The goal is 30 inches. Or 190 inches. Or thicker than your wrist. Or just high, wide and handsome. However you measure a big mule deer, the hunt for one is the real trophy, the real adventure. That collection of bones atop the head of a mature buck ghosting above the sage will suck the breath right out of you and kick your heart up into your Adam’s apple. Thirty minutes into my hunt on the High Lonesome Ranch in Colorado, my heart was in my Adam’s apple and I was reaching for my rifle.
“Not bad, but I think we can do better,” my guide said from behind his binocular.
When your guide calmly tells you that while you’re ogling one of the largest bucks you’ve seen in years, you know you’re hunting the right place.
“You’re saying I should not shoot this buck?” I asked just to make certain I’d heard correctly. The deer in question was most hunters’ idea of a calendar cover, the pin-up doll of mule deer. Dark, blocky body. Bull neck. Black forehead contrasting with a nearly white muzzle and throat patch. Long, namesake ears not nearly long enough to span the dark, double-forked antlers rising above them. A gulp buck, the kind that makes you swallow before asking your young guide if he’s crazy.
“Are you crazy?” I asked Scott Bystol.
“Maybe. But I still advise you not to shoot this buck. We should find bigger ones.” And we did.
This is what comes of hunting Colorado, a state that consistently produces the biggest mule deer in the world. This is what comes of hunting a private ranch on which hunter numbers and harvest can be controlled to maximize buck age and hunter success.
“We try to take only bucks that are 4 years old or older,” Bystol told me during our four-day hunt in the valleys, canyons, badlands and high country near the start of the famous Book Cliffs region stretching from Grand Junction, Colo., west into Utah. The High Lonesome is a recreational ranch set in a deep mountain valley where badlands-like buttes seem to leap from the valley floor to tower above rather narrow valleys in which small streams water a band of willows and other riparian trees. The rest of the valley shrivels under the desiccating summer sun, except for fields of wheat and grass the ranch irrigates. Otherwise, its dry grass and sage brush. Those give way to junipers on the slopes, which in turn yield to pines and eventually Doug firs near the top of a high plateau climbing to 8,000 feet. Runoff waters have carved a labyrinth of draws and canyons in which not just mule deer but elk, black bears, coyotes and cougars hide. The vertical terrain more than doubles the land area indicated on a flat map, and the scenery is classic Western drama—the kind of place where you want to make a movie.
“Cougars may be our biggest problem,” Bystol acknowledged when I asked about big buck survival in this rugged landscape. “In winter they key on older bucks, which are usually weakened and often injured from the rut. We see a lot of big, promising 4- and 5-year-old bucks that just seem to disappear the next season. Either they’re moving to other areas, are being eaten by cougars or are just too wary for us to find in season. They do tend to stick to deep brush or timber until the heart of the rut, which is still three weeks away. But a few show up early every year, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Our looking involved driving four-wheel-drive trucks up valley and canyon walls through steep, looping dirt and gravel trails while stopping to glass side canyons and the main valley floor. Once on top we hiked sage flats and side draws to search additional country, the kinds of quiet, aspen-shrouded refuges where deer find solitude.
“I’ve got a horizontal line in those aspens,” I said one mid-morning as we hiked and glassed a promising looking side draw. In habitat that is mostly vertical trunks, the horizontal backs and bellies of deer stand out nicely. “About three-fourths of the way to the top, far side of the draw right in line with that big dead fir.”
“Got it,” Bystol said. While he studied the animal, I moved left to get a fresh angle. Finding a clear view through all the timber wasn’t easy, but I eventually uncovered an avenue that illuminated a chunk of antler too long to belong to a mule deer. “Looks like a raghorn elk.” We eased closer to confirm, then kept moving.
Elk is another popular species on the ranch. Mixed herds of a dozen to nearly a hundred cows, calves and raghorn bulls fed or ran across the high meadows. Their tracks and droppings littered the trails and marked the mud around watering holes.
“Nice elk, but where are all the mule deer does and fawns?” I asked after our first day at elevation. “Looks like prime country.”
“It is, but they’ve figured out the forage is better in the bottoms where we irrigate. Predator pressure might be less there, too. And there’s less competition from the elk.”
During the hunt we saw dozens of mule deer on the valley fields, but no elk. “Our bowhunters take good branch-antlered bulls every year, and we just finished several bugle hunts. They stay high this time of year where it’s cooler and they can disappear into the heads of these drainages. They stick to deep timber in the main valleys, about halfway up or higher. Winter is when they take full advantage of our irrigated fields.”
Older bucks must have been staying high or sticking to timber, too. Bottom fields were dotted with females and young bucks well after sunrise, but bigger bucks were moving off by first light. That didn’t stop Bystol from checking the fields.
“I just want to make sure there aren’t any really big bucks sneaking in here before we dedicate all our time to working the high country,” he explained the first morning just before we spotted that first jaw-dropper buck. Two miles farther up the valley we found more.
“There’s a solid buck,” Bystol said as he peered through a spotting scope above the highest valley field. “See his head just above the sage on the far side of those does?” he asked. “Maybe a 4-year-old moving down early to check things out.”
The buck appeared to be carrying 4x4 antlers that spread at least 26 inches and climbed about that high. His forks looked fairly deep. Spread was impressive, but tine length often adds much more to the total score. Bystol knows this, I know it, and we were both looking for it when the buck stared over his shoulder and began to move.
“Hey, look what’s coming out!”
We’re a good half-mile from the action, but at 10X and then 30X the evidence is pretty obvious. An even bigger buck is prompting the first buck to move on down the line.
“Look at the attitude of this guy,” I noted. “He’s definitely the aggressor. But their racks look about the same.”
“Yeah, but check out the body,” Bystol said. “This one is bigger, chunkier. I think he’s a year older. That’s what gives him the attitude. Bigger, older, more confident.” We watch as the new buck steadily escorts the other one off the field. They disappear into an erosion cut and some deep sage but eventually reappear a hundred yards farther down the valley. “He’s still pushing. It’s too early for the rut, but maybe this is a new buck just moved into the valley and they don’t know each other.”
It is clear the two males are deeply involved in the ancient business of establishing a hierarchy. And both carry larger antlers than the first big buck of the morning that had nearly tempted me into shooting. Bystol was proven correct, and it hadn’t taken an hour to do it.
“This might be a good buck to take,” he suggested as the pair continued walking steadily, each stride taking them farther from us. But now I was beginning to appreciate the potential of this lonesome ranch. If we’d seen this many good to great bucks already, perhaps we’d find an even more spectacular specimen with additional searching.
“Think these two will hang around a few days?” I asked, hopefully.
“Probably. No one else will be hunting here this week. Our other clients are in another basin. If no road hunters do something silly like trespass or try shooting from the road, these should be undisturbed for a few days at least. And they’ve got plenty to eat here, good water and all those does.” We judged it worth the risk to leave those two bucks alone while we hunted more of the ranch.
I’m glad we did because I saw more of this spectacular country plus much of the habitat management the ranch was practicing to improve the soils, vegetation and wildlife. They’d planted native grasses into formerly overgrazed sheep pastures along with a mix of native forbs so important to browsing deer. We saw blue grouse, coyotes, bear tracks, plenty of deer and elk sign and indications that big game was finding the High Lonesome suitable habitat. Its border fences met up with miles and miles of public BLM land, so the ranch surely contributed spillover that improved hunting on public land, too. “As winter progresses, these deer move through the ranch and down onto lower elevation ranches and public lands,” Bystol explained. “We keep a tight watch for poachers but there’s a lot of country here and not nearly enough conservation officers to watch all of it.”