Oh what a place. Many of us in Oregon know of the Steens Mountain, not just because it's America's tallest-of-it's-kind fault-scarp mountain. Or, be it for the long ice-age glacier-carved canyons charged with the largest aspen groves in the state.
But no, it's the famed Mule Deer. The reputation for the biggest bucks in the state has faded some over the last ten years; somewhat due to the ubiquitous decline of Mule Deer throughout the west.
There are varying reasons why, but like most of us here in Oregon, we know that predation is very real since Oregon's Measure 18 virtually eliminated hound hunting for Cougars.
Locals have reported that a Government trapper has taken 50-60 cougars off the mountain.
Many states report herds in decline from the highs in the 1970's, or even the peak of the 1950's, by as much as 70%. I remember herds taking a hit in the bad winter of '92-'93, all across the Intermountain west.
While there are many variables regionally to explain the drop in mule deer numbers, my take is these three things in Oregon: Predation (this includes poachers), Cars, and loss of habitat.
Cars you say? Only my theory, but in Deschutes County, each day I work, I see on a county-wide 911 dispatch computer system, normally about three deer that need pick-up or dispatched--DAILY. This doesn't include non-reported car strikes, and any number of other car related injuries and deaths. Unscientific, but that's over 1,200 deer killed per year just in Deschutes County--and that's just what I see reported.
Deschutes County may be one of the highest in the state due to the influx of tourists and employees daily, as well as our proximity to wintering lands and migration through Central Oregon, but remember, THIS "season" is 24/7-365, and we are killing our deer much like predators and poachers, with our cars.
But I've digressed...
So, with the excitement of a Steens tag in hand, I had a plan to go remote, and to spend the time necessary to tag a big buck--well as usual, the latter didn't happen, due to life's circumstances; so I planned to scout three days ahead of the opener.
Glassing would entail a large scope for out of vehicle/stationary viewing and a smaller more compact spotter for the hike/hunt.
First evening I found a remote basin that I could glass through sunset, two large rims, with creek drainages, and good water below.
The next morning I repeated the night before's glassing, only to find--nothing!
So, it was time to strap on the WholeShabang! Pack and head for the high country.
I took my topo maps and headed for some high remote basins, and to the famed Kiger Gorge where I could see all the basins in the few days worth of travels. I would watch for hunters glassing, and decide on a buck "before" the opening day.
Again, just a "plan" that doesn't come to fruition, as I only find three bucks--in a not so isolated basin--and they are a long ways away.
I found only one spot to create a camp among the steep rocky ground. It looked as if it had previously been a buck bed, so I kicked-out the remaining rocks and settled in for an evening of glassing.
And boy the views! At 9,000' it is amazing where you can see--three other states!
And as sunset came and went, no bucks--in fact--no deer!
So, with the new morning sun, more glassing and few deer and few bucks--not good.
It appeared as the morning rolled on, that camp would need to be moved for Friday, and find some new ground, or back to the beginning of the adventure, where my vehicle was parked, and come up with perhaps a whole new plan.
So, with my "house on my back," I moved to three other remote areas and I could only find antelope, yes, antelope--at 9,000'. It was apparent that the deer had moved to better ground and the antelope were enjoying these Indian-Summer days. Nights were at 50 degrees at 8,000'-9,000'.
So, with the mild temperatures, the deer had to be mostly nocturnal, and I would now have to switch to looking primarily for the feeding areas, observing the direction and quality of tracks left in the dirt.
I struck-out for new ground....
It seemed I was just way to high. The temperatures told me that's where I needed to remain, and try to catch the deer returning to high-shaded places to stay cool during the day. The one thing that is certain on Steens Mountain, is the wind.
The days had Northwest winds, and the strong diurnals would make it fairly easy to descend or ascend on animals--if I could just find them!
Finally, Saturday arrived and I hadn't seen a shooter buck yet. So, off I went with my Orion pack, a compact spotting scope and BinoBro ProHunter with RangeFinder Bro attached to the harness.
I placed my spare cartridge pouch onto the opposite side of the Bro harness of my Range Finder in case I found that I had to ditch my Orion Pack I'd have a few more rounds available and not back at my pack.
The evening winds switched to Southwest breezes warming the evenings and making this more difficult. I secretly prayed for at least cooling, if not rain. Some seasons snow would show-up for opening day and man would that make for awesome deer hunting!
So, by evening of the opening day, I had found deer. It made sense--a year-old burn. So, I watched numerous bucks show-up at the area with the best forage for miles.
I played the wind and watched the activity and bailed out just in time for the diurnal switch of the wind which would give all nine bucks in the vicinity a good reason to leave.
Upon return to my camp--just a miles walk, I encountered a beautiful mountain warrior of a buck that looked to be a big three point, as he rose from the ceanothus velutinus (snow brush) to look over the landscape and depart downhill to feed. A big-bodied buck that I thought I could shoot if it came down to not getting the "big guy" that I'd spotted in the group of nine. The Aspen were just on fire, and the landscape just said, "this is deer season!"
Once back to camp two bucks held just 100 yards from me not concerned--one an old non-typical revert--so, over twelve bucks opening day, in the last four hours of daylight; things were improving quickly.
I played the wind again in the morning on my return to the feeding grounds just at shooting light. Again, a good choice as a shooter four point appeared. I set my sights on this buck that was with four other four points, as he clearly was the "big guy!"
These nine bucks ranged from 158 yards to about 250 yards--dead on holds for all, with the .338 Winchester Magnum, BAR 1 that I was carrying.
As bad luck would have it, the shooter disappeared behind a rock pinnacle, and led all the other bucks to their morning bedding area under some mountain mahogany.
I watched them for over an hour and decided they wouldn't stir to feed until mid-afternoon, and I returned to camp for a nap, more calories and would decide on a game-ending plan for the "big guy."
It has been said before, "if I didn't have bad luck I'd have no luck at all..." Upon my return, the bucks were out of their beds. I looked high, I looked low, I looked left and to the right side of the mountain, and only a couple forked horns and now six does were all up and feeding--3:00 P.M. "Where could they have gone?"
Now with the five four points replaced by six does I hadn't seen up to this time, I knew something was wrong. Had they seen me depart? Had they winded me?
I had to figure this out, and went off for another look on the north face of the peak...only two small bucks. What could have happened?
I decided a closer look below the rims that lay over two hundred yards below was the only tactic left--to make something happen. Risky yes, but my only choice.
I descended 100 yards in :45 minutes. Slowly taking two steps and glassing, and not knocking any rocks loose to tumble the remaining 100 yards over the rim to spook those bucks away for good that I knew were below me.
Well, as I peaked over the rim--nothing! Shocked, I thought they had to have returned and I just didn't see them back to the south. So, off I went. And, again, nothing to the south.
My last ditch effort was back to the north face and to peer into the burn. That's when that old mountain warrior from the night before was below me. He stood as if to say "I'm the biggest-baddest buck here..." He looked full-rut, not pre-rut, and was absolutely beautiful. With just five minutes of shooting light left, I made the decision to shoot. He was just 221 yards, at 32 degrees downhill, and a dead-on hold dropped him where he stood.
I ended his time instantly with a well placed Hornady SST, in 225 grains, from my Belgian-made, Browning, BAR1, and a great reload. I recovered the bullet from under his opposite shoulder and it weighs in at 70% of 225 grains--not bad.
When I approached his enormous body, he had no ground shrinkage. Even though a revert (two years in a row now--maybe three) he was a beautiful buck that fulfilled my Steens mountain adventure perfectly.
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