Think big mule deer only go to those on high-dollar private ground? Think again. Good things happen to those who apply, and apply and apply -- 35 1/2 inches of good things, to be exact!
By Mike Schoby
Hunters often lament that the good old days of mule deer hunting are over, that we were born a generation too late or that the only good mule deer areas are private. And while the naysayers may not be entirely wrong, the stories of modern-day big bucks falling to self-guided public-land hunters rejuvenate the faith that our efforts each year to obtain permits for quality hunts may someday be rewarded with a world-class animal.
Such is the case of a hunter by the name of Justin Smith.
It all started for me when an e-mail popped up on my computer that simply stated: "Colorado Mulie 2003." Opening the attachment, I saw one of the most magnificent bucks I have ever laid eyes on. Justin had been eyeing it for quite some time.
Justin has a reputation among his friends as a hard hunter who religiously scours reams of hunting data, knows mule deer behavior and is one heck of a fine shot. The Colorado Mulie 2003 e-mail message was my introduction to him, and the more I got to know him, the more I realized what I had heard about him was spot on.
It all started for Justin when he began applying for an eastern Colorado trophy mule deer unit nine years ago. He finally drew the tag in 2003. With tag in hand, the real work was about to begin.
While Justin is from Nebraska, he applies in numerous Western states each year and is no stranger at figuring out hunting country from scratch. But this unit was huge, and as Justin puts it, "How do you start scouting 26 square miles of country? I simply started like I would anywhere else - by picking likely looking spots and staring through a spotting scope for hours on end."
Over the course of a couple of days he spotted several nice bucks with racks in the 26- to 30-inch range; the 30-incher even had a long drop tine. But then Justin found a deer that would change the rest of his season.
"I spotted this buck trotting away from us, and I said to my cousin, 'That buck has to be 35, 36 inches wide with a 190- to 195-inch main frame,'" Justin recalled. "I knew right then that's the buck I wanted. But you know, you come back and tell anyone you saw an honest 35-inch buck and they look at you like. 'What have you been drinking?' So I didn't tell many people except my dad and brother - and I'm not sure they even believed me."
Justin Smith's Colorado mulie from the 2003 season sports a 35 1/2-inch spread. Photo courtesy of Justin Smith
Just as (bad) luck would have it, Justin's opening day was bittersweet. "I had been trying to draw this tag for so long, and then a situation came up back home where I was only able to hunt for three days." Considering that he was hunting with a muzzleloader on the open plains with a 35-inch deer as his goal, the odds were not looking good. Fortunately, opening morning started off right.
Soon after getting into position, Justin and his father (who was just along for the ride) spotted a 30-inch 5x6 with an 8-inch drop tine. Justin's dad excitedly asked him, "Are you going to shoot him?" Adamant about the 35-incher, Justin passed. His dad was amazed. Later that day they saw two other 30-inchers that would score in the mid-180s, but Justin was holding strong on the elusive 35-incher.
"I told Dad we still haven't seen the big one I want yet, and it was just driving him crazy," Justin said.
OLD FRIENDS MEET AGAIN
The next morning they saw the two 30-inchers again, a group of three 3-pointers, a 28- to 29-inch 4x4, and a massive non-typical. "Since I still hadn't found the 35-inch ghost yet, we went into the area where I spotted him in the summer, not really expecting to find him," Justin recalls, "but just as I crested the first hill, there he was - 300 yards away. He spotted us immediately and watched us for 10 to 15 minutes. We could only see the side view of him. When he got up and I could see his width, I told my dad, 'That's him! That's the buck I am after right there! I'll go home with an empty tag if I have to, but it is either him or nothing.' When he got up, he spun around and took off directly away and we could see antlers sticking out a foot on either side of each haunch."
"It was a real eye opener for both of us - for Dad to see him the first time, for me to see him again, to know he was still there. I tried to hunt him that day for three hours, but he got in the piÃ±on pines and the rock cliffs. I figured I had another day and a half to hunt; I didn't want to get in a hurry and push him out of the countryside.
"The final morning, as soon as it got light enough to see, we spotted him. I had a side view of him, he had good mass, deep forks and I said, 'We've got him.' But then he turned away from us and I realized we were on the wrong deer. This was one of the heavy 30-inchers we had previously seen, but from the side he had the same general shape as the 35-incher.
"We looked farther out on the plains and the big buck was coming from a water source. Funny enough, as Dad and I were driving that morning, I had said, 'The first thing I should do is go over to that water hole and wait.' We thought about it, but decided to head to where we had last spotted him. Had I done that, the hunt would have likely been over then. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but he had been over there drinking all by himself. It would have been a good opportunity.
"Since we didn't have a crack at him, we got out the spotting scope and started watching him as he worked his way up into the piÃ±ons. He was a smart buck. If he was in plain sight he would run, but once he got to the cover of a piÃ±on, he would stop and look around, then would run to the next group of piÃ±ons.
"He went into a small 200- by 300-yard patch of trees and picked up a real tall 4x4 that was also super spooky. Even though the odds were against me with two wary bucks on the move, I decided to hike over there and give it a try. As soon as I got over there, I started following their tracks in the soft soil. I figured I had a pretty good idea where they were going, so I circled around and beat feet to another waterhole. As soon as I got there, sure enough there was a deer headed toward it. But it was a different buck. So I got out the spotting scope and started looking and found the big buck again. He had circled back around me and was headed right back up where I had seen him before. I lost sight of him after awhile so I headed back to where Dad was waiting."
"It was about noon when I got back, and Dad had been wat
ching them for a couple of hours, until they walked out of sight into a canyon to bed for the day."
"By 2:30 p.m. I had eaten lunch and I decided to go after him."
|TROPHY AREAS FOR 2004|
Colorado mule deer hunters are blessed with lots of great hunting units that produce trophy-quality bucks. Depending on whether you are planning on an archery, muzzleloader or modern rifle hunt, these units hold tremendous potential. Keep in mind, however, that many of these units take lots of preference points to draw a tag.
Unit 10 -- Situated in northwest-ern Colorado, Unit 10 boasts of great potential with lots of public access.
Unit 44 -- Plenty of public access, with some bruiser bucks that are sure to score over 200 inches.
Unit 54 -- Gunnison National Forest bucks may not be as big as those in some other units, but there are lots of mature mulies and good access.
Units 93, 97, 105, etc. -- Eastern Plains units are known for large mule deer, but keep in mind that this region is dominated by private land. Trespass fees and guided hunts are the norm here. -- Mike Schoby
"Dad dropped me off. He was going to set up with the spotting scope to see if he could see him or any other bucks while I hiked into the area. We decided on some hand signals and I told him to take his hat off he saw the big buck."
"I was about a mile in with about a mile and a half more to go when I realized I had forgotten my binoculars - so I started back at a jog. Luckily, Dad knew I forgot them and had started to bring them to me - so I only had about a half-mile to go. I was kind of flustered by now. The wind had picked up to 35 mph to boot; my final evening was not starting off too well.
"I got into position and started watching the patch of piÃ±ons where Dad had last seen the buck. I could not get any closer so I took my range finder to check the distance in the unlikely event that the buck did show himself. The group of piÃ±ons was 191 yards across an open, short-grass valley. It would be a long shot, but if he did show himself and the conditions were right, I knew I could make the shot. I had been practicing the last few weeks, every evening, at ranges out to 200 yards. I felt pretty comfortable with the gun as well as my ability.
"I was there about an hour and a half and had been watching this 15-inch antelope, a cow elk and two calves off in the distance. I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is pretty awesome. Even if I never see that buck again this is what it is all about.' You don't have to pull the trigger to have a good time.
"About an hour of hunting time remained in the day when I looked back at Dad and noticed his hat was off. I was kind of surprised, as I had just looked over at the tree patch and there was nothing there five minutes before, but I was so intent on the antelope and elk that he must have snuck in. I looked back across to the trees and there the buck was."
"At first I thought he was looking right at me, but I looked through my binoculars and he was just looking around. He wasn't excited. He seemed calm. The wind had dropped to about 10 mph and it was coming directly at me - so I was not too concerned with bullet drift or him smelling me. I pulled the muzzleloader up and I put my finger on the trigger. As soon as I did that I just knew I wasn't ready - so I decided to take some time and tried to calm down - then I got to thinking, 'If I shoot and possibly miss he is going to see exactly where the smoke came from and I definitely won't get a second shot.' "
"He finally quit looking around and lowered his head to rake a small piÃ±on tree. I knew this was my opportunity. I aimed my Austin and Halleck muzzleloader 4 inches below the top of his back and squeezed the trigger. I heard the hit and I just expected him to be down, but when the smoke cleared he wasn't. He was still standing there all hunched up. I tried reloading my gun and dropped half the powder charge on the ground I was shaking so badly. I dumped the half-charge out of the barrel and started over. By now he was angling toward me but was still pretty much at the same distance. I finally got reloaded and the second shot broke his back. It turned out the first shot was through the lungs and very fatal, but bullets are cheap and I have always believed the quicker and more humanely an animal can be brought down the better.
"One of the best things about this hunt is that not only did my dad get to witness the entire hunt through the spotting scope, but he actually played an integral part in it."
Walking up to the downed animal, Justin said it only grew larger in size. "What I originally estimated between 35 and 36 inches was pretty close. He finally taped 35 1/2 inches and scored 189 typical points. I have shot bucks larger in total score but none as wide, and the memories of a good public land hunt done right - with my father - counts higher than any score ever will."
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