On the first day that we decided to hunt a piece of public land about ten miles north of Upton, WY* we went straight to a spot where John had seen a group of does regularly. Just after sunrise they would feed out of the pine and cedar woods and on to the sagebrush flats, then cross a hill and feed back towards the trees in order to get back by the time they’d be ready to bed down for the day. Small details might change from day to day, but the essence of their daily feeding didn’t change much: they’d emerge from the woods at about the same place, feed out, then disappear back in to the woods at about the same place. When we arrived just after sunrise, we got out of the truck, walked about a half mile to a fence that bordered a piece of private land that was about one thousand yards across, and glassed. Within thirty seconds we found the group of does that John had seen there day after day for a couple of weeks. As a bonus there were two small bucks, a forkhorn and a spike, sniffing behind and chasing the does though a larger buck would almost certainly chase them away from this harem of does by the time they were in estrous. They were just where they should be, but they were on private land. We could see public land every direction we looked, but these deer had been pressured during the hunting season and used this one strip of private land as a sanctuary. It was their island of relative safety in a sea of blaze orange clad predators. Except that they didn’t exclusively use private property. There was a patch of land formed by an awkward corner of unmarked property boundaries that was public, and these deer either had to pass over this patch in order to get to the safety of privately owned grass land, or else they hadn’t been overly pressured by hunters this far from the road. This patch of land is where we wanted to set up on them. We knew where they were bedding down, we’d actually watched them disappear in to the woods, and we knew their routine and that at about two o’clock, they’d do it again. We just had to be on the right spot at the right time and we’d put ourselves in the right position to see the 5×5 buck that John had seen with them on two previous occasions. This time of year we knew he wouldn’t be far off.
After we put that group to bed we did some still hunting through a patch of woods a couple of miles away, but that was mostly so we could occupy ourselves for three or four hours waiting for those does to come back out. We saw lots of sign. Tracks were everywhere, though we didn’t know exactly how fresh. We also saw numerous scrapes and heavily used game trails, but we didn’t see any deer. A rifle shot cracked off fairly close, and we theorized that perhaps we had pushed a buck out towards another hunter we didn’t know was there, though we would never be sure. We tried rattling for a bit, which is a lot more hit-or-miss with mule deer than with whitetails, but to no avail. In fact, the only living things we saw were an owl we had spooked from his tree, and a rather large cottontail rabbit that we snuck to within just a few yards before he knew we were there. We felt like we were being slow and quiet enough, but we never did see a deer in those woods.
When we arrived back to where we would hike in towards where we knew those does would come out of the woods we knew we had a bit of a walk. It wasn’t too far, perhaps a mile or a mile and a quarter, but it was likely much further than your average hunter goes off the road. Most of the other hunters we saw never went further than just a few yards from the road, and these deer had been keeping a pretty steady schedule, so we felt reasonably sure that hunters hadn’t been messing with them, or at least not too much. We knew where we wanted to be so we made a pretty direct path in that direction. But when we got there something wasn’t right. We had never seen this spot except from a distance through binoculars, and there wasn’t a single useful spot we could use for cover. Every bush and shrub in a decent spot was either on the wrong side of a hill or else in a small bowl making it impossible to use them for cover. We just couldn’t see the spot we needed to see. So we decided to get a bit closer to the property border and see if there might be a spot there. Nope. Knowing those deer would come filing out of the woods at any moment, I suggested we get on top of a hill that was much closer to the woods than we really wanted to be. The woods where the deer bedded were on private property, and this hill was literally in a corner of invisible property lines that we could only navigate via GPS.
As we started to crest that hill I looked over to see if the deer had come out yet, and BAM! We had stumbled right on top of them. They were less than twenty yards from where I was and I had no cover. I was in the open, completely exposed. We had the wind in our favor, and they hadn’t yet seen us until I whispered to John “deer, deer.” At that, as if the scene had been choreographed, every single deer in sight turned its head and stared right at me. I had been busted. I thought I had blown them out, ruining the hunt, but then I remembered something that I had read more than once in the very excellent The Complete Guide to Mule Deer Hunting: tactics and strategies for success: when a mule deer spots you, don’t move behind cover, but stand as still as possible. Mule deer have evolved to have fantastic eyesight. It only makes sense when so much of the habitat that helped dictate their evolutionary path is open plains. But their eyesight is best at seeing movement, not shapes or colors. And so despite every instinct I had telling me to get down or try and find a tree or bush, I stood perfectly still, only moving my eyes. Then the most wonderful thing happened.
Though those deer knew something was amiss, they didn’t spook. I had expected them to pronk off back towards the woods, but instead they simply stared. Then they stared some more until it felt as though they were gauging my soul. And after they had stared at me for a couple of minutes, they kept going about their business of eating grass. Here I was just a few yards away from twelve muley does and fawns, and one small buck who knew I was there, and they didn’t seem to be overly bothered by it. There was always at least two or three sets of eyes bearing down on me with their huge ears positioned to hear any peep I might make, but I had fooled them. They had accepted me as another part of their environment. In that moment I had learned something that I was taught.
As I stood there still as a post, my eyes scanning the landscape looking for the buck we thought would be close by, I kept noticing this feeling of wonder that I had. I was not only having an encounter with a whole group of deer, but I was actively interacting with them. They were aware of every twitch and noise I made, and for just over ten minutes they allowed me to share the same space. They wanted to be afraid of me, there was never a moment during that time when at least two deer weren’t looking at me, and they were obviously twitchy, but I hadn’t done anything yet to provoke them in to bolting. Until I did.
After ten minutes of standing still, holding a pose in between steps on uneven ground, I started to ache badly in my left hip. I had to move, to shift my weight. When I finally moved, every single deer looked at me again, their ears splayed out horizontal listening for the smallest sound. The forkhorn buck, noticeably larger than the does even though he was only two and a half years old, inching towards me, trying to comprehend some facet of what I was, stopped at twenty yards, his eyes looking directly at me and mine at him. Something about that moment finally made that buck feel uneasy. He wasn’t in any danger from me, I was looking for a more mature deer, though he certainly felt as if he were. In that instant he snorted loudly, and in the next the deer were gone, stotting towards the woods, out of sight in just a few seconds.
I never did see the buck we hoped might be there, and with the awareness of those deer heightened, he probably wouldn’t have come out even if he was nearby. Not all hunts end with an animal on the ground. I my experience, most haven’t. And even if you do manage to kill an animal, it’s just as often not the animal you originally set out to kill, having had to compromise for one reason or else another. But through a direct, prolonged interaction with multiple mule deer – does, fawns, and a lone buck – I learned something about how they behave. I know that a trot, even one away, doesn’t show the desire to run; that whether there was a large buck nearby or not, the small buck I could see had control over those does, at least in that final moment. I know that a group of feeding mule deer will tolerate my presence, even within just a few dozen yards, if I remain still and quiet. And I can’t help but feel pretty good knowing that gaining this knowledge through direct experience is just as good for my future as a hunter as having had shot the deer I was looking for. We didn’t mean to so closely run in to that group of deer. It was a mistake, an accident. But it was a fortunate one.
* It was actually a patchwork of different sorts of public land pieced together (National Grassland, Wyoming state land, and National Forest Service land) to form a mostly contiguous public access area. There was also, however, a large block of private land, much of it without a fence or any other kind of boundary marker, that interrupted public access continuity and made hunting these deer particularly difficult.