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    Riverbank Muleys

    Hunting the Columbia Breaks

    Large benches of fertile soil along the Columbia River are perfect for apple orchards and mule deer.  Chad and Kyle Hurst admire a mature mule deer that fed onto an open slope from the sage bottomlands.
    Large benches of fertile soil along the Columbia River are perfect for apple orchards and mule deer. Chad and Kyle Hurst admire a mature mule deer that fed onto an open slope from the sage bottomlands.
    The early morning climb up out of the river canyon warmed my body, but when I exhaled the breath was instantly frozen. Shadows stayed long in this open land of the Columbia River breaks and as the sun finally crested over the ridge, we could see three deer across a deep ravine. Peering through a spotting scope revealed that two does and a young buck were up and feeding. The distinctive grey bodies and white rump patches showed them to be mule deer, common in the breaks above the second largest river in the continental U.S.

    The area we were hunting was public land surrounded by private holdings, making it an “island” of refuge for the deer. Steep canyon walls reached up toward the plateau, and at the bottom was the river. Along large benches of sediment deposited thousands of years ago are several apple orchards. Apple orchards are great for deer as the tall summer grasses and frequent water spraying from sprinklers means cool evenings during the hot months. As fall comes near the apples sweeten and the deer aren’t shy about their sweet tooth. But the activity of fall harvest chases the deer out of the orchards and into the arid lands above, where sage brush grows tall and offers shade and protection.

    At the top of the gorge are the flatlands of the Palouse with rich, fertile soil that grows wheat. The “Great Flood” carried silt deposits from the immense Rockies of central Idaho and Montana as a large lake formed in eastern Washington. This region holds vast tracts of private land and plenty of feed for the mule deer that live here. Predators are mostly coyotes, as the deer thrive in wide open country with very little food for black bears and no cover for mountain lions. Central Washington is not often thought of as a “trophy” area, mostly because the deer don’t sport record book antlers and the hunting season is short, just nine days in mid-October.

    This brief early fall hunting season is why the deer are found in the scablands and steep hillsides, both covered in sage. Apple orchardists begin to pick the apples and once the sun starts to rise until it is well beyond the far western horizon, crews are moving ladders, driving tractors and placing wood bins in between the rows of apple trees. Above the ridge, wheat farmers are shucking wheat with combines that have powerful lights and will use the cool nights to get the wheat harvested. During the day the bare fields are disked and then planted with winter wheat, which sprouts just before the cold winds arrive and cover the ground with a protective blanket of snow all winter, allowing for a jump start come spring thaw.

    Chad Hurst with a dandy mule deer buck that was spotted bedded under sage during mid-day.
    Chad Hurst with a dandy mule deer buck that was spotted bedded under sage during mid-day.
    So, the mule deer here only have one place to go, and that is the steep hillsides above the mighty Columbia River. This is land where no one can farm. Access can be difficult as the top and bottom are often private land. Hunters who get permission from both the wheat farmers and the apple orchardists can park at the top and hike down the many slopes to an awaiting vehicle, but with no roads connecting the upper Palouse with the highway that meanders along the river banks, a hunter could be looking at a 60-mile one-way trip to get your drop off vehicle. Most deer hunter find a section of public land near the river or are invited to one of the many apple orchards, where they park and begin the steep hike up the rocky hillsides above.

    It was opening morning of deer season when Chad and I found ourselves parked at the edge of the orchard. We knew we had to climb up the steep canyon walls and the afternoon sun would warm the cool air along the river and winds would come upward in a thermal, carrying our scent up to the bedded mule deer. The morning hunt would be our best chance, as the deer wouldn’t be able to smell us and we could gain enough elevation to get within shooting distance before the warm afternoon winds started.

    Parking at the edge of an orchard, the headlights illuminated the first rows of trees, saplings in a newly planted orchard. Three or four of these small trees had been reduced to wood shavings and lacked any branches. A buck had made quick work of them while stripping its velvet a few weeks earlier and destroying the trees. Now I understood why the orchardist was excited when he offered us access to the edge of the orchard and the slopes above.

    The three deer we first spotted at daylight fed over the ridge and continued upslope. So we did the same and hiked farther up. Finally coming to a small plateau and a place to glass across a steep canyon, two more deer were spotted, both bucks. Using his pack for a rest, Chad picked out one of the bucks across the canyon. It would be a long shot, but luckily the thermal winds hadn’t started, so he made an educated guess on holdover and didn’t worry about crosswind. The buck jumped at the shot and then stumbled before it fell and rolled down into the ravine.

    A flat-shooting rifle is preferred by hunters in this region. Chad shoulders a .270 Winchester and I had my 7mm Remington Magnum. Shots on the open slopes can be several hundred yards but once you make it to the benches above, the stalking game begins. Tall sage allows a hunter to close the distance, but it also allows for concealment and the deer often jump up right in front of the hunter.

    Mule deer are known for their “stotting,” a high-jumping run where they spring on all four hoofs at the same time. They can cover distance quickly, but the main reason why they use this mode of escape is so they can

    A great mule deer buck taken in thick sage brush during a mid-day hunt.
    A great mule deer buck taken in thick sage brush during a mid-day hunt.
    see any obstacles ahead and dart between brush. As well, it makes it nearly impossible for a predator to time the jumping and grab a hold of the fleeing deer. But mule deer are also notorious for that “last look,” where they will run up a ridge and as they reach the top they stop and look back. This is why most mule deer hunters prefer to use flat shooting cartridges – for that potential last chance at a fleeing buck.

    Looking for a second deer, a white patch was spotted dodging between tall sage over the crest of the hill. Knowing the buck was still above us and had nowhere to go, we made our way to Chad’s deer. Piled up against a tall sage, the deer was folded over and held from any further tumbling toward the river bottom. It wasn’t a big buck by any means, but it had more than the required three points on a side per Washington’s mule deer regulations.

    Neither Chad nor I are “trophy” hunters, and through the years we have taken a fair share of mature muley bucks but never passed on a legal buck, especially one that has been feeding on apples. After helping to get the buck into a position to be field dressed, I decided to hike up after the other deer.

    It was a slow climb as the canyon walls steepen the farther you get from the river. Hundreds of years of erosion have washed any of the fertile Palouse soil down to the streambed of the river, exposing basalt cliffs and large slopes of shale slides. A fall would mean broken bones and torn skin as you tumble toward the flowing water several hundred feet below. Thankfully, the land has eroded to form several benches, much like a cascade of rocks and sage lands. I knew that the buck would be up on the next bench because it didn’t know where the shot came from

    Two hunters drag a mule deer buck up out of a coulee filled with sage above the Columbia River breaks.
    Two hunters drag a mule deer buck up out of a coulee filled with sage above the Columbia River breaks.
    and was alarmed but did not sprint away.

    An hour after Chad had taken his buck, I finally made it to the bench. Creeping over the last few feet, the terrain leveled out and the sage hills turned into brush that was as tall as I was. A doe and fawn were only 30 yards away and feeding. Then the buck’s antlers appeared on the other side of the sagebrush. It had made it to the bench and fed in the early morning sunshine.

    Luckily, that buck hadn’t bedded down yet. It’s easy to walk right past deer in the thick brush. Taking a few steps around the sage the buck looked up as I stood, holding my rifle in an offhand shooting stance and finished my hunt. This buck was the same age class and size as Chad’s and would make the orchardist happy to have it gone so it would no longer tear up any more apple trees.

    After field dressing the buck, I began the tedious task of dragging it down the hillside. Often the buck would slide and pull me with it, but I made sure to keep it from rolling and bruising. Halfway down the slope I met back up with Chad, who was enjoying the view and having lunch. Neither of us where in a hurry to lose the elevation we had gained in the early morning light. The mid-day thermals blew and cooled us as we pulled on our deer. Once back at the truck, the bucks were loaded up and we slowly drove past the workers as they put out apple bins and drove tractors. A sense of accomplishment came over us as we knew that we helped the orchardist and filled out deer tags on opening day.

    More than once we have returned during the fall harvest and climbed the breaks above the Columbia River. The deer always seem to be in the sagebrush, taking refuge in the sage islands that provided cover as the thermal winds drift upward. Chad brought his daughter Marissa to the arid slopes when she had drawn an “any deer” youth permit the next fall. Taking

    Brian Chlipala shot this mule deer buck as it fed along a ridgeline in the sagebrush.
    Brian Chlipala shot this mule deer buck as it fed along a ridgeline in the sagebrush.
    advantage of the numerous forked-horn bucks that are off limits for the general season tag holders, she quickly filled her permit on a young buck. The deer was feeding in the sage along a large coulee that carried spring runoff down the open slopes to the large river below.

    Sometimes the hunt lasts a week, or even to the last minute, and sometimes it ends before lunchtime on the first day of the season. Either way, hunting along the breaks of the Columbia River holds special relevance for those that climb up the basalt cliffs to the dry lakebed of the in search of a mule deer buck.


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