Gateway to Good Deer Hunting
By Gary Lewis
It was opening morning. The sun was pushing back the shadows. It had been a long climb in the hour before dawn, but I was here now. I told myself to slow down, to be patient, to not settle for anything less than a mature buck: a four-point with antlers wider than his ears.
Every step gave me a different perspective. Using binoculars, I looked into canyons and washouts, explored the shadows of the junipers and behind rock outcroppings.
There was a spring on the western side of the ridge. Here the junipers grew taller. I glassed beneath the trees. If water flowed yet in September, there would be animals nearby.
The buck's body was half in light, half in shadow, as he fed across the hogback toward his morning bed. I watched through binoculars. He turned his head, showing me a glimpse of polished antlers, wider than the tips of his ears. I counted four points on each side as he put his head down to take another bite of sage.
I moved, shrugging out of my pack. There was one juniper between us. A low-hanging bough provided a good rest. I snugged the rifle into my shoulder and thumbed the safety forward.
He had turned toward me, head down, his gray coat sleek from a summer of good feed. Sunlight was on his grizzled face and antlers. I took the slack out of the trigger and felt the recoil in my shoulder.
There is a satisfaction that the hunter knows when he realizes his goal after months of research and planning. It is magnified when you hunt the backcountry, beyond the barriers that keep vehicles and the orange-clad horde at bay.
When I was young and just learning the ways of game and forest, road closures were unheard of. We drove any road we wanted to, parking where we wished and hiking from there.
That was then and quite frankly we saw less game in those days. Forest road closures have changed all that. And the face of hunting is changing. On the negative side, many hunters don't have access to all hunting areas. On the positive side, deer and elk are less harried. The more distance a hunter can put between himself and a traveled road, the more game he is likely to see.
In the mid-90's I hunted the Upper Deschutes Unit, spending a lot of time in the Three Sisters Wilderness area. One day, prospecting closer to my home in Bend, I found a little pocket of un-hunted country behind a road closure sign on Deschutes National Forest land. The first morning I hunted there, I took a shot at a three-point buck. Even though my arrow didn't find its mark, the experience taught me something about how limited access can expand opportunity.
In 1998, we hunted the Heppner Unit during archery season. Finding a place to camp was a challenge, due to the multitude of road closure signs. Finding good hunting, however, was easy. Closed roads kept the vehicles out of the woods. The farther we penetrated into the closed areas, the more deer and elk we saw.
We bow-hunted for elk in the Desolation Unit the following year. Many roads were open, but we found the best hunting beyond the road closure signs. I saw numerous mule deer bucks that week and was able to stalk in close for a good look on several deer before backing off. Little contact with humans makes for better hunting on undisturbed deer.
In the coast range, much of the best hunting is on private land owned by timber companies. Depending on the company and weather conditions, some roads are gated and some are not. When we hunted for blacktail deer in the Alsea Unit, I found one such area. A heavy gate blocked access. We walked in, making our way two miles uphill to a landing overlooking a clear cut. When the fog lifted, we spotted a small herd of deer and were able to set up a successful ambush. Though it was the middle of the season, we didn't see another hunter.
Walking beyond a closed gate on land that is accessible to the public will allow you to see more country and expose you to more game. If you can cover ground faster, you will see even more country, and potentially, even more game.
One way to cover a lot of ground in a hurry is on a mountain bike. A bike is not standard hunting equipment for most hunters yet, but many people are finding out just how useful they can be for putting distance between themselves and other hunters.
Mine is made by ZLC, has a carbon fiber frame, wide pedals to hold the tread of my hunting boots, 27 hill-climbing speeds, knobby tires, fenders, and a rifle rack.
A mountain bike, properly equipped, can carry your water and food, your weapon, tent and sleeping bag, even the game you harvest. The first thing you need is a way to carry your bow, shotgun or rifle. Racks are mounted to your handlebars and can be purchased at bike shops and sporting goods stores.
Next in order of importance is a way to carry extra gear. A rack mounted behind the seat is a handy place to carry game bags, rope, camera, and lunch. A water bottle mounted to the frame can be a lifesaver on a hot day. Another necessary piece of equipment is a lock and chain. This will ensure the bike will still be there at the end of the day, and not be pedaled down the trail by some boot-weary hiker.
Be sure you also have a battery-powered light mounted up front to light your way on moon-less nights. A helmet is a good idea too. Because the weight distribution on the bike is changed with the extra gear, chances of a spill are increased.
WHERE TO HUNT
Where you will hunt is dependent to some degree on your mode of travel. On foot, your hunts will be limited to how far you are willing to go before daylight. Mounted on a horse or a bicycle, you can travel farther, especially if you carry your camp with you.
The key to finding these areas is research. Spend some time prior to your hunt studying maps and talking to people who have hunted your area extensively.
Pick five good areas. Buy topographical maps and aerial photos for each location. Most of the information you need is on the topo. Look for travel routes: saddles, benches, and river bottoms. Study the map to determine likely feeding areas, and feeding to bedding travel routes.
Because opening day often arrives ahead of the rain, look for small ponds or greenery that might indicate a spring. Look for large rock piles or outcroppings that force animals to detour. These can be great places to find game because traveling deer have to find a way around them. Look for ledges that might shelter a sleeping buck.
Rough, broken country makes for good mule deer habitat. Typically, does and fawns will be found at lower elevations, closer to the best food and water. Middle of the day finds them bedded, hidden in cool seclusion or in open areas. Watch the edges of meadows for deer in morning and evening.
Bucks, on the other hand, prefer higher, more open country as their tender antlers develop through the summer. When the weather is warm, look for their beds on cool, north-facing slopes. But in order to find animals, you also need to locate food nearby.
The Pious Report, completed in 1989, found that the mule deer's diet consists of 55% browse (the new growth of trees, shrubs and vines with woody stems), 22% forbs (broadleaf plants), 10% grasses, 7% nuts, and 6% other materials.
On your map, highlight the spots that combine all the elements of good buck habitat in a small area: shelter, feed, water, and escape routes.
Call the local wildlife biologist. These people know where the deer are and why. I have learned more talking to a biologist for a half-hour than I used to learn in a whole season on my own.
Scout your hunt areas and walk the country. Look for tracks and evidence of browsing. Look for main trails, then try to pinpoint the secondary, parallel paths that big bucks use. Find a way to physically look into pockets of cover from high vantage points, then pick out possible escape routes.
Heavy bedding cover can double as feed. Broad-leaf plants and browse are the best bets. Deer want bedding areas that will allow them to see and/or hear danger.
You can find deer in every sector of every unit, but certain areas hold more deer. Learn how to find the pockets that hold more bucks and you will dramatically increase your chances of success.
The key lies in prospecting for the pockets that the crowds miss. Sometimes they may be so obvious that no one would think to hunt there. Most often, they are so far behind the road closure sign no one else will make the effort.
In these hideouts, mule deer and blacktail bucks grow old without ever being seen by a hunter. Their sanctuaries provide both cover and food with water close by.
At first glance, a closed road may seem like an inconvenience. But often, that locked gate can be the key to your success. A closed road is simply a new challenge, a new opportunity.