Troy Pottenger is a master of self-talk.
Never give up.
Pottenger, a Post Falls Middle School teacher who graduated from high school in St. Maries and played football at Western Montana College in Dillon, uses motivational messages like other people use hammers and wrenches. He builds with them.
Winners never quit and quitters never win.
“I never let myself get down,” Pottenger said. “I don’t let stuff get to me.”
It’s not failure if it makes you grow, he said. And when you are hunting the biggest, cagiest whitetails in the Inland Empire, temporary setbacks that end your chance of killing one particular trophy whitetail, at least for the season, are part of the equation.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.
Pottenger, who has killed record book whitetail bucks in North Idaho and northeast Washington for almost two decades, relies on contingency plans.
“I never put all my eggs in one basket,” he says.
When he killed a 5 1/2-year-old, 160-class whitetail buck this month from 30 feet up in a tree stand along a steep mountain ridge — where he said most deer hunters would never venture, it was because the buck was in his back pocket.
Snow pushed Pottenger out of another area where he had patterned a big deer that he was ready to meet with the razor sharp edge of an arrow when the unexpected happened.
It snowed. A lot.
So, he shifted plans and instead chased an old whitetail he and his son, Tyson, had watched for three years, which they named Scarface for a battle scar it earned from fighting another buck a year earlier.
In the annals of Panhandle whitetail hunters, Pottenger’s pursuit of big deer is second to none and stems from a passion he learned as a kid in Santa south of St. Maries where his dad told him that matching wits with mature whitetail bucks was the apex of North American hunting.
“My dad was a great elk and mule deer hunter, but he didn’t hunt whitetails a lot,” Pottenger said. “He told me, son, you’re on your own.”
From the first mature buck he busted as a kid, which disappeared in a flash into the Idaho daylight behind his rural home, Pottenger knew hunting big, antlered whitetails would become a lifelong pursuit.
He has killed dozens. And he does it on public land with a bow.
Many years ago, he began using his archery equipment no matter what season. He learned hunting December bucks with bow and arrow was more challenging than using a rifle, and it has become his thing.
Years ago, he said, a shop owner spurred him to pursue big deer sans rifle.
“He told me, you’ll never kill a mature whitetail with a bow,” Pottenger recalled.
Don’t let other people’s opinions become your reality.
They were too wiley, the man said. No one can get near enough to a 5-year-old buck to slam it with an arrow, the man said, no matter how seasoned the hunter.
Pottenger, 48, said he decided at that moment almost 20 years ago to meet the challenge.
Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.
This year’s buck, Scarface, the one he shot in Washington, a mile from the Idaho border, epitomizes Pottenger’s tactics and prowess.
He and his son first located the deer while shed antler hunting. They set up trail cameras and followed the buck’s movements for years before deciding to harvest it.
The big deer lived on the side of a mountain where the wind currents were favorable, brush was thick and hiding spots were plentiful. The buck came out at night as mature bucks tend to do, and although other hunters likely had images of the buck on their trail cameras, its habits made it difficult to hunt. Only a hunter with patience and determination, the stuff that makes you sit in a tree stand in subzero weather, sometimes all day through snow and sleet without moving, would likely earn a shot at Scarface.
Pottenger was that guy.
If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
“Most people don’t have the discipline and patience,” he said. “These mountains aren’t forgiving. These mountains are brutal some days.”
His latest buck, which was rough scored at 161, smaller than Pottenger’s 184-gross scored, Pope and Young buck — his first record archery kill — weighed 220 pounds.
“It took everything we had to lift him onto the four-wheeler,” he said.
It might not be the only mature buck he harvests before the season ends. He still has an Idaho tag to cut. Pottenger, who gives seminars at the Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show, leveraged his skills with outdoor companies a while back. Darton Archery, Buck Fever Synthetics, and XOP tree stands are sponsors.
“It takes a lot of support to do what I do,” he said. “Being in the right place at the right time, or knowing how to hunt that spot are two different things.”
Hunting giant deer takes time, a lot of energy, and more, Pottenger said.
Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice.
“I can’t just be lucky,” he said.