Hard Hike for Mule Deer

Sponsored by Robinson Outdoors


By: Chuck Adams

TWENTY-FOUR MULE deer popped from a gully 200 yards in front of me. As the animals trotted single file along my side of the ravine, I realized they were following the same wide cattle trail I was standing on. With only knee-high grass to hide in, I dropped and rolled 20 feet downwind from the path. The does, fawns and juvenile bucks were moving fast to escape the morning sun and they were almost on top of me in less than a minute.

As I lay with my chin in the dust and looked upward at the propeller-like ears of the lead doe, I prayed the wind would hold steady. My well-washed Realtree camo blended with the dirt and faded fall grass. With luck, the mulies would troop past without knowing I was there. Such is the stuff of bow-hunting dreams.

But dreams are often shattered in deer country. All two dozen animals ambled past, fanning a bit to feed on bushes beside the trail. One yearling button buck nearly stepped on the upper wheel of my Hoyt compound bow, but veered back to the center of the mob. I thought I was home free.

Then a 2-by-3 buck turned 180 degrees and made a beeline for a tasty bush beside me. The breeze shifted ever so slightly and seconds later, the little deer went bug-eyed in terror. It narrowly missed hammering me with its hooves as it fled back into the herd.

The dust cloud and noise raised by 96 flying deer feet was something to behold. So was the giant nontypical buck that exploded from a shallow cut 100 yards to my left. It was the same deer I had been stalking for more than an hour. Nuts.

Earlier that morning, my guide Rob Wynder and I shivered in the dull pre-dawn darkness of southern Alberta, Canada. Below us was a large oat field sandwiched between deep prairie ravines. Dark shapes of deer floated here and there through the standing grain, but I could not make out details. My pulse began pounding as the eastern sky turned a pale cherry red. Would we spot the giant legendary buck on my very first day of hunting?

“We’ve been after ‘Sticker Buck’ for three years,” ranch manager Ken Jenson had told me the night before. “There is no mistaking that deer. His rack is wide and heavy, with lots of sticker points on the left side. He always disappears in November gun season. The only chance is with a bow.”

My old friend Duane Nelson outfits deer hunts on several large cattle ranches in southern Alberta. This is deluxe mule deer country, with great feed and excellent genetics. I have bow-hunted Duane’s area for nine years in a row, lured back again and again by the abundance and size of the deer. I have taken nine record-book bucks, including two nontypical monarchs scoring more than 200 inches.

Archery deer season in Duane’s area runs through most of October, and weather can get downright chilly as Halloween approaches. Guide Rob and I were glad when the autumn sun chinned above rotting stumps of distant mountains for two reasons. First, the rays stopped our chattering teeth. Second, the oat field was bathed in amber light that clearly showed dozens of mule deer chomping on tasty grain. A number were decent bucks.

“Look to the right!” Rob hissed only minutes after sunrise. “I see big antlers above the grain!”

I swung my Bushnell binoculars and instantly found the rack. The buck was nearly gone already, fading below a ridge into broken prairie. But I clearly saw a wide spread and lots of points on the left side as the rack sank from sight. This had to be Sticker Buck.

I galloped downhill 300 yards and sprinted up a ridge. Big antlers glinted as Sticker vanished in a cut 500 yards in front of me. I circled fast to get the wind right, thankful I was below and hidden from all those other deer in the field.

After a slow, blind sneak toward the hidden buck, the herd of deer stampeded and blew my chance. I lay flat in the grass and watched the magnificent nontypical run across three ridgelines and disappear into a badland of dry cuts and deep washes. The only good news was that Sticker had never seen or smelled me. Maybe I could find him again.

“I think I’ll still hunt the country where that buck disappeared,” I told Rob a little later. “You stay behind me on high points and watch.”

Some bow-hunters prefer heavy cover for foot hunting. I like wide-open places with a view. Duane Nelson’s mule deer country is perfect. If there is a tree on this 20,000-acre ranch, I have never seen it. Rolling hills, steep gullies, short grass and waist-high bushes provide all the cover I need. If I saw Sticker Buck before he saw me, I figured I had a chance.

Three hours and 2 miles into the badlands later, I glassed the broken terrain for the umpteenth time. Holy Toledo! An antler with at least 6 or 8 points rose above a clay bank in the bottom of a draw. I dropped like a heart-shot duck, afraid I had already been seen.

The wind was perfect, sliding crossways between me and the buck. I crawled like a lizard to a wild rose bush and glassed through the shrubbery. The big antler was still there, rocking as the deer chewed his cud. It was the left antler, and I counted nine massive points. It was Sticker Buck for sure!

Thirty minutes later, I hovered above the deer on the crest of a ridge. My ARC rangefinder said 42 yards on the steeply angled shot, but Sticker was broadside in the wide-open wash. However, there was no way could I draw my bow before he bolted like a Hereford bull goosed with a cattle prod. I’d have to wait for Sticker to stand up to feed or look away … even if it took all day.

The buck was alert, swiveling his head every minute or two to scan the surrounding terrain. His grizzled old head drooped now and then in the warming midday sun, but his wary eyes never closed.

Two hours later, I felt like dozing myself. I glanced away … and when I looked back, Sticker was on his feet! His eyes were boring holes right through me, or so it seemed.

Something flickered 50 yards behind me. Damn. A large coyote was trotting along the ridge. An instant later, the yodel dog smelled me, swapped ends and kicked into overdrive. Sticker also came unglued, bounding up the far hillside like a spry yearling buck. He never looked back.

Rob was waving frantically when I reached him on a high ridge. Far in the distance, he pointed to a speck crawling over ridges and disappearing into gullies like a gray roller coaster car. Even after running more than 2 miles, Sticker Buck was still scared out of his skin. He had not seen or smelled me, but he was clearly headed for some hidey-hole far, far away.

“I guess we’d better try to find that buck again,” I muttered as we trudged back to the pickup. “I really don’t want any other deer.”

We had been seeing typical 5-by-5 bucks all day long — deer in the 160- to 170-class. But after laying eyes on Sticker, those smaller deer did not even turn my head. Sticker’s uneven rack was tough to judge, but I knew his spread was more than 30 inches and his gross score approaching 200 points. That’s one heckuva a buck in anybody’s book.

Rob and I both knew the ranch, so we drove 3 miles beyond a gnarly draw where we had last seen Sticker. We figured he had stopped in the high, broken center of the property. Finding him would be a needle in a haystack scenario, but I knew from past experience that large deer liked to hide in honey holes with good views, noisy footing and unpredictable wind. I was betting Old Sticker had stopped in one of the places I already knew about from past hunts.
For the next four hours, I snooped along with the wind more or less in my face. I saw dozens of deer, including one straight-up 5-by-5 that might have scored 180 points. I weaseled past and scared it with my scent. It was Sticker Buck or nothing.

I crossed a saddle between ravines in the late afternoon. Why I looked back over my shoulder, I’ll never know. A familiar antler rose above a bush barely 100 yards to the left. I had found the big buck again!

The wind here was screwy, but I knew it almost never blew from due east. I ducked and circled out of sight. Minutes later, I was crabbing along on my belly through 6-inch grass. Sticker was bedded just beyond a ridge dotted with low shrubs. Without those bushes, he would have seen me before I saw him.

My heart was doing back flips as I inched the last few feet to the crest. There, barely 30 yards below me, was the distinctive set of antlers. The deer was facing away, and bushes let me ease forward and lift my head a few inches above the grass.

The gorgeous rack leaped into crystal-clear focus through my binoculars. Ten points on the left, six on the right. The spread seemed incredibly wide. The buck was nestled behind a bush with just ears and antlers exposed. No chance for a shot.

After traveling more than 8 air miles over rough terrain, the old buck was probably tuckered out. I put my rangefinder on the antlers — 30 yards exactly — and settled down to wait. The sun was beyond its peak, slowly but surely sinking toward the Rocky Mountain Front.

Two hours later, Sticker suddenly stood and turned broadside. His massive body looked like a tank, and his antlers seemed to triple in size as they swiveled against the sky. My heart began to sink. There was no way I could roll to my knees and draw without being seen. I was afraid Sticker would walk away. But the giant deer merely gazed into space, his huge ears cupped alertly forward. Ten minutes later, he flopped back down behind the same little bush. This time he was broadside, and I could see the glitter of one eye. I was pinned to the ground like a butterfly in a museum display.

Another hour passed. The breeze whipped this way and that, but never quite toward Sticker Buck. I began to shiver as the sun dipped low and the temperature dropped like a rock. Alberta nights get cold in October.

The sun was touching distant peaks when Sticker came to his feet. He stood like a red-rimmed statue as the sinking orb expanded, lost its firm shape and slithered out of sight. As if on cue, the huge deer flipped back his ears and dropped his head to feed.

I rolled to my knees, drew the Easton Super Slam arrow and settled the brilliant 30-yard TruGlo pin behind the deer’s massive shoulder. The Rage 2-blade broadhead smashed home and sliced completely through like a well-honed hatchet. The deer jumped, lumbered downhill and collapsed in full view.

Sticker Buck was mine!

Patience and skill pay off for author as the Sticker Buck goes down.

The beautiful antlers measured 33 1/4 inches wide and scored just under 200 points. Sticker had been a super-spooky deer, but one long day of extreme foot-hunting ended with some old-fashioned good luck, a perfect double-lung hit and some of my best mule deer memories!

This article was originally published in ‘Whitetails Close Enough to Kill’ by Robinson Outdoors and F+W Outdoors publishers of Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine.

Note: Chuck Adams was the first archer to complete the “Super Slam” — the taking of all 27 species of North American big game. He is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame.


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