Hunting Mule Deer in British Columbia's South Chilcotin Mountains
Whether climbing through the high country in September or crunching through the snow in November or December, this rugged landscape offers shots at some very big bucks.
By Greg Thomas
I visited the South Chilcotin a few years ago to hunt mule deer in the rut during the first week of December. A guide and I spent each day driving from one vantage to another, glassing for deer, and hiking up ridges and low mountains. We saw deer, plenty of them, probably a hundred in fact, but I was locked in, trying to find a record-book buck. I passed up several legal four-point bucks before the end of the trip neared. On the final full day, near last light, I spotted a giant and hiked up the ridge to find it.
British Columbia produces some of the largest mule deer in the world, and the rugged South Chilcotin Mountains, ranging northwest from Lillooet, are a premier place to hunt this challenging species. The Chilcotin’s rugged terrain, including wide swaths of roadless habitat above 1,981 metres (6,500 feet), means these deer don’t come easy. The Chilcotin also offers hunts for California bighorn sheep, goat, moose, wolf, cougar and black bear.
Hunting in the early season involves hiking into the alpine, as the lack of access roads does not allow for ATVs. Although physically demanding, it helps to protect the resource by limiting the number of people who can handle the trip. September hunts by horseback can be even more old-fashioned: securing your gear to a packhorse and camping in mountain meadows full of trickling streams and wildflowers. The alpine view of the valleys below showcases turquoise-blue glacial streams and mountainsides coloured green and red from copper and iron ore.
Mule deer and other animals head to the high country in July to escape the summer heat. They remain in the fertile alpine country until snow drives them lower in November and December. Between September 1 (when the deer season opens) and September 30 in the South Chilcotin, hunters must harvest a buck with four or more points on its antlers, a regulation that ensures the area’s ability to produce exceptional animals.
At this time, mature bucks are separated from does and gather in “bachelor groups,” which can provide some exciting hunting opportunities—hunters could spot several large bucks staring back at them and have trouble deciding which one to shoot. Even though some may be looking for the biggest buck, the record-book bucks aren’t behind every tree. The careful management of the area means everyone has the possibility of taking a great animal, but that the only thing guaranteed is the journey along the way.
In October, hunters can harvest any buck in the South Chilcotin, a regulation that provides an opportunity for young hunters and families that want to experience a fun and productive hunt. In November and December, when mule deer move out of the high country and into more accessible lower-elevation areas, the four-point restriction is reinstated. This helps limit harvest when bucks are rutting.
Late-season hunts in the South Chilcotin are typically based out of a lodge. Hunters access the deer grounds in vehicles and then set out on foot hiking mountains, ridges and decommissioned logging roads. Lots of time is spent with binoculars and spotting scopes, glassing open hillsides where deer feed in the mornings and evenings and bed down during the day. Once a desired animal is located, hunters determine how to get into range, which is not as easy as it may sound. Crunchy snow coupled with a mule deer’s keen hearing and eyesight offer the deer a major advantage.
The temperature can be cold, and snow is typically on the ground. What these hunts lack in high-mountain alpine scenery, they make up for in opportunity—when mule deer bucks have mating on their minds they are significantly less wary than they would be at other times of the year. When a hunter locates does, they can be sure the bucks are nearby.
Chilcotin deer are highly migratory; some of the animals a hunter sees in November and December may have spent their summers as far away as Tweedsmuir Park, having navigated down the Chilcotin Ark to find the most productive winter feeding grounds. Chilcotin mule deer can move as far as over a hundred miles as compared to other areas of BC, where they might only move a few miles between their summer and winter ranges.
That interconnectivity means comprehensive management of mule deer, and other species, is key to long-term survival. Outfitters play a large role in the effort by placing their highest priority on conservation and stewardship as both a personal passion and one vital to preserving their livelihoods and backyards. Outfitters will coordinate with biologists, natural resource industries, ranchers and Indigenous groups for habitat management and predator control.
Mule deer live on the lee side of the mountains where precipitation rarely measures more than 10 inches a year in the South Chilcotin and arrives mostly as snow. But snow can fall in the high country every month of the year. A rule of thumb is this: hope for the best conditions and prepare for the worst with responsible travel planning.
Hunters visiting the South Chilcotin should bring waterproof boots and plenty of layers of clothing. Wool hats, rain jackets and pants, gloves or mittens, and 3-season sleeping bags with ratings from -15 degrees C to -1 degrees C (5 degrees F to 30 degrees F), should be part of the mix. A small daypack is perfect for carrying extra layers and quality binoculars. Deer move in low-light conditions, so it makes sense to invest in the best optics you can.
A high-calibre rifle or bow is paramount. Rifles in the .270, 7MM, .308 and .30-06 range work well. All should accurately fire a 160-grain bullet.
While horses and horsepower perform some of the heavy work (depending on whether you hunt the early or late season), hunters who show up in good physical condition and have practiced shooting their rifles have the best chance for success. When a mule deer is spotted, hunters have to quickly get within range, often hiking up steep terrain and across rocky, scree slopes. You don’t want to be out of breath when trying to settle crosshairs on a big buck.
Even when you prepare properly, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the buck of your lifetime. Unfortunately, the buck and its does spotted me before I saw them and ghosted into the forest. I knew I could look at my failure in two ways. I chose the glass-half-full option. This gave me a reason to return, maybe for a September high country hunt. I’d have a singular goal in mind—find that big buck on his summer range and put an end to the story.
Greg Thomas has written adventure stories for all the major outdoors publications, including Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Outside Magazine. You can see more of his work at anglerstonic.com. Follow him on IG @anglerstonic
Start planning your hunting trip to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast by:
- Downloading British Columbia’s hunting regulations;
- Downloading a Cariboo Chilcotin Coast regional guide;
- Exploring guided options by visiting the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia website;
- Browsing our featured partners below who note hunting available from their facilities.