My first trip east of the mountains for Mule Deer was a great success- but we didn’t get a deer. Yeah, I’d have liked to, but this trip was about learning the ropes, and that mission was accomplished with flying colors; I learned a lot. Mind you, if we’d had doe tags, (or been willing to bend the rules a wee bit) we’d both have brought home deer. Don’t consider it a failure of hunting; consider it a triumph of ethics.
Most people who aren’t from here think of Washington as lush and green, with a hilly, forested landscape and fields stretching from salt-water to the mountains, and it is that… west of the Cascade Mountains. But that’s only half the state, and half the story. East of them everything changes. Eastern Washington ranges from arid prairie to outright desert. About one-third of America’s wheat is grown here, a fact which even many Washington residents are unaware.
Coming over the mountains you cross the Columbia Gorge, by some reckoning the largest canyon in the continental US. Depending on your route you might see nothing but what appears to be gently rolling hills covered in wheat fields, only occasionally traversing areas of table-lands, buttes and canyons. But get off the highway and onto the backroads and the story changes. Once you get out among those hills it quickly becomes apparent; this place is seriously tore up.
Nestled between those gently rolling hills are ravines, gullies and canyons choked with sagebrush, where the terrain ranges from ‘Wow, this is rough,’ to ‘Oh, hell no!’
Some time around the end of the Ice Age an ice dam ruptured and spilled a volume of water roughly the size of Lake Michigan across the landscape that would someday be the central part of eastern Washington, and absolutely shredded the landscape. Time has softened much of the damage in the ages since, but the raw scars of nature’s fury still persist. These are the Channeled Scablands, and this is where you hunt mule deer.
I’m 57 years old, sixty pounds overweight and not in particularly good condition, so I viewed the prospect of this hunt with as much trepidation as excitement. Legal Mule Deer weigh around 300 lbs. or more. If you shoot one, even gutted and quartered you’ll be humping 170-200 lbs. of meat and bone back to the truck. Yes, the truck- you’re going to need one, and it had better be four-wheel drive. We’ll get back to that later.
You are also going to need a hunting partner. It’s not safe to hunt alone here; cell reception is dodgy at best, and like I said, this place is tore up. In addition to uneven or rough terrain you are contending with sagebrush, jagged basalt ranging from rocks to boulders, badger holes that can be stepped in… at least by hunting season the rattlesnakes have hibernated. Probably. The disaster-factor is just too high to be worth the risks. You turn an ankle or, worse yet, bust a leg and you’re screwed without someone to help or get help. Plus unless you are Superman you will need help humping that meat out. If you think the ground is tricky, imagine trying it with 90 lbs. of deer in your pack.
Sure, you might shoot your deer on decent ground; the deer often come out to graze on the tender shoots of Winter Wheat that are coming up this time of year. But you’d best come prepared to get down into that bad land, because that’s where the deer go between meals.
So, it seems the common way to hunt them is to drive the backroads in your 4×4 and look for deer. Depending on where you are these roads can be pretty decent or stray well into ‘are you sure that’s a road?’ territory. They can also change from one to the other in the middle. Jake and I were in his Toyota Tundra, and we never actually had to engage four-wheel drive. But if Mother Nature had dropped so much as a mild shower on us we would have needed it.
That’s a distinct possibility; the weather at this time of year is… let’s call it whimsical. When Jake was there just three days before it was freezing. When we were there it was in the fifties and sunny much of the time, but as we were heading home it went from ‘partially cloudy’ to full-on thunderstorm in about an hour.
Oh, and if you shoot a deer at a good distance, keep a sharp lookout when you come up on it. There are coyotes and mountain lions about, and they have been known to dispute the ownership of a carcass on occasion. If coyotes are inclined to make an issue of it most folks just shoot ’em. A cougar, though… that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish. You don’t want to shoot them if you can avoid it. Likely a warning shot will drive them off, but if you have to shoot one it’s going to be a hassle. Not to mention it just seems like a damn shame to shoot such a magnificent creature.
OK, this really isn’t the terrifying ordeal I might be implying. Most of it is proper old-man hunting. You sit in your comfy seat and sip coffee while you creep along, keeping your eyes peeled and binoculars handy. If you spot a deer you stop, scope it out and see if it’s legal to shoot. Currently that means a three-point or more. You are going to see a hell of a lot more spikes, does and yearlings than you are three-pointers, but don’t despair. If there’s a bunch of does there will be a buck nearby. The trick is whether or not he’ll present himself.
We headed out from our quarters in Soap Lake around dawn and headed north-west of town. It being a weekday we didn’t see many other hunters out, which was good news and bad. On the one hand there were fewer folk trying to shoot the few legal deer. On the other hand there was no one stirring them up and getting them moving. A moving deer is hugely easier to spot than a stationary one.
The first hour we saw one lone doe ambling along the edge of a field, far out of range. My rule of thumb (if I don’t have a doe tag, which I have never had the luck to obtain) is one doe is just a lone doe. You see two or more does and there’s a buck nearby. We found a spot where we had cell reception, so Jake pulled off to get his bearings. I stepped out to stretch my legs and have a cigarette (yeah yeah, I know…) and something told me I should step up on the scrub-covered hillock beside the road. When I did two does stood up less than twenty yards out and started to lope away.
“We got does!” I hollered back to Jake, and he came over pronto. By the time the they were forty yards away they were joined by two spike-bucks, and they all trotted up the ravine- but any one of them could just as easily have been a three-point or more. Had that been the case I could have simply stepped the legal distance off the road (100 feet) and easily taken any of them. If I had had my rifle… oops. We watched them for a bit until they were out of sight, got back in the truck and moved on.
A few miles further on we spotted another doe at the edge of the sagebrush about two-hundred yards out. We stopped and Jake grabbed the binoculars, and shortly announced “They’re does, and there’s two of them.” By then I’d snagged my rifle and was looking them over through the scope. “Three of them, actually,” I said.
One of them was standing facing me, and if she’d been a legal buck it would have been child’s play to drop her. I found that curiously heartening. Finally they moved off through the sagebrush, and picked up some friends along the way; when they cleared the brush on the far side there were eight of them, though none of them appeared to be three-points or better. They moved off across the open hillside until they were out of sight, and we got in the truck to see if we could find a cross-road that would put us ahead of them. We couldn’t, and as it was then coming onto eleven AM we called it a morning.
We grabbed some lunch and rested up, then headed out for the evening hunt. We checked back where we’d seen the small herd, but had no luck despite Jake crossing the field and prowling along the edge of the sagebrush while I watched for movement from a distance. With dark coming on we called it a day. Even driving back to town is a hazard; we damn near hit two yearlings in different spots on the way back! We had a good dinner and passed a pleasant evening chatting and watching The Ranch on Netflix.
Next time I’ll tell you about day two of the hunt, and some of the lessons learned. I’ll also have some of Jake’s pictures by then, and they’ll be way better than mine; he had a proper camera and is a photographer.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 18 October 2019