This is a POSTSCRIPT (in Bold print) that has been added ahead of this story, on July, 14th, 2018.
With sharp criticism for writing about the Steens deer hunt, over four years ago, I have chosen to keep this post up and ask for your comments to help some critics understand hunting--and hunting in a grand place, that belongs to ALL of us--our sacred Public Lands! Thank you!
Oh, what a place.
Many of us in Oregon know of the Steens Mountain. Not 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; maybe twenty-some 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 depredation is very real since Oregon's Measure 18, voted in to law, in 1984, it virtually eliminated hound hunting for Cougars.
Locals some years back had reported that a Government trapper had taken 50-60 cougars off the mountain by 2010.
Today, most all western states report herds in decline. From the highs in the 1970's, or even the peak of the 1950's, declines 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. In Deschutes County, each day that I worked, I saw on a county-wide 911 dispatch computer system, about three deer that needed picked-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 saw reported.
Deschutes County may be one of the highest in the state due to the influx of tourists and employees daily into Bend, Sunriver and the bedroom communities of Redmond and primarily LaPine that are in proximity to wintering lands and migration through Central Oregon. Remember, THIS "season" (commuters/cars) is 24/7-365. We are killing our deer much like predators and poachers, with our cars.
But I've digressed...
So, with the excitement with a Steens buck tag in hand, I had a plan to go remote, and to spend the necessary time 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 a WholeShabang! Pack, and head for the high country.
I took my topo maps and headed for some high remote basin, and to the famed Kiger Gorge. There, 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. 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. The huge boulder resting in repose, uphill of me kinda freaked me out, as the recent story of Aron Ralston trapped by a rock and cutting his forearm off was a poignant reminder of the power of nature and hunting alone.
And boy the views! At 9,000' it is amazing what you can see--three other states!
And, as sunset came and went, no bucks. In fact--no deer as far as the eye could see!
So, with the new morning sunrise, 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--the day before the opener. And, the need to find some new ground, or back to the start 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 50 degrees at 8,000'-9,000'.
So, with the mild temperatures, deer had to mostly be nocturnal. 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. The strong diurnals would make it fairly easy to descend or ascend on animals--if I could just find them!
Finally, opening morning (Saturday) arrived and I hadn't seen a shooter buck yet. So, off I went wearing my Orion pack, leaving the Greengate behind in camp. I threw-on a light weight tripod and compact spotting scope, BinoBro ProHunter with RangeFinder Bro attached to the harness. I placed my spare cartridge pouch on the opposite side where my Range Finder Bro was, on my BinoBro harness, in case I found that I had to ditch my Orion Pack, I'd have a few more rounds available and not all back at my pack.
The evening winds switched to Southwest breezes, warming the evenings and making the job at hand, 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 mile walk, uphill, 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 on fire. The landscape just said to me: "This, is deer season!"
Once back to camp, two bucks held just 100 yards from me, not concerned. One, was an old non-typical revert. So, over twelve bucks opening day. Within the last four hours of daylight; things were improving quickly.
In the morning, I played the wind again at shooting light. My return to the feeding grounds--just a mile below my camp, was a good choice, as a shooter four point appeared. I set my sights on this buck. He was with four other four points, and he clearly was, the "big guy!" The 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 buck disappeared behind a rock pinnacle, and led all the other bucks to their morning bedding area under some mountain mahogany.
I watched the bucks for over an hour and decided they wouldn't stir to feed until mid-afternoon. 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 nine bucks were out of their beds. I looked high, I looked low, I looked left and to the right. Only a couple forked horns and six does were all up and feeding--3:00 P.M. "Where could the nine bucks have gone?"
Now, with five four points replaced by six does that 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. I went 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 me was the only tactic left. I needed to make something happen. Risky, yes but, my only choice.
I descended 100 yards in :45 minutes. I slowly took two steps and glassed. I never knocked 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 took the time to descend and I just didn't see them back to the south. So, off I went again, nothing got out 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 out here". He appeared full-rut, not pre-rut. He 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. He'd be a dead-on hold. I dropped him where he stood.
I ended his time instantly with a well placed Hornady SST bullet, in 225 grains, from my Belgian-made, Browning, BAR-1, 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 he had an enormous body. This made his rack look small. He had no ground shrinkage. Even though a revert buck (two years in a row now, maybe three), he was a beautiful buck that fulfilled my Steens mountain adventure perfectly.
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