During winter months the deep snows at higher elevations trigger the seasonal migration of mule deer. It is during these times that mule deer move in large herds down along ancestral travel corridors to their wintering grounds at lower elevations. It is essential for deer to travel in order to access seasonal habitats. Thousands of deer descend from the mountains then and are easy to spot, appearing as dark brown objects on an otherwise white snow-covered landscape. During the winter migration, huge bodied bucks sporting tremendous racks appear on the snow-covered slopes. Generally reclusive, these animals are rarely seen at other times of the year. Now they can be spotted among the scattered herds foraging for patches of grass and feeding on bitterbrush.
My hunting partners and I were fortunate enough to draw Idaho late season either sex archery only deer tags within the winter migration corridor. Although a bowhunter will typically see a hundred deer on any given day of hunting, you’d be mistaken to think that this is an easy hunt. The imposing landscape is mostly open terrain, providing for broad, sweeping views of thousands of acres of land from a good vantage point. The habitat of the hunting zone consists of grass covered slopes with scattered low-lying patches of sage, usually no more than a couple feet tall, affording little or no cover for concealment. This situation was compounded by a recent wildfire that burned several thousand acres, leaving behind a featureless landscape. Ever observant, deer situated on the open slopes can easily spot a hunter from hundreds of yards away, making them nearly impossible to approach.
Perhaps the best hunting locations are the remaining thickets of bitterbrush that survived the ravages of wildfire. These hillslope zones provide the best cover, and mule deer are commonly seen browsing grass or bedded down within the bitterbrush. Steep cuts and gullies separated by narrow ridges and rolling hills also offer promising opportunities for a hunter to spot and stalk into position in some situations. Hunting in pairs can also be productive, with one hunter moving game toward a bowhunting partner waiting in ambush.
Cold weather hunting presents certain challenges and requires specific gear. Obviously, warm clothing and appropriate boots are requirements, but there are some not so apparent items that are helpful to bring to the field. With daytime temperatures remaining well below freezing throughout the day, carrying water can become problematic. Water bottles and hydration packs can freeze solid leaving the hunter with no option other than to eat snow in order to stay hydrated. Be sure to protect the tube and mouthpiece of the hydration pack from freezing by tucking it inside your coat.
Cold weather can also affect the performance of equipment. During one outing, the weather was so cold that the feathers on my arrows started to fall off as the fletch tape began to fail. For this reason, I no longer use fletch tape on arrows destined for cold weather hunts. Pocket hand warmers are good to keep cell phones, cameras, and other electronic gear from becoming too cold to operate. A foam pad seat cushion is useful to provide insulation from the snow when glassing or resting. We found that the best camo pattern for hunting in snow is simply solid white. An extra-large long sleeve tee shirt worn over layers of warm clothing provides excellent concealment.
Judging the distance of a mule deer in the snow can be difficult. The open, featureless terrain offers little to help gauge distance. The stark contrast between the dark color of the animal against a white backdrop may make distance difficult to judge. In addition, hunters unfamiliar with large bodied mule deer may think that the animal is closer than it is and shoot too low. When hunting in snow, a missed shot generally results in a lost arrow. We’ve encountered more than one bowhunter hiking off the mountain wearing a discouraged expression and holding an empty quiver of arrows. I hunt with a seven-arrow quiver and keep backup arrows in the truck.
Mark Drayer with the best eating mule deer he’d ever tasted.
It was the early part of December when my buddy Mark Drayer and I set out for Idaho. Our either sex tag allowed us to harvest any deer, and with no venison in the freezer we’d made a pact to shoot the first fat bodied animal that presented a proper shot opportunity. A snowstorm the week prior had dumped four feet of powder in the mountains and mule deer had begun migrating in great numbers down to their winter range.
Dawn broke cold and clear on the first morning of the hunt. Our strategy was to stalk up the mountain and ease onto a large bench sheltered from the wind where deer tended to gather. We split up a half hour before sunrise. Mark hiked uphill to the top side of the bench. Meanwhile, I contoured along the back side of the mountain until the wind was favorable, then headed upslope toward the bench. Not long after we split up, I saw the first herd of deer, a dozen does and one small buck feeding along the open slope of a shallow draw. Staying well below the herd, I continued to contour around until I was out of sight on the far side of the ridge. From there, I headed straight up several hundred feet to the head of the draw. As I crested the ridge the buck appeared in view slowly feeding upslope. I knelt in the snow and readied for a shot. Soon the buck was standing broadside feeding on a clump of grass. Calming myself I rose, drew, anchored, and shot. The arc of the arrow looked promising but fell short of its mark, and the buck continued up the mountain unharmed.
I moved forward a dozen yards to retrieve my lost arrow. On my right, I saw a doe contently feeding up the slope. The situation looked promising for a stalk, so I nocked another arrow and advanced to cut the distance between us. Just then, I caught movement from a different doe walking in my direction. I dropped down in the snow and raised my bow. The doe crested the ridge at 20 yards but spotted my hunched-over form in the snow, stopped, and regarded me for some time. My solid white camouflage convinced her that I was harmless, and she went back to feeding.
The slight movement of bringing my bow to full draw caught her attention. For a moment we stared at one another until I released the arrow, which hit hard. She bounded backward and then stumbled down the slope, bedding down not 50 yards away. A tremendous blood trail was evident in the snow. Knowing that the doe was mortally hit and there was little risk of losing her, I backed off and went in search of Mark. Soon we were standing over the deer admiring the size of the body and the thickness of fur on her winter coat. By noon we had field dressed the deer and dragged it back to the truck.
After a quick celebratory lunch, Mark and I once again hiked up the mountain toward the bench. As we rounded the summit of a windy ridge line, we spotted a group of over a dozen does contently feeding on the slope below us. There on the leeward side of the slope, the deer were sheltered from the wind-driven snow. We quickly devised a plan. Mark descended around the back side of the draw into the steep gully. Now, with the wind to his advantage, he advanced several hundred feet toward the herd. From that point, and with the deer still out of sight, he cautiously crawled forward on his knees to a small patch of bitterbrush that provided limited cover but an excellent view of the slope above.
The author with his massive mule deer doe.
Meanwhile, I circled around the back of the ridge well out of sight. I slowly crested the ridge at a point where I was confident that I was well below the deer herd. As I eased over the ridge, a forked horn buck stood up in the bitterbrush a hundred yards downslope and soon began moving upslope toward the herd. The buck quickened his pace as I made more of myself visible on the skyline, and he trotted into the center of the herd. Now alerted, the does quit feeding and raised their heads. The buck slowly continued his exit up the canyon, towing the herd behind. His route would lead him and the herd directly to Mark’s concealed location.
Mark noticed deer moving to his right and directly ahead. Raising his longbow, he prepared for a shot. More deer appeared, filing into view until the entire herd stood on the ridge within Mark’s shooting lane. Most of the deer kept an eye on my ominous form silhouetted on the skyline down the ridge. A couple of does standing just 15 yards away from Mark noticed him. Their alert ears and nervous posture meant that within moments they’d likely blow out the herd and the shot opportunity would close. Mark quickly drew on a mature doe standing broadside 30 yards uphill, picked a spot, and focused on pulling through his clicker. The arrow struck home, passed completely through the deer, and came to rest on top of the snow coated in crimson. Instinctively, the deer lunged forward as blood sprayed the snow-covered ground and collapsed within seconds. Knowing the deer was critically hit, Mark stalked forward and placed a second arrow in the center of its chest. We celebrated, shaking hands and congratulating one another, albeit with a sense of remorse for having taken the life of two beautiful animals.
For me, a fruitful bowhunt is not measured by the numeric score of a trophy. This has not always been my perspective but is the result of my evolution as a hunter. For years, success meant shooting a big buck or arrowing a toothy boar. This outcome-oriented viewpoint drove me, at times, to take less than optional shots at game. I’d wind up gloomy, musing over a missed shot rather than appreciating the hunt as a whole. Today, a successful hunt is measured by the quality of my time in the field. It’s the majestic scenery forever etched into my memory, being outdoors with friends, and the delicious wild game that will grace my family’s table. This process-oriented perspective has afforded me greater enjoyment of bowhunting. Now every hunting trip, regardless of whether or not I take an animal, is a success. That said, I admit that I still dream about harvesting one of those tremendous antlered bucks.
Equipment Notes: Alex carried his lucky bow, nicknamed the “MILF”, a Morrison ILF riser equipped with Hoyt Quatro recurve limbs pulling #50. He shot Goldtip Kinetic arrows with shaving-sharp Grizzly broadheads. Mark hunted with his Centaur longbow, Axis arrows and Muzzy Stinger broadheads.