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Over the next several months, we'll be running chapters from Chuck Adams' legendary book, "Super Slam". Last time, Chuck shared his insights on bowhunting black bears. Here, in Chapter Three, he highlights some of his all-time favorite mule deer hunts ...
I was pinned against a cold, dark hillside of scattered pines and rocks. The temperature was minus 20 degrees, turning my mustache to solid ice as my breath drifted up in fog-like wisps.
As if to prove that mule deer are smarter than hunters, a 4x4 buck and 25 does lounged in a sunlit valley below. The animals were warmer than I was, soaking up the autumn rays with their thick, steel-gray coats.
I shivered, wished I were in the sun myself, and slipped downward through knee-deep snow. Somewhere nearby was a much larger buck--a buck I wanted in the worst sort of way.
I was hunting a remote canyon in southeastern Montana. Gun season was in full swing, and so was the mule deer rut. Here I was, with a black-and-orange jacket and a compound bow in my heavily mittened hand. Blaze orange is required during Montana’s general gun season, but looks off-white to color-blind deer. So I figured I was hidden from the animals below. If I could only locate that bigger mule deer buck!
The archery deer season had not treated me well in the year 2000. I had located and stalked several record-size bucks in September and early October, but conditions were hot and dry beyond belief. The thermometer hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for eight days before a “cool spell” in the mid-’90s moved in.
Deer disappeared after daylight, and appeared again too late in the day to let me get anywhere near. It was spot-and-stalk hunting at its worst. Following animals into their bedding areas across layers of leaves, twigs, and pine needles proved a waste of time…even on rare occasions when super-heated breezes did not switch and give me away. I finally left in disgust, determined to return and bowhunt bucks during Montana’s rifle season.
The rut would peak in early November, and weather would probably cool off a bit. As things turned out, “a bit” did not begin to describe the temperature drop on the second day of November. A “Canadian Clipper” slammed Montana with its icy fist and plunged the mercury from plus 60 degrees to minus 20 overnight. I was on the road before daylight as biting wind and snowflakes hammered my 4x4 truck.
I saw more than 100 mule deer that day, including several bucks in the 150-inch class. All were chasing females like dopey high school sophomores, but not one was large enough to stalk. I wanted a 160-incher or better, and I had more than a week to look.
Cold-weather foot hunting requires special gear. I had replaced my summer hiking boots with light, well-lined pac-boots guaranteed warm below zero degrees Fahrenheit. I had layered wool and cotton garments over thermal underwear to form a snugly warm sandwich of fabric. I had pulled on wind-resistant chopper mittens--a combination of a wool liner with a thick leather shell over the top. My head was protected with two wool stocking caps, unrolled to cover my ears.
As wind swirled from every point of the compass, I congratulated myself on this choice of severe-weather duds. I might be cool--even cold--but I was not miserable and not bulked up enough to catch my clothes with the bowstring. All I needed now was the right buck in front of me.
I had seen such a buck half an hour before--a thick-bodied, large-necked bruiser with a wide rack. It was the sixth day of the hunt, and I was sneaking along a ridge tattooed with fresh tracks when a doe trotted across a clearing 100 yards below. Right on her tail was the buck I wanted. In addition to wide antlers, he had long and dramatically flaring main beams. Rear forks were short, and tines not especially massive. But I figured the rack would spread at least 28 inches and score 165 points. A perfect buck for me.
The rutting pair disappeared below, and now I was shuffling downward through silent snow. Two dozen deer were in sight, but not the one I wanted to see. I stopped behind a pine, peeked this way and that, and nervously fingered my bow.
The bow was a great one, a 74-pound prototype Hoyt finger compound with 50-percent let-off wheels, a tiny torque-free grip, and a practical 46-inch axle-to-axle measurement. This setup was surprisingly fast with full-length 2317 Super Slam arrows and 125-grain broadheads. Not nearly as snappy as a shorter release-aid cam-bow, but with an accurate laser rangefinder on my belt, I did not care. In my experience, a quiet and forgiving deer setup beats raw arrow speed almost every time.
A flicker of movement caught my eye to the left. My heart did a back flip. Extremely wide antlers were floating above nearby rocks. The smaller 4x4 turned and ran as the boss buck swaggered into view. I tore off my mittens, grabbed the rangefinder, and planted the laser reticule on the big animal’s side.
“Fifty yards,” I muttered as I punched the button again to double-check the range.
The big buck stopped broadside and slightly below, showing his uniquely long main beams, large front forks, and much shorter rear points. It was the same deer I’d seen before. No question about it. I drew the arrow, relaxed my bow hand, and planted the 50-yard pin low behind the shoulder. The shot felt perfect as the string slipped from my leather tab…one of those times you know you’ve done it right.
Less than one second later, the three-blade broadhead smashed home. The buck turned, tore downhill like a racehorse, and cartwheeled in a geyser of snow. My 4x5 deep-freeze mule deer was special, with antlers exactly 30 inches wide, main beams 25 inches long, and an inside spread of 27-1/2 inches. The rack scored just under l65.
Somehow, the bone-numbing cold and long deer drag back to the truck didn’t seem so bad!
IN SEARCH OF OLD JOE
“Joe’s one of the biggest bucks in our area,” Duane Nelson told me as we sat in his plush hunting lodge the night before our bowhunt. “He’s also incredibly spooky. We named him after a hunter who chased him all over thunder a few weeks ago. The archer failed, and the deer got even wiser. You’ll know Joe when you see him. He’s got double eyeguards on both sides plus an extra point on the left. He’s nice.”
It was good to see my old friend again. Duane guided me to my first Dall sheep and first mountain caribou in 1985, and outfitted several sheep, caribou and moose trips for me during the following 10 years. Duane had sold his hunting area in Canada’s N.W.T. in the late ‘90s, and now he was outfitting mule deer hunts in several southern Alberta big-buck hotspots. We finally got our schedules together in 200l, and here I was…excited to bowhunt giant mule deer, and happy to see Duane.
There’s no greater challenge than stalking mature mule deer across the open prairie. Such hunting is also fun, because you can glass for miles and locate plenty of deer. Once you find a suitable trophy, you look things over and make a move that seems to offer the best chance of success.
The following morning was typical of early-fall Alberta--temperature in the high 50s, with a fierce wind whipping the prairie. Duane and I drove to a high plateau, walked to the edge, and settled down to glass.
There were deer feeding everywhere we looked. In less than one hour, we had located four bucks that would easily make the Pope and Young bowhunter’s record book. One was a standout non-typical with four “kicker points” on his massive 5x5 mainframe. Not a huge deer, with an uneven rack, but easily gross-scoring 165 or 170. The other three were classic 5x5 bucks with 25-inch spreads, reasonably deep forks, and eyeguards 2 or 3 inches long. All would score between 150 and 160 P&Y…well above the book minimum of 145.
Most bowhunters would do somersaults to harvest such deer, but my bowhunt was young and I knew the area had better bucks. Besides, I wanted a peek at Old Joe. After most deer disappeared in wind-protected hollows, Duane and I took a break for lunch.
The average archer would be horrified by Duane’s mule deer area. The country consists of rolling hills, semi-flat tableland, and shallow ravines. Ankle-deep yellow grass carpets the land, interspersed with tracts of wheat stubble. There are no trees, and only occasional clumps of brush. You’ve heard of barren-ground caribou? Duane’s animals are barren-ground mule deer.
You might be surprised to learn that I prefer such habitat to stalk. Not only can I see plenty of deer. I can also keep track of animals as I try to sneak in close. And seemingly flat prairie land is never flat. There are always dips, humps, ravines and ridgelines to hide a careful approach. If you wear light-colored camo like Realtree All Purpose Gray, search for a deer in the right spot, and crawl like a snake when you have to, you can be effective on open-country bucks.
“There’s a dandy,” Duane exclaimed in early afternoon.
The animal was tucked in a hollow on the wind-protected side of a hill. He was more than a mile away, yet his nut-brown antlers stood out dramatically. We fumbled with my spotting scope, but the wind was howling at least 40 miles per hour. The glass bounced like silly putty, preventing a decent view.
“You sneak in for a better look,” Duane suggested. “I’ll stay here and watch the show.”
I grabbed my bow and slipped into a cluster of hills. I eased toward the buck on the downwind side, low enough to stay out of sight. Three does appeared in a side draw, forcing me to drop even lower and circle the unsuspecting females.A 3x3 buck popped up just under the big buck’s position. I crouched, waited 20 minutes, and finally watched the deer amble out of sight.
An hour after Duane and I parted, I sneaked a look in the hollow where the large buck should be. I sucked in my breath when I spotted fat antler tips above low-growing brush. My laser rangefinder said 45 yards.
According to reliable studies, the average archery mule deer is bagged at 35 to 40 yards. In wide-open terrain like the Alberta prairie, I’d wager the average is even farther. But in this case, I could not shoot if I wanted to. Terrain and brush screened the deer’s body, and the wind was ripping crossways with alarming force. Besides, I could not tell exactly how big the buck was.
I dropped to my belly and started wriggling ahead. I could barely see the tips of the bedded deer’s rack as I cleared the ridge, and then he disappeared entirely as I slithered into a dip along the edge of the bowl. I inched ahead, delighted that the screaming wind covered my rustling through the grass. I angled toward a point slightly behind the deer--a place where brush started and quiet crawling would become impossible.
Fifteen minutes later, the buck’s deep-forked antlers appeared again sharply below me. I could see his ears fluttering in the wind…and I could see double eyeguards and an extra tine on the left! It was Joe, the great deer Duane had told me about.
I rolled to my side, slipped out the rangefinder, and punched the distance button. Only 21 yards! I nocked an arrow, drew the bow parallel with the ground, and eased upward on one knee. The deer’s eyeball was screened by brush, and his ribcage was in the clear. It was one of those rare setups every mule deer hunter dreams about.
The bow thudded and Joe exploded from his bed like a frightened pheasant. He bolted downhill, staggered, and flipped upside-down on the yellow grass prairie. The whole episode lasted less than 10 seconds.
Soon my buddy Duane was pounding me on the back. Old Joe scored over 180 points, making him eligible for typical and non-typical mule deer record lists. It was one of my shortest mule deer bowhunts, but one I’ll never forget!
AN EVEN BIGGER PRAIRIE DEER
I was flat on my back in the bald Alberta badlands. Forty-five yards away, in a dip filled with brush, a giant mule deer slumbered away the midday hours. I could see his massive antler tips droop as he nodded off, and snap up again as he briefly came awake.
I could also see his 3x3 companion. That was the problem. The big buck’s eyes were below the brush line, but the dink’s were darn near in the clear. And unlike the old buck, the young sentry deer never dropped his head.
I had been slithering in super-slow motion for more than an hour. In all that time, I had moved less than 50 yards. Five feet more, and I would reach a slight depression in the hillside. Not a large improvement, but I could lie out of sight, wait for the big buck to stand, and have a small chance of drawing my bow unseen.
“Things could not be much worse,” I told myself as I rested my head on a rock and peeked with my upper eyeball.
Wrong! Seconds later, the small deer stood, stretched, nibbled a bush…and then looked right at me. In spite of my grass-colored camouflage and my prone, cadaver-like position, I could see the buck’s eyes expand as terror struck his brain. A split-instant later, he whirled and fled like the sniveling coward he was.
The giant buck never missed a beat. He was up and away in a flash, thundering down-slope with heavy mule deer bounds. Both animals disappeared in a maze of twisting, impossibly complex cuts and canyons.
“This is absolutely the worst,” I moaned as I trudged uphill to join my friend and guide Gerald Molnar. This time, I was right.
My guide had spotted this non-typical monster at dawn on the third day of our mid-October 1998 bowhunt. We were glassing vast expanses of southeastern Alberta, Canada--a public hunting area so open and so rough that Gerald had never seen another bowhunter. In two days, we had already spotted 47 branch-antlered bucks from high vantage points. Several were good 5x5s with antlers spreading 25 to 28 inches wide. But the first buck of the third day was immense. More phantom than reality, the deer floated into view, took a few steps, and vanished again like smoke. Even from two miles away, with daylight still dim, the animal looked huge.
Gerald and I went for the buck like beagles chasing a rabbit. After hiking hard, crossing an ice-cold river, and snooping into the wind, I spotted the big deer and his 3x3 pal in a cut 100 yards below. I crawled another hour, only to have the stalk blow up in my face.
Despite the heartache of busted stalks, I love to bowhunt mule deer. All things considered, I believe big mulies are among America’s most difficult archery animals. Bowhunting large whitetails is tough, but less complex because you wait for bucks in trees. By comparison, spotting and stalking mature mule deer is an intricate game. Wind direction, terrain, foliage, other animals, and bad timing often conspire to ruin a bowhunter’s best-laid plans.
Now that the sneak was ruined, we babbled about the big buck’s incredible rack. Nine gnarly points per side, extreme mass, deep forks, and a very wide spread. This deer looked like something from outer space.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” Gerald said. We’ll never see him again.”
Once in a great while, something goes right. Even for a bowhunter.
As we hiked back to Gerald’s pickup, I glanced at distant hills and noticed two specks moving along a ridge. Through my 45X Bausch & Lomb eyepiece, those specks leaped into crystal-clear focus. One was the 9x9 buck of my dreams!
“You’re the luckiest son-of-a-gun I know,” Gerald snorted as we watched the pair of bucks walk another mile and drop out of sight. “I’ve never found the same giant deer twice, even on a 10-day hunt. These animals are too spooky and move around too much.”
My clothes weren’t just light-colored to match dirt-and-grass terrain. They were soft cotton--among the quietest fabrics when crawling and sliding over rocks and grass. My boots were also silent--half-rubber pacs with soft chain-tread soles. Mid-October in Alberta can bring a dizzying variety of weather, including severe heat and freezing cold. Cotton in layers and pac-boots accommodate most conditions.
Three hours after we spotted the 9x9 buck a second time, Gerald and I were probing the countryside where both deer had disappeared. A deep draw angled past dozens of lesser cuts and gullies. The pair of bucks had probably entered this canyon. It was out of the wind, and mule deer prefer calm pockets where they can listen for danger.
My third peek into the big ravine hit pay dirt. The first deer I saw was the alert, all-too-familiar 3x3 buck. Twenty feet to his left, the giant 9x9 was dozing atop a cliff. The bucks were 400 yards away.
It was 5:00 p.m., and sundown was upon us. I knew the deer would stand up soon to feed. When that happened, all bets were off.
Gerald watched and waited while I made the final stalk. I plunged into the canyon and tiptoed up the bottom. The wind was in my face, and no deer were in my way.
The clay cliff below the big buck loomed directly overhead. A dangerous trail angled up the precipice…an eyebrow-thin ledge of hard-packed dirt. I gulped, and started climbing with fingers and toes. A forest of antler tines appeared only 15 yards above me, skylined against the steel-gray clouds! The giant was still in his bed, his face only inches from the edge.
I leaned into the cliff and silently nocked an arrow. Minutes oozed by like molasses. Suddenly, the little buck’s antlers popped into view. The big boy stood, and both deer disappeared. I scrambled upward and frantically peeked over the top. Both deer were walking away, 40 yards in front of me, the little guy in the lead. I drew my bow as the small buck vanished in the bowels of the canyon. It was now or never.
I released the bowstring, aiming at the back of the monster’s shoulder to compensate for walking speed. My arrow impacted with a meaty thump. The animal lunged ahead and disappeared. One more step, and I could have kissed him good-bye.
Gerald and I danced a jig across the prairie after we found my buck. The arrow had centered his heart, dropping him in less than 100 yards. The animal weighed 306 pounds on certified scales, and had the largest rack Gerald had ever seen. Tines were incredibly thick, with 7-inch bases and an outside spread of 31 inches. This deer gross-scored 208-6/8 and net-scored 203--among the top 10 non-typical archery mule deer ever taken in Alberta.
It is one of my best animals with a bow.