November 16, 2016
A loud crack and boom shattered the silence of the high country. Normally that's a sound I relish when I'm deer hunting, but in this case, it was triggered by lightning, not a light pull on the trigger.
No storm holds a candle to a thunderstorm in the high backcountry, where lightning doesn't flash overhead — it flashes all around. I curled up under a small fir tree I hoped was too short to be a lightning rod. So far I had seen more bears than bucks in this alpine meadow, and I hoped that would change after this hellacious hailstorm passed.
When the hail barrage finally halted, a mist arose from the meadow, like a water-on-dry ice effect employed to enhance the entrance of a performing star. As if on cue, the star came out — his antlers seemingly sailing on the mist. His rack was big enough — and the visibility was poor enough across the long meadow — that I actually took a moment to confirm he was in fact a buck and not a raghorn elk.
Another loud crack and boom shattered the silence.
A short distance away, my buddy had returned to camp to get his wet gear when the storm started dumping hail, and he had sooner sat down on his stand again when he heard the report from the .308 Remington 722 thunder through the timber. He was halfway across the meadow when the finishing shot made him nearly jump out of his boots.
The keys to that successful hunt were getting into the backcountry to find unpressured deer, and taking it a step further by getting off the main wilderness trail and discovering a secluded meadow with lush forage and a snow pond that offered an ample supply of water. My buddy hunted a meadow that the trail passed alongside, but he saw more hikers than deer during that hunt. That worked out nicely for me, because I needed his back to pack out the backside of the buck.
GO BOLDLY WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE
Western deer hunters often focus too much attention on well-known areas with famous names, and neglect vast expanses of excellent deer country in between. Places that stand out to you will stand out just as clearly to other hunters. Skip sexy sounding places like Deer Creek and Buck Basin, and rather bail off into some nondescript, nameless patch of brush no one else would think of bothering with. My hunting partners and I have taken several bucks after leaving the beaten path while on the way to somewhere else.
Even hunting the backcountry doesn't ensure a chance to bust the cover of unpressured bucks. If you've ever had trouble finding a place to park at a wilderness trailhead, or tired of stepping off a wilderness trail to let others pass, you understand. That level of human disturbance focused on the few established trails can render those areas poor choices to direct your attention.
In wilderness areas, I've seen more bucks by hunting cross-country than I have by trekking the trails. However, that's a great way to get lost unless you possess good map and compass skills or a GPS you can understand. One of my favorite navigation tools is the Bushnell BackTrack, which lets you log multiple points and then tells you how far that point is and in which direction.
SCOUTING FROM THE SKY
Discovering hidden gems such as secluded forage areas and water sources that aren't visible from roads or major trails can help you find more and bigger bucks. Modern mapping resources — both paper and virtual — can aid your research and make your scouting time afield more efficient. If you can narrow the field of your scope, you can concentrate on the areas that interest you most instead of wasting valuable time exploring dead ends.
I use a combination of online map resources and the best modern maps available. I just can't have enough. Every type of map seemingly offers something others don't. None, however, will show you what you really need to know, and that's the deer that dwell in the area.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Some rugged backcountry provides excellent deer habitat and hunting, but other tough terrain may only offer good jackrabbit hunting. Speak with local wildlife biologists to learn which areas hold good deer numbers, and then go see for yourself.
Information about deer numbers in any area can be seasonal and may change often. By summer's end, low-elevation forage dries and deer move uphill in search of greener pastures. These are areas biologists refer to as transition zones, where you're most likely to find deer during fall hunting seasons.
Deer move lower in elevation when the frost ruins the nutrition in the forage. Some move before the first snow flies, while others live in areas where they can't escape the snow even on valley floors. In any case, local wildlife managers offer knowledge of the deer's annual habits and their recent movements. You can't get that real report from a map or satellite image.
Once you've decided where you will hunt, identify promising features on the landscape. While it's tempting to hunt where you can glass the most ground, you will see more deer in varied terrain where they find food close to cover. Bucks prefer the heads of canyons where they can see danger approaching from below. For this reason, hunting along the edge of rimrock where you can look down on bedded bucks offers a solid strategy.
Next, confirm your hunches with painstaking glassing. You will cover more country with a pair of binoculars than a pair of boots.
TOUGH GEAR FOR OUT HERE
Hunting tough country requires durable gear and unbreakable spirits. We have aborted trips when the younger ones got dehydrated and when the older ones got elevation sickness. We have seen just about everything fall apart in the remote country we hunt, from vehicles, to campers, to rifles.
The first snows follow closely behind the opening of deer seasons in much of the West's backcountry, so prepare yourself for all types of weather. We have weathered lightning storms and typhoons, as well as searing heat that wouldn't allow a hunt past 10 a.m. We have been snowed in to the point we thought we would have to abandon our campers. Yet the snow pales in comparison to the rivers of mud the roads can become where no rock base lies under the ruts.
Even in what we consider nice weather, dehydration presents a constant concern.
If you are planning a pack trip into the backcountry, it's even more critical to prepare your gear for any surprises from the elements. On that trip when I shot the 4x4 in my wilderness meadow after the thunderstorm, we returned to camp and discovered that the downpour had liquidated our assets inside the dome tent.
SOMETIMES YOU SEE THE FOREST FOR THE DEER
You will encounter more deer in timbered terrain than in vast expanses of open landscape, because deer depend on forage and cover, both of which they can find in the forest. In wilderness areas where timber harvest does not create forage openings for early seral browse favored by deer, focus on burned areas or natural meadows, such as the one where I found my biggest wilderness buck.
Unlike open country, where optics can help you spot deer well beyond their vision, timber turns the advantage to the deer at closer range. Move slowly into the wind, and stop often to glass. It's said a buck busted from its bed in the timber gives you only about two seconds to take your shot, and I can't even collect my wits in that amount of time, much less collect a deer. Keep your optics close to your chest, not in your backpack, and keep your weapon in your hands, not slung over your shoulder.
DEER OF THE DESERT
You must cover more ground to find deer in the desert, but the rewards can be bigger bucks in less pressured country. With the exception of private agricultural lands, it's rare to see big bucks browsing in the open, so put your focus on rocky canyons and arroyos where bucks feel more secure.
Gain a lofty perch at first light. Then glass the benches for a buck that will probably move to a shady bed soon after the sun rises. From there, plan a stalk, knowing that the buck has bedded where he has a good field of vision and escape routes. Take note of landmarks to guide your approach, and try to keep that ever-changing desert wind from giving you away.
The big bucks don't get that way by making themselves readily available in easily accessible terrain. But hunters across the West have a good shot at finding a quality deer if they are willing to do a little research and put in some legwork. For your best chance at taking a buck on his turf this season, lace up your boots, cinch up your pack and be prepared to rough it.