Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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A primer for Western plains deer hunting

Steve Heiting with a Western mule deer buck. The buck had been bedded on the far side of a ravine. (Photos by Kevin Schmidt)

How far the mule deer buck stood from the rifle muzzle was anybody’s guess, because holding my rangefinder steady in the 25-mph crosswind was impossible. Even if the buck was within range, I still couldn’t take the shot because it was bedded slightly below the top of a ravine, and sagebrush was in the way. I had to find a better position.

But how? I was exposed on a sagebrush flat, and while binoculars revealed the buck was looking away, it would surely see me at some point. The only hope was to continue my route, which eventually would put me directly upwind of the buck, but reduce the effects of the crosswind. I hoped the indirect path would cause the buck to think I was merely passing through and not stalking it – if that kind of rational thought is even possible for a deer.

I continued walking, checking periodically to make sure the buck was staying put. Eventually I reached the ravine in which it was bedded. I was now closer, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and out of sight. I readied the shooting sticks and stepped into the open.

The buck was still bedded, but was looking my way. The rangefinder showed 253 yards. With rifle steadied, I took a deep breath, then squeezed the trigger. At the report, the buck rolled down the hillside, got back to its hooves, and ran up and out of the ravine. Then it tipped over. 

While many hunters think of mountains when they look to the west, there are tremendous numbers of deer – mulies and whitetails – to be found in the Great Plains. A first-timer to the Western states can find success in this region regardless of whether they choose a do-it-yourself hunt or book a guide or outfitter.

The single-greatest lesson learned on my first Western hunt is that just because the terrain looks devoid of wildlife doesn’t mean it is. Deer are masters of using whatever cover is available to them, whether it be sagebrush or variances in topography. 

A first-timer to Western hunting can succeed with the same equipment used in the Midwest. A blaze-orange jacket, wool pants, and a .30-06 will work for deer anywhere. However, if you enjoy Plains deer hunting so much that it becomes an annual event, you’ll probably eventually change out all of your gear. 

A flatter-shooting rifle is more forgiving at longer ranges. Top it with the highest-quality scope you can afford. A 3-9X scope should be considered the minimum magnification. I really like the 4-15X I currently use. A sling that keeps the rifle from constantly sliding off your shoulder while walking 8 or 10 miles a day is a must-have. 

If your rifle/scope combo allows you to consistently hit a target at 500 yards, great,  but it’s not necessary. I have been fortunate to kill a buck on every Western hunt I’ve been on, with a 257-yard shot the longest. A rangefinder is essential. Shooting sticks will not only make you a better shot, but they also can double as walking sticks for uneven terrain.

With his frame pack loaded with the meat and antlers of his mule deer buck taken during a Western plains hunt, Heiting heads uphill toward his truck.

You’ll also want to consider getting a binocular with top-quality glass and high magnification, which will save lots of walking and do a better job of discerning deer hide from sagebrush. I carry a 10×42 binocular. A shoulder harness keeps its weight off your neck. 

For clothing, I wear lighter-colored camouflage, which tends to better match the surroundings, and a blaze vest for visibility and ease of movement. You’ll probably do a lot of walking, so consider lightweight, windproof pants because they are lighter than wool. Well-fitting and sturdy boots are a must. If you hunt below 5,000 feet in elevation, choose pants that have integrated, removable knee pads that will keep cactus spines from burying themselves in your hide. Deerskin gloves will protect hands and fingers.

A comfortable, lightweight frame pack is fast becoming a necessity for do-it-yourself hunting. In an effort to limit the spread of CWD, many states now require hunters to break down deer in the field or take them to licensed meat processors. And besides, hilly topography can make for a brutal drag. During the past couple of years, I have decided that boning out a deer in the field and packing out meat is the best option. 

Finally, a property boundary app for your smartphone is imperative. Unless you receive permission from a rancher to hunt his land, you’ll probably be hunting public areas or ranches that allow access through a state program. Landowners’ rights must be respected. The app I use includes mapping layers that reveal topography, which allows me to plan stalks while saving lots of walking and time.

If there is a frustrating aspect to hunting the west, it’s the tag application process of each state. Not only can this be complicated and confusing, but if you don’t buy preference points in addition to the license, you’ll probably draw much less frequently. 

This is one of the reasons why hunting with an outfitter can be a great choice. The outfitter can walk you through the application process. In some states, he may have landowner tags available for purchase without going through the application process. And, because he probably has access to private lands with up-to-the-minute knowledge of the comings and goings of the local deer, you likely will have a high-quality experience and a better chance at a larger animal.

I remain a dedicated northwoods deer hunter, but stalking mule deer on the Great Plains has quickly become something I try to do every year. If you’re considering a Western hunt this year, the tips outlined here should get you started.

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