2015 Utah Mule Deer Hunt
- by Robby Benedict - Nightforce Optics Senior Account Manager
My 2015 Mule Deer hunt started on October 29th as I rolled into camp on the Ensign Ranch in Northern Utah. I was joined by Garrett Wall from Gunwerks, who was set and ready to film an episode for a 2016 airing of Long Range Pursuit. There, I was greeted by my guide Tanner Puegnet of Western Lands Outfitters, and Paul the Gunwerks cameraman. The Ensign Ranch is a privately owned ranch comprised of 200,000 acres that spans across Northeastern Utah as well as into Wyoming. Known for 200 + inch trophy mule deer, my expectations ran high wondering what the week of hunting would hold. After getting settled into camp, our group headed down to the range to become familiar with the Carbon LR-1000 Gunwerks rifle chambered in 6.5x284 that we would be using for this hunt. The rifle, topped with an NXS 5.5-22x50 G7 riflescope, was a true example of the high quality reputation Gunwerks is known for.
Two quick practice shots at 600 yards and we were ready to start glassing. This was a great opportunity to test out the ED Glass equipped TS-80 spotting scope. The weather conditions were turning overcast, spitting snow and rain, but the spotter made easy work picking apart the dark canyons. After checking out several vantage points only to find up-and-comer bucks, we decided to switch gears and move to a an area where the guide had spotted a wide management buck in the weeks prior to my arrival. To our surprise, we were able to locate the buck less than 100 yards from the area he had been spotted in just recently. With darkness quickly closing in, we glassed the canyon for vantage points and formulated a game plan for the morning to come.
Day two started with a first class early breakfast. Before daylight, we were perched on a high vantage point hoping that the buck would be in the area. As light began stretching over the mountain tops, we were on the TS-80 and scanning the mountain faces for the previous day’s buck. The light transmission capability of the TS-80 was as good as anything I had ever tried before. Long before the naked eye could make out the surroundings, the superb ED Glass of the TS-80 was picking the canyon apart. After 30 minutes of glassing, Tanner announced to the group that he had spotted the buck and as luck would have it, less than 100 yards from where we put him to bed. A quick discussion of a game plan, and we were off, hurrying up a distant pass hoping to get into position before the buck followed his small group of does over the skyline.
As we crept over the top of the pass to get into position, Tanner relayed a yardage and dope correction from his G7 Br-2 Rangefinder. 873 yards was the distance to the buck. I dialed the correction into the ZeroStop elevation turret and settled in for the shot. The buck had other plans as he beaded down on the hillside. While his vitals were clearly exposed I quickly learned some of the frustrations when attempting to capture film to be aired on a television network. No bedded shots. So at that point it was a waiting game. The buck clearly wasn’t ready for a nap, keeping a close eye on his nearby does, thrashing his head back and forth and shifting positions in his bed. I pulled myself out of the shooting position, hoping to briefly rest my head and neck, when I heard Tanner tell me the buck was attempting to stand up. By the time my eye made it back into the scope I saw the buck had risen to his feet and was standing perfectly broadside. As I settled the G7 reticle on his vitals my long range training checklist began rolling through my mind. Check the position of my body behind the rifle to ensure my body was as flat as possible, legs in line with the rifle, ankles down. From there I made sure my reticle was level, parallax adjusted properly and my magnification on max power. I reassured my elevation call and asked for the wind. With a steady, but light right to left wind, Tanner called out a 1 MOA hold. Finding 1 MOA in the reticle came easily, and I settled in for the shot. Once I was able to draw a bead, I slowly squeezed the trigger. As the round went off, the buck never budged as I watched the bullet impact just slightly high over the buck’s back. It was a clean miss. The buck was so focused on his does, that the shot never spooked him. He quickly got on the trail of the does and followed them over the skyline. After the miss we made a move to try and get a spot on the buck. From a new vantage point we searched high and low for the group of deer. After 20 minutes or so we caught a glimpse of the buck making his way into a heavily wooded canyon.
With no clear stalk opportunities, we decided to head back to lodge for lunch to get a new plan for the afternoon. On the ride back to lodge, I kept replaying this miss in my head. What went wrong? I felt rock solid on the shot but obviously I left something out on my mental checklist. Just for reassurance we made a quick stop at the range. A painted piece of steel at 900 yards is where I chose to reboost my confidence. Two shots found me tracking high just missing the top of the plate. Then a light bulb went off. In the mix of setting up for an 873 yard shot on a giant 30” buck, I failed to load my bipod. Without that extra pressure into the stock to load up the bi pod, I was creating an inconsistency from how the rifle was designed to be used; in turn causing the report to print high.
With my confidence now back we headed out to the same canyon where we last spotted the buck. It was early in the afternoon but we were confident that the buck would work his way down the pass to the creek before dark. With spotters and binos in action we picked the entire canyon apart in hopes of finding the buck bedded in the heavy timber. After a short while, several does and a decent management buck appeared. After giving the buck the pass we returned to search for our missing buck. Around 3:30 I heard Tanner say that he may have found him. Once the buck emerged into a small opening we knew we had located our buck. I quickly got into the shooting position in case a shot opportunity presented itself. The buck worked the timber over stopping to thrash his horns in various sage bushes along the way. Finally the buck was approaching an opening. The adrenaline began to build as I knew this may be our only chance if the buck decided to turn back up into the timber. Much like the morning’s hunt, Tanner was quick to read out an elevation call from his G7 rangefinder, 530 yards actual distance was the call. With the steep canyon the corrected distance came in at 490. With a quick dial on the ZeroStop turret, I was back into checklist mode in preparation for the shot. The winds began to pick up and another 1 MOA wind call was announced. As I neared the end of the checklist I made sure that loading the bi pod was in the mix. I settled the G7 reticle on the point of the buck’s shoulder and squeezed off the shot. With the cameras rolling we watched the 140 grain Berger bullet impact the buck. Executing a first shot harvest at this distance was the culmination of a number of critical elements including; a proper stalk, solid pre-shot routine, expert elevation and wind calls, and accurately delivering a 140g Berger through a Gunwerks LR-1000 precision rifle system.
After all the high fives ended, a grueling 125 yard up-hill drag ensued to recover the deer and load the buck into the Ranger. On the way back to camp, we found one the prettiest peaks on the ranch and finished the picture taking. That evening at the skinning pole we were greeted by two other management tag hunters who also found success in two mature Utah Muleys. It was a quick turn back home to Georgia the following day but you can’t say enough good things about the 1st class operation that Travis Murphy and his Western Lands Outfitters team are running. From quality accommodations, delicious meals, to breathtaking views and giant Mule Deer bucks, this place is definitely everything and more that you hear amongst the chatter in the industry. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to join the Gunwerks team to see first- hand the quality and expertise that goes into every product they sell. A final big thank you goes out to Tanner Peugnet, our guide. His knowledge and expertise was much appreciated and certainly would recommend to anyone in search of giant mule deer bucks. As an added bonus, look for this hunt to air on Long Range Pursuit, sometime in 2016.
- Robby Benedict, Nightforce Senior Account Manager