"I Can See For Miles!"
I've spent a lot of years tiptoeing around north Idaho's drippy woods in pursuit of whitetail deer. I've still-hunted jumpy flagtails in early autumn when crunchy leaves make it nearly impossible to approach game. I've patiently followed their tracks in November snows, and antler-rattled till my wrists were sore.
by Cliff Wood
I've glassed countless frosty meadows at dawn and sat silently over field edges at dusk, waiting ……… waiting for these brush-loving creatures to come out for a fair shot. And yes, I've collected my share of decent whitetail bucks plus a few venison does over the years.
Recently, though, I got interested in mule deer hunting. Partly I wanted to nail a really big set of deer antlers on my wall, and partly I just wanted to try a different brand of deer hunting. Plus, I looked forward to presenting a different venison flavor for the table.
It was only a matter of driving a hundred miles or so south, out of north Idaho's brush and timber. Lots of big mule deer bucks, they told me, hungout in the wide-open country of the lower Salmon River drainage, so that's where I went.
Hey, you can see for a mile or more down there! Actually, several miles, but for an old woods hunter like me, anything over a 200-yard view is unusual. Still, I wondered how the heck a guy got close enough for a shot in such country.
I kind of regretted not loading up some flat-stepping 150 grain bullets for my .308. I wasn't sure my slow-moving 180 grain whitetail punkin-balls would do the job a half-mile away! As it turned out, shooting distance was a minor problem compared to the super-steep country those crazy mule deer live in!
I knew enough about hunting to drive high and hunt down, and I finally found an old spur road that got me up there. Man, what a drop down to the river! I figured if I got something, I could either pack it sidehill back to my truck or drag it downhill to a second road. I had handled numerous little whitetail bucks that way, and mule deer couldn't be all that much bigger, could they!?
You combine steep with wide-open and what do you get? A lot of treacherous walking, that's what. Seems like a guy can stumble along those 45 degree slopes forever before he gets to where a deer might be hiding. Pretty soon, though, you'll see a little stand of timber or maybe a north-slope brush patch and wonder just how a big old 30-inch rack is hiding there. You work your way over to it, probably crossing a couple of Grand Canyons along the way, and toss rocks into the brush. Sometimes a couple of muley does pogo-stick out on stiff legs. Sometimes a whitetail doe and her fawn, for gosh sakes, bound away. Heck, I don't want a whitetail!
Noon comes and goes, and the old legs are getting sore. And there's at least a thousand miles of cliffs between me and the truck. Chukars cackle from across the gorge, and hawks glide on dry canyon breezes hundreds of feet below my rimrock perch. I begin to see why binoculars are so important to mule deer hunters. I munch a sandwich in exhaustion and scan distant slopes for the yellow rump patches of gawking mule deer.
There they are! Three big floppy-eared does and a nice buck at least 600 yards across a side canyon. They're browsing peacefully, so they haven't spotted me yet. Not a 30" rack, I guess, but a good four-pointer for sure. How do I get over there? Good grief, I've got to climb clean into those trees up yonder or I'll spook 'em for sure.
Maybe an hour of huffing and puffing and resting and muttering. I come around the end of a rocky ridge, slightly above where I last saw the small muley herd. They've moved downhill and farther away. I belly through scattered sage and wind-tossed weeds, hoping canyon rattlers have all denned up by now. Finally I peek over a rockpile and see the deer 150 yards away. No deep-woods snap-shooting here. I lay my hat on a rock for a forearm rest, put the crosshairs a tad high on the buck's ribs, and squeeze off.
He stumbles, recovers, starts to run downhill, and piles up permanently. The three does bound off and stop, looking for the noise source. I stand up and wave, and they're instantly gone around the ridge end.
The muley buck is "just" a four-pointer, but wow, may 26" between the antler tips. I've read that's about average for mature mule deer. Still, when you're used to spindly little 13-inch flagtail racks, decent muley horns almost compare with those of elk and moose!
--- well, almost. Mule deer hunters count antler points only on one side and ignore brow tines. By whitetail standards, my four-point muley would be a ten-pointer since most whitetail woods-hunters count both sides, including brow tines.
The second thing I notice about my buck is his huge body size! I have to tie his antlers to a bush to keep him from rolling downhill on me during field dressing. Pack him sidehill back to the truck like I might a little 90-pound flagtail buck? Are you kidding? I can't even get his 200-pound field-dressed carcass off the ground! So, downhill we go with me pulling on his antlers every time he hangs up on a bush, then jumping out of the way before he runs me over.
Eventually we reach the canyon bottom. I hang the big buck under a tree out of sight of the road. Can't imagine somebody mean enough to steal venison earned this hard, but there are jerks around who'll do it. We've got 'em up in our whitetail woods too. Anyhow, I hitch a ride back uphill to my truck and get ready to head north -- with my mule deer "trophy."
Before I head down to retrieve my deer, I take a last look through my binocs at the massive canyon country before me. That brushy cut down river a piece looks like awfully good mule deer cover to me. Hey, maybe I can get ol' Charlie to skip whitetails next year and come down here with me to check it out!
Copyright 2000 Spring Creek Communications
Southeast Idaho Mule Deer Foundation
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