New issue of Hunting Illustrated

November 4, 2009 by  
Filed under the PURSUIT

In stores now…….Until January 26,2010

Mule Deer and Front Stuffers

By Steve Alderman

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My heart beat uncontrollably as I saw huge mule deer antlers at fifty six yards. The date was Oct 1st. 8:30 a.m and It was 40 degrees, over cast, with winds gusting up to 35 miles an hour.  I had been watching and filming this buck for the past three months and now wasn’t the time to mess up all of the hard work I had done.  I knew I needed to cover four more yards to get a clean shot, but the buck bedded with his butt into the hill so he could see every movement within the 240 degree field of view in front of him.  My only course of action was to slowly back up a couple yards, lay flat on my belly, then move ever so slowly back into place at a mere fifty two yards from my quarry for a clear shot.  I wasn’t in much of a rush as the deer was now bedded for the day. Laying on my belly with my gun at my side, I started inching forward ever so slowly.  A mature mule deer has  keen senses that can pick up movement at hundreds of yards away,  so how was I  to go undetected at fifty?  Moving as slow as possible was going to be my only choice.  Using knees and elbows would cause to much movement which meant that all I could do was use my toes.  That’s right.   My plan was to use my toes to push my body the last four yards.  Nothing was moving except for my toes which were hidden from the deer by the rest of my body.  Moving two inches at a time worked out to be slow enough as I got to my marked destination without being noticed.  Now, all I had to do was wait for the deer to stand and change his position in his bed.

As I lay a mere fifty yards from the biggest buck I ever have had the chance to harvest, I did something stupid.  I looked back and talked to the camera guy to make sure he was rolling and could see the deer.  That’s right, I moved my head at  fifty two yards from the bedded buck and yes he did catch the movement.  Lucky for me I was camoed out in Kings camouflage  and some 3-d leafy camo from Scentlok.  The buck caught the movement but did not recognize it as danger.  It was a very tense situation as the deer was now staring directly at me with my gun still at my side.   I knew the deer wasn’t going to lay there in his bed and tolerate the movement of something that wasn’t there when he bedded, so I slowly brought my gun into position and I mean slowly.  I obviously did not want to spook the already alert deer.  The deer saw the movement and was curious as to what it was so he stood to get a better look.  I still believe to this the day that the only reason the deer didn’t bolt was that the movement was so slow and that it was windy enough that he didn’t perceive it as a threat.  He just couldn’t figure it out so he stood to get a closer look and that is when the roar of my gun and the smoke from the end of the barrel broke the morning silence.steve2

Writing this story makes me as giddy and nervous as a boy getting his first bike.  It makes me realize why I enjoy hunting with short range weapons so much, especially those stinky old muzzleloaders.  It’s the times at the shooting benches sighting in these replicas of the early years, the blown stalks, the missed shots, the times in camp and in the hills with your closest buddies.  Most importantly, its getting to know the mule deer and his habits like no one else which drives me to hunt this way.  It’s getting close and out smarting these old majestic deer on their ground, in their core areas, and making it all come together with a quick clean harvest.

I know from past experience that lack of patience is where most people fail when it comes to short range weapons.  I don’t think you can teach this when it comes to hunting as every situation is different and people need to figure it out on their own.  They try to push the situation and make the deer stand up for their clear shot, which nine times out of ten doesn’t work.  The deer blows out of his bed never giving the  hunter the shot they set out to get.  Patience is a virtue in this situation.  You must wait for the deer to do what is natural for him.  He will get up and change his position in his bed a couple times a day, sometimes even grabbing a bite to eat in the process.  I have only seen two deer in all my years of hunting not change their beds.  Those two deer would bed at first light and not move from their bed until after dark.  So, there are the rare occasions when a deer won’t leave his bed but generally they will change their position at some point in the day and that is when you take advantage of the situation.  If you are patient,  the deer will be less cautious and simply do what comes natural for them.  They will be less likely to pick up the slight movement of the hunter who is ready for the shot.  You can usually spot a patient hunter by the amount of success he or she has while short range weapon hunting.steve1

Sure, there are many disadvantages to muzzleloader hunting over modern firearms.  First and foremost is the one shot challenge.  If it is an issue, it only takes one shot right?  Yeah, I’ve said that a few times and found my self running back to my pack to get another load on more than one occasion. Secondly, there would be the shot distance issue of 150 yards max with open sites and 250 max with a scope.  You all know someone or maybe even have yourself harvested a deer further than that.  For the most part with open sites, you cover half the deer up with the front site at 150 yards and then it is a guess as to were your bullet is going to hit. You might as well throw your ethics out the window if you are going to try and harvest a buck past this with open sites.  At 250 yards with a scope, there are all kinds of issues  to deal with such as bullet drop, with 20-25 inches being the norm on average and that is  if you use 150 grains of powder, wind drift up to and sometimes over a foot at 200 yards with a 15 mile an hour wind, and then there is the moisture issue.  Moisture is an issue a muzzleloader hunter could go on about for days.ssteve

However, four million muzzleloader hunters, including myself, feel that the benefits to hunting with a front stuffer far outweigh the disadvantages.  For me, the first advantage is less hunters in the field which also equates to better draw odds on some of those once in a lifetime hunts.  Secondly, getting close to the game you pursue and out witting a wise old mule deer on his turf at under a 150 yards is arguable the hardest game animal to hunt under these conditions.  Lastly, getting within range of a trophy mule deer with short range weapons will teach you patience,  proper shot placement and most importantly hunting ethics. Ethics, meaning humanely hunting and harvesting the game. i.e. your effective range for your gun and your load.  Hunting with a muzzleloader forces you to get closer to the animal so you can make that one shot harvest.  A muzzleloader hunter must spend more time at the bench getting to know his gun, its capabilities and limitations.  Merely shooting and hitting the target at 100 yards is not acceptable when it comes to muzzleloader hunting.  The hunter must know how the gun is going to preform under all conditions and distances.  There are many more variables to consider when hunting with a muzzleloader which makes it all the more enjoyable and satisfying to hunt with, especially when you are successful at putting your tag on a wise old mule deer.

So back to my hunt.   The roar of my gun and the smoke from my barrel broke the morning silence.  As the smoke quickly drifted to the side I could see my deer high-tailing it down the mountain side.  Could I have missed, I thought to myself?   There was simply no way I missed when he was only fifty two yards away.   To my utter relief, the deer ran about 60 yards were he proceeded to lay down and expire.  I was expecting him to crumble at the shot.  He was only fifty two yards and quartering to me when I put the front bead on his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger.   I guess when I was caught off-guard in the stand off, I forgot to allow for wind drift. Yes, even at fifty yards you will get wind drift.  The wind was blowing 30  to 35 miles an hour and even at fifty two yards I should have allowed for some sort of drift.  My bullet actually hit 3 inches to the left of where I was aiming and missed the shoulder completely causing me to second guess a hit or a miss.  Like I said, I was expecting him to crumble at the sound of the shot.  The best part was even after my slight miscalculation I ended up with my biggest Idaho buck to date.  I guess I’m lucky that the deer wasn’t standing at 125 yards because I could have missed him all together.steve

That buck ended a great season of short range weapon hunting.  I ended up harvesting three 200 inch plus bucks in three different countries all with short range weapons.   A rare feat that not to many hunters, if any, can say that they have accomplished even with high powered modern rifles.  One of the bucks was a 207 incher in Old Mexico with my trusty front stuffer.  Next, was a 208 inch buck in Alberta, Canada with my hoyt bow, and then back to Idaho to finish it off with a monster 213 inch non-typical.  Once again, it was my trusty muzzleloader that got the job done.  What a fantastic year!  I truly believe that hunting with a muzzleloader since I was 17 years old has made me a better hunter.  I also believe it can make anyone a better hunter.  There is never a substitution for more time spent in the field and at the bench.  Muzzleloading forces you to spend quality time doing both and what a good excuse to get out and have some fun in the field.


This hunt is featured in the new hunting video by Creekside Productions.  Mule Deer Country is mule deer hunting at its finest,  from Idaho to Old Mexico.  Watch as two monster Desert Mule Deer hit the dirt.  One of them is the largest ever harvested in Mexico with a muzzleloader, scoring over 208 inches gross.

Follow wildlife photographer and videographer Vince Martinez as he show cases some of Colorado’s finest mule deer.  Come with us as we take you on twelve action packed hunts, including four from Sonora Mexico.  You don’t want to be the last pearson to discover this radically new video from Creekside Productions.

It all starts with the bucks?

May 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles


By Todd A. Black

I’ve really had to bite my tongue these past few weeks with all the internet chatter about Utah’s mule deer management plan. It just seems so much of it has all been about more and better ways with more opportunity to harvest mule deer. That is a hunting plan not mule deer management. I really believe strongly if we don’t put management 1st we won’t be hunting at all 20 years down the road.542779156_mmd06_9911ws

Photo by Vincent Martinez Photography

A few years ago, Terry Messmer (my boss) wrote an article titled ‘It all starts with fawns’. In this article he discussed the importance of fawn production and survival being the key to success for your deer herds. In the last two paragraphs he discussed the importance of buck age structure within a given population and the role they play in the fitness of a population. He stated, “reduced numbers of mature breeding males in breeding populations could further disrupt mule deer reproduction if immature bucks are unable to breed (or might not know how to court and breed) available females”. Having a good number of mature bucks in the population is a very important part of mule deer biology. So my question is, does it really start with the fawns, or does it start with the mature bucks? I guess this is kind of like asking which came first the chicken or the egg. No doubt the health and fitness of the does is equally important as well. If does are not ‘fit’, they likely won’t even be breed. Terry goes on to say that the timing and strategies of our harvest and the increased recreational access during the fall and winter months could possibly be disrupting the biological mechanisms regulating mule deer reproduction. These factors may inadvertently be contributing to reported declines in deer abundance.

How about we discuss the importance of age structure amongst the population of bucks and the role the older bucks play in mule deer population. Then we’ll briefly discuss how you and I fit into the mule deer management equation.

Does it all starts with the bucks?

Have you ever wondered what goes on in bachelor groups of bucks during the long summer months? While I do spend a fair amount of time watching them, I would love nothing more than to spend an entire summer or four day in day out watching one group of bucks interact, establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves, and learn new and undocumented behaviors; what a great summer job. A close friend and partner theorizes that during this time the younger bucks are learning form the older bucks how to be bucks. This might sound kind of silly but there is likely some truth to this theory. Much like the males in the human population there is a great deal of learning and maturing gleaned from the younger bucks observing older males. They learn what to eat, where to water, where to hide, how to act, how to treat the ladies and generally just how to be a buck. Without a doubt, these type of learned behaviors are crucial and key to the survival of the species. So just what is a mature buck? How do we know they are there?

Some biologist may classify and tell you a mature buck is a 2 year old buck. This is mainly because this buck is sexually mature. All this really means is that its testicles have dropped and it can produce viable sperm. However, a buck really doesn’t become ‘mature’ until he’s somewhere around 5 years old. Not only are many physical characteristics of the buck fully developed but the buck has had time to grow and mature and knows how to be a buck. The question now is, are we losing some of these important learned behaviors because we don’t have the mature bucks we once had?

So what does all this mean?542756376_mmd07_1d0619-ws

The natural history of cervids dictates that the females will select and breed with the dominant mature male. Generally, this is determined by body and or antler size. This selection takes place during what we call ‘the rut’. The rut of mule deer, in most western states peaks around the third/forth week in November. Mating with a mature buck should ensure a strong/’fit’ offspring and builds a healthy population. At least that’s the theory. Unfortunately with the declines of deer in the west, there aren’t too many places where you find ‘mature’ bucks doing the bulk of the breeding. Habitat fragmentation, highways and roads and urban sprawl have isolated and fragmented traditional winter ranges and breeding grounds. With these groups of does scattered hinder and yawn, it’s next to impossible for one or two mature bucks to breed 30 does let alone 100 or more. What is more typical in many of our herds is the two and three year old deer or even yearlings are doing the majority of the breeding. Are they capable of doing so? They are. The genes are still there, it can’t be bad for the population, right? Well, it might be and here’s why.

Could it all start with the Does?

A doe likely won’t breed with a scrawny pencil neck buck during her first estrus cycle. However, if she is still ‘fit’ she will come into estrus again 3-4 weeks later. Now, she may just decide that pencil neck is better than nothing if Goliath is still absent. This really isn’t helping our deer herds.542782859_mmd06_9646ws

The gestation period of a doe is 200 days give or take a week or so. Given that, lets do some math I know it hurts but it’s simple. Lets say doe ‘A’ is bred on November 18th, given a 200 day gestation, the fawn should hit the ground right around the 30th of May. Doe ‘B’ is bred on December 23rd (her second cycle) given the same gestation period, the fawn hits the ground on Independence day. Does anyone see what is happening here? Fawns born in May/June are likely to weigh more, be more ‘fit’, and better to withstand predation and make it through a bad winter than those born in July/August. These fawns go into the winter being less ‘fit’, weighing less, making them more susceptible to disease, predation, and extremes in weather. Which can lead to higher fawn mortality, less recruitment into the population and lower doe to fawn ratios? Ask yourself when the last time you saw a fawn with its spots still in late August/September. This really shouldn’t be happening if all the does were bred in late November early December, but I see it with more and more frequency.

Could we a part of the problem, does it start with us?

This is a tough question. It’s a biological, social, and economic issue. What are we to do? For starters, we just can’t continue to manage for quantity during these times of famine. Maximum sustained yield goes out the door with extremes in weather. One solution might be to manage for quality rather than quantity; another might be to simply reduce the number of tags sold and reduce harvest. Obviously this presents a few problems. Who is going to be the first to give up their tag for a year or three? I know in Utah it would be cut throat to give up a tag. Ask your state agencies how much money they can live without.

In summary, I don’t think we can continue to allow our immature bucks to do most of the breeding. We need those mature males in the population. We need ‘fit’ healthy fawns to make it through the dry summers and the cold wet winters. We can’t be harvesting 70-80% of our yearling bucks during these harsh times and expect things to recover over night or from year to year. We must manage for an even age distribution of bucks in the population through restrictions and reductions. It’s important for us to realize this. We as hunters just can’t continue to kill anything that has antlers and expect our mule deer population to increase. I’m not saying we all need to be trophy hunters either. But just maybe we don’t have to kill a deer every year to be a real hunter.