Lessons the Mule Deer taught me: Part 3 — By Scott Reekers
“There He is, you ready to shoot?” Travis asked.
“Yes,” I responded as I leveled off the crosshairs of my .300 Weatherby Mag just under the top of the big bucks’ shoulder. The rifle cracked and he jumped hard, bounding fast into the trees in front of him.
“ You missed! Why did you rush the shot?!” Travis responded to the failed shot.
“I didn’t, I was leveled off and steady on the top of his shoulder.” I responded.
We had packed in a day before to an area I hunted for the first time in 2010. That year gave me the terrible weather that every serious mule deer hunter hopes for. Bunches of snow, low temperatures, and good deer numbers made for a great trip. The only problem was my limited knowledge of the area. 2012 we went back with a knowledge of the area and plans to glass spots I knew held deer.
We found several good bucks on the first morning, but nothing that gave us an itchy trigger finger. After several hours of glassing we moved to the next vantage point down the ridge hoping we would find a good buck. As luck would have it we did.
He was standing in a small opening at about 9 thousand feet, and feeding with a doe and fawn. At first we couldn’t see his antlers through the spotting scope with heat waves from the rockslide below obscuring him. As soon as the wind picked up, the heat waves left and we weren’t disappointed. His antlers weren’t wide, but 11 inch backs will make any trophy hunter happy. His fronts curled towards his face making his antlers look basket shaped. He was everything I wanted, and might have been as good as the deer I missed out on earlier in the season.
It didn’t take us long to bail off of the ridge and make our way to his hiding spot. The sun was behind us concealing our movements, and the wind blew straight into our faces. It only took 30 minutes for him to make his way back into the opening from his afternoon nap. And soon after I botched the 370 yard shot.
It dawned on me as we made our way down the hill to check for blood that the descent to the bottom was steep. Really steep. Steep enough for your heels to slip out from underneath you. The climb to the opening he was feeding in didn’t take long, I was beginning to piece together my mistake.
My rifle loves a hand load that will shoot sub one inch groups at 100 yards. The rifle is sighted in dead on at 300 yards, which is a typical shot distance in the high country. The steep angle had dropped the shot distance by a large margin. I should have aimed center mass instead of high. I missed buck number two because I hadn’t properly accounted for declination on the shot. Mentally I had planned for some bullet drop because of the extra 70 yards. It wouldn’t have been much with my flat shooting magnum, but still enough to keep the shot a little high. All of these miscalculations added up to a miss on a great buck.
1. Hunting areas you haven’t scouted can produce mature bucks, but it works better if you really know the area. 2010 taught me the area, and taught me where the bucks lived. Unfortunately that year I stepped all over them hoping for a shot and not spotting them with my binoculars. In 2012 I backed off and found them in their hiding spots from far away. This gave us time to put him to bed, plan the stalk, and get into a position for a shot where he would never see us.
2. We spotted the buck around noon. Glass all day, staying in camp all day, and only glassing in the morning and evening will limit results. Deer don’t always stick to the routine of eating early in morning, and at last light. Sometimes they like to feed mid-day, and for good reason. Most hunters have left the high basins for their afternoon naps and snacks. Glassing for long hours will always produce more animals than glassing for short periods of time.
3. Know your rifle intimately. After the missed shot in 2013 I made a promise to myself to learn all that I needed to know about shooting at steep angles. Sure enough, the practice and reading paid off in 2013.
My summer scouting hadn’t produced a buck that I was really excited about. I spent a full week during the season in some of Wyoming’s best mule deer country and never found a buck I wanted to take home.
A late September storm rolled into Western Wyoming, and created great deer hunting conditions. After a quick discussion with my partner for the short 2 day trip we decided to through hike an area slowly glassing and picking apart basins that had been covered in snow. Deer are much easier to spot in these conditions and we knew the area well, even without scouting it.
After a steady 2 mile hike we found our first deer, 700 yards up a drainage at the base of some steep cliffs. He was an average buck that my partner Dalton thought would fit what he was looking for. As we closed the gap the number of deer grew from just the one buck to 4.
Dalton got set up at the edge of the trees directly looking at the group of deer. As he was preparing for his shot I caught movement in the edge of my binoculars in the middle of a patch of buck brush. Big deer don’t need second looks.
“Dalton, you better get ready to shoot, because I am taking the buck that just stepped out below yours. He won’t score well, but he is big.” I whispered.
Dalton replied, “Take him, my buck won’t give me a shot and he is acting like he might spook.”
This time when the .300 barked the buck kicked then dropped, and slid down the cliffs in front of him. A short hike later I was looking at my biggest buck to date, all of the work was worth it. Even the work that came later packing an entire deer out the way we came.
Mule Deer hunting isn’t always about success the first time around, its more about putting the lessons learned into practice.