feature By: Brad Fenson | September, 19
I strained to get a better look at the antlers on the buck, but with a torrent of large snowflakes obscuring my view, it was hard to decipher what the deer sported for headgear. To make things even more challenging, the buck was standing in a thicket of dense shrubs, and the tree limbs and antlers seemed to blend as one. The buck eventually moved and although it showed four even points on each antler, it wasn’t the deer I had come to Colorado to tag.
I have read books and magazines, watched television shows and dreamed about hunting mule deer migrating out of the Colorado high country. Weather and timing are always a factor, but with dropping temperatures, snowy skies and a late-season license, I was hopeful that a bruiser buck was in my future.
I was hunting with Tony Bohrer from Ivory Tip Outfitters, and we headed out from the lodge in the predawn light. The headlights of the truck immediately revealed fresh deer tracks that had crossed the road, and before we got to the gate at the highway, we had already looked at several dozen dark silhouettes of mule deer feeding in fields. Ivory Tip has some exceptional hunting country in northwest Colorado – adjacent to the high country – where mule deer stream out of their summer habitat to wintering areas at lower elevations.
The migration is different every year and is weather dependent. A vast herd of mule deer can travel in a steady stream and show up en masse to fill the basins and valleys along their travel route. The migration starts in September and can run through December, making it impossible to hunt the entire season. Such hunting is a gamble, but through careful planning I hoped to stack the late-season odds in my favor.
Tony knew how to generate excitement, and after we bushwhacked a short distance to glass another steep valley, he told me one of his hunters, just weeks earlier, had shot a huge buck scoring just shy of 200 inches off the far ridge. My heart raced with anticipation as I daydreamed about a monster muley buck wearing my tag but was snapped back to reality when Tony stated, “There’s a herd of deer on the far ridge.”
With a binocular, I found the brown dots far on the horizon, and it wasn’t hard to pick out the buck, which sported a much bigger body than its companions. We watched long enough that both of us were starting to dig out extra gloves and pull our caps down over our ears. That patience paid off, and a couple does worked down the ridge beside us and up to a fence. A tall-antlered buck wasn’t far behind.
It wasn’t difficult to tell that the buck was mature, as its body rippled with toned muscle and its belly sagged from age. It was hard not to get excited, but once the deer came into a clearing, it was obvious the buck only sported three points on each antler. Now, I must admit that deer was the biggest 3x3 I’ve ever seen, and the thought of hanging my tag on the old deer was on my mind. My positive and endearing adjectives used to describe the buck must have let Tony know I was considering shooting it, as he quickly told me we would find a better one. At 100 yards, we watched the buck jump the fence and chase the does out across the valley. The incredible number of bucks we were seeing was just what I’d hoped the trip would provide.
With more wintery weather on the horizon, we were up early the next morning to check the forecast and layer our clothing accordingly for the “roller coaster day” ahead. There were several hunters in camp, and stories of big bucks that tempted trigger fingers dominated the discussions over hot coffee. I felt fortunate to be hunting with Tony because he knew the area like the back of his hand and was excited about our prospects.
We stopped to glass deer at every opportunity, just like we had the day before. Tony stressed that we must stop and glass every deer we spot, especially the ones we thought we already looked at and knew. With the migration in full swing, a new buck could show up at any time, and a hunter should never take for granted that he knows every deer.
Turning onto the first trail, we examined the distant hills with our binoculars, and it wasn’t long before the spotting scope was pulled out to scrutinize antlers. The wintry weather had the deer flowing out of the high country, and we caught them roaming through the aspens on a line that would eventually take them to huge expanses of sage pastures and rich winter forage. Tony seemed to know the best hiding places for big bucks, and we often walked to a vantage point to check a hidden basin or draw. We regularly stopped to set up the spotting scope and walked into areas of open landscape that could only be seen from specific locations.
The wind had picked up and the temperatures continued to drop, testing our clothing and determination to stay outdoors. We were heading back toward the highway late in the day when we stopped to glass a group of deer we had already looked at three times. Just as Tony had predicted, the biggest buck of the day came into sight. The bucks were still in rut, and our “newly imported” deer was actively courting a small group of does. Two smaller bucks hovered around the sidelines. The deer didn’t care that we stopped to look at them, giving us plenty of time to check out the wide antlers carefully. The buck was tempting, but Tony’s easy-going, calm nature finally convinced me we would be able to locate the same deer in the morning if we wanted to have another look.
It had been an incredible day, with more than 60 bucks spotted before dark. Several big, mature deer tempted me, but with a few days left in the hunt, holding out for something bigger was the best option.
I wasn’t the only hunter in camp excited about the day’s deer encounters. Everyone seemed to have a story about a big deer and close encounters. We all anticipated getting back on the trail in the morning.
The morning started with Tony trying to remove a very heavy layer of frost from the front window of the truck. With the thermometer dipping to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, a picturesque layer of hoar frost had grown on everything above ground. We worked our way back to the area where we spotted the big, wide buck the night before, and it only took a matter of seconds to locate it with another tall 4x4 buck we hadn’t seen before. The small herd of does in the draw seemed to be a calling card for the migrating bucks. Every time we checked the spot, another new buck was spotted. We looked the deer over carefully but decided to pass.
Driving to a vantage point, we spotted a herd of more than 300 elk. There were several big bulls in the group and I wished I had picked up an elk tag as well. While sitting at the vantage point, we could glass a huge section of sage flats. We had looked at it the day before, but most of the deer were bedded. The early morning light meant the animals were still on their feet, and I marveled at the sheer number of deer spread out across the sage.
We checked out at least a dozen bucks before heading back toward the road that would take us to the high country. We would travel right past the draw where we saw the wide buck and the big 4x4 earlier that day. As we got close to the draw, we spotted a group of mule deer. I thought we’d be looking at the same deer once again but as soon as we put glass on antlers, we discovered a new buck had moved into the draw. Three of the biggest bucks we had seen on the trip were all in the same draw, and most of them had shown up without notice, emphasizing the need to glass every deer, every time.
The new buck had an impressive set of antlers. Its tines were extremely tall and its front forks opened out wider than the top forks. I was just about to tell Tony I wanted to try and shoot the buck when he confirmed we were going to make a play.
A minute later, we were stalking up the hill and through tall bunches of sage to close the distance to the draw. The terrain worked in our favor, allowing us to sneak close and keep the wind in our face. I could feel my heart race with excitement and took a couple of deep breaths to ward off buck fever.
Tony always carries shooting sticks, as much of the sage is so tall a hunter must stand to be able to see or shoot over the dense vegetation. We carefully stalked our way across the ridge and accidentally walked into another group of mule deer we hadn’t seen. The sound of stodding hooves and deer darting through dry branches sounded like thunder. We were lucky the herd picked an exit route that was not toward the chosen buck. However, I still wasn’t convinced the other deer hadn’t heard the retreat – and took it as a warning.
The hill we used for our approach was steep and we took one step at a time, glassing the cover below before taking our next steps. Crouching low, Tony pointed to a large sagebrush about 20 yards ahead of us that we would try to reach before sneaking another peek. Reaching the designated spot, we peered through frosty branches and spotted the big buck meandering through the dry creek bed below. There were several mature bucks in the group, and Tony confirmed the buck we wanted was on the far right. I had no problem distinguishing the buck I was after, as its hulking body and dark coloration made it stand out from the others.
Tony set up the shooting sticks and I cradled my Browning X-Bolt .300 Winchester Magnum on the support before settling in behind the scope. I took another deep breath and waited for Tony to range the deer. The buck was 240 yards away on a steep downhill angle. I dialed the turret on my Leupold VX-6HD scope to shoot the precise distance.
The buck was walking and I tracked its every movement with my crosshairs as it quartered away. As the buck started to work up out of the creek bed, the steep angle forced it to turn broadside. Everything I had dreamed of for a Colorado mule deer hunt was now in my hands. The buck reached the top edge of the creek embankment and stopped. It was the moment of truth, and I squeezed the trigger until the rifle barked and jarred me with recoil. The unmistakable whack of my bullet finding its mark rolled up the hill to us. Chambering a second cartridge, I found the buck in the scope, but it was already on the ground. The bullet had done its job and knocked the buck down the second it hit.
Tony and I jumped with excitement. The deer lying in the frozen creek bed below was the biggest muley buck I had taken in over a decade, and one of my best. I had arrived in Craig, Colorado, several days earlier and was impressed with the town and unbelievably warm reception the community offered to traveling hunters. Northwest Colorado had put on a show, and its migrating mule deer left me dreaming about a return visit.