There he is.” We were in the Ford, and Bob Roberts was at the wheel. There were two bucks on the horizon, a four-point and a three-point. Four days earlier I’d belly-crawled within 300 yards and spooked them over a hill. This was my moment to redeem myself for that mistake.

Sky-lined now, they were a bit more than 300 yards away.

Roberts rolled the truck back into a depression and we circled in from the south, anticipating where the bucks would travel to bed down.

It was the last day of a five-day hunt. On the first full day we counted 17 bucks and my daughter, Mikayla, about to turn 21, filled her tag with a forked horn that had a broken front leg. With the rifle set on a good rest, and a Nosler AccuBond Long Range bullet in the chamber, she made one of the best shots of her life.

On the third day I put seven miles on my Danner boots and bounced a 23-inch three-point toward Alan Roberts, Bob’s brother. That was the only buck we saw.

The next day, I passed up seven bucks, looking for a big one, with one day left to hunt.

When the snow crusted last winter, when the temperature didn’t come out of the teens for weeks at a time, I guessed it would be a hard time for mule deer. All summer I watched for deer where I was used to seeing bucks the year before. On one drive where in 2016 I counted 20 bucks, I didn’t see a single buck in the summer of 2017 in half a dozen tries.

Reports from around the eastern part of the state indicated hunters this season saw more younger bucks and fewer mature bucks, leading people to speculate that the older males whose strength was sapped from the last breeding season were the most susceptible to winterkill. This is speculation, and the evidence is anecdotal, but it makes for good campfire conjecture.

Early last spring, I looked around the state, assessing what I thought were the best options for a mule deer hunt with my daughter and settled on the Columbia Basin Unit. It seemed to me that deer in and around private farm and ranch lands might have had the best chance to survive the hard winter.

Deer need food, water, bedding areas and sanctuary cover to survive. We can help mule deer by setting aside habitat where they can thrive. We can control the predators that kill the fawns in the spring. We can stop poaching. Oregon State Police have estimated that in some areas, the illegal kill is greater than the legal harvest.

In 2009, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Mule Deer Initiative, to support mule deer populations in five management units: Heppner, Murderers Creek, Maury, Steens Mountain and Warner. Sportsmen, landowners and agency employees worked together to develop a plan that included habitat work, predator control, road closures and enforcement.

I was happy with our Columbia Basin hunt. I know we saw more deer than a lot of hunters in other units. We looked at spikes, spike-forks, forked horns and small 2x3s. On the last day we went back to where we started.

They were there again, feeding away. The 4x4 was on the right, a bit past 300 yards. We spotted them from the truck, backed up, then “coyoted” in, the wind in our faces. I could smell them.

With the rifle in my right hand, I took the point. Sam Pyke followed, then Mikayla, then Bob Roberts. All with good optics.

Somehow we had educated those two deer. We lost track of them. They gave us the slip, but it was my fault. I had taken my eyes off the prize and let that four-point mule deer get away.

We combed the hills up and down, first with glasses and then with our boots.

Based on what we saw in the breaks of the Umatilla, there could be a bunch of 2½-year-old four-points next season. There will be a decent 3x3, a good 4x4 tumbleweed buck, and a mythical 30-inch, heavy-beamed four-point to haunt our dreams.

As I think back on the Mule Deer Initiative and its promise, I know Oregon can help mule deer numbers rebound from the Cascade crest to the Snake River. If we keep our eyes on the prize.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.

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