column By: Jack Ballard | March, 20
They scared me. Not during the daylight hours, but at night. At some point as a lad sleeping in a bedroom with two older brothers, I became consciously aware of the presence of creatures in my room.
Our abode in the “den” of the ranch house (originally intended as an office and man cave of sorts for the patriarch) came about as the number of children in the family swelled to seven. Bedrooms in short supply, we slept on bunks opposite Dad’s desk and filing cabinet. A bobcat and bear rug, the head of another bobcat with its mouth open in full snarl, an antelope with a faded cape and two mule deer shoulder mounts loomed from the walls of our quarters. For a period of time I slept with my head under the covers, concerned I might be bitten by the bear, clawed by a cat or bullied by a buck.
In the light of day, Dad’s mounts were an ongoing source of fascination. Among them was an exceptional mule deer buck. On the occasions he removed it from the wall for cleaning with an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner, I sidled up for a closer inspection. The knobby bases of the antlers possessed a fascinating texture to my small hands. Their girth couldn’t be wrapped by my dad’s fingers. At 6 7⁄8 inches, the first circumference measurement on the base of the deer’s antlers for its Boone & Crockett score is identical to the same metric (taken between the two brow tines) on a bull elk on my wall scoring 335. There are some out there, but I’ve only seen one other mounted mule deer with mass at its antler bases that rivals that “tantalizing by day, terrorizing by night” trophy in the bed chamber of my childhood.
On a cool day in November in the mid 1950s, my dad and his brother Jack set out to hunt deer. They left the family ranch, which they’d jointly purchased from my grandfather, headed for a spine of low mountains to the north, locally known as the “Limestones.”
Big buck country requires three components: a population with the genetic propensity for large antlers, sufficient nutrition to maximize headgear growth among the bucks and the opportunity to reach the age of peak antler development. For mule deer, that’s generally five to eight years.
In those days, the Limestones masterfully completed the equation. Copious stands of mountain mahogany (“buck brush” in the local vernacular) clotted the many ravines of the range, pulling their nutrients from the limestone bedrock, a mineral known to promote antler growth in ungulates. The region’s deer herd also had the genetics for regal racks. Both typical and non-typical configurations graced older bucks with antlers that often carried exceptional mass along with notable width and/or height.
However, deer numbers were yet to reach the population peaks they’d later achieve in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Come late afternoon, the brothers had yet to spot a single animal. Perched on either side of a deep ravine, its bowels tangled with buck brush, Jack was struck with inspiration.
“I decided to play a joke on Dudley,” my now-deceased uncle once told me while recounting the experience. Pointing his rifle into the draw, he emptied the magazine then looked across to see what effect his antics had on his older brother. His chuckles upon spying his elder’s alert posture died quickly when an enormous buck bounded from the brush. An uncommonly good shot from a rest, the intended butt of the joke braced his Savage Model 99 against a dead sapling and took aim. Just one slug from the .300 Savage dropped the deer.
The punchline now turned on the joker, Jack took it all in stride. “You know we’d never have seen that old deer if I hadn’t decided to be a smart-ass. His teeth were plumb wore out and he was too smart to light out without some fireworks.”
Peruse the record books or chat with old-timers, and you’ll inevitably encounter evidence pointing to the span between 1955 and 1965 (give or take a few years depending on the region) as the “glory days” of mule deer hunting, at least in relation to big bucks. Along with that assessment comes a pining for a return to those “good old days,” at least in the minds of many muley-chasers who are long enough in the tooth to recall the era. What made the hunting of yore so fine and why can’t we recapture it on any broad scale in the current era?
Habitat is certainly part of the equation. Pressures now exist on mule deer range in the form of invasive plants, such as various species of knapweed and cheatgrass that were absent or minimal seven decades ago. Mule deer were reclaiming essentially virgin habitat in many places, having been previous extirpated by unregulated hunting. Such was the case in the Limestones. Another uncle, Tom, once told me that when my dad and uncles began deer hunting in the early days of Montana’s seasons, they might pass an entire fall without seeing an animal – lucky to spy a track.
Introduced populations, or those recovering after a prolonged, precipitous decline frequently see abnormally robust males due to the luxury of ideal habitat. This is evidenced in our times in the massive horns often grown by the early generations of bighorn rams in introduced populations. A similar situation occurs in elk and other antlered species. The mule deer of our neighborhood in the “glory days” were tracking foothills and fields that hadn’t hosted deer in any significant numbers for decades.
A hunting culture primarily oriented toward meat versus antlers likely allowed a much higher percentage of bucks to reach the age at which body and antler mass peaks, but that was to change. In the early 1960s, men from the Ballard camp engaged in the luxury of a big buck contest after they’d filled their elk tags, which usually happened quickly. Hunting superb habitat in the mountains of southwest Montana, they killed an incredible number of bucks large of body and antler.
One of those shared the wall with Dad’s buck from the Limestones. A beautiful non-typical, he shot it while hunting alone with his pet .300 Savage, just at timberline on a ridge above camp where elk were apt to cross. Others in the camp took fine bucks that year and those that followed, but it was not to last. Aspens stands matured with no regeneration. The harvest on older bucks was unsustainable. By the time I started elk hunting in the mid-1970s, mule deer were scarce, big bucks nearly non-existent.
A trophy mule deer is now an uphill proposition for western outdoorsmen hunting in districts with over-the-counter tags. There are a few remote spots in Montana where they exist, similar to some other states. But it takes an uncommon amount of luck and time commitment to find them. The good news is that state wildlife management agencies have recognized bucks need protection to grow up. Some states, like Colorado, now regulate harvest in all hunting districts. “Draw-only” units are the key to reliving the “glory days” for most hunters. It just takes some patience.
With the passing of my parents, that old buck from the Limestones now lords over our dining room table from the wall above a window. It represents the past and the future all in one. I’ve yet to kill what I would call a really fine mule deer, and am patiently playing the lottery for a tag in one of those special districts that make a shot at the “glory days” a more present reality for the contemporary hunter.