When the topic of mule deer hunting comes up, different images flood different hunter’s minds due to the varied experiences that they may have had. When thinking about chasing these deer with the peculiar gate and larger than life ears, some hunters think of sneaking within 40 yards of a bedded buck in an attempt to slip an arrow into its vitals. Some hunters reminisce about slowly stalking through the aspens in mid September with a black powder rifle in their hands. The majority of hunters are more familiar with using a rifle to try and bag a mule deer buck. Many different habitat types might come to mind too. The mention of mule deer to some folks might elicit thoughts of open sage brush country. Some hunters might think of the montane/ponderosa zone as the true home of the mule deer. But there is a terrain type and time of year that most hunters overlook in Colorado… the early-season, high-country rifle hunt.
These hunts take place in September and allow a hunter to chase mule deer above timberline with a rifle. The neatest part of this hunt is that you have a fair chance of getting a big mossback that is still in velvet. When else can you chase mulies in velvet with a rifle? These are very physically demanding hunts but for the hunter who puts in his time, while both scouting extensively in the summer and hiking around above tree line, they can be incredibly rewarding. These tags do not come cheap though. There are not many tags to be had and so they require quite a few preference points. I have a much harder time holding onto deer preference points than I do elk preference points and therefore I have never been able to draw one of these tags for myself. But I have gotten to ride shotgun on one of these hunts. My uncle Mike drew one of these coveted tags 4 years ago and I was able to help him scout, backpack into the wilderness area, and ultimately nail a beautiful buck.
The hunt truly began in early spring when I got a call from my uncle. I was in class but I knew that the draw results would be coming in any day and when I saw his name on the caller ID, I had to step out of the room and answer the call. I said hello and it was immediately followed by an emphatic, “I drew the tag!” Our fingers had been crossed since the application deadline and my uncle had finally found out that he had drawn an early season buck tag for a wilderness area that I have done a lot of backpacking in. I knew a couple different parts of the wilderness area well and so after the snow line receded in the high country, we made our first scouting trip into the area.
My Uncle Mike is in pretty good hunting shape and after getting on a work out regimen after drawing the tag, he was able to keep up just fine. We had a 5 mile hike in through the spruce/fir community before we would climb out of the trees. Now the main goal of this scouting trip was to locate some specific spots to focus on when the leaves started to turn yellow and the hills began to beckon the presence of the hunter. But if my Uncle Mike loves anything more than hunting… it is fishing. So when we first peaked out above timberline, and he got a glimpse of the first alpine lake that had iced out, he immediately started to adjust our plans so that fishing would take a front seat. “That patch of fir just to the north of that lake would make a great site for the tent”, he proclaimed. The plan was to make it another mile and to drop down into the next drainage to the west and set up camp. But I had brought my rod and due to a rolled over tanker truck causing us to get a late start on the way in, I gave in and we started the decent to the lake that would serve as base camp for the next four days of scouting.
The fishing did turn out to be amazing and the dehydrated meals that we had brought in to serve as dinners, were carried right back out of the high country to the detriment of my quadriceps. There was just something about dehydrated chicken mole’ that did not sound as enticing when fresh trout from Colorado’s high country was on the menu! Although my uncle almost never left the inlet stream of the lake, I made a couple lengthy excursions into neighboring bowls. The high country is not overflowing with deer like other parts of the state. The country is less forgiving, the weather more tenacious and the terrain much more severe. There just aren’t the same number of deer that you might see down in the sage country or even the middle elevations. But I did see deer during my forays into the adjacent drainages.
During the summer the bucks are normally found in bachelor groups of a few to maybe ten or so but I have also seen groups holding as many as 16 bucks. I found a total of three different bachelor groups throughout the scouting trip and was able to keep tabs on them for the majority of our trip. Two groups consisted of four bucks and the third group had just two bucks in its ranks. One of the larger groups hung out in the drainage that we were camped in and consisted of two young bucks, a 120ish class 4x4 and a very wide (pushing 30 inches) 3x3. The other large group hung out in a big sweeping basin about a mile from our camp. All of these bucks were 4x4’s and I guessed the biggest would push 160 or so. What the last group lacked in numbers, they made up for in antler mass.
Through my spotting scope I guessed that both bucks were pushing that magic 180 mark. They also decided to live in the nastiest country this area had to offer. They resided in a narrow canyon and regularly fed out into the green grass of an avalanche chute that I wouldn’t think of trying to traverse. This scouting trip got us more pumped up than we could have imagined. So much so that we planned and executed two more scouting trips throughout the summer; both of which produced sightings of these same three groups of bucks as well as a couple loners here and there.
When the morning temperatures started dropping and the days got shorter we started to prepare for the hunt that was soon at hand. I was going to be able to take off 5 days from school and my dad was also able to join in on the hunt. I am sure glad he was able to come too because packing out the buck with three of us was hard enough… I can’t imagine only me and my uncle doing it! But I am getting ahead of myself.
After the long drive our legs were ready to go to work once we hit the trailhead. It took us two and a half hours to get to camp which, you guessed it… was located right next to the lake that had offered up so many tasty trout over the summer. We set up camp and ate some dehydrated fruit and elk jerky and geared up for our first hunt out of camp. We had 3 hours before sundown and so we knew we couldn’t get all that far but from what we had seen over the summer, we knew that it didn’t necessarily take getting that far from our camp to find bucks. And the pattern continued on that first, windy evening in the Colorado high country. We had only gotten a quarter mile out of camp when I spotted deer moving through a saddle that connected our basin with the next one (which had produced many buck sightings over the summer). I was only able to get the spotting scope up in time to see that last deer crest the top. He was the wide 3x3 and he was still in velvet! I really wanted my uncle to get a big velvet buck. That is the reason why many hunters put in for that tag… to get a chance at a big mossback with a rifle.
My uncle on the other hand didn’t really care. He just wanted to get a respectable buck. If it was me with the tag, I would have passed up a buck that had already rubbed his velvet for a chance at a buck that was still hanging onto it. But not my uncle. Any respectable 4x4 (or the wide 3x3) that walked in front of him would be getting a projectile sent its way. So when I saw that the big 3 point still had its velvet, I put the pedal to the metal and we quickly gained the elevation needed to peer over the top of the ridge into the bowl in which they had dropped into. Before long we were crawling the last couple feet to peak over the top. When the valley below came into view we instantly spotted the deer. It was the group with the 3x3 alright but the problem was that they had really covered ground in the time it took us to get to the saddle. They were over ¾ of a mile away and we did not have much sunlight left to deal with. The hard decision was made to head back to camp and hope that these deer weren’t longing for a distant basin. The two young bucks in the group were rubbing off their velvet on a scraggly bunch of krummholtz. This made the situation feel that much worse. I really hoped that we could find the group the next day and that the bigger bucks would still have their fuzz.
The next day did not produce any bucks. Nor did the next… or the next. We awoke on the last day of the hunt worried that we had missed our only opportunity. Should we have been more aggressive on that first group? We did know the area well and could have easily gotten back to camp in the dark. Had we just gotten lazy or did we actually make the safe choice by heading back? These questions ate at our minds while our tired, sore and worn out bodies gulfed down oatmeal outside our tent. We were huddled around the backpacking stove when my dad made the suggestion that he go off and check the drainages that we had been hunting the last couple days while me and my uncle go and check the spot where the two giants had hung out during our summer scouting trips.
We pulled out the mole’s skin, bandaged ourselves and split up. It took an hour and a half to get to the nasty canyon that was our destination. Our bodies were in tatters and our hopes had waned to little more than a sliver. But everything changed when after only glassing for a couple minutes antlers were spotted.
There was a lone buck bedded in a patch of krummholtz about 400 yards below us. The buck’s head was down and his eyes were shut. This deer was sleeping! Not a good strategy for avoiding bullets when hunting season is going on. The angle was steep though. My uncle was comfortable at 400 yards but he had never shot at an angle like this. He asked me how he thought he should hold. Now I didn’t have one of those fancy rangefinders that gives you the range adjusted for angle that have flooded the market in the last few years but I made my best guess. I told him to hold like it was a little over 300 yards. He was sighted in dead on at 300 yards so he got settled into the prone position and placed the crosshairs a couple inches above where he wanted to hit.
I was looking through the binoculars when I saw the shockwave surrounding the bullet fly across my field of view like a comet and disappear into the bucks hide. The thud of the bullet connecting raced up the slope and met our eager ears. “You hit him! Nice shot… wait, he’s rolling!” My uncle had put a perfect shot on him but the buck had started rolling down the chute. If he had not budged from where he had been laying it wouldn’t have been all that bad to pack him out. But as we watched the buck tumble and pick up speed, our excitement started to turn to horror. If he didn’t stop soon, we would be adding hundreds, possibly over a thousand vertical feet to our trip out of the backcountry. Luckily our prayers were answered when he got pinned between two big boulders. He had rolled roughly 500 yards from the place that he had been shot but it was a lot better than it could have been.
We got down to him and we were ecstatic. I was so happy for my uncle. I was caught off guard when he asked me if I was disappointed that the buck was not still in velvet. I hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t in velvet! The hunt had been so strenuous and hard that I didn’t even care anymore about velvet. We had killed a great buck in the glorious majesty that is the Colorado high country and that was all that mattered. Who knew where the two giants from our scouting trip were? Who cared if there were any bucks in the adjacent bowls that still had untouched velvet? Not me! I was satisfied fully with our accomplishment.
We had just finished boning out the meat when we heard a yell reverberate down the slope. We looked up to see my dad coming to help on the pack out. He had heard the shot and made his way to us. It took us over two and a half hours to get back to camp. We quickly finished the chores for breaking camp that we hadn’t done that morning and started to descend out of the backcountry. It was dark by the time we made it back to the trailhead. We were looking at a very long drive home after a ridiculous backpacking trip and we decided that it would be better to just stop and get a hotel room. We did just that, but only after heading to a local steak shop for some celebration.
My uncle did not end up getting the velvet covered buck that I had dreamed of but I couldn’t have cared less. It was an awesome experience spent with my dad and uncle and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I can ever save up enough points to go on one of these hunts myself, you can bet that I will be trying to find myself a big mossback with fuzz covered antlers!