feature By: Gary Lewis | May, 18
This country drains down into the Umatilla River that empties into the Columbia. What little rain – 14 inches in an average year – that falls upon the ground seeps into the soil to nourish the dry-land wheat or runs down into the coulees and washes. Up near the mountains, the whitetail bucks hide in creek bottoms, while out in the foothills on those long rolling slopes, a hunter can find mule deer.
When we saw the first bunch, there were four: a good buck with antlers as wide as its ears, a second 4x4, a 3x3 and a forked horn. We guessed where they were headed and stalked to within 300 yards. The group had broken up, and the biggest had broken away. When we blew the stalk and the deer kicked up dust trails to the horizon, we began to look for the big one again.
My friend Bob Roberts, who has lived in the Columbia Basin his whole life, farming and hunting and fishing this dry country, rolled up in his white Ford. “There’s a buck bedded in the cutbank,” he said. “I can take you right to it.”
In our haste to get out the door that morning, Mikayla, who was about to turn 21 and should be keeping track of such things, left her rifle in the bunkhouse. It wasn’t until we saw the first deer that we realized she didn’t have the rifle. I handed her mine, a Montana Rifle Company bolt-action 6.5 Creedmoor. We dialed the scope down to 2x in case the action was up close.
We walked a narrow two-track along a deep slash in the ground. Under overhanging cutbanks, mule deer had carved out oval beds against the walls of the ditch. Fifteen feet across and 15 feet deep, the gorge was lined with tumbleweeds. It was a place where deer could find shelter from the summer sun and winter winds, and it was a place to get away from a flash flood. It was a thing to remember. These dark holes would be important when the wind started in a couple of days.
We walked by it first, down into sagebrush, and Bob stopped us. “We went by it. Let’s go back. He is probably still there.” We had indeed walked right past the deer, no more than 15 feet away. When we saw the buck now, its head was up, bedded right under the rim of the ditch where Bob had spotted it the first time. A healthy buck would jump and bound away, I thought. But this one didn’t budge from its bed in the tumbleweed-choked gulch.
What we did not know for sure at the time was that this deer was wounded. Shot through the right front leg. Injured, it had found a spot to hide.
At 77 yards, Mikayla slipped the rifle off her shoulder while I set up shooting sticks. My rifle was unfamiliar to her, but I hoped she would figure it out quickly. Mikayla worked the three-position safety to the middle detent and sighted on the white patch under the buck’s chin. It was a chancy shot. A lower hold would have been certain at this angle. I heard the safety click back and forth under her thumb, saw her finger tighten but the rifle didn’t fire. I thought to myself, Let ‘er buck, Mikayla!
Then the rifle bucked. The Nosler 129-grain bullet laced through the bottom of the throat patch, severed the spine and blew a puff of dirt out of the bank behind it.
Roberts put a rope around the buck’s chest, and together the two of us lifted it out of the gully. That was when I traced my finger in the week-old wound, touching the dried-out hole where a bullet punched out that front leg on opening weekend. It wasn’t the deer Mikayla had come to hunt, but it was the right deer to take.
The temperature was headed north of 70 degrees. Mikayla and I opened the hide along the spine, removed the backstraps, the legs, the neck muscle, flank steaks and tenderloins and put the meat on ice. An hour later we started up the hills again. Mikayla had a smile on her face and a swing in her step. This wasn’t her first buck, but it was her first mule deer. I made her carry the backpack.
Sometimes a hunter will see the big one and then the word spreads. Alan Roberts, Bob’s older brother, had seen it on opening day and missed it. Now Bob told us about it.
For the next four days that buck would haunt our conversations, and I resolved to take nothing less than a 4x4. In fact, there were two bucks we wanted. One was the biggest we had glimpsed that first morning, and the other that, Alan said, would dwarf it.
We consulted a map and set out to cover ground, looking into every canyon we could. Slipping down a long slope, Bob was the one that spotted the next deer. It spotted us and stood out of its bed. A quick glance showed it was a spike, nervous now. I sprinted to the edge of the bluff and threw the rifle up. A doe and four small bucks lit out of the small canyon.
Thirty minutes later, I kicked a ragged 3x3 out of its bed and could have shot it at 40 yards as it bounced up and over the top of a dike. We counted 17 bucks and considered it a good day when the sun was a bleeding red line on the western horizon and kicked off our boots at the door of the bunkhouse.
Let ‘er Buck!
The Eastern Oregon Regional Airport is located on a bluff that overlooks the city of Pendleton. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941, Pendleton Field was home to the 17th Bombardment Group tasked with protecting shipping lanes along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. One of the 17th’s most famous missions was the Doolittle raid in 1942 that shook Tokyo.
Many of the wartime buildings still stand. One of these, an old barracks, is now the home of Severe Brothers Saddlery, where Randy Severe carries on the tradition started by his dad and his uncle back in the 1950s. On the second floor is the Hotel de Cowpunch, which turns into a cowboy bunkhouse every September during the Pendleton Roundup.
It started in the 1950s when a cowboy couldn’t find a place to sleep and old Duff Severe offered him a spot to throw down his bedroll on a saddle shop bench. The cowboy took him up on the offer, and the next year four more cowboys showed up with sleeping bags. The next year there were 20 and the Severe brothers installed a kitchen, bought army surplus bunkbeds and fashioned a roping steer out of a bale of hay, rawhide and horns. Over the years, some of the top bull and bronc riders and team ropers in rodeo have laid their weary bones on those bunks and roped the steer on that dusty hardwood.
The walls are decorated with black-and-white 8x10s and autographs from Casey Tibbs, Ty Murray, Larry Mahan, Doc Severinsen, John Denver, Chris LeDoux and hundreds more. My friend Brian Davis slept there too, between rides atop wicked bulls at the Pendleton Roundup.
We didn’t burn daylight at the Cowpunch, but we did spend an hour with Randy Severe in the leather shop. He and his family have built saddles for ranchers, rodeo cowboys and presidents. A custom saddle uses the hide from 1½ cows and takes at least 80 hours to make from start to finish.
They say a saddle is the easiest thing to find, but the hardest thing to keep. Severe had two trees on the stands and a lot of stitching to do, but he wasn’t too busy to pull down a battered Martin guitar given him by Bonnie Guitar. Finger picking, he sang a song about a South Dakota cowboy Casey Tibbs, who was born to buck. Casey, in his purple chaps, was the one who gave the Hotel de Cowpunch its name.
I always tell myself, The buck I’m after is still there after Opening Day. For that reason, I seldom hunt the first weekend. It was the seventh day of the season when I got a second look at the second-biggest buck in the area.
Twenty-year-old Tanner Roberts carried a Ruger and a good knowledge of these deer, having trailed along with his dad, uncles and a brother since he was old enough to keep up. At midmorning, tired and footsore, we started down a long slope after glassing the grassy hills ahead. I wanted to look into a side canyon and made a hard right turn. The rest of the group followed and that was the moment the buck jumped.
I had taken a range measurement on that slope a minute before and knew the buck was 450 yards away when it made its second bound. I immediately recognized it as the buck we had seen leading the group of four that first morning. With every bounce, the deer changed direction, and it didn’t stop to look back. When it crested the top of the ridge it was 600 yards away, going like a tumbleweed in a blue norther. We looked at each other and shook our heads.
Sixty seconds passed and we had started to walk again when we heard a shot. And then another shot. And another. Twenty minutes later we walked down into the valley where the 23-inch 4x4 had run into Alan Roberts with his bolt-action .270 Winchester and a pocketful of Nosler Partitions.
That left one big buck on these hills. We might look into every canyon and never see it; walk down every gully and peer into every hollowed-out deer bed and never kick it out. In my memory I could see that smaller 4x4. I would take one or the other or go home empty handed.
On one morning over a cup of coffee, I told Mikayla she could stay back, take the morning off. She said she wanted to help us find the big buck and help pack it out if possible; a girl a dad can count on. We looked at spikes, spike-forks, forkhorns and 2x3s. I counted 10 bucks on the second to the last day, and on the last day we went back to where we started.
They were there again, feeding away. The 4x4 was on the right, a bit past 300 yards. We spotted them from the truck, backed up, then coyoted-in with the wind in our noses. I could smell them. With the rifle, my thumb behind the safety, I took the point, Sam followed, then Mikayla, then Bob Roberts. All with good optics.
Somehow we had educated those two deer in the last five days. They gave us the slip.
How two bucks in open country can disappear is a mystery akin to a rooster pheasant’s propensity to turn invisible in a field of stubble. We combed the hills back and forth, first with our binoculars and then with our boots.
Based on what I saw on those foothills in the breaks of the Umatilla, there could be a bunch of 2½-year-old 4x4s there next season. There will be a decent 3x3, a good 4x4 tumbleweed buck and a nearly mythical 30-inch, heavy-beamed 4x4 to haunt our dreams at the Hotel de Cowpunch.
Oregon Mule Deer FYI
Rifle deer hunts in eastern Oregon are issued through a lottery system. The application deadline is May 15, with drawing results by the end of June. Nonresident hunters must buy a license ($160.50) when applying for the tag (application fee is $8). If successful in the drawing, hunters must purchase the tag ($414.50) before the season opener. The season lasts 12 days, starting on the last Saturday in September or the first Saturday in October.
For information, visit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife site at www.dfw.state.or.us. Call 503-947-6100. For maps, call Bend Mapping at 541-389-7440 or visit www.bendmapping.com.