The most sought-after North American trophy species
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!)
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.
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.
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