As a young boy I grew up in the West listening to tales of whopper mule deer bucks taken from the tall peaks of the Rocky Mountains, where golden aspen leaves fluttered in the breeze and the snows came early. Years later I began hunting them there, had many an adventure and found some success.
Trophy mule deer hunting has been a passion since I was in high school. More than 3 decades later, I’ve learned if a trophy buck is your dream, you have to tip the odds in your favor by hunting them where they live today. And today, the chances of finding a big deer aren’t best in the high mountains, but the flatlands to the east. Today, the eastern plains of Colorado have become one of the best places of all for trophy muley hunting.
Considering how much I love to hunt in the mountains, I write this with a grimace on my face. Hunting the eastern plains is the antithesis of hunting the mountains. Here you won’t load up a backpack and head off into the wilderness on a lung-draining solo hike. Instead you’ll be traveling in a pick-up on private land—virtually all the land in the area is private—with a guide, as much of the better ground is leased by outfitters. Instead of glassing huge high-elevation bowls, you’ll be glassing fields of crops, shallow cuts and CRP land. You might even find yourself perched in a treestand or hunkered down in a ground blind.
I’d heard about the big bucks coming from the plains for several years before hunting them myself. When Aaron Neilson, who’s run Adventures Wild for the past 11 years, invited me to come check it out, I booked a hunt. The experience blew me away.
Neilson leases more than 400,000 prime acres of private land. “We’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with landowners, and work together with them to both respect their land and control the buck harvest so we can keep trophy quality high,” Neilson said. “Because the region is virtually all private land, our goal is much easier to achieve than if we were hunting public land areas, where hunter numbers are very high and the opportunity to let a young buck walk, knowing he’ll have a good chance to live another year or more, is much less.”
The basic strategy is simple—head out before daylight to an area where your guide has previously located deer, try to glass them up and then make it happen.
“There’s a difference between the rut and non-rut hunts,” veteran guide Patrick Montgomery said. “During the rut you’ll see more deer activity during the day when bucks are out moving and looking for does. However, that can be a disadvantage, because now you’re stalking 10 deer instead of one. In October, when both the mule deer and white-tailed bucks are in small bachelor groups, it can be easier to move on them than it is when they’re with does. Later, when the rut is over, there’s still some buck/doe interaction, and you never know what you’ll find.”
Few and Far Between
Like free-ranging trophy hunting everywhere, while big bucks are around, you can’t expect to find one behind every bush. If you locate one whopper during the week you should consider it a good hunt. The question is, can you make it happen? On archery hunts, of course, this can be problematic. With a rifle or modern muzzleloader, however, the odds of connecting on a mature buck increase.
I’ve bowhunted the area 2 years straight and have yet to shoot an arrow. However, it’s not because I haven’t seen some really big deer, because I have. It just hasn’t worked out. (Stalking big muley bucks with a bow is just about the most challenging hunt I’ve ever experienced.)
The first year Patrick and I glassed for what seemed like forever, passing up several good deer until we found “Him.” He was a whopper 4x4 with an outside spread of perhaps 28 inches and a couple of kickers, and I thought he’d score in the upper 180s. He had a bunch of does with him, and when we finally got him bedded, he was in one of those places where I couldn’t get closer than 75 yards—and that’s too far for me to comfortably release an arrow. So we watched him bed down again in a huge tumbleweed pile, and were able to sneak within 35 yards. The trouble was, the brush was so thick all we could see were his antler tips. Just as we were about to make the buck stand up and expose his chest, the wind—an unusually slight breeze this day—swirled and gave him a whiff of us. Adios, amigo.
Last year the hunting was tougher. The crops were standing and the deer hard to locate. We did spot two nice bucks, but again, stalking conditions were less than optimal and it didn’t work out. That’s bowhunting for you.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Neilson’s philosophy on low hunter pressure has been reflected in the success of his clients. “In 2003, our firearms clients killed 15 mule deer bucks that scored more than 180 Boone and Crockett Club points—four of them grossed more than 200 B&C—and seven white-tailed bucks scored more than 150 B&C,” Neilson said. “And that doesn’t take into consideration the stalks blown by bowhunters or that some of the gun hunters missed.”
The season is long. If you’re a bowhunter, you can hunt roughly anytime between October 1-December 31. Rifle and muzzleloader hunters have shorter open hunt periods. In Colorado, there are two ways to obtain a tag to hunt this area—either through the regular tag draw (applications are due in mid-April), or with a landowner permit.
You can be sure I’ll be crawling around the eastern plains again this fall season, trying my darndest to get within bow range and tag one of one of those dandy mule deer bucks.