Stupid weather—the weekend forecast for Cheyenne, Wyoming, had called for 48 degrees and partly cloudy, yet I was hiking in a full-blown blizzard. The day’s high temp wouldn’t crack 30, but it didn’t pay to complain because I knew my “Git-R-Done” guide wasn’t interested in hearing me whine. His goal was simple: spot a good-sized mule deer and then sneak me into position for a killing shot.
It was the second sunrise of a 4-day hunt, and the snow had been falling horizontally since midnight. Due to the sustained 40-mph winds, snow depths varied greatly depending on the terrain. Exposed hills and prairie flats were either free of snow or contained less than an inch, but drifted-in places were deep enough to stop our ¾-ton 4x4 pickup dead in its tracks.
Although the near white-out conditions on October 21 were unexpected, I was smart enough to pack for anything from 20-80 degrees. I was warm enough, but I couldn’t look into the biting wind and keep my eyes open. The icy snowflakes peppered my eyes with stinging force, and it’s tough to spot muleys when you’re looking at your boots.
Day No. 1—opening day of the firearms season—had been warmer and snow-free, but just as windy. Cory, my guide, knew the 55,000-acre Y-Cross Ranch well, and we’d spotted close to 24 different muley bucks during our 10-plus hours of hard hunting. The terrain was more rugged than I’d expected, with deep, rocky canyons and large stands of lodgepole pines. The ranch also contained huge tracts of sage-covered prairie. In addition to the mule deer, we’d spotted more than 100 elk, five coyotes and untold numbers of pronghorns on opening day.
As this was my first mule deer hunt, I told myself to be patient. I certainly would’ve pulled the trigger had I seen a big buck on the first day, but it always makes a better story—and a more memorable hunt—if you have to work for it.
On The Same Page
Truth be told, I was a bit apprehensive coming into this rifle hunt because I knew I’d be spending a considerable amount of time in a guide’s truck glassing for game and traveling on two-tracks that cut across the massive ranch. As someone who spends 99 percent of his hunting time pursuing whitetails and wild turkeys with a bow on family owned private property and public land in the Midwest, I was used to calling my own shots and leaving my truck far behind while hunting. I had no interest in spotting a muley from a truck’s temperature-controlled cab, grabbing my rifle, sneaking 5-50 yards from the vehicle to find a solid rifle rest and then filling my tag. While legal, this type of hunting—in my opinion—isn’t as much fun or rewarding as busting your butt on foot.
“I don’t mind walking,” I said to Cory during our 30-minute drive to the ranch in the predawn darkness the first day. My comment was greeted by a smile and a simple nod of his head. As it turned out, he was the perfect guide for me.
That’s not to say Cory’s pickup didn’t come in handy. On an 86-square-mile ranch, you can’t begin to get from one side of the property to the other on foot, so the plan was to drive from one canyon to the next, then get out for a long hike if an area looked promising.
Even though our half-dozen hikes had been difficult during the first day due primarily to the ridiculously strong winds, the addition of snow and cold to the mix on the second day made it a struggle just to stay on my own two feet. Simple tasks such as opening and closing the truck door became a physical battle that required total concentration. Spotting a buck in these conditions would be tough, and making a shot in the high winds would be very tricky.
“Mountain lion!” I yelled as we stepped over a rise and peeked into the deep draw below us. The big cat was spooked by our arrival and making a quick exit high through the pines.
“It’s not a lion,” Cory said as he looked through his binos. “But it’s the biggest bobcat I’ve ever seen. Last year I called in and shot six of them, but that one could eat the cats I killed. It must weigh close to 60 pounds!”
Although seeing the giant bobcat was great, our hour-long, first-light hike in the snow failed to turn up any decent-sized muleys. Our second, third and fourth hikes also left us empty-handed, and by the time we made sandwiches in the truck and tried to re-energize ourselves, I hoped the afternoon would bring us better luck. It was obvious, however, that the winter storm still carried a lot of power, and the muleys were hunkered down and waiting it out. We needed to keep hiking from draw to draw and keep working.
This particular canyon was 6 miles long, so after lunch we began to sneak-and-peak our way crosswind to the east. The wicked wind/snow mixture forced me to walk with my left eye closed, but I was loving every minute of it. Man against beast, battling the elements. The muleys would be holed-up out of the wind on south-facing slopes, and this canyon was deep enough to give the deer all the protection they’d need.
Twenty minutes later, we crawled through the snow to another rock outcropping, this time to look down into the canyon’s next draw, one you couldn’t spot from any two-track. Four more bucks called this draw home, and surprising to me, they were up feeding. From 400 yards, one of the bucks looked like a good one, so we slipped out of sight and made a lengthy end-around stalk across the prairie. The plan was to peek down on the bucks from some boulders rimming the draw, but somehow in the blowing snow we lost our bearings on the prairie and crept back to the canyon in the wrong spot. The running tracks in the snow below us indicated that the three smaller bucks had spotted us during our approach, and they bolted to the east, deeper into the canyon, taking the big buck with them.
The muleys were kicking our tails, but sooner or later we’d win a round.
If At First You Don’t Succeed . . .
Cory and I crept low to the ground as we neared the crest of the canyon’s next deep draw. The anticipation of what might be bedded or feeding below us almost took the pain away as the blowing snow sandblasted my face.
“Now were talkin’,” Cory whispered as I settled into a rock cavity next to him. “Straight across the draw—a good 4x4.”
“Yep, I see him.” And no sooner had I focused on the feeding buck that Cory spotted a big 5x4 feeding at the base of three large pines. Although the 4x4 was a bit wider than the 5x4, the latter was bigger bodied and had a rut-swollen neck. Mingling between the two larger bucks were several small- to mid-sized 3x3s, 4x3s and 4x4s.
As luck would have it, the 5x4 bedded behind one of the large trees just a few seconds before I could find a solid rifle rest in the rocks. Now it was a waiting game.
I placed my chin against my chest in an attempt to duck the head-on wind, but it didn’t help much. With my rifle in my lap, I sat among the rocks and every 30 seconds or so I’d steal a peek to make sure the 5x4 hadn’t stood to feed. According to Cory’s rangefinder, it was 210 yards to the tree that hid the 5x4. The distance was a bit farther than ideal in these conditions, but thankfully the wind was blowing directly from the buck to me; I wouldn’t have to compensate for left or right wind-drift.
As the minutes ticked by, the warmth slowly crept from my body. I was dressed for hard hiking, not hunkering. If this sce-nario didn’t play out within the hour, I’d be too cold to make a good shot. With my hands in the pockets of my parka, head down and eyes closed—except for my occasional peeks—I tried to concentrate on relaxed breathing and staying warm. When the chance comes, it might happen fast, I said to myself. It’s still only the second day, so don’t take a stupid shot. Make sure.
“Dave, get ready!” Cory was tapping on my leg. We’d been waiting for 30 minutes, and I had to jump-start my brain into action. “A small buck is running up the draw from the bottom. He might bump your 5x4.”
Cory’s experience with muleys was right on, because in seconds multiple deer were heading for the top of the canyon, straight away from us. At least nine bucks had left the canyon and headed north onto the prairie by the time my buck finally showed himself. He ran left for 20 yards before turning to head out of the draw, and I followed his every move through my 10X scope with the gun safety off.
Almost as quickly as he’d started to run he stopped, but was facing directly away—no shot. As I pleaded for him to turn broadside, he stuck his rack into a snow-covered sage bush, and with a violent shake of his head sent snow flying into the air. In fact, I remember his back turning from brown to white due to the kicked up snow.
Soon, the 5x4 was on the move again, this time angling quartering-away as he made his way up and out of the canyon. I have to wait for him to stop, I told myself, trying to stay calm. For my skill level, this was too far in this wind to try a walking shot. As if answering my silent prayer, the buck turned broadside and stopped to nip a sage bush.
With the crosshairs steadied on the muley’s shoulder, the rifle recoiled at the shot and I lost sight of the buck.
“You stone-cold smacked him!” Cory yelled.
As I quickly cycled another cartridge into the chamber, I could see with the naked eye that the buck’s feet were pointing to the clouds. The scope view showed it even more clearly—the buck hadn’t taken a step after taking the bullet.
It felt good to know I’d tagged a decent-sized muley—my first—with a single, well-placed shot after a mile-long stalk in brutally tough conditions. I felt like I’d earned the buck.
Perhaps Cory said it best as we struggled in the snow to drag the buck out of the steep canyon: “I like it when I get to guide hunters who aren’t afraid to work. You’ll never forget this hunt. Never.”
Beating The Wind
Cold-weather hunting can be miserable if your clothing doesn’t block the wind. In Wyoming, I wore two layers of Under Armour ColdGear tops and bottoms, then finished dressing by pulling on the company’s new water- and wind-proof Stealth outer garments in Mossy Oak camo. During the coldest part of the day, I slipped an Under Armour Derecho fleece jacket under the Stealth shell. This combo kept me dry while crawling and sitting in the snow, and although the freezing wind often topped 50 mph, the clothing let me concentrate on finding muleys instead of shelter.–Dave Maas