Colorado Mule Deer

by Jim Boyer

It is the first morning of my fourth hunt at Three Forks Ranch in as many seasons and I secretly hope we do not see the 200 plus inch Mule Deer. In the conversation over a five star meal last evening this set up sounded too easy, as the guides had been seeing him on a regular basis. I do not want my hunt over too quickly even though it would give me more time to fly fish, ride horses or shoot sporting clays. In the end I need not have worried, we do not see that particular buck this morning or the rest of the week. Fast forward to midweek, just an hour before I had harvested a trophy Elk as part of a combo hunt, and now with a Deer tag still in my pocket we head off towards the other side of the mountain. Still too full of adrenaline from the action this morning we fail to slow down as we approach a lone stand of aspens. Branden Wells, my guide this morning steps aside to allow for a shot and points to the tree line. I am no where near quick enough and the 180 class Muley tops the ridge. We follow, and taking up a position on the high ground to glass. We pick out deer in nearly every piece of good looking cover, but do not find a buck that piques our interest. Satisfied with our glassing effort, we saddle up our packs and head back to the truck. The air temperature is rising to a comfortable 60 degrees and we want to get the big 6×6 down the mountain and on its way to the processor before lunch.

Brandon and I climb a familiar trail for this evenings hunt. We are hunting an area that consistently holds big Mule deer. Last year when we hunted this area it was thick with mature bucks and one bruiser lucky enough to be on the wrong side of the property line. Today we run in to a monster six point bull and his cows. He is tucked away in this corner of the ranch, which is not normally thought of for holding Elk. With light fading we hike down to the truck and start back to the lodge. We do not make it far when we notice dozens deer on the approach to a nearby peak. We park in the middle of the two track and watch the deer filter of the slope, seven bucks in one bunch alone. Too late for an opportunity tonight but now we know where to concentrate our efforts next time. “Big Al” Morris Three Forks Master Guide recognizable to anyone with the Outdoor Channel from his numerous hunting show appearances sends us out early this afternoon, a full court press to find a big Mule deer on this last afternoon of my hunt. Normally I would not be concerned about finding a shooter buck on Three Forks in just a half day session however the weather report is not good. Forecasts call for rain changing to snow this afternoon. Big Al wants us to try for a different 200″ Muley he saw a couple days ago over in the northwest corner of the ranch. So after negotiating the rain soaked ranch roads as well as the numerous required gate crossings we find ourselves parked in the general area Big Al described. The hard rain has changing to snow, visibility is low and without a definite plan I decide a nap in the truck is in order hoping things will improve in an hour or so. We wake to see conditions have gotten worse not better at this elevation. With all the other bucks guide Kelly Fender has scouted for us located back near headquarters, we decide to abandon this buck and head for a lower elevation. After driving a short distance we realize we have a problem. Mud is building up on the tires, and even at a crawl it is all Brandon can do to keep the truck on the road. To make things worse the truck we have today is Big Al’s personal vehicle and I don’t want to be the one to tell him we have his truck in a ditch. They don’t call him “Big Al” for nothing. So we creep along, when I hop out to open the gates I get the same three inches of mud on my boots as the truck tires which needs to be scraped off each time. Just as we hit the elevation where the snow changes back to rain, we spot a band of bachelor bucks just cresting a ridge line. They look good from here so we make a left on to a jeep trail and follow. As we clear the crest we see a couple dozen young bucks and does feeding on the slope, the group of mature bucks are not visible and with time running out we decide not to set out on foot to look for them. We retrace our path back to the main road and as we swing around the other side of the knob we spot more deer. A quick scan of the bunch reveals some bucks but nothing that gets our hearts pumping. With only an hour and a half of daylight left I am starting to doubt that we can pull off another last day trophy. We decide to bet it all on two locations Kelly told us about to the south of the Lodge Complex. We pass through the gate at the first spot and park to glass the ridge above the stream. One hour to go, we pick apart every opening and after 10minutes decide to pull up stakes. Brandon is looking for an spot to turn the truck around on the narrow dirt road, when I catch movement on top of the ridge. Three bucks running and I can tell immediately the one is a keeper. The bucks slow to a walk and stay on the skyline heading on a course parallel to the ranch road. Our quickly hatched plan is to drive ahead of the deer, park and work our way back on foot. With only minutes till quitting time we will be fully committed once we leave the truck. Fifteen minutes later we have closed the distance in half from where we parked and are set up watching the side hill. I am looking too far to the left when Branden points straight up the hill. About 200 yards out stands one of the smaller bucks, we see him only briefly before he disappears. The second small buck follows the same route and we realize there is ony a small window of trail visible from our location, I will need to be quick with a shot. Due to the steep uphill angle of the slope I am laying flat on my back with the Harris bipod extended to its full twenty three inches. When the big buck trots in to view, I flick off the safety, settle the crosshairs behind the shoulder and touch off the 30-378 Weatherby. As the gun settles back on to the bipod I see the buck drop from view. We wait for a few minutes to see if a second shot will be necessary from here, but do not see him again. We both call a high hit based on the bucks reaction but do not know if it was fatal. Brandon stays at the position of the shot to direct me as I double time up the slope. I do not make it very far before the steep incline slows me to a walk. When I finally make it to the spot I thought he would be I find nothing, no deer and no sign of a hit. The top of the ridge is flat for hundreds of yards and was hidden from our shot position, I worry that he hightailed it across the open ground. After a second pass bird dogging the side hill I drop a few feet lower and start over. Several gut wrenching minutes later I find the buck piled up, hidden from view between some boulders. Branden joins me at the top just as the fog begins to lift and exposing a blue sky. We admire the 7×6 185 class buck, taking many pictures before field dressing and propping him open. We will return in the morning to recover him from the flats above, as it is dark now and the slope down to the truck is steep and slick from the day’s rain. This has been another fantastic hunt at Three Forks Ranch. The outcome only in doubt till the last minutes of the last day, due to my choice to pass on so many good bucks thought out the hunt. That evening over dinner Ranch Manager Jay Linderman notes my penchant for doing things the hard way as all the other guests were tagged out days ago and have been relaxing ever since.

Three Forks manages 200,000 acres, hunting 50,000 and devoting the rest to their cattle operation. They are part of Colorado’s fantastic Ranching for Wildlife program which benefits the ranch by providing 90% of the harvest quota as guaranteed Elk, Mule deer and Antelope tags. The season is 90 days of the ranch’s choosing allowing for hunting during the rut with any Colorado legal hunting weapon. Colorado’s resident hunters benefit from the chance to draw tags from the remaining pool, which will provide them a guided hunt for just the cost of a license. In this program residents have consistently named Three Forks #1 in hunter satisfaction and #1 overall in 2002. the Mule Deer are averaging 170-190 B.C. with the largest at 207 taken just this past fall. If the hunting is not enough to entice you, the ranch is an Orvis endorsed Fly Fishing lodge encompassing 16miles of the Little Snake River and its tributaries as well as 30 oxbow ponds. The ranch completed the largest privately funded stream improvement project ever in the US a couple years ago and is currently working with Colorado and Wyoming to restore native Colorado Cutthroat trout across the region. The stream improvements have had time to settle and the water is now providing abundant natural forage for the 20-25″ rainbows which are now the norm, with a 301/2″ long, 18″ girth Rainbow being taken recently.

  • Equipment used.
  • Swarovski 10×42 EL Binoculars
  • Swarovski STS-65 Spotting scope
  • Weatherby Accumark in 30-378
  • Hornady Interbond 165 grain 30 cal. bullet
  • Leica 400 Rangefinder
  • Harris Bipod
  • Stoney Point shooting sticks
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