East Coasty Hunting Tale
In inland Washington they view folks from the coast like we in upstate New York think of folks from New York City. To be called a "Coasty" is a mild insult meaning that you are somewhat incompetent. I'm an east coasty. But I had a great hunting trip in Eastern Washington thanks to Arrowflipper and our mutual friends.
My darling wife gave to me on my birthday a combination birthday/anniversary present of a Washington State hunting license with the full knowledge that her birthday fell squarely in the middle of the first week of the Washington state mule deer season. It was a generous and thoughtful gift - typical of her.
It gave me had four months of anticipation to savor looking ahead to my second trip to Eastern Washington State to chase mule deer with my west coast friends. I would be hosted by my friend John with ample assistance thrown in by our mutual friend Gale who lived in the area we would be hunting. Gale’s neighbor Stan would be on call for consultation. Stan makes a year round hobby of patterning and photographing the local deer.
About the time my west coast friends heard that I would be hunting with them again, they sent me a photograph of a very impressive mule deer buck taken in the same field where I had killed my first muley four years before. I titled the picture “Hope” and hoped that I would see him there.
The high wide horns of mule deer make every white tail in my home area look puny and sad. Even my best buck taken at home in New York State would look pitiful standing next to any one of those big bodied, heavy horned mule deer bucks.
This picture of Hope became my screen saver at work and I looked at it every day of the next four months anticipating a chance to see this deer or one like him in that same area. It gave me a shiver of excitement to know that this deer had been photographed in the exact same field that I had taken a buck several years before. He might even be a descendent of that buck that hangs on my living room wall.
On my last trip I had been blessed to take my deer in the last light of day the evening before my morning flight home. That forced me to leave the deer hanging unprocessed and the cape undelivered to the taxidermist. I was forced to leave dealing with those things incumbent on my friends who had already hosted me for a week. They very kindly took care of both items but I did not want to repeat forcing that obligation onto my hosts so I booked my flights with an extra day on each end to travel without conflicting with the hunting.
I departed home at 3 AM Thursday 10/13/11. My whole family got up at that ridiculous hour to see me off and with much prayer for safe travel and the well being of my loved ones while we were apart, I flew out of Albany at 6 AM EST, arriving in Spokane at 1:30 PM PST. Stan and Gale met me at the airport and drove the 40 miles to camp. En route I spotted a mule deer buck standing in the brush 60 yards off the highway calmly watching traffic go by. I took this as a good sign.
John had already set up the tents at our camp site with his friend Matt. Matt and I would scout and hunt together for the next several days and even if the deer had not shown up, it would have been worth flying across the continent to get to know him. I would camp with John and be hunting pubic land through Wednesday, then stay at Gale’s ranch hunting through the end of the season until my flight home Monday morning.
John’s camp was amazing. It was set up on federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public access land about five miles from Gale’s ranch, we could literally start hunting when we stepped out of the tent once the season opened at dawn on Saturday. In addition to mule deer I saw abundant chukker, partridge, pheasant, and coyotes. The BLM land was a five mile stretch of creek bottom with rough volcanic basalt rock outcroppings and abundant sagebrush. It was bordered on both sides by farm land in the Crop Rotation Program (CRP) that plants early and late wheat in alternating years. While the early wheat fields were harvested and left with dry stubble, the fields planted to winter wheat were fresh rows of green sprouts just a few inches high showing up in stark contrast to the dry stubble, and golden crested wheat grass around them.
I could spend pages on the camp food, the wall tents, the cots with pads and double sleeping bags, the propane heaters! This was what camping should be for those of us who have survived the boy-scout experiences of open lean-tos, bedrolls on the ground, and roasting your food speared on a green stick. We had wide, deep cast iron cookware, fresh coffee every morning, and even biscuits from a propane oven. This was camping in style.
Thursday evening Stan joined us as we climbed the high ground to overlook the creek bottom and saw nearly a dozen deer on the far side of the valley highlighted on the horizon and silhouetted against the light colored stubble. At least one of them had antlers visible with binoculars from a mile away. We watched them with satisfaction until near darkness prompted us to turn our steps back toward pavement. Halfway to the road, a mule deer buck loomed out of the sage brush, suddenly peering at us from just 30 yards ahead. He stood at attention, looking at the five of us for a heart beat until he stamped his foot and turned away to plunge out of sight behind sage brush and the crest of a basalt outcropping.
We slept in comfort in “The Hilton” a blue wall tent that John had bought at a yard sale for $50 twenty years ago. He has definitely got his money’s worth out of that bargain purchase! Friday dawned cool just above freezing like most of the remainder of the week, making me appreciate the comforts of a propane heater inside the tent. Later in the day the rest of the camp crew arrived and set up their tents. There were six of us: Me, John, Matt, Mike, Dave, and Corey. Some neighbors also set up camp in the public land. There were three small tents with four hunters between them, and a large camp with an RV and several tents with at least four hunters coming out of that camp, and further away in a gravel pit we could see another large RV set up camp. By opening morning there were at least ten out of town hunters, plus the six of us, and I know of at least nine other folks (local residents and their guests) that were hunting the same immediate area. Twenty five hunters competing for legal bucks in an area where a deer needs three points on one side to be legal is pretty fierce competition. But this is the price you pay for hunting public access land.
We scouted Gale’s ranch the day before the season opened. I knew from past experience and John confirmed that there were two sites in particular where the chances of bagging a deer opening morning were high. John decided to bring Corey to a spot he called “The triangle” which was a triangular shaped piece of sage and high grass where deer would bed in the cover. The other spot where I had repeatedly seen deer four years before was in a hollow with a spring in it. I leaned toward hunting “the spring” but was also drawn toward the same winter wheat field where I had taken my buck and where the picture of “Hope” had been taken earlier in the year. We talked about it the evening before opening morning and decided that Mike would hunt the spring, and that I would go to the winter wheat field.
After getting up at 5:30 AM, Matt and I left camp in the dark for the long slow walk to the winter wheat field. At the near end of the field, I stopped to get hold of myself and take care of necessary business while Matt went on. While he was still within sight with perhaps 200 yards between us, two doe heads popped over the ridge from the creek bottom to the left of me. A moment later a buck pounded up the ridge to the right and actually ran between me and Matt! After he got between us I put my scope on him but he was moving so fast that with me not being used to counting antler points, I couldn’t be sure that he was a legal buck. At home, any deer with an antler over three inches in length is legal and I generally take the first legal deer I see. I just don’t have a lot of experience counting antler points so I wasn’t sure that this deer was legal. He ran to the fence line, jumped into the stubble and ran out of sight over the horizon. A coyote followed him an hour later. And that is the last game that I saw opening day. The buck may have been legal, but I just wasn’t sure so I did not pull a trigger. Instead of other deer, I saw other hunters and lots of them. At one point I could see ten hunters at the same time strung out over the two miles that I could overlook. Matt said that at one point he could see twelve. Despite not getting a shot, I felt like we were in a good area since I had seen deer exactly where we expected to see them.
When we returned to camp we found that the spring at Gale’s ranch had indeed been productive for the other members of our hunting party. Mike took a magnificent old 5x5 with broken tines on both sides. This was a mature buck who had fought his way into dominance. He was travelling with a younger 3x3 that John dropped on the move after Mike had downed the big buck. They brought not just one, but two good bucks out of Gale’s pasture opening morning.
After a fantastic meal and a good nights sleep Matt and I crossed the road to follow the creek east on Sunday morning. We split up as shooting light came up and worked our way down the valley. I found a bluff with a gulch on the far side and thought to myself that a deer would likely be bedded in that sheltered and hidden gulch even though it was only a half mile from our campsite and all the hunters pouring from it. I worked my way to the bluff and slowly over it. As I reached the far side and peered into the high grass on the low ground below, a buck exploded from his bed and bounded up the embankment away from me. My binoculars showed 2 high forks, but I could not be certain that he had the necessary three points on one side. I dropped my binoculars to hang from their straps and put my rifle scope on him as he bounded away, but I still couldn’t be sure that he had more than two points on a side. He bounded up the valley and onto private property. Matt saw him from +/- 400 yards away and thought that he was a big racked 2x2. A shot rang out as he crossed onto private land and went out of sight. Someone may have been shooting at him or at another deer. I'm not sure. But I do know that a big 2x2 was sighted several times that week. It felt good to have been able to see bucks two mornings in a row but I was questioning as to whether I would ever be able to count three points on a side. I was wondering whether I had already let two legal bucks slip by and if I would get another chance. There was a duck hunter on the creek firing at birds, and several other deer hunters wandering the area. Matt saw someone glassing him with a rifle scope instead of binoculars and we decided to head back to camp for lunch. When we arrived we found that Corey had missed a shot at Gale’s. We had all had seen deer but had nothing to show for it except a few empty cartridge cases.
Matt and I went back to the same field of winter wheat after lunch. We expected deer to come out from wherever they had been hiding to feed on the tender young wheat shoots in the evening. I went back to my side of the field and took up residence behind a big sage bush. While I could glass the rising ground on the other side of the creek, my field of view in front of me was very limited because the terrain dropped off to the creek bottom after only eighty or ninety yards. As I sat there glassing the distant terrain and reflecting on having not been able to count the fast moving antler points it occurred to me that this limited view might actually be a blessing. If a buck came up from the creek bottom, I would see his antlers before he could see me. That would give me time to count the points while he was hopefully still moving slowly. Two hours later that was exactly what happened. Mike (who had tagged out the day before) had decided to set up his spotting scope on the far side of the valley and was watching does in front of Matt at the far end of the field. But about 4:30 PM I saw antler tips coming over the sage brush in front of me. I grabbed my rifle and put the scope on him as he came into view. I counted three long tines on the near side of his antlers as his neck and shoulder cleared the sage, when his shoulder filled the bottom of my scope I fired my Winchester model 70. I could scarce believe my eyes when he bounded off to my right. At +/- 150 yards I fired again. He jumped the five strands of barbed wire and ran out of sight over the winter wheat and the ridge beyond while I fired a wild and useless third shot. Matt fired from the far end of the field at the running deer and also missed. I scrambled over the wire, landed heavily on my left leg and reloaded my empty rifle. I expected to see the deer down in the high grass just over the ridge. But he was not. Mike told me that he had seen him running out of sight. He was not down in the high grass no matter how much I expected to find him there. I checked the stubble for blood and did not find any. I checked the winter wheat field for blood. There were so many tracks in the plowed earth I could not be certain which set belonged to the buck. I walked the fence line on both sides looking for blood that must surely have spilled when a wounded deer jumped the fence. I did not find any. I went back to where the deer was when I fired and could not find either blood or hair. I was forced to admit that I had missed. Hope had eluded me!
In retrospect I think I know how it happened. I had the deer’s head centered in my scope as I was looking at the antlers and counting points. As he stepped up the embankment his body filled the bottom of the scope and as soon as I was sure that he was a legal buck, I fired. I neglected to adjust my aim. As the deer’s head filled the upper right quadrant of my reticule and his body filled the lower half, the center of my cross hairs would have been just over his shoulder resulting in a clean miss of what should have been a ridiculously easy shot.
With an hour of daylight left I went back to my hiding spot along the fence line and waited for daylight to fade. I beat myself up mentally as the sun sank red in a spectacular fashion in the west and a dazzling display of bright white stars rose in the sky. Matt and I walked the mile plus back to camp in darkness listening to coyotes singing in the creek bottom and away on the far side of the valley as the moon rose. We stumbled back into camp where our companions had a fantastic meal of hot food and cold lemonade waiting for us. It was most welcome and so too was my sleeping bag afterwards where I retreated into sleep nursing a sore knee and wounded pride.
The camp awoke at 5:30 AM and I pried myself out of the warm sleeping bag, still wincing with remorse and tired joints. It was tempting to hide in that warm cocoon but it wouldn’t make anything better. I suspect that Corey and Matt felt much the same. Dave, John, and Corey would be returning to Gale’s. Mike decided to drive into town to visit Starbucks, and Matt and I were left alone in camp as the light came up. We joked about going back to bed, but neither one of us really considered it. Instead, we would cross the creek and hunt the far side of the BLM land. On the far side of the creek we split up but maintained radio contact. I was moving slowly and glassing often. About half a mile from pavement I spotted four deer on the horizon. They were in stubble adjacent to a field of green winter wheat that I knew lay just over the horizon. Even from this distance of a mile or more away, we could see antlers on two bucks. They were both good racks. One was enormous, and the other very good. As we worked our way toward them trying to keep terrain or sage brush screening our movements the large buck split off from the others and went west alone. The remaining deer faded back and forth over the southern horizon as they worked their way east. Over the next 30 minutes we worked our way within 500 yards of where they had last dipped over the horizon, but we were brought up short by a low fence of barbed wire with a single sign that read “Private Property, Hunting by written permission only.” Those deer were safe. After several long moments of fruitlessly waiting for them to come back in our direction and the forlorn hope they would be seized by an urge to jump the fence onto public land, we gave up and decided to follow the large buck that was now out of sight to the west.
We worked our way down the fence line until we paused at a conspicuous rock pile to consider our options. The open terrain stretched away to the east (where we had just come from) and to the west. It dropped off to the creek bottom to the north. To the south, the open sage continued for several hundred yards then rose to the high field of crested wheat grass in the distance where we had last seen the big buck. I said out loud “If I were a big buck, where would I lay up for the day?” and brought my binoculars to my eyes. Right there in front of me I saw a bedded buck lying in the high grass of the hillside. He was in the open; hiding in nothing more than waist high crested wheat grass with just his head and enormous antlers showing. Our path was now clear.
We spent the next half hour crouching, creeping, and belly crawling behind every bit of cover we could find to get closer to that buck. The last bit of cover was at least 600 yards from him. That was way too far for me to shoot at him. We hid behind that last bit of vegetation and looked for a way to get closer. We had a granola bar and waited for something to change. After twenty minutes, something did change. The second buck came over the horizon and out of the private property lying down on our side of the fence less than a thousand yards from where we lay hidden. The two bucks were only separated by about 300 yards. Both were bedded on the same ridge that overlooked the valley including the access road. The first buck was a high wide mule deer. We tought he was at least a 4x5. The second looked like a big bodied whitetail judging by his antlers. He looked like a 3x3. Having eaten their fill in the winter wheat before dawn, and now hidden by the crest of the hill behind and the high grass, they could see anything that approached on three sides and were prepared to sleep the day away in the sun.
There was just no way to get closer. We pondered our options, considered alternate routes with backtracking and approaching from different angles. There just wasn’t any way to get closer without being seen. Then something else changed. Another hunter walked down the access road and sat down on that conspicuous pile of rocks ¾ mile away. He had his back to us and was watching toward the creek bottom completely unaware that Matt and I and two bucks were within sight behind him. The deer’s attention focused on that hunter sitting like an orange beacon on the rocks and Matt decided that he was going to risk crawling close enough to make a shot. Trusting to his camouflage and stopping frequently, he began to belly crawl forward.
I knew that there was no hope of both of us making that approach and remaining undetected. I had missed my shot, and now it was Matt’s turn. He edged out of cover while the deer were distracted by the other hunter and began the long slow process of creeping closer. He had covered perhaps 100 yards when the buck stood up looking in our direction. Matt froze while the buck looked around, reversed direction to face the distant hunter, and lay back down. After long minutes of patience Matt began to move again. Over the course of the next hour he covered another 200 yards putting himself about 300 yards from the big buck. Both deer were still in their beds. The big buck was visible only as head and antlers through the high grass. The smaller buck was only visible as a pair of dark sticks amid so many other pieces of sage and weeds. Had I not seen him lay down, I doubt I would have been able to pick out those antlers even if I were carefully glassing the hillside.
When Matt had worked as close to the big buck as he was able to without giving himself away, he steadied his .270 for the long shot. He anticipated that the bullet would drop several inches over that distance and held over the buck’s neck while he squeezed the trigger. That flat shooting .270 load hit the ground just over the bucks neck behind him. The buck stood up and bounced over the ridge top out of sight unhurt and magnificent as Matt tried to anchor him with a fast second shot that kicked up dust at impact in the dirt.
After missing the night before, I could feel Matt’s crushing disappointment. I doubt if I could have made the shot at that distance either. But my disappointment was mixed with hope because the second, smaller buck had not left his bed. In fact, he barely looked around as the echoes of the shots faded. He considered himself so well hidden that he had no fear of us or the noise. Gambling that he would continue to feel secure, I stood up and walked obliquely away from him but toward the far end of the hill that he was on. When I reached Matt he remarked that humans were much more efficient as bipeds. It had taken me less than a minute to walk the 300 yards he had taken a full hour to crawl over. By walking nearly parallel to the ridge I walked away from the deer increasing the distance between us while at the same time drawing closer to the bottom of the ridge that he was on top of. When I reached the bottom of the ridge, the curve of the hill hid me from the buck on top, and by crouching low I could stay below the top of the yard high crested wheat grass. Matt said “Go get him, it’s your turn” and stayed behind as I worked my way up the hill. A slight swale let me work up the slope and get behind the ridge while staying low. Once safely over the crest I was able to stand erect, take a deep breath and begin working my way toward the deer from behind.
That high grass hid him so well that I thought he had spotted me and left the area while I was approaching because when I reached where I thought the deer should have been not only was he not there, I couldn’t even see him. Matt urged me ahead indicating that the deer was still ahead, so with the butt stock firmly planted at my shoulder and my scope turned down to the lowest power I inched forward with fervent prayer for success.
He must have heard me. The grass was so thick and high, that I could not see him until he raised his head and turned in my direction. I was approaching from behind his left shoulder as he lay with his head toward me, but looking away. Turning his head he faced me and stood up just 50 yards ahead. I quickly verified that there were at least five antler points total (however many were on each side!). He was now standing facing me and had to reverse direction to make his escape. As he turned broadside, I settled the crosshairs deliberately over his heart and pulled the trigger sending a 300 grain Hornady projectile travelling 2,425 fps into his chest tight behind his right leg.
He completed the turn and leapt out of sight downhill. But I heard Matt call “He’s down! You got him. He’s down!” I was incredibly thankful but I couldn’t see him even when I went forward to where he had been laying. In the five minutes it took Matt to work his way upslope to me, I started walking a grid pattern of the area and it was only after several sweeps that I saw an antler curve in the grass just five yards ahead. He had run about 30 yards with a hole through both lungs and the big vessels over the heart. The dead grass was unbelievably effective camouflage but I had my second western buck.
He was a big deer by eastern standards, easily 200 pounds on the hoof with a big 3x4 rack. He is probably the biggest racked deer I have ever taken. My shot passed just behind the right leg at the elbow and exited six inches further back on the left side of his chest.
Matt helped me to take some photos which I appreciate very much and to field dress the buck with my Sir Michael of New York (SMONY) knife that John had scrimshawed for me. Then we dragged him the several hundred yards to the access road where Mike (who had by now returned from Starbucks and had been listening to the whole play on the radio from camp) very kindly met us with Gale’s game cart and two much needed drinks. Beyond that he then insisted on helping me cart the deer down the access road all the way to pavement. Matt kindly carried my heavy rifle which I admit really should have had a sling attached to it. Using the single wheeled game cart was an incredible relief after dragging that buck over rough country to the access road. The “road” was a pair of seldom used wheel tracks that would have been torturous to negotiate with a double wheeled cart but which were easily navigated with the single wheeled cart. I was so relieved to have filled my tag, I really couldn’t have been much happier.
When we returned to camp we found that Dave had filled his doe tag at Gale’s. We had seen deer every day and every one of us had a chance to harvest a legal deer. Some of us, namely me, had been blessed with more than one chance and four out of six of us had filled a tag within three days. No one else from the other tents or RVs had had filled a tag up until then. We had been blessed far beyond our expectations.
John demonstrated his years of experience butchering by making short work of the first three deer, skinning, letting them cool, then quartering them to get them in the oversized ice laden cooler for transport home. In my case we skinned, then let the deer hang overnight in the near freezing temperatures before deboning the entire carcass in the cold morning. We packed the venison into freezer bags and deposited them into Gale’s chest freezer to freeze solid before I transported them home.
While John and I put my deer into freezer wrap the other fellows in camp went out for one more morning hunt. When they returned at lunch time they decided that they had hunted hard enough and were ready to call it a week.
After we packed up camp, Mike gave me a lift to Gale’s house where I spent the rest of the week. I could spend a lot of time talking about how enjoyable the time there was and the conversations we shared with his son Will, Stan, and numerous other guests but this is a hunting story and it will suffice to say that it was wonderfully relaxing and pleasant. I was able to move my flight up to Saturday and returned safely home. My venison was frozen solid and I packed my waterproof suitcase full of freezer bagged meat to bring home as luggage while mailing my clothes and boots home. My travelling was blessedly uneventful and the meat made it to my freezer still completely frozen.
The night after I arrived home I had my extended family over for dinner of mule deer backstrap crusted with fresh herbs and black pepper with Johnny’s seasoning salt and olive oil; fresh made baking powder biscuits; real mashed potatoes made with half and half and butter; a green salad and a few fresh picked green beans from the fast fading garden. Less than half that big backstrap fed seven of us all that we could hold and I am looking forward to working through the rest of the venison all winter. Our group had a great success ratio, especially compared to the other hunters in the area. I think less than one third of the other hunters filled their tags. That makes my seeing deer everyday and getting a chance to try for two good bucks all the more remarkable. At last report there were still legal bucks being sighted in the area, plus couple big 2x2s, and an abundance of does and fawns to continue the population next year.
Now the only thing left to decide besides when I go back to do it again, is – did I shoot a mule deer, a whitetail, or a hybrid? There are both mule deer and whitetail in that area. I know that my buck’s backside including the tail were clearly that of a mule deer. But he was larger than any whitetail I've ever shot, his coloring looks a bit whitetail like to me, and his antlers do not have the characteristic split forks of a mule deer. So whether he is a non-forking muley or a whitetail hybrid is open to debate. You can draw your own conclusions, I just know that I am glad to have him and grateful for the chance to have shared the experience with a great group of guys!