The High Country Lifer | Advanced Backcountry Bucks
By Brian Barney
Nearly every western state holds huge, breath-taking mountains with populations of mule deer. The mountains guard their big mule deer with huge peaks, vast wilderness and gnarly cliffs. These big bucks migrate to the high-country for a few months each year. Archery seasons allow us to hunt these bucks during this early season where they are most vulnerable.
Bucks are in summer mode and spend a lot of time feeding in high open basins. The bucks have a lax attitude but this by no means makes it easy. Most likely you are going to have to live out of a backpack for days, water will be scarce and your body will be eating itself from all the calories burned. Then you have to know when to make the right moves and pull it all together in close range of one of the wariest critters in the West. High-country muley hunting offers a chance at these big bucks and guarantees an adventurous hunt.
On a backcountry muley hunt your desire to succeed will be tested. It takes grueling miles packing all your gear and water, day in and day out. Thousands of feet gained and lost are mandatory. Your back will be sore and legs tired. Bucks can be tough to locate and they have a knack for sensing danger. Then stack dangerous, steep terrain and high-country lightning storms on that – it will have you questioning if it’s all worth it. I can tell you it almost always is. It may not be fun all the time but the thrill of the stalk and sense of adventure the backcountry gives you stays long after the hunt. It’s the type of fun that you have to work for, where everything is earned.
I would say my biggest asset for consistently harvesting trophy bucks is my mindset. I believe I will locate another buck and I believe I can stalk into close range and execute my shot. I have been on plenty of tough hunts with the deck stacked against me. I kept believing and continued doing everything possible to get another stalk or locate another buck. More times than not that effort paid off with a big muley. Keep hunting hard and keep the faith, success is just in the next basin.
The start to any great hunt is having a plan. Decide the mountain range you want to hunt and start pouring over maps and Google Earth. Highlight roads, trails and access points. Find good high-country basins with that good green grass. While using Google Earth there is a timeline where you can cycle through different satellite images taken at different times. They are taken in different years in different months. Find the images where everything is really green and then look for the highest, gnarliest basins. Look at different images to tell where the big snow drifts sit. Bucks seek out the neon green feed that a melting snowdrift creates in a high-country basin.
Once I have a spot l am interested in, I then look at how I am going to hunt it. Every piece of mule deer country is different and there is not a one size fits all solution. Sometimes I like to work the ridge above where I think the mule deer are. Sometimes I like to be on the opposing hillside glassing across with a panoramic view. Other times I will be low on the feature or find a well-placed knob where I can look up into the high country. I would say the best advice is to find the best vantages that show you the best view of the country. Get the big picture of what’s going on, and then you can get closer. Bucks show themselves this time of year and if you are sitting somewhere with a good view, chances are you are going to see them.
Just in Case
When making your plan to secure the best vantage points, always be looking for the next spot. If the bucks are not there, where will you go next? What ridgeline or direction will you go? What will you look at next? These are the questions I go over when making a plan. Maps and Google Earth are great but bucks like where bucks like. I have found a bunch of good muley spots over the years that aren’t textbook along with just as many good-looking spots void of bucks. The key is having a backup plan, a next spot to walk, a next spot to glass.
Early in my hunting I would too often get focused on hunting one spot. I would study it and be so sure bucks would be there I would be planning my stalks. As you can imagine, sometimes I would get there and my map study ended up being a false prophecy. I would be overwhelmed not knowing what to do or where to go next. Now, I have a plan if the bucks are not there, I keep moving. I have connecting ridge lines and basins I will walk to. Worst case, I will have a backup plan to hike all my gear out to the truck and start over at a different trailhead. If the backup plan doesn’t work I have a backup plan for that, you get the idea.
Once I find a buck I want, I hunt him passive-aggressively. My wife would tell you I argue the same way but keep with me, this is different.
The aggressive part of the formula is, I am always looking for a play or stalk on the buck. I have tried to be ultra-patient watching a giant buck for days on end. Day in and day out waiting for him to make a mistake and I would get the perfect stalk. It just didn’t work out for me; I had to be more aggressive. After a few days I start second guessing what the perfect stalk is. If I play him too passive, I don’t get good plays or run out of days. I would rather play my hand hunting the buck. The truth is there is never a perfect stalk, just higher-percentage stalks. Things can always go wrong even with everything in your favor. I always think to myself, you can’t kill him through the spotting scope, make a move.
Every day I am going to do something whether it’s going for a stalk or setting up closer in striking distance or maybe setting up on his projected evening spot. The key here is to know when to pull back and knowing what you can get away with. I will never stalk recklessly. I know when a buck has a chance to see me and I know when a stalk is not possible. I will then pull back and watch and hope things change. That is the passive part of my passive-aggressive hunting. Along with that, I will patiently wait and watch in the morning trying to bed up a buck. This has always been high-percentage for me – hunting a bedded buck. I know where he is and can really take my time and stalk into range.
The Right Time
Typically, bucks will be feeding at first light or bedded in their feeding grounds. They will feed throughout the morning moving toward a bedding spot. This is your time to put your glass to work and locate a buck for the day. Once you find a buck you want to go after, keep your eyes on him. Know you can still continue to look around a little bit but remember these bucks can disappear into thin air. If you miss him bedding, it turns your chances into a low-percentage stalk until you can locate him again.
Watch your buck and around mid-morning he will choose a place to bed. Bucks choose to first bed in more open country while they have the cool morning air and may even be bedded in the direct rays of the sun. You have a couple choices here.
If it is late morning and you have good thermal winds coming up the hill, you have a good, high-percentage stalk. A buck can stay in this bed all day but typically he will get up again and feed to his next afternoon bed. A lot of times if I am a ways off, I will opt to wait and watch a buck. I will wait until he gets in his afternoon bed. This is a really high-percentage stalk. Bucks usually stay bedded for a while and as long as you do not get storms rolling in, you will have really good constant thermal winds. You get a lot of the variables of the stalk in your favor.
If I lose track of the buck, I never stalk in blindly. Again, I don’t want to stalk recklessly and in my mind it is low-percentage if you do not know the buck’s exact location. I will usually opt to get different vantage points to try and relocate the buck bedded or catch him changing beds. I will put myself within striking distance of the buck. Then when he comes out in the afternoon, I will have a play. If I have a good idea of the timber patch the buck beds in, I will get set up on where I think he will feed out. Know these setups are going all in with a chance you may spook the buck, so treat it like a stalk. Take your time and get to your set up. No extra movements or noise. Get tucked in a good spot and wait. In a perfect situation a big, velvet buck will feed out right where you are set up.
When you are making a stalk on a muley, you have to know when to slow down. Usually, you will start your stalk at a good pace to ensure the buck will be there when you get there. There may be spots throughout your stalk where you are exposed and have to slow down. The terrain on a stalk will dictate when you have to slow down but somewhere around a couple hundred yards, you need to start your slow, methodical approach. Keep to the shadows and move slow. Plan and monitor each foot fall to be silent. One saying that sums up a muley stalk is – when you think you are going slow enough, slow down.
I very rarely can shoot a buck in his bed and usually get a better shot when the buck stands up. I play this cat and mouse game very patiently and wait for the buck to make the final move. I will sneak into range and then wait out the buck. I have never had the – throw a rock and draw my bow trick work out. For me, practicing good patience kills the buck.
On that note, when you are going to get your shot at your big buck, exercise patience. For me the most common cause of a miss is when I rush my shot or shot sequence. I can remember my first trip to Colorado hunting high-country bucks. After a few days I put myself in the bucks. I had a huge typical buck I was chasing. I had made my way down a super steep avalanche chute to put myself inside 50 yards of the buck. I got set up and ranged some spots where I thought the buck would come. The buck got up and started feeding into my shooting lane. I had a tree ranged at 40 and as soon as he walked by the tree, my arrow was off. The arrow missed low and the buck of my dreams trotted off. The buck had walked below the tree and was actually more like 45. This buck had no idea I was there and was feeding oblivious right in front of me. I could have eaten a sandwich, then ranged the buck and killed him. Well maybe that’s a bit much but I had time on my side and should have gotten a good range and nailed that buck. For me the number one thing I am thinking on a big buck is, take my time and execute my shot.
Big mule deer don’t come easy, and tougher yet from the high-country. If you are one of the skilled hunters that have taken a mule deer with your bow in the backcountry; I tip my hat to you. I wait all year to match wits with bucks that call this gnarly high-country home. You learn what you are made of and come back a little changed from the adventure. You have survived days mountaineering in rugged country and hopefully gotten to test your skills against a big muley buck. Whether you killed or not, once you have experienced that, you are a high-country lifer.