A Youngster’s Mule Deer Adventure

I grew up in a small Idaho farm town.  I grew up enjoying wildlife.  In the early days, I hunted English sparrows with a single shot BB gun I borrowed from my grandparants who lived only a couple of blocks away.  Some of our neighbors hunted for larger game  in the nearby mountains during the fall season.  I envied them!  Although there were undoubtedly larger game in the national forest further up the nearby canyon, I can never remember spotting elk or moose in those early days.  The latter are much more plentiful and visible today.  In those days, my summer jobs were boring enough—getting up, milking several cows, delivering about 30 daily newspapers on my faithful palomino horse Bonnie, trailing the cows to the field pasture about two miles away, hoeing weeds in the garden or going out to the fields and helping my dad with ditching.  Digging out heavy sod from the ditches has to be the hardest work in the whole world—I disliked it, but in later life came to realize that here it was where I truly learned the meaning of work!  How I looked forward to being old enough to hunt!

In October, when many of the year’s crops were already safely tucked away for winter, mule deer season opened.  The air was nippy by then and the ground was sometimes covered by frost in the early mornings and sometimes snow.  However, on most days the sun warmed things up, making it somewhat pleasant.  When I was finally 14, I purchased a hunting license.  I had no rifle of my own nor did my dad who was constantly working to support our family of nine.  So, I borrowed a 30-30 from a clerk at a neighboring hardware store in the next town over.  With my saved newspaper money, I purchased a box of twenty 30-30 shells.  I found an old red sweatshirt and I was ready to go!

One brisk October morning, Dad gave me a ride up the nearby canyon into the national forest. The area was mountainous with abundant pine and quaking aspen trees.  Deciding to go south, I crossed the creek by balancing on a log and walked slowly up a nearby mountainous “hollow” (or draw or ravine).  There was still frost on the grass and small shrubs.  The steep trail was difficult to negotiate as there were many larger rocks that had to be climbed over, walked in between or completely detoured around.  Fallen trees further challenged me.  After about an hour and a half or so of climbing, the draw opened up at the top into a plateau-like sagebrush covered flat bordered by pines.

I walked through part of the flat, sometimes through mud, up one side of another draw, climbing through pines in an easterly direction.  There were occasional  larger rocks and a stray sunflower, now with most or all of  the bright yellow petals gone with only the black seed head remaining.  Every now and then I pulled one of the seed heads from its stem and tossed it absently to the side.  Though I tried to be very quiet, no deer were heard or seen, although there were plenty of tracks.  By now, the sun had burned off most of the preceding night’s frost, but the ground was dry for the most part.  After another half hour, the hollow, which I later found was called the Overland Trail, crested on a ridge and dropped down into another draw oriented downhill and to the east.  Seeing nothing, I sat down on a smooth limestone rock and rested awhile, perhaps even dozing a bit.  Awhile later, I pricked up my ears as I thought I heard something walking through an area almost completely covered with rocks several hundred yards to the north, “Clip clop, Clip clop.”  I followed the sound with my ears the best I could even though the tree cover masked whatever was making the noise.  Now standing up and looking around me, again, in a few moments, I looked downhill from where I had just climbed.  There I saw two huge mule deer bucks, both with large antlers ambling parallel to the my ridgetop along the forested hillside towards the South probably about 100 yards away.

I had heard seasoned hunters  say that when one is about to shoot at his first deer, a severe case of “buck fever” often occurs; that is, one begins to shake with excitement to the extent of not being able to shoot accurately.  This time, such was not the case with me, however.  I cocked the old rifle by pulling back on the external hammer, sighted through the iron sights at one of the bucks and shot.   I had heard from seasoned hunters that when one is shooting downhill, the trajectory of the bullet tends to be a bit high and when shooting uphill, one needed to shoot a little high.  Did I miss?  I hurridly worked the lever to throw another bullet into the chamber of the old 30-30.   I stood perfectly still, as one of the bucks came running uphill almost directly towards me.   Apparently the sound of the shot alarmed him to the point that making a fast exit was quite important.  The only problem he had was that he had no idea where the shot originated.  As the buck ran closer and closer, I aimed and finally pulled the trigger from a distance of a mere 13 paces—and the buck dropped.  Checking to verify that my shot had been well placed—I found that it was.

Then, I did the necessary cleaning and gutting.  I used my hunting knife that I had proudly buckled on in front of my siblings earlier in the day.   I was by this time quite thrilled of getting my first deer.  I still don’t know where the time went, but it was late afternoon by the time I convinced myself that I couldn’t drag the large 150 pound plus animal down the mountain by myself.  It was very heavy.  So, I retraced my steps down the  draw to the  ravine to the canyon road and then walked or hitched a ride down the  the seven miles of dirt and graveled road to my home, arriving about 6 p.m.  I excitedly told my dad, and after a fast meal, the two of us returned up the canyon, hiking to the deer just as darkness closed in on us.  We cut the deer in half and then made the huge mistake of attempting to drag it directly down White Rock Mountain to our vehicle in the canyon below.  The mountain was well named, as there were huge white rocks twice the size of a man scattered along its sides.  We struggled with that half deer, handing it back and forth as one would clmib through through a tight place or steep place past the huge boulders in pitch black darkness.  After several hours of struggling, we finally reached the bottom of the mountain.  At least we were warm in the bitter October breeze due to our exertions.  We arrived home about midnight.  I was so tired that Dad had to milk the cows.

The next day, I related our story to a good family friend.  He instructed me to saddle up my horse, bonnie, and together with his horse loaded in his stock truck, we drove to way further up the canyon than I had been the day before.   We then rode our horses up a fairly good zig zag trail to reach the top which turned into the same flat as I had encountered before, though further west.  I was pretty worried about being able to locate my deer. What would I do if I couldn’t find it?  But, fortunately, I was able to locate it.  We loaded it onto my horse and we were able to arrive home in good time.  In the East, my buck would be an “Eight Pointer;” however, in the West, it was a “Four Pointer.”

For many years, those antlers with four forks on either side graced my bedroom’s wall in the second floor of our old Idaho brick farmhouse.

About Mule Deer or Black Tailed Deer

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are readily identified by their large, independently twitching ears.  They are usually shades of brown with some white in coloration.  They are heavier in build than are their eastern White Tailed Deer relatives.  Mule deer are primarily found west of the Mississippi River in North America, while White Tails are common in the East.  There are extensive areas of distribution overlap between the two species.  Mating season occurs in late fall.  One to three fawns are born, the average being two.   Does take exceptionally good care of their young for almost a year.  They often secrete their fawns and return at long intervals to nurse them.   Bucks tend to remain in groups during the winters.  Mule deer are active at dawn, evening and even during the night time.  They feed on browse, shrubs, and bushes.  They prefer broken country, partially wooded terrain and are rarely seen in swampy area.