column By: Lee J. Hoots | March, 18
I vividly remember one western Colorado muley buck of reasonable age with antlers better than any others spotted during three previous days of hunting. It was bedded in a thick patch of sagebrush that I noticed was as high as the deer’s head when it circled a bit before bedding late in the morning. In fact, it was almost shocking how tall and dense the sage was, and it covered the length of the ridgeline, or at least most of it that could be seen.
Two friends and I were pinned down on a lower, parallel ridgeline about 500 yards to the east with the sun at our backs – not the best situation, as there was almost no cover between the two ridges. There was no intention to try a shot from that distance, however, and once the deer bedded (along with a couple of smaller bucks) after browsing outside of the patch of sage for 20 minutes or so, the chance of shooting the larger of the three became pretty slim, and we were running out of time as it was.
A stalk was considered, and one of the guys elected to stay behind to signal if we unknowingly bumped the deer from their beds. Due to a prevailing breeze wafting into our faces, the stalk required getting down off our vantage point by sliding on our backsides and heading straight at the deer, in plain view for the first 100 yards or so, hoping the sage was tall enough, and that the bucks were serious enough about their late morning nap not to notice. Once at the bottom between the two ridges, crawling up the other side across open ground would put us within 200 yards or so of the bedded deer – theoretically at least.
As viewed from a mostly level plane, the idea of slithering several hundred yards seemed a long shot at best, given the sparse stalking cover. On top of that, there was no reasonable way to approach the deer from any other direction. Long experience had proven that any stalk on a muley that appears to be a “slam dunk” is usually anything but, and this stalk proved to be no different.
Once at the bottom between the ridges, it became clear that more crawling than expected would be required, mainly because the curvature of the ground did not allow a clear view of the deer bedded above – a situation unnoticed from the ridge where we started. There also was far more open ground to cover after looking at it from a new angle. So over the course of roughly 30 minutes in the heat of the late morning sunshine, we inched uphill until the larger buck’s antler tips could be seen, then decided to wait out the deer with the rifle rested on a pack, hoping the bigger buck might get up and stretch or look for better shade.
Perhaps due to being a little impatient, our fidgeting, moving to get comfortable or whispering caught the attention of one of the smaller bucks, which stood from its bed, alerting the other two. Something wasn’t quite right, and they knew it. All three deer stood up to stare downhill in our direction.
Years of hunting with bows and rifles have proven over and again that bumping a deer from its bed (especially multiple deer) usually results in a missed opportunity. The deer usually bolt if they have recognized any pressure from hunters. But the larger of the three took a step into a slight clearing and toppled where it stood as a 180-grain bullet fired from a then-newly reintroduced Winchester Model 70 punched into its lungs. To this day I do not believe that stalk would have worked if the sagebrush had not been so spectacularly tall. Mule deer (and even western whitetails) often use sagebrush to hide from hunters, but the situation can be turned around by a careful rifleman with a little luck on his side.
In spite of many years of suffering from pollen and dust allergies in my youth, I learned early on to appreciate the pungent odor of sage. The plant’s stinky-sweet smell, particularly in the spring, reminds me of me of the past, mainly due to having spent so much time along the east slope of the Sierra Nevada and occasionally points farther east and north. In the months of October and November, sage-country excursions entailed chasing mule deer, chukars and valley quail.
Born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina, my father’s incessant wanderlust – to see what could be found over the next ridge or across the next state line, or just down at the end of the road – appeared to be buried in his DNA, and apparently mine, too. I distinctly remember making that first drive north through Wyoming and into Montana, and noticing pockets of sage along the highway. I was 16 years old at the time, gawking out of the pickup’s passenger side window, quite enthralled by how the sage often attracted large and small gatherings of pronghorn.
Of course, there were pronghorn grazing in grass pastures and in the middle of irrigated crop fields, but the sight of the tan-and-white bucks and does (and occasionally a mule deer or three) gathered out in the middle of what appeared to be an otherwise desolate pasture choked with knee-high sage has long since remained important. That drive is likely the singular reason I enjoy hunting pronghorn as much as I do – nearly above all other types of big game. Those early memories of Wyoming were rekindled last fall while in Utah, a state to which nonresident hunters flock each year to mainly hunt mule deer and elk in high country covered with quaking aspens and peaks that warm the heart of anyone who enjoys carrying around a rifle during the months that mark fall.
Of course, hidden in those aspens are sage-country mule deer bucks carrying massive antlers. Several years ago, for example, while hunting with Red Creek Outfitters, I watched as a close friend, who at the time worked for Weatherby, shot a dandy mule deer buck. The nontypical, velvet-antlered deer was bedded in an aspen draw and walked out into view on the last evening of the hunt with about a half hour of legal shooting light left. Parts of that property are covered in sage, and many canyons and draws are rarely hunted. I could smell the odor of sage on that buck.
Due partly to driving north or south through the state on Interstate 15, and partly due to the distraction of picturesque aspen glades and stunning mountain peaks, a lot of hunters don’t even recognize Utah’s sage habitat when they see it; and they can’t see much of it from the highway. Last fall I had the opportunity to hunt pronghorn with a Nosler Heritage .22 Nosler on a ranch not far from where my buddy shot his nontypical buck. Both properties are many miles from the interstate and butt right up against Wyoming at its southwest corner.
It was a pleasant surprise to see several coveys of sage grouse on the ranch; but the abundance of low-growing sage was not a surprise at all. While many ranchers would rather clear the sage to make way for pasture grass, this particular ranch purposefully manages the land to attain a wide diversity of native plant life, resulting in benefits for both cattle and game. As it turned out, I shot a nice buck near a confluence of sage and grassland pasture.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that Nosler Heritage rifles are stocked with what the company calls “fancy-grade,” oil-finished walnut with 20 lines-per-inch checkering, and are chambered for a number of popular cartridges. The .22 Nosler, introduced a year ago as a nifty little cartridge for AR-type rifles, is quite usable on pronghorn with the proper bullet, and the 55-grain E-Tip factory load exits the muzzle of my rifle’s 24-inch barrel at more than 3,400 feet per second. This velocity, along with the bullet’s monolithic construction, makes a reasonable cartridge/bullet combination, so long as a hunter has no great interest in shooting game at long range.)
A map of The Great Basin is a pretty good (though not complete) indicator of sage country, and parked in its middle is Nevada. Considered a lowly desert by many hunters who have not been outside of Las Vegas, even Nevada has great pockets of sage, and even sage grouse.
Not long before my father died, he lucked into a California sage grouse permit, and we hunted them in the Bodie Hills close to the Nevada state line, not far from where I learned to appreciate the sweet smell of sagebrush. I carried along a handy Ithaca SKB side-by-side 20-gauge double just in case we ran across a covey of quail or chukars, but all I flushed up from the waist-high sage was a pair of mule deer does. Dad eventually shot his grouse on a very windy day. The Bodie area is often cold and blustery during the fall, which is true of most sage-covered country.
Gray-green tangles of sage in Montana near Lewistown, where sage grouse more or less cohabitate with sharptails, pheasants and Hungarian partridge, have also provided a bit of shooting for the bigger grouse. The key is finding a mix of habitat where all three birds are comfortable. Hunt edges and open grasslands for the partridge and sharptails, and hunt nearly any watercourse for roosters. If a fairly sizable patch of sagebrush can be found, don’t be surprised if the large, lumbering birds flush in gray coveys of five or six.
Old notes indicate that friends and I have shot quite a few mule deer in sage country, perhaps more than have been shot high up on the sides of mountains covered in pine trees and aspens and elk. Just across the state line from Wyoming, I once watched from a distance as a friend put a bullet into a Montana mule deer. The buck was spotted while bedded in a wash with a doe. It was an old deer with tall, deeply forked antlers, and its best attempt to go unnoticed included abandoning the doe, or maybe the doe ditched the old loaner. Either way, it died on the side of small ridge covered in sage, not far from where it was spotted, and possibly not far from where it spent most of the year.
I remember thinking how interesting it was that, with the buck loaded in the back of a pickup, we headed back to camp in Wyoming and noticed comparatively little sage when crossing the state line on a back road. That must have been a bit of a fluke, because much of Wyoming – all of the West for that matter – is covered in sage, something I’ve been appreciative of most of my life.