Outdoor Life Editor and Record Quest host Andrew McKean finally hung his tag on a dandy Montana mule deer. But how he hunted this old veteran, and what he discovered when he put his hands on the buck are nearly as interesting as the animal itself.
Because most mule deer hunting happens on public land, it’s hard to develop a long-term relationship with a buck. Hunting pressure, rut movements, and the scale of the land itself mean many encounters are accidental and fleeting. But I hunted this buck on my own land, where I had the time to pattern him and work out a plan to kill him.
But before I could fill my own tag, I had a more pressing obligation: guiding my identical twin sons in their first hunting season. Midway through the season, not long after he stepped off the school bus, Merlin took this 3×3 whitetail with a great shot at nearly 200 yards in a field behind our house.
Then it was brother Ellis’s turn. He had seen this mule deer buck several times but could never get close enough or find it on a place he could hunt. Finally, the buck pushed a posse of does across the fence. They weren’t going to get closer than 200 yards, but Ellis–settled on his bipod–said he could make the shot. He did. It was during this hunt that I first saw the buck I ended up killing. He stood up in an alfalfa field, then laid back down. It was a habit I observed three more times in the next week, behavior that made him exceedingly hard to hunt. He wouldn’t follow does out of the field. He wouldn’t feed with the rest of the herd. I got the feeling he was a wise old veteran who had learned the safety of solitude.
Three times I got within 600 yards of the buck, but then he’d disappear, bedding down in a field I couldn’t hunt. Finally, in the last week of the season, I watched him limp to my boundary fence, awkwardly jump it, and then bed down. There was something wrong with this buck, but I figured his gimpy gait was because he was so worn down from the rut. To make a days-long story shorter, I decided to spend a day picking apart every bit of hiding cover with my optics, hoping to find him bedded. I laid my blanket on the snow on a knoll over the little valley where I had last seen him.
I inspected dozens of deer before I spotted a doe bedded against a corner post. Something about her made me really study her through my bino. She wasn’t a doe at all, she was my buck, sunning on a brushy slope. I ranged him at 408 yards, and there was no way to get closer. Could I make the shot on a bedded buck at that distance? Because he was laid up, I had only about 10 inches of vitals. I was shooting 165-grain Federal Trophy Copper loads in Ruger’s American Rifle chambered in .30/06. With my 200-yard zero, I knew my bullet dropped 7 inches at 300 yards and a full 21 inches at 400 yards. Could I pull off this shot? I decided to try, knowing that if I missed, he was more likely to run toward me than to jump the fence with his lame leg.
I set up prone on shooting sticks, but because my Weaver Super Slam has a duplex reticle, I’d have to figure out the hold-over without the aid of references on my reticle’s vertical post. I know mule deer have approximately 8-inch ears and did the visual math on the bedded buck. I held what looked like 20 inches high and pulled the trigger. “Whump” went the bullet. The buck staggered up and stood on wobbling legs. He was hit hard, but he didn’t go down. I made another poke, this one at 426 yards, but didn’t hit him. So I settled behind the scope and cheated a little higher. Down he went, shot right behind the ear.
It was the best shot of my life, but my surprise didn’t end with the rifle crack. When I approached the buck, I noticed his backbone seemed especially sharp through his skin. Then I picked up his head and nearly dropped it in surprise. The buck had been shot through the mouth and the front leg, probably weeks ago based on the healing. That explained the buck’s limp, and his odd, solitary behavior.
He was starving to death, unable to eat with a broken jaw and gangrenous tongue, and barely able to escape predators. When I gutted him, I was astonished to see his stomach was scarcely the size of my fist. He was literally eating his own body.
Despite his maladies, his rack is beautiful: tall, with great forks, and he carries his mass well along his bladed tines. He has a couple of sticker points. But to me, the reward isn’t his rack so much as killing an old buck whose injuries made him incredibly wary and alert. Plus, I felt a certain satisfaction in ending what must have been a pitifully painful and hopeless life. I toted him out on my Kawasaki. But I had one more surprise in store.
My buddy Mark helped me get my buck out, and on our 4-wheeler drive to get him, I suggested we’d better pack a rifle in case we saw one of the handful of “shooter” bucks that Mark and I had seen all season. Right on cue, we spotted a buck we had nicknamed “Weepy Eye” because of the dark patch under his right eye. Mark made a great stalk and killed Weepy Eye. When we approached him to tag and dress him, we were just a little repulsed. The eye patch wasn’t a birthmark. It was his eyeball, which had been gouged out of its socket, probably by a rutting rival’s antler. We loaded Mark’s buck on the back of the bike and toted both out of the field. I felt a little like I was leaving the Island of Broken Toys, with a pair of injured deer. But even more, I felt a huge satisfaction, tagging a couple of great bucks earned with effort and skill.
Outdoor Life Editor and Record Quest host Andrew McKean finally hung his tag on a dandy Montana mule deer. And, the story behind this old buck is just as impressive as the rack.