Last October, we looked across the plains and watched band after band of antelope and mule deer in herds of two to 20; Wyoming land once held by force by the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne.
It takes little imagination to see it now as it was then, but the land has changed in the last 140 years. Uranium exploration sites, oil wells and wind farms, with turbines that turn their heads to the breeze like 300-foot tall daisies are strung across the skyline. Progress on the prairie.
In other ways, the plains haven’t changed at all. Old Conestoga wagon ruts are visible in more than a few places. Indian trails skirt the rimrock, the prints of the moccasins dissolved by a century of wind and rain. In the canyons, mule deer carve out their beds to find shade in the treeless prairie. On the flats, herds of pronghorn float in waves of heat mirage.
My friend, Dave Hurteau, who makes his home in upstate New York, couldn’t help but comment on how different this was than the hunts back home. “Back home, if I’m lucky, I might see one or two good bucks a season from my tree stand. Out here … ,” his voice trailed off in wonder.
We looked at 35 mule deer bucks before Hurteau saw the one he was after. Our guide, Scott Denny, of Table Mountain Outfitters, had seen the buck before. He was with a big 4×3, but the tall three-point frame with the ‘sticker’ points in every direction was the one we wanted.
Hurteau’s first shot kicked in the dirt and the big buck didn’t give him another broadside look. We gathered our gear and guessed where the bucks were headed.
At the crest of the next hill, Hurteau saw another chance and connected.
After looking at over a hundred mule deer and three hundred antelope, I went to bed with visions of horn and antler in my dreams. We were out at daybreak the second morning.
“There’s a buck.” Denny swiveled the spotting scope. “A big two-point. I’m trying to see the other buck with him. Looks like a four-by-three. He’s a monster!”
I thumbed four rounds of Nosler Custom .308 into the Kimber and bolted one into the chamber. With a ridge between us, we began the stalk, hunched over, bunched together in the sage. A herd of pronghorn spotted us and ran straight through our mule deer.
We scrolled up the finger ridge and expected to see deer any moment. But the attitude of the antelope had alerted our quarry. In the third canyon, we found a set of fresh tracks, so deep the dew claws left marks in the sand. Ten yards along, we found where the other buck joined it. We were behind them.
FOOD, WATER, COVER AND ESCAPE HABITAT
Food, water, cover and a place to escape to; these are the factors that contribute to deer habitat. Locate all four in close proximity and you will find deer.
Our Wyoming hunt was in sheep country in the state’s southeast corner. The presence of the sheep meant that predators were few in number. When less lions or bobcats or coyotes are allowed to make their livings where sheep are so plentiful, it translates into an abundance of deer. If fawns are not eaten by predators, they grow up to produce more deer. It doesn’t take long to have good deer numbers when predators are controlled.
Out in the sage, we saw groups of does or single does with one or two fawns. We saw bachelor groups of spikes and forked horns and 2x3s and 3x4s. Then there were large expanses of territory that contained few animals, other than a jackrabbit or two.
Water is the difference. Deer don’t like to live more than a half-mile from a source of water. Wherever I hunt, I scout the water sources. And I try to find water that doesn’t show up on other people’s maps. If a big buck is using a waterhole, a tank, a seep or a creek, he will leave a track. And he will have a bed less than a half-mile away. Chances are, it will not be far from the best browse. By process of elimination, it is not hard to find the buck’s bed. If there is a high point in the neighborhood, plan to set up a spotting scope.
On a mule deer hunt in open country, the most important parts of my kit are a spotting scope, binoculars and something with which to check the wind. I prefer a product called Smoke in a Bottle. The binoculars are kept in a harness that plants them firmly to my chest. Lately, I’ve been using the BinoBro that keeps them protected from dust and rain.
The important thing is that, suspended from the shoulders, the binoculars are always close to hand, not buried in a backpack.
In open country, we take for granted we can see any animal, if the animal is there. But the prairie is deceptive. It hides our prey in folds of land, behind rimrock, in the shadow of juniper or clumps of sage.
Adopt the mindset that the deer are out there. Then try to spot each one, each doe and fawn, each spike and forked horn, each bachelor in a group, each solitary buck. It takes a spotting scope or spotting binos, mounted on a tripod, planted on a butte or a ridge. Use the shadows, the cover of trees and darkness to get there before deer will be alerted to your movement. Choose a vantage point that is downwind of the target area.
Spotting and stalking is best accomplished with one hunter alone and one or two spotters, watching and signaling from behind. Decide in advance who the stalker will be and who will be the spotter. Then go to work with the optics. There should be one spotting scope for each pair of eyes.
Most often, deer are given away by small movements, the flicker of an ear, the shake of a tail, the motion of the head dropping to feed. Watch for the tips of ears and the shiny black of nose and eyes or the white of belly hair or the white and black of the rump. Look for branches — that might be antlers — out of place in a sea of sage, bitterbrush or mountain mahogany.
Is that a buck in the shade of the juniper? Or is it a rock with a tangle of bare limbs above its head?
There is no need to hurry. Instead, categorize and classify. Are there other hunters in the area? What are they likely to do? Are there non-target animals, like does and small bucks that could blow the deer out of its bed?
Often, I bring a small tablet to the top of the hill. Once we find a buck, I sketch out its location relative to landmarks and non-target animals. Assessing the buck’s attitude and the direction of the wind, one of us begins the stalk, while the other remains behind to guide the other in by hand signals.
This is where a lot of stalks break down. The hunter is usually too excited to think about communication. An hour into the stalk, betwixt hilltop and trophy, the terrain is likely to look far different at ground level than it did from above. The hunter turns to the spotter for direction.
A few years ago, my best deer hunting partner and I adopted a set of hand signals that was developed by the late Ed Park to communicate visually over hundreds of yards. Working out the details in advance pays dividends when a buck moves or some other variable changes.
Each partner wears and uses binoculars to minimize the chance of miscommunication.
Holding the rifle or bow overhead means “I want signals or I’m sending signals.”
On a deer hunt, the number of fingers indicates the size of the buck. Two fingers above the head means a buck. Palm waved over the head means no antlers, or a doe.
To communicate the idea of distance, hands are held apart. Hands held one foot apart means 100 yards, two feet apart means 200 yards, etc.
If the hat is on the head, it means nothing has changed. Directions are communicated with arms held to represent a clock face. If the target gets away, the spotter waves his arms and the stalk is called off.
DON’T WATCH THE DOES
It took several years of hunting mule deer before I began to see how bucks employ smaller bucks and does as decoys. It is common for a big buck to run with a group of does till the moment they feel threatened. Then, the buck splits off from the does and allows the females to draw the hunter’s attention.
When startled, a group of does goes running uphill, the hunter needs to turn away from the does and look for the buck. It is usually doing the opposite thing the does are doing.
Once, on a stalk up the side of a ridge, I bumped a herd of 18 does. Seven hundred yards away, my spotter had counted them. Close, less than 40 yards from the deer, I had to resist trying to ‘grow antlers on the does’ and look away. I swung away from them and there, the buck, a big 2×3, still in velvet, was sneaking on his belly through the sage brush. I stopped him with a Nosler Partition and then turned to look for the other buck I knew was there, a smaller 2×3. He had button-hooked around a juniper and had been hiding less than 10 yards from me when I shot the other one.
Smaller bucks also make great decoys. In the absence of a group of does, a big buck will drive a smaller buck out into the open on the tips of its antlers to test an area or draw fire.
Once, on a scouting trip, we cut across an opening and, when we were less than a hundred yards from him, a spike buck jumped up and bolted away to turn and look back. He acted as if he’d been shot from a slingshot. He looked back, not at us, but at the spot where he’d come from. We continued walking in that direction and up jumped the big buck, a gray-faced monarch with antlers that extended more than a foot beyond the tips of his ears. He had driven out the spike with the tips of his horns to draw our attention.
That lesson taught me not to take the first buck that shows out in the open, but to wait and see what animals are coming behind him.
A STUDY IN SANDSTONE
The essence of an open country hunt lies not in the ability of the hunter to spot an animal at long range and try to drop it with a well-placed shot, but it is in the stalk, in patience and single-minded focus. An hour into the tension of it, I can taste the grit blown on the wind and smell the scent of the sage. Then there is a moment, when I’ve closed the distance from a mile or more, down to 200 yards or less, when every movement, every step is calculated, the direction of the wind, the angle of the sun and the locations of non-target animals, all taken into account. And the gun comes to the shoulder, the crosshair bracketed on hair wrinkled behind the foreleg.
We had eased over a low ridge and now, down in a wash. We picked up the bucks’ trail; fresh tracks cut in the soft sand.
Denny spotted the bedded 4×3 first. In the shadow of a ledge, the big two-point browsed. Two bucks, a study in the soft morning glow, among sandstone spires carved by wind and water that revealed the colors beneath the clay — orange, pink and crimson.
From his bed, the four-by-three looked back along the bucks’ backtrail.
With his head in the sagebrush, the gray-faced two-point looked like the older, bigger buck. Rested on a rocky outcrop, I had time to dial the Cabela’s rifle scope to full power.
“One hundred-sixty yards.” The buck turned, I eased the slack out of the trigger. Moments later, we knelt beside him.
At lunchtime, we found a group of four bucks bedded in a dry canyon. Here there was feed, browse on the slope and sage for shade. Water was less than a quarter mile away. We backed off the hill and waited for the rest of our party and Joe Arterburn, who held the last unused mule deer tag in our group.
As the sun started down toward afternoon, Arterburn made a stalk to set the rifle in shooting sticks. The bucks, aware of movement on our hilltop, began to stand to their feet. Arterburn eased into the rifle and squeezed the trigger to connect on a wide 4×3, one of the biggest bucks we saw on the whole trip.
At first glance, the prairie is bleak, desolate. But through the spotting scope and in the binoculars, the white spots on the hill become antelope and the nut-brown branches in the sage are mule deer antlers.
Wind blows across the tops of the mountains and turns the great blades of windmills on the horizon. It bends the grass and blows in the change of weather that signals October. Soon the rain will come and our tracks will mingle with those of the hunters who have gone before.
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