Deer Hunting: Mountain West Mule Deer

By Judd Cooney

Glassing for Mule Deer


My youthful client had just missed a boomer buck at 75 yards and again at 90, and I knew another miss would send the buck into the timber never to be seen again. When the massive buck stopped again at the edge of a small clearing, just 100 yards away, I implored him, “Center the cross hairs in the middle of the body, behind the shoulder, and SQUEEZE the trigger!”

My binoculars were locked on the buck, and at the thunder of the .30-06, I thought (or maybe just hoped) I saw it flinch before taking off down the slope. In a situation like that, the hunter is usually so pumped all he can do is holler out something incoherent. But Gregg was bent over a downed log barfing up breakfast, his skin the color of pastry dough.

The previous evening, as we discussed hunt plans in camp, the young man’s father had asked if I might take his son up in the high country for a shot at a big muley.

I’d spent the previous days glassing the high valleys off Wolf Creek Pass and had located a couple of monsters and figured the athletic 20-year-old was in good enough shape to make the arduous trek. I agreed to give it a try.

At 3:30 a.m. that morning, we had parked the truck at 9,000 feet and commenced the 4-hour climbing hike to the valleys far above. We had passed through another outfitter’s camp in the darkness before they even had a lantern lit.

By 8 o’clock, we were comfortably situated on a steep slope overlooking a large cirque under Sheep Mountain. My young client’s comment when we finally reached our destination was that he’d always thought hell was down under but now felt it was located at 11,000 feet. He was suffering a light nosebleed, a ringing headache, and the onset of nausea, all classic symptoms of altitude sickness.

We spent the next two hours glassing the slopes as Gregg’s condition gradually improved. With a full moon the night before, the deer would be active only a short time after daylight and then bed until midday when they would likely be up and about again. By 9 o’clock, we’d glassed 27 muleys, but nothing in the class we sought. From 9:30 to 11:30 we lay back in a sunny nook, cutting some serious ZZZs.

By noon, we were again inching our way along the slope above the high valley, glassing the timbered mountainside. I caught movement about 75 yards ahead and motioned Gregg down behind a fallen log. Two bucks were feeding away from us, and one was a real boomer.

Gregg’s sickness had returned, but he got into shooting position, and when the buck gave him a quartering away shot at 70 yards, he took it—and missed.

Typical of mule deer, the buck trotted a few feet then turned broadside, looking back to locate what had caused the sharp noise. After the second miss, I was getting a bit antsy, to say the least. This time, the buck and its smaller companion trotted to the edge of a small clearing before stopping for a last look back.

Gregg took his third and final shot, and I left him to his misery. When I reached the place where the buck had been standing, I found hair and a spray of blood.

Finally, something had gone right.

A quick perusal with the binoculars revealed massive antlers sticking up above a log, not 50 yards away.

A couple of hours later, the buck was caped and boned out with the meat in the case-skinned hide, ready to pack out. But Gregg was in no shape to hold up his end of a meat pole, and I figured the quicker I got him back to camp the better.

So I packed out head, cape and back straps and left the rest for one of my guides to return and get.

The rack, which had a 37-inch spread, later scored 197-1/2 points. Gregg assured me it was a hunt he would never forget. Don’t know if that was good or bad.

When I’m conducting hunting seminars, someone always asks what’s my favorite hunt, and I usually get a chuckle by replying the one I’m on at the time.

However, if I had to opt for just one, it would be a high-country hunt for mule deer. Nothing beats the breathtaking (literally) awe of the mountains, camping high above the rest of the world, glassing a panorama of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The mule deer’s wide rack is the perfect reward for all the effort.

Tagging a trophy mule deer is a tough proposition. Mule deer in the West are taking a hit from ever-growing populations of predacious cougars, bears and coyotes. But, for the hunter willing to do the work, the hunt of a lifetime awaits.

Hunting the high country is an early season venture. By late fall, the high mountains are blanketed in deep snow that pushes the deer down to winter range at lower elevation, where food still is available. As the snow recedes in early summer, the muleys move back up to the lofty peaks and valleys. They stay in the high country until the first substantial snow hits, and then the migration cycle begins again.

Weather is the wild card in this game. I’ve glassed trophy bucks prior to the season opener but then had an early blizzard push them down into heavy timber where they were impossible to find.

My favorite way to tackle the high country is to backpack in with only the essentials for a few days of intense hunting. The key to such a hunt is mobility. You carry all essential gear on your back and stay right on the mountain where you find the deer without having to worry about heading back to camp each evening.

I glassed one of my biggest muley bucks late in the afternoon and couldn’t get close enough for a shot. I waited until it was fully dark and then climbed to a rocky outcropping right above where I had last glassed the buck. I found a dry, cave-like nook in the rocks and spent a comfortable night with only a couple of curious mice for company. (Because of the unforgiving nature of the high country, I cannot advise someone else trying this alone. Backpacking in the mountains should be a joint venture, with one or more partners.)

The next morning, I was still in my sleeping bag when the buck moved out of the timber 200 yards below and presented a perfect shot. Almost felt guilty it worked out so well—almost, but not quite.

With the quality backpacking gear available today, such a hunt can be comfortable and enjoyable as well as successful. Pack all of the gear you deem essential while still at home and then hike around with the pack and gear on your back. You’ll probably decide you can do without a few “essential” items. Make sure your boots fit comfortably and are well broke-in before you arrive in hunting camp. Boots for the mountains need either lug soles or a tread designed to keep you on your feet and not on your butt.

Mule deer in the high country often present long shots. A scoped flat-shooting rifle, and the ability to shoot it well out to 400 yards, is definitely an asset. A lightweight rifle with composite stock carries easiest, but don’t sacrifice accuracy for easy carry. My favorite high-country rifles are .270 Win. and .270 Win. Short Magnum, with 7mm Rem. Mag. running close behind. The .300 Magnums are also good, and the venerable .30-06 with 150- and 180-grain bullets has probably taken more mule deer than any other cartridge. It is more than adequate.

It’s possible to rent a horse or two and pack more gear into the high country, but unless you are very handy with horses, I wouldn’t recommend it. Horses can be contrary and take time away from the hunting. A better option might be to hire a packer to help you get more gear into the high country. It is a good option for hunting unguided in the high country, with a modicum of comfort in camp.

Just don’t let the packer pick the hunting area, as he may take you somewhere that is easy to reach rather than an area with trophy mule deer.

Do your own research to locate a good area and then spend some more time researching a packer or outfitter who will get you there.

Bring quality optics and know how to use them. A pair of 8-power binoculars may be considered the minimum, and a packable tripod-mounted spotting scope is much better. I’ve spent umpteen hours sitting comfortably glassing expanses of mountainside looking for that one special deer. It’s a lot less tiring than hiking around, and more effective in most cases. By staying relatively still in the shadows or against a blending background, you are less likely to spook a sharp-eyed muley, and you don’t spread your scent all over the mountain. Patience and attention to detail are of the utmost importance.

A wealthy Texan told me he would only be happy with a real boomer, and we arranged to hunt on horseback from a comfortable base camp above timberline. The second day out, we rode for an hour in predawn darkness to get to a rocky outcrop overlooking a long valley. We left the horses below the crest and got into glassing position against the rocks.

I spotted several small bucks in the first two hours but nothing in the boomer class. My client was fidgeting something fierce, clearly anxious to ride somewhere else. I gigged him a bit that maybe he should have booked a trail ride rather than a hunt. Guess he got the message; at least he kept glassing without saying another word.

The sun was well up when I caught a glint of antler at the base of a dead pine 300 yards below. A buck was bedded in the shadows with only the upper tips of its antlers catching the sun.

Couldn’t see much of the rest of the deer, but one look through the spotting scope determined the rack to be of record-book proportions.

My client had shot well at the rifle range, but when I asked if he could take the buck from where we sat, he was a bit hesitant. Patience had brought us to this point, but now was the time for action.

Once the sun got up a bit more and hit the buck full force, he’d move down into the shady timber where chances of finding him would not be good. We agreed on a fast downhill stalk to put us behind and downwind of the bedded buck.

A half-hour later, we were within 30 yards of the still-bedded buck, but all we could see was the wide rack sticking above the brush. There was no way around the buck nor any other route of approach, so we were committed to that position. The light breeze was in our favor.

By then, my client was a basket case, shaking so bad I figured he couldn’t have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. “I’ll grunt softly, and when I do, he should stand up and give you a shot,” I whispered.

He steadied his rifle on the bipod, and I grunted as softly as I would for a whitetail. The buck slowly stood up broadside. At the thunderous blast of the 7mm Rem. Mag., I saw a tuft of hair jump off the top of the buck’s back and knew my client had blown the shot.

The buck whirled and disappeared in one majestic bound.

The man just stood there, red-faced and shaking his head in disbelief. Seems he’d left his scope set on 9-power, and when he pulled down on the deer, all he saw was hair, which caused him to panic and jerk the shot high.

Two hours of scouring the area for blood turned up nothing, and he finally accepted that he’d just missed an easy shot at the buck of a lifetime.

I now check the client’s scope prior to setting up for every shot.

The smallest oversight can cost you in the high country. But that’s just part of the deal. We didn’t down a trophy buck (or any buck, for that matter) on that particular hunt, yet it was certainly memorable.

I haven’t been on a single high-country hunt I haven’t enjoyed, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Hunter with Mule Deer