October 20, 2022
When Roy Jessie opened the trunk of the old, four-door Chevy, lifting out a silver, worn .38-40 Winchester lever gun, I was wide-eyed in awe. Roy had promised he'd borrow a gun for me on this, my very first buck hunt. Up until that moment, I had no idea what it might be. I handled the heavy rifle, imagining its great power and long, deadly reach. No 13-year-old kid could have swelled more with pride.
Since that memorable buck hunt in the late 1940s, I've hunted mule deer across the American West in dozens of places under vastly differing conditions of weather, terrain, cover and elevation. One thing that has always struck me about the big deer is how well they adapt to so many different habitats. As you might expect, the tactics for hunting them in the three most common types of country they inhabit—high country, mesa lands and high deserts—are as distinctly different as the terrain.
Mountain country and the elevation that goes with it is always spectacular. Snow-capped peaks, lush green meadows and creeks and streams dancing down aspen-lined canyons all reinforce this image. Yet, mile for mile, the high country often holds only a very limited number of mule deer. Those it does hold are widely scattered—especially big bucks. In this top country, mature bucks are almost exclusively loners. This is especially true during the generally short deer seasons most mountain states have today. That means you have very limited time and must concentrate your efforts only in those places solitary bucks are most likely to be.
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Once the rifle fire of opening morning echoes across the hills, these veterans head for heavy cover and stay there. I always make it a rule to get into the highest part of the area I want to hunt and look for special places of isolated, dense cover. These include narrow timber leads, oak brush flats, little basins ringed by jack pines and ridges or saddles with quick crossovers into other canyons. Wary bucks pick places like this because they provide cover and a good view of lower country, have feed nearby and feature quick escape routes they can use if threatened.
One very productive way to hunt here is by using a simple two-man drive. Before starting, get the wind in your face or off either shoulder. Having the sun at your back or at angles from behind is also a plus. Your partner should position himself low and still, waiting in cover near where your drive will end. As you move forward, whether antlers break out on either side or at the far end, one of you is going to get a fast shot out in the open. Pay attention until the very end of the drive, though. Bucks are known to sneak out ahead of the driver at the last minute. The trick here is only to pick spots two people can cover completely.
Another good thing about high-country hunting is the potential to catch an early snow. It doesn't need to be a foot deep; two inches of the white stuff are enough to up your odds of choosing a spot bucks are currently using. Fresh, single tracks and brightly colored deer berries are solid indicators you’re in the right spot. An overnight snowfall means any tracks you find will be only hours old and can be worth moving on. Once full daylight comes, mule deer bucks tend to stay put and not show themselves. You can catch up to them because of this.
Below timbered peaks and winter's deep, killing snow, yet above vast Western deserts, lies a cliffy middle ground made up of mesas, table lands and rimrock country. Low, tough junipers and cedars take the place of tall timber and white-barked aspens. Cliff rose, sagebrush and oak brush grow as high as a house and as thick as dog hair, giving mule deer endless cover, feed and protection regardless of winter's icy grip. This unique land is also where traditional mule deer hunting gets stood on its head, since you'll be hunting "cover deer" much like you would whitetails or blacktails. Here, timing is the real key.
Cautious, solitary bucks have a habit of moving downhill to feed and water during the night. These old veterans have seen many seasons come and go, learning how to keep their buckskin on. They hide out during daylight hours when most hunters aren't aware how close they can be. However, there is a real window of opportunity to ambush them in transitional zones. This special time comes just as dawn begins to light the land enough for clear shooting. Depending on hunting pressure, it can last from gray dawn until the first rays of sun fire up the rimrock tops.
The big boys exit lower flats where they’ve fed and watered at night, starting their climb back up into the safety of bedding grounds for the day. Up there, in cover, they can keep an eye on all that lies below and catch the scent of intruders coming up on rising air. How does this ambush work exactly? You need to position yourself early, above these bedding areas, and let the bucks come to you.
Bucks like to settle in cover and shade right where steep slopes come up against vertical mesas or cliff tops. They also favor brushy shelves or long points above lower country. Chopped-up ground at canyon heads and cliffy amphitheaters, or along saddles that run out over canyons, are other spots I've used as ambush points. The rifle hunter who positions himself above places like this has all the aces up his sleeve. You are down, still and not moving. That makes you impossible to see. Deer are moving, and that movement is easy to see even at long distances. You have the elevation advantage and cannot be winded. Positioned like this, you have the time to set up for a single, accurate shot either at modest range or farther out.
Another worthwhile strategy for mesa lands comes the last 3 or 4 days of the season. By this time, most hunters, successful or not, have headed for home. The land is quiet again and bucks certainly sense this, too. They begin going back to more normal routines and timetables. By positioning yourself in the bottoms, where bucks will come down to feed and water at day's end, you can ambush deer coming out into the open. I always look for little hidden flats, basins and box canyons or small side canyons that empty out into larger flats. Get a bit of elevation so you have a good view of the area but are still within shooting range of these watch grounds. This is a waiting game that can produce spectacular results if you have the patience and savvy to carry it out.
Below mesa lands, running west from the knee of the Rockies nearly 700 miles to the eastern Sierra Nevada, south to the Mexican border and north into southern Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, lies the Great Basin Desert. This vast and arid land is made up largely of rolling hills and flats festooned with low cactus, sagebrush, bitterbrush and grama grass. Rocky hills and sudden mountain ranges erupt off the desert floor to run a few miles before diving back down. Many wide canyons hold no timber or lush meadows, but instead feature boulder-strewn slopes with rocky monoliths the size of cars. Mule deer are scattered through this thorny land, and although they are widespread, often in small numbers, the high desert can and has produced some tremendous heads.
Big, rocky canyons are a perfect example. Trying to still-hunt through broken ground is generally difficult. You either cannot see deer go out in front of you through tall boulders, or you run the risk of being winded before you get close. A better approach is spot-and-stalk—getting elevation up along the rims and going to work with binoculars. You will do more hunting than you would afoot.
Always sweep an area with your unaided eyes first. If you don't see deer right off, pick out those places where the big glass will do the most good. Any small bit of brush on open hillsides, the shaded side of large boulders and terraced slopes and benches, especially north-slope areas out of the sun, are solid choices. Another key to productive glassing is to choose the top third of canyon country to concentrate on first. Bucks like this elevation since they can watch over lower slopes and canyons, plus catch the scent of trouble on rising air. If danger shows up, they can slip away over the rims through low saddles and ridges into another big canyon without being seen.
If you do glass a buck worth going after, you have time to work out a careful approach out of sight and with the wind in your face as you move within rifle range. An undisturbed buck is likely to remain where he feels safe. If it takes half an hour to move in close, that generally makes no difference. Time is on your side.
A second area to hunt these Great Basin bucks in is those remote, north/south-running desert mountains mentioned earlier. An exciting way to hunt these isolated ranges is to get in early in the morning at first light and glass the lower deer trails coming up. The open country makes it easy to see anything on the move, even at long distances. With elevation, you can move quickly to intercept deer not in your canyon. Desert bucks like to bed in shady pockets near the tops, especially in quaking aspen stands. They do the bulk of their traveling very early in the day or at last light. If they hear rifle fire or feel the sting of rock shards from an errant shot, they move quickly down into steep canyons to hole up where they won’t be molested. Later in season, these are the places to hunt for them.
The rifleman who wraps his deer tag around the antler of one of these desert bucks has something to be rightly proud of. He's taken a great big-game animal on its own terms, in its own country. That's the kind of satisfaction that can stay with a man for a lifetime.