Thanksgiving Day Mule Deer Challenges Hunter’s Skill
By Gary Lewis
On a high plateau bordered by rimrock, Steve Jones checked the cap on his blackpowder rifle. He looked out across the sagebrush below him to where he could see a four-point buck browsing in the open plain.
His hunt took place in the new millenium but it could have been a scene from 150 years ago. It was Thanksgiving, the sixth day of a hunt marked by bluebird weather, lonely days on windswept mesas, and frustration. The deer he had seen on the first five days were either on private land or safely behind the refuge boundary. After years of applying for the Juniper Unit's muzzleloader season in eastern Oregon, he was unsure whether he would even have a chance to use his tag.
He didn't know it at the time, but the turning point had been reached the day before when he had witnessed two mule deer bucks locked in battle. Stopping to look at a group of deer on the refuge, Jones could hear the sound of antlers crashing. Through binoculars, he watched two large bucks bent on destroying each other. For the next thirty minutes, they clashed, pulled away, feinted, and charged, locking antlers again and again. A half dozen does, the object of their jealousy, watched, waiting for one buck to emerge triumphant.
The sound of fighting also brought other interested observers. Four different bucks came in while the battle raged. One lured a doe away and bred her while the dominant bucks fought on. When the fight was over, one bloodied buck limped away while the victor led his less-than-faithful harem to safety. The lesson wasn't lost on Steve Jones.
Back at camp, he found two antlers, shed the winter before, perhaps antlers from the very bucks whose fight he witnessed. He practiced crashing them together, mimicking the sounds of muleys in mortal combat. Maybe day six, and a change in tactics, would make the difference.
Early in the day, he rattled the antlers and drew in a curious buck from afar. But the wide-racked mule deer wouldn't come within range of Jones' primitive 1840's technology weapon. Maybe the next deer would come all the way in.
He spotted the four-point while driving north. It was browsing on an open plain, giving him little chance to crawl within range. Calling it to him was the best option. And it would have to come within 100 yards for him to take the shot with his muzzleloader. Steve kept driving, on up the road and out of sight.
He parked two miles away. On foot, he circled back to the west, along the rim, carrying his rifle and rattling antlers. He hoped the deer wouldn't drift away while he stalked into position. There.
He checked that his percussion cap was in place, checked that his load was seated properly, then settled in to call and watch. Crashing the antlers together, tickling the tips on rocks, he ground and twisted and threw dirt in the air, stopping to look for reaction from the mule deer far away. He was coming. Jones breathed a quick prayer and watched, continuing to rattle the antlers.
Up the hill it came, finally going out of sight behind the rimrock below. Jones dropped the antlers and worked into position, looking down on the buck below him, less than 60 yards away.
He eased back the hammer, settled the brass buttplate into his shoulder, lining up the blade front sight with the buckhorn rear, and squeezed the trigger. When the smoke cleared, his supply of winter meat was assured and Jones breathed a prayer of thanksgiving.
The Oregon Big Game Regulations is on the stands at Oregon's sporting goods stores. Pick one up. Maybe this is your year to accept the challenge of a primitive weapons hunt.
The State of Oregon provides opportunities for hunters to test their skill with primitive weapons. Limiting technology and tags affords a quality hunting experience while minimizing impact on wildlife populations. Around the state, muzzleloader and primitive archery hunts are offered to harvest a sustained yield of deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk.
Whether your tag is notched at the end of the hunt or not, the memories of the changing seasons, and the heft of a well-balanced weapon will be with you for a lifetime. And you will know something of that feeling the old-time hunters knew when they found this country not so long ago.