High Plains Mulies

Lusting always for that stiff-legged, blocky buck laboring under a spectacular rack of bones.

From the November/December 2015 issue of Sporting Classics.

 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something true can make for a delightful mule deer hunt in classic habitat — the High Plains of eastern New Mexico.

This country stepping up to the shoulders of the Rockies is old, but the mule deer living on it are new — at least in biological time. They first appeared at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, roughly 11,000 years ago, about the time wooly mammoths shuffled into extinction and took dire wolves and American lions with them. Thirteen species of pronghorn died out in that same period. Stag moose and giant bison breathed their last, too, but as the glaciers receded and trees again grew along western rivers and across the northern parklands of Canada, the stage was set for the emergence of mule deer.

The theory of their genesis, based on mitochondrial DNA, is that primitive “whitetails” got separated by continental glaciers. Lobes of ice wiped out the northern woodlands, and towering mountains created a rain shadow of dry, treeless plains down the southern center of the continent. The eastern deer evolved into today’s whitetails while the deer stranded in a coastal refugium in the West gradually morphed into blacktails.

After the Wisconsin glacier melted north, eastern whitetails pioneered westward along the new forest edge. When they bumped into their old cousins along the Cascades and Sierras, romance blossomed. From matings of blacktail bucks and whitetail does, the magnificent mule deer emerged. Or so the mitochondrial DNA strongly suggests.

 

Hunting these “newest” western deer was nothing new for Linda Powell or me, but our rifles were new to both of us. As public-relations manager for Mossberg, Linda was packing one of the first Mossberg Patriot bolt-action rifles in .308 Winchester, her new favorite cartridge. I borrowed a Patriot in 7mm Remington Magnum, and it proved true at first light, sending three consecutive 160-grain Nosler Accubonds into a one-inch group at 100 yards on our improvised camp range. Zeroed at 250 yards with a muzzle velocity of 2,940 fps and a ballistic coefficient of .531, these bullets peak three inches high at 150 yards, drop just three-and-a-half inches at 300 yards, and deflect less than six inches in a 10-mile-per-hour breeze at that distance. Dead-on plains mule deer medicine.

Like thousands of American hunters, Linda and I had each probed the prairies, plains, and mountains for tall-racked mule deer bucks many times: getting some, missing some, lusting always for that stiff-legged, blocky buck laboring under a spectacular rack of bones, a spread wide enough to drop-kick a beach ball through, and heavy enough to cut into tent stakes if necessary.

“Mass!” Linda proclaimed by the fire our first night in camp. “That’s what I like best in a mule deer rack. Tall tines and a wide spread are nice, but without that mass, those thick beams and heavy tines … well, it’s just not as spectacular.”

“You and me both, sister,” I sassed back.

“Yeah, everybody wants mass,” Steve Jones chimed in from behind the grill, fork raised. “That’s the sign of an old deer. That’s what you want. But you’re lucky to get it. We’ve seen some out here though.”

Jones has owned and managed Backcountry Hunts for more than a quarter of a century. Operating in New Mexico and West Texas, he and his veteran guides lead clients to not only mule deer, but also elk, pronghorns, oryx, aoudad, black bears, cougars, and Del Carmen whitetails.

Steve is steady and pragmatic, but not without style. He specializes in tent camps on the plains, including teepees complete with hot showers. This not only saves hours of driving back to restaurants and hotels, but gives hunters the full outdoor experience: the howl of distant coyotes and the screech of owl-caught rabbits; the pungent scent of sage after an evening thunder-shower; the sparkle of the Milky Way across a sky blacker than most urban Americans ever see. Appetites are built during hard days of hiking, piqued by the scent of wood smoke, whetted by the aromas of grilling steaks, and finally, sated with more hearty food than one should, if one could, shovel in.

“Nobody goes hungry!” is Steve’s motto.

 

When the light came up our first morning, Steve and I were far afield near a wide web of shallow draws that fed into a deep, straight-walled canyon. Sumac and oak shrubs merged into thickets with junipers, the modern scourge of the West — a thirsty tree that, in the absence of prairie fires, threatens to bury the prairie. Linda was off with her guide, Dave, searching similar habitat on another part of the impossibly vast cattle ranch we were hunting.

“I’ve got something just below that highest line of trees,” Steve mumbled under his binocular. “Too dark yet, but might be a small buck.”

“Two. See the other to the left?”

“Oh yeah. Uh-huh.”

We kept glassing until it was bright enough to see small antlers on both young bucks. We eased down the canyon, stopping often, glassing openings, slipping up to overlooks to scan the grazed bottoms, pleasantly startled by October cottonwoods glowing like candles. We found does, fawns, and more does, but saw none of those heart-attack bucks hunters used to pull from this country back in the ’60s, when it seemed every other mule deer was fighting for a permanent spot in the Boone and Crocket book.

“I think it was just the perfect storm,” Steve advanced as we discussed the changes during a lunch break. “The early settlers had cleared out the wolves and lions and stopped the fires. The brush that grew up was young and nutritious. And there wasn’t that much hunting pressure. Heck, some years you could get two bucks.”

In contrast, the brush we skirted looked tired, the branch tips shorn to a diameter more suited to moose than mule deer.

“Elk … big herds move through here. Pretty hard for a mule deer to compete against that,” Steve explained.

The farther we got along the canyon rim, the more gnarly things looked. Just the kind of cloistered hideaway I’d always imagined ideal for an old mule deer buck. The bucks, apparently, didn’t agree, so we went back for lunch and ran into Linda and Dave. They’d found an old buck way up near the head of a watershed.

 “He was just standing here,” Linda explained as we oohed and ahhed over the heavy antlers.

“And what did you do?” I asked

“What does it look like? I shot him,” she laughed.

“No sneaking? No stalking?”

“Didn’t have to. He was already in range.”

In range and massive — a combination Linda couldn’t resist. Her little .308 Winchester Patriot had scored.

 

Given Linda’s success, Steve and I agreed we might benefit from concentrating our search on similar habitat —short-grass uplands beginning to slope into brushy swales and draws — rather than deep canyons, and by mid-afternoon we hit paydirt.

“There’s a buck!” I hissed.

“No, three,” my guide replied. “See the two smaller ones that stood up below him. Not bad. Biggest one’s on top.”

“Keep an eye on ’em. Keep their attention.”

Using one of those fat, dense junipers for one of the few things it’s good for, I slipped behind it and hustled 240 yards closer. When I sidled out, on my butt with the bipod already under the rifle’s forend, the bucks were still there, enthralled by Steve. I centered the big one at 8X. The reticle held nicely on its chest.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” Steve asked after I’d waved him up.

“Remember that mass we talked about? Didn’t quite have it. Let’s keep looking.”

Over the next two days we uncovered several good bucks, all of them feeding or bedded in the highest drainages where Steve thinks they’re safest from mountain lions. “They get in among the cliffs and lions can get the drop on them. Their escape routes are limited, too, by the canyon walls.”

He swung his arms across the sweep of prairie beyond a shallow thicket of oak brush. “Out here they can more easily see trouble coming and they can run in any direction to get away.”

Several did just that when we jumped them. We were following a bachelor band of bucks after such a jump when I glimpsed an even larger one farther down a draw. It bounced around a rise and didn’t come out …

 

To read the rest of “High Plains Mulies,” subscribe to Sporting Classics today, or pick up a copy of the November/December 2015 issue on newsstands now!