Guiding for Mule Deer on the Big Three Zero

We had tracked this big mulie buck for four hundred yards from the shot. Zero sign of blood on the fresh snow. The trail was now steep shale rock and just kept getting worse. Stan and I decided to sit down to catch our breath.

“You know Stan, I woke up this morning and realized it was my 30th birthday”.

He came back, “No shit? Happy birthday”.

We were in the 3rd day of Stan’s mule deer hunt. A blizzard had rolled in on the 1st day and still hadn’t taken a break. We had been hiking and riding through a couple feet of snow at altitudes from 8,500 ft. up to 11,000 ft. Visibility had been reduced to 20ft or less at times. The deer hunting had been good but we hadn’t found any of the big deer I had scoped during my scouting. Then we ran into this monster.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else on my birthday.” I told Stan.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The first thing I do as a guide is attempt to understand the hunter’s expectations and understand their capabilities. Almost all hunters want to harvest a 160+ scoring buck. A reasonable expectation for our area in the late season. The hunter being able to cover ground on horseback and on foot is the variable that is most indicative of whether that expectation should be lower or could be higher.

Stan had dropped by our place in the summer. We had chatted about his history hunting sheep and he clearly had some comfort with horses. He was the type of guy that took care of himself, and I knew he would show up in good shape for the hunt. I made a mental note to focus on scouting the higher and steeper country for this hunt. He could take it.

The high country is a bitch to hunt in November, but it holds the best deer in our area all the way through the rut. That is, if the snow allows. In 2014, the snow sure as hell allowed. All the way until the 1st week of November the high country was open up to timberline. I had focused on scouting aspen groves and steep, secluded south-facing slopes from 9,500ft up to 11,000ft. By the 2nd week in November, I had a half dozen decent bucks figured out. All 4×4’s. The majority would score between 140 and 165. However, one of the deer was a monster. Regardless of the fact he would score well, almost anybody would consider him a trophy. He was roughly 30 inches wide with misleading dark horns that give the illusion of massive, forearm-level thickness.

These big deer are not dumb. Big mule deer are wired to have more variable daily schedules in the fall than their smaller counterparts. They are smart enough to rely on the dark timber, and they know the dangers of sticking to a daily routine. Like many big deer before him, I had seen this wide buck in several different drainages. I’d even seen him hanging out with several of the smaller bucks, independently on different days. He never ate or slept in the same place.

Then four days before the hunt, I had a break through. Not only did I find the wide buck, but I found him with girls. Focusing on sex kills more mule deer than anything else. They spend more time out of the timber during daylight and they become patternable because the does are more localized. In addition to the does, the wide buck was hanging out with one smaller buck, a decent 4×4. The area was steep country, a hair below 11,000 ft.

On the first day of the hunt, I decided to do a drop-and-hike hunt with Stan. We rode for 1.5 hours in the morning dark to the spot I’d seen the wide buck. My fellow guide, Jacob, headed down the mountain to basecamp with the horses. The country was too steep for horses. Besides, not having the additional noise and scent of stock makes for better hunting. Within 30 minutes we were into deer.

A little forked horn was standing 150 yards above us moving to his left. His ears were ticking around and he wasn’t paying attention to us. It was clear there were other deer around. A couple minutes later, a larger buck sky lined himself directly west of us. It doesn’t matter what size they are, it is stunning when a buck pops up on a rocky ledge at 11,000ft above a massive drainage. This buck was a decent sized 4×4 and I recognized him immediately. It was the buck I’d seen with the wide buck a few days before. He was young, but he had uniquely high horns with his left side noticeably taller than its counterpart. The larger deer walked up to the smaller buck and nuzzled him. I assumed we were in for a little fight, but the smaller buck just tagged along as the 4×4 cruised off. This early in the hunt, Stan decided to pass on this deer.

Stan and I hiked down the mountain, sitting down to spot for 15-20 minutes at a time. My hope was that we would run into the larger buck below with the does. After dropping 1,500 ft and only seeing some smaller bucks, I starting to get a sinking feeling. That wide buck was up higher. Deteriorating weather made the feeling worse. I wasn’t sure if Stan and I would have the chance to safely get back up into that high country over the next four days.

On day two, we woke up to white out conditions with bone crushing low temperatures. The upside was if we saw a deer, he would be close enough to beat to death with a hammer. We waited for conditions to clear up a bit and horseback hunted our way up the mountain. We got into several medium sized deer on the way up, but when we peaked over a crest at around 9,600 ft there was no way we could continue. The sky was black and snow was dumping.

We dropped down to the valley floor where we would do the only thing we could do, hunt in some lower country I hadn’t scouted. The one hang up was a water crossing. These are usually no big deal, but the cold snap changed things. First, water is inherently more dangerous at these temperatures. With an outside temperature of -5, it doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in if you are drenched in 33 degree water. Falling off becomes a lot more than an ego hit. Second, crossing a river that is going into freeze-up can even make an experienced horseman cringe. The edges are starting to form thick ice that the horses have to break through and mid-stream ice blockages cause unexpected deep spots. It is unnerving. Stan and I made it through and within seconds both of our horses were carrying 10+lbs of ice on their legs. I was confident that Stan would be fine, but I could sense a little discomfort as we crossed. It wasn’t a bad thing. Stan saw this challenge as an augmentation to the adventure.

On day 3, back to my birthday, we had a break in the weather. We both agreed that this was our opportunity to go back up to the high terrain of the first day. With the sub-zero temps, I decided we would ride up and hunt in day light. The previous two cold and snowy days might have pushed something down. On the ride up, we spotted several decent bucks that were chasing does. No monsters, so we continued. We tied up the horses before a meadow and I told Stan, “Let’s hunt around this meadow on foot and then slip off the south facing slope where we saw those deer the first day.” For whatever reason I immediately changed my mind. “Actually let’s just peak at that slope right now”.

As sure as water’s wet, my first glance down that slope revealed a slammer of a mulie buck right out in the open with his tongue hanging out. “That is a big buck, Stan. Shoot it!” My composure as a guide vanished, and I was excited as hell. I didn’t even need to look through the binoculars to know that it was the big wide buck. The problem was he was completely caught up chasing the does he was with. I whistled and whistled, but the buck wouldn’t stop trotting around like a moron. Finally the does were headed into the dark timber with Mr. Wide in tow. Right before entering the trees, the buck slowed to a fast walk. Stan took the one shot that he had.

I had the deer in my spotting scope during the shot, but I could just see his back line from my angle. He stopped for a split second and turned 90 degrees directly away from us. My first thought was that he had been hit, hence the immediate change of direction. However, when he came out of a small gap in the aspens I noticed that he had his head down low, mouth open, tongue out and was trotting again. He was still chasing does! I knew that a rut crazed mulie, even if it had been centered punched, might chase does until he literally fell over dead, but I now had my doubts about the shot. It was a difficult shot and we hadn’t had time to get a good range estimate.

As Stan and I sat on Mr. Wide’s departure trail, we both realized it was a clean miss. We would later find out that our quick estimate of the distance was 50 yards short, and as a result, the bullet flew right over his back. If it were a few years earlier, I might have looked at Stan and said “Now, what the fuck kind of shot was that?” and if Stan was a different client he might have said “Why didn’t you give me a good range, you dumbshit?” Instead, I could tell that Stan felt the same way about the moment as I did. He was enjoying it for what it was, one hell of a cool experience. The big patriarch mule deer bucks of the high country are amazing animals.

We rode for the next few hours, spending some time behind the binoculars and spotting scope. As we were headed down the home stretch, I jumped off my horse right before a little honey hole. I wanted to look across the park before we popped out on our horses. Right there! A nice 4×4 was walking down a string of aspens in the park. I turned to Stan, “Take a look at him Stan”. Stan took a look and let me know that he was ready to take this one. Stan dropped the buck in his tracks at a hair over 300 yards.

A quick sat phone call and Jacob was headed up to help us pack the deer out that night. It was one of the most beautiful nights I’ve experienced. As we rode out, the fog rolled in around us and it was almost like it pushed us out of the mountains.

High Country Mule Deer Hunt

I enjoyed guiding this hunt immensely. As I grow older in my hunting career, I’ve become more cognizant of the true importance of the hunt over the kill or maybe just more aware that many hunters use big game as a means to escape the driving pace of city life. Perhaps the camaraderie of campfires, memories of living in the open, and the satisfaction of being in wild country are the true trophies of this sport.

It was a great birthday.

High Country Mule Deer Hunt

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By Cliff Gray

Cliff is a registered outfitter in the State of Colorado, guiding and outfitting over 80 hunters a year for elk, bighorns and mule deer in the White River National Forest and Flat Tops Wilderness Area of the Rocky Mountains. He has years of experience hunting big game in the Rocky Mountains via remote backpacking and horse/mule packing. He is a private pilot and a certified wilderness first responder.

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