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Giants of the Yucca: Hunting for Bucketlist Whitetails in Eastern Colorado
I’ve never shot a giant whitetail buck—I mean a real stomper. That puts me in the company of most deer hunters. And like those fellow whitetail hunters it hasn’t been for lack of trying. This last season, I took another crack at finding a monster and headed to an unlikely place to do so—the plains of Eastern Colorado.
I’ve been hunting whitetails a long time, and have climbed stands in some of the best places for big bucks—southern Illinois’ hardwoods, the plains of Kansas, ag bottomlands in Missouri, the dark swamps in Mississippi where some true giants grow, eastern Kentucky and Saskatchewan, Canada.
But I can trace my fascination with whitetails to the place I started hunting deer—Northern Michigan.
It was there, decades ago, that I saw my first “real” whitetail buck. I had only been deer hunting for a couple seasons, and though I’d shot some does and a spike, I hadn’t put eyes on anything like a genuine 8-pointer.
I’d see bigger deer hanging from the buck poles on the neighbors’ lands, and stacked in the meat locker at the IGA grocery where we’d take our deer to be processed, but never crossed paths with one myself.
I was a young man at the time and even though it was many years ago, I still remember the encounter vividly.
It was a cold, cold morning, the kind where when you suck in your breath too fast your teeth hurt. I’d been sitting in my blind since two hours before dawn, and as the sun illuminated the cloudless day I was fighting the urge to close my eyes.
The blind was in a field of grass, positioned between corn stubble to my rear and the tree line down below me I was watching that defined the boundary between the field and a cedar filled marsh.
That tree line was a highway of deer sign, with rubs and scrapes and scat everywhere.
One moment the woods were empty, and the next the buck materialized. He was walking from my right, nose down among the trees. I saw antlers on his head and a surge of chemical electricity flooded my body.
I tried to put my scope on him, but my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t make him out. I had to lower my rifle and take a couple breaths and confirm that he was still out there.
I got the rifle back up and found him in the crosshair. He had covered more than half the tree line by this time and I felt a stab of panic that he might get away.
I don’t remember the sound of the shot, but I do remember seeing the deer hunch and then sprint off. I took a second shot that kicked up a plume of snow several feet behind him.
The buck disappeared into the cedars and I waited for half an hour as I had been taught, playing out the encounter over and over in my mind.
I hiked 120 yards downhill to the trees, my pac boots post-holing in the foot-deep snow, and found his tracks. I followed them into the woods and was dismayed at how far the deer had run. I spotted a small drop of blood in the snow, followed the track some more, and then found more blood.
I pushed through narrow gaps in the cedars and entered a small clearing, and saw him piled up by the base of a tree.
I gutted him and dragged him back to the field. The bullet from my .30/06 had broken both shoulders, and cut through his lungs and heart. To this day, I still think about how far that deer went—more than 100 yards—propelled by a wild and fierce will to live.
That shoulder mount is in my garage, and his rack wouldn’t rate a second glance from a TV hunting personality. But he was a northern Michigan shooter, and the first deer I hoisted on our buck pole that made me feel I had really joined the deer hunting fraternity.
Quest for Big Whitetails
That was long before I started working for Outdoor Life back in 2001, and since then I’ve been able to hunt deer all over the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, but I’ve never put a genuine gagger on the ground. Once in Illinois, a bowhunter on the property across from where I was hunting shot a true 200-inch non-typical and I got to admire that deer and the mind-boggling crown of bone on its head. But a deer of that caliber—and even a notch or three below it—isn’t something I’d ever tagged myself.
For more than a decade I’ve been living out West, and while I still hunt whitetails every year, I had sort of given up trying to get a monster. I shifted my focus to mule deer, and in that realm the hunting gods have been very kind to me indeed.
But this last year I got bit by the whitetail bug once again. Maybe I had been staring at my first buck for too long, but I wanted to take another shot at chasing a toad and experiencing that electric surge I felt back in Michigan long ago.
The husk of a 1960 Mercury Monterey on a ranch where the author and his buddy hunted pheasants. (John B. Snow/)
Connecting on a Bruiser
Every year my friend Cody Arnold and I try to hunt together. Over the years we’ve killed a lot of great elk and mule deer in Colorado, and some nice whitetails in Nebraska. As happens, life had gotten in the way of our annual trips, and we hadn’t been able to hunt together for a couple seasons.
When I told him I wanted to go for big whitetail, his wheels started spinning. We kicked around a some ideas, and settled on a place I had never hunted.
Eastern Colorado isn’t exactly a sleeper spot for big deer, but it also isn’t one of those places that has a trail cam hanging on every game trail and where each promising buck gets a name like Forkzilla or Big Daddy.
Cody set to work and found us a couple landowner tags on a big ranch north of the town of Burlington. I wanted to hunt with Springfield Armory’s new bolt-action, the Model 2020 Waypoint, and approached Springfield about getting a couple to use. They sent one to me, and one to Cody, both in 6.5 PRC.
Cody lives a few hours from Burlington and got in one scouting trip prior to our hunt. I asked him about the ranch and what it looked like. “It’s big,” he said.
Some cattle in the cottonwoods on the 35,000-acre ranch the author and his friend hunted. (John B. Snow/)
When I first heard that we had 35,000 acres to hunt, I nodded my head and thought, That’s awesome.
But after making the 13-hour drive from Montana to the solitary farm house in the middle of that country that would be our base camp, and seeing the ground we had to cover, I felt like a dog who had just caught the bus.
“How the hell are we going to figure this out in just one week?” I said to Cody.
Our season ran from December 1 to 8, and while that sounded like plenty of time before the hunt, I suddenly wasn’t so sure.
I’d been excited to hang out with Cody, especially since we hadn’t seen each other in so long. He’s a former wrestler and wrestling coach, and he brings a grappler’s intensity to hunting. But as much as our shared fanaticism for chasing animals drew us together, he’s also got a wide-ranging sense of humor and intelligence that makes for good conversation while spending hours behind glass. Even though we were looking forward to catching up, on day one we decided to head in different directions to cover as much ground as possible.
I drove my truck to the center of the ranch to some high ground to glass as the sun came up.
I had a 360-degree view of God knows how many acres. I could see several circle pivots bristling with corn stubble, corners planted with winter wheat, rolling flats of sage, rimrock, and radio antennas. Even after an hour of glassing that one spot, I hadn’t peered into all of it. I found a few does feeding at the edge of a pivot a couple miles away but no bucks.
Later that morning Cody called me and we met in the middle of giant field of winter wheat, that stretched a couple miles from one edge to the next. We set up spotters next to our trucks and Cody talked me on to a group of deer he’d found feeding among the yuccas in a large draw to the east.
Through the mirage I could make out the muleys and whitetails, but didn’t see any antlers.
Glassing up big Colorado whitetail bucks across a miles-wide field of winter wheat. (John B. Snow/)
Cody said he’d seen a large buck near the skyline that had bedded down.
We grabbed our guns, slung our packs on, picked up our spotters and hiked 1,000 yards across the pool-table flat wheat field to a fence corner. That put us about half a mile from the deer.
We kept low and glassed for the buck. I spotted a different buck down in the draw that we hadn’t seen before—a tall, mature 10-point—while Cody scanned for the bruiser on the skyline.
Cody’s got great eyes and always out-spots me when we hunt together. Soon he found his deer by picking up a glimpse of his main beam and the hint of the outline of his rump in the yucca. For several minutes he tried to get me onto the deer, but I couldn’t see him. Then I did. But I didn’t let Cody know that, and insisted that he was just looking at a dead branch for another 10 minutes.
What’s the point of having a best hunting buddy if you don’t mess with his head?
“I thought I was going crazy,” Cody said after punching me.
We decided to make a move on the skyline buck. We were able to low-crawl for another 300 yards before the ground started to drop away, at which point we’d lose our angle on the deer. That was the best shooting position we’d be able to get in this country.
Cody wanted me to shoot the deer. In part because he’s that kind of friend, but also because the 15 mph crosswind combined with the distance of the shot—565 yards—had him concerned.
I’d spent enough time with our rifles to know how well they shot. Springfield Armory built these rifles—their first-ever bolt-actions—right. My Waypoint grouped Hornady’s factory 143-grain ELD-X loads well under an inch with five shots, and Cody’s did the same.
We unscrewed the caps on Cody’s scope and I told him how much elevation to dial, then gave him a wind hold, which was about a foot in front of the deer’s nose. We set up prone side-by-side and waited for the deer to stand. As soon as he did, Cody took the shot and in my reticle I saw the deer buckle under the impact.
“Put another one in!” I said. “Chamber! Chamber! Chamber!”
Cody launched another shot downrange that sailed over the deer’s back, but that didn’t matter. The buck’s legs gave out and he sank into the vegetation.
I spent the next few minutes glued to my scope in case the buck stood up, but he never regained his feet. We gathered our stuff and trekked across the draw, rifles ready.
We found the buck ten minutes later, dead in his bed.
I couldn’t believe how heavy his rack was. Some animals have that “wow” factor when you see them, and this was one of those deer.
We looked back across the draw from where we had been.
“I’ve never made a shot like that,” Cody said.
Cody Arnold with his huge Colorado whitetail buck, which sported split G2s on each side. (John B. Snow/)
I joked that between his spotting ability and my shooting skills, we completed each other. But kidding aside there’s a fair bit of truth to that. Ever since we met more than a decade ago, Cody and I hit it off. We both had a similarly aggressive hunting style, preferring to make a move on an animal and risk blowing it out of the country rather than sitting back and hoping for the best.
“Never up, never in,” golfers like to say, and that’s as good a summation as you’ll find of the hunting philosophy Cody and I share.
A Second Stalk
That night the temperatures dropped and it started to snow, and the wind picked up. We spent the next couple days trying to find more deer, but it was clear that they had dug themselves deep into protected bedding areas and were in no hurry to move anywhere.
We learned a lot about the ranch and the animals during that time, however. We analyzed tracks, located a number of promising travel corridors, and spent time figuring out where they were getting water.
When the weather improved we were ready. We ended up focusing on the northern boundary of the ranch. It often seems that the grass is always greener—and the game more plentiful—on the land you can’t hunt, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t often the case.
Even now, reflecting back on it, it seems a little crazy to think that we couldn’t focus on deer contained within the 35,000 acres, and I’m sure there was a great buck somewhere in there we didn’t find. But the sign didn’t lie.
We figured out that the deer were moving from a neighboring ranch at night to feed, and we wanted to position ourselves to intercept them.
Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X in 6.5 PRC was dead-on at 100 yards. (John B. Snow/)
On the fourth evening we hunkered down at the edge of the ranch and watched groups of both mule deer and whitetails filter into the winter wheat.
The deer densities in this country are nothing like what I grew up experiencing in Michigan or had seen in other whitetail-rich states, so a group of dozen deer felt like we had hit the jackpot.
With about 20 minutes of shooting light left, we spotted a big buck by himself, about a mile and half away. We wouldn’t be able to cover that ground in that time, so we watched him until dark and made a plan to sneak back in the morning—and hoped he wouldn’t go too far.
We studied satellite images of the ranch that night. He had been feeding along the same system of draws where Cody had shot his buck, and, in fact, we thought it was likely that he was the same buck I’d seen the morning Cody connected with his monster.
Now we had a tough decision to make: Where did we want to be come sunrise? Each of the fingers on that massive draw spanned several hundred yards. Pick the wrong one, and you’ll be hopelessly out of position, either unable to see the deer or so exposed that you can’t make a move without getting busted.
Cody studied the map, and pointed to a spot, and asked me what I thought. What I thought was that Cody’s instincts had always proven so strong over the years that there was no reason for me to second-guess him now. “Looks good,” I said.
The author's Springfield Armory Model 2020 Waypoint chambered in 6.5 PRC perched on his ever-present Game Changer bag and tripod setup. (John B. Snow/)
That next morning we hiked under a dark velvet sky ablaze with stars. As we walked, I watched a line of red lights atop the turbines of a distant wind farm wink in unison. By the time a strip of red, yellow, green, and orange appeared in the southeast to announce the sun, we had already covered a mile and had set up next to a small water tank.
We quickly glassed up a pile of deer, including the buck we’d spotted at last light. Cody had worked his magic once again.
We were able to sneak another couple hundred yards closer before we ran into the same issue we encountered with Cody’s buck—namely that the ground was going to drop away, and we’d lose our angle.
I don’t think I’ve ever hunted another area that demanded such technical long shots. Like most hunters, my goal is always to get closer, and I think that people who haven’t hunted the West often underestimate how close you can sneak up on deer even in big country. The year before, in fact, I managed to stalk right on top of a good whitetail in Wyoming and shoot him at 30 yards with a .45-70 lever action by circling behind and above him in the pocket of buck brush where he was feeding with four does.
But this place was different. The gradually slopping edges of the draws made getting close impossible, unless you happened to luck into a spot where the deer were going to walk right up on you.
And then there was the wind. I’m sure it lays down from time to time in Burlington, but the presence of wind farms is what big city detectives like to call a clue. So you have to account for that too.
To stack the odds in my favor, I had my lightweight Game Changer bag, which goes with me to every hunt and shooting competition.
I’ve taken my share of ribbing from friends and have gotten some odd looks from other hunters who see me hauling around my bag and the tripod I set it on. But when you can’t go prone and need to elevate your gun above vegetation in order to shoot, there’s nothing that works as well.
The author with his 10-point Colorado whitetail buck. (John B. Snow/)
That’s exactly what I did in this case to get above the sage brush.
With the rifle perched on the bag, I got on the buck, who was 515 yards away on the other side of the draw. I waited for him to step into the clear and held 7 inches of wind.
My shot found its mark and split his heart.
He was a hell of deer, possibly the best whitetail I’ve ever taken. He’s an eastern-count 10-point, with good mass and beams that sweep back, up and hook around to the front of his nose. I didn’t put a tape on him, but I’d guess he’s pushing that 150-inch mark.
The author’s 515-yard shot split the heart of his buck. (Cody Arnold/)
Cody and I had a couple more days to kill so we asked for permission from a rancher to hunt pheasants and shoot collared doves near some of grain silos, which we did.
Before Cody headed for home, and I headed down to Oklahoma to shoot the PRS Finale, we made plans for this coming year. We’re going to look for big mule deer—which is what Cody and I first hunted together years ago—and see what mischief we can get into.
As for me, I’m still waiting to encounter that gagger whitetail I’ve been dreaming about—and I’m still determined to find him one of these days—but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I still get that same electric surge every time I get to hunt deer, stompers or otherwise.