Test your will by hunting for big bucks in the Oregon Outback. (Nov 2006)
I first thought that some sagebrush had miraculously levitated off the ground. But there was no tornado or vortex in sight, or in the forecast. I quickly realized that this conglomeration of points and stickers was attached to a mule deer that was rapidly departing in the opposite direction.
I brought my Browning to my shoulder and peered through the scope. But the opportunity for a clean kill never presented itself, and the buck bounded over the horizon and into my dreams.
He was the largest mulie I have ever encountered while hunting and worthy of documentation in the book of "Daniel and Davy."
A couple days later, I missed the one shot I had at a mature 4-point. But eventually we found smaller bucks to put our tags on and went home happy at the end of the five-day hunt, with every tag in camp punched.
That was back in 1996 while hunting in Oregon's Outback, that region south of Highway 20 and east of Highway 395 -- closer to the middle of nowhere than any town with a Costco.
This experience was fairly typical for deer hunters in the '90s (except for that encounter with the giant, but he was atypical in every sense of the word!) who ventured well off the beaten path into the great desert canyons and the moonscape-like terrain that is Oregon's High Desert.
The names of Steens, Malheur, Trout Creeks, Owyhee and Silvies stirred images for me of heavy 4x4s bedded beneath rim-rock bluffs. Those place names still do, but in the last decade, their bucks have become much harder to find.
So what happened to all those giant desert bucks that these areas were famous for?
"The quality of the habitat has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. There are more juniper trees than there used to be, due to lack of fire, and the quality of the forage has certainly diminished," says Ron Garner, Hines District Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"More recently, the drought -- which we have finally gotten out of -- was really hurting fawn recruitment. Obviously, if you have fewer deer, you have fewer big bucks. And the rise in the cougar population has increased the number of deer lost to predation."
Indeed, cougars are one particular factor for lower deer numbers that cannot be ignored. Since 1994, when Oregon voters banned the pursuit of cougars and bears with dogs, the ODFW estimates that cougar numbers in Oregon have grown to about 5,500 -- nearly twice that of 10 years ago, before the hunting restrictions went into effect.
Randy Wills of Bend has been hunting the southeast deer units since 1992.
"When I first started hunting out there, the bucks were always down in the canyons near the seeps, springs, and shady rimrock," he recalls. "But we just don't seem to find them there anymore. Every big buck I've killed in the last five or six years has been up in the sage flats. I think they get pushed out of the canyons by other hunters and cats. I've seen more cougar tracks in the past two years than ever, and I think that this is affecting not only deer numbers, but buck behavior."
The glory days of eastern Oregon mule deer hunting may be over, but hunters holding tags for these units have reason to be optimistic. Last year, the hunter-success rate in the Malheur River unit was 53 percent. And Garner believes deer hunting in the unit is improving.
"Malheur River looks like a bright spot this year. We've had good fawn recruitment the past two years, largely due to the end of a long drought, with 51 fawns per 100 adults surviving this year. That's our best year dating back to 1977. We're over our management objective with 21 bucks per 100 does, so 2006 should be a really good year in the Malheur."
While there are still some really good bucks in units such as the Malheur and Silvies, those units are managed for the overall deer herd, not for trophy individual animals.
If you are after a buck with antlers sporting a 30-inch spread, deep forks and heavy mass, the Steens Mountains and the Trout Creeks units are still your best bet. In both units, the management goal is 25 bucks per 100 does -- twice as many bucks as in some of the other units. At present, Trout Creeks' bucks-to-does ratio stands at 40-to-100, so that area may be staging a comeback to the glory days of the 1980s and early '90s when the area was considered as one of the elite mule deer hunts in the West.
In 2005, however, the ODFW issued only 52 tags for Trout Creek, so it takes a considerable donation of preference points to earn the right to hunt a buck in this corner of the Whitehorse unit.
For mule deer hunting in any of these units, the overall review seems to be "Not as good as it used to be, but it's still good." So, given these changes in habitat and predation, how should holders of tags for southeast Oregon deer-hunting units adjust their tactics?
Shawn Jones of Go West Outfitters in Pineville (contact him online at www.gowestsoutfitters.com) believes that the deer population in these units has declined moderately, but says that the biggest decline has been in the older age-class bucks.
"It sounds simple, but it's true. The best way to find a mature buck is to hunt as far away from roads as possible," he explains. "And study your topography maps to locate north-facing slopes and water sources, and start hiking."
That said, it's a huge advantage to have the option to "spike camp" for at least a couple of days of your hunt. By leaving your base camp with everything you'll need on your back, you can hunt deeper into the country and be there for those prime times -- dusk and dawn -- when the big bucks are out.
This is safest conducted with a partner. A sprained ankle in Oregon's Outback could make you the stuff of campfire legends.
To keep my pack weight down, I like to bring one water bottle and a water filter. Make sure to locate dependable, perennial water sources on your map before you head out with only one liter of liquid.
With this type of hunting, meat care is a real concern as well, making the "buddy system" an even better call. Two men can lug a buck out on one trip. If you're alone, make sure to skin and bag your meat (cotton pillowcases work great), and try to find a shade tree or rimrock to hang it from until your return trip.
Randy Wills has changed his focus from the c
anyons to the flats.
"We get up on a high vantage point and glass the sage flats between canyons all morning long," he says. "Bucks bed down right in that waist-high sage, and you will never find them unless they get up to reposition. A buck might stand up for just a minute or two, and then they lay right back down.
'We leave a spotter to keep an eye on the buck. And from there, it's spot-and-stalk and not uncommon to drop to a belly-crawl to get within range. Often we kick them out of their beds and have to make a quick shot before they disappear into the sage."
In the high desert, the winds are consistently inconsistent: They swirl and are highly unpredictable. That not only makes it a challenge to close within gun range, but it's all the more likely you'll bump bedded deer while hunting. Many times, I have come upon beds with fresh sign telling me that I just slipped up, and that old buck smelled me long before I could see him. The wind should be your biggest concern when either moving on a bedded buck or sneaking over a rise into a likely coulee.
Of course, binoculars are the most important tool a hunter can have in the wide-open country of southeast Oregon, especially during early fall when the temperature can still approach the 90s and create virtually blinding thermal waves.
If you have cheap binoculars, invest as much money as you can and buy the finest pair you can afford. Nikon and Wind River both make quality glass that most of us hunters can pony up for. A spotting scope can be a great benefit, especially when trying to evaluate trophy potential.
Most hunters favor long-reaching cartridges such as the .25-06, .270, 7mm, or one of the .300 magnums for making the 200-plus yard shots associated with this country. Make sure to spend ample time at the range practicing your distance shooting.
Tagging a big bruiser in Southeast Oregon is a more daunting task than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But those hunters willing to put in scouting time and hard work during season still manage to find a rack for the mantle and meat for the freezer. It's a challenge makes both of those rewards all the more satisfying.