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Rifle Magazine
March - April 2003
Volume 1, Number 2
Number 2
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Cover Photo Mike Barlow.
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Sing the praises of the wily whitetail all you want, but I’ll wager you’ll have more trouble collecting a big mule deer buck. Low numbers, limited range, overharvest of bucks in many areas and extreme shyness make mature muleys North America’s rarest big game animal. Even when you find a piece of the West that harbors a few, you’ll pay hell trying to catch one in your sights.

Your first hurdle is getting permission to hunt the big boys. Most states now severely limit tags in well-managed trophy buck units. To get one you usually have to enter a lottery. Your odds for winning are about the same as being selected as Liz Taylor’s next husband - possible, but not likely.

In some states like Idaho, you can still buy a general firearms buck tag, but you’ll be limited to a 7- or 14-day season in the middle of October when the woods are dry and bucks are hiding in thick forest below their open summer alpine habitats and above their open winter valley habitats. They don’t bugle like elk, don’t feed all day like black bears, don’t travel predictable routes from bedding to feeding areas like whitetails and rarely respond to calls. They could be on one mountain today and two mountains over tomorrow. Last, but certainly not least, mature bucks can be sprinkled as sparsely as one for every 10 square miles of habitat. Folks, it ain’t an encouraging picture.

What is encouraging are trophy management programs like Colorado’s Ranching for Wildlife, Utah’s limited entry trophy units and Idaho’s complicated restrictive harvest regimen. Thanks to these and similar regulations designed to limit the annual take of mule deer bucks, more of these uncommon animals are living long enough to grow massive antlers. You might not get a permit to hunt them every year, but when you do you’ll actually have something to hunt - like I did last November.

“There’s your buck. Lots of mass. He might go 28 inches,” outfitter Tom Tietz (Natural Adventures) announced seconds after he found the heavily antlered mule deer in his binocular. Tietz is an optimist and likes to put the best construction on everything, so I took his enthusiasm with a grain of salt. The buck was standing near the corner of an irrigated alfalfa field with three does. As my guide set up his spotting scope, I studied our quarry’s antlers through a 10x Swarovski binocular. They were heavy, indeed, but something was wrong with the forks.

“He seems to be short on tine length. I think the left front fork is crabbed,” I said, meaning the two end tines looked more like a crab’s short pincers than a tree’s long, forked branches. By now the deer were moving out of the field toward a weedy fence, but Tietz had the scope on them.

“No, that’s an extra tine sticking off,” the Colorado guide said. “He’s got some junk on that side. Take a look.” The buck paused just before leaping the fence as I studied him at 40x. He did indeed have an extra point or two on the left antler, one sticking several inches inside, but I clearly saw a short, left front fork. That would severely hamper his score. Nevertheless, he was a splendid specimen. His ladies led him into a narrow band of cottonwoods and willows along a dry stream course and unceremoniously bedded. One second his inspiring antlers were protruding above the grass, the next instant they were gone. “They’ll stay put all day unless someone spooks them, and that rancher isn’t letting anyone in,” Tietz said. “You wait at the edge of that alfalfa field, and I’ll bet you’ll get an easy shot tonight.”

I did too. He came out behind the does and a smaller buck we hadn’t seen. It was just 4 o’clock, and I’d only crawled into position along the weedy fence line 40 minutes earlier, sitting with my back against a cedar post, the Kimber Model 84M rifle propped atop aluminum shooting sticks, ready. The trim, responsive little rifle was chambered for the staid .308 Winchester, a bit out of fashion in these super magnum times, but with its sleek, drag-resistant 150-grain Swift Scirocco launched at 2,850 fps, it would shoot flat enough for a dead-on hold out to 300 yards. Holding just over a buck’s back line would suffice out to 400 yards, and the pillar-bedded rifle was shooting MOA, so I was confident.

I couldn’t believe such an old buck would expose himself so early in the afternoon within 1,000 yards of a county road, but there he was, antlers projecting beyond his wide-spread ears and substantial butt, a tempting target for poachers. I guessed the only reason he hadn’t been shot was the limited access in the lightly populated ranching district. All private property was posted, the ranch roads were regularly patrolled, and tags were extremely limited, so poachers and casual hunters must have been going elsewhere.

The wind was in my favor, and the deer were 250 yards away, so I had plenty of time to study them with the spotter turned as high as 60x. I estimated the buck’s antlers at about 25 inches square, a clean 4-point on the right with a 3-inch brow. The left antler sported a 3-inch sticker off the back tine and a 4-inch non-typical point protruding from the G-4 tine into the center of the rack. The left front fork, unfortunately, hadn’t grown any longer since morning. It probably wouldn’t measure more than 5 inches deep. This was the first day of my hunt.

The orange moon was glowing above the eastern horizon when Tom met me hiking up the county road. “Did you get him?” he asked as I climbed into the cab.

“Passed. Had him inside 300 yards for about an hour. Watched him feed, watched him bed. Memorized those antlers, but they just don’t score well. With the potential you’ve got around here, I’m not going to burn my tag just yet.”

That’s another stumbling block to tagging a trophy mule deer - shooting too soon. After years spent glassing spindly antlered three-year-old bucks, it’s difficult to pass up a heavily beamed four or five year old. Both age classes often sprout similar 24- to 25-inch high and wide antlers, but the added mass of the older racks makes them look wonderfully impressive. They are, but not when compared with the extremely rare 28-inch racks of even older bucks. A mule deer buck rarely grows his best antlers until his sixth or seventh year, and few live that long. Tietz was guiding in a hunting unit where some do. The ranch manager had told us about one such buck the evening before we started hunting.

“I don’t know how many inches wide it’a been, but it stuck way past his ears, way past his body when he walked away,” he’d said. “Right up there in that corn stubble.” The weathered cowman gestured south of the ranch house, past the big cottonwoods shading the buffalo grass lawn. “I could have hit him with a rock. He was laying beside the center pivot with a smaller buck and two does.” That sounded like the sort of old buck we were looking for.

Of course, we couldn’t find him in that corn - not the next morning nor next evening nor the morning after. I still-hunted the big, rolling pasture south of the harvested cornfield, peering carefully into deep draws, slipping into the north wind through virtual forests of waist-high yuccas, anticipating the explosion of a bedded buck at every step. Knowing that experienced mule deer bed with a long view, I glassed distant draws, creek bottoms and cut banks meticulously and repeatedly. I’d take two steps up a ridge and glass. Another step up and glass again, first the near ground that opened before me, then the middle and finally the far landscape. One step in elevation can often uncover a protruding antler. Two steps can alert a bedded buck and send him running. Often distant bucks, warned by a hunter’s bobbing head, slip away unseen and unsuspected. You never know what you missed.

Several years ago I was hunting Montana mule deer with Powder River Outfitters out of Broadus. My partner was a novice who, opening morning, ignored the admonition of our guide, slipped away and walked to the top of a ridge to see what he could see. And what he saw were two huge bucks that promptly bounced over the next ridge. When they again popped into view they were leaping a fence onto posted property 400 yards away. If that hunter had known enough to cross that ridge one step at a time, glassing newly exposed ground after each step, he’d have seen them before they saw him, and we’d both have been butchering instead of regretting.

Despite my slow and careful work in the Colorado yucca pasture, I found no deer - but a ranch-hand checking irrigation units had. “’Bout eight this morning I jumped him from that winter wheat east of the road,” the young cowboy said as our pickups idled side by side on a narrow pasture road, windows down.

“Across from the standing corn?” Tietz asked. “Heck, we glassed that at dawn and didn’t see a thing.”

“Well, he was laying in the kochia weeds right next to the pump. I’d a never seen him if he hadn’t stood up.

I’d say he was a good 28 inches wide. He’s not no 30 incher, but he’s a big one.” The infamous 30-inch muley is a western standard, like a 16-inch antelope or 6x6 elk. But spread alone does not a trophy make. Tine length is more significant. I’ve seen Boone & Crockett racks with 20-inch spreads. Nevertheless, a 28-inch spread with equal height, good mass and long forks should score 180 points or more. We wanted a look at this buck.

“Let’s give this pasture a quick look while we’re here,” I said the next morning before sunup as Tietz drove us toward the wheat field where the big buck was last seen. We stopped and scanned the yucca pasture south of the corn. Two does fed in the corn, half the size of the black yearling Angus foraging with them.

“There they are,” Tietz said. “Up that far draw. Two does and a small buck. I’ll bet those are the ones the big buck’s been traveling with.” We watched until all three deer dropped into a deep erosion cut. After 15 minutes they hadn’t come out. “Must have bedded.” We had to assume the big buck was with them, so we hiked out, slipped to the edge of the cut and tossed stones until the small buck bounced out at slingshot range, then the doe and fawn. The buck we wanted was not with them. “Man, that would have been a slam-dunk if he’d been there.”

What with broken terrain and strong winds in the West, mule deer are often easily stalked once spotted. That’s why glassing is such a popular tactic. But it takes determination and sharp optics to see the gray pelage of a deer bedded amid gray dirt, rocks and sage. My Powder River Outfitters guide, Paul, proved this to me time and time again when he announced the location of bucks I’d missed. “Right under that big rock just left of that lone cedar near the top of the butte,” he’d explain, and I’d glass and glass until I’d finally see a deer that had been lying in the open the whole time. Because so many of those deer lay with their backs against a hillside or rim rock, we were able to swing wide, get above them and stalk down within bow range. But it took experience and a sharp binocular or spotting scope to see them initially. I wouldn’t want to tackle the job with cheap glass.

Tietz and I glassed extensively during our Colorado high plains hunt, hiking up winding pasture drainages that bent and forked as they dipped toward the river valley below. Some were wide and shallow, forcing us to glass from afar. Others were tight and narrow, enabling us to ease along their rims for close looks into their rocky or brushy bottoms, but also forcing us to hike their entire lengths in order to see all hiding places. We found does, small bucks, medium bucks and even two splendid whitetail bucks, but no monster muleys.

We’d just finished working our third extensive draw of the afternoon and were heading toward the wheat field where the 28-inch buck had last been seen when we spotted several deer walking down a sagebrush ridge. We were within a mile of the alfalfa field where I’d passed up the 25-inch buck with the short left fork. “There’s your buck,” Tietz said. “That’s him. That’s the one you passed up.”

“Where?” I asked. The alfalfa field below us was clearly empty.

“Not down in the field. Up there in the breaks.” I finally had to lower my binocular and look where my guide was pointing. I still couldn’t see the deer against the low sun. “Right on the ridge. Second one over.” Finally I spotted the white nose and black forehead of a mule deer buck. It was closer than I’d expected, looking right at me, and clearly big. There was a smaller buck and three does with it. At first I thought it was the alfalfa field buck. It had similarly heavy antlers, the frame about 25 inches square and several non-typical points on the left antler. But then I realized the sticker points were different.

This was a different buck, and in my excitement of seeing it backlit against the lowering sun, its antlers rimmed with a halo, I made a classic mistake. When it ducked behind its ridge, I ran to a clearing in the sage, nestled into a sitting position and picked the buck up in the 2.5-8x Leupold scope when it again popped into view, now trotting along another sagebrush- and boulder-studded ridge crest. Concerned that he would drop out of sight, worried that after four days of searching I still hadn’t seen the mythical 28-inch buck and fearing that my luck would run out and someone else would shoot this buck, I fired just as the full sun shined into the scope.

Did I say I’d made a classic mistake? Well, maybe, if you consider the second-best scoring mule deer of my life a mistake. I’d shot a prime mule deer with the deep chest, almost black forehead and white face mask of a mature buck. His heavy antlers spread 24 1/2 inches and stretched the same distance in main beam length. The tines were thicker than most muley buck’s main beams, and several sticker points gave it wonderful character. It was an impressive looking animal and, for all I knew, bigger than the “28-inch buck” the ranchers had been seeing.

That’s another reality of mule deer hunting. Most bucks look huge at a distance, when running away and when observed by non-hunters who haven’t trained themselves to accurately estimate antler size. You must take this into consideration when analyzing reports of big deer. In my experience every “big buck” is worth checking out, but the majority prove to be average at best. You don’t want to pass up the best buck you’ve seen all season for a pig in a poke.

Exacerbating this is the mule deer’s tendency to migrate out of its summer haunts during the rut and winter migration. I’ve chased my share of will-o’-the-wisps that landowners had watched all summer but that had migrated to points unknown before the hunting season opened. Always remember that any deer can disappear overnight.

So how do you determine when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em? That’s a personal decision, but if you’ve a hankering for big antlers more than tender steaks, set your goals based on previous benchmarks. If you were fortunate enough to have tagged a 160-class 4x4 in a previous hunt, hold out for something 10 or 20 inches bigger; or perhaps an unusual non-typical.

Of course, you can always set your sights on a 180-class buck first time, every time. As long as you don’t mind adding another unused tag to your file, hold out for that one special monster. It’s your party.

Another approach is to thoroughly scout your hunting grounds at least two days before the season opens. You’ll know the average size of local bucks and maybe identify one or two top dogs. Then you can decide whether to hold out for them or hold them in reserve while you seek an even bigger specimen.

The easiest part of trophy mule deer hunting is choosing your rifle. The old standard is a .270 Winchester throwing a 130-grain bullet, but a .25-06 with a 120-grain pill will do just as well, and many veterans use a little .243 Winchester and a 100-grain projectile, although that is a bit weak past 300 yards.

Of course, the old .30-06 and .280 Remington are more than up to the task; ditto the short-action .308 Winchester and 7mm-08 Remington. I like short actions because of the light, trim, fast-handling and easy carrying rifles that can be built around them, like that Kimber Model 84M I used in Colorado. If accurate, such a tool is perfect for everything from woodland whitetails and elk to open-country antelope and sheep.

If you like the insurance of a magnum, consider the superb .257 Weatherby, which will flatten any mule deer out to 400 yards with little or no need for hold-over. Just be sure you check actual trajectory at those distances in the field. Any of the new short-action magnums, plus the old 7mm and .300 magnums, will more than suffice. Top them with a good 4-12x scope and fire them from a solid prone or sitting position - with bipod or shooting sticks - and you should be ready for the longest plains shooting. But you must practice extensively. When you look as long and hard as most of us must for a trophy mule deer, you don’t want to blow your chance.

The Original Silver Bullet
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