Muleys in the Sage

Yes, thin cover can hold tremendous bucks for the hunter who knows how to pattern open-country deer.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Mary Jane Orman had a gleam in her eye that spelled big trouble. At least for the mule deer buck that was pulling a kamikaze act and walking directly toward us. The deer had no idea we were in his world as he slowly closed the distance. When he was about a hundred yards out, I gave Mary Jane the standard advice-"Concentrate on the spot behind the shoulder, take a deep breath, get a steady hold," and all the other little words of support one gives a hunter who hasn't had much experience.

Then I whispered something that galvanized Mary Jane into action: "That buck isn't nearly as big as the ones we just glassed 10 minutes ago." Instantly, Mary Jane's rifle cracked. The kamikaze deer was hers, the first buck she'd ever taken, though she'd downed a number of does in her home state of Mississippi.

Her husband, Manuel, had been waiting and watching from my pickup truck parked several hundred yards away. Because of the slightly rolling terrain and the buck's location in a small ravine, the deer was never aware of our presence, even though he was waltzing through sagebrush that was barely a foot high.

With luck, Manuel might be able to connect on one of the bigger bucks we'd been originally watching a half-mile away. A quick look through binoculars showed that Mary Jane's shot hadn't disturbed them. There were about 20 deer in all, half of them bucks, and three of them very good bucks. As we watched, they meandered through the sagebrush toward a field where they'd feed all night. I told Manuel to try an end run around the knoll we were on and to get into one of the deep gullies where he might be able to set up an ambush. There was no sense in more than one of us making the stalk, especially since night was coming and Mary Jane's buck needed to be field-dressed.

As she posed for photos with her deer, the sky suddenly unleashed a furious blizzard, and in two minutes the ground, Mary Jane and her buck wore a sparkling white coating of fresh snow. Born and raised in the Deep South, where snow is a rare event, Mary Jane was thrilled, and even more so when we heard Manuel's shot echo across the sage. He had taken the best buck in the herd, a heavy-racked animal with an outside antler spread of 28 inches.

"I wanted Manuel to get the biggest buck," she confided to me afterward. "That's why I didn't hesitate when you told me my buck was smaller than those in the herd." Mary Jane's buck was no slouch, a typical 4 by 4 with a 24-inch spread that was high and symmetrical.

Big Deer in Barren Country
Neither Manuel nor Mary Jane, who works for Mossy Oak, had hunted in the West. Before they arrived, I told them about the openness of the country, and not to be surprised that we'd be hiking and glassing in sagebrush from one horizon to the other. Our hunt was right out of the textbook. The buck she shot had been bedded in the sage, and Manuel's buck was ambushed as it traveled through the sagebrush to a feeding area.

The first muley I ever killed, in 1961, was in a huge sagebrush area, and when I first saw it, I was positive that no deer could possibly inhabit that barren place. I was raised in the East where deer were associated with woods. Utah's sage was totally foreign to me and looked too thin. I hadn't traveled much yet, and I was still inexperienced hunting big game in "new" country.

I see those same concerns these days among newcomers to mule deer hunting. Sagebrush just doesn't seem to look like deer country, which is one of the reasons some hunters shun it and head for more traditional places in the mountains, where there's more timber and heavy brush. That's a big mistake.

Get Away From the Road
A big part of the sagebrush landscape is heavily roaded, and there lies a major problem-lots of hunters.

Another dilemma is its land status; much of it is public land administered by federal encies. That should sound a happy note, and it does, but heavy pressure by hunters in areas where there's good access has a negative impact on hunting. Crowds spell competition and skittish bucks that you'll seldom see from a road.

The first requirement in hunting the sage successfully is being a believer. You need the confidence to spend the time, and energy, to hunt it. I say energy because most hunters never get much more than a few yards away from their vehicles. They drive the roads, glass here and there and continue until they hopefully spot something. That's a low-odds strategy.

Last year I hunted eastern Oregon with Todd Longgood, an outfitter buddy. We were driving up a road through a huge expanse of sagebrush with a particular destination in mind when we spotted a nice buck drinking from a livestock trough. The buck immediately bounded up over a low ridge, and we climbed after him. Todd and I had barely cleared the rise when we looked at an opposing slope and saw five beautiful bucks staring at us from a distance of about 500 yards. They were bedded in sagebrush that wasn't more than 15 inches high, but we were caught in the open. The deer fled, and we never saw them again. It was standard procedure in sagebrush country, in that the bucks were bedded where they couldn't be seen from a road. I've been in similar dilemmas dozens of times-sometimes you don't need to hike for miles but simply to get out of the rig and climb a hill or two. If deer are comfortable, they'll bed close to roads where they're seldom disturbed. If they're wary, they'll often bed in deep canyons or brushy thickets. Scrub oak and other dense brush offers superb secure cover, and deer may travel several miles daily to reach these sanctuaries.

My favorite strategy is to arrive at a vantage point in the dark. As soon as I can see, I'll use my binocular, and then a spotting scope, if I locate deer and want a better look. If there's a buck that interests me, I'll watch him until he either beds down or moves out of sight. If he beds, I'll come up with a plan based on the wind, terrain and screening cover to stalk within rifle range and get the shot I want.

Several years ago, my daughter Judi and I spotted a buck and several does in a rolling sagebrush area. We spotted him just at daybreak, and he was at least 1,000 yards away. This was Judi's first deer hunt, and the problem would be to get within range. We were on public land, and I feared that another vehicle would come by and spook the deer.

We watched for a full hour as the undisturbed deer fed, moving slowly toward a draw. They dropped out of sight, except for a doe that plopped down and bedded in the sage. Assuming the rest of the herd had bedded near her, but out of sight, I came up with a route to approach the deer from the lower end of the draw. There were several draws in the area, and I noted three rotting fence posts within 10 yards of the doe. I'd key on them when we circled. I learned a long time ago to note landmarks in country where otherwise all looks the same. It's easy to be confused when the landscape is viewed from a different vantage. Our plan worked, and Judi tied her tag to a nice three by three buck.

I've taken some dandy bucks in sage country, some of which I located while hunting antelope. Many of those deer were in places I'd never think to look for them, such as vast rolling sagebrush prairies with almost no heavy cover. In all my years of roaming the sage, I learned that it's possible to pattern open-country muleys, but that it's far more difficult than patterning deer living in and around ranches or agricultural areas that have specific feeding grounds. Muleys in the sage are great nomads, seemingly feeding wherever they wander. But a closer look often reveals far more foraging in certain areas than others. Here's why: Sagebrush has a number of subspecies, some a great deal more palatable to deer than others.

If you're wondering how to identify these favorable areas by looking for the preferred plants, forget it. When I studied wildlife management in college, it took a microscope in a botany lab to tell one subspecies from another. But the point is that deer will feed in predictable areas provided the disturbance level by hunters is low or nonexistent. If hunting pressure is high, deer may switch to other areas or become nocturnal. In the latter case, deer will feed at night, and the warier animals will be out of the sage and either in or on their way to escape areas long before shooting light.

The bottom line is, when hunting the sage, remember these three keys: pattern, hike and glass. Although deer seem to ramble in the big sagebrush landscape, there's usually a pattern to their movements. Try to decipher those patterns before the season. Hike away from the road every chance you get to eliminate the ground covered by most other hunters. Find a high spot and glass like you've never glassed before. Muleys blend in well with sagebrush, and the farther away they are, the better they're concealed.

Above all, don't underestimate what the sagebrush can produce-quite possibly the biggest muley buck of your life.eer than others.

If you're wondering how to identify these favorable areas by looking for the preferred plants, forget it. When I studied wildlife management in college, it took a microscope in a botany lab to tell one subspecies from another. But the point is that deer will feed in predictable areas provided the disturbance level by hunters is low or nonexistent. If hunting pressure is high, deer may switch to other areas or become nocturnal. In the latter case, deer will feed at night, and the warier animals will be out of the sage and either in or on their way to escape areas long before shooting light.

The bottom line is, when hunting the sage, remember these three keys: pattern, hike and glass. Although deer seem to ramble in the big sagebrush landscape, there's usually a pattern to their movements. Try to decipher those patterns before the season. Hike away from the road every chance you get to eliminate the ground covered by most other hunters. Find a high spot and glass like you've never glassed before. Muleys blend in well with sagebrush, and the farther away they are, the better they're concealed.

Above all, don't underestimate what the sagebrush can produce-quite possibly the biggest muley buck of your life.