As Good As It Gets

SITTING IN A PICKUP in the predawn darkness, I heard one of the mules in the trailer stamp its hoof. … Continued

SITTING IN A PICKUP in the predawn darkness, I heard one of the mules in the trailer stamp its hoof. The dull metallic clang sounded like the animal was impatient to get going. I know I was.

We were parked along a dirt road in northwestern Colorado. On either side of us hills angled sharply upward, rising into mountains. A full moon sat low in the sky, bathing everything in a pale glow. Looking out the window I could see the dark tangles of scrub oak and serviceberry mixed together with stands of aspen, their light-barked trunks reflecting silver in the moonlight.

Higher up, the trees and scrub gave way to large patches of sagebrush and grass. I could see stands of dark timber far above, where solitary bull elk no doubt spent much of their time.

“We’ve got about a half hour yet,” said Dick Dodds, my hunting guide. The minutes passed, and soon enough we unloaded the mules and did a final gear check. I slid my rifle into the scabbard on my saddle, cinched the straps on my pack and mounted up.

Four of us formed a line with Dick and his mule in the lead as we picked our way up the trail. The mules climbed steadily and soon we had gained more than 1,000 feet of elevation. As we crested the first ridge we kicked up two mule deer, a doe and her fawn; they bolted up the hill and out of sight. We also spooked a small group of elk that dropped over the other side of the ridge, heading down.

WITH STREAKS OF PINK and purple lighting the sky around us, we continued toward the top of Little Buck Mountain in order to glass the surrounding country. We made good time and the sun was not yet over the horizon when we got the spotting scope set up. Dick started glassing through the scope as the rest of us peered through our binoculars. Almost immediately, we saw game. Directly below us, a herd of elk was moving through the brush from right to left. I was suddenly aware of my heartbeat as one bull, and then another and another, walked into view. Automatically, I took in their racks and started to smile, counting points and admiring the majestic way they held their heads. The herd totaled about 50 animals, and when the last elk moved out of sight I looked up at my hunting companions and was somewhat bemused by all our grins. As nice as those elk were, they weren’t the reason we had come to the top of Little Buck.

SEARCH FOR MULE DEER

My pal Kevin Howard, who works with Winchester ammunition and who had organized this trip, was sitting next to me looking through his binocular. “Found some,” he said. “Down by the water over there.” All of us shifted our gaze to a pond well over 1,000 yards away that was tucked into a hollow still cloaked in shadow. I was having a hard time seeing the animals and was silently cursing Kevin’s raptorlike vision when Dick announced that he had them in the spotting scope. “Three bucks–one that looks pretty good,” he said. “But we’ve got to hurry. They’re gonna bed down.”

ON THE MOVE

The next 15 minutes were a footrace. We led our mules back down the mountain, retracing the steps we had taken less than an hour before. After several hundred yards we veered off our original path and headed for a stand of low, scrubby trees. Dick had us tie up our mules and asked Jon Sundra, a fellow writer and hunting buddy and the fourth member of our party, to stay behind with the animals. He then motioned for Kevin and me to follow him through the brush. Moving in the half-crouch that seems to come naturally when stalking game, we made our way to the edge of a drop-off that overlooked a smaller hill. Between our position and the hill was a deep draw that looked like an ideal travel corridor for game.

Dick told me to be ready to shoot, so I eased into a sitting position and got my rifle up on my sticks. Right away, Dick found our deer. They were moving below us, heading up the draw. But only two bucks, the smaller ones, were visible. He was afraid we had taken too long to get to the overlook and that the big muley had given us the slip. Then, scanning the side of the hill, he caught some movement in the serviceberries. It was the larger deer, snaking his way through the cover in the typical manner of an older, wary buck. He was heading directly away from us, turning now and then to maneuver his antlers around the vegetation. I could tell he had a good rack just by the bobbing motion of his head, the way he needed to duck and weave to get his antlers through the trees and brush.

“Can you make that shot?” Dick asked. “That’s about as good as it gets with these big deer.” Kevin, who was looking at the buck through a binocular with a built-in range finder, said he was at 410 yards.

Needless to say, a lot can go wrong with that much distance between you and a deer. But my crosshairs were steady on the buck’s body, there wasn’t any wind to speak of and I had a lot of confidence in the rifle I was using, a Model 70 chambered in .300 WSM. With the new ammo from Winchester we had come out here to test, called “Supreme Elite” by the company, and using the new XP3 bullet, my rifle was turning in about 1½-inch groups, which is exceptional performance in a factory rifle shooting a short magnum. (See “The Short Mag Riddle,” page 72.)

I made a final adjustment on my hold and waited for the deer to give me as much of a quartering angle as possible. At the shot, the buck staggered and went down. We all watched him get back up, run a short distance and then go down again. The buck tumbled into a shaded knot of brush and disappeared.

Through the spotting scope, Dick picked up an occasional flash of antler, but he was in such deep cover that I couldn’t be sure of a follow-up shot. Instead, Dick and I left Kevin stationed at the lookout and the two of us made a loop to get downwind of the deer, move to the place we had seen it last and deliver a finishing shot if necessary.

Some hunters argue that laser range finders are one more gizmo we don’t really need while afield. I disagree. Not only are they an excellent way to accurately range your shots, but they can also help you locate and recover game. Since we knew that the deer settled into a patch of brush that was exactly 414 yards from where I took the shot, we were able to easily zero in on its location as we made our sweep. By using the range finder to check our distance from Kevin, clearly visible in his blaze orange on the ridge above us, we could follow an arc through the brush that was exactly 414 yards from where I had initially fired. (We could have done the same thing, of course, by tying a piece of flagging to a tree or otherwise using the range finder on a distinct and easily identifiable marker.) With this method it didn’t take long for us to jump the deer. In the excitement of the moment, I missed him off-hand, but then settled down in a hasty sitting position to deliver a coup de grace that anchored him for good.

GIVING BACK

He was a gorgeous buck–a non-typical 7 by 7 with a 28-inch spread. The kind of trophy you see only with the combination of good habitat and good wildlife management. It was no accident that the land Dick hunts produced this caliber of buck.

He and his wife, Cheryl, have been outfitting on the 120,000 acres that make up his ranch since 1989. At the same time they acquired the ranch, the Doddses also enrolled in what was then a new program in Colorado that had the ambitious three-pronged goal of improving habitat for wildlife, creating more public hunting opportunity and benefiting private ranch owners.

Called Ranching for Wildlife, the program has become a permanent part of the state’s management philosophy. In a nutshell, it gives private landowners the freedom to set their own seasons, in consultation with the state, in exchange for guaranteeing the public a certain level of access to their land. In the Doddses’ case, 10 percent of their tags for antlered animals go to the public, as do a significant number of antlerless tags to help them reach their management quotas.

The Doddses’ investment in the stewardship of their land goes way beyond tag allocation, however. They’ve worked to add wells and other water sources, restore native grasses and encourage a healthy level of natural predation from mountain lions to keep the deer, elk and antelope populations in balance. Dick even runs a herd of 60 cattle that he rotates from one pasture to another to simulate the beneficial effects that the buffalo migration had on these areas in bygone days.

ANTELOPE BY MULE

For the final phase of our hunt, we headed into some low-lying sage country on another part of the ranch. Recent rains had made the ranch’s dirt roads icy slick and impassable by motor vehicles, so we again turned to the mules to get us where we needed to go. I’ve used mules on a number of hunts over the years, from genteel wagon-drawn quail hunts on plantations down South to Western mountain excursions for big game–but a sagebrush antelope hunt on muleback was a first.

We rode across the rolling country, often dismounting below the crest of a hill to sneak up to the top and glass. Antelope dotted the landscape at regular intervals and we looked over a bunch of pronghorns before Kevin found one that really caught his interest. Now it was my turn to hang back with the mules as Kevin and Dick crawled for half an hour to get into position. I watched their progress through my binocular; at last Kevin carefully eased through the sage and brought his rifle up. The back slaps after the shot told me his aim was true and that it was time to bring the mules up.

I guess it was a quirky way to hunt–antelope from a mule–but Dick’s ranch was quirky too, which somehow made it fitting. Not many places combine outstanding hunting for deer, elk and antelope on private land, let alone on private land that public hunters have access to. Like I said, quirky. But it’s hunting anyone could get accustomed to very fast.

ELKHORN OUTFITTERS

Whether you want to hunt mule deer, elk, antelope or some combination of the three, you can’t go wrong with Dick and Cheryl Dodds. The quality of their animals is excellent, especially the mule deer. You can stay at the cabins in the main camp or arrange to hunt out of spike camps elsewhere. Another plus: The food is top-notch. Elkhorn Outfitters is about 45 minutes from Steamboat Springs, Colo. (970-824-7392; elkhornoutfitters.com)

WINCHESTER XP3

This hunt was one of the first tests of Winchester’s new XP3, which is best described as a bullet that blends several features from a variety of premium bullets. It has a polymer tip and boattail configuration for a high ballistic coefficient. The bullet has a four-petal-style upset, similar to that of the FailSafe, but whereas the FailSafe’s petals often break off, the XP3, due to its bonded construction (and other factors), is more likely to hang together, the result being better weight retention and good penetration. The bullet’s lead core also expands, creating a bulge reminiscent of the expansion found in the Swift A-Frame.

BOTTOM LINE: The XP3 is an impressively versatile bullet. It has a high ballistic coefficient, expands at a wide variety of ranges and is suitable for both thin-skinned, deer-size game and larger, heavier animals animals.

THE SHORT-MAG RIDDLE

The impressive accuracy of the Model 70–alas, no more–in .300 WSM that I used on this hunt came as somewhat of a surprise. Since the short-magnum concept was rolled out on a wide scale, the theoretical accuracy potential of these cartridges has mostly fallen short of their actual performance in the field. The benefits of an efficient powder column and a shorter, stiffer and therefore more inherently accurate action rarely seem to manifest themselves in factory rifles shooting factory ammo.

One needs only to look at OUTDOOR LIFE’s annual gun tests for proof. We’ve put any number of short mags through their paces over the years, using a panel of skilled shooters to judge each rifle. Granted, our insistence on having each judge shoot two 5-shot groups in quick succession–as opposed to a single 3-shot group with each shot from a cool barrel, as others often do–creates a demanding standard.

But where other rifles and calibers have risen to the occasion, we’ve often been left scratching our heads as one short mag after another turned in 2½ inch groups or larger. Good enough for a deer at 100 yards, but hardly what one would consider confidence-inspiring accuracy.