Colorado Mule Deer: Deputy Editor Jay Cassell Bags a Big Buck

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

The Elkhorn Outfitters Lodge, in Craig, Colorado By Jay Cassell Fall usually finds me hunting whitetails in New York's Catskill Mountains. But this year I had a chance to go to Colorado and hunt mule deer and cow elk instead. I jumped at the opportunity. Who wouldn't? I met Texas writer Brandon Ray and long-time friend Kevin Howard in Denver and we flew together to the Steamboat Springs-Hayden airport. Landing in a raging snowstorm was an adventure, but we were soon in our rental car, headed toward Elkhorn Outfitters, our hosts for the hunt. When we got to the lodge, we unpacked the rifles and headed to the range to sight in the Browning rifles and Winchester Supreme XP3 ammo Howard (who owns a PR firm representing Browning and Winchester Ammunition) had brought for us to test. That night we met Dick Dodds, founder and owner of Elkhorn, and the lodge's general manager John Papierski, who told me that he had been guiding elk hunters for most of the three-month season. Ray and I were only his second group of deer hunters so far in the season. John said he had some monster bucks already located. Sleep did not come easy that night.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

A view of the Blue Gravel Ranch Morning came quickly, and we were soon out in the truck, bouncing along snow-covered dirt roads. The first ranch we hit was the 50,000-acre Blue Gravel Ranch in Moffat County (Elkhorn owns two ranches, Blue Gravel and the 60,000-acre Big Gulch Ranch). Papierski explained that the hunting was so good here primarily because of the Ranching for Wildlife program that Dodds entered back in 1989, when he started outfitting. Ranching for Wildlife lets private landowners set their own seasons, in consultation with the state, in exchange for guaranteeing the public 10 percent of the tags for antlered animals. Antlerless tags are also set aside for public hunters; these help the ranch reach its management goals and quotas. "We treat public hunters (residents only) just as we treat our paying customers at the lodge," Papierski told me. "It's a good deal for everyone. The public hunters have to draw the tags, but that isn't difficult. Then they have the chance to hunt our two ranches, which are loaded with animals."Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Brandon Ray glasses from the truck. I couldn't argue with that. While we were talking, we pulled up to the top of a ridge and were glassing the gullies below. It was windy and snow was falling, but you could easily make out he dark-brown and gray mule deer bedded in the sage and oak brush. There were animals all over the place.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Papierski works on getting the truck unstuck. Despite the snow, the roads were almost impassable in places. The morning passed quickly, and we put a sneak on two huge 5x5 bucks that were traveling together, but we just couldn't get in position for a shot. Hiking in the thin mountain air -" we were at 8000 feet -" was brutal on my sea-level lungs. The afternoon on that first day involved more driving and glassing-"until we lurched around a corner in the road and suddenly found our truck up to its axles in mud. Rescue came in the form of another truck from the lodge which, using its winch, was just able to pull us out. With the sun starting to set, we glassed one more buck, a wide 3X3 that both Ray and I decided to pass on. It was the beginning of our hunt, and neither one of us wanted to end it so soon.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Kevin Howard with a wide 3x3 muley buck. Howard was back at the lodge when we came in. He had taken a huge 3X3 mule deer buck and was all smiles. With the roads turning to mud, we decided to take horses into the mountains in the morning. We didn't want to get stuck again, and the animals would let us reach areas that a truck couldn't.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Saddling up in the corral. On the second morning, we headed to the corral, gathered the horses, and packed our gear for the morning's hunt. Papierski eased the truck and horse trailer onto the highway, headed over to Big Gulch, parked at the trailhead, and unloaded the horses. Sliding my .270 WSM into the scabbard, I clambered aboard my horse, Alex, and started up the mountain.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Taking a break on the way up the mountain. That's me in the foreground. The trail up the mountain was snowy, and the wind was howling up at the top. We glassed innumerable animals, but only saw one major buck, a big-bodied animal bedded on an adjacent mountain about a mile away. With doe sentries and elk moving, it made no sense to try to get in range; we would have been spotted long before getting close.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Ray glasses for a big buck that snuck away before we could get a shot. In the afternoon, we glassed another valley and spied what was easily a Boone & Crockett-class mule deer buck. "He's huge," John hissed in my ear as we glassed him. John and I went all the way down the mountain trying to cut him off, but he had disappeared before we got there. "He went over the ridge," said Ray, who had stayed up high watching us through his Swarovski 10x42 EL binoculars. "You didn't come close."Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Greg Rodriguez with his bull. Back in camp that night we greeted Greg Rodriguez, a good friend who'd arrived from Texas that evening. Greg has his own booking service, and specializes in African safaris but despite his years of hunting experience, he had never shot an elk and could hardly contain himself. He didn't have to wait long. In the morning Rodriguez and his guide spied a nice 6x6 bull on a distant hillside, and Greg took him with a 390-yard heart shot. Impressive, to say the least.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Brandon Ray poses with his buck. Later that day we were riding down a rutted dirt road, glassing the hills, when Papierski slammed on the breaks. Way up ahead, we could see a group of does and small bucks crossing the road. As we waited, a monster rose out of the brush and followed. "I'll go for that one!" Brandon Ray whispered, and a two-hour chase was on. I watched from a hillside -- my instructions were to use hand signals to tell Ray and Papierski if the deer went out of the valley -- as hunter and guide ran across the sage flats, went up the mountain, glassed and waited to see what the herd was doing, then came back down and dropped into a gully, out of view. The herd was grazing toward the top of the mountain when I saw the orange-clad Ray belly-crawl out of the gully and set his rifle on Papierski's pack. A loud boom echoed across the sage flats, and I saw the buck fall.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

I pose with my buck. Hew as well worth the trip! Leaving Ray on the mountain, John made his way back to my position. "We'll hop in the truck and drive around to the other side," he said. "I think I can get pretty close to Brandon's position, so we don't have far to drag. That buck must weigh 270 pounds!" Brandon, as it turns out, was going to have to wait. It was 10:30 and the sun was shining, but deer were still on the move. As we came off the ridge and drove up onto another, we saw six does running down the valley, followed by two nice bucks. "Wait," John said, grabbing his spotting scope, "There's another buck that's holding back." I peered through my binoculars and sure enough there was a big buck watching the other deer. We kept driving until we could stop in a hidden dip in the road. "Let's go!" I yelled, and we piled out of the truck and started making our way though the sage, into the gully. Peering over the sage, I riveted my binoculars on the buck...he was still there, and was looking right at me. He was 210 yards away. "Hurry, he's going to go," John whispered. "Here, use these shooting sticks." Getting as steady a rest as I could, still winded and with heart pounding, I peered through the scope. I settled the crosshairs on the middle of his neck just as he turned and began to jump. My shot took him in the spine. He was a beauty, a nice 5x5. As I do with all game, I thanked him, then got to the chore of field dressing.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

Hunting Mule Deer in Colorado

An elk herd that came out of the mountains while we were hunting. Later in the day, after collected Brandon and his buck, John and I belly-crawled up a gulch, through mud and water, to get within range of a huge herd of elk. My cow tag of course prevented me from even looking at the bulls in the herd. I singled out a medium-sized cow and, using my pack as a rest, settled the crosshairs on her heart. One shot at 240 yards was all it took. At the shot, the rest of the herd jumped up and ran, leaving dust swirling in the air. I couldn't get over the number of elk on the two ranches that we had been hunting. Nor the number of huge mule deer, and all the antelope. "Some folks come and hunt all three," Papierski told me as we headed back to camp. "In fact, when mountain lion season comes in, there's a time when you can even hunt all four." With the Ranching for Wildlife program in place and thriving, Elkhorn Outfitters is one of the best spots to go for a true western hunt. You have the three headline species; there is lots of territory; you can ride horses or drive, whatever you prefer; the guides are smart; the accommodations and food are excellent; and Dick and Cheryl Dodds, the owners of Elkhorn, are some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. To book a hunt -" both elk and deer seasons run into mid-December -"contact them at 970-824-7392; elkhornoutfitters.com -" Jay CassellField & Stream Online Editors