Sometimes you can have the best of both hunting worlds.
For many Easterners, shooting a mule deer is a lifetime goal. You save your money until you can finally afford that once-in-a-lifetime Western hunt. Weeks of searching the Internet, talking with outfitters and interviewing references eventually lead to a reputable enterprise. You book the hunt, make all the travel arrangements and then watch the calendar.
The fateful day finally arrives, and your dream becomes a reality. Last night’s sleep was fitful, filled with visions of high-racked muleys. The sun rises on some of the most rugged, yet most beautiful country in North America — a panoramic scene replete with rolling prairie, brush-choked draws and distant snow-capped peaks. You draw in a deep breath of cold air and then begin glassing miles of seemingly deserted landscape.
“Down there,” your guide says, pointing toward a densely vegetated river bottom 200 yards distant. Even with 10x binoculars, it takes your Eastern eyes several minutes to spot them: three tawny shapes moving through the cottonwoods. You catch a glimpse of antler and quickly raise your rifle as they head toward an opening. This is it. It’s really going to happen.
Out he steps, a mature buck with massive shoulders and heavy, high antlers. “Whitetail.” Your guide’s word stabs through you like a cold steel blade, sending you into an emotional panic. You’ve spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles to tag a trophy mule deer, yet there stands the most remarkable white-tailed buck you’ve ever laid eyes on. And in your pocket you hold only one deer tag.
It’s a quandary that’s not all that unusual, and it’s becoming more common as whitetails continue to expand their range farther into that of their black-capped, larger-eared cousins. What would you do under those circumstances? Take the whitetail or wait for a muley? Before you answer, consider there is a third alternative.
In several states, you can do both. Though it was not necessarily intentional, I ended up on two hunts last year where I had both the ways and the means to take whitetails AND mule deer.
My first hunt took place in Nebraska. All things considered, the Cornhusker State just might be the most overlooked and underrated deer hunting state west of the Mississippi. The western part of the state contains dense populations of both whitetails and mule deer. The generally light hunting pressure and overwhelming abundance of agriculture allow bucks to reach maturity. Best of all, you can purchase buck tags that allow you to take both a whitetail and a mule deer in the same season. Depending on where you go, it’s conceivable you could take both on the same hunt. We did.
Shoulda Known Better
My final destination was North Platte, where I’d be hunting with Scott Denny of Table Mountain Outfitters. Dustin “Shed” Whitacre, who was to be my hunting partner, picked me up at the airport, and we rolled into camp well after dark. We met the other hunters, including Remington product manager John Fink, who had arranged for me to use a Remington Model 700 Classic chambered in .30-06.
“Is it on?” I asked, tentative about using a new and unfamiliar gun.
“It was when I put it in the case,” he replied. “I personally fired every rifle before I packed and shipped them.”
I trusted John but still had a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. A lot can happen in transit. Admittedly, I knew better. But I was anxious to get in the field, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of wasting the first morning’s hunt at the target range.
We woke the next morning to cold wind and blowing snow. After a quick breakfast, Shed, our two guides, Justin Conner and Andrey Trinidad, and I piled in the truck and headed off to a local ranch. On the way, Shed graciously offered to let me take the first shot, a gesture that would ultimately pay off in spades — for him.
Being Easterners, our first priority was mule deer, and spot-and-stalk is the preferred technique. We started by walking and glassing. However, the gusty winds and sometimes blinding snow quickly forced us back into the truck for a windshield tour of the ranch.
The landscape was deceptive. At first, it seemed relatively flat and mundane, rolling prairie generously interspersed with big — make that huge — cornfields. You couldn’t see it from a distance, but as you neared the edge, the land dropped suddenly into deep, steep-sided draws. And while the flats were open grass and cropland, the draws were choked with brush.
Weather kept the deer hunkered down, and the morning passed relatively slowly except for one minor mishap. In my defense, I was out of breath and my heart was racing from excitement. I had less than a heartbeat to draw a bead and fire. It was uphill, a long shot and with a strong crosswind. All right, I choked. And I missed.
I figured I was done for the day, maybe the week, but my first shot at redemption came later that afternoon. We were in the truck, driving the draws, when Justin slammed on the brakes and looked at me. “It’s a no-doubt for-sure shooter,” he said.
“Where?” I responded excitedly.
He seemed so casual that I almost didn’t believe him, until he backed up the truck 100 feet and pointed up the hill. “There.”
It took me a minute to find the bedded buck, but when I did, there was no question. All the same, any doubt was erased when my guide said, “It’s the biggest buck I’ve ever seen on this ranch.” Nothing like putting a little pressure on me.
The buck was a good 600 yards away and two draws over. Even if we could cross one draw and get on the intervening ridge, he’d still be pushing 300 yards. For an Easterner like me, used to sub-100-yard shots, that was like a mile. And the borrowed gun gave me even less confidence. Somehow, we had to get closer.
There was barely enough cover along the spine of the ridge to conceal our approach if we crawled. Meanwhile, Shed covered the back door, taking up a strategic position at the bottom of the draw in case the deer got by us. We ran out of cover at 350 yards. I can’t tell you what happened next, except that I missed again, and I watched in despair as the huge 4x4 trotted down the draw.
Then, a ray of hope, a shot in the distance, followed by another and the unmistakable whump of a high-powered bullet slamming into the buck’s thick chest. At least the back-up plan worked. It took us a good 10 minutes to make our way down to Shed, who was now standing, with an ear-to-ear grin, over the fallen buck. I later made good on my third opportunity of the day, taking a smaller 4x4.
Nebraska Part II
With mule deer out of the way, we shifted our attention to the many whitetails on the ranch and relocated from the brushy draws to the wooded bottomlands astride crop fields. We also traded spot-and-stalk hunting for drives. It was on our second attempt that I got my first shot.
I was set up at the head of a strip of timber, lying at the base of a several-hundred-acre cornfield. This time I took the low end and Shed took the top. Whether they were moved out by the drivers or merely of their own volition I’ll never know, but I heard the buck before I saw him.
“That sounded like a grunt,” I thought. Even through the incessant prairie wind, I heard it. Looking back over my shoulder, I eased up to a kneeling position, which gave me just enough height to see over the tall grass. There he was, an 8-pointer dogging a doe across a recently-cut soybean field. She ran first toward Shed, then back toward the woodlot, then lined straight out and directly toward me with her suitor in hot pursuit.
I’m not one to advocate a running shot, but when it feels right, you know it. I found the buck in my scope, moved ahead of his shoulder and squeezed. He faltered in mid-air. His legs buckled when they hit the ground, and he skidded forward across the stubble. Buck number 2 was down. Not to be outdone, Shed put the sneak on a monster 9-pointer that evening, bringing a very successful conclusion to our hunt.
It was three weeks later and mule deer were the farthest thing from my mind as we arrived on the Harkins Ranch in the Trans Pecos region of southwest Texas. My hunting partner on this trip would be good friend C.J. Davis, who manages the Nikon Sport Optics account for Chevalier advertising. We don’t often take much, but C.J. and I still manage to have a good time on every hunt we share, and this would be no exception.
From a distance, it all looks the same: low rolling hills freckled with cedar. Once you step off the road and into the landscape, it changes. The terrain becomes steeper and the draws deeper. It becomes easier to understand how you could hide a pile of deer in this seemingly barren environment.
The deer, it turned out, were doing a good job of hiding on their own. We saw plenty of small ones, but big whitetails were eluding us. It might not have been so bad if we weren’t seeing trophy-class muleys on a regular basis. They were fair game and in season, but, unfortunately, not part of our hunt package.
Then we got a bit of good news. It was the third morning when guide Shane Jahn mentioned the ranch had some mature 2x2s that needed to be culled. “Sign me up,” I eagerly volunteered. I wasn’t too proud to settle for a management muley.
We started the morning in a pair of tripod stands waiting for whitetails, but nothing decent showed. We took a walk around, and it wasn’t long before we crossed paths with a candidate. I tried to remain dignified as I anxiously queried Shane about the buck’s shootability. “Yup. You can shoot that one,” he said. Goody!
It was as if the buck heard us, for no sooner had the words left Shane’s mouth when it turned and started straight away. It wasn’t even a fast walk, just deliberate and steady enough to keep increasing the distance between us without offering a shot. We had to head him off.
Shane and I made a quick dash for cover and then made a wide arc around where we anticipated the buck was headed. The first try fell short as we saw him disappear into a copse of taller cedars. We made a wider arc but lost our bearing on the deer in the process. We figured he must be close, but not nearly as close as he was.
Stepping around a thick tangle of brush, I almost ran into the buck. Fortunately, I saw him first, freezing until his vision was obscured. I raised my rifle and waited for him to step forward and made the bow-range shot easily.
C.J. bagged his cull the next day, and we each tagged whitetail management bucks. The big boys eluded us, though I passed up what would have been a 130-incher (respectable for southwest Texas) had he not broken off the end of his right main beam.
Next . . .
I look forward to one day making another trip out West. Before I do, however, I’ll do my homework. Most Western states that have muleys and whitetails allow you to take one or the other.
Nebraska and Texas allow hunters to take one of each. (Alberta and British Columbia also allow hunters to take more than one buck, and both species). And if you pick the right spot, you can find both in quantity and quality. Then you just have to shoot straight.
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This article was published in the November 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.