Hunting High Country Mule Deer Bucks
By Allen Jones
I had always dreamed of sheep hunting. I think I read everything Jack O’Connor wrote on the subject, and the thought of getting my sights on one of those keen eyed, curly horned mountain dwellers sometimes kept me awake at night. After moving to Colorado in 1975, I started sending in my application for the limited draw license. Finally, in 1987, my dream became a reality. The coveted tag arrived in the mail. But that story will have to wait for another time. This story is about deer.
The reason I started out talking about sheep is that I found out that anywhere you find sheep in the mountains of Colorado, you will also find mule deer -- BIG mule deer! It seemed as though every time I raised my glasses on my sheep hunt, I saw a big mule deer buck. Some of these mule deer bucks were enormous.
One morning in particular, after hiking over the spine of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains from the east side to the west in the bone chilling early morning, I set up in what I thought was sheep heaven with my Zeiss glasses. I started looking just as the sun crept up over the ridge behind me. My heart skipped a beat as I spotted a large bodied animal with a cream colored rump within about 400 yards, but rather than curled horns, he sported a massive set of forked antlers. As I studied him, others came into view, until I was looking at a herd of 14 mule deer bucks, any of which would measure in the 180 class. But the one huge behemoth I spotted first was a true Booner. His antlers were at least 36 inches wide, and the bases were probably 3 ½ inches in diameter. He had a beautiful 4x4 rack with brow tines and lots of mass and deep forks. I would gladly have traded my sheep tag for a high country mule deer buck tag at the time. Colorado has a special mule deer permit for the Sangres that is an early season September hunt. It is almost as sought after as the bighorn sheep tags are.
Last year, my son Kenny drew this tag, and as I had promised, I took him to the spot where I had seen these deer 20 years before. Now, mind you, this is not just an everyday day hike that gets you there. We geared up for a full blown backpack hunt, intending to stay for up to 5 days if that’s what it took to fill his tag. Kenny is a strapping 23 year old that could probably carry his own weight on his back, so I had no qualms about letting him carry the tent, the stove, and most of the food so as to lighten the load on my worn out knees. Even so, I had about 35 pounds in my pack. His was more like 55 pounds. We started walking from the jump off point where we parked the truck at around 10 am, on the day before the season started.
I had planned our hike with the help of Google Earth, and took advantage of a couple shortcuts, so we made it to our camp spot just as the sun was setting in the west. Google said the elevation was right at 13,000 feet. We hurriedly set up camp in a sheltered spot and got out our glasses. The first sweep came up empty. Then I spotted what looked like a bunch of like-looking rocks about a mile across the valley below us. Closer inspection showed that all those rocks had antlers!!! 18 of them did, in fact. To save weight, we had not brought a spotting scope, but looking through the Bushnell Elite 5-15 on his 300 RUM showed that more than a few of these bucks were shooters. My son had decided his minimum was a good representative buck in the 24-28 inch class at least, and there were several of those. We ate a cold supper of MRE’s and turned in early with high hopes for the next day’s hunt. The wind woke us up sometime during the night, blowing at gale force to our dismay, but by sunup it had calmed and we started glassing again.
The herd of bucks were in almost the same place we had seen them the night before. The trouble was that to get to them we would be in plain sight most of the way down. Using the cover of the sparse vegetation at this altitude, and moving slow and easy, we were able to close the distance to a measured 600 yards. I felt very confident that Kenny could make this shot, as we had his gun dialed in with a drop chart all the way to 800, and he had practiced a lot. But he wanted to try to get a little closer.
There was a little swale in front of us where we could drop down out of sight, then come up on a point that would put us at about 300 yards. Just as we were coming up on the spot we had planned to make the shot from, a doe and fawn that we had not seen earlier blew out of the creek bed and spooked the whole herd of bucks. They ran back out to the 600 yard mark again and stopped. After ranging them and getting Kenny set up on his bipods, we started trying to figure which one to shoot. I liked a tall, wide racked buck that was in about the center of the herd, but we could not get on the same page as to which one and where he was before they got jittery and took off around the curve of the ridge. Oh well, that’s why they call it hunting and not killing.
We decided not to chase them around into the next drainage, but to wait and let them settle down, so we headed back to our camp spot (straight up) and popped over the ridge behind and looked into that valley. Our camp was situated at the confluence of 3 drainages, sort of on a saddle between two big ridges. We spotted several bucks in the next drainage but none we really liked, so we decided on a strategy of taking it easy back at camp and going after the first group the next day. I didn’t think they would be far since they had not winded us.
The next morning was a typical Fall day in the Sangres. Bluebird sky with no breeze, but pretty cold for September. After coffee and a quick breakfast of our leftover MRE desserts, we started out. We had taken a quick look around and saw nothing at first, but then about halfway down to the creek , Kenny spotted a buck that was almost in the same spot as the ones from the day before, just higher up the mountain. We hunkered down and looked him over and he started looking better all the time, especially since he was all by himself, and there wouldn’t be eighteen sets of eyes on the lookout for trouble.
He was tall and about 26 inches wide with good forks, and almost in range already. My Leica said 700 yards, but we knew we could cut that almost in half with no worry of spooking him. We made our way slowly to a rise in front of us after watching him bed down in a shale slide with a rock face behind him. As we slowly came over the rise, I lasered him again as Kenny was getting his bipods set up. 400 yards exactly, but at a steep uphill angle. I have not yet got a cosine indicator, and as such I just told him to take about 2 clicks less than he normally would and send it. Well, I should have said 4 clicks.
At the shot, I saw the bullet hit the rock behind him, just over the top of his back. I called the shot as he jumped and ran about 20 yards side hilling and stopped, looking back at his bed. Kenny adjusted and held a little lower, and put the next one right through his shoulder. That is when I realized how steep it was to where the buck was bedded, because he rolled for at least 300 yards, coming dang near right to us.
Well, after admiring him and taking a few pictures, this is when we knew the fun was over and the work to pack him out started. After caping, quartering and de-boning we laid the meat in the shade and headed back to camp. Kenny was able to get a text message out to his twin brother, who met us at the parking spot the next morning and along with another buddy, made short work of packing the meat out. This was just perfect with me, as my arthritic knees had already endured about as much punishment as they could stand.
If you want to test yourself against some of the toughest , most beautiful country that God ever made, check into the early season rifle mule deer tag in unit 86 in Colorado.
On a side note, I can’t stress how great a tool Google Earth is for scouting for hunting opportunities. I had put a push pin in the map at the place I had seen those bucks 20 years before, and he killed his buck within 500 yards of the location. There was a large slab of rock about the size of a pool table where we butchered the buck, so we kind of used it as a table. After a few days I looked back on Google and I could actually see this same rock!!!
Any time you go into this high country, be prepared. At this altitude weather can turn dangerous very quickly. Always take survival gear and give some responsible person an itinerary of where and when you are going and coming, just in case. Good luck and great hunting.
Allen Jones is a water well contractor in central Colorado. He has lived and hunted with gun and bow in Colorado since moving there in 1975. He is a former state champion and all-American trapshooter and also loves long range shooting, varmint hunting and Texas hold em poker.