Going 4 for 4 in Colorado's high country for mule deer
All the planning for this hunt started in 2016. I had a new co-worker, Bryce, who moved from Arizona up to Colorado and wanted to give high country mule deer hunting a try. He was able to find a couple nice bucks in the area and we spent a lot of time discussing the two bucks and tactics on how to get close enough with a bow to harvest one. It became a long, hard month of hunting three days every weekend. We spent it trying to get close, but never had the chance to release an arrow. These two bucks were smart and knew how to use the terrain and vegetation to avoid hunters.
With 2017’s Colorado application deadline approaching, I poured over the INSIDER draw odds to figure out a way that both me and my nonresident buddy, Matt, could draw a high country mule deer hunt while still building up points for a unit closer to home. I knew that it was slim odds for both of us to draw the unit second choice, but we decided to put in for it anyway. When the draw results were announced, we discovered that we both drew it, which meant that the real work began. In addition, one of my other buddies, Dano, also had a tag for the same unit, which meant there would be three of us with the same tag. I talked to Bryce and he gave us his blessing to hunt the same area that he was in the previous year. He decided to try out a different unit and “would rather have friends hunt those bucks than a stranger.”
Scouting the high country can be frustrating at times, waiting for the snow to melt off enough to access areas where the deer will spend their summers. The first scouting trip ended up being in early July and, luckily, my buddy, Matt, was in town visiting and we headed up to the mountains. Within five minutes of getting to our glassing spot, we spotted two bucks feeding about 600 yards away from us. We knew that the two bucks would definitely be shooters in a couple of months once they were done growing.
Over the next couple of months, I was up on the mountain every weekend keeping tabs on the deer in the area. In mid-August, I was able to finally spot the bucks from the previous July scouting session that we thought would be trophies: one buck was narrow, tall and heavy; the other buck was wide and tall with a kicker coming off of his right antler. I simply starting referring to these as the Narrow Buck and the Kicker Buck. I would have been more than happy to be able to take either one, but I really liked Kicker Buck for some reason. Yet, over the next few weeks leading up to the hunt, Kicker Buck simply vanished. I saw Narrow Buck on every single scouting trip up the mountain and essentially figured that this would be the one that I would hunt on opening day of muzzleloader season.
The hunt begins
Fast forward to the opening day of the hunt. The three of us with tags head up the mountain to my usual glassing spot. We spend the first hour of light up there picking apart the willows and mountainside with 10x binoculars, 15x binoculars, and spotting scopes. We see nothing. Matt and I head higher up the ridge to try to get a better view of the bowl. When we get to the top, we start glassing. Only about 500 yards from where all three of us were glassing earlier, we see a buck. We had left the heavier optics with Dano at the original glassing spot and could only glass off-hand with 10x binoculars. We could see that he had a huge body and could see antlers, but I didn’t know which buck it was. I was 100% sure that it was Narrow Buck because the day before the hunt he was within 200 yards of the same spot that this deer was now.
We immediately start to figure out a plan for the stalk because it wouldn’t be too long before this deer buried himself in the willows, making everything much more difficult. We check the wind and everything is perfect. We hike down the top of the ridge and pick out a group of trees that we figured would put us 300 yards from the buck. That’s where we would drop our gear and then close the distance. We get to the trees, drop the gear, and do a quick scan to see if we can see the buck. No luck. We look up to the top of the ridge and Dano is giving us hand signals that the buck is to our left. We pick out a rock that we wanted to get to and start walking slowly in that direction. When we almost get to the rock, Matt tells me, “Stop. There he is.”
Everything after this was just a blur. I know that I put my binoculars up and saw a big rack on the buck. I didn’t even give thought to whether it was Narrow Buck or Kicker Buck. I spring out my bipod and ask Matt the distance. He told me “142.” I had practiced out to 200 yards and knew that at 150, I would have 6” of drop. I settled the sights on the upper third of his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
I heard BOOM, SMACK.
And knew that I hit him good. He started running to his right into a little dip and I put my binoculars up, trying to see if he came up the other side. No movement. I focused my binoculars on Dano at the top of the hill who had his arms raised in excitement. The willows in this area were about 3’ to 4’ tall so it took about five minutes of him guiding us to find the buck. When I walked up, I was in disbelief. It was the Kicker Buck.
I had only seen this buck two times versus eight times for Narrow Buck. It’s always been my dream to kill a trophy mule deer. I’ve hunted elk, oryx, antelope, bears and mountain lions, but, in my mind, none of those compare to a trophy muley. Dano made his way down from the top to help with the pack out. We all exchanged high fives and admired this old high country buck. After the pack out, we knew we still had two other tags left to fill.
Opening day afternoon
That afternoon, we decided to hunt a different area about a mile away from where I took Kicker Buck. I knew Narrow Buck was in the area because of our scouting; however, finding him later in the day in the willows would be the difficult part. Due to this, we decided that we wouldn’t walk up to the top to glass down. We were going to have to get lucky and run into him down in the bottom. Dano had hunted this area before and was leading that way. We came up over a little rise and he told us to get down because there was a buck feeding in the willows. We all put up our binoculars and we could see that he had a big rack, but couldn’t figure out if this was Narrow Buck. Matt says to Dano, “You spotted him, he’s yours for the stalk,” and Dano tells Matt, “You go ahead, I’ll help guide you guys in from the rock outcropping.” They go back and forth for a minute because Matt didn’t want to be one to take the buck that Dano spotted. But Dano was insistent that Matt could stalk him.
We range the buck and he is at 520 yards. We knew that we would need to cover at least 400 yards to get in a shooting position. We head off to the left behind a little rise to cover our movement and Dano heads to the rock outcropping. We use the rise to cover the full 520 yards. As we come up over the rise, we were dead even with the buck; however, we had underestimated the distance from the spot we picked to where the buck was. This left us at 260 yards with the buck feeding down in a 50x50 yard patch of willows. We backtracked behind the hill and got to a spot that would put us at 120 yards from him if he continued to feed in the direction that he was going. We get back there and the buck was nowhere to be found so we start picking apart the 3’ to 4’ foot willows, hoping to see antlers stick up. We can’t see anything. We look at the rock outcropping where Dano was supposed to be and he isn’t there. We figured that we may have spooked the buck and Dano was now trying to get in position. We loop around the 50x50 patch of willows to try to get a higher vantage point and multiple times we stopped to check out the willows, hoping that the buck had bedded and we just couldn’t see him. This lasted for about an hour with no sign of the buck. We got to the top of a hill and spotted Dano about 400 yards away, shrugging his shoulders, indicating that he didn’t know where the buck was either.
We knew we only had about 60 minutes left of shooting light with an open sight muzzleloader. I kept telling Matt, “He’s gotta be in those willows. There was nowhere that he could have gone without us seeing him.”
So, with a good vantage point above the willows, we start rolling rocks to see if we could get him to stick his head up. The rocks start small and get larger and larger. Seven rocks end up getting rolled down the hill with no movement. Then Matt decided that maybe a cough would be more effective. The coughs, same as the rocks, get louder and louder. On the third cough (more of a yell cough), we see antlers sticking up out of the willows! Success!
I range it and we’re at 162 yards. It’s Narrow Buck! With good lighting this would have been a great shot; however, it was getting darker and we knew we had to get closer. We picked out a lower hill that we figured would put us at 100 yards. We slowly made our way down and range the buck: 102 yards. He’s still bedded. We decided that we weren’t going to push our luck trying to make him stand. We’ll wait him out—he’s gotta feed sometime. We wait for about 15 minutes and we feel the wind hit the back of our necks—it’s go time. The buck stands up. He’s not spooked, just smells something. The willows are too thick for a shot. He jumps over one willow.
I tell Matt, “105.” He jumps over another “108.” He walked towards an opening: “110.” Finally, he is into a clearing and I start to say “114.”
Matt asks, “Did I miss?”
I’m still watching the buck and down he goes. We walk up and there was not any ground shrinkage for Narrow Buck. Matt was in disbelief at the buck that he had just taken. Coming from New Mexico, the trophy quality is nowhere near Colorado. He was planning on taking a shot at any nice 5x5 that he saw but he ended up with a 5x7 with tons of trash at the bottom of his antlers: nine burrs longer than an inch. The mass on this buck was simply amazing: 7” bases. The mass carried throughout his antlers: 48” gross Boone & Crockett of mass with the initial rough score. As we did with Kicker Buck, we couldn’t help but admire another old high country buck.
The field pictures of Narrow Buck didn’t do him justice for the actual size of him. Once we were able to put him side by side to Kicker Buck, you could really see the mass and size of him.
Now, not to leave out Dano or Bryce.
Dano was able to close the deal on day five of the hunt with a beautiful 5x5 at 68 yards straight downhill. I wasn’t along for hunt, but helped with the pack out. Dano deserved an awesome buck for all of the help that he put into mine and Matt’s. We couldn’t have gotten it done without him on day one.
Bryce, who had hunted these two bucks relentlessly the previous year and gave us the go-ahead to hunt them this year, was able to get a 28” wide 4x4 on his own solo high country hunt on opening morning.
I’m a true believer in hunting karma. That’s the only way that I could describe how 2017’s season played out. All four of us were interconnected in some way and all helped each other out. And, because of this, it resulted in four hunters with four trophy bucks.