Flashback Friday – Winter Mule Deer

MarApr1987CVREditor’s Note: On Friday we dig through the Safari Magazine archives and dust off a gem from the past. This week we get a tutorial in hunting mountain mule deer in Winter. This article originally appeared in the March/April 1987 issue of Safari Magazine.

Some events highlight the progress of life’s circuitous journey: There’s a man’s first real love affair, his wedding, his first born. Believe it or not, I rate my first real winter hunt for mule deer right up there at the top, even though at that time I simply didn’t understand. I assumed the gods of hunting had smiled on me and given me luck.

I’d saved for a year and had enough money to make a down payment on a new car – or head for the Rockies on my very first horse hunt with a real, bona fide outfitter and guide, which was something I’d thought about for years.
The rates were cheaper if I selected a last-of-the-season hunt, and I’d get to hunt in late November. I slid my bolt gun into a brand new saddle scabbard and drove east from California. It was no contest.

It often takes saddle stock to get back where to the big bucks.
It often takes saddle stock to get back where to the big bucks are.

Three days later, I clung to a frozen saddle riding through a winter world of ice sheathed peaks just below the Wolffang Range in central Idaho. My new home was two big tents pitched on a sheltered timber bench, the velvet hiss of falling snow against canvas each night as I drifted off to sleep in the delicious warmth of my down bag.

I’d seen some large tan animals at at distance and thought that this surely had to be the last winter stand for elk up here in this bitter and hostile world. As for mule deer, I was certain they would have long since abandoned these high lands for the lower canyons and basins below the snowline. That only showed how little I knew at the time.
My education began when I jumped out the best four-pointer ever from a Christmas-card-like jackpine basin. I killed the deer on the third shot as it bounded up through deep drifts, snow flying at each leap. Another dude tagged a carbon copy of my buck and a third dropped a massive, 3D-inch three-pointer with thick, dark antlers that made us all drool. A fourth missed a huge buck one evening at last light, shooting uphill at a steep angle. All the rifles in that camp either tagged bucks or got shooting at deer they should have killed.
It slowly sank in: There were mule deer all over these winter mountains. It was nothing to see a couple of dozen a day. I was going to have to rethink my preconceived notions about winter mule deer. I’d been wrong.

The biggest and smartest bucks are taken off snow-covered mountaintops.
The biggest and smartest bucks are taken off snow-covered mountaintops.

Since that wonderful hunt some years back I’ve strapped on snow paks, pulled on gloves and zippered vests to trample the white plastered rims of Utah’s Sevier Plateau, the juniper and cedar breaks along Colorado’s western slope, and returned many times to the gemstone state to hunt the steep timber drainage of the Salmon River. I’ve seen winter mule deer in Nevada’s high desert Ruby Mountains and northern California’s remote Modoc lava bed country. From these experiences I’ve concluded that one of the best kept of all mule deer secrets remains just that – a secret.

The winter hunter must change his way of hunting from earlier times, of course. Most hunters view deep snow as an adversary, but it’s not. Just remember that deer must stay out longer to feed; the easy foods are covered up and frequently the available food is less nutritious. This means there are longer feeding periods at both ends of the day.

muledeerinsnow2Not only are deer out longer where they can be seen, but they are easier to see.
It’s a tremendous thrill to sit quietly from a high rim with a good pair of binoculars as the first snow hits the land. If you have the patience needed to use them properly, and if you’re in decent mule deer country, you will find deer. I have no doubt about it.
Once you’ve found a big buck, you can plot your way down to it unseen and unknown. Staying high and finding a buck before it sees you are great advantages, and one of the deadliest ways for a lone hunter to get in his licks at the deer.
Other possibilities abound for the man who prefers to keep moving. You can travel with only the hushed crunch of snow underfoot. the deer will be seeking out the protection of the thick brush terraces, willow-chocked basins, or north slope timber. Check out places where deer can get out of the wind and stay warm and you should find the deer.

Study the condition of tracks and pay special attention to weather timetables. Has it snowed during the night and are these tracks snow free? Is the print clean and sharp or are bottoms glazed over and frozen, a sure sign of age in many hours? You can tell how many deer passed this way and pretty well judge the size of the deer by the size of the tracks. You can also determine if deer were traveling at a walk, feeding casually, or trotting.
Two weeks ago, I tip-toed from one snowy basin to another under cedars piled deep in mounds of new snow under a clear, cold morning sun. The tracks of five or six mule deer had led me along this winding ridge, and moments earlier I’d found a wet urine puddle; surely the deer could not be too far ahead.

This well worn trail is proof that deer don't abandon hip places when the snow flies.
This well worn trail is proof that deer don’t abandon hip places when the snow flies.

Splitting off to the right, I saw the big, splayed-out track of a single deer stretching out, a deer on the run. Dark dirt peppered each bounding print. Then I heard the muffled thud of hooves. I took off at a run, beating low branches aside with one arm clinging to my .270, hurtling down the mesa, following the line of tracks.
I saw the buck streaking through a shadowy cleft not far ahead, the dark flash of antlers bouncing above that grey slab body. The rifle came up. This time I’d guessed right!

The rut sends bucks traveling in search of does, and you may find a buck in unlikely places and at unlikely times of the day. The rutting season certainly must be maddening for them.
Once, I was stunned to see two beautiful bucks, nose to tail, trotting across a low sage flat half a mile wide under a 10 o’clock morning sun. They were angling closer to me with each step. I stayed in the quiet shadows of mountain mahogany and watched them come on for several moments. They passed a hundred yards left and slightly below me. It’s only at these times that bucks will deliver themselves right to you like that!

Riflemen who hunt the late season in western mountains know that changing weather is part of the game. A clear, bright day can change in mere hours to thick, grey snowstorms that last for days. You should be prepared to take advantage of it.
Snow and changing weather is one of the reasons you are hunting late, so look at it as a Godsend. A light, steady snow or even light rain has relatively little effect on a mule deer’s daily schedules. However, really bad weather sets their timetables back.
Solid snowstorms send them into the protection of cover to wait out its passing. If a storm lasts 10 or 12 hours, the deer will have skipped a feeding period. The longer the storm lasts, the hungrier they will get. When a big storm finally backs off, the hunter must be out in the country at earliest light. The first day after a major storm breaks, there seem to be deer on every hillside. They are trying to make up for the time they’ve lost.

Tent camps make more comfortable bases for late season hunts.
Tent camps make more comfortable bases for late season hunts.

Unless it’s a whiteout, don’t fire up the coffee pot and sit in camp just because it is snowing. Hunting during snowstorms, if you have any visibility, is one of the very best times to be out along the rims. Undeniably, there is something about these grey and windblown days that clearly affects the deer. It may be the subdued light, a mid-day that seems like last light.

There is something undeniably eerie about heading into winter high country when most other riflemen are on their way back home. You pass caravans of trucks, trailers, and Jeeps plying the long, black asphalt ribbons. As they pass, you look for antlers lashed atop canvas and bedroll. There is something exhilarating in knowing that you are heading into country you’ll have practically all to yourself. The heat is off the big deer, the weather is in your favor. Those cagey, giant bucks that have slipped away from others now will begin to show themselves. There is no better time to hunt the mule deer than in the winter. –Art Isberg

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