Have you ever heard someone telling a hunting story of how they missed an opportunity at the buck of a lifetime, but never saw the buck again? I’m betting at some point we all have. More than likely, not being able to find the buck again is due to the lack of behavioral knowledge of big bucks. Granted, you can have a wealth of knowledge and still may not turn up that buck of a lifetime again….but I think we can all agree it will greatly increase the odds of you doing so.
First things first, mule deer, like other animals, don’t like to be regularly disturbed by humans. Big ‘ol bucks are even less tolerant of human invading their space. High country mule deer see very few humans during the summer, so it should come as no surprise they begin to disappear in the days leading up to the opener as hunters are packing in and setting up their camps. They become even harder to find after rifle shots begin to ring out across the high country basins.
Unfortunately, the pressure nowadays is extremely heavy on public land and the bucks. After being pressured, bucks change up their daily routine. This is necessary in order for them to survive heavily hunted areas. Although they do things differently, bucks still have to survive. They must still get up several times throughout the day to either grab a bite to eat, relieve themselves, or to change beds as the position of the sun changes. This makes for some pretty tough hunting conditions. Simply put, hunting pressured bucks can be very frustrating to say the least, but there are certain things you can do to help put the odds in your favor.
The Disappearing Act
A few years ago I experienced firsthand the frustration of the mule deer buck disappearing act. We had hiked into a new area the day before the season and immediately located a beautiful 190 class, picture perfect, four point buck. On opening morning, the buck was browsing in the exact same opening he was in the night before. We hung tight and drank coffee and watched the big buck, along with his two smaller companions, until they finished feeding and bedded down in a small, thin strip of stunted pines to the right of the clearing.
Once the bucks were bedded, we began our stalk. Unfortunately, before we got very far into our stalk, we noticed another hunter approaching the bucks from directly below them. Considering the wind was blowing directly uphill, I knew it was just a matter of time before the bucks blew out so we simply just sat and watched. Moments later, the bucks caught the other hunter’s scent and exited to the left, disappearing over the ridge. The obviously dejected hunter stood there in a state of disappointment then turned around and began heading back down the hill.
Figuring the other hunter had given up, we had a great vantage point and watched the bucks until they bedded down again, this time in the wide open top of a ridge. There were several large rock outcroppings that would provide for a concealed approach so stalk number two began. The only way to come in on them now was a time consuming and physically difficult hike. The stalk would require us to drop down into the bottom, circle around the mountain and then come up the backside.
Once we arrived on top of the ridge, we were only a short distance from the bucks but we were not expecting what was about to happen. The other hunter saw us approaching the bucks and began walking up the open slope directly towards the bucks. I sat there stunned at what I was seeing. We watched as he executed his stalk earlier, but he apparently wasn’t willing to reciprocate. Before we had time to approach within range, the bucks saw him approaching and blew out of the country. Two missed opportunities in a half day of hunting. Such is the reality of public land hunting.
We continued to glass this country for several days without laying eyes on the buck. Evidently, this was an educated buck that knew what to do when the pressure was on. He wasn’t going to tolerate being bumped repeatedly. I knew I had to try something different so I changed my strategy. It was obvious the buck was not on the higher open ridges any more. I studied the surrounding terrain and noticed there was really only one ridge that offered any amount of cover. It was a lower ridge located approximately ½ mile to the south of where we had been seeing the buck. I knew where I would be looking the next day.
First thing the next morning I sat on a point which marked the easterly end of the ridge, which was heavily timbered on the north side and had a mix of trees and openings on the south side. I worked my way along the ridge top to the west. It wasn’t long and I noticed several bucks a few hundred yards down the ridge. They had just got done feeding on the south side of the ridge and were making their way into the heavy timber to bed for the day. The last buck coming over the ridge was him.
The main point of this story is that if I had continued to be locked onto glassing the open, higher ridges where the buck summered and spent opening morning, I would have never laid eyes on him again. Remember, if you have a buck vanish, be sure to thoroughly check out any nearby ridges that offer a fair amount of cover. Once the bucks drop off onto these ridges, there is a high likelihood that they will not return to where they were previously hanging out.
Cause & Effect
So what leads to the Disappearing Act? It’s called cause and effect. Cause and effect is a very simple principle. When you have a cause, or event, it will generally result in an effect. In the world of mule deer hunting, the cause is bucks being disturbed by humans. The resulting effect is that the bucks no longer inhabit the open high country basins. Remember, a buck doesn’t get old and big by remaining above timberline during the hunting season. Let’s take a closer look at a few examples:
Popeye was an iconic and legendary monster buck and is without a doubt, the most famous buck to ever inhabit western Wyoming. Popeye was a popular attraction on the winter range for several years during the early to mid-90’s. Although he was photographed by many during the winter after the season was closed, he remained an enigma of a buck going unseen during the summer months until the last year of his life. While on a fishing trip in the Salt River Range, Mark McCord was lucky enough to cross paths with Popeye and managed to snap several close-up photos of him in velvet while he was feeding right at timberline. Popeye had grown his largest set of antlers that year. His typical frame measured right at 220”s, he had over 32”s of non-typical points with an incredible outside spread of 40”. He was breathtaking to behold.
As is often the case with any big buck sighting, word began to spread of these amazing photos and several people were able to find out where they were taken. Naturally, on opening day of the Wyoming deer hunt Popeye’s alpine hiding spot had multiple hunters glassing that exact basin yet no one laid eyes on him. The increased activity drove him out of the open basins and into the dark timber. By dropping down in elevation and avoiding the high country basins, Popeye was able to live many years and was never taken by a hunter.
Drama was another famous Wyoming mule deer that lived on public land and was hunted by quite the number of hunters who knew exactly where he summered in the high country at an elevation of 9000’-9500’ in elevation. Many of these hunters were fortunate to see him each summer and many photos were taken of Drama during the summer months.
Word traveled fast among the mule deer hunting world and each year, more and more people knew where this buck lived. No matter how hard the hunting pressure became, Drama always survived from one season to the next. Not only did he survive, these hunters were not even seeing him during the hunting season. He simply vanished and then would appear on his winter range several months later.
Mike Johnson was one of those hunters that pursued Drama for years and just like everyone else, never laid eyes on the buck during the hunting season. By chance, on September 20, 2016, Mike had a buddy invite him to join him on a hunt several miles from where Drama summered. It was some lower country where the national forest bordered private property at an elevation of around 6600-7000’. Although Mike accepted the offer, he will admit, he wanted to be on top of the 9000’ peaks glassing the country where he was sure Drama was hiding.
At 6:00 am that morning, Mike and his buddy waded across a creek and began climbing a steep face. When they got to where they would be hunting, Mike wasn’t that excited about their choice of hunting locations but began glassing. At 7:00 am, a few deer began appearing and Mike passed on a small 24” wide buck that was hanging with six does. Shortly after, Mike noticed a few head of cattle coming out of the quakies nearby. Suddenly, Drama appeared just above the cattle. He was standing motionless and was watching the cattle and the other deer that Mike had been watching. Mike couldn’t believe he was looking at the monster buck that eluded so many hunters for so long. He wasn’t supposed to be here! He was supposed to be much higher on the mountain.
Mike set up for the shot knowing that this would probably be his only opportunity. Drama never moved an inch during the entire time. Mike touched off a shot and immediately after being hit, Drama circled around the lone tree that was in the opening and bedded down. After celebratory high fives were exchanged, Mike and his buddy went to retrieve the buck. At 20 yards away, Drama hopped to his feet and bolted. Mike searched for several days, scouring the country, looking for Drama without success. Later that fall, another hunter stumbled upon the carcass while elk hunting and claimed the antlers.
Drama was near the end of his natural lifespan when a hunter finally crossed paths with him and at that point, his antler’s had regressed. He had managed to avoid hunters through most hunting seasons by seeking out an area where there was essentially no hunting pressure.
Goliath was another legendary mule deer that lived in western Wyoming during the late 90’s and the life he led offers another example of the intriguing mysterious life of mature mule deer. Goliath sported a very impressive set of antlers that had an outside spread of nearly 40” and a typical frame that scored 210”. The shape of his antlers were as unique as the score as they were extremely tall and his back forks splayed out very wide adding greatly to his aesthetic impression. Very few people actually saw Goliath even on the winter range as even then he chose an out-of-the-way location to winter that was away from observers and oil and gas employee traffic. Goliath was finally taken when he was nearing the end of his natural lifespan and like “Drama,” was experiencing regressed antlers that come with old age. He had managed to avoid hunters his entire life, most likely by choosing a fall haunt that was away from the scouring eyes and binoculars of the hard core mule deer hunting crowd that was doing their thing much higher on the mountain. When harvested, he was living closer to winter range in an aspen transition zone in an overlooked area where the national forest bordered the BLM. Literally hundreds of hopeful big buck hunters drove right by his hideout on their way to the higher mountains.
It is unknown whether Goliath summered at a higher elevation and then dropped down just before the onset of the hunting season, but it wouldn’t be surprising if that were the case. It really doesn’t matter if he did or not. The facts show that he inhabited a lower, overlooked forested area just as Popeye and Drama did when hunting pressure was the greatest and that behavior allowed him to live past his prime.
There is much to learn from these famous bucks’ behavior and the type of areas they chose to seek out when the mountains began crawling with hunters. These bucks would never have achieved legendary status by remaining in heavily hunted areas. They would not have survived long enough to do so.
Focus on Secondary Ridges & Unpressured Areas
Forget about the high country basins, focus all your efforts on the lower ridges that offer a fair amount of cover. I refer to them as secondary ridges.
Secondary ridges are critical to the survival of mule deer. In short, secondary ridges are normally located at elevations between 8500’ and 9500’ in elevation. Once high country bucks are pressured in the high alpine basins, they drop down onto these ridges which offer the bucks the necessary cover they need in order to survive the hunting season. Don’t make the mistake of continuing to glass the open high country bowls for bucks at this point, your efforts will be better spent glassing the secondary ridges.
When glassing secondary ridges, there is one thing you should keep in mind. Even with the reduced activity, the bucks still need to eat. Even bucks that have been heavily pressured will get up to feed a couple of times throughout the day. This is why you need to concentrate your glassing efforts on the small openings in the heavy timber on secondary ridges.
Seek out un-pressured areas. Bucks will often seek out areas that are overlooked by most hunters. I can’t count the times that I have either read or heard someone make the following comment: “In order to kill a trophy buck you will need to hunt the nastiest, most remote piece of real estate you can find.” More often than not, this statement is untrue. The majority of the biggest bucks I have seen harvested have come from areas relatively close to the road or trailhead. The thing you must remember is that trophy bucks seek out areas that receive the least amount of hunting pressure, often times this is not necessarily the most remote area.
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Check out all the posts in the series Modern Day Trophy Mule Deer Hunter:
Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Time in the Field
Part 3: Glassing Skills and Techniques
Part 4: Mule Deer Behavioral Knowledge
Part 5: Read the Country
Part 6: Proper Equipment
Part 7: Physically Fit
Part 8: True Grit