BY: JODI STEMLER
DECEMBER 18, 2022
If I would have thought about where I would have my first mule deer tag, I’m guessing my vision would not have been West Texas. I’m still relatively new to big game hunting, taking my first pronghorn buck in 2018 and another just a couple years later. And, while I’ve gone on deer and elk hunts when my daughter or husband have tags, I’ve mainly been collecting preference points to give them more flexibility with hunting dates. So the opportunity to join Federal Premium for a management mule deer buck hunt with High West Outfitters was just too good to pass up particularly with the opportunity to try out the Bergara Ridge rifle mounted with a Leupold VX-3HD scope and Silencer Central’s Banish Backcountry suppressor. After flying into El Paso and driving four hours through Marfa and deeper into Big Bend country with MDF board member and Federal employee Jon Zinnel, we finally arrived at the Alazan Ranch which would be our home for the next few days. It was remote … and so beautiful! I went to bed in the old bunkhouse knowing that tomorrow would be a good day.
DECEMBER 19, 2022
This morning we were up early to head out with HWO guide Steven Ryan to hunt for Vista Outdoors executive Jesse Whiteside’s trophy buck. The scenery was stunning! Craggy canyons, flat topped mesas, and everywhere was cholla, ocotillo, greasewood, yucca, and other desert plants. After years of drought, this region had gotten significant rainfall over the summer and the flush of grasses and flowers was so beautiful.
The Mule Deer Foundation has a chapter in Alpine, TX, a couple hours north of where we were hunting, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department deer project leader (and Alpine Chapter co-chair) Shawn Gray says a big focus for this area is providing supplemental water for those drought times. It’s clear that without water, there would be no deer. By mid-morning Steven’s sharp eyes spotted the tips of white tines in the grass-and he soon saw it was an impressive buck he’d photographed the year before. We made a stalk to within 150 yards from where the buck was bedded down and Jesse made a clean shot. Being able to participate in his hunt helped me feel somewhat more comfortable about when the time would come for me to take a shot.
DECEMBER 20, 2022
On the surface, today might have been frustrating. We covered lots of miles and saw a lot of deer-but HWO manages this ranch carefully; the bucks we saw were either too young or trophy deer which meant we had to hold off. However, in all my hunts with my family, I’ve realized it’s the moments in between that are the precious ones.
When you spend hours together in a truck, you share great conversations, sing along to the radio (with some songs becoming the playlist that brings you right back to the hunt), and enjoy the beauty and quiet of the remote place around you. This landscape was austere and dry, but so stunning in its wildness. We regularly flushed large coveys of scaled and Gambel’s quail (something that made this long-time upland hunter excited) got to watch javelinas and the truly wild cattle that are remnants of the great cattle herds of days gone by, and-much to Steven’s dismay-geeked out about native plants and geology. No shots were fired, but to the naturalist in me, this is what makes hunting so special.
DECEMBER 21, 2022
Today was get’er done day. With just a few days before Christmas and a weather system making return travel dicey, today we had to get serious.
At first light, we found a nice management buck, but we had to move in quickly and I had difficulty finding him in my scope-at least until he bounded up and over a swell in the landscape. Before lunch, Jon was able to connect on a nice buck, freeing him up to head back to the airport with a punched tag before the winter storm walloped his Minnesota home. My frustration was building-would I get another chance? And when I did, would I finally be able to make it count?
After lunch we returned to the neighboring Bandera Ranch traversing along the top of a mesa looking down in beautiful canyons. Steven stopped to sit atop a boulder using his fawn-in-distress call that had been successful at bringing out curious deer.
From behind us, a doe and fawn started walk toward us and a few seconds later a buck followed hot on her trail; it was the early days of the rut, but so far, we hadn’t seen much activity. The wind wasn’t in our favor sending the deer off quickly down into and across the canyon. Steven got me set up and as the deer got to the other side they slowed, picking their way along and feeding again. I was able to get the buck in the scope, wait for a clear shot, and slowly breathe out with a soft squeeze of the trigger. Immediately we knew it was a great hit and within seconds he was down!
Steven had known to just keep my mind focused on the situation, get me dialed in on the scope, and let the rest fall in to place. The Terminal Ascent bullet made sure my clean heart/lung shot quickly did what it was supposed to do. It wasn’t until afterward that Steven told me the shot was 370 yards.
The buck’s move across the canyon meant that we would need to pack him out-quite frankly, for me this made it that much better. We hiked in over a mile, skinned and quartered him, and as the sun was setting over the far western mountains we hiked back out with full packs. It was intense and exciting, and such a sense of accomplishment.
DECEMBER 23, 2022
Well, the 5:30 am flight to get me home in time for Christmas was cancelled … and the alternative options looked dicey as well due to the storm and intense cold. I didn’t want to miss the holiday with my family, but perhaps more importantly, I needed to protect the meat from my very first mule deer. Having it get stuck overnight in an airport and possibly spoil was not an option.
Thanks to my amazing husband and daughter, I decided to rent a car and drive north from El Paso to meet them in Santa Fe before making the rest of the trip home to Denver together. It was a long day in the car, but I could more easily keep ice on the meat to make sure I didn’t lose the most precious part of this hunt. Plus, hours alone in a car gave me time to process these memories because the story of my very first mule deer, and the experience of this West Texas hunt, will forever stay in my heart.