"I've never shot an animal with an ear tag," I told my pal Duane Nelson. "It doesn't seem quite right."
Duane grinned and shook his head. "This buck is as spooky as they come," the famous outfitter explained. "He may have ear tags, but he won't give you an easy time."
So here I was, peering through a spotting scope at one of the largest mule deer I'd ever seen. The massive buck was at least a mile away, half tucked in the yellow prairie grass of southern Alberta, Canada. But his symmetrical, long-tined rack rose in full view, and below those horns, lightly screened by grass, were brilliantly colored ear tags. It was weird to see a wild, record-sized muley twitching the plastic on his ears like a prize ranch bull.
Alberta pays close attention to mule deer management. The game department ear-tags fawns in key study areas, net-gunning the little guys shortly after birth. The fawns are weighed and then the information is placed in a data bank with hopes that hunters will call officials after one of the deer is harvested later in life. After spotting this tagged buck, I wanted to be making that call!
Duane Nelson had never seen a tagged deer before on his vast bowhunting concession, but there was no missing this one. The blue tag in the buck's right ear and an orange tag in his left—hence the nickname ‘Blorange'—shone like neon signs, but even more prominent were his heavy, well-formed antlers.
Nelson takes a handful of bowhunters each October in south-central Alberta. He's well-known for putting his clients on giant bucks, both typical and non-typical. I've known Duane for 22 years and have hunted with him the past seven deer seasons in a row. His operation is top-notch.
Prior to the 2006 mule deer season, my best buck with Duane was a high and narrow racked 6x8 scoring just less than 210 gross Pope and Young Club record-book points. My best typical buck with Duane scored about 180. This year, after hearing about Blorange, I had high hopes to beat that mark. One look through my spotting scope sent my pulse into overdrive because this deer's 5x5 rack was pushing 190 for sure.
'Barren Ground' Mule Deer
Big mule deer are never easy. Like every other early October monster I've seen, this one was surrounded by several other bucks. The November rut was weeks away, and males were still lounging in bachelor buddy bunches. In typical fashion, each bedded deer was facing in a different direction, forming a tight safety net of eyes and ears. Getting close would be a trick.
Some bowhunters freak out when they first lay eyes on truly open mule deer habitat. There wasn't one tree within miles of Duane and me, and the tallest bush in sight would scarcely reach my belt buckle. Seas of yellow grass hid hundreds
of coulees and cuts in the prairie—cuts that held lots of deer. Had the angle not been exactly right, we never would have spotted Blorange and his buddies along a steep, water-eroded slope.
This terrain isn't what most archers expect in mule deer country, but such habitat can be a joy to bowhunt. I love it. You can glass plenty of deer each day, and open country lets you keep tabs on other animals that might get in your way during a stalk. Terrain is deceptively broken, allowing a skillful hunter to work the angles and weasel in close. "Barren ground" mule deer might not be everybody's cup of tea, but they certainly are mine.
Minutes after my first look at Blorange, I was hotfooting uphill toward the group of bucks. As in all deer hunting, wind direction is the No. 1 concern of a stalk. Today, a warm, early fall breeze was huffing and puffing from the west, which was perfect for this particular stalk.
I often hear advice that bowhunters should sneak downward on game, but in my experience an uphill or sidehill stalk more often gives you cover for a really close approach. When you are above animals, you increase the risk of skylining yourself and being seen. In this case, my sneak after Blorange was helped by dozens of shallow ravines running down the hill from where he lay. I wouldn't be able to see any of the bucks until I was inside 50 yards. From there, the trick would be drawing my bow unseen.
Within reason, wind is a good thing on the prairie. Too much can make shooting a chore, but a steady breeze helps to cover little sounds you make. Prairie mule deer habitat is noisy, with crunchy underfoot rocks and dry grass galore. They don't call them mule deer by accident, and those giant mule-like ears can pick up the slightest sound of danger.
With wind and terrain right, I half expected a quick conclusion to the bowhunt with Duane. No such luck. A hundred yards from the cluster of deer, a coyote squirted from under a bush almost at my feet. My heart did a back flip, and the terrified yodel dog fled directly toward the bucks. Seconds later, a cloud of dust boiled over the horizon as the deer thundered away.
Five Keys To Stalking Success
Somebody asked me the other day to list the five most important things in spot-and-stalk bowhunting. It wasn't difficult to answer.
First and foremost, you need good optics. I feel naked without 10X Swarovski binoculars around my neck, and I carry a compact spotting scope when I can. You'll see and size up more animals if you let your eyes do the walking with the best optics you can afford.
Second on my list is appropriate camo clothing. When I say "appropriate," I mean an overall coloration that matches the country you intend to hunt. In the case of Alberta prairie mule deer, standard deep-woods whitetail camouflage doesn't work. Instead, I favor heavily laundered Realtree Xtra Gray or Advantage patterns because these are lighter in coloration.
A third consideration is quiet footwear. The absolute worst are traditional Vibram-soled boots. These give good footing, but make massive amounts of noise. If boot soles cannot be easily indented with your thumb, they're too hard for stalking. My favorite soles are thin chain tread on non-insulated pac boots or soft neoprene on standard hiking boots. These materials wear out faster than Vibram, but flex with underfoot debris for silent stalking. With the right soles, I've never seen a need to remove my boots for a final stalk in socks.
Fourth, as mentioned before, you must play the wind. A serious hiker perspires, and overpowers any scent precautions that might work in more passive hunting circumstances.
Finally, you've got to move at multiple speeds in stalking. Use high gear to close the distance gaps, then slow to second or first gear for the final stalk. Don't forget reverse gear, either. I've often moved in and backed off several times on a single stalk to get the right shot angle, avoid other animals, or accommodate the wind.
During the second day of my bowhunt for Blorange, all five keys to stalking came solidly into play. Duane and I scanned the hills and finally spotted an antler tip. Minutes later, I recognized the buck as an odd-horned 3x5 that had been with Blorange the day before. Chances were good they'd still be together.
Two hours later, I peeked over a knob and dropped back down like a heart-shot duck. One hundred yards away, Blorange was hanging with a dozen other deer. As usual, they were facing a dozen different directions.
Sometimes parking gear is best during a stalk, so I laid on my belly for another hour, confident the bucks would eventually get up to feed. Just before sundown, they did just that.
Once in a great while, things go perfectly in bowhunting. The bucks rose, stretched and ambled uphill behind a ridge. I shifted into high gear and ran to the crest. One peek through the grass was enough. Blorange was feeding broadside on my side of the herd.
I snapped a reading with my laser rangefinder—50 yards exactly—and nocked an arrow. I ducked low, drew and eased above the crest. The feeding bucks never suspected a thing as the Easton aluminum arrow sizzled on its way.
My broadhead hit the 9-inch vital chest zone dead-center and sliced a hole I could almost jam my fist through. Blorange staggered, wandered in an aimless semi-circle and collapsed. Soon, Duane was pounding me on the back over one of my best-ever typical mule deer. The beautiful buck gross-scored just under 190.
A few days later, I spoke to an Alberta game biologist. My buck had been ear-tagged as a week-old fawn in 2003 and had moved about 10 miles from his place of birth. Amazingly, the deer was nearly big enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club record book at only 3½ years old. Obviously, Alberta has terrific mule deer habitat and genetics.
For your own bowhunt for giant mule deer, write to my friend Duane Nelson at: P.O. Box 1154, Glenwood, AB Canada T0K 2R0, or call (403) 626-3279. Blorange is now hanging in my trophy room, but there are plenty more like him on the yellow-grass prairies of Canada.