John Day's Canyon Bucks

John Day's Canyon Bucks

If you've never tried a float trip for mule deer hunting, perhaps it's time you did. Of course, you may be standing in line behind those who've been there and are going back for more!

By Scott Staats

With my buck already hanging from a shady juniper only 50 feet away, I stood on the sandy beach of our deer camp casting for smallmouth bass and hooking one about every other cast. Chukars and canyon wrens could be heard across the river on the rock walls and up the side canyons of the wild and scenic John Day River. This was more than the usual run-of-the-mill deer hunt. With the hunting, fishing and scenic float to camp, this fell into the category of an all-out adventure.

I had taken a few float trips down the John Day for smallmouth and steelhead but never for mule deer. Four of us joined Carl Rapp, owner of Quest of the West, last fall for a weeklong mule deer hunt that exceeded our expectations.

"The mule deer bucks back in the canyons have more of a chance to grow bigger since they get less hunting pressure," Rapp explained. Many of the bucks he sees are 7- and 8-year-olds. "But," he added, "You have to work for these mulies."

Much planning goes into a float-in hunt like this. Instead of loading a pickup and heading into the forest, we loaded two rubber rafts and a week's worth of gear before setting out down the river.

Rapp has taken a nice buck here in each of the last 10 years. Last year he floated in with his wife, set up camp, got his buck the next morning and floated out that day. While none of the bucks he's taken qualify for Boone and Crockett Club consideration, they were 4- and 5-pointers with spreads of 28 to 30 inches.

Amy Martin Wheeler's 1998 canyon buck is nothing short of massive! She grew up hunting along the John Day River. Photo courtesy of Amy Martin Wheeler

This canyonland hunting involves spot-and-stalk tactics with lots of time spent behind high-quality glass. Good optics are not just an option, they're a necessity. Rapp uses a 15-45X60 spotting scope and has a 6.5-20-power scope on his rifle. One of his most successful methods involves sitting on a high point early in the morning and glassing.

A rangefinder is another necessary tool. Distances can fool you easily in open canyon country.

"Look for bucks laying under a juniper tree," Rapp said. "Those are the easiest ones to get. If they don't see you, then they are fairly easy to sneak up on." On more than one occasion he's spotted bucks from more than a mile away across canyons, and ended up putting on the sneak to bag his intended prey. If a buck is seen late in the day, Rapp takes note of its location and makes that his starting point the next day. Early-morning ambushes work when bucks are traveling to and from food or water.

When heading out of camp up into side canyons, be sure not to skyline yourself or be in the open. Wary old bucks lie under trees and watch for such movement. Rapp says, if they see you, they'll get up and walk around the hill never to be seen again.

When you spot a shooter, the hunt really begins. You have to use the terrain and the wind to your advantage to get close enough for a shot. Having at least two hunters helps for spotting and stalking deer. Oftentimes you are close enough together to use hand signals.

"One of the most important things to consider for a hunt like this is to be in good shape," Rapp advises, "and a good pair of hiking boots wouldn't hurt." Little of the walking involved is on flat ground.

Deer season this year is Oct. 4-15. Chukar and quail seasons open around the same time, and the birds are numerous along much of the river. There are few places where I can take a trip down a scenic river and use my rifle, shotgun and fishing rod on the same trip.

About 120 miles of river flow between Service Creek and Cottonwood Bridge, which offer great hunting and fishing. We floated a 20-mile section of river, going in about halfway and setting up camp for the week. Most of the area is BLM land but some if privately owned. Be sure to pick up a BLM map of the river at the Prineville BLM office (541-416-6700).

River flows are usually low around opening day of deer season, and rafts are a must. Even then, there will be times when you have to drag the boat over riffles. The North Fork of the John Day River also offers good float trips for hunting when water is up.

The John Day is one of the best smallmouth bass rivers in the West. In late September and early October, it's possible to catch up to 100 bass a day. Most are in the 8- to 10-inch range, but fish up to 20 inches are possible. And in some years, the steelhead season is also going strong here.

"A float-in hunting trip was something I'd never done before," said Tom Edwards from Grand Rapids, Minn. His son, Cory, from Bend, Ore., came along to film the trip. "The whole idea was to get away from the vast majority of hunters." During his six-day John Day hunt, Edwards saw two other hunters, and they were on a ridge a mile away.

He passed up a smaller buck opening morning, and then missed with a running shot at a nice buck. On the sixth morning, he got the opportunity at a huge buck but missed again. He estimates the buck had a 26- to 28-inch rack. "That was the biggest mulie I've seen in my life," Edwards said. "I'm not very happy I missed, but I'm glad I had the opportunity at a big buck." He settled on a smaller buck the last day.

"I hunted hard those first five days," he recalls. "I've run in half-marathons the last four years, and this hunt was more challenging than those races.

"I love this canyon hunting," Edwards said. "Sitting on a high point and glassing the area - the scenery is absolutely spectacular." Edwards is planning another hunt with Rapp this season. There's a big mulie buck out there with his name on it.

My uncle, Lew Staats from Lake Placid, N.Y., also went along on the trip. "It looked like a great opportunity to see new country and to hunt mule deer, which I had previously experienced in three other Western states," he said.

The float trip into remote country was different and would have been difficult without an outfitter, Lew commented. "Carl made the trip comfortable and safe."

Success in the canyon starts by hiking to a notch or saddle before light where several good deer trails can be viewed. Then it's a matter

of staying quietly still while glassing. After locating a deer, there would be more hiking, glassing and stalking.

Rapp would have us up for breakfast by 4:30 a.m. and then heading out before light. Everyone would gather back at camp well after dark.

"I was fortunate enough to find a nice 3X3, which would be considered an 8-pointer, Eastern count," Lew said. "The hunting was challenging, far from easy, but that's what I wanted. The scenery was great and seeing elk sign, cougar sign, evidence of Native Americans in the canyon, and the fishing . . . "

Tips For a Successful Trip

To have a safe and successful float-in hunting trip, Quest of the West outfitter Carl Rapp offers the following suggestions:


Make sure you have raft/boating equipment and safety gear, including life vests, extra oars, patch kit and first aid kit.


You need an entire array of hunting and camping gear. "You have to be prepared," said Rapp. "There are no stores or other help nearby; you can't just walk or drive home." It's possible to be a one- or two-day float from help. In-canyon cell phone use is limited unless you climb to the rim.


Be prepared for any type of weather. Most days will be warm, but it's possible for snow to be on the higher hills. -- Scott Staats


Amy Martin Wheeler grew up on a ranch along the John Day River and has hunted deer there since she was 12. She's taken about 10 bucks from the canyon, including several nice 4-pointers. The largest buck, from 1998, scored 176 B&C points. It had bases that measured 6.5 inches in circumference.

She prefers starting at the rim and hunting down to bucks. "If you're down at the river it's tough to spot deer looking up because your view is blocked by sagebrush or juniper or rocks," Wheeler said. "My first big buck I killed was hiding behind a burnt juniper stump in the middle of a rock slide."

She usually avoids opening weekend, when most hunters are out, preferring to wait a few days and going after the bigger bucks. "They tuck themselves in tight in the brush about a third of the way down the canyon." She uses binoculars, glassing every possible hideaway. By 7:30 or 8 in the morning, the big bucks are getting ready to bed down. "The last three big bucks I've taken made a mistake of giving themselves away by either rolling a rock or busting a bird from cover," Wheeler said.

After the spot and stalk, most shots she's taken are less than 100 yards, and she's shot many bucks in their beds. She doesn't like long shots, with her longest being about 275 yards.

During the off-season, the bucks feed up top in the fields, but when hunting season rolls around, they stay in the deeper canyons or a side draw to the canyon where they have good escape routes either up or down. They hide in thickets that are within a few hundred yards of water, Wheeler says. "These deer are used to hunters walking around making noise and not those who are sitting or sneaking."

As a videographer/photographer, Wheeler often films hunts. For information, call (509) 679-3456.

Justin Karnopp, co-owner of Central Oregon Outdoors, shot his first buck in the lower Deschutes River when he was just 12 years old. Much of the land in that section of river is private, especially up on the rim where deer feed in fields of wheat stubble. Most of his hunting has been on a large private ranch in the West Biggs Unit. Public land hunting opportunity exists on the White River and Maupin units farther south along the river.

Karnopp said he's taken a buck every year he's hunted the area. "You can expect a 20- to 24-inch buck, maybe bigger," he said. In recent years, he's been seeing larger bucks, some with 30-inch spreads. A 30-incher and 27-incher were taken last year in the area.

"The bucks will be up in the wheat stubble in the morning, then work their way off the rim toward the river," Karnopp said. "Once it starts warming up, at about 10 a.m., I glass for them under the rimrock near springs or in shady holes." They'll bed down right under the rimrock since there are few trees. He uses 8X32 binoculars and a 15-45 spotting scope and suggests flat-shooting rifle calibers of .270 or .257. Expect to take shots of 100 to 350 yards.

Karnopp takes four hunters at a time. Their bonus is prime steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River, plus, chukar and quail hunting.

"Glassing is the key," Karnopp said, "and you have to know what to look for. You have to watch the wind constantly; if those bucks smell you, they'll take off from a half-mile away." Canyon mulies have real good eyesight. "Hopefully, you can get your buck on top right away, otherwise you could be in for a pretty rough pack up from below the rim."

Float-in hunting trips are also possible in the lower Deschutes River from Mack's Canyon to the mouth. There's good public land hunting in the side canyons. It helps to go with a guide if you're inexperienced at river running. The river does have a few technical rapids in this section.

If you choose not to go with an outfitter on the John Day River, you can bring your own raft or rent one. Check the Service Creek Stage Stop for supplies, a bed and breakfast, raft and Bi-yak rentals, shuttle service, cafè and store. Call (541) 468-3331 or go online to

Rafts and shuttle services are available at the Lone Elk Market in Spray (541-468-2443).

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