Chasing mule deer proves harder than it looks

Nick Lowrey

On the opening day of the South Dakota West River firearms deer season of 2010, I found myself making the familiar drive from Hill City to the Angostora reservoir. I had drawn one of my favorite South Dakota big game tags in one of my favorite hunting units: the northern piece of Fall River County.

The unit is a unique geographic zone in an area where the southern Black Hills transition into the high plains. Deep ravines, rock strewn slopes, tree covered hills, dry creek beds and Angostura Reservoir dominate the landscape.

The incredible diversity of terrain makes this area a haven for deer. Whitetails fill the creek beds and lake shore, while mule deer wander the dry hills and ravines.

I arrived at my destination along the north bank of the Cheyenne River just before dawn. As I opened my door and felt the chill of the early morning air on my face, the last vestiges of sleep melted from my body. I felt invigorated; my rifle, a Mannlicher .243, slid from its case in the backseat. I shouldered my backpack, slung my rifle and stepped off on what was to be a rather long walk.

I walked along the river for about a mile as the sun crept closer to the horizon. I had been the first to arrive at the parking area and was fairly confident I would be getting the first crack at territory that hadn’t been hunted since last year.

My plan was to follow the lake use area that extended west from Angostura Reservoir along the Cheyenne River to where it met the southeast corner of a section of the Black Hills National Forest. Once there, I would hunt for mule deer. It was about a six-mile walk to the forest and I looked forward to every minute of it.

Three miles into my walk, I realized I wouldn’t make my destination before sun rise. I turned north off the river bank and found a hill to sit on, so I could watch for deer as the sun rose over the horizon.

It was a fairly short detour, but the hill was steep and by the time I made it to a decent vantage point I was short of breath. I found a nice little ledge just under the top of a ridge line so I wouldn’t be silhouetted against the skyline. The sun rose and birds chirped, my binoculars found a pair of whitetail does making their way along the opposite bank. A flock of turkeys flew down from their roosts, yelping as they hit the ground and regrouped. Still, I didn’t see what I was really looking for.

I sat for about 45 minutes before I resumed my trek. I decided to stay up above the river bed for the rest of the way. It slowed my progress but I was rewarded for all the hard work with my first mule deer sighting of the day.

About 500 yards to the north

on the side of a cliff, I saw a

group of about six does picking their way to a tree-lined ravine. Behind them, with his nose to the ground, mouth open and tongue hanging out was a little spike buck

thinking he’d just hit the jackpot. I smiled, shook my head and kept walking.

I spent the rest of the morning climbing up and down creek beds and ridges being as quiet as I could. I didn’t see another deer until later that afternoon. By then, I was deep in the national forest struggling through a steep-sided ravine. The sky was a deep azure blue above me and the temperature had risen about 20 degrees, needless to say I had started to sweat.

I leaned against a tree for a rest and took a drink from my Camel-bak. As I looked up from the drinking tube, I found myself face to face with another small muley buck, this one was only 20 yards away. His antlers were narrow and carried only three points per side. I leaned up against a tree and watched as the little guy stamped and snorted, trying to figure out just what the heck I was. It didn’t take long for a gust of wind to confirm his suspicions and he bounced away as only a mule deer can.

As I climbed out of the ravine I noticed a spot of hunter orange high above me on ridge to the north. It was my turn to be

disgusted and much like that last little buck I snorted and turned my back to the hunter.

About an hour later I was on top of a ridge eating lunch and staring down a set of ominous dark clouds quickly approached from the west. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun disappeared behind the approaching storm. There was no way I was going to  make it anywhere near my truck before it hit, so I dropped behind the ridge out of the wind, found a tree and lit a fire.

Luckily the storm was fast-moving and short-lived. Less than an hour later I was back on my way and headed toward the truck. By this time, I had traveled close to nine miles and was starting to feel it. I decided to make for the river and take the easy road out. It wasn’t long before I found myself once again on the flat ground of the river bed.

Still thoroughly enjoying my trip up the river, I began to plan for the next day. I was in the middle of deciding what I would do differently when I heard a commotion on my left.

Adrenaline surged through my veins as I turned, unslung and shouldered my rifle in one smooth practiced motion. My right eye found the scope and the reticle settled on the shoulder of a mule deer buck. He was silhouetted against the sky at the top of the ridge he’d just run up, his antlers looked like they were going to poke holes in the clouds. My heart skipped a beat and I pulled the trigger during the pause.

The rifle boomed and bucked against my shoulder. My trigger hand worked the bolt chambering another round before I had time to think about it. For a moment I had the sinking feeling that I’d missed the mark. Then my eye caught movement through the scope and I watched as the biggest mule deer I’d ever taken rolled back down the ridge.

All traces of exhaustion were instantly replaced by elation. My fists punched the sky and I shouted my joy to the high heavens. I would never forget that moment as long as I lived.

As I approached my deer, it became clear just what I was dealing with. His antlers, while sizable, weren’t massive. His face was grizzled, grey and covered in battle scars. His body was easily in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. And I was still five miles from my truck.