Some of the most exhilarating hunting adventures I’ve experienced in my life combine Mule Deer with Archery. Compared to anything I’ve personally done in the outdoors, spot and stalk Mule Deer with stick and string is my personal favorite joy. I plan all summer, waiting for fall and the chance to stalk a mature buck. Motivated by big mule deer that gave me the slip in seasons past. The 2017 hunting season was going to be difficult for me. I had a busy schedule planned during a large part of the season that would completely black out all my weekends through thanksgiving. I was left with a handful of windows during the last few weeks of the season. Everyday that fall, it seemed I went to bed dreaming about December’s unpredictable weather.
My work schedule was known early on so I knew my North Dakota archery hunting would come down to December. During the dog days of summer, I practiced with my Halon in full winter clothes. Layered up to simulate the wicked conditions I would surely be faced with in December. Not having any opportunity to hunt or even scout on account of my out of state Job weighed heavy on my mind but I can’t complain. To clarify, the job that so mercilessly takes me away each fall is guiding in Montana’s Missouri River Breaks Country. I pursue elk and mule deer on a daily basis along with the occasional bighorn sheep.
One reality of guiding big game is that you spend your time without a weapon. The seasons in Montana kept me busy all through Thanksgiving. It was December when I was finally able to come back to North Dakota and prepare for my own “opening day” of 2017. All season, I had been cheering on from afar while my friends shared stories of success. Many trophies had already been laid to rest from bow hunters and gun hunters throughout the state of North Dakota. Now in December, it was my turn to get out on a cold windswept hill and glass for a trophy of my own.
The week leading up to departure was filled with all the familiar feelings. Excitement and anticipation as I texted all my close hunting buddies. Receiving words of encouragement and reminiscing about past hunts ramped up the excitement even more. Pressure is also a familiar feeling, I always have butterflies in my stomach the night before a hunt. I can’t stop dreaming about what could happen. Praying I make just enough correct moves to get a big buck on the ground. The first surprise of this hunt however was the forecasted weather. Highs in the 40º range would equal a heat wave given it was the 9th of December. Warm temperatures this time of year can make for tough hunting.
Post rut bucks will go to sleep in isolated places difficult to find in these conditions. My nerves were firing on all cylinders when Friday showed up and I headed out to a few favorite locations to glass. My good friend Matt was along on this hunt. Matt is a North Dakota native and accomplished mule deer hunter. I was lucky to have him with me. We also had the added challenge of attempting to film this hunt for an upcoming episode of Passion for the Hunt Television that airs on Fox Sports North beginning in July.
There is no substitute for a sunrise over the Little Missouri Breaks, revealing miles of breath taking canyons.
A landscape so raw. The sharp stems of grass speared through the shimmering layer of snow that blanketed the hills and ravines in front of me. Remnant layers of thawing snow and warm temperatures can make it tougher to find late season bucks. We knew we needed to stay mobile. Covering ground is the name of the game. When big bucks are rutting, the patient sit and wait strategies can pay off. The post rut conditions meant the deer would probably move less. If you want to contact one of these mature bucks you need to go find them. My strategy for this hunt was to sit no more than a couple hours glassing in a spot before heading to another lookout. Judging by the deer we saw day one it was obvious that the winter feeding patterns were in effect. Bedded deer were mostly up high catching sun out of the wind. Transitioning deer were lower in the drainages finding the best browse.
Day one did not disappoint. I spotted a good number of deer. Even bedded up two mature bull elk which is a rare experience in North Dakota for me. Had a great encounter with two 3×3 bucks that fed past my ambush spot at 22 yards. Opportunities can be hard to come by. I went to bed that night questioning whether or not I made the right decision. If I end up eating tag soup, I would surely regret not taking a shot at one of those bucks.
Early the next morning when the sky was still black and full of stars, I sparked the stove to brew a cup of coffee. Slowly turning the gas knob, watching the flame grow bigger and brighter in the morning darkness of camp. A hardy breakfast and a second cup of coffee made me wide awake. It was going to be a good day. I laced up my boots. We had a short drive to a fresh look out. Soon we were out hiking in the early morning twilight. Breathing that cool air as he hiked and waited for sunrise. The mornings in the badlands are incredible and the impeding sunrise was another miracle but we saw few deer.
Finally after the third look out at midday…we saw him. A lone bedded buck in the shadows of a Juniper clump. He gazed upon the land below him. Big mule deer bucks can be so incredibly sly. He was hidden like a rattlesnake in tall grass. Small pieces of his rack were made visible only when the ferocious wind would blow branches out of the way. Never able to see his whole body, I could only guess what I was really looking at. My gut was telling me he was a good mature buck. I had to get a closer look at this buck. Located nearly a mile away, across a drainage, there were many difficult steps between us. The sun had heated up the air to above freezing but the powerful wind still bit at my face.
A quarter of the way closer, I slipped up the hill to get another look. The buck was now on his feet and had moved into the sun. I couldn’t see everything with some cover in the way but my gut still told me he could be the one. Closing the distance half way, I was able to get another look and I could see the buck in full. With the sun casting a bright, beautiful glow across his body, my suspicions were confirmed. This was a warrior of a buck. The buck had the stature of a king with heavy shoulders and a long body. His belly had the tell-tale sag of an older deer. He was skinny now, his ribs shown a little through his tattered hide and loose skin on his neck suggested the rut had taken a toll. A wide and heavy 3×2 frame may not excite some trophy hunters concerned with score but to me he was an incredibly cool buck that had something I love…character.
When bucks reach a ripe old age and they begin their decent, the size of the rack means far less than just appreciating the life that they have lived. By now I knew he was the one for me and the final plans to stalk this buck were discussed. Glassing the bucks surroundings and using my GPS, we agreed to approach this buck from above using a large cedar as cover. With a stiff 25 mph cross wind, the buck shouldn’t hear, see nor smell our presence before I am hopefully able to push an arrow through his vitals. We nearly reached our designated Cedar and took a knee. I couldn’t see the old Warrior yet. I was constantly ranging bushes and trees as they appeared in view, in case the buck simply showed up. I would have no time to range him so I would already know how far everything is. The wind was cutting the left side of my face. Matt was in my back pocket, matching me step for step, then knee for knee then hand for hand as we slithered into position undetected. Still no sign of the buck. It was difficult to peer through the branches of the cedar. My excitement was confused when my eyes could not pick up any sign of the buck where he was supposed to be.
Then all at once every hair on my body seemed to stand up. There he was. I had been scanning the open meadow 50 yards away when my eyes focused on a small gesture from the bucks tail. He was standing 15 yards in front of us camouflaged by the Cedar. Much closer than we anticipated. He slowly walked into full view to my right, headed downwind. I came to full draw. The buck hadn’t detected us yet and kept walking. Not comfortable with a moving shot I attempted to stop the buck with a small grunt before he winded us. The noise spooked him. He bounded back on his tracks where he came from.
“Did I just lose him forever?” I asked myself in my mind. I stood up without letting my bow down. Moved around the branches of the Cedar to see the buck bounce away. He trotted up next to a tree and stopped broadside unsure if what he heard was dangerous or not. I recognized the tree as one that I had ranged earlier. 60 yards I told myself, which is yardage I practice religiously. With confidence I settle my 60 pin behind his shoulder and squeezed the release. Every hunting story has a part when time seems to stand still. The arrow flew true. The buck jumped the string a bit. The hit seemed a little high but the blood immediately jumped out of both sides of the buck as he tore off downhill into the drainage. With a heavy crash he was out of sight.
The excitement was incredible and difficult to describe, Matt agreed that the hit looked good but we needed to give it time before going after this buck. We waited about an hour before we went to check out my arrow. A clean pass through. Large amounts of blood were casted across the white snow where the buck had run down into the drainage. The buck took a tumble down a 30 foot drop off then laid to rest in the bed of the creek that meandered through the bottom of the drainage. He went about 100 yards and his stiff body proved he was dead within seconds of the shot. The old warrior of a buck was missing an eye and had scars on his face from years of rutting and fighting. I waited all year for this brief moment. As we quartered and prepared the buck for the pack out, I couldn’t help but stop once in a while to soak it all in. Truly the greatest way I could have used my 2017 archery tag.