands are often the safer way to go in my opinion,” said Eichler. “But you almost always have to put extensions on ladders since the cottonwoods grow so big and so fast.
“But other than that, you can still get one up and you are looking to put them in the standard funnels, pinch points, etc.”
If figuring out when and where to hang a stand is one dilemma faced by western whitetail hunters, the hunting can actually get somewhat easier after that.
“While our deer might be more concentrated along drainages than they are elsewhere, whitetails in the West are a bit dumber than they are back east,” laughed Eichler.
“They just haven’t been hunted as hard out here since most guys are targeting mule deer and such,” he added.
“Since our whitetails don’t get hammered as much as they do back East, I think they’re not as educated to calling, the use of decoys, stuff like that. So we have a lot more luck duping western whitetails with things that don’t always work as well back East.”
If western bucks aren’t as wise as their eastern counterparts are, Eichler says they also are easier to observe and pattern since the terrain tends to be more open and visible.
“I really like to use long-distance spotting techniques to glass and scout western whitetails,” he said. “We like to set up and glass them with a Leupold spotting scope attached to a window mount or a tripod that helps us see them from a long, long ways away.
“I know you can use those spotting scopes somewhat on deer back East (around agricultural fields), but you’re more limited there with long range optics than you are in places like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and other western states.”
If Eichler ever needs something more than the long range Intel that he and his guides gather through a spotting scope sitting on top of a window mount, such long-range spotting endeavors generally give him a leg up on local whitetails before he moves in a bit closer.
When he does so, he usually already has a pretty good idea where deer are bedding, where they are feeding, when they are moving between those two spots and what trails they are traveling.
Then he’s able to go in with surgical precision and put up a game camera to gain even more precise information.
“Trail cameras used to suck,” laughed Eichler. “But not the Stealth Cams, they are so good and durable that you can leave them out in the field for six months if you’d like without any negative effects.”
That being said, Eichler doesn’t like to leave his cameras out that long, instead opting to check them every few days.
“But we only go in during the middle of the day, wanting to slip in when the animals are not there,” he said. “And if I’m trying to set up a camera close to where I know a deer is bedding, I’ll often go in quickly and put them up – or pull the cards and check them – in the middle of the night.
“Danny Farris, one of my guides, he checks them every couple of days,” Eichler added. “But just like hunting, he doesn’t ever touch anything going in, he does his best to control his scent and not leave anything behind by wearing rubber boots and such. He’ll go in, check the camera batteries, pull the card, slip another one in the camera and then slip right back out.”
If all of that seems like a bit much, keep in mind that Eichler is not only a television show host and a diehard bowhunter, but also an outfitter with a sizable repeat-client base.
And one reason for all of those repeat customers is Eichler typically puts them on animals when they come into his Full Draw Outfitters camp for a hunt.
Hence the attention to scent control, little details and working so hard not to educate deer.
“I truly believe that deer can pattern people as much as we try to pattern them,” said Eichler. “That’s why I’ll often go check cameras in the middle of the night or slip in towards their bedding areas when I know they are off feeding somewhere.”
Sometimes, the Colorado guide will even use a rainstorm to his advantage.
“If there’s a good rainstorm coming, I’ve been known to load up in the truck, go out in the rain, check the cameras and then get back out as the rain washes away any scent I might have left behind,” said Eichler.
If there’s a final difference between deer hunting out West versus back East, it might be the constant of changing conditions and hunt parameters western states face.
From hot and dry one day to cold and snowing the next, weather is one big variable Eichler has to deal with. Another is the impact of large predators like mountain lions and even wolves in some parts of the American West. And a final variable is the quickly changing food resources altered by fire, drought or farming activity.
“Yeah, things are constantly changing out here,” he said. “Because of that, we’re constantly tweaking setups if we have to, based on the wind, weather, crops, stuff like that.”
If there’s one thing that does seem to be similar between Eichler’s hunts for whitetails in the Rocky Mountain West versus those back East, it just might be the love he has for the rut.
“Yeah, that’s one area where our whitetails and the whitetails elsewhere in the country are pretty similar,” he laughed. “When it gets to November, some good hunting is about to happen.”
And that often leads to a big smile as Eichler affixes a deer tag to a big buck downed by a well-placed bow shot.
A smile that’s pretty much the same for all deer hunters from one end of the country all the way to the other.