Mastering Mule Deer: The Buck of a Lifetime
The rising sun had long knocked the chill from the late September dawn, and still the big mule deer hadn’t shown itself. For three days, the buck had proven elusive, keeping himself just out of reach of my rifle, but at least his home range had been predictable. Each morning and evening, we’d been able to spot him and the smaller buck that was always nearby. But today, neither deer was where we’d expected them to be. With only a day and a half left to hunt, I’d soon have to make the call to pull off this once-in-a-lifetime deer and try to fill my coveted Utah tag with one of the many other big mulies that roamed this particular ranch.
As my friends and I discussed our options, I absentmindedly kicked the dust at my feet, revealing a rusty corner of metal buried in the hard earth. I kneeled and pried the small iron plate from its resting place. Broken around the edges, it appeared to have once been part of a buckle or perhaps a slide from an old saddle. One side was etched with what looked to be a stylized arrowhead. I brushed the years of dirt away and turned the found object over in my hands. When I saw the raised lettering spelling out “Grand Prize,” I had to chuckle. Maybe it was just the good luck charm we needed to finally get a shot on this smart, old buck.
Land of Giants
For as long as I’ve been carrying a rifle afield, I’ve had dreams of hunting big mule deer. While many hunters obsess over whitetails, I get positively giddy over the wide, deep forks muley bucks carry through the sage and aspens of the American West. I’ve had the chance to hunt a few, and tagged some good ones, but have never been in a place where true trophies—those 30-inch-wide ghosts and 200-inch legends—roam. Until this particular hunt.
While that caliber of mule deer does exist in several places, most of the units are regulated by once-in-a-lifetime limited-entry tags or are huge ranches managed exclusively for big mulies. I was lucky enough to get access to the latter on a well-known ranch in northern Utah, where I teamed up with Colton Heward, who guides for Wild Country Outfitters (wildcountryoutfitters.com). Heward has been on more giant mule deer than most people and can judge a buck with little more than a glance.
Aging a buck on the hoof in an instant proves very useful on a ranch where big deer are seemingly around every corner. As we drive the ranch’s miles of roads the first morning, I see several mule deer I’d be proud to hang my tag on. Even as I start to point them out, Colton interrupts me.
“That looks like a good...”
“Just a three-year-old.”
“There’s a nice…”
I’m like a kid at the carnival who just can’t seem to get a shot at the stuffed animals on the top shelf. But there’s a reason this particular ranch holds so many impressive mule deer. Instead of hunting for antler inches, the ranch’s strict policy is only to take bucks five years of age or older. Managing for age class guarantees those decent young bucks grow into record-breaking giants. It requires immense willpower, and I start to think Heward is going to take away my cartridges lest I go rogue after seeing yet another “too young” deer that in my book is “too big.”
On the second day of the hunt, just before lunch, we found a buck that was just right. Even at 1,000 yards through the spotting scope, Heward made the call. “That’s our buck. He’s definitely old enough, and wow, look at that rack.”
I strain to make out the buck’s headgear through the background of brush and aspens. It’s definitely tall, with deep forks, and carrying heavy mass. What he lacks, in my view, is the width that a true trophy buck should possess.
“He’s wider than you think,” Heward replied to my question. “Look at his body size. He’s a big, old buck.”
Heward can teach a master class on aging deer. An old buck typically has a blocky head, with a dished forehead, Roman nose, and grizzled face. But for on-the-fly aging, he points to the buck’s body. Heavy shoulders and a hanging belly are the first signs that a buck is past the five-year mark. Like a worn mare, an older deer will also have a swayed back. This buck has all that—and a rack that seems to stretch to the clouds.
For an hour, we watched the buck as he grazed toward a big stand of aspens with leaves glowing golden in the midday sun. Ignoring the few does that pass by, the deer does have one constant companion in a smaller buck carrying a rack that would have most hunters pulling the trigger. Late in the morning, we watched as they both disappear into the trees.
Hide and Seek
After lunch, we posted ourselves above the aspens, well within reach of the rifle should the two bucks appear. With fickle afternoon winds switching throughout the warm afternoon, we repositioned several times, until giving up lest we alert the bucks to our presence. At last light, from across a canyon, we finally spotted the two bucks emerge from the aspen grove just 600 yards distant. Close, but still outside the range I was comfortable with.
For the next two days, if we zigged, the bucks zagged. Each time we had spotted the two deer, they’d been one step ahead of us, either disappearing into the brush or heading for their bed with no chance to intercept them. We never got close enough to spook them, and from what we could tell, they never even knew we were there. They moved in no discernible pattern, but always stayed along a single ridge—one that was impossible for us to access without completely blowing the bucks out of the country.
So we played chess with them, inching closer and learning what we could about how they spent their day. It was immensely frustrating but also rewarding. At one point, we watched the buck bed on an open hillside, giving us just enough terrain and cover to make a stalk. But by the time we crept within range, he had disappeared, ghosting into the landscape. Another time, we speed-climbed a steep hillside to intercept the two bucks, reaching the crest just at last light only to catch a fleeting glimpse of them dropping off the other side.
As they say, no good thing comes easy, and if we were going to get a shot at this grizzled old buck, we’d have to earn it with hard-won knowledge, no small amount of work, and maybe a little luck.
The Last Piece of the Puzzle
As I slipped the metal plaque stamped with the words “Grand Prize” into my pocket, Heward spotted the two bucks working their way across the opposite hillside. We had been glassing the scrubby landscape all morning with not a sign of life. Now two big mule deer were standing in plain view, as if they had been raised from the earth. And after several days of frustrating cat-and-mouse, they finally offered an opening.
This morning the two big mulies were going just where we expected them to, but they were still far enough from their bedding area that we may have a chance to get in front of them. Colton and I would have to make a big loop around the deer, hoping the wind didn’t give us away. It was the best opportunity we’d had all week, and if it was going to happen, we’d have to hustle.
We dropped off the exposed hillside and quickly hiked to where the truck was parked out of view. Heward did his best to hold off the throttle as we bumped along the rocky ranch roads to the head of the valley. From there it was a long jog to the ridge just above where we’d last seen the deer. With any luck, they’d still be feeding their way right into our lap.
Just before settling into a thin stand of oak brush, Heward tested the wind. The puff of white powder floated away from us, dancing right along the edge of the ridge. One whiff of our scent and the deer would be gone. We could only hope the currents along the ridge would pull the human odor over before it reached the unseen bucks. All we could do was wait.
The Grand Prize
My nerves started to fray at the anticipation. I breathed deeply, counting each exhalation. As the smaller buck crested the ridge, any effort to control my heart was gone to the wind. Just a few seconds later, the tall, thick tines of the big mule deer appeared in the brush lining the ridge. As they passed down the hill in front of us, it was all I could do to hold the crosshairs steady on the buck as he slowly trotted through the scrub.
Sucking in as much air as I could, I settled the bouncing crosshairs a bit high and forward on the walking buck’s shoulder. I heard Heward say 340 yards just before the Timney trigger broke, sending the bullet on its way.
The buck hopped straight in the air on all four legs as what looked like dust exploded under his chest. Had I really shot below him? I racked another round as the buck ran downhill. Just as I found him again in the scope, the big mule deer stumbled, then fell into the tall scrub. The shot had hit a bit low, just behind his shoulder, piercing the buck’s heart. The dust had actually been hair blowing off his chest at the bullet’s impact.
I lifted the heavy horns from the scrub brush. Tall with deep forks and a few small kickers that had been hidden in the spotting scope. Atop the buck’s massive body, the rack was even bigger than we had thought. He was the buck of a lifetime, bigger than any I’d ever hunted, let alone laid my hands on. A true Grand Prize.