Looking for a bruiser mule deer this season? Don't overlook these Evergreen State hotspots!
By Mike Schoby
One should never assume that just because Washington fails to rank highly with serious trophy mule deer hunters that it has no trophy-caliber mule deer. Howard Hoskins laid that notion to rest some 34 years ago, when he tagged a typical buck in Chelan County that netted 202 points on the Boone and Crockett Club's scoring system.
Big mulies are hard to come by anywhere, and especially so during a period of waning mule deer numbers throughout the West over the last four decades. There are, however, some monster-sized bucks roaming around in parts of Washington and more than enough mature bucks to satisfy any hunter's thirst for mule deer.
What can mule deer hunters expect for 2004? Harvest reports seem quite stable for the entire range of Washington mule deer, and hunters should expect success rates in the upper-20- to 30-percent range.
"Mule deer populations are doing well along the Snake River Breaks and the foothills of the Blue Mountains," according to the most recent deer status and trend report by Jerry Nelson, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's state deer biologist. "Mule deer in the Blue Mountains also seem to be increasing, but at a slower rate."
Increases aside, with a healthy and stable mule deer population throughout eastern Washington, the questions remain: Where are the best places to pitch camp this season? And more in tune with trophy seekers, where are the best places for those looking for a quality hunt, without crowds, and with lots of quality deer?
Depending upon your desires, here are a few hotspots in Washington that are hard to pass up.
THE PALOUSE REGION
You don't have to be a game biologist to know about the incredible number of mule deer in the fabled Palouse region and along the Snake River corridor in Washington's southeast corner. I have hunted this area extensively over the years, and like most other hunters who have had the privilege of hunting this rolling wheat country and basalt breaks, I've discovered that the region holds a large number of mule deer.
Nowhere in Washington have I witnessed deer herds with more or better overall quality animals than in this region. The herd is increasing, and 3-point restrictions have been in place for many years now, assisting a larger percentage of the buck population to reach older ages and, thus, increasing the size of the bucks killed by hunters each year.
"The mule deer numbers are staggering," says Carl Lautenschlager, owner of the outfitting service Paradise on the Palouse (509-657-3301). "They have always been great in this area, but now they are to the point that I worry about the carrying capacity of the land. Driving around on any given afternoon it is not uncommon to see several hundred mule deer. Winter or summer, it doesn't matter; they are always here."
Author Mike Schoby shot this 5x4 mulie in the Palouse region, where WDFW management and regulations promote large numbers of average-sized deer. Photo by Mike Schoby
This has always been the Catch 22 of the Palouse. The region has lots of deer, but fewer of them would allow some of the bucks to reach magnum trophy potential. Right now, the size of the mule deer probably, on average, overshadows anywhere else in the state, but if the bucks were to be managed for maximum trophy potential by the WDFW, you would see the average antler spread jump from its current 18 to 22 inches to a respectable 26 to 28 inches. What goes along with an increase in the average spread would be that a small percentage of bucks would grow beyond those dimensions and possibly even qualify for the B&C all-time records.
"The three-point minimum has been a step in the right direction," Lautenschlager continued. "We have been seeing more and bigger deer than ever before, but something has to be done about the sheer number of deer. Herds of several dozen does in one bunch is just not normal, and in my opinion more than the land can support."
In a typical fall day, hunters at Paradise on the Palouse can see more than 200 mule deer, with 25 to 50 of them being bucks. That's a heavy concentration of mulies for any single area.
In addition to having many deer, the Palouse region, while still my top pick for mule deer in Washington, is extremely private. The limited public land in this region gets hunted vigorously, to say the least. In the summer it is common to see dozens of mulies on any given day on public land. Visit this land during the modern rifle season, however, and watch out - all you can realistically expect to see is a platoon of hunter orange and a few sub-legal bucks running about. Since more than 90 percent of this region is private land, it is no secret where they go (and stay) until the season is over: private land.
In short, there are lots and lots of deer in this region, but unless you hunt a quality private land, the hunting can be difficult. The difference between hunting private or public in the Palouse is having the chance to carefully select which 4x4 buck you want to shoot - you will see several during any single trip - or taking a running shot at a forked-horn buck with eye guards before he crests over a hill and into another hunter's lap.
Regardless of whether you hunt public or private land, two methods are typically used for hunting in the Palouse: spot-and-stalk and sneak-and-peek.
Expect to spend hours behind quality glass during your hunt. This country is extremely open and deer can be spotted (as can you) for miles. Locate your buck, devise a plan and execute a successful stalk. Easy, right? Do it right and you will be troubled with how to drag your buck back to camp.
Equally productive and highly satisfying is the art of sneaking and peeking. Much of the Palouse is comprised of badlands, gullies and draws, places that attract solitary bucks. They will often hold up in out-of-the-way shelters, dodging sun as well as storms, and finding positions where predators can be seen, heard or smelled from great distances. To hunt this way, get the wind in your face and slowly work through draws and depressions. Move slowly, glass every inch of country before moving on, and keep your rifle at the ready. Some of these Palouse bucks will hold still until you're extremely close, only to explode at the last second from nearly underfoot. You will wonder how you didn't see them before they bolted. Curious critters, mule deer are notorious for pausing their flight instinct to stop and look back to see what had spooked them. It's this weakness that earns many of them a space in the freezer.
As you head south across the Snake River, you will come to the pine-covered Blue Mountains. This region is some of the most spectacularly scenic hunting country in Washington and coincidently has a good population of mule deer to boot. While the deer are not as numerous as they are in the Palouse region, the Blues still offer a good number of mule deer, with the majority of the land being federally owned public ground (Umatilla National Forest and the Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness).
While there is glut of public land available for the taking, like all public hunting land, this area does see a good amount of pressure. To be successful you need to lace up your boots and get far from the other hunters.
A good infrastructure of Forest Service roads allows most hunters to gravitate around them. All the better for you - by getting into backcountry and roadless tracts, you will stand a much better chance of tagging a buck. While I believe the overall average buck size is smaller in the Blues than in the Palouse region, there are some quality deer, and every year some real whoppers come out of the hills.
The Blue Mountains are not as effective to glass as other mule deer regions, due to the predominantly dense cover and heavy timber, but watching feeding areas and posting up on travel corridors that offer a good field of view will often lead to a buck. If hunting pressure is moderate to heavy, get into place early and let other hunters work deer past your position.
With its high country and relatively early migration, the north-central region of Washington has traditionally been a hotspot for great mule deer hunting when bad weather hits. Mule deer in this area are impacted heavily by harsh winters, perhaps more than any other region of the state, but the last several seasons have been mild, and the Okanogan National Forest may again be a top producer of bragging-sized bucks.
With over 1.5 million acres of hunting ground within the Forest Service boundary, it is not difficult to find a place to set up and glass. In the early part of the year concentrate on high alpine meadows and open ridges, but as the snow starts to fly, look toward the lower country and the valleys that offer protection.
While not as many deer live here as in some other regions, the Okanogan is capable of producing some monster-sized bucks. Hoskins' buck proves that the genetics for producing record-book animals is in place; now it's just a matter of finding the right buck that has escaped bullets for enough years and eaten the right nutrients to reach its maximum antler-growth potential.
This country can be steep and unforgiving, so bring good boots that provide ample support and plenty of extra padded socks to keep your feet in top shape for the hunt. Along with foot care, don't forget good binoculars. While most mule deer hunting is a glassing affair, it is even more so that way in this region. A good set of binoculars, combined with a high-powered, quality spotting scope will allow you to hunt more with your eyes and less with your legs.
Washington's northeastern corner is usually thought of as whitetail country, and it does very well at maintaining that title. Along with whitetails, however, grizzly bears, moose, the occasional woodland caribou, wolves and a handful of some great mule deer make this region home.
Skip Knowles, outdoor writer and long-time hunter of Washington's northeast region, believes it is one of the best but possibly most difficult mule deer hotspots in the state. "Every year stupendous bucks are videotaped during the summer and are simply never killed," said Knowles. "The northeast has given me a whole new respect for mule deer. Those dark timber bucks are some of the toughest bucks I have ever hunted, but also some of the most satisfying." So satisfying, in fact, that Knowles is known to make a pilgrimage there from his current home in Utah every couple of years - just to give them a go.
"While tribal hunting has taken its toll over the years, so much of the country is so remote and takes so much physical work to access that it is left pretty much untouched," Knowles continued. "There are deer that are so stubborn and smart that they would rather simply die in the timber (in the winter) before coming down to traditional winter ranges."
While not many magnum bucks are hauled out of the woods each year, it is not for lack of magnum bucks living here. Rather, they are tough to get. Take a look around at some of the local restaurants, hardware stores and gas stations in the area. It seems that B&C racks hang in nearly every business establishment in the region, and many of those bucks were shot before hunters were really into scoring animals and entering them in record books. "My favorite is a local area sporting goods store," Knowles said. "In it is this freak of a non-typical that someone has cut the drop tines off of so it would fit on the wall. Like I said, there are some real whoppers in this region. In addition to rack size, some of the biggest-bodied deer I have ever shot have come from this region.
"As it stands now, tags are available over the counter, but the state has gone back and forth on limited entry for this region, as mulies are more easily taken advantage of than their brush-loving cousin the whitetail. To help out the population while still making it accessible for hunters, the WDFW has shortened the mule deer season, kept hunters out of the ruts and tried to sway more pressure onto the burgeoning whitetail population."
Knowles says the key to tagging a buck is to hunt opening weekend and plan for heavy human pressure to be applied in the area. Most public land here gets lots of pressure. Hike in far away from roads and access points, and by the time shooting light arrives, you will want to be set up along escape routes. When the first few opening morning shots are heard, get ready - those mule deer bucks act more like whitetails and stick to the brush-choked draws and will simply sneak out of an area. Pick the right spot, be there at the right time, and you may be holding one of the biggest deer you have ever had the good fortune of tagging.
Public land is available to the tune of over 1 million acres in the Colville National Forest, which borders Canada and Idaho - for the uninitiated, this is about as remote as Washington gets, so go prepared with a first aid kit, a good map and a GPS.
BEST OF THE BEST
If you want the absolute best opportunity at a B&C mule deer in Washington, I have saved the best for last, and it's not an unknown unit - at least not for the 3,522 hunters who applied for just 15 tags there in 2003. It's Game Management Unit 290, the infamous "Desert Unit," or more specifically, Desert A. (The Desert B hunt occurs in the same unit, but hunters are limited to tags for antlerless animals only.)
Spending considerable time in this region pursuing coyotes, I honestly believe it is the state's best unit for mule deer hunters, but it didn't happen by accident. Management decisions severely restrict the number of hunters who can shoot a mature buck there each fall, and w
ith even few of those tag holders showing a willingness to seek the unit's oldest bucks with the biggest racks, some real eye-popping deer can be found here.
While calling coyotes, I have had bucks stand up in front of me that would easily surpass the 30-inch wide benchmark. While the unit does not hold many deer, as this is an arid desert region, the bucks that live there are world-class animals. But with the odds of drawing a tag, anyone who wants to hunt there will likely be applying for a long time. One thing is certain: You only win if you play!
While Washington may never stack up to the likes of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado when it comes to mule deer sporting huge headgear - Washington does produce a large number of above-average bucks each year, with a smattering of genuine trophies. Isn't it your turn to shoot a big buck?
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