feature By: Jack Ballard | July, 19
White on white – my eyes almost failed to register the lifting of a deer’s long, pale tail against a backdrop of snow. The motion froze my footsteps in order to discern the form of a whitetail at the edge of an aspen grove downslope. Seconds later, another tail jerked erect. Two yearling does, likely twins from the previous year’s fawn crop, were staring directly at me, their supple necks craned to peer directly past their backsides and upright tails.
With the rut in full swing just a few days before Thanksgiving, I hastily scanned the greenish-gray tangle behind the duo for another deer. If a buck of any age was courting the does, it would likely be playing it cool in the cover. Not long into the visual probe, one of the young does emphatically stomped a forefoot, then forcefully expelled air from its ribcage in an indignant snort. As if commanded by a “mark, set, go” countdown, they burst into a gallop, veering toward the bottom of the draw and a sight-swallowing tangle of aspen saplings.
Scolding myself to move more slowly and watch more carefully, I was thankful the does didn’t veer upslope to cross the low ridge over which the trail I was roughly following crossed. As it was, their flight had doubtlessly blown out about half of the small parcel of habitat I was hunting. Had they plunged up and across my route, most of the deer on the entire tract might have been alerted to the presence of an intruder.
There are times when a hunter’s technique is essentially perfect, but bad luck nonetheless prevails. Reaching the crest, I eased onto the ridge screened by a trio of ponderosa pine saplings, keeping my body out of sight of the narrow swale on the offside. But the eyes and ears of whitetails, 20 yards from a moving human no matter how stealthy his locomotion, have the upper hand. A mature doe gazed at me fixedly, a few sprigs of browse jutting comically from its clamped jaws. I remained upright, staring at the ungulate for a moment, then turned my gaze uphill as if contemplating a route of travel. The trail, some 60 yards upslope, is extremely popular with recreationists, receiving travel almost every day of the year. This doe was certainly familiar with people. Feigned diffidence, I mused, might assure the deer I was harmless.
After a couple of minutes, it tiptoed away then stopped abruptly to reassess my presence. I remained stationary, watching the doe from the outer limit of my peripheral vision. Reassured, its head lowered to reach for another mouthful of forage. For 15 minutes the doe piddled about in the depression, browsing and occasionally checking on the two-legged observer. At last its hooves tracked over the yonder lip of the swale.
What to do? There was a short stretch of good habitat in the direction of the departing doe. I doubted my ability to circle above or below the animal without spooking it. The other option was to drop lower on the slope and hunt back toward my vehicle parked at the trailhead. Or, I could discreetly follow the doe in the hopes it might lead me to other deer.
The last option seemed best. I strolled casually in the doe’s direction, staying a ways upslope to avoid startling the deer or giving the appearance of tracking it. In a few minutes it was back in sight, near the edge of heavier timber opposite an opening in the forest. The deer glanced at me momentarily but then stared intently into the denser cover on its lower side.
Was it looking at a deer, or perhaps a mountain lion, coyote or another person? I doubted the latter as there were no other rigs in the parking lot at the trailhead when I arrived before dawn. The deer’s posture indicated curiosity and arousal, but not outright alarm, so a predator seemed unlikely. Just then the body of another deer flashed below the doe in the timber. Just the back and ribcage were visible, but its size was considerable. Given the doe’s demeanor, I’m not sure who was more intent on the interloper, myself or the doe. The glint of dappled sunlight on an antler confirmed a buck’s gender.
With the doe’s attention solely on the buck, I took the opportunity to sink into a sitting position and lever a cartridge into the .308 Marlin Express clutched in my gloved hands. I removed the glove from my left hand and prepared to shoot, feeling less than picky regarding antlers on what would probably be my last day of personal hunting for the year.
Minutes passed, during which I became increasingly convinced the buck was no youngster. Reluctant to even poke its head from deeper, darker cover, I couldn’t clearly see its antlers, let alone get an unobstructed shot. But when the doe concluded the buck was a suitor of ill-intent and loped in the direction from which it came, the buck exploded into open pursuit. Mouthing my best imitation of a whitetail snort, I saw the buck’s hooves plant themselves forcefully into the snow-covered earth as it stopped to locate the source of the sound. The front bead was already aligned in the rear aperture and tracking the deer. Almost as quickly as the animal paused, I pulled the trigger. The 160-grain Hornady FTX bullet contacted the husky buck’s ribcage at less than 40 yards, passing through the lungs and thoroughly lacerating the liver before exiting the opposite side.
The buck disappeared into the timber below my position, but the blood trail and outcome were obvious. I found the heavy-bodied deer a short distance away. Two broken tines marred the appearance of its wide, heavy antlers. Nonetheless pleased with the hunt and prize, I lugged a rear quarter and my daypack on the hike out. I returned to retrieve my rifle, the rest of the meat, cape and antlers in a Slumberjack backpack stashed in the back of the vehicle for just such a purpose. As I cranked over the engine before exiting the parking lot, a young couple pulled in alongside with a bouncing black Lab and hiking poles in the rear of their Subaru.
The stage for the hunt was set on national forest land less than an hour’s drive from my home. A nicely graded trail lures hundreds of hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners during summer and fall, with a surprisingly heavy amount of use in the winter as well. Show up for a pre-season scouting trip on the weekend, though, and the average hunter will quickly write off the location for hunting. There’s not much public habitat for deer or elk as private land is located about a quarter mile from the trail on one side, and the mountainside on the other is steep, heavily timbered and seldom tracked by ungulates. What’s more, the would-be hunter will be obligated to dodge cyclists, dogs and day hikers in a steady procession.
But beneath the “obvious” is a superbly productive place to hunt deer. The private acreage along the boundary is characterized by secluded cabins on tracts of multiple acres along with a few “ranchettes.” These provide excellent habitat for whitetail deer and moose, where animals roam over what amounts to a game preserve. Although the public land frequented by animals crossing from the private holdings amounts to probably no more than 200 acres (a very small parcel by western standards), the area is used intensely by whitetails during the night hours and very early mornings before recreational use ramps up on the trail. In the interest of keeping the place off the radar of other sportsmen, I hunt the area infrequently, during the week, and am in and out before midmorning. I have never failed to see a whitetail buck with a 4-point rack or better.
In relation to public land, the average hunter is in lockstep with the American mentality that bigger is better. But for deer in particular, and even more specifically those pursuing the white-tailed variety that’s contentedly at home on a relatively small range, very small parcels of public land may be some of the most productive on a per-acre basis.
The hunt described above took place on a miniscule corner of a sprawling national forest covering literally millions of acres. However, itty-bitty chunks of public land can also provide quality deer hunting. Some years ago, my wife, Lisa, killed her first mule deer buck in Wyoming on an isolated parcel of state land encompassing a mere 80 acres. I spotted the buck and two others from a two-lane highway. We made the stalk on the slender parcel, ending with a very heavy 3x3.
This brings up a crucial question: How does a hunter go about identifying and staying within the boundaries of very small public parcels? For identification purposes, I prefer studying good old-fashioned paper maps, though the task can be completed online via webpages that show land ownership boundaries on various types of maps. Where boundaries are tricky in the field, I use onX mapping software on my Garmin GPS (onxmaps.com). OnX and several other companies offer similar mapping capabilities on a smartphone app. To stay within the public-land boundaries, Lisa and I simply referred to the GPS as we made the stalk on her muley.
Personal experience indicates that the best spot to take a buck from a smallish chunk of public land occurs when the tract abuts private acreage with quality habitat, particularly agricultural land. Two days after I downed the buck last season, my daughter Zoe entreated me to embark on a hunt of her own. She’d managed one day previously to look for mule deer, but as a senior in high school with a full plate of school, extracurricular activities and researching prospective colleges, she had but one day to hunt.
“Are you wanting to shoot a buck or a doe, or do you care?” I asked.
“If it’s brown it’s down,” she replied emphatically. “I just want to get my deer.”
At daylight the next morning, we were glassing a swatch of excellent habitat at a state fishing access site open to hunting along a major river. Two does were feeding alongside a patch of brush a couple hundred yards away.
“There’s your deer,” I said.
“Um…um, it’s still really early. Maybe I’ll wait for a buck.”
The does left, the buck didn’t show, and noon found us empty- handed. After lunch I motored to a square mile of state land, the vast majority of which lies on the north side of a state highway, much of it leased to a local farmer for alfalfa hay production. On the other side of the highway, a narrow strip of the parcel is bounded by a modest river. I’d hunted it before and never failed to see deer.
Within 10 minutes of walking and jumping half as many bedded deer, it became obvious we had no chance still-hunting. Abundant summer moisture had sprouted grass along the river bottom so tall it nearly hid the bounding forms of two healthy fawns following their mother. Nudging deer in front of a stationary hunter was our only chance, so I directed Zoe to a spot where she had good visibility for about 100 yards along a gravel bar running perpendicular to the river. The bar was sprinkled with cottonwood saplings but little other vegetation.
With Zoe positioned, I eased quietly along a fence at the back boundary of the parcel. A bend in the river blocked my progress in short order, forcing me to turn back toward the highway. Just at the turn I heard a nearby shot, quickly followed by another. As I broke into a jog back in Zoe’s direction, a third report reverberated on the river bottom. Knowing my daughter’s methodical approach to shooting, I was sure a deer had succumbed to her .243.
Sure enough, I found her standing over a fine buck with eight tines on its two pale antlers. She explained that she shot at the buck when it paused at the edge of the opening. Fearing a miss, she made another quick try as it ran across the clearing. Its legs still moving, though down, she decided on an “insurance” shot when she found her quarry a short distance away. As it turned out, her first shot was perfect. The Hornady 80-grain GMX bullet had pierced both lungs and nearly shattered the scapula.
With the first deer she’d killed without Dad at her side, Zoe’s pride was apparent. Her college decision now taking her to the opposite side of the country (Florida), I’m not sure how much hunting we’ll get
to share in the next few years. For our success last season, I’m exceedingly grateful for access to public land, even those itty-bitty parcels that aren’t obviously valuable for hunting.