The Tabernacle Buck
Deseret Land & Livestock, the largest ranch in Utah, is owned by the Mormon Church. For mule deer hunters, it’s the promised land.
The original Deseret was supposed to be America’s 31st state, a vast empire of Mormonism that would have stretched from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada, and from Wyoming south to Arizona. The brainchild of Mormon leaders, including Brigham Young, Deseret was intended to be the homeland for Young’s acolytes, a theocratic nation-state that resembled the Catholics’ Vatican City—only ten thousand times bigger and with infinitely more cactus.
Political tension between free and slave states in the years leading up to the Civil War doomed the State of Deseret, and Young had to settle for the modern boundaries of Utah in order for it to be admitted to the Union. But the name—and maybe more important, the idea—of Deseret lives on. You will find it in the name of one of the state’s largest newspapers, the Deseret News. And you can see it on road signs and other iconography of Utah. Deseret, according to Mormon scripture, is the name of the honeybee, and the beehive remains not only Utah’s state symbol, but also a reminder of the Mormon values of industry, community, and thrift.
A BIG-GAME RANCH
The modern-day Deseret is properly called Deseret Land & Livestock. It’s a 235,000-acre ranch, the largest single private property in the state of Utah. Since 1983, it’s been owned by the Mormon Church, which runs it as an agricultural operation. But the church leases the ranch for paid big-game hunts. Because of its reputation for producing record-class bucks and bulls, getting an invitation to hunt here is nearly as hard as getting an audience with the Pope.
Deseret (the ranch) is spoken of with reverence among Western hunters, but few have actually hunted here. I’ve known of the ranch for years, partly by the black hole it creates on maps of the West. No public roads pass through the property, and a private corps of game wardens patrols its boundaries. You can look over the fence, but you can’t come in without permission.
I was given that permission last fall. Geoff Maki—the product manager for a new line of Browning hunting packs distributed by Signature Products Group, or SPG, in Salt Lake City—asked if I’d join him for a mule deer hunt in paradise.
THE TYRANNY OF AGE
“You want to age him? Check his driver’s license!”
Maki smiles as he says this to our guide, Landon Sherwood, but it’s a comment borne of impatience and frustration. We have just passed up a 190-class mule deer, his antlers heavy as a pitchfork handle.
Sherwood sucks on the wiry tuft of hair on his lower lip—his outback soul patch—and shakes his head. “Four-year-old. Gotta let him go.”
We’ve been hearing this all day, as we’ve glassed one remarkable buck after another. “Too young.” “Give him a year.” “Let’s look for his daddy.” We are trolling, Sherwood’s term for driving remote ridgelines, stopping when we see either a herd of deer or terrain that’s likely to hold bucks. I stopped counting the sort of bucks I’d shoot at home in Montana when I hit 20. We are, Sherwood tells us, looking for five-year-old and older deer. That’s the ranch rule, imposed to perpetuate its reputation for record-class animals. Sherwood says if he brings a specimen back to the skinning shed that’s younger than five, at best he’ll get razzed by fellow Deseret guides. At worst, he’ll lose his job.
After a while, it’s fun to stand down on big bucks, if only because it builds my expectation that the buck that passes Sherwood’s muster will be a colossus. It’s also fun to mess with Sherwood, who may be the most selective bastard I’ve ever met when it comes to scrutinizing deer.
TROLLING WITH VAGRANT
His friends call Sherwood “Vagrant,” a nickname he earned from his vagabond existence in pursuit of big deer and elk across the West. He routinely quits seasonal jobs after a couple of weeks to go scout big animals or hunt for their shed antlers. Once, he tells me, he spent 30 nights sleeping in his pickup while hunting for the sheds of a single magnum mule deer buck on “The Strip,” the chunk of Arizona north of the Grand Canyon that is widely considered to be the best mule deer hunting unit in America. He finally found the shed, he tells me, but obeying the code of shed hunters, he had to give it to his buddy who found the matching side first.
Vagrant knows mule deer like nobody I’ve ever met, which is one reason I acquiesce to his insistence on targeting only the oldest residents of this vast ranch.
How will we know him when we see him, I ask?
“By his face,” says Vagrant. “In most years, you can also look at his body type. Old bucks have big potbellies and saddlebacks, and they just look physically big. But this year, we’ve had so much [forage-growing] moisture here that every deer is in great shape, physically, so body condition isn’t a good indicator of age. But the face is. You want to look for a prominent Roman nose, and old bucks have a wide brow with a dished-out forehead. Sometimes, old bucks have a white, chalky face, but that’s not always a good clue, because some younger bucks have white faces.”
But old bucks’ eyes look almost look like a predator’s, set close together, says Vagrant. That gives them a sort of squinty look, with a deep pouch at the tear duct. Their heads are blocky, almost square. Think of the look of a fight-hardened, punch-puffy boxer. That’s the face of a mature mule deer.
Antlers are almost the last thing Sherwood considers on a buck, but when he does, he doesn’t look at the points or the mass of a rack. He looks at the base, to find what he calls “pearling,” or the eruption of dozens of little rounded crenellations between the eye guards and the brow that is a trait of older bucks.
And so we continue to troll, studying the faces of every deer we meet, looking for a geriatric giant.
MULE DEER PARADISE
If you were to aim a riflescope at mule deer distribution in the American West, your vertical crosshair would cover the Rockies from Alberta to Sonora. Your horizontal reticle would probably range from Nebraska to southern Oregon. And your crosshairs would meet near the point where Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah come together. Deseret Land & Livestock is only slightly south of here, and it contains what seems like an endless expanse of essential mule deer habitat.
We find deer scattered across sagebrush meadows, grazing beside elk and moose in the shade of well-watered groves of quaking aspen. With our 15X binoculars, we spot them stepping into or out of pine timber, bedded beneath canyon rimrocks, and munching on mountain laurel and serviceberries. They get edgy at the approach of our pickup but seldom bolt like their public-land cousins do. This is one advantage of hunting behind Deseret’s fence: Exclusivity breeds tolerance, since the occupants of most pickups in this neighborhood don’t open fire the moment they spot antlers.
That tolerance lures us into a sort of complacency midway through my hunt here. We’re careless with our approaches to deer, and I wonder how many pressure-sensitive older bucks we’re bumping. Early one morning we park on a promontory so photographer Michael Friberg can take pictures in the gorgeous mountain light. Movement below catches my eye. It’s a herd of does being pushed by a big buck. We should have blown them out—we’ve done everything wrong here: parking on the spine of the ridge, the four of us skylined and talking loud like we’re ordering breakfast, careless with our scent. But the deer are forgiving. They drift away into a patch of timber, where they bed down in the shade of the rising morning.
We get only a fair view of the big buck. We can tell he’s tall and a wide-framed 4-by-something, but he’s clearly an old deer. As he moves into cover, he seems to wince, like he aches in his joints.
Vagrant gets excited judging him through his spotting scope, and it occurs to me that even after three days, Maki and I haven’t had “the talk” to decide who is shooting first. “You have your gun,” Geoff observes. I had snatched my rifle, a Montana Rifle Company model chambered in the flat-shooting .280 Ackley Improved, from the truck to pose for photographs, not expecting to see a candidate for a shoulder mount. But I waste no time getting behind my binocular, suddenly invested in the outcome.
Unfortunately, so is the deer. As we’ve been assessing him, he’s disappeared somewhere in the timber. We slink around the hill and finally find him in the obscuring cover, but he’s bedded. There is a hole in the branches nearly as big as a cereal box, and I’m sure I can thread a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond through it. But just as we range him (364 yards), he stands up, turns, and a forkhorn buck beds just behind him. No shot.
Vagrant and I watch for another 45 minutes, silently cheering when the young deer moves away, then groaning when our buck shifts behind even more cover. This is one of the unexpected realities of mule deer hunting: Deer simply disappear. They’re masters of evaporating in tendrils of cover that don’t appear large enough to hide a jackrabbit, let alone a mature buck. On this hot October day, as bees hum in the sun-fired sagebrush, our buck is moving with the shade, and somehow there is always a limb, or a tree trunk, or a shrub between him and us.
THE OPPOSITE OF TROLLING
Vagrant and I have given up on our original spot, staking Maki on the slope in case the deer exit the cover the way they went in. The other three of us back out, hike up and over a ridge, and spider-walk down into the timbered vale where we hope the buck is still bedded. We use ridgelines and sagebrush to hide our approach and finally get set up a quarter mile from where we think our buck is holed up. This is how I like to hunt mule deer, gaining feet and inches at a time, instead of trolling from a pickup.
We see pieces and parts of a few deer, but we can’t put antlers on any of them. An hour into this new spot, Friberg asks how long we might be here. Vagrant says deer like to stand up to stretch between 1 and 2 p.m. I check my watch: 12:57. When I look up, a doe is standing, then a young buck appears, then our buck stands, stretches, turns, and beds down again, but this time within full view of us. His rack is tall and wide. His face is blocky and white. He may be older than five. We range him: 352 yards. I have all the time in the world to set up Landon’s tripod as a shooting rest and settle my crosshairs behind the sleeping buck’s shoulder.
When I shoot, the bullet splits the mountain air. Then, a fraction of a second later, I hear the hydraulic thwump as lead meets venison down in the shade. The buck stiffens, and then stretches out in his bed.
It takes us the rest of the afternoon to quarter the buck and pack him out of the timbered hole. My Browning pack hauls the backstraps, a front quarter, and the buck’s head. Then we’re back in the pickup, trolling again for an old veteran for Maki, as Vagrant enumerates the bucks of Deseret.
“The ranch’s goal is a 190-inch buck, or a 200-plus-inch non-typical,” Vagrant says. “Every year, about half the deer we kill are typicals, half non-typicals. Last year we killed a 208 typical and a 245-inch non-typical.” I’m in the back seat, scraping blood and meat out of my fingernails. It’s not that I’m uninterested in the quantification of Deseret’s deer. It’s just that the numbers don’t especially matter to me.
Instead, I drink in the evening light from a high ridge. To the south, I see the spine of the Wasatch Range hanging over the Great Salt Lake, and in my binocular I can see a ski slope above Park City. To the east, the Uinta Mountains catch the last of the sun. To the north of the mountains, I can see into Wyoming. A bull elk bugles from somewhere down a dark aspen canyon. The sun sets, and we turn the pickup toward the skinning shed.
God’s country, indeed.
Mule Deer Gear
A pack, and a rifle, suited to the backcountry
I want a hard-wearing, flat-shooting rifle for mule deer hunting, where shots can be out to 400 yards. I settled on Montana Rifle Company‘s Model 1999 chambered in .280 Ackley Improved and topped with a 4–12×50 Cabela’s Euro riflescope. Shooting a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond, the ballistics of the .280AI match those of the 7mm Rem. Mag., with far less recoil. My pack was SPG‘s new Browning Buck 2500RT, which weighs only 3.5 pounds empty but can tote 2,500 cubic inches of gear and features a quiet, moisture-resistant fabric.