New Mexico, Halloween 2015 Mule Deer Hunt

By Harold Stephens

This hunting trip had been in the planning stages for nearly nine years. I had always wanted to try a DIY mountain terrain, backpack hunt, but life seemed to keep getting into the way. My hunting group always seemed interested in doing this as well, but life just kept getting in our way. Until this year, I decided my life chances were slipping away. My knees were getting older and next year keeps coming way too quick these days.

So I put it out to my group that I was applying for a New Mexico mule deer hunt and gave them instructions on how to attach their application to mine. April rolled around and lo and behold I drew out my first time to apply. The first problem arose at the same time, as no one else from my group had applied and my wife said emphatically that I was not traipsing through the mountains alone. Luckily, my brother-in-law volunteered to babysit me, so the trip was still on. My hunt was from October 31 through November 4, first rifle season Unit 30 New Mexico. I planned on driving down on October 29 and use that day and the next to get used to the elevation and look around.

I didn't have any knowledge of the area and being that I lived 7.5 hours away, Google Earth was my main scouting tool, I did get a little advice from some internet forums. I bought the OnxMaps Hunt map for New Mexico, a wise choice and very helpful. The problem I found was that I couldn't get a true idea of the roads in the area so when I got to the general area I had planned to hunt, my 2 wheel drive truck just wasn't going to get me to the spots I had marked in Goggle Earth. Plan B was to find roads I could drive and pick a spot to hunt.

It was midafternoon on the drive into the Lincoln National Forest in Unit 30 when we chose our camp spot, pitched our tents and gathered wood and rocks for our campfire ring. The spot I chose was one of the only smooth, level spots around, so it was not a hard decision. After settling into camp, we ate a light supper and prepared for some scouting the next day.


Nice level camp spot

Throughout the night we had a steady drizzle and light rain, so I was not optimistic about getting out and scouting around. About 7 am, the rain let up and the radar looked like we might have a good window to get up and over the mountain ridge we were camped under and get a look at the drainage we planned to hunt. My BIL and I load up the packs with water, summer sausage, crackers and spotting scopes and look at the 30 degree incline in front of us and begin the climb. After about 4 stops, we crest out on the ridge and marvel at the view.


First view of the drainage we were to hunt

We moved out to end of the ridge on the east side of the drainage and settled in to glass the pinon and cedar trees on the opposite slope. Honestly, my main goal was first to see if my knees could get up and over the mountain and just see a deer. Thankfully I was successful on both accounts and saw a doe with two yearling fawns in the drainage. We moved later in the afternoon to glass the drainage to the east of us and make it back to camp before it gets to dark. All in all, a great day and I am ready for my season to begin on Halloween day.

Hallow's Eve morning came about 4 AM for us, as we roused out of our beds to a calm moonlight camp. A quick bite of oatmeal and a check of our packs. I swap out my spotting scope for my rifle and we head up and over the mountain to our predetermined glassing spot about a mile away. We arrive about 6 am and settle down, as the drainage we are setting above begins to lighten. Around 7 am I spot the does and fawns from the day before. Around 8 am three young bucks come sprinting and sparring across the mountain above the does and stop before they get to a gully and chase each other while the two older bucks spar with each other. I watch them for another hour until we put them to bed and they settle in for their morning siesta.

Around 10 am I look up and there stands another hunter opposite of us and he drops off into the gully and disappears. I watch the bedded bucks and they cautiously watch back his way but stay tight to their beds. About 45 minutes later I catch sight of another hunter sneaking down another gully further up the drainage and watch him bust out a nice shooter buck. With him walking down the gully I do not think he saw this buck and I wonder how he could have seen anything, as thick as it was on either side of the path he was walking on.

Both hunters met up below us and were within 75 yards of three bucks and were completely oblivious of this fact. They knew we were above them and proceeded back up the drainage and we assume they left the same way the second hunter came in from. It was a little unnerving not knowing where they went and if they would be in our line of fire if we spotted anything that evening. As it turned out, we didn't see anything that evening except a couple of does, so we headed back to camp for a supper and an early bed. I had made comments to my BIL that if we see a legal buck the next day I was going to take it, as I did not think my knees would take much more of the climbing.

That night was clear and crisp and with a nearly full moon, once we topped out onto the ridge above us, we needed no light to make our way to our glassing spot for the day. We had decided to move further up the drainage to get a better look into the trees where we saw the bigger buck that got bumped the previous day. We settle down into the rocky ground and wait for legal shooting hours.


Shooting position, looking down about 175 feet to the drainage below

At a little before 7 AM my BIL spots the three young bucks from the day before. I pick them up and start tracking them as he goes back to glassing for the bigger buck we saw get bumped the day before. As the three bucks work their way up the bottom of the drainage, I catch site of a mature buck slightly higher up the slope and decide to take him. I get my pack ready and my BIL gives me his pack to support my left elbow. The deer starts moving up the drainage and I range him in an opening at 311 yards. I dial up to 1.75 MOA needed in my Vortex Viper 6X24 scope and settle my Savage 7MM STW into my shooting sticks and wait for the deer to turn. I hold 2 MOA for wind that was blowing at 14 MPH at my 10 o'clock position and let a 140 grain Berger Hunting VLD fly.

With this bullet traveling at 3300 fps, the report on impact was nearly instant. The deer either took a step or in my excitement I hit him about 14 inches behind the shoulder, but the Berger did its job and the deer stumbled downhill about 10 feet and expired with only a few attempts to try and get up. It was now only a little after 7 AM and the work would soon begin.


Geared up fixing to head down to put my hands on my deer

We make our way down the 30 degree slope we were sitting on and noticed about halfway down that the 14 mph wind from above was gone. This might have played a part in me shooting a little far back. We reach the bottom and the smallest buck was still standing there and we passed him by within 25 yards.


Me with my 3X3 DIY public land buck

We drag him into the shade and grab a quick snack of summer sausage and crackers, and then begin to take him apart. Back straps and tenderloins with a front shoulder go in one game bag; the other quarters get a bag apiece. We hang up the head, one hind quarter, the back straps and front quarter in a cedar tree in the shade and load a front shoulder in my pack and my BIL grabs a hind quarter and head back to camp. It's now about 10 am and we are making our first trip back to camp.

After getting back to camp we ice down the meat and grab a quick bite and re-hydrate. We unload all non-essential items from our packs and secure my rifle and head back up and over the mountain for the second time this day. I can tell you, my knees were screaming at me, anticipating the two mile round trip with another heavy load on the return side, but that's mountain hunting.


Me with the head, back straps and front shoulder

We make it back to camp with plenty of light left to enjoy some more water and a Dr. Pepper to celebrate a successful hunt. As I sat back and watched the fire that night, I contemplated if I would do this again. Could I do this again? I will wait and let a little time pass before I try and answer those questions, but in the meantime I can scratch a mountain backpack hunt off my bucket list and relive this memory many times over in my mind and share it with good friends around campfires for many years.