Mule Deer: 2018 General Unit Success
Hunt Mode Co-founder Jay got it done!
With an unsuccessful 2018 Utah archery mule deer hunt behind me, back-to-back unsuccessful years and several foolish “passing up good bucks” occasions, nature gave it up on the 2018 muzzleloader hunt. Dreams come true once in a while.
2018 involved more pre-scouting, more money, more traveling and effort in advance than any previous years. Though to me time spent outdoors is never wasted, most of these scouting efforts were a disappointment. I just wasn’t seeing the numbers and deer in their usual areas. Bucks I had seen the prior year weren’t around. All of my trail cameras revealed nothing promising. Most trail cameras had numerous pictures of everything but bucks. I was turning up plenty of mountain lions, coyotes, skunks, cattle, foxes and jackrabbits – the big bucks just weren’t revealing themselves on camera or during glassing sessions.
Archery season was just around the corner and I had no “Plan A” and as anyone who frequently hunts mule deer in the west can relate, discouragement and disappointing thoughts started to creep in.
Finally, in late summer one of my cameras started to produce. No bucks over 160”-170” but at least I had a few “good bucks” and a “Plan A” ahead of the archery hunt.
Just days before the archery opener and as luck would have it, the “Plan A” bucks moved on. Nowhere to be found. Not a single picture even though they had been hitting this one camera consistently days prior. The weather was hot. The scouting was not. The mid-summer rains were gone and so were the deer, or so it seemed.
Maybe the “Plan A” bucks lost their velvet and moved into different patterns? Maybe they bailed out to different country or maybe they just weren’t into the picture taking any longer? Chances are they didn’t go far but I could not locate them and decided to focus every effort on higher country and more time behind the glass. After several days of hot, dry, unsuccessful archery hunting and putting one feeble attempt at a stalk on a decent buck, I had to call it quits and go back to the realities of work and family.
As I put the archery hunt behind me and began to pull myself out of the dumps mentally, I set my focus on the muzzleloader hunt in September – again, without a plan. I knew deep down bucks were there somewhere, they always are, I just had to change it up and get them found!
As kids growing up in this area, there is one particular mountain my hunting compadres and I have always wanted to conquer. We frequented this area before but this time we were going to call it home. It holds big bucks some years, few people frequent it, its steeper than a cow’s face and if nothing else, it is a challenge we all wanted to take on while we could. So, we put a plan together to bivy camp on the summit at 9,500 ft. and for the next several days we dreamt about killing giant bucks opening morning of the muzzleloader.
The day before the muzzleloader opener, we headed out. Packs loaded and full of the excitement of what might be up there, we began the ascent to where giant bucks had been hiding all summer – or at least we hoped. After two cold nights, severely windy days, few deer and quickly running out of water, we called it, and headed off the mountain. We’d accomplished our adventure, but we were losing this mule deer pursuit.
After 2-3 more days of hitting all our “spots” I started to pull all of my cameras and was ready to get out of this area. Mentally I was ready to pack up basecamp and move somewhere else. Where? I had no idea, but I’d spent weeks scouting and hunting and decided it was time to try my luck elsewhere. When I arrived back at camp from my morning hunt my good friend Mike says to me “Well, I think we should pack up and move on”. I agreed assuredly. Then he grinned and said, “or we should hunt this giant non-typical I saw this morning!”. My sense of humor was missing from days of hard hunting and bad luck. I wasn’t taking him seriously and didn’t think it was funny. I was more concerned with lunch and packing up camp. Then he chuckled and casually pulled his phone from his pocket and hooped with excitement! “We have to go kill this buck!” I took one look at this buck, gave him a high five and said “Hell yeah! Let’s do it!”. We’d finally turned them up! A big 5×7 and a 30” 3×4 that we’d hunted the previous year showed up.
We hurriedly ate lunch and headed out for the afternoon/evening hunt. When we arrived, I said to Mike, “You spotted this buck, you tell us what to do, where to go and where you want to be”. I didn’t want to impose on his strategy and was honestly pretty humble that he was allowing even his friends the opportunity. But he’s that kind of guy and when we hunt together, we’re there to help everyone succeed, it’s just our approach. After some quick brainstorming Mike had his plan and me and Zach quickly decided our approach, as to not disrupt Mike’s plan but to put us in potential vicinity of these bucks. We headed out.
As I made my ascent up my chosen ridge with the dream revived, I couldn’t wait to hear that dead silence broken by the distinct sound of Mike’s muzzleloader putting the smack down on one of these big bucks. At this point, I was unsure of exactly where these bucks were that morning. Only guessing, I slowly made my way along the backbone of the ridge and into a good glassing position. As I set up the tripod and glass, I are started reflecting on bucks I had seen in this area the year prior and I how I ended my last day of rifle hunting yards from this same spot. The year prior, the last day of the rifle hunt, I passed up a decent 3×4 just below where I now sat. I told myself then I’d let this one walk and hope nature would accept my gesture and reward me later on, who knows.
Within five minutes of glassing, hopes renewed and honestly just kind of day dreaming, I kept hearing very subtle critter sounds several yards below me. Occasionally I would glass this area trying to identify where the sound was coming from but nothing. I didn’t sound like deer moving through, just the occasional rustle.
As I started to scan further and further out from my immediate range, I started seeing deer. A doe here, a doe there. Then suddenly, below me I saw a quick but silent movement through the trees. Adrenaline immediately started pumping and I was scrambling to get eyes on this movement…or should I just grab my gun! I was in a scramble and soon had a tripod, muzzleloader and pack strewn across the hillside! I quickly gathered myself steadied my muzzleloader in the direction of the flash of deer I had seen. Then suddenly, 300 yards out a big, grey bodied buck was on the move. Again, I tried to get a good look at him through my binoculars, then back to my 3x scope but he was on the move and out of range within seconds of my first sighting. He stopped 380 yards on the opposing ridge, quickly looked back and disappeared out of site. I gathered my things and ran after him! When you have no other option, run! Not knowing exactly what terrain lie on the other side, I hustled over to where I had last seen him. Off the other side was a sheer 80’-100’ cliff! This buck knew exactly where there was one possible way off into cover and that’s where he went.
I waited in silence for him to move in the timber below me, but light faded fast and the day was done.
As I made my way solemnly back to the trailhead my mind was going a million miles a second. Crap! Did I just blow my only opportunity of the year! No, he was beyond my comfort zone with a muzzleloader. He was on the run. But maybe I should have made a shot! If only I could have caught him stopped. Crap!
Mule deer hunting, more often than not, only provides a split-second opportunity and I just blew it. I quickly sank back into despair and self-loathing thoughts. Another day had passed, and another opportunity gone.
The next morning brought renewed excitement and focus. One of us was going to harvest one of these bucks. It had to happen. We headed out again and like the night before we quickly strategized. “I’m going this way” Mike said. “I’m heading up the canyon” Zach said. I paused for a second, without any real certainty and said, “I’m going right back where I was last night”. We split and headed into position as the sunlight started to creep into the landscape.
Within 20 minutes I was in the exact same spot I was the night before. This time a little more composed and focused. But after 20, 30, 45 minutes go by my mind starts to wander. These bucks aren’t going to be right here again, I thought. We blew one out last night. He’s gone! Maybe they’re all gone.
An hour into glassing I saw a small buck appear above me out of the cliffs and small patches of brush. It literally seemed as though this deer had crawled out of a hole in the cliffs. I casually watched him trying to figure out where he came from and if there were more following. Within minutes, another small two point appears. Then a 3×3. At this point I’m seeing bigger and bigger bucks filing out of nowhere. Three, then four then Bam! The last buck to emerge out of minimal cover is big! I knew immediately this was the 5×7, without question. At this point I’m still 350 yards out. I want to close the gap. So, I quietly gather up my pack and muzzleloader and move in for the kill shot. These bucks had no idea I was here and I’m going to use that to my advantage and get just close enough I’m confident.
I snuck in, set up my pack for a dead rest and steadied in for the shot. 200 yards on the dot according to my range finder. Perfect, I’m confident at this distance I tell myself. As I watch this buck slowly feed out and down towards me, I’m starting to lose my mind! Adrenaline flowing, I’m trying to breath and take control. Steady the nerves. Hold back buck fever! The terrain he was descending down was tremendously steep. So steep in fact, I could look between his antlers and see the entire top of his back. He’s heading straight towards me on a decline, I’ve got the crosshairs buried right in the middle of his spine. For a fraction of a second, I think of opportunities blown and make the decision to seize this opportunity and put 250 grains right between his shoulders and not wait for a broadside shot. This decision was risky by all accounts, but I felt confident as I squeezed the trigger. Boom! He hits the dirt immediately, rolls 8-9 times down the slope and stopped. Woooohooo! I shouted! I had closed the deal at 200 yards passing a 250-grain sabot riskily between his 5×7 rack and into the top of his back for an instant “lights out” outcome. Prior experience has shown that a well-placed shot in the spine drops them in place. Some may frown on this shot placement, but it works.
I’ve never been more thrilled about any hunt in my life. I’ve hunted muleys since I was old enough to hunt have missed a few opportunities and have taken some “ok” bucks but this one tops them all in character and size.
All the effort, heartache and disappointments were immediately overshadowed by the success and I wouldn’t trade this hunt, along with all the discouragement, or these adventures with great friends for anything.
Can’t wait to get back out there next year!