Winterkill is one of the wildcards a mule deer hunter has to contend with. You can't predict it nor can you ignore it. It will affect you at some point.
Just today, I read one Oregon study that showed 32% mortality on adult does in Baker County! Adult does are usually the last to tip over so I can only guess how many bucks they lost.
As I've said in previous posts, unless the winterkill is catastrophic, you can still expect big bucks to be available come fall. Let's take a look at some of the bucks I've taken in the years following bad winters. Because I lab-age all my bucks, I know exactly how old they were when winter's grim reaper showed up.
Anecdotal evidence simply means "based on or consisting of reports or observations of usually unscientific observers." These reports can be all over the place depending on who you're asking. I can only share my own anecdotal evidence based on decades of hunting experience and let you draw your own conclusions.
As I wrote in my book Hunting Big Mule Deer the winter of '92/'93 was the worst I've lived through. Success rates on deer plummeted almost West-wide. When success rates drop, many deer hunters either quit or expend much less effort. While it was very tough hunting the following fall, a few big bucks were still killed by the serious hunters I knew. I even managed to turn over a 180" buck.
1994-1996 was even better for some really big deer (although success rates stayed low because the deer population struggled to rebound) as those prime-age bucks that made it through the tough winter had another two years on them.
I killed the biggest buck of my life in 1996. Lab aging proved that he was 5.5 years old and was born in June 1991. Doing the math, he entered the winter of 1992 as a 1.5-year-old buck. The generation below him likely experienced near 100% mortality, yet he survived and went on to grow fantastic antlers. I first found him in 1995 when he was in the 190's as a 4-year old but exploded to over 230" by 1996.
This 230" buck survived one of the hardest winters in the last 30 years.
In 2008, after a very intense winter not unlike the one we just experienced, I hunted hard for a week during the early rut. I saw just a few bucks where I'd seen dozens in the year prior. On the second to last day, I found this buck bedded with a doe. He was heavy with an inline so I didn't hesitate. The lab aged him at five years old
I took this five-year old buck the fall after the very intense winter of 2007/2008
In 2014, I killed a very large-bodied 8-year old buck. Lab aging proved that he was born in 2006 (a low fawn production year) and lived through two hard winters: 2007/2008 as a 1.5-year old and 2010/2011 as a 4.5-year old.
I estimated this 8-year old buck's live weight at over 300lbs. He lived through two very hard winters.
In 2015, I took a 187" buck that lab-aged at seven years old. He was born in 2008, another low fawn production year, and lived through the 2010/2011 winter as a 2.5-year old.
A 7-year old buck that lived through the 2010/2011 winter as a 2.5 year-old.
Finally, I killed a buck in early November 2016. He had no fat left on his rump despite being taken very early in the rut. His molars were very worn. The taxidermist estimated that he was at least eight years old. I've learned lab-aging is the only accurate way to tell and wouldn't you know it, he was six years old. While I can't explain his tooth wear or low body fat, I do know that he was born in 2010. He went into the very hard winter of 2010/2011 as a six-month old fawn. Data by Idaho Fish and Game showed that we experienced heavy fawn losses that year, yet he made it through.
This buck was one of the few surviving fawns after the winter of 2010/2011
My point in all this? While we'll certainly have a tougher fall in some units, don't think that we've lost all the big bucks for years to come. I predict that even in the hardest hit areas, a few really big bucks will be available to the persistent hunter, both this year and in the following years. As for me, I'll hunt in some winterkill units, but I'm spreading my risk out by applying for some hunts where winter wasn't so tough. You might consider the same.
Next time, let's talk about the hot topic of exactly where to hunt this fall. There's some surprising research on the subject that I'll share.
Question: have you ever taken a good buck after a hard winter?
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Read about essential tactics for mule deer hunting in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
I've been blogging on the winter's effects on mule deer since January. With near-record snow totals in parts of the West, this was a timely subject. Now that spring is taking hold and the worst should be behind us, I thought we'd move to the subject of what to expect come fall. If you're just joining in, see these previous posts to understand where winter had the most impacts: Bad Winter? Now What? and Hard Winter—Spring Update (and podcasts!)
I started hunting big mule deer without much more than a dream and a few extra dollars. Dad had set me up pretty good with the essentials: a good rifle, a good truck, and a back built for working. Beyond that, the rest was up to me.
While conditions did somewhat improve shortly after that post, it may have been "too little, too late" for some mule deer. As a big buck hunter, you need to pay close attention to winterkill. I certainly do. It can affect everything from big buck numbers, your ability to draw a license, and even where big bucks will show up in your unit come fall.
There's been some good news since my last post Bad Winter, Now What?. The weather has moderated across a big swath of the western states. We're not out of the danger zone yet. Significant winterkill could still be a factor, but if we don't get any big cold storms between now and late March, we may skate over what could have been a very bad winter for mule deer. Stay close...
Besides watching the weather, I've been putting together reviews on all the gear I used in 2016.
Next up is my Kryptek Vellus & Anorak review.
Kryptek married modern technology with fleece to bring about a system that I can recommend for western mule deer hunting. If you need a warm, quiet, water/windproof system, give this review a read. Even if you can't or don't want to buy the entire system, each piece offers benefits as a stand-alone garment. Just click the title below for more info...
Read about essential gear for the mule deer hunting in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
If you're a big buck hunter, you're probably a weather freak, too. After all, terminal weather conditions usually have the biggest impact on your hunt. Consider, too, that long-term weather patterns also affect your hunt even though it may be months away. Drought, fire, and hard winters all can have a negative effect on your upcoming seasons.
If you've followed this blog for a while, you know I've tried quite a few Vortex products. From the Kaibab 15x56 to the Vulture 15x56 binoculars, to the Viper 3-9x40 to the Diamondback HP 3-12x42 riflescopes, I can say there is plenty of value per dollar spent with Vortex.
Let's do this!
First, thank you for following this project to completion: A Season of Hunting Big Mule Deer. I truly hope you learned something that will help you take the best buck of your life.
I used Random.org's random number generator to draw from the qualified entries (including those of you who were blocked by the system but emailed me your entries.)
1st Place: Vortex Viper goes to Josh Weeks
2nd Place: Huntin' Fool Membership goes to Brian Bitter
3rd Place: Hunting Big Mule Deer Book goes to Gentry Distefano
You have 10 days (January 21st) to claim your prize or I'll redraw from the qualified entries.
Thanks again. I'll be posting this year on research, gear, and more information related to mule deer hunting. If you've never done so, sign up for the Rok Blog upper right at "Rok Blog Sign-Up" to receive email notification when I post.
Thanks and God bless your hunting.
For more tips & tactics, check out my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
I had been home from the Idaho hunt a week and watching the weather closely in preparation for my upcoming Utah hunt. The high pressure ridge that had dogged me during the Idaho hunt had mostly just strengthened over the last 10 days. This meant virtually no snow in the Intermountain West. Buck hunters from Colorado to Montana had been handed their worst season in years due to the mild conditions, and it wasn't looking any better for me.
The next morning, I was in the big saddle by first light and again sat until close to noon without spotting the big buck. My phone said there was important business waiting on my email, so I hiked out to the truck and fired up my laptop to put out the fires. By the time I was done, it was after 3:00 PM and time to head back to the saddle.
I'd been glassing since first light with my SLC 15x56 binoculars backed up by my 25-50x80mm ATS spotter, both Swarovskis. This is a lot of glass to pack, but when I don't have to hike far, it's really the best combination for finding big mule deer.
I've been an outfitter for about 15 years. We operate almost exclusively on private land in an OTC unit. Our bread 'n' butter is elk hunting but because we manage hunter numbers, every once in a while a big buck will show up. My paid hunters have first shot at these bucks, but I often hunt them once everyone has gone home for the season.
It had been 10 days since I found the giant Idaho buck. Due the terrain he lived in, I knew killing him with a bow meant still-hunting through the timber hoping for a shot. I probably have a better chance of orbiting the earth in my own homemade rocket.
It was early August when I returned my Nevada tag (backstory here). That still gave me the best month to scout an Idaho buck up. I find by early August that the big bucks have settled into their summer core areas where I can expect to find them until heavy snow, hunting pressure, or the rut moves them (in desert areas, bucks can also move if the water sources change.)
My favorite media to communicate through on Rokslide is this blog. While I love writing articles for our homepage, and our forums are downright fun and informative, it's the blog that is my own little space. It's here that I can best share with anyone who's truly interested in becoming a better mule deer hunter, particularly for outsized top-of-the-heap bucks.
In Parts One, Two and Three, I covered gun/caliber, energy requirements, powder, and loading procedure/development using a Vortex Razor HD LH 1.5-8x32 scope on a Knight Mountaineer. Besides load development, I showed the potential of that set-up out to 300 yards, plenty of range and energy for killing big mule deer. See Part III for that demonstration.
I've been a fan of the smokin' single shot since my daddy left me in a tree over a bear bait as a young teenager. He wasn't gone twenty minutes when a small bear (looked huge to me) poked his front end out from behind a Lodgepole Pine 80 yards up the hill. I buried the big front blade of that Hawken .54 behind his front leg and lit the cap. The next thing I saw was a somersaulting bear land flat on his back. The 455 grain T/C Maxiball had hit him square in the heart. While I know it was a lucky shot, my dad was as proud as a papa could be, and I was hooked on muzzleloading for life.
I've been using some kind of optic since I was in my early teens- Tasco, Redfield, Bushnell, Sears (you read that right) Pentax, Leupold, Steiner, Nikon, Minox, Bushnell, Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski and surely at least a few others that I've long forgotten. While I'm no optics expert, I do know what my eyes like.
Trail cameras became widely used in the West in the mid-2000's. Watching the forums, TV shows, and magazines, I'd say they've only picked up steam since then. Seems everyone is a voyeur these days. Since 2008, I've used trail cameras extensively from the desert to the foothills to the high-country of the West. While I'm far from an expert compared to some hunters, I've learned a lot about them in that time and how they apply to hunting big mule deer.
I'm an early-season bowhunter, chasing muleys from the desert mountain ranges to the high country of the West. These seasons typically run about mid-August through late September. Daytime temps can soar into the 90s in the desert but fall into the twenties in the high country. This 70-degree swing requires a lot from a clothing system.
Last fall, I was planning an early season bowhunt for mule deer, so I contacted co-owner Butch Whiting at Kryptek to see what clothing I could try.
To read the entire article, click Kryptek Dalibor Soft Shell Early Season Jacket
To learn about the gear and tactics I use for Hunting Big Mule Deer, check out my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
If you've followed this blog for a while, you know that I'm often NOT on the cutting edge when upgrading to new gear. I want to know something works and works well before I abandon my tried-'n'-true (insert gear here).
Before rangefinders came along in the late '90s, most mule deer hunters were banking their long range shots on the power of the gun to produce a flat trajectory. For years, the 7mm Remington Magnum was near the top of the flat-trajectory heap. With a 150-160 grain bullet posting a ballistic coefficient over .500 and a sight-in of 3.25" high at 100 yards, you could expect that bullet to drop about 24-26" at 500 yards. That meant an on-body hold for big mule deer to about 450 yards. That math worked for decades but is also why so few big deer were killed beyond 450 yards; when you're forced to aim at air, it's just easier to miss.
You can read the entire article here Hash Marks or Turrets? A Mule Deer Hunter's Perspective
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Read all about the weapon systems I prefer in my book: Hunting Big Mule Deer: How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
"Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.
But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”
So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word."
Mathew 28: 1-10
May your hope be in Him who will never die, that you may live. All the best to you and yours on this Resurrection Day.
If you've read my Vortex vs. Vortex 15x Binocular review earlier this year, you may have noticed the name "Duwane Adams". Just who is this guide who seems to be nearly everywhere that big Arizona deer are spoken of?
With so many new members joining Rokslide, it stands to reason that many of you were not around when we launched in early February, 2012. Ryan Avery and David Long worked tirelessly night and day (that's no stretch) to build the platform we all enjoy now. One of David's jobs was working with top notch hunters and writers to bring you many of the articles that are still read daily by members.
One of those articles was written by Robert Hanneman: Bighorn Sheep Hunting Tips & Tactics and is still in the top ten articles we've ever published. Besides bighorn sheep, Robert possessed a vast knowledge of western big game hunting. So it was no surprise when the following year that Robert joined the staff of The Huntin' Fool- a company dedicated to helping hunters find good places to pursue their dream species.
So you've got all your spreadsheets filled out with every bit of statistical data you could glean from every source imaginable. Good. Now consider that thousands of other hunters are looking at that same information and if they're smart like you, will probably apply for the same units. Statistics usually lead us all to the same place and is why draw odds in many units are so dismal across the West.
While this is part of the research process, what will really help your bad case of "paralysis of analysis" is prescouting units you'd like to apply for. If my research says a unit is really good and I've got the time to prescout it in the summer, I may apply without ever having scouted the unit. Still, I might be better off to wait a year like in the example below.
Rewind to 1995. I'd researched a particular Colorado unit to apply for. The stats said it was good, but depending on who I talked to, the hunting could be poor to fantastic. The unit only took 0-1 points to draw and I had one, but I just couldn't make my mind up before the application deadline so I didn't apply. Not wanting to be in the same boat the next year, I made a plan...
A few months later, after clearing my schedule, I hooked up the horse trailer one early July morning and drove 500 miles to the unit. In three mornings of glassing and an afternoon or two of riding some country, I saw a few nice bucks but more importantly learned first-hand how to hunt the unit- from camp, to access, to local services- and I met a few locals who gave me some good intel.
Nine months later, I felt good about spending my two points on a one-point unit and I applied and I drew. That fall I had a chance at a GIANT buck which I muffed, and after two more hunts in the unit over the next five years, I killed a great buck going north of 200. But,it all started with that July scouting trip way back when.
So before you apply this year, look first at units and areas you'll have the ability to scout preseason. Understand that there are two values to scouting:
1) Finding a particular buck
While this is the grand prize of scouting, I've learned it's not always possible or even necessary to find a particular buck to hunt. However, if it's an early-season hunt (August/September,) bucks will usually be very close to where you've seen them in the summer. So if you're scouting for these hunts, then finding a particular animal is fantastic and probably the number one predictor if you'll take a big buck or not.
If you can't find any big bucks in the summer, your chances of finding one when the season opens is even worse. This is why I make sure I understand each state's policy regarding refund of points before I apply. You can make more money, but not more years. This policy needs to be part of your application strategy. Every state is different.
For example, Colorado offers a refund of points BUT you lose a point for that application year. Be smart as losing just one point can knock you out of a preference point system where point creep is happening (and that's pretty much everywhere). This is where a good research service is a value. They are usually the first to know when and how these systems are changing. For example, this year The Huntin' Fool announced that Colorado will still offer point refunds, but only up to 30 days before the hunt. That is a big change and will affect my application strategy that I could have missed had I not been a member.
2) Learn the unit's exact hunting areas
Many hunts in the West occur after mid-October. Typically, by then, bucks are starting to move from where they've spent the summer, either because of snow-depth, the oncoming rut, hunting pressure, or just the traditional movement of of deer in that unit. This can negate your summer scouting efforts if you're only scouting for bucks. You need to learn plenty of country so when the season opens, you can move to familiar country if you're not finding bucks.
If my research says a unit is weather or migratory dependent, I still try to prescout it to make sure I'm not wasting valuable hunting days once the season is open. When scouting these type of hunts, I remember that only about 10-20% of a unit's area will hold big bucks. Scouting is often just narrowing down where not to hunt.
By visiting a unit and talking to locals, you can figure out exact places in the unit other hunters have been successful and how to best hunt those areas. With practice, you can also learn how to identify likely buck country by the terrain itself. Google Earth is an awesome tool, but still can't replace a hunter who "knows" what big buck country looks like.
So if you're experiencing "paralysis of analysis," maybe you should consider building points until you have the time to prescout units. In every instance I have done this, it's paid off either in saved points, peace in applying, or punching my tag on a big mule deer.
Make sure you "Subscribe to blog" (Upper right under Fitness/Other) so you don't miss my next post on research. I'll be interviewing Robert Hanneman, head of research at The Huntin' Fool.
Read all about how I research hunts in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
With the West's first mule deer application deadline of March 3rd around the corner, I thought it was time to talk about research and how I personally decide what hunts I'll apply for. If you're looking for a blog post on units to apply for, this isn't it. I'd rather teach you something that you can use for life.
When merino wool baselayers became mainstream for hunters not many years ago, true to form, I sat on the fence and let others go first.
If a piece of gear is working for me, I'm the slowest among the slow to adapt. I want to be convinced that I need to change. While certainly influenced by budget, I think it goes deeper than that for me. I was the kid in school who used the same pencil until it was about as long as my thumb. At 46 years old, I'm still driving the same old Toyota truck to work that I bought when I was 19. I have a hard time blowing with the wind. However, I'm not a hoarder either. When something truly better comes along, all sentimentality goes out the window and I adapt quickly.
I’ve written before—both on this blog and in my new book—about the need to study other deer hunters if you want to be successful. Deer have been hunted on all continents since Bible times (see Deuteronomy 12:22) and there is a wealth of accumulated knowledge that has been handed down through the centuries that can benefit the modern hunter.
For those of you who might be thinking of getting into the high-powered tripod binoculars game, this review is for you.
It took me nearly two years to complete, accumulating around 50 days over six hunts and countless scouting trips. I'm relieved to finally hit the publish button on this one.
See how Vortex's two high-powered tripod binoculars- the venerable Kaibab HD 15x56 and the the lower-priced Vulture HD 15x56- stack up against each other. I've had this question asked many times over the last year, and I hope this review answers it for you.
To read the review, click the title here Vortex's Kaibab HD 15x56 vs. Vortex Vulture HD 15x56
Don't miss any of my upcoming reviews and other tips on improving your mule deer game by "Subscribing to blog," upper right under Fitness/Other links
Read all about the gear and techniques I use in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
Merry CHRISTmas everyone.
As promised, it's time to announce the winner of the The Vortex Diamondback HP 3-12 x 42 with BDC Reticle
(If you missed this mornings' post, you need to view it first here Hunting the Rut & Migration: Day 9 or this one might not make much sense)
To me, the most suspenseful moments in hunting are those between the shot and confirming a lethal hit. Because big mule deer often live in broken brushy terrain, this task is harder than it might seem to the uninitiated. After a shot, I always remember the old proverb "Fools rush in."
Thanks for following this hunt to completion. I truly hope you learned something that will help you Take the Best Buck of Your Life
I'll draw for The Vortex Diamondback 3-12 x 42 with BDC Reticle (shown below) on 12/22 according to the rules posted here. Make sure you check your email as you'll only have 24 hours to respond to be entered in the final drawing.
Read all about the research, gear, and techniques I use in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
I camped as close to the area I wanted to hunt as possible, but I was still about 90 minutes from where most of the deer had showed up in the last few days. That meant 90 minutes of riding a horse in subzero temps. Riding a walking horse is a pretty sedentary activity. About every 20 minutes, I'd have to dismount and walk to warm up. Once in the deer country, I'd tie the horse and hike, so staying warm wasn't as tough; that is until I sat down to glass! What I'm getting at is that while hunting in these conditions can be great, you're always in survival mode.
Today dawned cold and clear- perfect conditions for some Extreme Long Range Glassing (I wrote an entire chapter on this subject in my book). Time for the big Vortex 15x56 Kaibab HD Tripod Binoculars along side my old favorite, the Swarovski CT 75 (I take a lot of ribbing on that scope but I still crown it the best spotter for the backcountry hunter.)
Don't wait too long to get entered. Good luck and thanks for following.
Read all about the research, gear, and techniques I use in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
Seems like no matter the time of year, there will be good hunting days and bad hunting days. The difference often lies in the conditions. Typically the colder winter weather makes for good and even great hunting (notice the game trails in the freshly fallen snow in the lead image of this post). Problem is, hunting in subzero temperatures (0 was the low, 14 degrees was the high this day) all day long is both mentally challenging and physically tiring.
The migration is in full swing and bucks are rutting hard. If I can stay off the trigger, I might have a chance at a really good buck. Here is today's video.
It's day six. I was up at 4:45 to saddle the horse and grab a quick breakfast and coffee. The weather report says a big storm is coming in less than 36 hours and could dump up to 10" of snow at the elevation I've been hunting. With a solid foot on the ground now, I know this will be enough snow to push the deer out of here. Besides that, I might not be able to get camp out to the main road as even now I'm chained up on all fours and can barely get around.
On migration hunts, you have to pay close attention to the conditions- snow depth and temperature (and in some units, the calendar)- on a daily basis. The deer are responding to those conditions and if you don't, you might end up where there are few deer, even if hundreds were in the area just days ago. That is why migration hunts can be frustrating to the unprepared.
One of the techniques I write about extensively in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life, is Still-Hunting. A few generations ago before scopes and rifles capable of shooting beyond 100 yards became widely available, still-hunting was more popular. However, even today it's the perfect technique for hunting the timber and brush of the West where so many mature mule deer spend the dayllight hours.
While I wait all year to hunt big big bucks, I'm surprised at the emotion I sometimes experience as the hunt approaches: Dread! That's right, dread. I can't really explain it but it's a common emotion I feel (I've heard other serious hunters admit the same thing). I find it's worse if I'm going to be hunting alone.