Preface by Troy Rodakowski;
Story by Dusty McGrorty
The rugged desert of Southeast Oregon is home to some of the biggest mule deer in the state. In late October, buck, does and fawns from the Steens range migrate towards the lowlands of the Malheur, which become their wintering grounds. The lowlands are full of the forage that will sustain them through the winter. It is also prime time for rut activity.
The Juniper muzzleloader tag is also one of the toughest permits in the state to draw because of the timing and migration. I have personally been on three hunts here and experienced the highs and lows of what it can be like. Weather plays a big role in the success of hunters here, and for Dusty McGrorty, 2014 was no different.
After 16 years of applying for a mule deer tag, McGrorty was finally drawn, securing one of only 10 Juniper muzzleloader tags given out.
“It was now time to start preparing. I drove over in July to see what was hanging around the refuge and scout for some areas to hang trail cameras. There were a few good bucks on the refuge during the trip, but nothing I would be interested in harvesting,” recalls McGrorty.
But he did find some places to put up some trail cams after rifle hunters took their crack at the bucks. Here’s his tale:
MY GOOD BUDDY Lance Baker and I arrived on the 25th of November, four days before the hunt started, giving me three full days to scout and find the buck I’ve been dreaming of. On the second day of scouting, I glassed a buck that I figured would be really close to 185 inches typical. Of course, I had set my standards high and was hoping to see one 190 inches typical or bigger, but with a handful of bucks that were 170-plus inches, I was sure I would find a good animal.
On opening day, which was a Saturday, Lance and I were sitting on my favorite rim and glassing at daylight. After several hours and looking over 15 different bucks, one that I figured was pushing 185 showed up. It was around 800 yards away and would be a tough stalk. I told myself I wasn’t going to shoot a buck opening day unless it was over 190, so I passed it up and kept looking.
The next few days we covered a lot of ground and picked apart the sagebrush and juniper. While finding a few 160- to 170-inch-class bucks on Sunday and Monday, I was starting to wonder if my expectations were too high. Lance and I decided to head back to the rim where we had seen the bigger buck on the opener.
It was now day four of the hunt and we were headed to the rim. At first light we could see deer feeding all over, including a group of does that didn’t have a buck with them. I thought that was odd, as every herd we had seen had at least a small buck with them.
We glassed for about three hours and were about ready to give up on that spot. I started packing up my spotting scope and decided to look over that group of buckless does one more time. Pulling up my binoculars, I saw several running around. And there he was! He came running out of the thick junipers, causing havoc as he chased a bunch of does.
The buck was in a perfect spot and we just had to pack up, go down the rim about 1,000 yards, pop over and he should be right there. Seemed easy enough, but not long afterwards we ran into two hunters on four-wheelers just sitting there talking. We had to wait about half an hour for them to leave. Little did they know that there was a giant buck on the other side of the rim.
Very slowly we worked our way over the ridgeline, only to see the does. We stayed another two hours and never found any sign of the big buck.
RESTING THE SPOT, we backed off and decided to return a couple hours before dark. We glassed and glassed and never spotted that group of does. With only about an hour until dark, we walked back to the truck and decided to drive closer to the other end of the rim.
We parked, got out and walked to the edge and instantly Lance spotted a large group of does with the buck running them around. With only one small bench between him and us to use for cover and just 20 minutes of shooting light left, we had to move fast without getting busted. I had to move slowly through the wide-open using rocks and small junipers for cover and finally made it to the bench. Peeking over the top, I was able to spot the buck; he was only 80 yards away. But just then a doe spotted me, and they suddenly all took off running. Luckily, the buck didn’t know what was going on. He stopped at 135 yards and looked back like mule deer do, and I fired my Vortek Muzzleloader, hitting him good. Running into the open junipers, I lost sight of him and it was now almost dark, so I wanted to get down there to find blood while we still had light.
Lance and I ran down the side of the rimrock to where he had been standing and found blood right away. We followed the trail about 20 yards and looked up to find the buck expired in the sage.
The Juniper bruiser measured 184 inches gross and was 29½ inches wide. The long hours of scouting and hard work had finally paid off as we celebrated below the desert sky. NS