By: Randy Tucker

Mule deer are an interesting species. Along with coyotes, raccoons, and their cousin the whitetail, they are an adaptive animal whose population has increased as pavement, housing complexes, and all the other accouterments of modern existence has continued to remove the rural American landscape. While deer live well in the suburbs, and you’ll see an occasional monster buck, the wild habitat still rules when looking for trophy level alpha males.

As a kid I read my dad’s issues of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life religiously. While Field and Stream often had articles on freshwater and saltwater fishing, as well as a variety of upland game bird hunting, it also had a nice selection of big game techniques. Outdoor Life, however, was much more attuned to big game hunting, with the requisite “Bear Attack!” featured on almost every cover. The information offered in both of those publications was useful.

For example, one day a group of us hunters decided to follow tips offered in separate stories published in both magazines in search of a big mule deer buck. We went to an area north of Lusk, in Niobrara County, eastern Wyoming called the “Breaks” by locals. Eastern Wyoming is the last gasp of the Great Plains. The area is beautiful; from the hills across Laramie, Goshen, Niobrara, Weston, and Crook Counties, you can catch glimpses of the purple mountains to the west on clear afternoons, and thankfully, afternoons are almost always clear.

The Breaks got its name because the aera forms a break in the surrounding terrain. The endless grass of the plains, broken up by a few small hills, and an occasional decaying bluff, end abruptly a few miles north of the old Hat Creek stage station. Hat Creek was a way station on the famous frontier Cheyenne to Deadwood stage route, now known only as U.S. Highway 85.

The Breaks is a few dozen square miles of heavy pine and spruce, filling hollows and peaks of the uneven countryside. It is a haven for mule deer. At night, if driving the highway that runs to the west of the breaks, you have to slow down because you’re likely to encounter not just a solitary doe or buck, but herds of them grazing along the highway in the moonlight.

On hunting day, our group set out from Lusk before dawn. The rest of my party decided to work the open sagebrush draws surrounding the Breaks, but I set off alone, descending into the depths of the bottom lands.

The technique from Field and Stream, and Outdoor Life that I followed that morning was a simple one: walk until you find large sets of deer tracks, then do a 50/50. That means walk 50 steps, stop, count to 50, then repeat until something jumps. I know it sounds a little ridiculous, but it worked that day and has worked a dozen or so times since.

As I walked quietly down a game trail, I crossed a solitary set of big tracks, really big, large enough that I thought they might belong to a stray Angus calf. But these weren’t cattle tracks, and there were no elk in that area of the county; this was a big mule deer.

I began the 50/50 technique. It was a warm October day. As the sun heated the surrounding countryside, the humidity (a strange thing for arid Wyoming) began to rise. A hint of mist rose from the surrounding foliage as I continued my hunt.

I reached the bottom of the hollow. The terrain changed from a gradual slope to a flat area about the size of three football fields. The area was sandy, evidence of seasonal runoff, with spokes of wide trails narrowing as they moved back up to the plains above me.

One more time, I began to count, 1, 2, 3 … but I was interrupted by a crashing sound to my left. The technique worked perfectly. I caught a glimpse of a giant buck as it broke through the downed timber, spooked by my presence.

He was close, so close that when I raised my Remington 788 for a shot, I could only see a blur of grayish brown against the surrounding green needles of the trees. I didn’t have peep sights under the four-power scope, so I turned my .308 on the side, aimed towards a clearing the buck was moving toward, and waited a few seconds.

This guy was 300 pounds plus and had at least six times on each side of his antlers. As he reached the clearing, about 20 yards in front of me, I fired. But he didn’t run across the clearing; he jumped in a magnificent arc from one covered section to the other. I’m guessing he was about six feet in the air and easily flew 30 feet before his front legs hit the sand.

My shot echoed through the clearing, but it was underneath his perfectly timed jump. By the time I had a second shell in the chamber, he was 50 yards away, cutting back and forth as he ran up the hill. I had no shot.

True to form, he stopped at the top of the ridge, turned sideways, and looked back at me in traditional mule deer fashion. He was at least 300 yards away, and above me about 150 feet. I didn’t have a shot, and probably wouldn’t have taken one anyway since his cunning and ingenuity had impressed me so much.

I knew my shot had disturbed everything for at least a half-mile, and I knew there wasn’t any other buck as big in the area because he would have, no doubt, run off every challenger.

Dejected, I walked back to the truck.

Later in the day, I filled two tags, the buck tag I would have used on the big boy, and a doe tag.

The mule deer buck I took that afternoon was a good one, a big-bodied 3×4, but nothing like the one I’d missed down in the hollow.

It was another classic case of the “one that got away.”

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.