Hunting Oregon’s Mysterious Open-Country Muleys
By Gary Lewis
Over on the dry side, where water holes are few and far between, it isn't hard to find deer sign. Spend a day scouting near water and you'll find evidence aplenty. Once you locate a buck's track, stop and look around. Chances are he's no more than a half-mile away.
We know this, but mule deer remain a mystery. Especially the big bucks that run with the herd and the outsized loners that use every trick in the book to keep from being seen.
Hunting eastern Oregon, from the Fort Rock and Upper Deschutes units to the Ochoco, Sumpter and Desolation units, we've watched big mule deer bucks simply vanish – using cunning instead of speed and distance to stay out of sight. Time after time, we've watched mule deer bucks resort to trickery to throw us off their tracks. At the first hint of trouble, they go into crisis management mode.
Bucks often use other deer as scouts to alert them to danger, or as decoys to draw the attention of predators. From a distance, we've watched mature bucks use spikes or forked horn bucks as shills. When danger nears, the buck will drive out his buddy on the tips of his antlers, hoping to draw the eye of the hunter, while he, belly on the ground, sneaks away in the other direction or lays his antlers in the sage.
Last season, finding deer wasn't the problem. We planned our hunts the evening before, or at lunchtime, sitting with a sandwich in one hand and a topo map in the other. We like to look for those pockets of habitat that other people miss because they're too obvious or too remote.
Sometimes the best hunts can be found along stretches of road with no parking area. On opening day we surprised a herd of 12 does, trailed by a wide-racked four-point. They dropped into a canyon at a trot. I figured I'd intercept them a half-mile away in a side canyon. I was right.The does had settled down and were feeding when I looked at them through my binoculars. But the buck was gone.
Backtracking, I found where he had split from the herd. 'The buck must have headed up into those trees,' I told myself. That's when I saw him, 450 yards away and moving. Not the shot I wanted.
SUBTERFUGE AND STRATEGY
On the second day, we prospected a pocket behind a neighboring camp. Each morning the hunters roared off on four-wheelers, ignoring the habitat a few hundred yards behind their tents.
The wind in our faces, we eased over the crest of the hill, careful not to skyline against the rising sun. 'Great bedding area,' I told myself. 'Good browse, and a seep. Lots of open country.'
Thud. It was the stamp of a hoof. A warning to the herd. "Run," I whispered to James, pointing the way to a spot on the edge of the canyon. From there he'd be able to see for hundreds of yards. We sprinted toward the rim. Weaving through the junipers and sage, I was almost to the edge when I heard the shot.
I stopped and threw up my binoculars. There. A doe and fawn bouncing down and away. And there. Another doe, looking back over her shoulder. After a few minutes I walked back and found James scouting for sign. He'd missed a going-away shot on a big buck. We followed the tracks.
When James reached the edge of the canyon, the buck, whose antlers stretched far beyond his ears, was bounding downhill. James shot just as he was dropping down into the canyon.
Instead of heading straight across the open canyon, as the doe had done, the buck turned inside a stand of junipers. Here he stopped and used the does as decoys, drawing our attention away.
While we watched the does, the buck began to sneak away, using junipers and bitterbrush as cover. I hoped we'd learned our lesson.
THE OPTICS OPTION
A major ridge runs north to south in our section of the unit and is broken by two saddles half of a mile apart. This spot is a magnet for deer hunters, but the muleys know how to avoid them. We decided to hunt it the afternoon of the third day. We set up on a knob beneath several old junipers and began to watch.
Deer can disappear in open country. Using folds in the ground, they may bed right out in the open. Wide-spreading junipers can conceal several deer beneath their boughs. Rock piles that blend into the scenery can harbor a small herd. From mid-morning until late afternoon, deer will be found in or near their beds. You just have to find them. More often than not, binoculars will not help you separate the herd from the habitat. You need big, bright glass and magnification.
Use your 8X binoculars for a quick look, then start scanning with the scope set at 20X. When you spot game or cover that needs closer investigation, dial up the zoom to 30X or better.
At 800 yards or more, only a thorough, methodical scan will reveal the animals hidden on the other side of a canyon. Lay an imaginary grid on the landscape and start on the near side, examining every patch of cover.
Be patient. As the sun moves across the sky, shadows drift and colors shift. What was once invisible in shade becomes an ear, a white throat patch, or the tip of an antler. At midday, deer often stand up and change positions, grabbing a quick bite along the way. Look for the crook of a back leg or the horizontal line of a back. It may seem like a lot to carry, but a full-size spotting and a tripod can make the difference between finding deer and finding an excuse for coming home empty-handed.
At four o'clock, as the shadows began to lengthen, James leaned away from his scope and whispered. "I've got a buck." And what a buck. With antlers wider than his ears and thick, heavy beams, we should have known this was a worthy adversary and would have more than one trick in his repertoire. James slipped down off the hill with his gun riding easy in his hand. I settled in to watch and direct.
James would have to circle wide around a low hill and might be exposed for a minute before he began to climb. I focused my scope on the animal 800 yards away. He was big, 30 inches wide and broad of beam. And all alone. As he fed on the open hillside, he would stop to look around, alert to his surroundings, never letting down his guard. 15 minutes later, I saw his attention drawn to movement in the canyon. He'd spotted my partner as he crossed a trail almost a thousand yards away.
Instead of moving off, the buck slipped into the shadow of two small juniper trees and lay down.
An hour later, following my hand signals, James was within the field of view of my scope, just 30 yards from the buck, headed straight for it. He turned, looking to me for direction with his binoculars. He knew he was close.
When James turned back to the slope, the deer was ready, as if his legs were coiled springs. At each bound, he put ten more feet between himself and the hunter, so rattling my partner that he never took a shot.
The lesson was clear. When mule deer disappear, we shouldn't assume they've left the county. If does or spikes are on the move, check for antlers, then probe nearby cover with your optics. Mr. Big is holding tight or belly-crawling in the opposite direction.
The next morning we were back in place, behind our spotting scopes. As the sun came up, we peered into the shadows of junipers and probed the rolling sage, looking for deer, or parts of deer. With patience, we would find them.
Finally, James broke the silence with a whisper. "Gary, I found a buck." It was my turn to stalk.
I put my eye to the scope and dialed it up to 45x. His antlers shined golden in the early morning light. I counted two points on one side and three points on the other. He wore tall antlers as wide as his ears. 800 yards away, he browsed, moving in and out of view in a sea of sagebrush. Soon, we'd located a smaller 2x3 buck and eight does and fawns. As we watched, the deer moved across the hillside, then disappeared into a fold on the slope.
Now it was time to move. While my partner stayed at the scope, I slipped off the hill and skirted its base, dropping into the dry creek bed for cover. Half an hour later, I began the climb, moving from juniper to juniper.
The wind, which had been in my face, changed, and was now at my back. In a few moments the deer would know I was coming. I quickened my pace, feeling the mountain in the tops of my legs and in the pounding of my heart. 30 yards to go now.
When I hit the bench, the does and fawns were lined out, headed uphill. No antlers among them. The bucks had disappeared. Then I realized what had happened. Once again, at the first hint of danger, the bucks had split, using the does to draw my attention. 'The bucks must be planning to exit stage right,' I told myself. I wanted the bigger buck. 'Where did he go?'
If my guess was right, he was on his belly, sneaking through the sagebrush. Turning right, I walked out the flat through the tallest sage. When I was less than 45 yards from him, he jumped up and bounced away, a tall, wide-racked 2x3 still wearing his summer velvet in October. In a moment he'd be gone. My rifle came up and I found him in the crosshair and hit him at the top of his bound.
For a moment I knelt, admiring this elusive trophy of our western high country. Then I remembered the smaller buck. He'd button-hooked me, looping around a six-foot juniper and bedded down while I walked on by, less than five yards away.
He stood then, and walked away on stiff legs. Hitting the slope, he trotted up, not taking the path of the does, but another one parallel. I watched him disappear over the shoulder of the ridge. In another year, I told myself, he'll be bigger and we'll have each learned another trick or two.