Make no mistake, big prairie mule deer can bring out the worst -- and the best -- in a bowhunter.
Stalking mule deer may be the most frustrating archery challenge of all, but when you find yourself in a scene like this, it can be the most satisfying, too.
At any moment, I expected to see him get up and walk away. His resolve to remain silent and hidden had to be weakening. Surely, he was about to bolt and leave me lying there, feeling alone and stupid -- especially since I'd been belly-crawling almost four hours, in the rain!
He can't still be there, I thought. So I carefully turned and looked behind me -- and he was, indeed, still there. My young cameraman, Troy, was staring at the bottom of my boots, rain dripping off the brim of his rainsuit hood, camera tucked in a waterproof cover.
It was only the second hunting trip of Troy's life, but he was hanging with me on one of the most grueling stalks I'd ever undertaken. I shook my head in disbelief and then returned my attention to the seven muley bucks lying in the wet grass 70 yards away.
A young stag (a buck still in velvet in October) was getting on my nerves. He'd constantly stand, scan the Alberta prairie for danger, and then bed again. Each time, we'd have to freeze in place, tucked into our only cover -- 15-inch-high prairie grass. When we did make progress, it was excruciatingly slow.
When the stag stood for the umpteenth time, I took the opportunity to rest neck muscles sore from hours of holding my head up. It was now 1 p.m., and with my nose tucked into the wet grass, I had time to reflect on how much I hate mule deer. They've always been my nemesis. They see and hear better than most game, bed in locations impossible to approach, and often surround themselves with nosy does with a penchant for blowing stalks. They're just plain exasperating.
That assessment had been reinforced all week as I hunted with Big Sky Country Outfitting, Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta. My guide, Jim Schnell, a local rancher, had put us on multiple good muley bucks. We'd made stalk after stalk, only to be foiled one way or another.
On the first morning, while glassing a distant ridge, Jim, Troy, and I had watched the morning shadows -- and a good buck -- disappear into a shallow draw. After an hour, we finally crawled to the edge but couldn't spot him, so we backed off and slipped into a secondary draw to stay off the horizon.
A pair of does sneaked into this draw while we were on approach, and when we unwittingly spooked the does, they startled this buck, the object of our stalk, from his bed.
Using scattered cover to get to the bottom of the draw, the three of us slipped along quietly, meticulously glassing for the bedded buck. When the draw split at the top, we took the left fork because it had more cover. We hadn't walked 10 yards when the buck broke from the bushes not 15 yards from Jim!
I couldn't understand how we missed his antlers in the short brush, so I walked over to his bed and, in the bottom of the draw, found a deeper depression created by erosion from runoff. The combination of the deep bed and bushes had swallowed the buck whole.I hate mule deer.
The next day greeted us with one of two conditions that can ruin a mule deer hunter's day -- high winds. Knowing an ethical shot would be impossible, we spent the day cruising and glassing.
The third day treated us to the second, and most undesirable, condition -- calm air. Slipping up close to a muley buck on a still day will test both skill and sanity, mostly the latter.
At sunrise that third day we had glassed the same buck we'd spooked the first day, and to our astonishment, he flopped down in the very same bed. This time he was alone, and we knew his address. But unknown to us, while we were hiking around to get the wind, two does slipped into the draw and bedded. Smack in the middle of our final approach, the does spooked and took our boy with them.
Plenty of bucks roamed the Alberta prairies. The real challenge came in using our optics to locate a mature buck in a stalkable position.
Did I mention I hate mule deer?
Despite the calm air that haunted us again on the fourth day, Troy and I were able to get within 100 yards of a group of a dozen deer, including a nice stag. That's when a soft, almost imperceptible breeze caressed the back of my neck. The first to spook was our buddy, the stag. The rest followed.
Detestable creatures, those mule deer.
The fifth morning was not only dead calm again, but rain was falling. We started the gray morning on top of a hill overlooking fields bordered by dikes, and soon we spotted a group of seven bucks. The largest had wide, heavy, and dark antlers, and another had even wider antlers with some sticker points. The rest were average to small; a scraggly stag filled out the party.
Finally, at 9 a.m. the group bedded in the middle of a field, far from any dike or other cover.
The hypnotic swishing of windshield wipers set me to pondering. There were no landmarks to commit to memory. Only the antlers of the two largest bucks betrayed their location in a sea of grass. The idea of a stalk on seven bucks -- in a calm rain, with a cameraman -- seemed ludicrous, even in my short daydream.
The squeak of the right windshield wiper snapped me back to reality. It also let me know the rain had slowed.
"Troy, get your rainsuit on. We're going after them."
Troy may have whimpered slightly, but he said nothing. He simply slipped a rainsuit onto himself and his camera. Then he stood clueless as to what was about to happen.
During the four-hour stalk I snapped this photo of seven bedded bucks, although only two have antlers tall enough to show above the grass. At this point, they were still 200 yards a
He wasn't alone.
Outfitter Brett Walker, who had been glassing other areas, had met up with us. He and Jim dropped us off at the closest road approach and then returned to the hilltop to watch the stalk. It was 9:30 a.m. when Troy and I dropped to our hands and knees near some hay bales. One hundred yards later, the grass got shorter. I slipped off my pack, took a quick photo of the bucks' antlers rising above the grass 200 yards away, and started belly-crawling with Troy right behind me.
I had no illusion that this stalk was anything more than good exercise, but I'm stubborn that way. I seldom take no for an answer, even when arguing with myself.
That brings us to 1 p.m., when the other six bucks stood and started grazing with the stag -- away from us. Stepping up the pace, I inched along, my stomach muscles getting sorer by the inch.
That's when our patience and determination were rewarded. The second largest buck started slowly grazing back toward us, quartering to the left. The stag followed, then the others. Things were looking up.
Whenever you're hunting mule deer, you must keep a low profile. The slightest hint of human silhouette against the sky can clear out an entire draw -- even one this big!
Once again, that goofy stag seemed to take his sentry job too seriously, spending more time nervously looking around than feeding. Now he was heading straight for our scent stream. Something had to happen -- quickly!
Reluctant to raise my head too high, I tried several times to get my rangefinder to shoot through the grass and range the wide buck. Finally I got it -- 53 yards.
"I'm going to take the shot," I whispered to Troy.
That turned out to be more complicated than I'd expected. After rolling and twisting my body in every way possible to avoid being busted, I finally managed to get an arrow nocked.
Looking back into Troy's eyes, I saw panic. He didn't know where the deer were, how many, how far away, or which one I was going to shoot. That was good. It meant he hadn't been peeking.
Gray clouds appeared within reach as I lay there, pondering my predicament -- and my sanity -- as scattered raindrops pelted my cheeks.
Suddenly, I was sitting up at full draw. Only the stag noticed the two giant gophers that had just popped up out of the ground, and he froze. Settling my 50-yard pin on the widest buck's vitals, I don't remember triggering the release, but I do remember a good sight picture.
I saw no arrow flight and heard no impact. The herd scattered a few yards, and then stopped in confusion. Only the buck I'd shot at kept walking, slowly, never looking our way, and suddenly he collapsed straight down to his belly and tipped over.
Having toppled over in seconds, the buck had to be done -- or so I thought. As I cautiously approached, the buck's head popped up. He looked straight at Troy, who was on his knees focusing on me, and bolted across the prairie! I could not see where the arrow had hit, but he was in obvious distress.
Tailing the buck from behind, I finally got to a high point where I could see a great distance. The buck was walking with increasing difficulty when he disappeared behind a short dike about 500 yards away. He never reappeared.
Years of frustration ended when I completed the best stalk of my bowhunting career -- and recovered by far the biggest mule deer of my life.
By this time, Jim, Brett, and Troy had caught up with me and we made the decision to come back in the morning. I couldn't understand how my shot placement was sufficient to drop the buck in less than 30 yards, yet he could get up and run a half mile. It was a puzzle I spent all night trying to solve.
The next morning, Jim loaded two horses into a trailer, and we drove back to the diked field. Riding just short of the dike where the buck had disappeared, I dismounted, sneaked to the top of the dike, and looked over. The biggest mule deer I have ever taken lay dead, 10 feet from where I had last seen him!
The arrow had hit several inches behind where I'd aimed but still passed through the chest cavity. The Rage two-blade broadhead had slipped perfectly between ribs, in and out, without touching bone, which explained the lack of impact noise.
I was elated to take such a fine buck, but greater than his antler size was the degree of self-satisfaction I felt following the preeminent stalk of my bowhunting career. I doubt Troy really appreciated what we'd pulled off, and I'm certain he figured I was just a crazy old man. I thanked him for staying with me, even though he did give it up shortly after the shot. But, then, he's not the first cameraman I've ruined. Maybe there is something to his assessment of me.
I suppose it could be schizophrenia, because I really only know one thing for certain -- I love mule deer.