Mule Deer Hunting Is Chess

posted on March 9, 2015

What happens in the throes of your mind when you see antler tips 60 yards away moving just above yellow-brown grass? The antlers are wide with deep forks and, as if for a touch of moxie, have little sticker points jutting from their beams. You have a muzzleloader in your hands and a deer tag in your pocket. You know the mule deer buck is bedded and looking away from you down the mountainside to chokecherry thickets and aspen with yellow leaves in a meandering draw and, far below, to a dirt road alongside green fields and a barn of bare wind-washed wood.

Maybe in this intoxicating moment you’d think of nothing but the shot. Maybe you are so good that, like a cougar, you wouldn’t even think of that, but would just creep forward for the kill.

My mind wasn’t so disciplined. As I went on hands and knees with the muzzleloader clenched in my left fist I thought about everything that took me to this buck. This was opening day of deer season in Montana and this buck had already escaped my gun sights once—though he thought I was a coyote then.

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Along with Chad Schearer, director of advertising and media relations for CVA, I found this buck bedded in thick chokecherries hours before and a thousand feet lower. We found this buck because his white face stood out from the brown grass and green brush. The day was cold so the buck chose to bed in partial sun with a dozen does and a few small bucks. I’d crawled to 75 yards of them but there was no shot as the buck lay with other deer in the brush. After an hour waiting, hoping the buck would stand to stretch, Chad used a coyote howler to make the deer get up.

The buck did but not until the does were bouncing away, and then there was no shot as they topped a rise hundreds of feet above us. We followed. Hours later they settled high on the mountainside. We climbed well above them, circled and stalked down on top of them with the wind on our right cheeks.

I needed to get close enough to see the buck’s chest in the tall grass. That meant at least another 20 yards down the gently sloping hilltop on the quiet afternoon before I might slowly rise and shoot.

Between pushing my muzzleloader forward, then moving a leg in the grass, then the other, I looked away from the big antlers, as it seemed to calm my thoughts. I recalled that Special Forces say to “never run to your death,” and thought that a hunter on such a stalk must also resist the urge to rush.

All around was Big Sky country expanding with panoramic views of grassy hills, steep aspen draws and pine-slathered mountains. The sun was diffused in high white clouds. Black angus cows were grazing in the chokecherry bottom, and everything was so quiet and still the mule deer buck just in front of me seemed to be meditating—if deer meditate—as he looked down the mountain.

I thought about how all this terrain once fooled me into thinking finding such a buck is needle-in-the-haystack daunting. And how I’d learned by living in Wyoming and hunting all over the West that this panoramic land is not homogenous, but is a chessboard of habitat. We’d been glassing and moving all day; as we did Chad kept explaining the pieces of his sections of the board. He explained how the deer use it and pointed to where pressure pushes deer off neighboring properties and nearby public lands. He made it clear we weren’t moving haphazardly, but were making moves on the board.

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Chad’s chessboard metaphor made so much sense that when I really looked I could see the lines between the sections. Green fields end in sagebrush or grassy hills. They are broken by draws and then timber. Streams and ponds and rock outcroppings are lines in the board of terrain, too, which influence deer movement and create feeding, bedding and transition areas between them. When you overlay these features with the invisible boundaries of private and public lands, and factor in the hunting pressure, the stage of the rut and the food sources the deer are concentrating on, you begin to see the moves that can get you to checkmate a mule deer buck living in these sections of terrain.

Scouting shows all this and begins to expose the pieces, which of course are hunters and bucks. Knowing a place well enough to see all that puts you in the game. Chad’s experience on this property and his constant scouting is what got us to make these moves on this buck. Chad is Montana-made and prefers to wear a black cowboy hat wherever he goes. I once travelled to Spain with him to see CVA’s famed Bergara barrel-making facility and Chad wore the black cowboy hat in the Pyrenees, too. Still, I think of him as a cowboy in a white hat. He is easygoing, quick-witted and does so much so well that I’ve joked with him that he must have an identical twin secretly running about helping with his TV show, his speaking engagements, his mule deer scouting … .

These thoughts dashed away when my muzzleloader’s stock touched a rock. The buck’s ears rotated back at me. While stalking mule deer with my bow I’d learned that a mule deer’s big ears move independently of each other and even seem to pick up a sound before a buck’s brain acknowledges their reflexive movement. A second sound or louder one will get the buck’s attention. I waited on a pounding heart.

A minute later the buck’s ears lost their tension and swiveled forward again. I exhaled and my mind turned back to the moves that led us to this buck. Chad keeps a watchful eye on his sections of the great board of mule deer habitat. He knows that one adjoining landowner has traces of outlaw in him. That guy will slip onto land Chad leases if given the chance. Another property is always loaded with hunters. Chad knows that on opening day the place will be mobbed and the bucks that aren’t shot will be run off. Public land in the distance can be crowded, too. But there are enough folds in that landscape for some good bucks to hide—these are the sections in which smart public land hunters make their moves. But Chad also knows that when the rut breaks wide open in mid-November, some of the good bucks hunters don’t find on those public lands will come down from the mountains in search of estrous does. Like whitetail hunting, this isn’t a static game but changes with the rut, weather and hunting pressure.

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undefinedWe were stalking this buck in late October when the bucks were interested but not rut-crazed. This meant that most deer movement was still from feeding areas to bedding areas early and then back again in the evening. How much movement is done in daylight depends on the hunting pressure and the weather. Finding deer at this time means moving to vantages between feeding areas and bedding areas early and late, and spotting them before making a play. We’d gotten lucky by finding this buck midday, but Chad had been looking for this buck. He knew this big deer had drifted in recently to hang with a group of does. He knew where they were basically feeding and bedding.

We’d started first on the other side of a ridge between wheat fields and steep ridges and draws where the deer often bedded. After glassing from vantages earlier that morning, we’d stopped to chat with four hunters in a pickup truck who were glassing off the edge of Chad’s lease to property they have access to hunt. One was glassing with his rangefinder. Others had binoculars. They were locals and old pals, and Chad knew them all. They pointed to some bucks coming from far below where there were squares and rectangles in the distance that were alfalfa and wheat fields. Some of the bucks’ antlers were shining in the early sun.

“Not big enough to make me walk that far,” said the gray-haired hunter with the rangefinder.

“You shouldn’t be glassing with a rangefinder. Not only is it only 3X, but you’re also measuring your pain,” said another with a laugh on his words.

“At my age I need to know the numbers.”

“Oh, does someone need another Advil?” asked another.

We left them joshing each other and stumbled across something terrible.

A truck was teetering, ready to roll down a slope off the winding dirt road. A hunter was on a cell phone. His face was awash with the fright of what almost happened. He’d been looking up a slope at mule deer when he drove right off a steep embankment. He had two young children in the back of the four-door pickup and his wife in the passenger seat. Another driver saw the whole thing. He told us how he “held the truck down” as he helped the family, one by one, out the window on the driver’s side. We left them waiting for a wrecker.

“Wherever you are, opening day is always interesting,” said Chad, shaking his head. “Maybe the buck went up the other side. Let’s go glass that area.”

A minute after the buck’s ears relaxed I shook away these thoughts and began crawling again. At 40 yards I could see part of the buck’s neck. I kept scanning for the other deer. From far below we’d seen does and smaller bucks bedded with this buck, mostly in shadows and head-high brush.

I felt the CVA Accura in my hands and reminded myself that its trigger is so light and crisp it surprised me at the range.

At 35 yards the buck turned his head all the way right. I stopped again. I could see, through the grass, his brown eyes and gray-white muzzle and throat. I tried not to look at his antlers.

The buck finally turned his head to look back down the mountain. I got to 30 yards and felt sure a doe would see me, or the wind would shift and the whole scene would explode with bouncing mule deer.

At 25 yards the thinking was done. Time to act. Time to go for checkmate. I stood slowly and saw the back of the buck’s head and his wide antlers and then his chest in the grass. I touched the trigger and the muzzleloader roared red and belched smoke.

Soon everything was quiet again and I had meat for the winter. And the jubilant melancholy of a successful hunt set in, as I missed the buck already and wanted to stalk him all over again. It’s always funny how those feelings twist together.

Chad was pleased and soon left to get a Polaris Ranger to take the buck off the mountain.

I sat looking over the Montana ground falling below. This was the view the buck had last seen. The wind was quiet and the sun diffused in low clouds on the mountain slopes of mule deer country. I found that stalking and shooting well are important skills, but when you know all the sections and the pieces of the board, and make the right moves within the mule deer’s environment, then you sense something else: You feel the great connection between yourself and what you hunt and sometimes kill. In that moment, you are a part of the game of life. But no one can understand that who hasn’t hunted.


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