Close Search
February 2024
Story by Mathew Tiller
State: Oregon
Species: Deer - Mule

Oregon has always been my home and my hunting ground. Born and raised in Central Oregon, I have spent my entire life hunting the eastern half of the state. I grew up lucky to have a father who hunted and taught me to rifle hunt. I went on my first elk hunt in a backpack strapped on my dad’s shoulders, and as soon as I could walk, I was by his side with my Red Ryder BB gun while we chased desert mulies. The term “it’s in my blood” comes to mind when I think about hunting and Oregon.

Growing up and learning from Dad and my surrounding family, the terms “trophy hunting” or “hold out for a bigger one” were not even muttered. Passing a harvest opportunity on a legal animal just didn’t happen, and this practice has earned me my share of grief from friends. My good friend of 20 years and Huntin’ Fool associate, Matthew White, never misses the chance to playfully torment me while discussing our upcoming hunts. He’ll regularly ask me, “You gonna hold out for that big six on your camera this year?” And I’ll reply with something to the effect of, “Sure, if a spike doesn’t get in the way first!” The way I see it, I’d rather come home with a story of what happened, not what could’ve happened, and I’ve never regretted it.

Making the switch from exclusively rifle hunting in my youth to bow hunting has only strengthened my “don’t pass” practices as bow opportunities are less, and it has served me well. My freezer has been full for the past seven years in a row. Yes, I’ve harvested an elk the past seven years with my bow with a couple bucks sprinkled in. Were they all trophy class animals? No, but a few definitely were.

Oregon may not be known for trophy class animals on an OTC tag, but the racks in my living room prove their existence. Luck. Right place, right time. Scouting. Skill. I don’t know if any of those play a role in my success, but if I had to settle on a deciding factor, I’d settle on simply being present and making a consistent effort towards something I love, which is exactly how I approached my 2023 season as all the ones before.

2023 was a special one for me because after a five-year hiatus from rifle mule deer, I drew a Keating unit tag with my saved preference points. My hopes for filling the tag were not high as mule deer have been suffering a notable population decline in Oregon for many years now. Seeing pictures and hearing stories of how good the Keating unit used to be and being told it’s not what it once was back in the good ol’ days added to stifling my hopes. However, I told myself it was still an opportunity to be present and spend time doing what I love. This hunt turned out to be one of my proudest ones.

I had never hunted the Keating unit before except for the occasional mid-winter coyote stand. (Keating has no shortage of coyotes). I had never set foot in the part of the unit I had picked out to find a buck, but man oh man was it beautiful country. I prefer hunting open sage country over forested areas when trying to find a mulie, and this unit has both. I picked the area I did because it just looked good on onX. It was an area where the timber meets the sage, water, and deep canyons, all the features you’d expect to hold mule deer.

Unfortunately, my dad couldn’t be with me on this trip, but I had a good friend draw the tag with me. We had put together our opening day plans based 100% on e-scouting with onX. The plan was to work the border of the forest and sage, picking apart the multiple deep drainages with our boots and our glass. Our plan worked, and about three hours into opening morning, my buddy was tagged out on a respectable 4-point. Once we had his buck back to camp and taken care of, it was my turn.

I left camp on foot for the second time that day at around 3 p.m. I walked, and I walked, and I walked a little more. Nothing. Not a deer in sight. Exhausted but still riding the high of my friend’s success, I called him up and told him to come get me. The next day’s weather report was calling for temps in the mid 80s, hot, and sunny. I knew the deer wouldn’t be on their feet for long in the morning, so I had to get going early. I decided to pull a repeat of opening morning’s plan but move a little deeper into the sage. It would be a long walk and I’d be on my own because my buddy had to get his buck hung in a cooler due to the weather forecast.

I spent the morning canvasing the sage-covered country and enjoying the immersive views provided by the diverse geography. The fog hanging low in the valley below made for a beautiful sunrise and some great cell phone pictures. I’ve always been easily distracted by a good sunrise or sunset, things you seem to take for granted if you’re not on the mountain. I burnt the morning up quickly, and the temperatures rose into the high 70s.

Before I knew it, I had worked my way down several hundred feet in elevation and miles from camp, but I was still determined to turn up a buck. I knew by this time of day I would be looking for a bedded buck, trying to avoid the heat. My dad’s words came to mind, “Sometimes you just have to do something different, something stupid” to turn a buck up. I remembered him telling me a story of a buck he took before I was born. Standing on a rim and looking over a gully filled with tall sage, my dad “just knew” there had to be a buck in there. He took a large rock and threw it down the gully. Sure enough, a buck stood up from the sage and was immediately laid back down by my Dad’s .270. I figured I’d do something stupid.

The deep sage I was currently glassing over was deep enough I would never be able to spot a bedded buck. I decided to start working each draw and sage patch on foot, working my way toward a road where hopefully I would be picked up by my buddy who was on his way back to camp. A couple hundred feet down, a couple hundred feet up. Into the next draw. Repeat. I will admit, I was feeling a little desperate at the time just to put eyes on a deer. A few draws later, my desperation became apparent to me. I had nine more days to hunt, why was I trying to kill myself on day two? It was hot, and I had worked myself to exhaustion without success. Something stupid didn’t work.

I decided to finally eat a little something and hydrate in the shade of the juniper, my feet and legs feeling the burn. I contacted my buddy, with a little disappointment in my voice, and told him where to meet me. I gathered my pack, slid my rifle into its built-in sleeve, and started flat landing it to the rally point. It was pushing noon and 85 degrees, so I took my time following an old cow trail that meandered through the rolling low end of all the draws I had spent the morning grinding though. I had my head down, trekking out, when a loud “thump, thump” about 40 yards to my left caught my attention. I knew just by the sound it was a deer. I looked up. I had jumped a buck out of his bed! The buck was up and out of his bed and running, quartered away from me. I reached for my rifle (which was unwisely stowed in my pack) with both my hands over my head. Without hesitation and without giving a thought to the buck’s size, I shouldered my Tikka, worked the bolt, found him in the scope, gave him a lead, and touched off the shot. The buck immediately fell and expired. I had capitalized on my opportunity.