For many hunters their season ends with the close of rifle. Honestly by then we’ve had plenty of hunting and sleeping in sounds about right. BUT, then you take a few days off and you instantly wish you were back out there. About three years ago we looked into extending our season and late season archery hunting seemed like just the ticket. Rutting mule deer bucks pushing out of their summer hideouts would cover hillsides for miles right!? Not so quick bud.
That first year was definitely one where we learned a lot. Deer were plentiful but finding a buck pushing into the 150-160″ range was difficult. In a week we saw two and made stalks but the steep country and crunchy snow made life tough for bowhunting. Swirly winds sealed our fate and we went home empty handed but ready to tackle year 2. The following year we put in a little more time researching areas and decided to move to a new unit. This time we had more realistic expectations but also knew that finding a true 200″ deer could definitely happen. With some snow moving in we were able to find more mature bucks although navigating the public/private landscape made approaching some deer almost impossible.
As a hunter new to the area most of the first 4-5 days really felt like 90% scouting and 10% hunting. After starting to hone in on some of the habits of deer moved in on the winter range we decided to hike up onto a ridge that would allow us to glass into a couple key basins that the deer used to bed in. Sure enough that morning a few hours after the sun was up we found a big buck slowly feeding up through the juniper. He was a stud. His gait was characterized by a solid limp and I’m sure he’d had a long night chasing does and fighting with other bucks.
We were able to bed him and watch him eventually fall asleep, head rested in the snow in front of him. With the snow frozen from cold overnight temps we had to wait till the sun heated up the west facing hillside. I finally decided on a long zig-zag path that would eventually lead us to within 40-60 yards of his position. We weren’t sure what the wind would be like on the other side but he was the kind of deer we came on this hunt for and there was no way we weren’t going to give it a shot. Two hours later we hit the last patch of open dirt and now it was snow and over 80 yards to go before we would be within shooting range of his last position. We slowly crunched through the snow. I figured there was no way the buck hadn’t spooked by now as it was very loud. As I slowly crept ahead I saw antlers ahead amidst the thick juniper. It was him and he was only 40 yards away. My heart went from 0 to 100 in an instant. The bucks rack shifted back and forth a few times but he never spooked. After about ten minutes of observing him he stood up. I could see his chest but branches made for an obstructed view of his vitals and there wasn’t any ethical shot. He slowly began to feed downhill. As soon as he was out of sight we looped ahead of him and waited. After twenty minutes we hadn’t seen nor heard anything and again figured he was gone. We went back up the hill and grabbed the packs. I was curious as to what he had done and wanted to go follow his tracks to learn more. Sure enough as we got to about 30 yards of his last position I saw horns again. Apparently he had only fed a short distance and then re-bedded. We again were pinned with no shot. We were so, so close but eventually the wind betrayed us and he bolted. Game over.
The next morning we returned to the area but this time a few ridges over. We watched another great buck chase does and fend off a smaller but still impressive buck. As sun began to rise the deer began their daily route back up to the juniper covered hillside. I knew two good bucks were in the group and we quickly shifted into position. After a few minutes I saw a doe 70 yards to my right. They’d picked a trail one away from the one we were sitting on. The big buck hit a gap at 70 but it was too long of a shot to make quickly and they eventually hit our wind. One buck spooked and one still to go. We began to creep down the hill. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement. It was a doe being pushed by a buck. I crouched down and saw 4 points on one side through the juniper as the buck nudged the doe once again. The doe was on to me and bounced up the hill. The buck wasn’t quick as keen. He stepped up into my opening at 20 yards and my arrow flew true. He bolted and I thought I’d shot the smaller of the the two big bucks. Emotions were high. After a half hour we began tracking. A short ways later I saw tan in the snow. As I walked up on my buck I had a mix of emotions. I was ecstatic that I’d been able to fill my tag on a 4×4 on such a difficult hunt but I was disappointment that it was a young deer and not one I’d shoot if I’d been able to identify him better prior to the shot. Lesson learned.
We took a few photos and then proceeded to quarter him up and make the relatively short trek back to the truck. Year Two had ended in success but given the circumstances of the prior day it felt as if we had unfinished business. We’d surely be back next year.
Our original plan for year 3 was to come down for the end of the season. When a good friend wanted to join we shifted the dates to accommodate his schedule. We would now be hunting the opening week of the season. We knew there hadn’t been much snow but we’d give it a shot. When we showed up the day before the opener we were sorely disappointed to see a rifle cow hunt ending with guys on 4-wheelers everywhere. This pressure would surely make the big bucks extremely hard to find and with no snow it was shaping up to be a tough hunt. Sure enough 4 days later and we’d only seen small two and three year old bucks and many, many does.
With our film permits limiting where we could hunt in the unit we went back to where we’d seen a few good bucks in the past. We turned up a nice 4×4 and proceeded to hunt him over the course of the rest of the hunt. Each morning we could find him somewhere out among about 30-50 does and small bucks. They’d eventually fill their bellies and start working back up the mountain. Cutting them off was a guessing game and trying to avoid all the other deer proved to be a challenge. We got close but his daily routine never had any pattern to it. With a hundred elk in the area it was a zoo some mornings and keeping tabs on this buck proved to be quite the task.
The weather was warm and sunny one minute and cold and blistery the next. We covered country mid day hoping to find other bucks. We went miles in to the nastiest areas only turning up does with little bucks. The snow wasn’t present in the mountains and the big bucks hadn’t pushed into their wintering area. Our timing was off and we re-focused on our target buck.
Again we relocated him. His general pattern was there but there was no consistency in his path back to bed each day. One day it would be a 1000 yards different from the day previous. As we neared the end of our hunt we found him honed in on a hot doe. It was just two of them and there were far less other deer in the area that morning. As we moved to cut them off they shifted their path at the last minute, rounding the hillside away from our position. We looped ahead and picked them up again. They were now in the bottom and we watched from above. They moved slowly and worked up into a shaded and snow covered face. After a short time the two bedded. It wasn’t the best area but it appeared I might be able to make a huge loop and get behind and above them. If the snow was soft enough in the shade I might be able to close the distance. It was now or never and again I set off on a stalk that we hoped would end with an arrow airborne. Tune in on December 5th to see the trailer for the film and December 12th to watch the full film and see if I can fill my tag on a mature mule deer buck.