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 didnt see a
Well, he was laying in the
kochia weeds right next to the pump. Id a never seen him if he hadnt stood up.
Id say he was a good 28 inches
wide. Hes not no 30 incher, but hes 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. Ive 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.
Lets give this pasture a
quick look while were 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. Ill bet those are the ones
the big bucks been traveling with. We watched until all three deer dropped
into a deep erosion cut. After 15 minutes they hadnt 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 hed been there.
What with broken terrain and strong
winds in the West, mule deer are often easily stalked once spotted. Thats 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
Id missed. Right under that big rock just left of that lone cedar near the top
of the butte, hed explain, and Id glass and glass until Id 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 wouldnt want to tackle the job with cheap
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.
Wed 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 Id passed up the 25-inch
buck with the short left fork. Theres your buck, Tietz said.
Thats him. Thats 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 couldnt 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 Id 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
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
searching I still hadnt 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 Id made a classic
mistake? Well, maybe, if you consider the second-best scoring mule deer of my life a
mistake. Id 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 bucks 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.
Thats another reality of mule
deer hunting. Most bucks look huge at a distance, when running away and when observed by
non-hunters who havent 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 dont want to pass up the best buck youve seen all season for a pig
in a poke.
Exacerbating this is the mule
deers tendency to migrate out of its summer haunts during the rut and winter
migration. Ive 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? Thats a personal decision, but if youve 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 dont mind adding
another unused tag to your file, hold out for that one special monster. Its your
Another approach is to thoroughly
scout your hunting grounds at least two days before the season opens. Youll 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
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
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 dont want to blow your