feature By: Jack Ballard | May, 18
The buck revealed itself as had many of its kind before. A modest herd of mule deer browsed and lounged in an expanse of sagebrush near the edge of an eroded coulee. A half mile from my position on the leeward side of a conical obelisk of sandstone, one of the deer was far more active than the others, buffering a trio of gray-sided animals on the perimeter from those toward the center. Even before retrieving a binocular from the pack resting at my side on the pale, dusty soil, I recognized the players in this age-old drama. The deliberately moving form confronting those on the outskirts was surely an older buck keeping a number of youngsters at bay.
The mule deer buck in question had busy hooves. Three forkhorn bucks intently eyed their superior, frequently sidling toward the does from several directions at once. The older buck dashed from one yearling to the next, vanquishing each interloper with lowered antlers. Though the temperature was below freezing, the older deer panted, openmouthed, on the few occasions it was able to rest. Within a half hour the does were all bedded placidly in the sage. The older buck stayed on its feet, at one point repelling an exceptionally bold forkhorn’s advance with a chase spanning a good quarter mile.
Had I come upon a similar collection of mule deer six weeks previously, several things would almost doubtlessly have been different. First, the bucks wouldn’t be keeping company with the does, and the intense antagonism between the senior deer and its juniors would likely be expressed as mild, intermittent reinforcements of dominance. The animals would have almost certainly been bedded by midmorning. However, the frenzied activity I observed among the bucks likely kept the does on their hoofs for longer than usual during the mid-rut melee. Midday is typified by lethargy and relaxation among mule deer at most times of the year, but during the rut, herds may be stirred by boisterous bucks at all hours of the day.
Mule deer hunters are routinely instructed to invest their major efforts at the front and back end of the day. While that might be true for spotting animals, it’s not always the best time to stalk them. During the rut, pressure from a domineering buck may push a herd of does a considerable distance from an early morning feeding area to the location at which they finally bed. Antagonistic interactions between a dominant buck and a rival may take it far enough away from a doe herd to scuttle a carefully planned stalk. Prior to the rut, mule deer may travel a half mile or more from a cherished feeding area, such as an alfalfa field, into more secure bedding terrain. Hunters who prematurely embark on a stalk that takes them out of sight of a mule deer herd (or a single buck) may find the animals have disappeared by the time they reach the anticipated shooting position.
Such was the dilemma while watching the deer through my binocular. I’d spent enough time viewing the buck to conclude that with but two days left on my personal calendar for deer hunting, it was a “shooter.” Its rack extended a bit beyond the width of the deer’s mulish ears with four top tines adorning each antler. The front forks looked quite good while viewed from the side, but those on the back were evident but not so impressive, characteristic of many, many mule deer I’d previously observed in the area.
What to do? Patience is thought to come with age, but even in my sixth decade remaining stationary for any length of time is not my forte as a hunter. But the hummock of scaly sandstone above my prostrate body offered protection from the breeze and the bright sun in the sapphire, southern sky warmed my jacket. Though not a sitter, I am a napper. What better way to give the buck the time to settle than taking a midmorning snooze?
I awoke to a wet nose nuzzling my cheek. Percy, my English Setter, had surreptitiously oozed from the vehicle on my departure and discretely followed me at a distance on my reconnaissance for deer. I hadn’t the heart or the time to send him back after hiking nearly a mile before discovering his presence. He’d patiently lain next to his master while watching the deer and had now endured a 20-minute nap. His thoughtful brown eyes looked into my sleepy blue orbs, communicating a desire to move.
A look through the binocular was first in order. I surveyed the sagebrush where the does were bedded, immediately spotting several of the lounging does still in their repose. A yearling had arisen, or joined the herd from elsewhere, and was browsing half-heartedly on a deciduous shrub. The smaller bucks were gone. Had the boss also abandoned the does? It seemed unlikely. About the time the dog reinforced its nuzzle with a whine, two pairs of vertical brown spines in a cluster of somber sage commanded my attention. Closer scrutiny determined they originated on the forking beams of a bedded mule deer buck.
A content, bedded target is the supreme value of midday deer hunting. Unless bumped by another hunter or otherwise unexpectedly disturbed, the modest band of muleys would probably stay put for a couple of hours or longer. There was plenty of time to methodically plan a stalk.
The most direct, concealed route was a ravine originating just to the left of my perch, and it ran straight toward the deer. A quartering breeze, however, tickled my starboard shoulder. Odds seemed quite high that I’d be winded before reaching the 250-yard, maximum range at which I wished to fire a new rifle untested in the field. Another potential approach involved dropping from the back side of the pointy little butte into the cover of a broad swale. From there I could make a concealed hike to the backside of a low ridge that petered out onto the sagebrush flat an estimated 300 yards from the deer. The wind would be in my face at that point, perfect for closing the gap. It appeared there were sufficient clumps of scattered sage and weathered grass for concealment on a belly crawl toward the deer.
Before embarking on the stalk, I elected to take a last look at the herd to firmly pin its position in my head. The buck’s resting place was just upslope from a sizeable clump of skunk brush. It had plunked itself down smack-dab in the middle of the does, which appeared to number seven – five does and two fawns. It struck me how difficult it would be to now spot the band without first knowing their position. Less-than-patient, midday mule deer hunters (of which I am one) are best served by extensively glassing good bedding habitat versus attempting to cover lots of ground. This means pinpointing areas with some visual cover such as brush, junipers, evergreens and topographical features like ledges and cutbanks. Temperature and weather events also determine favored resting haunts of mule deer. Very cold conditions will nudge them toward south-facing slopes where solar radiation warms their dark coats. Warmer days in the fall finds them in search of shade. Wind, especially when coupled with cold, moves them decisively in the direction of leeward shelter.
Dog at my heels, I slipped undetected from the prairie watchtower. A leggy jackrabbit with a nearly white coat burst from under our feet and bounded away toward a yonder hillside. Percy remained steadily at my side, perfectly heeding the “no bunnies” portion of his foundational obedience training. We paced smartly on the chosen stalking route, passing through a saddle in the low ridge that would take us toward the resting deer. Easing around its end, I could see the skunk brush marker near the buck, but not the animal itself. A look through the binocular confirmed the presence of its betraying antlers. I depressed the button to activate the rangefinder in the Swarovski glass to find 360 meters separated hunter from quarry.
Once clear of the ridge, I needed to descend some 70 yards of exposed ground to dip below the sight line of the herd. The buck wasn’t a problem. Its eyes weren’t visible to mine, nor were those of the does bedded below it in another tangle of sagebrush. Two does and a fawn above them could clearly see the terrain I was forced to cross, but a deeply worn cattle trail angled from just below my position toward the desired cover. If I could slide into the rut absent a minefield of fresh cow patties, the final push on the stalk might actually be easy.
Pushing my fanny pack ahead, I squirmed into the trail. Percy crawled on his belly, nose at the soles of my boots. With no formal training whatsoever, the dog had become a master of the sneak after a year of jump-shooting and retrieving waterfowl on streams and ponds as a youngster. Any indication I’m in “stalk mode” elicits the same behavior in the dog. It waits in cover of its choosing until I motion it ahead with a hand signal. If I crawl, Percy crawls.
The passage along the cow trail passed without incident save soiling my pants and jacket with dirt, nary a cow plop to dodge or the tiniest of hint that we’d been spotted by the deer. Now on the last segment of the stalk, I was keen to forge ahead and see it to completion. A whispered “stay” command to the setter kept it in place while I wormed ahead in foot-high cover of weathered grass and steely sage.
Not wishing to raise above cover to range the deer, I checked the distance back toward the dog, which lay invisible save for its finely formed black-and-white head keeping tabs on its master – 85 meters. That, plus the span on the cow path, meant I was within 200 yards of the buck. The ability to move on elbows and knees versus a “combat crawl” allowed me to cover another 100 yards in what seemed a flash. Close enough. Chambering a Federal Fusion cartridge into the .270 Winchester, I rose to a sitting position and looked ahead.
Settled mule deer in secure cover can be surprisingly slow to react. The two does above the buck spotted me first, staring pointedly before finally rising to their feet after several long moments. Joined by the fawn, they walked uncertainly away for a few steps before turning for another long look. When the buck stood, I found its front shoulder in the crosshairs and fired. Only after its collapse and motionless rest to earth did the remainder of the herd come to their feet.
Percy raced to my side at the shot, tail wagging, anticipating a duck or goose or grouse to retrieve. The dog seemed confused and perhaps disappointed that it was only a deer, not even a diminutive dove.
“No bird,” I informed the dog, then laughed aloud at the absurdity of the situation. I certainly hadn’t planned on the dog tagging along on the hunt, nor did I expect to have such an enjoyable and easy time of the stalk. Whatever passes between the present and the grave, I’ll surely not forget such a memorable hunt for a midday mule deer.