Confessions of a Mule Deer Newb- Part 2

One of the twins at Twin Lakes Recreation center on BLM land. Gorgeous and, according to a fisherman camping there, full of bass and perch. Photo by Jake Jacobson

We got an early start on the second day and headed for the rough country north of Odessa. We had a few fits and starts trying to find the area Jake was seeking, and as we drove past a sideroad a group of five deer were crossing. I saw the leading couple, both does, but Jake spotted a couple of bucks as they moved off.

“I think one of those is a four-point,” he said. We stopped and Jake broke out the binoculars while I got my rifle and loaded it. I walked out after them and they stopped a hundred, maybe a hundred-twenty five yards out. I cranked the scope to max and looked them over. There were two bucks and I located the one with the largest antlers- still not large, mind you- and took aim. It would have been easy to drop him, but I just wasn’t sure he had the required three points. When they are small like this those damn big ears of theirs get in the way.

These were none of them particularly large deer; maybe 200-250lbs. In the end I lowered the rifle and watched them. The big one turned and gave me a better angle and I looked him over through the scope again, and about the time I decided he wasn’t a three-point I heard Jake calling, “Don’t shoot!” I lowered the rifle as he approached and we agreed that he might not be legal. We watched, not without regret, as they moved off. In the distance they joined another herd, so there were about twenty of them as they moved out of sight. Back in the truck, then, and we moved along.

Some does from the first day, about two-hundred yards out. An easy shot… but not legal. Photo by Jake Jacobson

We found ourselves at the gates of the Twin lakes Recreation Center on BLM land and went in to have a look. Lots of rugged, arid prairie or perhaps desert, no deer. We stopped at one of the lakes to avail ourselves of the outhouse, chatted with a fisherman who was camping on the edge of a lake and couple other hunters before moving on. Plenty of vehicle accessible trails, but rough going.

We stopped at one point and looked over a pair of forelegs from a muley, cut off at the knees and left. The meat was still fresh at the joints, so likely it had been taken earlier that morning. Leaving Twin Lakes we headed northwest and found the BLM land we had been looking for. Perfect deer country, but by then it was late for the morning hunt, so after exploring a bit we headed back to Soap Lake to pick up our overnight gear and head home. Good timing- we weren’t on the road long after lunch before a storm blew in and things were pretty nasty across the pass and into Seattle.

More deer we couldn’t legally shoot. I may actually make a real effort to get a doe tag next year; we saw more deer on this trip than I have in the last ten years west of the mountains. Photo by Jake Jacobson

So, no mule deer for me this year, but the Blacktail season is still on west of the mountains, so I’ll try much luck on those. If I don’t get one of those there’s Whitetail out towards Spokane next month… We’ll just have to see what happens.

I learned a lot on this trip, not just the general method for hunting Muleys in that area- because I am sure it’s different in other places- but about what to take and how to equip for the hunt.

Since it might well have been freezing I took my winter boots. I found that while these were more than warm enough and are great for tromping through the snow they suck on rough ground. They just don’t have the flexibility to work well in the rough. Next time I’ll wear combat boots and insulated socks.

I also had decided against taking my .44 Magnum revolver, but having seen deer at less than twenty yards I think that was a mistake. If you get down into the sage it is perfectly possible to encounter deer at very close range, and if I am in better condition next year (and that’s the plan) it’s likely I’ll be getting into the brush.

I had a handgun but it was a EDC piece, and completely unsuited to taking an animal this size. Jake was carrying a four-inch .357 with heavy game loads in a chest holster, which would have done well enough. Myself I would be more comfortable with a .41 or .44 Magnum; I think a 4-5/8″ single action would be an excellent compromise between packability and game-getting power, so I’ll be on the lookout. I am not going to shorten the Abilene; with the long barrel and an optic it has it’s own place in my hunting arsenal, so it’s going to stay just as it is.

A sidearm like this Ruger in .41 or .44 Magnum would be just about an ideal sidearm for this country. Loaded with a heavy Keith bullet it ought to be up to the task.

A handgun has another advantage; it’s illegal to have your rifle loaded in the vehicle, but a holstered handgun can be loaded. If you have a concealed-carry permit there’s not much anyone can say about it, and it could be genuinely useful.

Layers are good. I was OK in a long-sleeve T-shirt with a flannel shirt and my hunting vest, but I had a couple more layers with me to add on at need. Of course this is a pretty good general rule for the Pacific Northwest; the weathermen are better than they used to be, but they still have a way to go before you can trust them without a ‘just-in-case’ plan.

A 4×4 vehicle, as I mentioned last time, is non-negotiable. So is having a hunting partner. Also while it is sometimes fun to camp out an RV or hotel room is real nice to return to at the end of a long day. Camping in autumn in eastern Washington is not a casual affair; weather can be beautiful or hellish, and can flip from one to the other with surprising speed.

I have an invite to accompany Jake again next year, and I am damn sure going to take him up on it. We had a great time and saw some awesome scenery, and with a little luck next time we’ll find something to shoot.

Confessions of a Mule Deer Newb- Part 1

My first trip east of the mountains for Mule Deer was a great success- but we didn’t get a deer. Yeah, I’d have liked to, but this trip was about learning the ropes, and that mission was accomplished with flying colors; I learned a lot. Mind you, if we’d had doe tags, (or been willing to bend the rules a wee bit) we’d both have brought home deer. Don’t consider it a failure of hunting; consider it a triumph of ethics.

Most people who aren’t from here think of Washington as lush and green, with a hilly, forested landscape and fields stretching from salt-water to the mountains, and it is that… west of the Cascade Mountains. But that’s only half the state, and half the story. East of them everything changes. Eastern Washington ranges from arid prairie to outright desert. About one-third of America’s wheat is grown here, a fact which even many Washington residents are unaware.

Coming over the mountains you cross the Columbia Gorge, by some reckoning the largest canyon in the continental US. Depending on your route you might see nothing but what appears to be gently rolling hills covered in wheat fields, only occasionally traversing areas of table-lands, buttes and canyons. But get off the highway and onto the backroads and the story changes. Once you get out among those hills it quickly becomes apparent; this place is seriously tore up.

Nestled between those gently rolling hills are ravines, gullies and canyons choked with sagebrush, where the terrain ranges from ‘Wow, this is rough,’ to ‘Oh, hell no!’

Some time around the end of the Ice Age an ice dam ruptured and spilled a volume of water roughly the size of Lake Michigan across the landscape that would someday be the central part of eastern Washington, and absolutely shredded the landscape. Time has softened much of the damage in the ages since, but the raw scars of nature’s fury still persist. These are the Channeled Scablands, and this is where you hunt mule deer.

Beautiful country, but this is not a soft and gentle land.

I’m 57 years old, sixty pounds overweight and not in particularly good condition, so I viewed the prospect of this hunt with as much trepidation as excitement. Legal Mule Deer weigh around 300 lbs. or more. If you shoot one, even gutted and quartered you’ll be humping 170-200 lbs. of meat and bone back to the truck. Yes, the truck- you’re going to need one, and it had better be four-wheel drive. We’ll get back to that later.

You are also going to need a hunting partner. It’s not safe to hunt alone here; cell reception is dodgy at best, and like I said, this place is tore up. In addition to uneven or rough terrain you are contending with sagebrush, jagged basalt ranging from rocks to boulders, badger holes that can be stepped in… at least by hunting season the rattlesnakes have hibernated. Probably. The disaster-factor is just too high to be worth the risks. You turn an ankle or, worse yet, bust a leg and you’re screwed without someone to help or get help. Plus unless you are Superman you will need help humping that meat out. If you think the ground is tricky, imagine trying it with 90 lbs. of deer in your pack.

Sure, you might shoot your deer on decent ground; the deer often come out to graze on the tender shoots of Winter Wheat that are coming up this time of year. But you’d best come prepared to get down into that bad land, because that’s where the deer go between meals.

So, it seems the common way to hunt them is to drive the backroads in your 4×4 and look for deer. Depending on where you are these roads can be pretty decent or stray well into ‘are you sure that’s a road?’ territory. They can also change from one to the other in the middle. Jake and I were in his Toyota Tundra, and we never actually had to engage four-wheel drive. But if Mother Nature had dropped so much as a mild shower on us we would have needed it.

Lovely and inviting…
…Until you get close and find the sagebrush and boulder-choked gully between the hills.

That’s a distinct possibility; the weather at this time of year is… let’s call it whimsical. When Jake was there just three days before it was freezing. When we were there it was in the fifties and sunny much of the time, but as we were heading home it went from ‘partially cloudy’ to full-on thunderstorm in about an hour.

Oh, and if you shoot a deer at a good distance, keep a sharp lookout when you come up on it. There are coyotes and mountain lions about, and they have been known to dispute the ownership of a carcass on occasion. If coyotes are inclined to make an issue of it most folks just shoot ’em. A cougar, though… that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish. You don’t want to shoot them if you can avoid it. Likely a warning shot will drive them off, but if you have to shoot one it’s going to be a hassle. Not to mention it just seems like a damn shame to shoot such a magnificent creature.

OK, this really isn’t the terrifying ordeal I might be implying. Most of it is proper old-man hunting. You sit in your comfy seat and sip coffee while you creep along, keeping your eyes peeled and binoculars handy. If you spot a deer you stop, scope it out and see if it’s legal to shoot. Currently that means a three-point or more. You are going to see a hell of a lot more spikes, does and yearlings than you are three-pointers, but don’t despair. If there’s a bunch of does there will be a buck nearby. The trick is whether or not he’ll present himself.

We headed out from our quarters in Soap Lake around dawn and headed north-west of town. It being a weekday we didn’t see many other hunters out, which was good news and bad. On the one hand there were fewer folk trying to shoot the few legal deer. On the other hand there was no one stirring them up and getting them moving. A moving deer is hugely easier to spot than a stationary one.

The first hour we saw one lone doe ambling along the edge of a field, far out of range. My rule of thumb (if I don’t have a doe tag, which I have never had the luck to obtain) is one doe is just a lone doe. You see two or more does and there’s a buck nearby. We found a spot where we had cell reception, so Jake pulled off to get his bearings. I stepped out to stretch my legs and have a cigarette (yeah yeah, I know…) and something told me I should step up on the scrub-covered hillock beside the road. When I did two does stood up less than twenty yards out and started to lope away.

“We got does!” I hollered back to Jake, and he came over pronto. By the time the they were forty yards away they were joined by two spike-bucks, and they all trotted up the ravine- but any one of them could just as easily have been a three-point or more. Had that been the case I could have simply stepped the legal distance off the road (100 feet) and easily taken any of them. If I had had my rifle… oops. We watched them for a bit until they were out of sight, got back in the truck and moved on.

A few miles further on we spotted another doe at the edge of the sagebrush about two-hundred yards out. We stopped and Jake grabbed the binoculars, and shortly announced “They’re does, and there’s two of them.” By then I’d snagged my rifle and was looking them over through the scope. “Three of them, actually,” I said.

One of them was standing facing me, and if she’d been a legal buck it would have been child’s play to drop her. I found that curiously heartening. Finally they moved off through the sagebrush, and picked up some friends along the way; when they cleared the brush on the far side there were eight of them, though none of them appeared to be three-points or better. They moved off across the open hillside until they were out of sight, and we got in the truck to see if we could find a cross-road that would put us ahead of them. We couldn’t, and as it was then coming onto eleven AM we called it a morning.

We grabbed some lunch and rested up, then headed out for the evening hunt. We checked back where we’d seen the small herd, but had no luck despite Jake crossing the field and prowling along the edge of the sagebrush while I watched for movement from a distance. With dark coming on we called it a day. Even driving back to town is a hazard; we damn near hit two yearlings in different spots on the way back! We had a good dinner and passed a pleasant evening chatting and watching The Ranch on Netflix.

Next time I’ll tell you about day two of the hunt, and some of the lessons learned. I’ll also have some of Jake’s pictures by then, and they’ll be way better than mine; he had a proper camera and is a photographer.

Jake, who knows his way around the country and a camera!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 18 October 2019

I Hear the Siren-Song of Eastern-Washington Muleys…

I took a twenty-year hiatus from hunting, and since I have returned to it I’ve been going for black-tails at a friends property, which we refer to as ‘The Happy Hunting Grounds.’ Since one seldom even sees a deer beyond fifty yards there my home-grown 7.35mm Carcano carbine‘s iron sights have been just fine. I actually sold my scoped .30-06 because it really didn’t seem like I’d need it. Oops… but more on that later.

My beloved home-made M38 Carcano Carbine

This year I had a hankerin’ to try something different; Eastern Washington Mule Deer. I figured to take my Abilene .44 magnum, mount an optic and try my luck. I picked up a Bushnell TRS-25 red dot and planned to mount a rail on the gun. Likely with the right load and a little practice I’d be good-to-go out to 75-100 yards.

US Arms Abilene .44 magnum- an underappreciated classic!

…or not. My buddy Jake offered to drag my sorry ass along on his hunt in Eastern Washington, where shots of 100-300 yards happen. Too long for me with a handgun, and I’ve always figured the Carcano to be a 100-yard gun, given my aging eyes and the iron sights. I bemoaned selling the .30-06 to Linda, and she shrugged and said, “So buy a scoped rifle. Pinto’s will have something…”

Is it any wonder I love this woman beyond reason?

Pinto’s did, of course, have something. I was spoiled for choice, in fact. I don’t know if this holds true across the country, but on the used market here a scoped rifle sells for about the same price as one without a scope mounted. Even restricting myself to a scoped rifle in one of a few specific calibers I had a number of options. The one I finally bought was a Remington Model 660 in .243 Winchester. It has a TruGlo scope mounted and a sling. The scope isn’t the best out there, but it’s serviceable, and the sling is a bonus; saved me the time and modest expense of purchasing and mounting one. Another bonus is that the plastic trigger-guard has been replaced by an aluminum unit, which is quite a bit more robust.

Remington Model 660, chambered in .243 Winchester

The Model 660 was an improved version of the Model 600 carbine; among other changes the sight rib was eliminated and the barrel lengthened by two inches. Over 45,000 of these carbines were made from 1968-1971, after which it was replaced by the Model 600 Mohawk.

I felt that as old, fat and out of shape as I am the handy 6.5 lb. rifle was just about ideal, and the modest recoil and flat trajectory of the .243 Winchester was suited to the task. I got three boxes of PPU 100gr. Spitzer bullets (so I’d have plenty to practice) and headed for Renton Fish and Game Club to try her out.

I got a zeroing target and set it out at 100 yards, though I figured the odds of the rifle already being sighted in to be high. Just for giggles I decided to shoot the first three-shot string standing/unsupported. This produced a 2″ group very slightly high/left. Not shabby at all! Recoil was moderate, the action very smooth and the trigger light, with a nice clean break.

Okay, time to shoot from a rest and see what she’ll really do. I set out the rest with a couple of sandbags and fired my three-shot string, then moved to the spotting scope to check the results. Huh… a 2″ group. Better knuckle down and try harder… Rinse and Repeat, checked the spotting scope and saw another 2″ group. Huh again…

Hmmm… I broke out the range’s Steady Rest, mounted the rifle and fired another string. 2″ group. OK then, good enough.

After much discussion with other firearms boffins I figure this is simply the limit of what this rifle can do with that cartridge. PPU is OK ammo, but it’s no one’s idea of a premium round. For this season it’s good enough; after hunting season I’ll work up some handloads and see what happens.

So, Wednesday morning at zero-dark-hundred Jake and I will hop in Moby Truck and head for the Channelled Scablands, a region of gullies and badlands in Eastern Washington cut into the desert by a massive super-flood during the last ice age. With any luck we’ll bring home some venison. Either way I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Channelled Scablands of Eastern Washington. This looks like… uh… fun.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 November 2019