feature By: Jason Books | July, 18
Crawling between stands of sagebrush while weaving around patches of dried and noisy ceanothus (lilac), I made my way toward a saddle between two hills. Far below were a pair of mule deer bucks, both larger than any others I had ever seen during hunting season. Now I was trying to close the gap, and it was as if I could already see myself wrapping my notched tag around one of those wide and tall antlers. While making my way around the last sage, however, I came to another area of “buck brush.” The ceanothus patch was large, and after a hot and dry summer, the fall rains had not reconstituted the leaves enough to keep them from crackling as I pushed through. Knowing I couldn’t get any closer, my backpack was used as a rest to take the long shot.
Mule deer are tough animals to hunt in the alpine backcountry or in foothills covered with Douglas fir, aspen and ponderosa pine, but the most challenging environment to hunt them in is the wide-open plains and sage-covered rolling hills. Mule deer live in a very large range from the southern portions of the Yukon all the way to Sonora, Mexico, and from the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas on the west far into the Great Plains to the east. As such, these large-bodied and wide-antlered deer can be hunted in a variety of conditions and landscapes. Most mule deer hunters also know that high-mountain bucks often sport thick, tall antlers while those that have adapted to open country often sport wide, thin antlers. Some of the widest antlers on mule deer bucks are found south of the border in Mexico.
The plains to the east in North and South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska – and West Texas – offer good hunting. Traditional mule deer states such as Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana offer both high-country and open-country hunting opportunities. California, Oregon and Washington also offer mule deer hunts and some large bucks – some in the high country and others in deserts where cactus can cause a few sore knees. Because the deer are mostly a migratory animal, some of the best hunts occur late in fall and early winter when they have moved out of the high country and down into the vast, open lowlands. Some mule deer stay behind and become “localized,” living their entire lives in the arid sage and rolling grass country.
Several years ago, when I was living in southern Idaho, a friend who grew up in Texas but was living in Idaho wanted to go deer hunting. He had never seen a mule deer before but hunted South Texas whitetails as a kid. Mid-October temperatures in southern Idaho can range from near freezing in the morning to t-shirt weather by midafternoon. That fall had been dry and hot, so for opening day it was decided we would hike up to a ridgeline and look over vast, sage-covered hills that led up and out of the south fork of the Boise River. We spotted groups of deer but no bucks that were worth going after. By lunchtime the desert was hot, and we were thirsty. Taking a break back at the truck I looked over a hillside and noticed a small green aspen tree surrounded by grass. It was a natural spring and was well up the mountain near the top of the ridgeline. Mule deer like to be perched above any possible threats, and since the afternoon thermals were blowing steadily uphill, I figured any deer that would have used that spring in the early morning might be bedded nearby.
We decided to spend the afternoon doing a little “South Texas deer drive” for an Idaho mule deer. The plan was to hike up the backside of the hill so the thermals would carry over the top of the ridge and away from any deer by the spring. Then we would work our way down the open slope, keeping the spring between us, and jump any bedded deer. Parking the truck at the bottom of the hill, we hoped this would keep any deer within eyesight interested in the truck instead of paying attention to us.
Two hours later we made our way around the hill and to the top. We then split 100 yards apart while making our way down the slope. Nearing the spring, my Texas friend began yelling that he had jumped a buck. The mule deer was stotting downhill, weaving between the tall sage. Then, like many mule deer do when they have no idea what is going on (the buck never saw or smelled us), it stopped to look back at what made the noise that awoke it from its midday nap.
One shot and the buck was down, and a Texan had just got his first mule deer. I kept an eye on the buck and directed my friend toward the downed deer. Once he made his way to the buck I headed over. A nice 4x4 muley lay at his feet, the antlers thin and wide, unpolished and dust covered. This buck probably lived most of its life right there on that mountain side.
Early-season, open-country mule deer are one of the hardest animals to hunt, and they are a very rewarding quarry. However, most people try to draw a tag for the wintering mule deer hunts. This is because the deer often bed in the open to stay warm on a sunny, cold day. Add in the fact that migration has pushed more deer down into the low country, and it is not uncommon to find 20 or more bucks in a single day. Deer are vulnerable during the late season, so most states offer a limited draw system for tags. Each year I try to return to a unit in Idaho that offers a late-season permit, and I also put in for tags in my home state of Washington, which has hunts in early November.
Mule deer spend the winter feeding on sagebrush, ceanothus and grasses. They also browse on aspen saplings and other plants. They need a lot of calories, and that means they are out feeding most of the day. The rut also occurs in late fall and early winter after the migration has occurred. Bucks roam hillsides looking for receptive does. For the hunter that draws one of the coveted late tags or has a general season hunt during this time, it is beneficial to find a high vantage point and glass. A good binocular and spotting scope are essential tools for any hunter, but in open country they are a must. South-facing open hillsides covered in cheatgrass make it easier to spot deer, but stalking them is almost impossible.
Using the terrain is about the only way a hunter can get close enough to deer living in open country. The two bucks I spotted early in the morning had fed their way down to a bench. Now they lay with their backs to each other. The only way I could get closer was to sneak through some sage and avoid the large patches of noisy buck brush. On the far left side of the basin was a saddle, and I could see the tops of evergreen trees on the backside of the ridgeline. If I could make it to that saddle, I could cut to the backside and close the distance to within shooting range then use the sage again to set up a rest on my backpack and take one of the two mature bucks.
After I came around that last sage, and seeing the large island of ceanothus, I was stuck. There simply was no way to make it to the saddle without crossing the noisy groundcover in the wide open. These bucks knew this, and I fell right into their safeguard. Placing the rifle on the backpack between my knees while sitting on the ground, I steadied to shoot. The shot was made in desperation, and the bucks stood up and looked behind them (often a sign that a hunter shot high) and then proceeded toward their escape route to my right. As the largest buck crested the far ridgeline, its antlers silhouetted against the skyline. I felt a sense of failure and awe at the same time.
Years later I continue to play that failed stalk through my mind. Each time I see a mule deer buck in the wide open, my mind wanders back to that day. We learn more from failures than we do successes. Last fall I was once again in southern Idaho, hunting along the breaks of a river. Open hillsides of cheat grass and sage rose out of the steep drainages. Mule deer had made their way out of the high country and into the open lowlands.
Looking over a group of does, I noticed that a buck stood prominently above them. A lava rock and basalt shale hillside with a tall rock spire at the top was home to the group of deer. Chukars cackled from above, and I could hear the deer as they fed across the open slope, stepping on loose rocks and shale. The day before, a band of bighorn sheep were on the same hillside. As the early morning sun rose, I thought it was the group of sheep, but my binocular revealed they were mule deer. The buck wasn’t especially large, but it was mature, thin horned and stained a darker color, leading me to believe it lived in the timber. I should have let that buck pass, but as it stood prominent against the light brown and golden hillside, I couldn’t turn down another open-country stalk opportunity.
Using a deep cut strewn with boulders and shale slides, I made my way toward the deer. Coming out of the draw there was a large boulder to angle toward. The deer were feeding, and each time one picked up its head I stopped and tried to act like another large rock. Staying low and crouching, I walked slowly toward the deer when they put their heads back down. The rut was helping as the deer were only concerned with feeding and breeding. Closing the gap to less than 100 yards, instinct took over and I snuck in close. All the sudden, the buck’s antlers didn’t matter; it was about the stalk, the chase, the hunt, and this time I had done it. The two big bucks of years ago flashed through my mind, reminding me of failure. The crack of the rifle revealed success.