2019 Colorado high country early rifle mule deer hunt

Camp setup in Colorado mountains

Photo credits: Aaron Oglesby

This hunt began because we wanted to try a true backcountry hunt in Colorado’s wilderness. My buddy, Matt, coworker, John, and I studied goHUNT’s Draw Odds to see which of Colorado’s early rifle hunts we could draw with the number of points that we had. We settled on a unit and applied. When draw results came out, we found out that we’d drawn tags and immediately started planning for the hunt.

Colorado mule deer hunt gear

I can’t count how many times I read over Brady’s gear lists, compared tent and sleeping bag weights, contemplated doing a stoveless food kit, etc. I finally settled on my gear list and couldn’t wait to hit the ground for scouting.

1st scouting trip

Well, Colorado had a huge snow year in 2019. One storm completely trashed areas with avalanches and a delayed snow melt. We weren’t able to get out to scout until mid-to-late July. Matt made the drive up from New Mexico and we planned on a three-day trip. We hit the trail and soon find out that this was not the place we wanted to hunt. There were hikers everywhere. It was a fruitful trip seeing about 15 cow elk, six bull elk, five bucks and a bear. They were all glassed up far from the busy trail and we decided to come in a different way that would put us closer to the animals and further from hikers.

2nd scouting trip

Summer scouting for mule deer

The second scouting trip was with John. We drove out Friday, stayed in my truck bed camper, got up early on Saturday and started hiking. This trail had been completely destroyed in places because of avalanches. After hiking in five miles, we set up camp. It was mid-afternoon and we tried glassing for a bit, but nothing was up and when the afternoon thunderstorms hit, we were stuck in our tents for the rest of the evening. Sunday morning was perfect and we glassed up a herd of 26 bighorn sheep rams, two 4x4 elk, and four mule deer bucks. The bucks were small and not worth the effort to get them out. 

At this point, work and life became busy and I couldn’t do any more backpacking trips. After studying Google Earth, I picked out an area to set up camp that would give us access to the head of two different basins. One was about 0.62 miles away and the other 1.2 miles away. I never saw the area or the climbs we would make, but nothing really looks that daunting on Google Earth!

The hunt

Matt drove up from New Mexico on Thursday after work and got in late so we didn’t leave the house until about 8:30 a.m. on Friday. It was an hour drive to the trailhead. We made good time on the trail and got camp set up by late morning. We took a look at the hikes to the two areas we wanted to hunt. John wasn’t able to make it out until Saturday afternoon of the opening day so, until then, it would just be Matt and I. We decided on the shorter, steeper climb and I remember Matt saying, “Look at it, we hike that all the time hunting Barbary sheep.” (over-the-counter in New Mexico). We ran into a sheep hunter and his guide and the guide asked where we were going in the morning and we pointed to the saddle above camp. He said, “In all the years I’ve been hunting here, I’ve never seen anyone besides myself go into that drainage from this side. That pitch going up is gonna be a lot steeper than it looks.” This was great news. We’ll have an area all to ourselves. 

After thunderstorms and rain throughout the night, it was finally opening morning. We got our headlamps on and started the trek up the mountain. The hike didn’t start off bad and we made good time until we got to the steep stuff. 1,200’ over .62 miles is strenuous but doable. It turned out that 800’ of this climb was in the last 600 yards. It was miserable. Our legs were burning and we were out of breath, but we had made it to our opening day glassing spot. It was one of the most picturesque views I’ve ever seen hunting. 

Glassing with Swarovski 15x56 binoculars

We set up our Swarovski 15s and got to work. I immediately picked up a herd and elk with a rutting 6x6 mud-covered 300+” bull working his cows. There were three 4x4s trying to get lucky and pick off a cow or two with no luck. I kept glassing, trying to pick up a buck I looked high, low, anywhere and everywhere, but I couldn’t turn anything up. Then, we heard rocks rolling to our left and saw four mountain goats working the spine of the ridge towards us. 

Matt said, “Stay still they are gonna come right towards us.” 

We got back to glassing and, suddenly, I spotted something in my peripheral. I slowly looked over and there is a baby mountain goat less than 10 yards away. I whispered “Matt...” 

He slowly looked away from his binos and three more mountain goats were looking at us: two nannies and two kids. We watched each other for a few minutes before they dropped down and went around us. That in itself made the brutal hike worth it. We never ended up turning up any deer. We figured that since this drainage was loaded with smelly rutted up bulls that it may have pushed the deer out. 

We decided to leave and try out the other basin. We decided to sidehill across the slope because we had worked this hard to gain all of this elevation; we didn’t want to lose it. It was a nasty slope where each step had to be well thought out and when you kicked a rock loose it didn’t stop rolling for a few hundred feet. We were on this slope for nearly a mile before we got to our next basin. 

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We set up our glass and I immediately picked up two bucks. It was too far away to tell what they were with 15s so Matt pulled out his Swarovski ATX 95 and found them. It was a forky and a 4x4. We watched them. They were on the move and kept looking up the drainage at something. We ended up losing the bucks and saw a coyote. We figured that was what they were looking at. This coyote might as well have been a bird dog for us. We watched him for 20 minutes working the hill and flushing all the thick foliage. He never kicked anything up, though. Matt decided to look for those two bucks again and, eventually, turned them up next to a boulder field. It was now 1 p.m. in the afternoon. We thought they were in a killable spot so we set off for a stalk on the 4x4. We knew we were going to have to drop 1,000’ and climb 1,000’ over the course of 1.5 miles. 

When I’m hunting with Matt, I can keep up on the uphill portion, but usually, I’m left in the dust when it comes to going downhill. Like usual, by the time we got to the bottom, he was a few hundred yards ahead of me and already almost to the top of the 1,000’ ascent towards the bucks. 

I decided to look back at the other side of the drainage and spotted a deer with my naked eye in a chute. I pulled out my 10s and the buck is wider than his ears and bigger than anything I saw scouting. He even had an in-line extra on his G4. I tried to wave Matt down, but he was still working uphill. I moved fast across the hill and down and, finally, got his attention. 

I made the buck sign over my head and pointed in the direction the buck is at. I ranged it and he was over 600 yards. I have a big boulder field I can use as cover to close about 100 yards. I moved as fast as I could and got on the high point of the boulders, set my bipod out and found the buck. I pulled out my range finder and he was at 490 yards. I checked my ballistics app and dialed 7.5 MOA. The buck moved from the willows into some stunted pines. A pine was blocking is vitals. I stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for him to take a step forward. I began to worry that since it was now about 1:30 p.m. that behind those pines might be his bed for the rest of the day. Just then, he took a step forward, exposing his vitals and I touched off a shot with the .300 Win Mag and the 200 gr Hornady ELD-X found its mark. I saw the buck tumble through willows and he piled up in a chute of grass splitting the willows. I turned around and told Matt that I got him. 

Crossing boulder field

We crossed the boulder field into a grassy meadow and Matt stopped and said, ”Deer! Look in that cave.” 

I pulled my 10s up and saw a buck and a doe looking at us from under a rock overhang about 100 yards up and to the right of where I had just shot my buck. Matt said, “That buck is coming home with us. Give me a range.”. The buck was at 408 yards and Matt’s 6.5 Creedmoor let out a bang. The buck dropped. We kept watching and the buck got up and started moving across the hill. I told Matt, “403 yards now.” He fired another and the buck dropped this time. He rolled a good 100 yards down a boulder chute and doesn’t move.

Aaron Oglesby with his Colorado mule deer

First, we go up to my buck and see that he is a 23” wide buck with long main beams, huge fronts and a couple of extras: one on his left G4 and one on his right G3. He also carried good mass throughout.

Side view of Aaron Oglesby Colorado mule deer

He had extremely weak backs, though. But I’m more than pleased. He was in the shade so we decided to take care of Matt’s first since his was exposed on a boulder field in direct sunlight. We worked our way across the hill to Matt’s and got his taken care of. He started packing his down and I went over to mine and was able to roll it a couple hundred yards downhill to a flat spot to start processing it. When we’re done with mine, Matt says, “This pack out is going to suck, but I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to drop into this hole again.” 

We loaded up and got ready for the two-mile pack out with 1,000’ of ascent and 1,200’  of descent. I was able to keep pace with Matt initially, staying within 100 yards of him, but then he started pulling away. I saw him at the base of the steep climb out of the canyon now 300 yards ahead of me. At this point, I was stopping to rest every few steps. I got to 50 yards from a snowfield and dropped my pack. 

Matt looked back and said, “It’s only a couple hundred yards to the top, you can make it.” 

I strapped my pack back on; my legs were jello. I barely made it the 50 yards to the snowfield and knew I needed to leave the meat and head there. I dropped the meat and head and bury it in the snow. I was completely exhausted and I still have 350’ of elevation gain to the top in about 200 yards. I was having to focus on just putting one foot in front of another and taking 10 steps and resting. I have honestly never been that exhausted in my life. At the top of the climb, Matt was sitting, waiting for me, and asked if I was okay. 

I said, “Yeah, I’m just beat. I had to leave the meat and head. I barely made it up without that.” I thought once I got to the top that the downhill portion would be easier and I would have a second wind. That wasn’t the case. It was about 1.5 miles back down to camp. I was still focusing on one step at a time. I had trekking poles, but didn’t have the energy to use them. They were looped to my wrists, dragging behind me. I knew I had to make it back to camp, but wasn’t sure how I was going to make it back. We came over a rise and saw a headlight a few hundred yards away at camp. John had made it. That gave me a little boost of energy and the closer that headlight became I knew I was that much closer to camp and could do it. We finally got to camp and I took off my pack and just collapsed onto the ground. The hike was over. I made it. 

The next day, Matt packed up his camp and John offered to go help pack my deer out. That was a lifesaver. We hiked back and glassed for a bit to see if we could turn up a deer for John, but we didn’t see anything. We made the drop and loaded up the deer in our packs. My legs were shot from the day before. Both of us were huffing and puffing and I had no clue how I managed to get the deer as far as I did. It was still heavy with the deer split between two people. We made it back to camp and contemplated packing up everything and making the push to get home that day or resting at camp and heading home on Monday. We settled on resting, getting some sleep and heading out heavy on Monday. Thank goodness we did. The rest of the day was rain and lightning. 

Monday morning rolled around and me and John packed up camp, splitting the meat. I took the head. Both of us are at over 90 lbs....and I weigh 135 lbs. I had packed 10 days of food and am carrying out seven days of it on top of the deer. The hike was tiring, but doable. Everything was downhill back to camp. We made it out with only one 10 minute stop at the halfway mark and headed into town to get a nice large, greasy pizza. 

Packing out mule deer buck

Packing out mule deer in Colorado

During the pack out I told myself, “I’m never doing this again. This sucks.” But there is something about when you get back to civilization You can’t wait to get back out and put yourself to the test again.

Checking out mule deer velvet back at home

Next year, we’ll have a different game plan and be at it again. There is something inside some hunters that calls them to remote places where you can’t blame other hunters for messing up your hunt; the only thing you can blame is yourself not pushing hard enough to find the type of deer you’re after. 

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