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Taking Big Game with Different Weapons Day 5: Hunting Mule Deer with a Bow

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Editor’s Note: Outdoorsman Bear Kelly was mentored as a trapper in 1996 by the late Dick Kirby, the creator of Quaker Boy Calls in Orchard Park, New York. Bear is primarily a bowhunter, but he hunts with a gun, a muzzleloader, and a crossbow. He’s hunted in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Tennessee, and Canada.

I was invited to go to a mule deer hunt in Alberta, Canada, by Summit Tree Stands, and the deal was I had to find another hunter so that we could use the two tags that had been bought as a part of this hunt because two other hunters canceled. I invited Steve Madiak to go with me. The outfitter was a nice guy but not a bowhunter. We had an excellent camp, but since our outfitter wasn’t a bowhunter, he didn’t understand that bowhunters had to be closer to where they expected the mule deer to appear than gun hunters. So, the stand he had set up would be perfect for a gun hunter but was almost out of range for us bowhunters. 

On the first day, I went to my stand, which had a pull-up rope hanging from the stand with a clip on it. I put the clip on my bow, and just as I got the clip on my bow, 13 yards from me, a giant mule deer stood up. I said, “Oh, my goodness, I’m standing here within easy range of the biggest mule deer I’ve ever heard of or seen.” So, I tried to get the clip of the pull-up rope off the idler of my bow, but there was a problem with the clip. Someone had over-bent it, so it didn’t release very quickly. I kept struggling and struggling, but I couldn’t get the clip off. That mule deer was looking at me – unafraid. I guessed that buck to be 200 inches, and I always try to low-field score the animals I see. Most deer hunters exaggerate the size of the animals they see, but I don’t want to do that. 


However, I knew this buck was at least 200 inches for sure. While I continued to fight the clip on the rope, I watched that monster mule deer turn and walk away. Once I finally got up in my stand, pulled up my bow, and got the clip to work so I could get the bow off the clip, I thought, “I’ll just sit here, and maybe that buck will come back.” I stayed in the stand until dark and saw numerous bucks – mule deer and whitetails. I saw several white-tailed bucks that easily would have scored 150. They were nice-sized deer, and if I’d been anywhere else in the world, I would’ve shot one of those whitetails. But I couldn’t get this monster mule deer buck out of my mind. 

When I returned to camp, I told the outfitter about the mule deer buck I had seen and the whitetails and explained why I didn’t shoot because the clip on the pull-up rope malfunctioned. The outfitter said, “We’ll let you go to another stand tomorrow,” I said, “Oh no, I’m going back to that stand.” I knew he had some gun hunters coming into camp right after we left, and I felt sure he wanted to save those deer for the gun hunters. Anyhow, I was permitted to return to my stand.

One of the other hunters in camp was Clay Hall, who worked for Summit, and he had taken a nice buck on the first day of the hunt. He had a cameraman filming his hunt, and the cameraman, Nathan Brandon, said, “Since I’ve filmed Clay taking his deer today, I’d like to film you tomorrow.” But I explained I wasn’t interested in being filmed. Yet, somehow, he worked it out and said he was going with me the following day. That afternoon, I put a stand up for the cameraman, so when we went in to hunt the following day, we were set up and ready to go. After hunting for a bit, we saw the monster mule deer approaching us – walking up a creek bed but too far to shoot. The cameraman asked, “What do you think about us rattling that buck?” I had a Knight and Hale Pack Rack Rattling call in my backpack, and the first time I rattled, I couldn’t believe what happened. That big mule deer came on a dead run right to the stand, and he was only 7 yards from me. But the buck had come in so quickly that I didn’t have an opportunity to pick up my bow. I knew if I moved, I’d spook him. The cameraman filmed the buck as he came running in the creek bed and stood right under our stand; he got some good footage of that buck. But then three does that were apparently in estrus came up close to the buck, and he walked off with them.

Hunter and his deer trophy

When the buck walked off, Nathan said, “Do you think you could rattle again, and he’d come back in?” I answered, “There’s no way I could shoot him because I couldn’t use the Pack Rack Rattling call and pick up my bow in time to shoot him.” “What if I hold my camera in one hand and hold half of that Pack Rack in the other hand, you hold your bow in one hand and the Pack Rack in the other hand? We’ll rub the two halves of the call together, you hold your bow and turn loose of your half of the Pack Rack, and I could put the Pack Rack up and get my camera and film the hunt?” Nathan asked. At this point, I was pretty discouraged and said, “Okay, we can try it, but I’m sure it won’t work.” So, we rattled together, and sure enough, that monster mule deer came in again to about the same place where he’d stood originally under the stand.

I had a shooting lane about the size of a basketball, and it was clear to shoot the buck.  I could’ve shot through that hole and killed that buck at 7 yards. This was the buck of a lifetime. But I heard Nathan say, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. I can’t see him with the camera,” I started thinking, “This guy is out if his mind. This is the biggest buck I’ve seen, and he doesn’t want me to shoot him.” Finally, the buck walked off through some thick brush, and I couldn’t get a clear shot at him. All Nathan, the cameraman, could see were pieces and parts of the buck as he vanished. This was a morning hunt, and when we returned to the camp, the outfitter said, “No, you’ve had two chances at that buck, so you can’t go back there.” He had seen Nathan’s footage of the big mule deer buck.

Mule deer and Will Primos

The night before, I told the outfitter I would try rattling and grunting and see if I could get the big muley to come in; the outfitter had told me, “No, don’t do that. You’re just going to mess up the deer.” However, after he saw the footage and watched the mule deer come to that call, he decided maybe he could rattle the mule deer.

The salvation of the hunt was Nathan. He had a program on his computer that could field judge the size of a buck’s antlers on video. The program scored that buck at 215 inches. So, even though I didn’t harvest my mule deer buck of a lifetime, I got to see the footage of the hunt, taught the outfitter that rattling could be used to bring in a trophy mule deer, and learned the buck’s score. Again, this was one of the most memorable hunts I ever had taken.

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