Sam Averett: High-Country Mule Deer + E-Scouting

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onX Ambassador Sam Averett recently penned a report on part of his 2020 big game season, and how taking the time to e-scout can make or break a season.

High-Country Mule Deer – September

I woke in the dark and checked my watch. 5:30 AM, September 15. Opening day in the Wyoming high country.

A light breeze rustled the tent fabric. Even at 9,000 feet, it was warm. Far below, a bull elk bugled somewhere in the blackness. I rolled over, poured filthy water into my pot, and flicked the starter on my stove. The nearest water I could find was a mile away and 2,000 feet down, but luckily a bit of snow clung to the shady parts of the mountain. I’d filled a garbage bag with snow and hung it from a tree in the sun, then poked a hole in a corner of the bag, rigging a sort of poor-man’s water fountain. 

As I later discovered, the trash bag was scented.

I sat up and sipped the coffee, then crawled from the tent and laced my boots in the pre-dawn dark. As the light grew in the east I hiked the hundred yards or so to my glassing knob and set up. A mile away, three bucks grazed in the lush green beneath a cliff.

A hunter glasses for mule deer during a Western hunt.

Two were young bucks, feeding facing away. The third was my target buck. I’d spotted him two days ago; since then he’d been fairly predictable. He was a nice buck, no giant, but his back forks were deep and his antlers were still in full velvet. I studied the group for a minute, then stowed my gear and shouldered my pack.

I scrambled down into the shale basin. Between myself and the deer, a subtle ridge sliced through the center of the basin and into the creek. It would be just enough to keep me out of sight. I took off a quick clip toward the bucks, stopping occasionally to glass and make sure I wouldn’t bump any unseen deer.

Now is the time to start e-scouting for 2021 seasons. Try the Hunt App for free.

The big buck fed facing right, his antlers glowing in the morning sun that now crept into the canyon. His summer coat glinted a mottled grey and orange, giving him a disheveled appearance. The two younger bucks traversed the rockslide above him, and I crept forward and ranged the deer. It was further than I’d ever shot at an animal—400 yards—but a long summer of shooting instruction and practice from a good friend had improved my confidence. I felt good.

The buck passed between two subalpine fir trees and paused. I pressed the trigger. The bullet left my rifle and passed through the deer with an audible whack, dust, and rocks exploding behind him. The two young bucks scattered, confused.

I picked my way over to the buck and knelt down. I took off my pack and sat back, admiring the stillness of the basin and the vastness that surrounded me. It was 7:45 AM on opening day, and the work was far from over. It was a long walk back to the truck with both the buck and my camp. Fortunately, my dad had trailered his horses and mules over and waited in camp, ready to meet me on the trail as soon as I gave him the word.

Pack train of horses packing out deer from a mule deer hunt.

E-Scouting + Preparation

The preparation for this hunt had started long before I ever set foot in the unit I’d be hunting. I used onX extensively in my e-scouting and research, and some of the tools provided within the Hunt App proved invaluable on this hunt.

When I drew this tag, I was overwhelmed by the amount of country as I looked at maps. My tag was good for a handful of units, all of which seemed like productive deer country. I started by looking at road systems and access. Using the Roads, Trails, & Rec Map Layers in onX, I scoured areas that were furthest from roads, studying which roads were open and when they closed.

Hands down, the Motorized Roads and Trails Map Layer is one of my favorite tools when looking at new country. It tells hunters which roads are drivable and by what types of vehicles, and also specifies which trails are open to motorcycles. (All of which can be a huge help when trying to decipher what country will be overrun with people come opening day.)

Next, I used the Wilderness Area Layer to determine which areas I could legally hunt. In Wyoming, designated wilderness areas are off-limits to non-resident hunters unless accompanied by a resident. I’d be hunting alone, so I wrote those areas off as I continued my research.

onX Hunt App showing Wilderness Areas May Layer.

Using the Satellite Basemap, I scouted virtually for areas I thought might hold bucks in their summer patterns. High basins at the head of secluded drainages were my focus, and I looked for areas where I felt deer had sufficient feed and ample cover. I found plenty of such areas, and focused on finding spots far from main population centers or highways. My favorite? Areas that required an unconventional approach. Off-trail, up and over steep ridges, and places that weren’t visible from a long way off.

The e-scouting paid off, and by September I had a few different areas on which to focus, as well as backup plans in case the primary wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for. As it happened, I killed my buck in the third place I had marked on the map. The first couple places I tried held plenty of deer—and plenty of people, too. First and foremost, I wanted to escape hunting pressure and avoid the opening-day rush. When I hiked into the area I ended up hunting, I saw no one. Not even a boot track. And for the next four days I was graced with a basin all to myself, complete with a couple nice bucks to chase.

A mule deer buck hunted during a high-country mule deer hunt.

Hours of map study, research, and a weekend or two spent scouting paid dividends on this hunt. Thinking outside the box allowed me a mountain all to myself, and for me, that was the most important part.

Sam Averett

Photographer // Writer
Three Forks, MT