Archery Mule Deer Close to Home
By Dason Lasater
I leaned forward and peaked around the last sage bush very slowly. If my planning and calculations were correct, I should be able to see the big buck any step now, or half a step as the case was. I eased forward six inches at a time, primed and ready for a shot. My nerves were as frazzled as they had been all season. I knew that at any moment, the buck could explode from its bed or simply stand and catch me mid stride. My heart was defiantly working double time, when suddenly I saw an antler tip.
My hunt started early that same morning from my home. This wasn’t unusual for me, I loved to backpack hunt deep into the wilderness of Idaho, but this hunt was different. The hunt I was on was a late season hunt in the foothills on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. The Fish and Game Department had established the hunt to limit and control deer /vehicle collisions and help homeowners plants and shrubbery survive from the ravenous migrating Mule deer in the late season. This hunt was historically very enjoyable and productive for me. It had given me many fine trophies over the years. Several of them would qualify for the Pope and Young clubs minimums. For the record, a typical mule deer must score over 145 inches to qualify.
As you can imagine, a late season hunt is very dependent on weather as many other hunts are. If the snow doesn’t fall and temperatures don’t drop, the deer simply don’t migrate down from the lofty peaks. The 2012 winter was not early and didn’t start out cold, so the migrating deer were several weeks later than is normal. Not to mention, the extremely honed senses of a mature mule deer who had spent its life watching for hungry cats and wolves. These two factors made the hunt much more complicated, coupled with a limited range of archery gear and you have a recipe for a very challenging hunt.
I believe a hunter should really give some thought to what trophy size they are looking to harvest, before the hunt actually starts. Be realistic and take into account what will make you happy, and what is the likelihood of getting your trophy. If you are hunting an area that generally doesn’t produce giant trophies, it would be unrealistic to hold out for a monster that may or may not exist in that area. Also take into consideration the weather patterns, migration, human and predator pressure. All this should be considered before deciding what your benchmark trophy will be. The most important of these factors is what you will be excited and pleased with taking. If you are starting out, it may not be wise to pursue only record book quality animals, especially if you have never harvested an animal with your weapon of choice. All I am suggesting is to set a realistic goal for the hunt prior to starting the adventure. It can always be adjusted during your hunt. My goal for this hunt was a mature buck with at least four points on each side.
I left the truck an hour before light on the 20th of November. My goal was to hike to the top of one of my favorite vantage points to find cruising bucks. Because of the rut, the bucks were constantly on the move looking for receptive mates. This made them easy to spot, but difficult to intercept or stalk. But given enough time and patience, a hunter has a good chance of finding a respectable buck to target.
I had first seen this buck shortly after light on a small ridge directly across from me chasing does. He would approach a group of does and would gallop into the group scattering them like quail. Then he would systematically chase down and sniff each one. If none were receptive, he would simple turn and target the next group. It was very interesting to watch, but also very frustrating. He never stayed in one place long enough to plan a stalk, let alone complete it.
Finally after several hours of this and countless refusals by does, he bedded on the top of a small rise mid hill across from me. I decided this might be my only chance, so I bailed off the back side of the hill I was on. I dropped about 700 feet of elevation, which would put me out of the line of sight of the buck. Then I looped down and went up the hill the buck was on. I verified the wind direction and started my hurried stalk toward him.
I won’t bore you with the details of running back up the 700 feet of elevation. But, I will mention that conditioning for a hunt like this is paramount. Finally I was within 100 yards of the bedded buck, only to see him rise out of his bed and run to a “new” group of does on the hillside I had just left. You can imagine my frustration, as I watched him cross over the top of the next ridge with his new girlfriends.
I almost chose to give up on this love bird, but decided to give it another try. I again dropped the 700 feet of elevation and regained it on the opposite hill. As I crested the top of that hill looking into the bowl below, I found the deer hotspot for the day. I sat and counted at least 5 good shooter bucks and possibly 100 does.
I watched as they all milled around back and forth taking turns chasing and browsing. I watched and planned an assault for about an hour, before I made my move down the back side of a ridge, closer to the center of all of the action.
I was able to use a dry creek bed that had eroded a big crack down the hill, to close the distance to less than 200 yards. My adrenalin started to kick into high gear, as I neared the last corner of the creek. I had marked a bush from my vantage point on top that would signal the approximate location of my target buck. I continued ahead slowly. What I didn’t know was that the entire herd of deer had laid down for a quick nap, while I had crawled down the dry wash. So when I peeked over the last bit of cover I had, I was dismayed to find no deer in sight. In my defense from above the sagebrush in the tight little bowl it did look thick enough to hide the 70 or 80 animals that made up the different herds, using the bowl as a singles meeting place. I stood in disbelief, wondering how and where the deer had disappeared to. Much to my dismay, the entire herd rocketed out of their beds and bounded for canyons unknown. I sat down on the ground stunned and kicking myself. I should have continued crawling up into the brush and maybe I would have been blessed with a point blank shot at a very nice buck.
I shrugged off my stalking mistake and started to climb the next ridge. Even though I hadn’t been successful in taking a buck yet, I was having a blast. Deer were everywhere and just getting to see them interact with each other was worth the price of admission. I continued up the hill and slowed to a crawl as I approached the top. I was not overly surprised to see antlers in the bottom of the next draw. But, what I was surprised about is the place in the canyon the buck had chosen to take a nap in. I thought I could loop around one hill and position myself to slowly sneak into range while the buck slept.
I hurriedly looped the half mile to the top of the ridge the buck was resting under. I had been stalking down the small hill this way for the last 80 yards, knowing that at any second, I could get a shot at a very nice mule deer. I approached the spot I had thought I would be able to shoot from, but did not see the buck. After learning my lesson from an hour earlier, I very slowly continued to descend further a half step at a time. Now back to the beginning of the article…
If my planning and calculations were correct, I should be able to see the big buck any step now, or half a step as the case was. I eased forward six inches at a time, primed and ready for a shot. My nerves were as frazzled as they had been all season. I knew that at any moment, the buck could explode from its bed or simple stand and walk away after catching me mid stride. My heart was defiantly working double time. And then I saw the antler tips. The buck was still in his bed peacefully napping total exhausted from his exploits earlier in the day, and his two escapes from me.
I switched to super stealth mode and oozed closer for a clear shot. Finally the last branches of sage were clear from my line of sight. I shakily ranged the buck with my Vortex laser range finder. The buck was slightly quartering away and was much lower on the hill; so my shot would be angled down through the body and forward. I was thankful for the calculating advantage of the range finder to help take the guess work out of judging the distance. I drew my bow, placed my pin so the arrow would hit the opposite shoulder and started to squeeze the trigger. Before I had time to flinch the arrow was gone. I was concentrating on squeezing the trigger so much it startled me when the bow jumped at the shot. I was so surprised in fact, that I didn’t see the arrow hit the animal. I did see the buck jump from its bed and dash up the opposite hill. I franticly scrambled for my binoculars to verify a hit, but before I had time to focus, the buck sank to the ground.
I have bow hunted for more than 20 years and have been blessed with more than 60 big game animals with a stick and string. But to this day, it still amazes me to see how lethal a well-placed arrow can be, if it is equipped with a shaving sharp broadhead. The buck had only lived 10-15 seconds after the shot.
As I approached my late season public ground mule deer, a myriad of emotions washed over me. There was sadness at the loss of life, the exuberance of a well-executed stalk, and the overwhelming appreciation for the meat this stunning animal will provide for me and my family. I will always love and strive to find the WILD places.