Kings of the High Country
In my profession as a big-game hunting outfitter, I get to spend a great deal of time afield with fellows that you would enjoy. In those days of riding into the hunting areas, stalking the woods together, sitting on stands, and shooting the breeze back at camp, I get to know a lot about them. Sometimes I'm privy to details about my clients' lives that I'm sure they wouldn't want their business partners or their wives to know, and sometimes I learn about their greatest accomplishments and the secrets to their success. Most often, however, they tell me their dreams.
Probably the most consistent dream I hear is that of taking a trophy-class mule deer, a real heavy-beamed, roman-nosed, thick-necked, wide-antlered, massive mule deer buck. For those who have hunted out West for years, they've seen the big bull elk and maybe even have one or two hanging on the wall already. But there are not many who have a big timber buck on the wall, and there are good reasons why.
You see, the elk go into the rut during September and are often bugling well into October, right in the heart of Colorado's rifle elk seasons. When hunting season rolls around, the big bulls are still running with dozens of other elk in big herds at elevations of 7,000 to 10,000 feet. Once you find the herd, the chances of busting the bull are pretty good.
Big mule deer bucks are different. Their rut doesn't begin until November, when most of the hunters are already out of the woods, and they certainly don't hang out in big herds like the elk do. The big mulies are solitary creatures, content to spend their days browsing alone at first light, bedding down during the day, and venturing forth to feed again at dusk. Sometimes they'll travel in bachelor herds of five or six other bucks, often segregated apparently by age and antler mass, and spotting one of these groups of mature mule deer bucks can be the thrill of a lifetime.
In my jaunts through the Colorado outback, I've had the privilege to wander from the deserts at either end of the state, at about 4,000 feet in elevation, to many of the peaks that top out at 14,000 feet in the rocky core of the state. I've seen mule deer in all those locations, and many nice ones at that. But if I'm looking to put a big daddy on my wall, I start looking for big bucks at timberline, which means 11,500 feet and above.
You're probably shaking your head in disbelief. Sure, I know, you've seen herds of deer down in the valleys at 6,000 or 7,000 feet, but ask yourself how many of those were mature bucks. Not many, I'll bet. Maybe there was a spike or forkhorn hanging out with the mommas and babies, but I'll bet you haven't seen a lot of antlers if there's a higher montane in the area where the big boys can hang out.
According to an old retired outfitter friend of mine, there are many good reasons for this. First of all, a buck's antlers are very sensitive when they are growing out of the deer's head in early summer. The velvet-covered stubs are a conduit for blood and minerals, and many a buck has developed a kink or twist in its antlers from knocking the developing antlers against a tree or rock. Ouch. Above timberline, that hazard doesn't exist. Secondly, the browse at high elevations is very nutritious and full of minerals and protein, so it's great feed (which, coincidentally, grows great antlers). Thirdly, the views from high elevations are excellent, and not just in a scenic sense. Big bucks gain their size by a certain amount of intelligence, and they enjoy having a wide view of all the surrounding mountainsides. It's very common to find deer beds on a ridge above timberline that look like a permanent home has been made there, where a buck can spot danger from below and take three jumps to be in the next drainage.
And lastly, though it sounds like there are no trees above timberline, that's not exactly true. There is a subspecies of Englemann spruce called "krummholz" (from the German, which means "crooked wood") that grows to no more than 10 or 12 feet tall and very closely together, making an impenetrable thicket of cover that big mule deer love to use for bedding areas. Typically their beds are scooped out in the krummholz where they can see you but you can't see them. I've watched a half-dozen big bucks walk into a patch of krummholz 40 feet wide to bed down for the day, and they simply disappeared. If they're in there, the only way to find them is to walk up on them, and the chances of getting a shot are nil.
So it sounds pretty forbidding to hunt high-country mulies, doesn't it? First, there is the elevation factor. Most people residing in the continental U.S. live below 2,000 feet in elevation, and most hunters, no matter how dedicated, are not in very good physical condition. It takes a hunter in peak physical condition, acclimated to high elevations (which can take up to six weeks) to pursue a high-country mule deer.
High-country mulies can be busted, however. They do see people in their environs, however high and forbidding they might be. There are hikers, horseback riders, backpackers and four-wheelers who venture into their redoubts, and as long as these folks don't leave the trails, the deer pretty much ignore people. Besides, most backpackers and hikers never even see the big mule deer, because the bucks graze at first and last light and slip into cover during the day. Otherwise big mulies live their lives, for the most part, completely unmolested.
I remember guiding two fellows one day on the slopes of a mountain over 12,000 feet in elevation. For both of them, their abiding dream as a hunter was to take a trophy mule deer. They were both in above-average to excellent physical condition, but after ten or 11 hours of scrambling through loose rockslides and scree fields, hiking up 55-degree slopes, and covering eight or nine miles of Colorado high country, they were done in. We had almost finished a big push across the mountain, and we were coming to a band of krummholz on the edge of a ridge high above timberline. I knew in my gut that a buck was bedded down there.
I stood on a little bench about 20 yards from the thick growth up above me. My hunters stood 30 yards below me, looking like a couple of whipped puppies. Because of the bulge in the terrain, they couldn't see the patch of cover that was above me. "Who wants to shoot a big buck?" I called down to them. "How do you know one is there?" one asked. "I just have a feeling," I answered. One hunter said, "Awwww, I've got the worst shinsplints of my life," he moaned. "My shins are on fire."
"What about you?" I said to the other hunter. After all, it was only 30 yards up to where I was-but 30 yards of climbing a 55-degree slope at 12,000 feet. "I've got blisters on my feet that must be the size of tennis balls," he whined. "I just can't do it. No way."
"Okay," I said. I picked up a rock about the size of a hen's egg and heaved it uphill as far as I could, which was about 20 yards. I swear that rock bounced off the buck's antlers, because I heard a rattling noise and then the buck boiled out of the brush like his tail was on fire. I got a clear look at him for four bounds until he was over the ridge and into the next basin. His antlers were tall, thick, heavy, and at least 30 inches wide.
As far as tactics go, I like to spot and stalk big mulies. My method is to use excellent optics to spot deer from long ranges, evaluate their size, and then plan a stalk for either the next evening or the next morning, when the deer will be out feeding. That means either spending the night at high elevation so you'll be in place for the next morning, or getting up awfully early to hike from the trailhead for two or three hours in the dark, because you want to be in position at either first light or last light.
Remember that thermals are a big factor in hunting at high elevation. First thing in the morning, before the sun hits the peaks, the cold air of the evening comes rushing down the mountainsides. As soon as the mountain is fully in the sun, however, the winds switch (remember, hot air rises) and the thermals start rushing uphill. Plan your hunt accordingly.
When I plan a stalk, I use folds in the terrain to cover my advance. Most of the time, if the deer are out feeding, a good hunter can find a ravine or gully to climb adjacent to the one holding the deer, or he can go around on the other side of the ridge to surprise the deer from above.
This is not a hunt where archers have a good chance of success. Because of the wide-open terrain, shots of up to 400 yards are common, so hunters must know their rifles intimately. I advise carrying a flat-shooting rifle loaded with heavy big-game bullets, because a mature mulie can easily weigh 350 pounds. I once shot a 29" 4x5 that weighed 192 pounds dressed carcass weight. Muzzleloader hunters even have a hard time getting close enough, so the hunter who takes a trophy high-country mule deer with a "stuffer" has achieved something rare indeed, and archers who kill a nice mulie above timberline are either very, very good or very, very lucky.
When faced with all the work it takes to bag a trophy high-country mule deer, some hunters become easily tempted by smaller bucks. After all, a nice symmetrical 22"-wide 4x4 is still something to brag about, right? Wrong. I counsel hunters not to take anything under 26" wide unless it's a real keeper for other reasons. After all, the dream is still alive when you pass up a smaller buck and hold out for that big, heavy-antlered, bull-necked 30" buck where the tines reach so very high into the Colorado sky.
Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native, is the principal owner of OutWest Guides, LLC, in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.