Wide-Open Mulies

At first glance, Colorado's Eastern Plains seem empty and desolate. Look again! This bowhunter did and found those flatlands flush with monster mule deer and whopping whitetails. (Dec 2006)

I'd seen photos of men with huge smiles gripping awe-

nspiring antlers. So I arrived in eastern Colorado with huge expectations and unwarranted confidence.

I knew my chances of tagging a behemoth buck were better here than nearly anywhere else in a state known for world-class mule deer hunting --only I'd been made to understand that shooting was likely to involve longer than average stabs. These long shots are often what separate the winners and losers.

I understood all this. Still, my first sight of our hunting grounds produced only apprehension and doubt.

The land seemed bleak -- stark and forsaken, with very little topography and even less stalking cover -- a far cry from the gorgeous alpine habitat of better-known locations in the state, and the sagebrush mesas I've hunted farther north.

Aaron Neilson, owner of Adventures Wild, began hunting mulies on Colorado's Eastern Plains before most hunters ever heard about the area. With this leg up, he leased a good portion of prime habitat in his hunting area, at a time when every rancher and outdoorsman in the state had taken to outfitting as a way of subsidizing a living. The Eastern Plains area is no longer the sleeper it once was, since news got out about its outlandishly sized mule deer.

Aaron leases about 400,000 acres of private land in several prime units. Of course, not every pasture in the Eastern Plains expanse holds deer. But they're there -- between the agricultural fields of dry-land milo, irrigated corn and alfalfa, along the wandering swatches of creekbed cover and across the rolling miles of Conservation Reserve Program land and cattle pasture.

You have to go out and look for eastern Colorado mule deer and whitetail. And hunting in such a desolate place takes getting used to.

My guide Scott Franklin and I started the day cruising the edges of vast milo fields. We were reluctant to leave the truck and its heater, so welcome against the biting chill outside and a knife-edged breeze. We stopped occasionally to glass distant gray grubs ghosting through the morning gloom.

The rut was in full swing on this second week of November. It was easy to spot bucks at the edges of large groups of feeding does. Deer grow fat on these vast fields of scattered crops, and bucks here produce incredible antlers.

In the following hour, we spotted several nice bucks. Some of these deer would have me chomping at the bit at home in southern New Mexico. Franklin dismissed them with a flick of the wrist. Already we'd seen three bucks that would easily pass Pope and Young's 145-inch minimums for the archery record book.

As the deer filtered out of the fields and into the adjacent pasture of rolling sand hills, I began to see that this seemingly featureless terrain offers more than meets the eye. The deer began to dissolve into the landscape like smoke before the wind.

We stopped on a rise and quickly found more deer, including a whitetail buck -- a bruiser 4x5 that might score 155 -- that made me rethink my conviction to hunt only mulies. My tag was valid for either mule deer or whitetail.

My resolve dissolved. Franklin and I stalked the buck.

After two hours of dodging and crawling, I got a quick opportunity at 55 yards. But the buck ducked the arrow and spun away to marshal his three rapidly departing does.

We hiked to a high sand hill overlooking a creek bottom of tamarisk and cottonwood. The place was alive with whitetail. The longer we watched, the more deer we saw.

Another monstrous whitetail struck my fancy. I wrote off mule deer for now, and was a whitetail hunter again.

We stalked that buck for nearly three hours, continually pinned down by unexpected deer. We lay in knee-high grass and waist-deep weeds, waiting to make a move, only to be pinned down again after advancing closer. It was a strange predicament for sure -- too many deer! As the midday temperature soared to 40 degrees, activity suddenly came to a halt.

Later in the afternoon, we discovered more whitetail bedded in a strip of standing corn inside a flat field of cut stubble. Despite wide-open ground, and nasty sand spurs that made every gained yard painful and frustrating, I was soon 40 yards from the buck and contemplating a shot.

The buck was a tall 4x4 that might score 145. But in the end, my mule deer resolve returning, I passed him -- though I had second thoughts when he launched from his bed and sprinted across a wide-open field. Deer antlers always look bigger going away than coming!

We drove past a 150-ish buck on the way to glass the creek bottom where we'd seen so many deer during the morning. I wanted to stop and at least look at him, but Franklin declared him a "dink." We didn't even slow down. The deer stood nonchalantly 35 yards from the road and watched us go.

We followed a two-rut track toward the creek, stopped at a set of corrals and climbed the loading chute for a glassing vantage. Within minutes, we spotted least a dozen mule deer does working their way through the creekbed cover.

Soon I saw antlers glinting through willow. When that buck cleared brush, I knew he was the one I came for. We devised a plan.

And I was crawling again, my knees and palms sore from earlier approaches. Now I understood the value of kneepads and leather gloves.

A slight wind out of the west moved the grass and weeds. Even so, I cringed with every push forward, setting my bow ahead, wiggling toward it, crunching and snapping twigs all the way.

At something like 60 yards, one of the does snapped to attention. Despite my head-to-toe, 3-D leafy-cut camo, she'd caught my movement in the tall vegetation. There was nothing to do but sit tight and await developments.

Soon several of the other does were staring in our direction. The buck appeared to their right. The does grew more nervous and began to move up the creek. The buck was unaware of the problem, but followed the girls.

I rolled onto my knees, nocked an arrow and fought with the laser rangefinder, hoping to get a reasonable reading through all the interfering vegetation.

And

then the buck paused.

I dropped the rangefinder and came to full draw, placing the bottom pin on his chest, double-checking everything. The arrow was on its way.

Just when my insides began to twist in happy anticipation, suddenly the arrow veered, deflected by a small, unseen whip of willow. That flash of excitement turned to disappointment as we watched the group flow over a rise and disappear in the dusk.

In the remaining daylight, we walked 200 yards up the creek to inspect a tripod stand Franklin erected a week before. We recognized fresh sign from deer -- likely the same deer we just had stalked -- that had passed within slam-dunk range of the stand within the hour.

We called it a day.

The following morning was colder, the wind bringing snowflakes swirling out of the west. We walked into the blast, mounting one rise after another, and glassed ahead in the direction the deer had gone the evening before. We covered about three miles when Franklin said simply, "There he is."

The buck was bedded tight against a low ridge of sand, out of the wind. Does were all around him. We looked them over carefully, trying to inventory each doe. We backed away and circled the area to find cover.

Once we got in back of the deer, the wind became a problem. It was dicey at best, quartering from our backs, but there was simply no other way to proceed. Slipping along, I reached the sand ridge without blowing deer out ahead of me. I moved well to one side of where I believed the buck was bedded, poked my head over, and came face to face with a doe. The game was up.

We left the area and followed deep scars across the loose sand. Suddenly, we saw two whitetail bucks wandering across the wide-open prairie -- good bucks, Pope and Young slip-ins.

For fun, Franklin produced a set of rattling horns and gave them a try. One buck peeled away from the other and came toward us at a dead run, only to hit our scent at 45 yards and skid to a stop. He turned and quickly rejoined his cohort.

We continued, weaving along the trail of the mulies.

Once more we reached the lip overlooking the creek and sat down to probe with our binoculars.

Nearly an hour passed. We glassed until the wind began to bite. More snow swirled down. It seemed our deer had simply vanished.

We were about to call it off, when I happened to peer into a small strip of tamarisk and found a feeding doe. We put the spotting scope on the area, but saw no other deer, so we gambled and began a stalk. We maneuvered and dodged and finally crawled for two hours, pretending our buck was with this doe.

Still we'd seen no other deer. We were within 30 yards of the doe, pinned and whispering close to each other's ears. Out of nowhere, another doe appeared, walking right to left. Another followed. More does began to appear, nibbling and milling. We'd just pored over the area, doggedly focused, without discovering any deer except for the original single!

As the does drifted away, I stole forward a few more yards with an arrow on the string, and crawled right up to another bedded doe. I could nearly reach out and touch her.

I drew a deep breath and froze in an uncomfortable position. I might have waited like that for 10 minutes, but it felt more like a half hour.

Finally the doe stood to stretch and looked down on me. She gave a low snort and scrambled into a patch of grass with the others. Deer began to boil out of the brush, including a small buck we hadn't seen.

The deer milled on high alert, stomping and bunching. That's when I saw antlers floating through brush to my right. It was my buck, and only 30 yards away!

I drew on him several times as he weaved through tamarisk, but couldn't find an opening big enough to thread an arrow through.

In my desperation, I scrambled ahead a few yards and spooked another doe. She snorted and ran through the middle of the bunched does, and my buck trotted to them. Then he paused.

I still had no lanes. I made a last-ditch move in plain sight of several does. The buck walked stiff-legged, ears pinned. He seemed to be headed toward a small gap I could use as a lane. I popped off a couple of ranges on the does I could see. The distance wasn't encouraging.

I jerked my bow to anchor and waited, but he didn't clear. I let down and crawled to my left. Suddenly the buck appeared in an opening, at a range that caused me to balk. He was way out there, but it was a shot I could make -- in a calm backyard on a warm summer's day, that is.

I came to full draw again but hesitated, my bottom pin automatically finding its place. I urged the pin into the wind a bit, thought it through one last time, and let the string slip away.

The arrow was away, but the buck spun. I lost sight of the arrow half way to the target, but heard the hollow slap of its metal head hitting something fleshy. The buck whirled to run hard, with his head down and his tail tucked tight.

Does scattered in all directions. The original herd apparently had joined another. Dust and grass spun away on the wind. And then there was nothing.

We waited an excruciatingly long time, and finally I crawled out to look for my arrow. Franklin joined me, but there was nothing in the high grass. Soon we were standing, ranging in circles.

Franklin let out a low whistle, and I went to him 80 yards further up the creekbed. He'd found blood.

We proceeded cautiously. The farther we went, the more blood we found. Still, I had to wonder what my arrow had hit. The blood, instead of inspiring confidence, only served to produce more worry.

After another 100 yards, I began to think we'd gone entirely too far. But then we rounded a bush and nearly stumbled over my deer, all 300 pounds of him.

He was the biggest-bodied deer I've ever laid hands on. His neck was as big around as a 5-gallon bucket. The burliness actually served to make his antlers appear smaller.

No ground shrinkage here, far from it. If anything, the buck had grown. I normally don't like to produce a tape at the kill, but there would be no disappointments in this case. Franklin ran it over the long tines, around the heavy bases. A point had been lost to love's battles, but still we came up with 187 gross inches. He was my best mulie with a bow.

The wind gained momentum. More snow cascaded from the low-hung, woolly clouds. But right at the moment, I could care less. All of my worries and apprehensions drifted away with the gusts as

Franklin and I talked and admired my awesome buck.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

To book a Colorado Eastern Plains deer hunt of your own, contact Aaron Neilson, Adventures Wild, Dept. RMGF, P.O. Box 620459, Littleton, CO 80162. Call (303) 972-9545, visit www.advwild.com or e-mail him at aaron@advwild.com.

Adventures Wild's areas are predominately private land, so most bowhunters draw a tag without preference points, while a single preference point is normally required to draw a rifle tag.

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