From the moment I drove into this part of Colorado, I fell in love with the rolling sagebrush hills, selectively placed mountain tops and wide skies that reach for miles. I had heard about this impressive Muley country from my brothers, but I never knew how awesome it really was until we hunted it in 2000. Some people know this as Northwest Colorado, others throw around towns like Hayden and Craig. I just call it Muley heaven.
I’d been hunting with my brothers and a group of friends since 1997. Most years consisted of a Mule Deer hunt with a few guys drawing Elk tags. From high pine-covered peaks at 10,000 feet to low sagebrush washes and draws, we’ve hunted many types of terrain. I know the whitetail is the most popular deer hunted in the states, merely due to the numbers. But, a good Mule Deer buck scoring 170 inches or more can really be hard to find, unless you do some studying!
Our area, which is located near Craig, is a nice gem that we’ve found after years of research and phone calls to land owners, ranches and wildlife officials. I dare not tell exactly where, as more than a few hunting partners might come after me! But, what I can tell you is what the land is like, some tips we learned over the years and a bit of story telling.
Last year our hunt group reached 20 guys, all of which had Mule Deer tags and a few had elk tags. Coordinating a group this large takes some effort. In fact, we assigned three group leaders that were each in charge of coordinating their group, their supplies and grocery list. We call our hunt group Ahshee Outfitters. Why the name? Well, it’s slightly an inside term, and too long of an explanation for this story!
The group consisted of my older brothers Kevin, Jim and Brian, plus my father-in-law Marshall and fifteen other close hunting buddies. We set up over 2000 square feet of wall tent plus 2-3 trailers. Yes it’s a super camp and a lot like a military base. And yes the grocery bill is large. In addition, when you’ve got a big group, you need to direct your hunts wisely.
The morning before opening day we scout with spotting scopes and optics, noting where we see good deer herds, where they feed to and where they go to sleep. In an area that has potential for high hunter numbers, it’s critical you do research to narrow the odds and get there first. The worst feeling is going to your “spot” in the dark, to later find another hunter 100 yards away. If you use an ATV, park it 200 yards + from where you want to hunt so it will deter anyone from staying close to you.
We broke up the hunts into three options: Near the camp for the elders of the group; BLM land accessed by ATV’s and on foot; and a three-mile private property easement that takes you to more BLM land, accessible only by foot or horseback. For opening day, I was going into the BLM land on an ATV with my brothers and a couple other guys. We left before dark and after riding through the brisk morning, reached the entry to the BLM land.
Now, since I’m the smallest brother, I had to ride on the back of the quad, which was needless to say, bumpy. But, we got through two miles of country quickly and were set up for opening morning before dawn. My brother Jim and I sat down next to some boulders along a private property fence. We looked West as the sun came up behind us and the wind drifted into our face…perfect. Well, at least we thought.
Sure enough, there was a hunter right in front of us 200 yards away. “Oh well, let’s wait a see what happens,” whispered Jim. We knew he saw us, which was our first concern. As the sun came up it was still and quiet, but our hearts were pumping due the opening day jitters. After about 30 minutes I started getting antsy…30 minutes. How impatient I was…but I knew there were big bucks that roamed these hills. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. I could see a huge buck bedded down about 400 yards away looking right at us. I whispered to Jim and he spotted him quickly. He was 4-6 inches past his ears and very tall…at least 200” plus…a wall hanger.
We moved slowly into position, and since I saw him first, my brother said I should take the shot. Well, I wasn’t comfortable shooting my Remington 30-06 at 400+ yards…I thought I could get closer. But, after moving like snails out-of his sight, he jumped and whirled away from us, only to be seen a week later. Needless to say, he’s still out there. My brother insists it was more like 300 yards…I guess we’ll agree to disagree. I could have used his 300 Winchester Magnum, but I have a thing about using my own firearm. Maybe a record book wall hanger in camp would have changed my mind.
We hunted hard for three more days and I passed up numerous good sized bucks knowing that with the rut in full swing, the big boys were bound to show up. Knowing I had an elk tag and some of the boys had 300 head of elk pegged on a mountain, I was getting impatient again. On this particular morning I was hunting with good friend Mark Mitchell. We walked five miles into the easement and found ourselves tired after a good morning hunt.
On the way back to the trucks we headed through the top of a bowl that we had seen nice bucks around earlier in the week. We glassed the brush and serviceberry for bedded-down deer, with nothing to find. Halfway down the bowl we caught movement in the same patch of brush. I shifted to a rock to get a good rest and gauged the distance. All of the sudden the hillside started moving and a nice tall, yet narrow, buck lead the escape. I asked Mark what he thought and he remarked “Nice buck…Shoot him!”. As most mule deer do, he paused to look at me. I settled on what I thought was the right spot and hammered down. MISS! No way! The buck trotted to the top of the ridge and before he crested he hesitated for a second. This time I wouldn’t miss! The gun fired and the buck went down.
Basket Buck. That was his name. With tall forks and a narrow spread, he was unique and different. Luckily three more buddies, Dan Quiarte, Danny Casey and Doug Goodlow, dropped by to help drag the deer out. Once we got to the trail, we used a game cart that we had hidden that morning to take the deer back to the truck, just over two miles away.
Back at camp, we lined up the trophies and were happy with the success. With 18 bucks in all, we were 90% successful, with the two that didn’t fill their tags passing up decent bucks. Yes we had some smaller forked horns, but more than ten were big deer, with two being 5x5’s and one a massive old 4x4. In the end, being with the family and friends was irreplaceable. The land was awesome, the deer plentiful and the good times were abundant. I hope you get to experience a Western Mule Deer hunt, whether it’s with a couple guys or a super camp like Ahshee Outfitters. Until next time, hunt hard, shoot straight, and waste nothing.