The spine of the Cascade Mountains can be raked with fire, fierce winds, snow, even blasts of lightning-packing thunderstorms. So, why would any respectable deer hunter want to be there? Read on.
By Kevin Miller
Big bucks don't come down from the mountains unless they absolutely have to. They keep their antlers tucked in the clouds until their bellies rub in snow or until the end of hunting season, which ever comes first. In this way, mulie bucks grow to old age, and a type of wisdom increasingly becomes to be in their favor.
Only for lack of access to food will they hoof it down from the hills, and then only to stake out a solitary spot in the lowlands to spend winter. And when the snow melts in spring, it's a no-brainer that they high-tail it right back to the place they feel most comfortable - way up in the ozone layer.
That instinctual movement to migration makes it difficult for rifle hunters to get a crack at a big mule deer because modern firearm seasons usually expire each fall before the first migrating mulie shows up in the lowlands. Unless you draw a special tag for the latest of hunts or a freak storm blankets the high country with several feet of snow early in the fall, it's highly likely that you will have some time to pass between trips to the taxidermist.
There is, however, another way to hunt these bucks: Climb right into their kitchens and bedrooms during our traditional fall mountain hunts in the high Cascades.
Washington's high hunts open in mid-September to an abundance of towering real estate in the Pasayten, Glacier Peak, Alpine Lakes and Henry Jackson wilderness areas. Combined, those four wilderness areas account for about 1 million acres of prime deer hunting country.
Legal deer for the Washington's high hunt are those with at least 3 points on one side of their antlers.
Kevin Nations shot this 4x4, 200-pound buck during a backpack hunt in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Kevin Nations
To the south, there's the west High Cascades buck hunt, a permit-only affair that gives Oregon hunters plenty of room to pursue mulies along the Cascade Crest. Hunters must be successful in drawing tags for this hunt, which runs Sept. 6-14 this year.
Chances of drawing a tag for this controlled hunt are excellent. In 2002 there were 3,333 tags and only 3,077 applicants. Hunters who don't bag a deer during the early Cascades hunt can use their tag for the Cascade buck area during the west general season. Included in this particular hunt, are the Dixon, Evans Creek, Indigo, McKenzie, Rogue and Santiam units. Slated from Oct. 4-17, and again from Oct. 25-Nov. 5, this high-hunt opportunity allows plenty of time for Oregonians to pursue blacktails or mulies that cross the crest into the big, open meadows of the west slope.
Both Oregon hunts require deer to have at least a forked antler on one side. Wilderness permits are required of anyone venturing into the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters wilderness areas between Memorial Day and Oct. 31. Contact the Willamette and Deschutes national forests for information on these free permits.
Lots of hunters participate in high hunts by backpacking deep into wilderness areas before opening day to set up camp, scout and get acquainted with the topography. It's important to pack extremely light for these types of trips, leaving plenty of payload for meat and capes during the return. You'll need to handle all weather conditions that come along, and you'll need tough partners in good physical condition to help shuttle multiple loads when successes accumulate.
TWO MEADOWLAND MULIES Some guys just don't seem to mind big, weighty packs hanging on their shoulders, especially if it means getting up close to choice mule deer habitat. "We left after work one evening and went five miles in," said Kevin Nations. "Then we got up the next morning and went the rest of the way." Nations and friends Tom and Larry Brown brought out a pair of respectable wallhangers from Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness in September 2001.
"I'd been there before, in '92, so I knew about the area. I knew where to hunt," Nations added. "We got up on top of the ridge, and I wanted to go down in there. I walked across a little draw looking down, and there was this deer looking at me. I thought it was a doe. I had binoculars, but the rack blended in so well. It watched me from about 150 yards away. I just kept walking across the hill until I saw it was no doe. It was a shooter." Kevin's 4-point buck rolled into a draw when he shot it and spooked up another heavy-horned animal, which headed for cover.
Tom and Larry followed Kevin into the draw the next morning in hopes of a shot at that second buck. "They were all excited when we came up over the hill, and there he goes. All you could see was his head and horns heading over the hill, but no one had enough time to get a shot," Nations said. "We got my deer and boned it out, and that evening I went back with Tom to watch the meadow until dark. Pretty soon that buck came out to the edge of the meadow and bedded down about 350 yards away."
Tom used collapsible shooting sticks to steady his .284-caliber Remington for the shot. With the pair of 4-pointers down, the trio lugged enormous loads during the hike out. "You've got to be in shape," Nations said. "With three guys and two deer, it was a lot of weight getting out - I'd say close to 100 pounds apiece. We had the capes too."
|High Hunt Planning|
There's still time to get ready for hunting in the high Cascades.
Get regs & maps — Game regulations will have unit boundary descriptions. You can purchase forest maps from the US Forest Service district office for the area you intend to hunt, or go online to www.fs.fed.us to track down the forest office administering your desired hunting area and to order maps. Topography maps can be obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey office at 800-HELP-MAP, or online at ww
Get into shape — The best way to get into shape for hiking is to hike! Use hiking forays for exercise and to scout the areas you want to hunt. Being familiar with the terrain is half of the battle; getting into tip-top condition is the other half.
Find water — Water can be scarce during late summer/early fall. Study maps to determine locations of streams and perennial springs, and plan to camp and hunt nearby. Always purify water with a lightweight water purifier or iodine tablets before drinking it. In a pinch, boil the water for three to five minutes.
Think safety — Due caution should always be exercised when trekking through unstable rockslides, traversing areas with cliffs, or field dressing and skinning game. Even a slight injury can take on a whole new meaning in high-elevation backcountry. Be sure your first aid kit is well stocked.
Watch for bad weather — Check the day's weather before venturing from camp. Cloud cover can build quickly in the mountains, leaving you in potential whiteout. Keep an eye on your return route, and carry navigational instruments such as a handheld GPS unit or compass.
Outfit yourself properly — Leave your blue jeans at home; bring the good stuff and dress in layers. Wool, Thinsulate and other fabrics are excellent insulators, and carry waterproof, breathable raingear. — Kevin Miller
SCOUTING TRIPS Most folks use established trails to access the high country, then set up base camps once they gain the open ridge tops. From here, they may wander for miles in search of quality habitat or even live sightings of mature bucks. Finding a hotspot is like finding gold nuggets in the hills. Cascade mulie bucks will visit the same high country haunts over and over, so spotting those same deer during hunting season is highly probable.
Early morning and evening is when you'll see mulies browsing the edges of open meadows. During midday, you can easily see signs of nighttime browsing and travel activity: wildflowers plucked from their stems, muddy tracks near waterholes and game trails with fresh tracks.
Check for such sign at midday, and then hunker down during peak hours to watch for animal movement.
Mule deer bucks can be really gregarious during the summer. They'll even come right out into your camp, especially at night. They'll snoop through your food, lick your tent - even scare your wife with all kinds of noises, while you try to sleep. Yes, that makes mid-summer an excellent time to scout.
As fall approaches, these camp robbers suddenly become distrustful. You can hike for great distances and things seem pretty quiet. But if you've done your summer scouting, you know where to find them early in the mornings, sneaking bites from the tops of lupine or a drink of water, or taking a mouthful of lush grass before bedding down for the day. Now that you know where they eat, drink and sleep, you'll have a decided advantage when you return to the high country in the fall.
EXPERT ADVICE Luckily, backpacking rifles, tents, sleeping bags, food, and all sorts of gear up the side of a mountain isn't the only way to engage in a high hunt. High-country guides and packers can simplify matters in a big way. Troy Wolford, who owns Smart Ass Ranch Outfitters in Redmond, Ore., (541) 350-1083, provides high-country pack trips into the Mount Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas during the High Cascades buck hunts.
"When you get up into the high country, you can get into blacktails, mulies or crosses which we locally refer to as benchlegs," said Wolford. "The benchlegs typically are really, really big deer. Last year we pulled a real nice 4x4 out of there that I wouldn't say was a record-book buck, but he was definitely a trophy - one that anybody would be proud of."
Wolford has operated the ranch for the past seven years and is enthusiastic about current hunting opportunities in Oregon. "I think we have more deer and elk in the state right now than we've ever had," he said.
Good packers can be used in a variety of ways.
Experienced backcountry hunters might use a packer to transport gear to a drop camp in a given wilderness area. Groups of hunters normally supply their own tents and gear for these hunts and will do their own cooking, camp chores and scouting during their stay. The packer merely transports gear to and from camp.
Hunters who prefer a little more luxury can choose fully outfitted and guided hunts, which according to Wolford, typically offer better hunter success rates than drop-camp hunts.
As a bonus, most packers allow clients with cougar or bear tags to hunt multiple species during a single trip. This isn't usually an option for groups going in on foot, as the weight of meat and extra hides can mount up in a hurry.
Even for a fully guided trip, hunters should prepare before opening day. Wolford says unprepared hunters underestimate the rigors of mountain hunting. "Hunters should be in at least average shape, be able to walk 4 to 8 miles per day and should listen to what the outfitter suggests in the equipment list," he said. "I've suggested to people in the past to bring either fleece or wool clothing and maybe lightweight GoreTex raingear. Then I have people show up with all-cotton jeans and sweatpants. By the second day everything is cold, and we're spending a lot of time trying to dry clothing instead of hunting."
Invest in quality clothing and gear, including a good pair of hunting boots, and your high buck hunt will be an enjoyable experience regardless of weather conditions.
PRODUCTIVE GROUNDS Just to give you an idea of how productive these high hunt areas can be, Scott Fitkin, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the Pasayten herd should be in excellent condition this fall. "Last year's post-season buck-to-doe ratios for western Okanogan County, which would include the Pasayten Wilderness and a lot of the surrounding ground, was 26:100. Fawn-to-doe ratios were 78:100, which is good, but in the last few years prior to this, we've been closer to 90:100. Our fawn production is down a little bit, and I attribute that primarily to drought."
Fitkin says does and fawns tend to congregate in damp areas that have water and green forage during early fall. Bucks, on the other hand, stay high and tough it out. "I think as you get into late summer or early fall, a buck's primary motivation is security," Fitkin explained. "There was one year I was flying in September, and I saw a lot of deer way up high, and they were mostly bucks. They tended to be up high in little clumps of trees that gave them a fairly expansive view of what was down below them. So there may be some sexual
separation there during the late summer/early fall."
Fitkin says trophy animals are still out there for those willing to work hard for them. "During our aerial survey flights, we always see some nice bucks. I'm sure I've seen 30-inch deer. I think some of those really nice bucks hang way back in there until the snow absolutely forces them out." He recalled seeing an older buck during the tough winter of 1996, miles from his winter range - plowing snow up to its neck. "There was at least five feet of snow on the ground. I doubt he made it to the winter range. I'm skeptical. He might have, but that was awfully deep soft snow that year."
It's not easy to locate those trophy animals while traveling on foot. Without lots of scouting, it's complicated to predict the hotspots. There is plenty of excellent habitat in the Cascades, and deer are well distributed throughout. As a rule, however, big loners will be where humans don't go. It could be necessary to traverse several rocky ridges to do the best undercover work in the private meadows, and groves of stunted trees that the wariest bucks prefer. Hunters with the fortitude to venture into those wild corners of mountain country will always realize the biggest dividends.
ARMS & LOADS It's important to choose the right rifle to carry with you in the mountains. Plenty of high country deer are still taken with the good old .30/30 Winchester that was pulled from a leather scabbard from high in the saddle, but today's flat-shooting, lightweight rifles are clearly the best choice for anyone setting out on foot.
Remington's Model 700 Mountain Rifle is a good one. Weighing only 6 1/2 pounds, this easy-to-handle centerfire is available in several popular calibers, including the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington.
Dynamite is coming in even smaller packages nowadays. Winchester recently began chambering its line of Model 70 Featherweights for the new WSM cartridges. The new configuration allows real magnum performance in lightweight, short-action rifles. While these are just becoming available, it's easy to see why mountain hunters might be interested. For comparison, a 140-grain factory-loaded 7mm Remington Magnum has a muzzle velocity of 3,100 feet per second and a cartridge length of 3.29 inches; while the 2.86-inch 7mm WSM pumps out an astonishing 3,225 fps. Also available in the 300 WSM and the .270 WSM, these 7 1/2-pound featherweight guns are worth a serious look.
Good optics are a must. For most, a quality pair of binoculars will do fine, but if you plan to spot and stalk trophy animals, lightweight spotting scopes come in handy for identifying bucks and counting antler tines.
"We go out there for the enjoyment of hunting, the comradery, the camp and the enjoyment of the wilderness," Troy Wolford told me. "We consider getting an animal a bonus, and a trophy, is something to be cherished."
He couldn't be more right.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Washington-Oregon Game & Fish