“Well, I guess we’ll probably be going home empty handed, huh?”
I heard the sleeping bag shift around in the tent as Damian rolled over in the darkness, “Yeah. Kind of sucks. I still had fun though.”
The next day was our last day to hunt for mule deer during Colorado’s 2nd Rifle Season. I pulled my beanie down over my eyes. The wind whipped around our tent as it gusted through the shallow gully choked in sagebrush.
How hadn’t we come across any bucks on public land yet? I couldn’t believe it. Damian and I had hiked into two remote locations and spent several nights at each location. We hardly saw any other hunters at either location, but then again, we hardly saw any deer either. We had seen plenty of elk, and we were kicking ourselves for not buying an elk tag. Oh well, maybe next time.
We had been hiking up and down draw after draw and mountain after mountain. Our mornings and evenings were spent glassing vast open areas. On a couple of occasions, we were ecstatic to see a single doe mosey out of a copse of trees and browse around. Then, just as she came, she moseyed back into hiding.
Each night, while eating our meal of freeze-dried goodness, we rack our brains. Why weren’t we seeing any bucks in this vast expanse of public land? We both felt like we were putting in the time and effort to get away from the roads and hike into the most remote spots that we could find in our unit. But, this still hadn’t revealed any bucks for us to hunt.
Finally, after nearly a week of hiking and glassing and then glassing and hiking, we decided to get into the truck and drive out of the mountains and into the bottom-lands and farm fields. Neither of us had liked the idea of driving around and trying to spot deer along the road, but if the deer weren’t in the mountains, then perhaps they were down in the farm fields. And sure enough, as Damian and I drove around the farms and ranches that lay adjacent to the river, we started seeing the bucks that we had been after.
Now it was the morning of our last day to hunt. Like all of the previous Colorado mornings, our tent was smothered in frost and our tired knees and feet ached with the cold. But we were determined to find some bucks this morning. The night before, we had used our maps and GPS devices to find public BLM land that was adjacent to the farms where we had spotted deer the prior evening. The rolling tracks of public BLM land were dry and vast. Sagebrush grew everywhere. Our plan was to hunt through the rolling sagebrush gullies and hopefully find a buck.
We set out before the sun peaked over the hills to the east. We climbed to a glassing knoll and waited for the sun to illuminate our hunting grounds. When we had sufficient light to see, we glassed for several minutes. No deer. It was time to cover some ground. We moved across the sage flats to the edge of our first gully. We peaked over the edge and glassed up and down the length of it with our binoculars. Nothing. We moved down through the gully and up the other side. We proceeded to the next gully where we did the same thing. Still nothing. On to the next. Again, no deer to be seen. We walked down into the bottom of the gully. We were just making our way up the opposite side of the ravine when I heard a sharp hoarse whisper from Damian that stopped me dead in my tracks, “Buck!”
I looked up. There stood a big ol’ muley buck. Just the sort of buck we had been looking for. Damian began to reach for his rifle, which was still slung over his shoulder. The buck, seeing our movement, exploded into a full-on run up the side of the gully. I raised my rifle and only saw inky black where I should have seen crosshairs and a big fat buck. Cursing, I ripped the neoprene cover off my scope, found the deer, and pulled the trigger. It was an awful shot—I knew it, it was horribly wide, a shot of desperation. Without breaking stride, the deer crested the edge of the ravine at a loping gallop. Thinking we could have another crack at him, Damian and I ran up and around the side of the gully, but it was wasted effort. The buck was long gone.
Panting, we turned to one another and both shook our heads. That was our chance, and we weren’t ready. We blew it. We took off our packs and consoled with one another for several minutes. We still had the better part of a day, and we still had more ground to cover. We decided to work our way back to the truck in a big circle, pushing through parts of the various gullies that we hadn’t yet been through.
On our way back to the truck we kicked up a herd of five does. This was a promising sign. Apparently, the deer were bedding in the gullies, tucked into the sage, and then feeding down in the ag-fields during the evening. We continued pushing through the sagebrush until we came to the gully where our truck was parked. Then, at about 100 yards out, antlers exploded from a patch of sage. Another big buck took off across the landscape of sagebrush. In about two seconds, the deer was just a little speck in a forest of sage. The buck stopped at about five hundred yards and turned around to stare at us. Oh well, there goes another one.
Back at the truck, Damian and I devised our final plan. We would make one last push through the sagebrush and then head to the other side of the river and push through the valleys of sage on the other side. After eating some lunch, we began our push. This was far less successful and we only managed to kick-up one fork-horn. We eventually decided to call it quits and we walked back to the truck. After checking the time, we realized that we only had 1.5 hours of shooting-light left. We quickly got in the truck and drove across the river to the other side. Again, using our GPS and maps we found another swath of BLM land that was adjacent to a low-lying ag-field.
This area had greater relief than the other side of the river. Large cliffs and deep ravines bordered the farm fields and ranches. We slowly hunted our way through the ravines and cliff ledges. We came to a small rise and slowly poked our heads up and over to take a peek.
“I see a doe,” Damian said. “she’s feeding under a juniper tree.”
I slowly poked my head higher over the rise and saw the doe. She was facing away from us, oblivious to our presence. Damian and I sat back behind the small rise of earth. We checked the time, about 45 minutes left of shooting-light.
“What do you want to do?” I whispered.
“We don’t have much time.” Damian glanced back at his watch, “And we can’t see the bottom of the ravine. There could be more deer down there, but we just can’t see them. Let’s creep over this rise and move real slow.”
As we moved slowly over the rise, the doe ceased her feeding and turned her head towards us. We continued our slow creep and then suddenly, out of the bottom of the ravine, about 5 deer scrambled up the rocky slope opposite of us. My eyes scanned the group of frantic deer. Did any have antlers? Yes! The one on the far right was a buck. A nice buck. Damian saw it too. The deer, unsure what had startled them, stood still for a split second, looking back in our direction. Out of my peripheral, I saw Damian reaching into his pocket to try and pull out his range finder. The buck must’ve seen this movement also, because he turned around and started off.
“I’m going to shoot.” I said.
A small puff of sand on the side of the hill exploded above the buck. I was aiming too high, just over his back. The buck was closer than I thought. I lowered the crosshairs on him and fired the second round.
A small sliver of sun still peaked over the mountains to the west of us. Everything around us—the cliffs, ravines, sage—all had a warm orange glow that clear autumn evenings often have. I looked over at Damian. He was already staring at me, a huge grin across his face. Together, we walked across the sandy ravine, and came upon our first mule deer buck. I don’t know what was more surprising to me, the sheer size and beauty of the animal, or the fact that in less than two minutes our week long hunt was over. Either way, Damian and I were both elated.
That night we celebrated by butchering and de-boning our buck on the tailgate of the truck. While we worked, we chatted enthusiastically about our experience hunting public land in Colorado. Once we finished processing the deer and packing it into our coolers, we could finally sit back and absorb the entirety of the trip.
So, what did we learn about hunting mule deer on public land in Colorado? Well looking back on it, I just have to chuckle. Simply put, we just had to go where the deer were. When planning this trip, we had the idea in our heads that we would get as far away from the roads and people as we could, and this would reveal to us a mecca of deer. While in many instances, that strategy does work, but for whatever reason on this trip it didn’t seem to pan-out. Maybe it was the cold weather that rolled in, or maybe elk season pushed the deer out, or maybe CWD or another disease played a factor. Whatever the cause, one thing was certain, the deer weren’t where we were. So, we had to changed our strategy. We moved to different terrain, different elevation, and different food sources. I guess in one word, flexibility, would pretty well sum-up what we learned. We had to be flexible with our plan.
This was Damian and my first time hunting out west. It was a challenge, but it was a whole lot of fun. As we drove back to the airport, we started talking about all the other trips that we wanted to plan. What state did we want to hunt next? What game animal did we want to pursue? Whatever and wherever we decide to hunt next, I am looking forward to the challenge and the camaraderie that goes along with it.