Tag Archives: mule deer

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 1 of 4

The following is a multi-part article about modern mule deer behavior, adaptation, and the future of hunting.

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Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 1

BRILLIANT! This word echoed in my head throughout the entire deer hunt this year while observing mature bucks and their ingenious evasive tactics. For the most part, I knew where the big bucks lived, but getting close seemed almost impossible. In recent years, these highly pressured, public land bucks (and even does) have developed fascinating tactics to avoid modern hunters. Here are some examples:

While hunting in this unit last year, I stumbled across an ancient flint arrowhead. As I held the little piece of history in my hand, I thought of two things. First, how serendipitous it was to find such a rare bowhunting treasure left by ancient bowhunters. And second, part of the reason why the deer in were so dang smart was because ancient folk have been chasing these critters for centuries before us moderns came along. Unlike a lot of other units, the deer here have been mastering the art of human evasion for centuries. Thanks a lot, Native Americans! Other than people-predators, mule deer are stalked year-round by cougars, coyotes, bears, and now wolves. In order to survive, they must be on constant high alert. Now throw in ancient hunters, modern bowhunters, muzzleloader hunters, rifle hunters, and poachers, and pretty soon the few remaining deer are either super-survivalists or non-existent.

Early one morning on this year’s bowhunt I watched a group of bucks feeding along a steep and open mountainside. One of the bucks was a solid 4-point and worth a closer look. Unfortunately there was no way to approach them without being spotted. So, I waited until the sun came up and for the bucks to meander over a finger ridge to bed. They weren’t in a hurry and I figured they’d bed a short distance from where they disappeared. This was NOT the case. I found their tracks alright and followed them for quite some distance. They meandered through some dense scrub-aspens, then dropped down the canyon for another couple hundred yards, then turned left and continued along a steep and rocky slope. Eventually they took a sharp turn and went straight back up the mountain. What the heck were they doing! It seemed random and chaotic. At that point I realized it was futile to continue pursuing these travelling bucks through such thick and noisy terrain. As I stood there trying to figure out what to do next, I suddenly heard the deer above me jump up and bound away. They had bedded in such a way that anyone crazy enough to follow them would eventually get winded by the rising thermals. Pretty obvious, but BRILLIANT on their part!

Last season while hunting the same unit, I watched three very nice 4-points feed atop an open hillside. As the sun got higher, the bucks disappeared over the ridge. I climbed after them, being careful to keep the wind in my face. The whole area was above timberline so I knew that if I could get to their elevation I would see where they bedded. Well, when I got there they were gone. I followed in the direction they had headed and found some sparse timber that I was sure they’d bedded in. But there was no trace of them. I spent the entire day exploring every piece of cover in the area, but they were gone. I was perplexed that they could simply disappear in the wide open. BRILLIANT! I returned to the same spot this year, and sure enough the bucks were there again. It was early so I watched them feed for a while. This time I was perched across the valley but on their same elevation. I was certain I could watch where they bedded this time. Well, the bucks dropped into a small draw and disappeared momentarily, but never reappeared. Sure of where they bedded, I made a stalk. But when I got there, the bucks were gone. Again, I wasted half the day circling around the mountain trying to figure out where they went, but never did.

On the last day of this year’s bowhunt, I went back to the same hillside and observed a lone four-point buck feeding in the open brush above timberline. There was plenty of time for a stalk, so I waited patiently to see which direction he was feeding before entering the thick timber that separated us. Interestingly, there was a small group of does feeding just below him. As the does moved along, so did he. Apparently he was using the does as a security fence between the pine-line and the open feeding area. From the tree line, a hunter would have to get through the doe group to get close enough for a shot. BRILLIANT! With the clock ticking, I decided to make the stalk. Well, I didn’t get too far. Before I even got to the timber that separated us, an unseen doe busted me, snorted once, and trotted off. The buck stood staring in my direction for fifteen minutes before wandering off, never to be seen again.

While all this was going on, my wife Esther had set up an ambush in some thick timber adjacent to a feeding zone. She was similarly impressed by the deer in her area. At one point, two doe fed along. One doe had apparently been relegated to security and wasn’t allowed to feed. When she finally did put her head down to eat something, the other doe ran over and began swatting her with its hooves, driving the security-only doe back to standing watch. BRILLIANT!

Just about every deer group I’ve seen has a security system. While feeding is high on the deer’s priority list, sheer survival supersedes everything. In most cases, a herd will have a lead doe (or for elk, a lead cow). The lead doe is generally the oldest, wisest, and strongest doe. She rarely feeds while the other deer are feeding, but stands guard instead. She only feeds when she feels secure or while other does in the group are bedded. During the 2012 archery extended hunt, I watched a very large doe walking a head of a small group of deer including a very large buck. She emerged from some thick oak-brush just twenty yards below me. She couldn’t see or smell me, but somehow suspected danger. She continually buried her head in the brush, and then whipped it up looking one way, then the other, in attempt to catch a predator’s movement. I watched her mock-feed like this for about twenty minutes while the other deer fed around her with nary a concern. In all that time, the lead doe never ate a single thing. BRILLIANT!

These evasive tactics are not only used by deer, but elk too. While deer hunting in Southern Utah, I was sitting out a thunderstorm beneath a large pine tree at the edge of a large, steep meadow. It was mid-afternoon and out of the timber emerged a whole herd of elk, approximately 50 head, including a giant 6×6 herd bull. The herd fed into the meadow, and eventually two large cows split off and headed down to a small stream. At the stream, neither cow watered but instead stood facing in opposite directions. I was a little perplexed by this strange behavior, but not a minute later the 6×6 herd bull began making his way down to the stream. When he got there, he stomped into the water, drank for a couple minutes, and then wandered back to the herd. The two sentinel cows never drank, but just stood watch and then followed the bull back up. It then occurred to me that the cows were strictly providing sentinel duty for the bull, putting security before water. BRILLIANT!

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 2 of 4

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 2 of 4

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Modern Mule Deer Part 2:  Adaptation and Evolution

Deer use the other forest creatures as sentinels as well. As you travel through the woods you’ll notice that squirrels, chipmunks, and all kinds of birds will call out to announce your presence. They do this unwittingly to announce danger to their own species, but in effect, also announce danger to the deer. I’ve observed these creatures doing the same thing to deer and elk, which can sometimes be useful to a hunter. But when the creatures bark at you, the deer always take notice. Next time you’re watching a deer, notice how it perks up its ears at every squirrel bark and bird chirp.

These are just some of my recent observations. In truth, mule deer have been changing continually—even dramatically—over the course of the last few decades. Anyone who spends a little time observing mule deer in the wild will witness all manner of well-thought-out security measures developed to avoid predators of all kinds; particularly the human kind.

Avoiding bowhunters is easy enough for any deer, but with today’s long-range guns shooting well over 1000 unethical yards, deer must adapt quicker than ever before. One way bucks have avoided rifle hunters for decades is to keep trees and brush between the hunter and himself. Older bucks are fully aware of the capabilities of long range weapons. Generally, if you bust a buck at close distance, he won’t run directly away from you but rather heads to the nearest tree, and then bee-lines away, careful to keep as many trees between you and him. If there are multiple trees or bushes, the buck will even zigzag from one tree to the next so the hunter never gets a shot.

One of today’s greatest mule deer hunting experts is author and speaker, Jim Collyer. In his book, Blood in the Tracks: A Mule Deer Manifesto (highly recommended reading by the way), he writes about an interesting encounter with very wise buck:

 …I was working my way up a remote ridge and spied a good buck looking down at me from his bed on the ledge above. I could see only his head and the top of his back. I rested the rifle in the crotch of a tree and waited for him to stand up. Instead of standing, the wise old buck lowered his head and crawled on his belly (much the same way a dog does) until he reached cover. Then he uncoiled like a spring and bounced over the ridge, keeping as much brush between us as possible. While uncommon, I have seen bucks belly crawling twice and have talked with several other hunters who have witnessed the same phenomenon. Now, that’s smart! (Collyer 2013)

For as long as we have hunted deer, deer have developed ways to avoid us. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active at morning and evening). But in high pressured areas, I’ve seen deer become completely nocturnal; never rising during daylight hours. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. Now, there are many degrees of nocturnal-ness. All deer feed at night, but if left undisturbed they also feed during the day. But as hunting pressure increases, deer become less and less daytime active—maybe rising out of bed for only a minute or two to eat and use the restroom before bedding back down again. Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that all deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy levels and fat stores. However, it’s been my observation that bucks living on high-pressured public lands have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

The following is a quote from mule deer expert and writer, Walt Prothero, concerning the ways mule deer have adapted to increased hunting pressure:

But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable…The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Buck’s have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located. (Prothero, 2002)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 3 of 4

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 3 of 4

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Modern Mule Deer: Big Buck Classification

I have categorized mature mule deer bucks into three categories: trophy bucks, superbucks, and megabucks.

Trophy bucks are mature, solid 4-point or better bucks, four years or older, and sporting a rack above 160 inches. Trophy bucks are still common these days, but dwindling in numbers each year.

Superbucks are older and bigger bucks in their prime, aged around 6-10 years. They have very large and wide antlers scoring 200 inches or more. These bucks are extremely rare, often referred to as ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ bucks. Many hunters will never see a superbuck in the wild.

Megabucks are very old bucks scoring close to 300 inches, have mass like a baseball bat and towering racks that resemble elk. When I was younger I referred to these as ‘elk-deer’ because at first glance, your mind can’t classify it as a deer. The key ingredient to Megabucks is age. Megabucks are more common in warmer climates where they live longer (12-13 years instead of 10). I’ve been hunting a long time—25 years to be exact—and I’ve only seen three bucks that you might call megadeer. All three megabucks were in the Central Utah Manti-Lasal Range. I spotted the first one in 1996, the second in 2001, and the last megadeer I ever saw was in 2002. After 2002 I spent more days afield, but never saw another megadeer.

Superbucks are the hunter’s last hope. With a finite amount of wild lands and ever-increasing human population encroaching on winter range and over-development of every square inch of land, bucks can no longer live long enough to reach mega proportions. Fortunately, we still have a few superbucks around—I see one or two every year. The problem is not with ‘trophy hunters’ shooting all the big ones, but with non-trophy-hunters, or meat-hunters, blowing away all the spikes and forked-horns every year. One and two years old bucks don’t have enough experience in the wild to reach maturity, which is why they’re such easy targets. But the few babies that do slip through the cracks have the potential of reaching magnificent proportions. These are the only bucks that I—and other trophy hunters–hunt anymore: the elusive surviving few.

According to biologists, if a mule deer buck survives to be 5 years old, it has an 80% chance of dying of old age or other natural causes. Every year that a buck survives, it gets exponentially smarter. The problem is that 80% of yearling bucks never make it to five years old. One thing that trophy-seekers should keep in mind is that Superbucks don’t just father more super-bucks, but super-does as well. These superdoes pass along and teach their offspring the super-instincts that allowed Grandfather Superbuck to survive for so long. Over time, this results in an ever-wizening herd. Breeding is only done by the biggest and smartest bucks. So each successive generation of deer— doe or buck—is the spawn of super-intelligent bucks. Often times, when you observe a doe in the wild it seems kinda dumb (compared to the bucks). But this is only because no one is hunting her. If the doe were hunted, it would wizen up fast, I guarantee it!

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 4 of 4

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 4 of 4

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The Future of Hunting

Hopefully by now you’ve gained some appreciation—or maybe even admiration—for these brilliant survivors. Some biologists have predicted that the mule deer will eventually go extinct. They argue that the mule deer—which split off from the whitetail deer after the last ice age and evolved to fit the rigors of the West—will eventually be dwindled down to minimal numbers due to human encroachment. After that, mule deer will gradually be bred out of existence by the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which more readily adapts to human pressure and is already making its way back into the West. After pursuing great mule deer for so long, I personally don’t see the mule deer going out without a fight. If they can survive to this point, they’ll be around for a lot longer…but a little help from the humans wouldn’t hurt!

All existing animals—predators and prey—have learned to survive and adapt to environmental pressures for thousands, or even millions, of years. If a predator doesn’t adapt to its smarter prey, then he starves. If the prey doesn’t adapt to a more efficient predator, it goes extinct. The biggest problem I foresee is humankind. The difference between man and other predators is that he adapts exponentially. In a few short decades, the hunting industry has exploded with new weaponry and products designed to gain an acute advantage over deer. Fifty years ago bowhunters used strictly traditional gear—recurves and longbows—with a maximum effective range of about thirty yards. Gun hunters had opens sights and relatively short-range rifles. But only a few decades ago, the compound bow was invented, and re-invented to the point that it can shoot effectively out to 100 yards or more. Scoped rifles have expanded their range to well over 1000 yards. With this kind of unnatural firepower, it’s amazing we have any deer left at all! Certainly we have a lot less.

What the hunting industry unwittingly and greedily ignores is the trade-off: less animals and/or smarter animals. And now, here we are with both! In twenty-five years I’ve seen giant bucks go from standing in the open at daybreak to becoming completely nocturnal, and nearly non-existent. What the hunting industry ignores is that the few surviving bucks—the neurotic, brilliant few—will be the only one’s living long enough to do all the breeding. And so what you’ll have in the future is an entirely new sub-species of mule deer. It looks the same—assuming you ever see one—but it doesn’t act the same…at all. The problem that overly-efficient weaponry creates is two-fold. First, there will be fewer deer in the future, which means fewer tags, which means fewer hunters. And second, the existing deer will be completely nocturnal and almost unhuntable. Ironically, this expediting of evolution will create brilliant, impossible ghosts that will inevitably put the hunting industry out of business! From what I’ve seen, most young, newbie-hunters lose interest after a just couple disappointing seasons, abandoning the woods for more entertaining and/or productive hobbies. The result of losing our deer will finally result in losing our hunting heritage.

So what does the next generation do? There can be only one solution: Learn how to really hunt—how to read sign and stalk close—but more importantly, they must first become deer conservationists (i.e. protect habitat, put restrictions on yearling shooting, discourage technology-driven hunting tactics, etc.) To succeed in the future, hunters will have to continually adapt to this new breed of wily mule deer. This can be especially difficult for the veteran hunter who continually makes the mistake of approaching today’s deer with yesterday’s tactics. Occasionally he might get lucky—after several failed seasons. And thus begins the downward spiral. He gets lucky and suddenly thinks he’s got the neo-buck figured out—maybe it was a new area, a new rifle, a new attitude, or more boot miles. But the next year, the deer have seemingly vanished, gone again, year after year, and he’s back to eating tag soup.

It seems like the only hunters who are dragging anything out of the woods these days are either very lucky, or very young. Someone old once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  This is mostly true, but occasionally you’ll meet a young gun who knows how to hunt! He didn’t grow up with herds of big ol’ 4x4s standing in the open. He grew up with incredibly smart bucks eluding him in the nastiest terrain every season since he began hunting. He’s only seen one or two real mature bucks—ever—but keeps after ‘em. Unlike his A.D.D. buddies who gave up hunting long ago, he sees the potential of the woods. Every day he dreams about success and understands the great, final reward of outsmarting a giant, majestic mule deer buck with wide-sweeping antlers. Voraciously he studies deer behavior, physical needs, and learns from their evasive tactics. He’s learning how to read sign and follow tracks quietly through tangled timber. He’s willing to hike many miles from the nearest road. He hunts in cliffs and sub-zero temperatures. He knows that the greatest enemy of success is comfort. He knows that these wily old bucks will continue to change from year to year, and so he too must change how he approaches them. This is the only way to have consistent success—or any success—in this modern hunting age.

Conclusion

As predators, we must adapt to our prey or be left behind. Our deer have changed, adapted, and evolved at a shocking rate. Our deer are brilliant survivors, and thank God for it! Many a trophy hunter has sought big mule deer as a way to be admired; but the true trophy hunter hunts for a trophy out of admiration for it. Conservation is key, folks. Humankind has hunted since the dawn of time, and if we are careful stewards of our forest denizens, then maybe we can pass along this invaluable tradition of hunting to another couple generations.

In reviewing my hunting notes for this article, I wondered if I was just making excuses for my failure this year. But further contemplation suggests that these ingenious evasion tactics are more a reason for failure than an excuse for it…and not just for me but for the majority of hunters out there. As failed hunters, all we can do is study these animals, admire them—maybe even obsess over them—because the more you understand your quarry, the more you’ll understand yourself and your role as a predator.

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 1 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 2 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 3 of 4)

The Buck of Destiny

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The Buck of Destiny

Is this the buck of destiny? Well it’s not on my hit list…yet.

As I was walking out my front door today I noticed this handsome little two-point buck feeding in the empty lot next door. I barely had enough time to grab my camera and snap this shot as he made a high jump and then fed within 20 yards of our house.

When my wife and I moved out to the country in 2012, we just wanted a yard big enough to shoot our bows in. Little did we know there was a whole herd of deer living along the slough that passes behind our house. We’ve seen up to 21 deer at one time! Below is the biggest buck we’ve seen:

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The best part about having backyard deer is that you can really learn a lot by observing their natural behaviors. Sometimes I try to move about the yard undetected. I watch how they react to different sounds and movements. I observe their daytime routines, feeding habits, and anything else I can learn. The fact is, the better you understand your prey, the better hunter you’ll be.

So, today’s buck was a real treat. We haven’t seen bucks all summer and now they’re here, in the backyard. And just in time, too, because tomorrow is the big day. I’m finally heading into the hills on my first bowhunt of 2014. When I return in a few days I’ll update this blog, hopefully with a bunch more pictures of much bigger bucks.

Still Holding Out For the BIG One

Still Holding Out For the BIG Buck

I’ve had deer on my mind lately…probably because the season is in full swing and here I am sitting behind my computer!

Unfortunately, I’ve chosen the difficult and lonely path of a trophy deer hunter. What this means is I’m holding out for a true, one-in-a-million, mule deer giant, also known as a superbuck. What makes a superbuck you ask? In Utah a “trophy” is defined as any buck with at least a 30-inch spread. But a trophy is really in the eye of the beholder. In my mind, a superbuck is:

  1. At least 30 inches wide.
  2. Has at least 5 points on each side (eyeguards included).
  3. Is a mature buck with a huge body and worn down teeth.
  4. Has long and massive main beams with deep forks.

If the buck doesn’t have at least three of these four qualities, I’ll pass. Passing any big, mature mule deer is extremely difficult. Not only is it rare to find any mature bucks these days, but getting within 50 yards or less is nearly impossible. The biggest challenge is when you come face-to-face with a “good” buck–not a great buck. It’s easy to get excited and fool yourself into thinking he’s bigger than he really is. And what if you don’t get another chance? But when you pull the trigger, it’s all over. Remember the old saying: “You can’t shoot the big ones if you shoot the small ones.”

I didn’t set out to become a trophy hunter, it found me! For decades I was happy to bag any buck. The problem is with human nature. It’s human nature to continually seek bigger and better things. Complacency and mediocrity might be common traits nowadays, but it’s really an anomaly. Human consciousness compels us to achieve more and more, even sometimes to our detriment. For me and my mule deer aspirations, I simply choose excellence because I can. I just love big bucks.

Trophy hunters sometimes get a bad rap. Some people associate trophy hunters with “head hunters” or people that shoot deer not for the meat, but for their headgear. This is sometimes true, but for me, bigger heads means bigger bodies, and that means more meat. Besides the meat, their regal, majestic heads are just beautiful!

I only get to hunt one deer a year; why not make it something I’m proud of?! I hunt trophies not for the glory, but to prove to myself that I can. This year I refuse to settle. No matter how difficult, no matter how much time I must spend afield, I won’t even think about pulling an arrow until I’ve verified a genuine superbuck. My mantra is: One tag, one year, one superbuck!

I’ll probably need some superluck…

My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

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My 40-Inch Dream:  2013 Deer Hunting Story

Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

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The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

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Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

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While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

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The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

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Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

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Mule Deer Adaptation

Mule Deer Adaptation

My biggest frustration is empty woods. In places like Monte Cristo and the Manti-Lasal range, a hunter can travel past supreme habitat all day long without catching sight of a single deer. Thirty years ago, these places were crawling with deer, even giving up dozens of record-book bucks along the way. Today, not much about these woods has changed except there are almost no deer. And the few deer that still exist are the neurotic descendants of lone survivors.

During the seventies and eighties, while hundreds of trigger-happy hunters clambered around the mountainsides shooting wildly at any buck that dared step into the open, those few crazy-bucks held up in the thickest trees. They sprung from cover at the slightest human sight or scent and barreled along thick tree lines and out of sight without glancing back. Even something as benign as a squirrel’s bark would send these wide-eyed crazies flying into the next valley, never stopping to question the validity of the threat as they retreated into some dark hole on some private property or high mountain cliff. Today, the descendants of these neurotic deer are all that’s left—no longer Odocoileus hemionus, but Odocoileus neuroticus.

My friend Scott and I often travel together down a long and dusty road leading to an area on Monte Cristo where we both hunt. Every time we drive past a certain clearing in the trees above the road, Scott points out the exact location where his brother-in-law once shot a little two-point buck long ago. This appears to be the highlight of his family’s gun hunting tradition in recent years. Now, each time I drive down that road and look at that hillside clearing, I can’t help but wonder if that little buck was indeed the last of a generation of careless mule deer—yesterday’s deer.

What the modern mule deer lacks in numbers it makes up for in elusiveness. As an example, there are a few spots where I hunt that are always covered in deer sign—tracks, rubs, and droppings everywhere. But in a hundred days of hunting you’ll never actually see a single animal—at least not during daylight. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active in the morning and evening). But on heavily pressured public areas where I hunt, I’ve observed that today’s deer are mostly, if not completely, nocturnal. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. That “great” area you chose to sit and watch before first light, remains quiet and empty as the sun comes up. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive because you’ve already missed the action. Utah wildlife biologist and author, Walt Prothero, wrote extensively on the mule deer’s keen ability to adapt to modern dangers. In his book Mule Deer Quest he wrote the following:

“But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable… The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Bucks have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located (Prothero, 2002).”

Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that mule deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy and fat stores. However, in most of the high-pressured public areas where I hunt, I have observed that this is no longer the case. These modern mulies have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to get up to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

Another example of the mule deer’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions took place following the particularly harsh winter of 1983-1984. Every single deer in the mountains of Northern Utah was forced down to the lowest possible elevations in order to survive the extremely high snowpack. This forced many of the herds into our cities and even farther into the farmlands west of Ogden. By springtime, many deer had simply adapted to the city lifestyle and never did return to the mountains. Even today, small herds of mule deer are living year-round in the suburbs of Logan, Brigham City, North Ogden, West Weber, Hooper, Farmington, Bountiful, and many other small cities.

This amazing ability to adapt to innumerable adverse conditions—primarily man-made conditions—is all that’s kept the wily mule deer from becoming an endangered species.

Drop-Tine Obsession

(Story published in Huntin’ Fool Magazine, Aug. 2011, Vol.16, Issue 8)

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Drop-Tine Obsession: My Droptine Buck Hunting Story

I first spotted the great buck, which I simply called ‘The Drop-Tine,’ during the 2008 season while bow hunting a heavily hunted public area of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Northern Utah (known as Monte Cristo by the locals). He was the most amazing buck I’d ever seen, with a wide sweeping rack and long matching club-like droptines hanging down below his ears. I had been exploring foreign hillsides all morning when I bumped him from his bed at the edge of some pines. As he quartered away I was able to get a quick shot off, but in my haste I misjudged the distance and the arrow flew low. The arrow hit some dead-fall in front of him, arrow shattered, twirled through the air, and bounced off the deer’s rump. I merely spanked him, and then he was gone. Having never seen a buck of this magnitude in the wild, and on public land for that matter, I became instantly obsessed. But for the remainder of the season I was unable to relocate him.

Monte Cristo is your standard north/south rocky mountain range in Northern Utah. It has everything mule deer love: tall mountains covered in aspen and pine trees, endless steep canyons and ridges, and rolling sagebrush hills. Water is scarce in most places, but adequate enough to support plenty of deer and elk. For decades Monte Cristo was one of Utah’s premier deer hunting spots, but in recent years, deer populations have declined drastically due to high hunting pressure and diminishing winter range. With very few peaks from which to glass and covered in dense timber, Monte Cristo is not a spot-and-stalk area. Big bucks are only found by busting brush in steep wooded areas, making it very difficult to locate them with any consistency.

In 2009 I planned to exclusively hunt The Drop-Tine for six days, beginning where I left off in 2008. But the great monarch managed to elude me up until the third evening when he busted out of some trees 40 yards above me, stood for a second atop a sagebrush knoll silhouetted against a twilight sky, and then disappeared before I could raise my bow.

By the sixth and last day I was getting desperate. My plan was to carefully still-hunt the entire mile-long ridge where he lived, as well as the adjacent canyon. For twelve hours I snuck slowly through the woods without rest, glassing every inch for antler. But he was nowhere to be found. Both physically and mentally exhausted, I was ready to give up. With my head hung low, I turned back towards camp. Seconds later, as I rounded the end of the ridge, The Drop-Tine suddenly exploded from a bed 40 yards below me in a thicket of trees. Through a cloud of dust I watched the big barrel-bodied deer bound away. I could hear him running for half a mile down the canyon and up the other side. I thought I was going to cry as I plopped down on a dusty game trail and dug my GPS out of my backpack. That day he had bedded half a mile from the last place I saw him. How do you hunt a deer that doesn’t move in the open during daylight, that is never found in the same place twice, showing up anywhere at random like a ghost?  The wise old buck lived a life without pattern; that is how he had eluded hunters for so long.

The 2009 season was over; time to throw in the towel. Every night for the following year, when I turned out the lights before bed, the image of The Drop-Tine silhouetted against the sky would pop into my head. I lay awake night after night pondering the mistakes I’d made and planning new strategies for taking the mystical beast the following year. I was Ahab, and he was my white whale.

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In the summer of 2010, as soon as the snow melted off the mountain, I went scouting for The Drop-Tine, but was never able to locate him. A week before the August archery opener, my brother Brent spotted The Drop-Tine while checking trail-cams in the area. Those trail cameras, by the way, never did capture the ghost’s image. Back home, the ‘Great Recession’ was taking its toll on my small photography business, leaving me with a lot more time than money. So, I used this to my advantage, planning to hunt The Drop-Tine on two separate trips totaling ten days.

The archery opener started off slowly. But on the fourth morning, while sneaking to one of The Drop-Tine’s old beds, he, along with two smaller bucks busted out of a new bed fifty yards below me. That was the last time I saw him that week. A second 5-day outing the following week turned up nothing, and I finally accepted the fact that the old buck had grown tired of my chasing him and moved to another area. At that point I had no choice but to give up. He was a deer beyond my caliber for sure, and I had already wasted way too much time and too many tags pursuing him. I thought about all the other hunting opportunities I’d sacrificed while chasing just one deer and was ready to make peace with my failure once and for all.

The next weekend, which happened to be the last day of the archery deer season, my girlfriend (now my wife) Esther and I embarked on a two-day elk hunt into the same area, but on a neighboring ridge where I’d seen more elk sign. Our objective was cow and spike elk, but on the drive up all I could think about was The Drop-Tine and how dejected I was. Esther lent a sympathetic ear to my rant:

“No one’s going to kill that buck. He’s gonna die of old age in a field one winter and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  I didn’t digress. “I wish I’d never seen him, at least then I could enjoy deer hunting again. And yet, I’ll return again next year to chase a ghost through empty woods. I have no choice…”

The next morning we woke before light and snuck into the elk area, setting up on opposite ends of a steep timber swathe used as a bedding area between feeding areas. As I sat watching the big September sun rise slowly above the horizon, all was quiet, nothing stirred. I was beginning to question our setup when suddenly my eyes caught the motion of wide antler tips swaying through the brush 50 yards downhill. Great, the elk herd is moving in, I thought as I raised my binoculars. But through the glass a deer’s head appeared, then two huge drop-tines! I couldn’t believe it. Three years and eighteen total days spent hunting for this creature, and now here he was, walking right towards me!

The buck followed slowly behind a sparse line of pine trees, offering no shot. I began frantically searching for a shooting lane when I suddenly realized that the tree line he was following ended abruptly right in front of me. If he kept his course, he’d pop out 20 yards in the open! A quick glance at grass to my left indicated the wind was starting to swirl. This is never going to happen, I thought. He’s too close. But the buck kept coming, slowly and cautiously at first, then picking up speed.

At that point I was a nervous wreck; my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my heart pounded so loudly that I was certain the buck would hear it too. In a full panic I glanced down at a sticker on my old Browning bow which reads, Stay Calm, Pick a SpotOkay, at least I can pick a spot, I thought as I drew my bow back. A second later the buck’s shoulder appeared and the arrow was off; I don’t even remember releasing it. As the huge buck spun and blasted out of sight, I caught a glimpse of my orange-fletched arrow sticking out of his side.

Shot location and distance.
Shot location and distance.

Everything was suddenly quiet again, as if nothing had happened. I sat dumbfounded for a second, awash in a swirling mix of dumfounded disbelief coupled with adrenaline screaming throughout my body. In an instant, I dropped my bow and went sprinting back through the woods towards Esther. She hopped out from behind a stand of pines, bewildered by the sight of a crazy man flailing towards her. “I just shot my Drop-Tine!” I yelled. At that moment, The Drop-Tine had finally become My Drop-Tine.

A tedious, half-hour tracking job over a sparse blood trail eventually led to the downed deer. The arrow had pierced both lungs, but the huge buck still covered 150 yards in great leaps and bounds down a nearly vertical slope. He expired on a steep, brushy slope, landing on top of his sprawling antlers which anchored him from sliding down the mountain. At the sight of the downed deer, a sense of relief and accomplishment came over me which can never be explained. After three years of failure, my wildest dream had come true, and I was finally liberated from my obsession.

Still in a daze, Esther and I pried the mighty buck free of the tangle and marveled at his majesty. I’d watched, even in fleeting glimpses, as The Drop-Tine grew bigger and more spectacular than I ever could have imagined.

The Drop-Tine’s rack measured nearly 33-inches wide and gross-scored 200 5/8 (194 6/8 net P&Y).

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