Since moving from Alaska to Washington in 2017, a mule deer buck--any mule deer buck--has become my white whale. Having filled the freeze pretty reliably with caribou every year in Alaska, I want to get deer figured out down here. However, I've had trouble finding legal bucks on public land, in the semi-open country I want to hunt, without a lot of other hunters during rifle season. Seeking more options, I tried neighboring Idaho in 2019.
I bet there were some little trout in this thing, but I wasn't equipped to fish.
Having never been to the region I planned to hunt before, I "e-scouted" fairly extensively using Google Earth, OnX, and online data from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. I should have talked to some locals, too. People are even more tight-lipped about good mule deer hunting spots than they are about big brown trout, but asking the right questions (i.e. not
"Where should I go?") usually draws out helpful information, and it can at least rule out some bad ideas. I could have used that. Instead, based on my electronic research, I drove to Idaho with three plans.
Plan A was to hunt a fairly recent burn, because burns create a lot of fresh new growth and feed for deer and elk. I had e-scouted a drainage where I could hike a few miles in and a thousand feet up to a good overlook up a basin with no official trail (and an unofficial trail criss-crossed with blown-down trees). The evening before opening day, I ascended the main valley and split off up a side drainage to climb to the overlook.
A small cloud dropped snow flurries and then moved out of the way so the sun would light them up.
An impressive display of the forces of nature: the fire killed these trees, and an avalanche knocked them all down into the gully.
My Tarptent Bowfin 2 is nice for summer fishing trips, but when the temperature dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, I had regrets. It's hard to tension just right, especially on rocky ground where you can't place a stake just anywhere. Parts of the rain fly sag with an imperfect pitch, and I ended up scraping frost with my head anytime I sat up.
The night before opening day was very
cold for this time of year and revealed the shortcomings of my lightweight, summertime tent. However, I had the other gear to stay safe under those conditions, and I was ready at first light to look for deer.
Set up for glassing.
The first lesson this place reinforced was that burns are way less open than they look on Google Earth, and what looks like a bare overlook can be easily blocked by trees. Still, I was able to shift the spotting scope around and find windows to good views.
The view I came for.
Set up for glassing.
Primary view for the morning.
I spent (Spent: The wing position of many aquatic insects when they fall on the water after mating. The wings of both sides lay flat on the water. The word may be used to describe insects with their wings in that position, as well as the position itself.)
all morning behind the binoculars and spotting scope and only saw two deer, both too briefly to tell if they were bucks. Herds of elk on distant ridges provided more entertainment. Given the cold and lack of deer, I canceled my elaborate plan to circle through the upper end of this drainage and down a neighboring one. Instead, I hiked out (spotting one more deer along the way).
I reached the road and was driving back toward civilization near dusk when something caught my eye on a grassy, sunlit hillside about 400 yards up a valley. I pulled over and my binos revealed several mule deer, although I couldn't tell if any were bucks. I raced up the valley through the trees to get a better look, and I ended up catching several views of mule deer butts receding around the corner. They never spooked, just fed out of view until I ran out of legal shooting light.
The failure of my first backpack hunting plan, along with seeing deer from the road, led to scrapping my other e-scouted plans as well. It would be good to spend a couple nights in the car, and I clearly needed to get a feel for the land--and find areas with deer--before committing to multiple nights in the backcountry again. That night I stayed until closing time at a restaurant with wifi, rethinking what to do.