My native state of Kansas pretty much defines prairie. Especially if you aren’t from there! When I was a kid growing up in the hedgerows and woodlots of eastern Kansas, mule deer country was a long ways away. It still is, but back then it was an article of faith that, in order to hunt mule deer, you needed to head west to the tall Rockies… and probably cross the Continental Divide.
I was young, so I can be forgiven for screwing up, but I was alive and actively hunting during the last days of the Golden Age of Mule Deer Hunting. By the 1930s all accessible wildlife was at a low ebb, but populations rebounded during World War II. Depending on exactly where you were, from the late 1940s until perhaps the early 1970s big mule deer were, if not a dime a dozen, extremely available and attainable. So attainable that, when I was a teenager and Dad and I were hunting Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, we gave little thought to the quality that was there, and genuinely didn’t realize a time was passing.
Fast forward to today. A really good mule deer is one of North America’s most difficult trophies… unlike whitetail and elk, an animal that cannot be found behind game fences, and can generally be obtained only through extreme luck, either by beating the odds in a draw, or by beating all the other hunters to a great buck in a (typical) area that holds very few great bucks.
The mule deer is not in trouble. He still roams the North American West in millions. But, especially in typical high country habitat in the Rocky Mountain West, he continues in a long-term decline. The reasons are uncertain, but are probably some combination of: Human intrusion, occupying or blocking winter range; sagebrush eradication; increase in predators; and increase in elk. Take your pick, and to the average hunter it doesn’t matter. The end result is that a big mule deer is a rare prize today-and all too many of us are looking for them in the wrong places.
While there are pockets here and there, I’ve known for many years that the continent’s best mule deer lie east of the Rockies in breaks, badlands and prairies-not in classic Alpine habitat. I suppose this is a sea change. When I was a kid we knew there were “prairie mule deer” east of the Rockies, but we believed that these deer were smaller in the body and naturally cheated in the antler department. This is simply not true. In the more open ground east of the Rockies, deer are vulnerable. So the historic problem, and why we thought plains deer were smaller, is that few bucks were allowed to grow to their true potential.
Limited permits, though onerous for those who want them and don’t have them, have fixed this problem in many areas east of the Rockies. The influx of whitetails in the region has also helped, because a fair amount of hunting pressure has shifted their way. Limited numbers of elk, and thus less competition, have helped. It’s also possible that there has been more predator control in the primarily ranch country east of the big mountains. As with the decline of mule deer in traditional high country habitat, there are probably multiple factors influencing the comeback of the mule deer on the Great Plains-but for whatever reasons, some of today’s best mule deer hunting lies east of the Rockies, not in traditional Alpine habitat.
In the late 80s and early 90s I both hunted and guided in eastern Colorado. This is great whitetail country, but I was often astonished at the quality of the mule deer. My home state of Kansas, never thought of as a mule deer state, has some of the country’s best mule deer in her westernmost units, but permits are hard to come by. Some areas in eastern Montana and eastern Wyoming are very good, but the last couple of years I’ve been fortunate to hunt what must be some of the continent’s very best mule deer country: The prairies and breaks of southern Alberta.
This is very much a comeback area. In the great days of mule deer hunting Alberta’s southern prairies was one of the hotspots, known for producing heavy-antlered bucks. But after many years of unregulated harvest, it wasn’t too long ago that mule deer had become downright scarce. Alberta fixed the problem by sharply limiting permits and curtailing the season, and the mule deer have rebounded. This is not new; I’ve heard about how good Alberta was for a number of years, but it was 2010 before I had a chance to see it for myself. I hunted with Duane Nelson’s Milk River Outfitters, hunting a huge piece of ranchland along the Milk River.
Of course, weather and luck and are always factors. I came in after an early blizzard, and I doubt we could access 5 percent of the available country. Even under near whiteout conditions we saw a lot of deer, and I took a nice buck. It was good enough that I wanted to see it under better conditions, so we tried again in late November 2011. This time the ground was dry, but we caught a period of horrible winds. Mind you, the high prairies are always windy, but not like this. Constant winds ranged between 30 and 40 miles per hour; gusts doubled that. Predictably, the deer were down in the draws… but we still saw a lot of deer!
It was, in fact, the most spectacular mule deer hunting I have ever seen. Although the area unquestionably has them, we never saw “the mule deer of a lifetime.” On the other hand, despite the wind, we saw good bucks every day, and several times every day. Understand that, as a writer, I want to get a story. We were also filming the hunt, so with a cameraman rolling, there’s even more pressure. On this hunt, in this area, the luxury was rare: We could pass a good buck with a reasonable expectation that we would get another chance. So we passed, and we kept passing. We probably passed a couple of bucks that we should have taken, but that’s okay, too.
I took it down to the last day, and at this point it was time to do business. It’s not fair to say that I settled; the buck we finally decided on was an older buck with tremendous mass and a lot of character. He wasn’t the high-scoring monster that we had hoped to find, but he would have been a great buck on the first day, the last day, or any day in between in most mule deer country in North America. When we saw him through the spotting scope I simply said, “Okay, let’s go get him.”
And we did. The rolling country is deceptive, but guide Ken Jensen orchestrated a wonderful stalk, and when he stood from his bed at 250 yards I held about 10 inches into the nasty wind and shot him on the point of the shoulder. It had been a great hunt, the kind of mule deer hunt that was gone for many years, but now can happen again in areas like southern Alberta, where the mule deer have been managed well and have responded. The only thing is I have to try it yet again. I’ve had ice and snow, and I’ve had wind. The mule deer I really want is still out there, and if I can just catch the weather right I will find him.
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