feature By: Jason Brooks | January, 20
Two bucks were bedded below the ridgeline and surrounded by several does. The rut was still a few weeks away and these deer were “resident” mule deer, those that don’t migrate but live in the foothills all year long. A small 2x3 buck stood up and started feeding, but the larger 3x3 stayed bedded as the morning sun started to heat up the hillside. My hunting buddy had first spotted the deer as we peeked over a large basalt outcropping that overlooked a deep draw. The deer had fed up the hill during the night, and now that the morning sun was shining it wouldn’t take them long to move back down into the safety and cooler shade the draw offered.
A simple plan was put in place. Chad, who spotted the deer, would stay at the rock pile. My sons Adam and Ryan and I would backtrack our steps to the far side of the hill behind the bedded deer. Using the terrain, we would need to sneak into muzzleloader distance, which is not easy to do in open country with a group of mule deer bedded on a ridgeline.
Adam decided to give muzzleloading a try after his younger brother Ryan shot a doe the year before with the in-line rifle I have. Both boys enjoyed pouring the powder and then pushing the bullet down the long barrel. The musket cap’s pop and then the push and boom of the rifle made for a fun day at the range. Ryan didn’t want to take the “easy” way of using the in-line that afforded him his doe the year before, so he pulled out my old side-hammer style .50-caliber Lyman Deerstalker. Several years ago, he was with me when I shot a blacktail doe with this rifle, and since then he always liked the nostalgia of the side hammer. A day spent at the range before our hunt proved to the boys that they needed to hold a muzzleloader steady, but it gave Ryan the false sense of a consistent ignition. They shot the rifles during a hot and dry afternoon, but during the morning of the hunt the dew point had dropped, and it was colder at first light than the mid-morning, a recipe leading to some moisture in the nipple of the rifle.
Washington offers three separate deer tags, but a hunter can only purchase one and must choose either archery, muzzleloader or modern firearm. Muzzleloader hunts start at the end of September and last nine days into the first weekend of October. Some units offer a late season hunt as well, but the early season is best. The deer are still in their summer habits and haven’t been pushed around by rifle hunters. Mule deer are not like the whitetail or blacktail in that they don’t have home ranges. Instead the deer tend to wander, though the nonmigratory deer will often not venture too far from water and food once they establish a home range. These deer were non-migratory and found the foothills above local apple orchards to be a safe perch to spend their days. From time to time they would make it past the tall fences and feast on apples or the tree’s buds come late winter. Orchardist are not happy about the increasing local deer population and are more than happy to allow hunters access to the foothills above.
A month before the muzzleloader opener, both of my sons had drawn a special second deer tag for does in these same hills. The idea was to thin the mule deer does that live in the orchards. Once the tractors start up, the deer are pushed to the surrounding hills and intermingle with the deer that stay out of the orchards. Both boys filled their doe tags with ease, and we spotted both of the bucks back in August in the same draw where we located them bedded in September.
The two bucks were both legal, as Washington requires a 3-point minimum for mule deer bucks. Either one would make my boys happy, but it isn’t always that easy. They had taken several deer each in their few years of hunting. Adam had only been successful with his rifle topped with a scope. The open sights made for a challenging day at the range, but both boys have BB guns and shoot them often in the backyard. Lining up the sights and holding them steady, the concept is the same until it comes to the cap firing and the split second lag of the powder burning to push the heavy bullet out of the long barrel.
Starting back toward where we came from and using a large basalt rock outcropping as cover so the deer wouldn’t see us sneak away, we made it to a cut and out of eyesight. From there we hustled around the hillside then quietly climbed to the ridgeline. As brothers often do, they began to argue over where to step, how to climb, which bush to move around and even who would get to shoot first. It was a quiet argument as both boys knew that they could easily blow out the deer if they made too much noise.
Once we made it to the top I began scanning ahead for bedded deer. The top of a tall ponderosa pine marked where the bucks were last seen. Continuing to sneak along, a small buck jumped up. We had not seen this nonlegal buck before as it was bedded in tall sage. It bounded like mule deer do until it was about 100 yards away and then stopped on the skyline to look at us. Three does were now standing and looking toward the odd objects on the skyline next to them.
Shooting sticks have been used by hunters for a long time, and those tall sticks often found on an African safari are simple, with three sticks bound together by a band of leather. Pushing the legs out to form a tripod provides a steady rifle rest. When Adam was eight and passed hunter education, he had drawn a doe tag for a unit near our home. That fall we headed to the mountains and soon found a doe for him to shoot at. He missed, badly, and I was too excited to realize that he didn’t have a proper rest. After that, I always made sure to have shooting sticks ready and even made a new pair each fall as he grew taller. I wanted them tall enough so he could stand up and shoot; at that time, he was not very tall and sitting often meant he couldn’t see the game. Now that the three does were standing and looking at us, I began to push the shooting sticks out to form the tripod.
I peeked over the edge first, and 50 yards away was the larger buck. It was standing broadside and looking up at us – we were just dark figures to the deer. Once again I had the shooting sticks up, and this time Adam laid his rifle across them. I reminded him to pull back the hammer of the rifle. He pulled the trigger and the rifle lifted off the shooting sticks. The buck just stood there wondering what was going on. Helping Adam reload, I pulled out a speed loader. Ryan wasted no time in aiming and learning that the side hammer isn’t always reliable – the cap went off, but no powder ignited. He went through a couple more caps in frustration.
I had Adam’s rifle loaded and he was back on the sticks. This time the buck had wandered another 25 yards away and was now looking at us. He fired again and the buck just stood there, not knowing what to do. Ryan put his fourth cap on the Lyman and this time when the cap went off the powder ignited as he lifted the rifle. Both boys were making the same mistake and not waiting for ignition, which is very common with hunters who aren’t used to muzzleloaders. The buck finally wandered away to our right and into the draw.
I decided to run a few clean patches down the rifles and gave a quick lecture to the boys. They were reminded of our days spent at the range and that they knew how to shoot these rifles, but they got caught up in the moment. Slowly we made our way down into the draw. It had been almost an hour since the ridgeline rodeo when I spotted the buck again.
We had been sitting on small rock outcroppings on the steep hillside. The sun was shining bright and hot, so I started looking in the shadows. The buck, it turned out, was directly below us and I couldn’t see it until I stood up to move from Ryan’s perch over to where Adam was sitting. It was lying under a large bush in a bed that we had seen several deer use throughout the summer. I snuck down to Adam and had him pull out the collapsible shooting sticks he kept in his pack. This time I had him line up the sights and reminded him to not move until I told him to. “Hold steady all the way through the shot, just like we practiced last summer,” I reminded him. I watched the buck as Adam’s rifle went off and the deer jumped up, rolled over and never moved. He placed the bullet right behind the buck’s shoulder.
After making our way down to the buck and taking some photos, we looked back at the route that took us to this point. Right below the ridge was a large basalt rock outcropping, the same place Chad had spotted the buck from earlier in the morning and where he was still sitting and watching the show. Making his way down to us, Chad was excited to see Adam’s first muzzleloader buck. He too is not a muzzleloader hunter but was impressed once Adam was able to settle down and hold steady.
Once back at the truck, we decided to hunt that afternoon up a draw where several bucks had been seen in August. It wasn’t as dramatic as the morning hunt when we spotted a deer. I jokingly said to Ryan, “Look there’s a deer.” “Let me guess,” he said. “It’s a buck, and a legal one at that.” The small buck was legal. Ryan couldn’t believe it as we had worked so hard for his brother’s deer and now there was a buck standing and looking at us in the midafternoon sun.
We closed the distance from 100 yards down to just 20 as the buck fed. Again, I put up the shooting sticks. Ryan was worried that the rifle would misfire again, but when I offered him the in-line he turned it down. Setting out with a goal to take a buck with the side hammer, he settled the sights on the buck’s shoulder. The rifle fired this time without hesitation as the heat of the day had dried up any moisture in the air. The buck jumped at the shot and then piled up. As Ryan walked up to his buck he knelt down, inspected the antlers and smiled. He had done it. They had done it; two bucks in one day with muzzleloaders. A few weeks later I pulled into the driveway after work and found both boys in the front yard, bows in hand and the archery target 20 yards away. New goals were being set for next year.