February 23, 2011
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
For advanced lessons in gamesmanship, challenge the grand master himself, the mule deer.
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
As my wife, Lori, and I crossed the border north of our Montana home and headed across the lonely Alberta prairie, we drove right into a nasty little weather front that put the ceiling down on the deck in freezing rain and lashed the grass with winds gusting to 50 knots. At first I felt sorry for our old friend Jeff Lander, who had already spent a week in deer camp ahead of us while Lori and I finished up some wing-shooting assignments at home.
Jeff Lander with a fine muley buck.
I knew that Jeff would be out in the thick of the weather somewhere, trying to stalk one of the big mule deer bucks for which his area is renowned. Then I realized that we were looking at ideal conditions for one of the most difficult tasks in North American bowhunting: putting an arrow through a big muley on the open prairie. I knew Jeff would trade creature comfort for a shot at a big buck any day.
An hour out of camp, Lori placed a call to Jeff's cell phone to let him know our position and ETA. We were driving through the middle of nowhere, and cell coverage was erratic at best. After several attempts, she finally got through only to receive a garbled response to her greeting: (gobbledygook) Just arrowed€¦ (gobbledygook) big hog! (gobbledy, gobbledy€¦ click).
The excitement in his voice came through more clearly than the words, and I knew that Jeff had spent too much time around big deer to get that worked up over nothing. I felt my right foot weighing involuntarily on the gas pedal as we sped on toward the explanation for the mysterious message.
|Bowhunting Alberta Mule Deer|
Well known for its giant whitetails, Alberta is also home to some of the best mule deer genetics around. Primitive Outfitting conducts hunts in the prairie terrain of southeastern Alberta. Except for a brief firearms season by drawing for residents, this is an archery-only area, which helps explain the size of the deer. Hunts run from mid-September through late October. Hunters may encounter weather ranging from sweltering to frigid and should pack accordingly. Tag out early? Buy a whitetail tag, hunt waterfowl and upland birds, or work out on the area's truly amazing coyote population. For more information, contact: Murray Matthews, 58 Blueberry Crescent, Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada T8H 1R6; (780) 504-7891; email@example.com; www.primitiveoutfitting.com.
Lori and I had just unloaded our gear when Jeff rolled into the driveway with Murray Matthews, his partner in Primitive Outfitting, and Colorado bowhunter Chris Kennedy.
Since Jeff wasn't guiding this year, he'd been able to hunt all week, and he'd put the afternoon's ideal stalking conditions to good use. After spotting a good buck bedded in the lee of some brush, he'd made a patient crosswind approach to within recurve range, nocked an arrow, and waited for the buck to stand -- for nearly three freezing hours. A 15-yard, quartering-away shot eventually rewarded his patience, and he watched the buck fall in sight.
As he retold the story over dinner, he almost managed to make it sound easy. But I had hunted this country before, and I knew better. Big mule deer are a challenge under any circumstances; on the open prairie they sometimes seem all but impossible. Besides, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and there wouldn't be any big mule deer.
I've always imagined this kind of hunting as a game of chess, complete with openings, gambits, sacrifices, and end games. It didn't take me long to realize I was playing against grand masters. Early the following morning, Lori and I glassed a fine buck into his bed two miles away across a complex system of cliffs and breaks. I memorized an elaborate series of landmarks, and when Murray picked us up midmorning, we headed off by truck to circle the badlands and approach the buck from above with the wind in our faces. I've done a lot of stalking in big country and thought I had this part down pat, but I couldn't find that deer again to save my soul.
My day didn't get any better. That afternoon I was glassing a creek bottom when I spotted a flash of antler tines in the brush a mile away. When Lori set up the spotting scope, I realized that we were looking at one of the biggest mule deer I'd ever seen, with a high, heavy rack every bit of 30 inches wide.
Then I made my second blunder of the day by exposing myself briefly on the skyline as I crawled over the top of the hill to begin my stalk. I honestly didn't think it would matter at that distance, but the next time I put my glasses on the buck he was standing and staring in our direction. He eventually left his bed at a walk, and even though I dogged him carefully until dark, I never had a chance to close the gap between us.
Spotting a good mule deer buck bedded in a stalkable position is the easier part of the battle. Getting to within recurve bow range of him, undetected, is the hard part.
And so it went for five more days, during which I made a half-dozen promising plays on buck-of-a-lifetime-class mule deer. Although I'm my own sternest critic when it comes to making and blowing stalks, I honestly couldn't fault myself for any more dumb mistakes after that first day.
Unpredictable wind swirls caught me several times. One morning I closed within 50 yards of a great buck bedded in an ideal position only to have a farmer show up across the road and start driving fence posts, which proved too much for the deer. The next afternoon, Murray and I built a ground blind in a patch of brush where we'd spotted deer browsing on dried berries. That evening I simply ran out of light as another mo
nster fed slowly toward my concealed position on a vector that seemed certain to offer a perfect broadside shot.
The only time I actually put tension on my bowstring came after a complicated afternoon stalk on a buck bedded with a group of does in a patch of dense brush next to a stock pond. This time the terrain offered an easy approach to 60 yards. Knowing the deer were going to feed uphill toward a stubblefield at some point, I put myself in a position to intercept them. The buck eventually walked by at 45 yards, and I'll admit to thinking about it. A good compound shooter likely would have had a dead deer, but that's just too far for my recurve. I never regretted the decision to pass.
Murray Matthews and I built this ground blind for an evening hunt. It would have worked if I hadn't run out of shooting light just before the moment of truth.
Although I live in the West, I don't spend a lot of time hunting muleys, largely because Montana gives us just one either-species buck tag per year, and I love hunting the whitetail rut too much to give up that opportunity casually.
But I've still spent enough time hunting mule deer to convince myself that they are the most underrated archery quarry on the continent. Young bucks may look easy through a riflescope, but big bucks with bows and arrows are another matter. During my week in Alberta, I saw old bucks spot coyotes at distances that would have made an antelope proud. They always seemed to bed in ideal defensive positions. One morning I watched a buck walk casually across a sheer, vertical cliff face that likely would have made a mountain goat pause and think.
For the bowhunter to win at this game, three things have to happen:
The hunter has to do about 10 different things perfectly.
Think you're eating venison when you've stalked to 20 yards downwind of a bedded buck? In fact, you're only halfway home.
The deer has to make a mistake.
That rarely happens. These animals have been facing predation from wolves, coyotes, and cougars operating at bow-range distances for millennia, and we're hunting the survivors.
The hunter has to be lucky.
Jeff's buck demonstrated all three principles. Jeff made a great spot on the bedded deer followed by a meticulous stalk. The deer didn't realize how vulnerable the weather conditions made him. And when he finally rose from his bed, he happened to be quartering-away from Jeff and looking in the opposite direction. Even Jeff will admit that much was luck.
According to formula, stories like this are supposed to end with some triumphant last-minute kill by the writer. Of course, it doesn't always turn out that way, and this writer at least is smart enough to know it. While I won't deny the frustration a few of those almosts produced, I was still in high spirits by the end of the week. Between deer hunts, we'd dropped plenty of Hungarian partridge and sharptail grouse for Rocky, my yellow Lab, to retrieve. I'd made plays on exceptional mule deer every day. And although Jeff was leaving the prairie behind to concentrate on bears and moose in his new guide area in British Columbia, he'd obviously left Primitive Outfitting's mule deer operation in capable hands.
All of which means it's only a matter of time until I head north again for another chess lesson from the best.