Mule Deer Bonanza!
Stalking prairieland mulies with master guide Duane Nelson is a rewarding experience!
Note From Chuck: The following story details my hunt for a high-horned Alberta mule deer in the early 2000’s. I do not bowhunt with outfitters unless legally required, but my friend Duane Nelson is a “hands-off” kind of guy who lets me stalk ahead as I would on a non-guided hunt. Duane still guides mule deer archers today, I can recommend him to anyone who wants a giant Canadian buck.
Four 5x5 bucks fed above me barely 30 yards away. I could see their antlers and the outline of their bodies through the grass. But I couldn’t get a clear look at the one I was after. As usual, the big boy was in the rear.
I glanced at Duane Nelson and shrugged. My friend was behind me on another hilltop. Like all great bowhunting guides, Duane was hanging back to let me make the final stalk.
The bucks edged toward me around the brow of a hill. I crouched lower, the 10X binocular glued to my eyes.
Suddenly, the biggest buck strolled into crystal-clear view. His 5x5 rack glittered like the mouth of hell in the autumn sunlight, a massive and long-beamed work of art. The forks were deep, the brow tines more than three inches long. But there was a problem. The right main beam was short, ending abruptly only six inches beyond the front fork. I relaxed. The potentially 180-inch buck would score no more than 165 or 170. That’s 20 or 25 inches above the archer’s record-book minimum, but I believed I could do even better during the six-day hunt.
Seconds later, the wind faltered and fanned the back of my neck. The bucks vanished like smoke in a nearby ravine.
What an amazing place to bowhunt mule deer! Where else could an archer pass up a 170-inch 5x5 at 25 yards? As I trudged back to Duane, I thanked my lucky stars.
I’ve known Duane Nelson for over 35 years. This famous Canadian outfitter personally guided me to my first Dall sheep and first mountain caribou in 1985. We quickly became friends. Since then, I have taken another sheep, two moose, several caribou, and several mule deer with Duane. We hunt together like a well-oiled machine.
Duane sold his N.W.T. outfitting concession a few years back. Now he concentrates on big whitetails and big mule deer near his home in southern Alberta. He has these animals wired, with access to vast tracts of private and public land.
My first hunting day proved this in spades. Shortly after dawn on October 6, we peeked over a hill and spotted two terrific bucks. One was a straight-up 5x5—a deer in the 170 class. The other was considerably bigger. The rack was not particularly wide, but it did stretch to the deer’s 24-inch ear tips. The main frame was breathtaking, with deep double forks on each side plus brow tines four to five inches long. And then there were the extra points…one on the left and three on the right. One “kicker” tine forked at the tip and expanded the outside spread to 27 or 28 inches.
“Let’s look around today,” Duane suggested as I ogled the deer from 125 yards. “We can probably find this guy again if you decide you like him.”
I had already decided that. The buck would gross-score more than 190…maybe a lot more. It’s tough to judge non-typicals. But Duane had told me this was a superior antler year, with excellent spring rain and lots of nutritious feed. That meant we might find an even bigger buck. The prairie grass was above my waist in places—the tallest I’d ever seen. Reluctantly, I followed my guide back to his pickup.
The country around us was guaranteed to astonish and intimidate an average eastern whitetail hunter. There was not one tree in miles, and the tallest bushes were barely up to my knees. At a glance, the yellow-grass prairie seemed almost featureless, but I knew that was deceptive. Abrupt ravines sliced the land, providing deer with shade and protection from the wind. The habitat was wide-open but superb for careful stalking, with ups and downs almost everywhere.
Except on overcast and chilly days, Alberta mule deer seek out cut banks and gorges for protection from the searing sun. When you find them, you can stalk them all day long. The trick is moving around and glassing from high hills for the telltale glint of an antler or the movement of an ear flicking flies.
As I discovered later that day, the tall grass was a curse and a godsend rolled into one. Wind was gusting between periods of dead calm. When breezes blew, the grass rustled loudly and covered my walking noise. When air currents died, the softest footfall sounded like Rice Crispies covered with milk.
By stop-and-go sneaking to coincide with wind, I got close to the four deer mentioned at the start of this story. It was now late afternoon, and we had seen more than two dozen mulie bucks. By far the largest was the 6x8 we had walked away from near sunrise.
“I want that non-typical deer,” I told Duane as we drove back to camp after dark. “Let’s look for him tomorrow.”
I love hunting Alberta badlands for mule deer. With light-colored camouflage like Advantage or Realtree Xtra Gray, a bowhunter can blend in reasonably well. But the main key is keeping solid ground and foliage between you and deer. Crawling and crouching are the norm. You can often work the angles of terrain and slip in close.
“Close” on prairie mule deer is a relative term. Alberta outfitters like Duane stress the need for longer-range shooting, and insist their clients practice out of 40 or 50 yards. Getting that close is complicated by other deer in the area—something you can expect during the October archery season. Bucks hang in bachelor bunches at this time of year—watchful groups of two or more males. All those eyes, ears, and noses can require shots beyond 20 or 25 yards unless you get lucky and encounter the biggest buck on your side of the herd.
Less than ten minutes after first light the following day, Duane and I dropped to our bellies as huge antlers rose above a nearby knoll. It was the giant 6x8, within half a mile of where he’d been the morning before.
This time, the buck had six smaller companions. All were decent 5x5 deer, but none held a candle to him. We buried our noses in the grass and waited till the animals fed out of sight.
What followed was a four-hour game of cat-and-mouse. The bucks bedded on a hillside near sunrise, scattered over half an acre and facing seven separate directions. Typical mule deer behavior. I crawled, crawled, and crawled some more. Just as I reached a hollow 50 yards from the nearest deer, the bucks decided to move. They rose, stretched, and lined out across a yellow-grass flat. Within minutes they were half a mile away.
“Those deer are headed for a deep ravine,” Duane told me. “They’ll grab a drink of water and lie down in the shade for the rest of the day.”
Fortunately, my trusty guide knew exactly where that ravine was. We hustled crosswind and peeked past a hill just as the last buck disappeared over a bank of yellow clay.
Minutes later, I raised an eyeball above a clump of grass. All seven bucks were feeding above a dirt bank along an abrupt draw that knifed through the grassland. One by one, they moseyed downward between sheer walls of clay. The big 6x8 was last in line.
I was up and moving the instant the monster buck stepped out of sight. A side ravine sliced toward the place where the bucks had disappeared. I tiptoed along the bottom with a stiff wind in my face. The tall grass around me crackled and popped. It was a perfect stalking situation.
Antler tips appeared 20 yards in front of me. A small 5x5 fed out below a knob.
Seconds later, another buck stepped into view 75 yards away. A so-so specimen.
And then it happened. Massive, deep-forked antlers appeared above the grass. Extra tines jutted this way and that. I grabbed my laser rangefinder and planted the reticule on the rack. Fifty-five yards exactly.
I drew the 74-pound Reflex compound bow as the big deer waded through waist-deep grass and stopped on a bare clay bank. My 50-yard sight pin settled on his backline, and the Easton arrow flickered maliciously through shadow and sunlight.
A split-instant later, the broadhead thumped like a fist on a bongo drum. Six bucks exploded from the ravine and scattered like giant quail. The seventh staggered and dropped, an arrow through both lungs!
Soon, Duane and I were admiring my best-ever mule deer at that time. The magnificent buck was a fooler, with longer tines and greater mass than we had suspected. The gross score was 209-4/8, the net score 204-2/8. Even years later, I’m still on Cloud Nine over that deer.
For adventures with massive prairie mule deer and the chance for a genuine whopper, I can highly recommend this experience. Duane Nelson books hunts for the October archery season and the November rifle season. Call Milk River Outfitters at (403) 626-3279 or (403)331-9086. Duane can also be reached through his firstname.lastname@example.org