I was lucky; I harvested a decent size buck on my first “real” hunting adventure, a 3x4 mule deer from Eastern Oregon’s Fossil Unit in 1977. What contributed to me so easily filling my tag is that I’d practiced shooting a lot (meaning I could actually hit something), we were hunting a private ranch having many deer, and I was with a group of experienced hunters happy to share their knowledge.
The next year, naively thinking it would be easy, I decided to hold out for a big buck. After passing up several opportunities at small buck deer I ended up going home without filling my tag. That’s when I told myself, “Someday I’ll get a big buck, but in the meantime, I’m eating venison!”
And so it was, on most years, I’d come home with two- and three-point racks less than 15 inches wide. A few times I’d get lucky and tag a mature buck having a rack over 18 inches; the largest was a 24-inch wide mule deer from Asotin County in southeast Washington.
I’ve stopped shooting the first legal deer I see unless short on time. After all, and as the saying goes, “You’re not going to take home a big buck if you keep shooting the small ones.” This also means you must be willing to accept not filling your tag. Let’s be clear: I don’t consider myself a trophy hunter — if so, I’d be hunting with guides and in exotic places — but I (perhaps like you) want to harvest a mature deer; and, if I keep up this strategy, may eventually luck into a lifetime trophy.
If you share my desire, in addition to passing up the smaller deer, finding a mature buck (one without milk on his lips) will likely require a bigger time commitment, willingness to get away from the crowds, and the physical ability and equipment to pack out the meat.
For many years I always shot my deer within a mile of the road and therefore got it out the same day and in one piece. This meant being able to drive to it and drag it out, or employ a game cart. Once you start venturing two miles or more from vehicle access your best option will most likely be to pack the meat out on your back. What we and many serious hunters do is pack the head out on the first day, leave our deer hanging from a tree, and return the next day or two and backpack out the boned meat, which can weigh 70-100 pounds or more. If the terrain is rough and/or you’re over 60 (like me) you might want to consider making a couple of trips (one per day) rather than risk injury or a heart attack.
Getting away from the more heavily hunted areas may mean the deer you find will be less cautious and you might discover a higher concentration of animals that have been pushed away from where the masses hunt.
For example, it’s pretty common for deer, even mature buck deer, to stand and look at you when hunting wilderness areas or a high elevation hunts where there is little pressure, as opposed to instantly running or never being seen in the first place as is often the case where pressure is high.
Make no mistake, once the shooting starts most deer, especially mature buck deer, understand what’s going on and head where you may not find them. Unless you’re hunting during the rut (breeding season) the majority of mature buck deer won’t be found hanging with the doe deer.
Where deer hide has to do with the habitat. Realize that buck deer might prefer to loiter in different areas than doe deer do.
For example, provided there are mountains nearby, mature bucks, wanting to avoid hot weather and the irritating bugs that go with it, may be found at higher elevation earlier in the season and not down lower until the rut (late October or early November) or when forced down by heavy snow. When the weather is warm, it’s likely they will be found on the north-facing slopes, near the tops of ridges — they like having a commanding view.
The tactics you employ are the same as any hunt, but I’ve had the best success by still hunting and the spot and stalk method. However, last year, while hiking in to retrieve my son’s deer, Wade made a loop down the canyon and pushed a 24-inch wide mule deer my way. It was then we had another head and the meat from two deer to pack four miles.
Was it worth it? Only when I think about the fun memories, see the photos, and look at the mature deer antlers hanging on my wall.