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Looking Back Closing Hour Mule Deer

by Tayler Michels (Staff Member for Passion for the Hunt)

North Dakota Badlands bound, I drove over night from Bismarck where I live.  A winter storm had begun to rock the region making the three hour drive much longer.  Highway travel came to a crawl as snow piled onto the road.  Visibility was poor and my trek to the Badlands seemed to be never-ending  I was tired but my excitement level was still unbridled.  I was heading into my favorite hunting area to pursue my favorite big-game animal in late November.  The rut was still going strong and cold nasty weather that would surely have big bucks on their feet all day.  As I got off the main highways and made my way on a familiar trail deep into North Dakota’s backcountry, the clock indicated that the night was getting closer to sunrise but there was no sign of the glowing sun on the horizon. In fact there was no horizon at all, the wind had picked up with gusts around 45 mph and a fresh six inches of snow created whiteout conditions.  Six more inches were forecasted on the way later in the day. 


Visibility was tough that morning and I already knew glassing conditions were going to be difficult.  Wasn’t really sure what to expect as I put on my gear and grabbed my bow but regardless of the circumstances, I was excited to be where I was.  I was hunting with a bow in my hand in one of my favorite areas.  


I hiked up a ridge I was familiar with and found deer right away. As I continued to hike, deer seemed to be in predictable places thanks to the harsh weather.  Tucked down into a protected gulch, I set up my spotter and got comfortable.  Brush covered hillsides lay before me where deer could tuck out of the relentless wind and after a couple of hours of glassing… I spotted what looked like a mature buck rutting a doe. 


These vantages on the wind-blown hilltops overlooking the North Dakota badlands is truly what I live for.  I am always scanning and looking for that elusive mule deer buck.  When I am not laying next to the spotting scope looking at deer, I am daydreaming about looking at deer. Yes… pursuing mule deer in open country is a huge passion of mine. Back in the civilized world, the weather had likely by now shut down the interstates.  Schools and public activities would have been canceled.  Televisions would be covered with slow crawling text outlining no travel warnings.  Surreal to think that in these cold temperatures and blowing snow, I had made my way to this place.  I still had an archery tag in my pocket.  My Arctic Shield Shell was covered in snow and frost hung on my eyelashes and eyebrows.


The blowing snow made for glassing difficult.  Tears ran down my face as the wind blew snow and dirt into my open eyes as I pressed the binoculars next to my brow.  The buck I was squinting to get a look at was a good buck but I needed a better look.  As this buck focused on what appeared to be a hot doe, I made another move.  Sliding behind a big hill, I was able to close the distance to a few hundred yards.  My heart pounded as I crawled up to the crest of the rim.  When I popped over the top to look down on my buck he was nowhere to be found.  That buck had to be close.  It had only taken me a few minutes to get into position.  


As I sat, waited and wondered… to my surprise and delight the scent of this hot doe attracted the attention of another mature buck.  Before I even found the original contender, I had a heavy, wide and old beast of a muley right in front of me. I was confident the other buck and doe were still in the area.  As this big bruiser followed the doe tracks, he raked his antlers on every juniper in reach.  The buck’s swollen up neck shook back and forth in a demonstration of dominance.  This buck knew there was a hot doe close up ahead and that he wasn’t the only buck in the drainage.  


I watched this buck for an hour studying his movements, patiently waiting for my chance to slip in for a shot.  I was above the buck with the wind in my face which gave me the ultimate advantage for staying undetected.  By now I could see all the deer.  Finally, the big buck separated from the other deer and I made a move.  Sliding down the hill on my backside as quickly as possible.  I wasn’t concerned with style points as I just had to close the distance as quickly as possible.  Three hundred yards lay between myself and the deer.  I knew I didn’t have that much time.  Finally, I made it to the last piece of cover and had somehow stayed out of sight of all the other deer.  


Some hunters will argue that mule deer are stupid.  Arguments are made that mule deer are not as sly as whitetails.  Mule deer get up, bounce for a few hundred yards and than stand and look at you.  Mule deer however are perfectly suited for surviving their world.  One of the most challenging aspects of hunting mule deer is finding that deer and than getting close enough to that deer without blowing all the other deer out of the area.  Once one mule deer detects your presence and begins to bounce away, every other deer seemingly joins in the escape.  So… when you are hunting and stalking mule deer, your not just trying to stalk and get in on one deer.  Every set of eyes, ears and nose in that draw or ravine is looking for you.    


My heart was pounding as I made my way up to the last juniper bush.  None of the other deer had busted me.  My mind began to click through the different checklists as I try to prepare for the shot.  My fingers were shaking as I ranged the buck and a few objects around the deer..  I don’t remember drawing back but do remember when the buck finally turned broadside.  I shot with full confidence.  The arrow enter ed the side of the buck precisely where I had aimed and emotions officially exploded in that moment.  The arrow crashed through the bucks shoulders and he fell to rest right there in front of me.  This was the first animal I’d shot with my new Mathews Halon. 


I tried to enjoy the moment but the weather was still so brutally cold.  The snow was deep.  The wind was still fierce.  I dragged the buck into the bottom of the drainage where I could stay out of the weather and prepare him for the long pack out.  I quickly started a fire to keep warm and began the work of skinning and quartering.  Despite the pack ahead of me and the elements I would encounter, I had a huge smile on my face.  All my wits and gear were put to the test on a successful late-season hunt in the North Dakota badlands.