by Steve Ashe
First, a little background: I went on my first "out west" mule deer hunt in the early 1990's, after a lifetime of hunting whitetail deer on the east coast. This first hunt was hosted by a well-known international outfitter and took place in western Texas. The hunt was well run, but was what I have referred to as, "corporate America takes me hunting!" I wanted a hunt where the guide would cut me loose to hunt on my own and not have me kill game from a truck. My hunting partner located a rancher/guide the following year and last week I completed my fourth hunt with him. This hunt rates among the better of my five western mule deer hunts. I attribute this to the fact that the guide is not opposed to turning me loose for the entire morning so that I may hunt deer without any interference.
On the first morning, I set out in the pre-dawn and I hunted along the fingers of land that jut out from the rough hills bordering Little Powder River. After about an hour of trekking and glassing, I picked out a doe grazing at about 600 yards. I was on a high point and was able to mask my outline beside a tree. Within minutes, I had ID'd seven deer. Five were bucks. The two largest were 5x5, one being quite large. This deer was bigger than any I'd previously bagged. They would browse for a while and then playjoist with their antlers. I watched, fascinated, for an hour, during which time I was able to stalk up draws to within 300 yards. At this point, I felt certain that I had a ok shot. All seven entered a drain (ravine) which led up to the hill that they were heading for. I could see that they must emerge from the drain and cross a 100 yard flat before they would again be masked from view by the groove in the hill. None were on the alert. It was 7:30AM and already getting warm. When the first small buck came up onto the flat, I was able to scope him from a steady rest. As all seven came into clear view, I could see that the one 5x5 was clearly larger in body and antlers than the others. This is the point where I am certain most guides would have been pushing hard for me to take a shot. "He's a big one! Take him! Take him now! He's going to move and you won't have a shot!" I can hear the words of previous guides, as they cajoled on past hunts. All I know is that I was into only the first hours of a five- day hunt, and to hunt and see deer is what I wanted to do. Once the successful shot is made, all I have is one more deer. I already have more racks than space on which to display them. I elected to continue to enjoy the stalk and not fire. They moved up the draw in the hill. I could occasionally see antlers above the line of the gully. At the crest of a saddle, all seven stood and watched the back trail. One by one, they went over. My finger ached to squeeze on the big one as he stood silhouetted against the western sky, with the low sun full on him. I did not want to spook them, as I thought it would be fun to stalk up and again catch them in my scope. As I moved around the hill they suddenly stood up from their shady rest spot. I scoped six deer at 80 yards, but the big one was not there. Again they moved. This time they had made me, but were not put to flight. They only walked to the crest and went over after looking back for a long time. I moved on, only to find the big buck on a lower flat. He stood with his rear to me and his head cranked around staring at me. He too was an easy shot. With some show of disdain for me, he sauntered away up the hill and was not to be spotted again. I hunted in a great circle through the rough hills but by 8:00AM, I had only pushed out a few doe. It got hot. I tied my lightweight cotton jacket around my waist and was dressed in only in a camo T-shirt by 9:00AM. The temperature reached 90 that afternoon.
My wife, Karin, had gone on a cattle drive that morning. We returned to the cabin and had lunch from 12:30 until 2:30, when the guide returned to hunt more deer. We did not want to shoot an antelope until we had the deer, as it was forecast to be too hot to hang meat for more than overnight. Shooting an antelope would mean a trip of 25 miles in order to turn the animal over to the butcher for processing.
That first evening, with Karin along, we saw only average bucks, and had five or six sightings of these. The guide indicated twice that the antlers looked big enough. I demurred and we hunted until dark around the ranch. I had not told the guide that I'd seen good bucks that morning. I told him that I'd seen some fair 3x3 bucks, but nothing shootable. It is the ancient game of seller and buyer.
The second morning was a carbon copy of the first. An exciting stalk along the river and three sightings of deer. One buck that I had a clear shot on. He had broken cover and crossed an opening to my front at 150 yards, stopping before crossing the crest to my right. Again, at around 12:30 we broke for lunch and I spent part of the rest of the day shooting prairie dogs. Sadly, the dog town across from the cabin appears to have been almost shot out. I was only able to shoot six or seven "dogs". The rest of the time, I looked but could find no targets. This was a real change from two years ago!
On the second evening, we entered the "widow's ranch". Here there is a large alfalfa field along the river that backed up to some rough canyons. We spotted five bucks on the horizon at 500 to 600yds. Karin claimed to have some ability to gauge range (from her golfing experience). The guide estimated the range as over 500yards, and encouraged me to take a shot at the "big one". This deer was not as large as my first-morning buck. I would not have taken the shot had I been alone. I did, however, like attempting a shot at that range, so I got into position and squeezed off a round, holding on the top of the deer's shoulder. The bullet kicked up dust at his feet and he made a great kick with his hind legs, not unlike a rodeo horse. He trotted along the crest and over, not allowing me a second chance. All three of us agreed that the deer was clearly not struck by my shot. Three lesser bucks stood and watched us for some time and we then moved deeper into the gorge. As we made a turn into one deep ravine, I caught sight of a rump going over the far hill. I had the impression that this was a big deer. We dismounted and stalked for perhaps a half mile around the ravine. As we topped a ridge, the deer were going over a farther one. Just then, I spotted two late ones. The leader appeared to be a nice big buck. When I pointed these out to the guide, he immediately went into his, "That's a big one! Take him now!" routine. Becoming excited, as I always do when pushed to shoot quickly, I flopped down on the stones and took up the prone position. The deer was moving up the slope at about 250yds. I should successfully have made the shot but alas for whatever reason, I blew it. I had killed prairie dogs, that afternoon at the same distance and now I blew a shot on a 200lb buck. I had no chance at a follow up shot as the buck went over the crest. I hunted until dark and had three or four more chances at average bucks. The guide asked me to shoot, but I told him that I would wait until the fourth day, before shooting an average 3x3. At this point I was really having fun. I had shot at two good bucks and had seen others. Although I was down on myself for missing the 250yd shot, I knew that I have never been any good under the pressure of making a fast shot. The added pressure of the guide's chatter, pushing me to get off the shot quickly, id not improved my, at best, average marksmanship. I was frustrated for a short time, but calmed down as I thought about the four other mule deer I had not missed. Two of these were when I was by myself and took the shot only when I was ready.
On the third morning, the guide had a new pattern. We parked on the road one hour before sun-up and hiked across two miles of fields so that we would be in position to ambush deer as they came off of the alfalfa and into the hills. This ploy worked to a tee, save for the fact that the many deer we saw within range were all average bucks or does. It was exciting watching from our vantage point as deer worked their way up the draws and into the hills. At 7:30AM, the guide claimed that the ambush was over and that we should hunt in the hills. We jumped some more bucks and does, but no big bucks. At around 9:00AM, we saw 4 bucks and 2 does on the horizon a mile away. These appeared not to be any larger than a good 3x3. I was struck by the idea of such a long stalk. The guide was ready to go get the truck, two miles (at least) to our rear. I told him that if I could make the stalk, I would take the biggest buck in the group, even though he may only be an average buck. This was the end of the third morning's hunt and I had gotten in some fine hunting by myself, plus I still smarted from the miss the previous evening. The guide agreed and we went on a long stalk around the hills to where we had seen the bucks standing. When we arrived at what should have been a good position, no deer were to be found. We were now around three miles from the truck. The guide was weak from having had some kind of flu. He seemed worn out. I told him to go get the truck and meet me in two hours by the old silver juke car that I knew to be far down the drain system. He agreed and set off on our back trail. I enjoyed topping each successive ridge and glassing for deer, but saw only a couple of doe. All of a sudden I saw antlers among some evergreen boughs. I stalked up and was eye to eye with an average 3x3. I came within 70yds of this buck. He did not rise, but only gazed at me with a fixed stare. Perhaps his inexperience, coupled with the heat, prevented him from taking flight. I have never seen a buck hold so tight. We had no foliage between us as I walked toward him. We were both clearly in the open. This experience made me realize that I must have been very near to other deer on my stalks. At about 12:30PM I linked up with the guide, who reported seeing the same group of bucks that we had scoped earlier, looking over a ridge to the north of where I had turned south. We mounted up and headed to where he'd seen the bucks. Parking behind a knoll we stalked up to the crest. Five deer were heading up to the saddle. I stuck my shooting stick and set the rest at a height where I could get a comfortable prone shot. As I took up the position the buck stopped, as "Muley" will do, and gave me a good broadside view at about 250yds. At the report of the rifle, I was able to see the impact on the buck. He leaped straight up and disappeared over the crest. I knew I had hit him hard. We found him where he'd fallen, just over the crest. Thankfully, he was an easy drag to the truck. We made the obligatory handshake and photo session and I had one more average 3x3 to put into the freezer. It was a long stalk and a good way to take a Wyoming muley. I still have the vision of bagging a bigger buck, but where I will hang his head, I do not know. I no longer hunt to collect a rack. I will, certainly, take the biggest buck that I am able to bag, but the fun of hunting hard and alone for three days takes preference.
The shooting of the antelope has become almost anticlimactic. After loading the buck, we crossed the highway and went into some open pastures. In about 30 minutes we spotted a herd. We drove to just below the crest of where the antelope should be and hiked to the top, stuck the shooting stick into the dirt and killed an antelope at 310yds. I no longer consider this to be a hunt. Perhaps by limiting the distance by using a 30-30 or some other short range firearm, such as a muzzle loader, one could have fun attempting to stalk within 100yds of antelope. With a flat shooting rifle like the .270 Winchester that I'm using, I can take a position and fire with the antelope well aware of my presence but in no way ready to flee. We collected the antelope and met up with Karin, who'd been golfing all morning.
The bittersweet feeling that the dream had ended for yet another year came over me. We spent the fourth day touring the old homesteads and playing with antelope. I have learned how to get them to go into their wonderful gallop and, on half of these occasions, they crossed right in front of the van. We took the photo tour around a ranch in Montana, where the season was still three weeks away, and saw scores of great bucks and many more whitetail than previously spotted.
On the way out, we stopped at Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. Both were impressive beyond description. We panned for gold with an 89 year-old resident of the Black Hills. Karin found a small gold nugget, some gold dust and some garnets. We took the helicopter ride over the Badlands of South Dakota. While in the Black Hills park, we got right up to a large buffalo herd. This was the herd used in "Dances With Wolves". Kevin was not there, however.
The motor trip out was tiring, but rewarding. Neither of us had driven across Michigan, Minnesota and South Dakota. I was again awestruck by the daunting task of crossing those prairies a century ago. We clocked 30-milewide vistas, only to find that when we reached the crest of the far horizon, another ridge loomed far to the west, with nothing between except flat prairie. I doubt that I would have had the fortitude to cross such a sea of nothingness as the pioneers had. Especially since we could only travel at the pace of walking oxen. At 80mph it still got tiresome.
In projecting the future, I will cast about to find another guide/rancher who will allow me to hunt on my own, for this is the only reason to make the trip. Being able to stalk lots of game, as I did on this trip, is the main reason to go. The eastern whitetail are much more challenging than are the "muley". However, I saw so many deer and enjoyed so much, encountering the bucks that I did, that perhaps I will stick with the same hunt for '98, which will be my fifth hunt there.
A word to other eastern whitetail hunters, who like myself, go west after mule deer. Know that on the hunts I have been on, I have had multiple chances to bag nice bucks. I will not take the first antlered deer on these hunts unless he is a true monster buck for that area. When a muley's ears are relaxed, the rack must extend far beyond the width of the ears to be trophy size. I say this because, given the vistas and the excitement of the hunt, all muley with antlers look good to an eastern hunter! :-) If you have never hunted deer "out west" I would encourage you to go! It is a wonderful experience. For me, at 55, the western hunt has become the high point of my year!