Mentally drained and physically exhausted, I just sat there in disbelief. To say I was bummed would be a gross understatement! The swing of emotions in such a short span of time was simply unbelievable. Only moments earlier, Nate Simmons had the camera rolling and I had a huge rush of adrenaline as I was about to come to full draw on the unsuspecting buck that was 37 yards directly below me. But instead of exchanging high-fives in celebration of our great accomplishment, we both found ourselves sitting there, not even saying a single word to each other, as we watched the buck scoot across the basin in what looked like some sort of an attempt to break a land speed record. Seconds later, the only remaining sign of the buck were the small clouds of dust he left behind in his wake; just another typical day of hunting high country mulies.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time archery hunting mulies in the backcountry has undoubtedly felt the same wide range of emotions that I was feeling at that particular moment. One minute you are high on an unbelievable adrenaline rush, the next you feel as if you just watched your favorite dog get ran over by a truck! But honestly, it is these same extreme highs and lows that keep archery hunters coming back for more, year after year. It is borderline addicting.
As the small clouds of dust disappeared, it would have been real easy to sit there and feel sorry for myself, but I learned a long time ago you simply need to suck it up and get your head back in the game if you are going to be successful. That’s exactly what I did. I immediately began glassing and within ten minutes of blowing the previous stalk, I had three bucks on the opposite side of the basin located, and one in particular, had my full attention. As I zoomed the spotting scope in on the largest buck, I soon forgot about the previous buck. As a matter of fact, after getting a good look at the buck, I was now glad that it had not worked out. This buck was much larger, had an outside spread of 30 inches and was very tall. I turned to Nate and said “Game on.”
After making our way back across the basin in the direction we had originally came from, Nate and I were approaching the small ravine where we had first spotted the bucks feeding. As I peeked over the edge, I could see two bucks, but not the big guy. We were in bow range and the wind was unsteady; therefore, we needed to move closer and close the deal as soon as possible. We began to inch closer to the steep bank of the ravine they were feeding in to hopefully locate the big guy. What happened next, I remember as if it only happened yesterday; the sound of hooves hitting rocks as the three bucks busted out of the drainage and came to a stop 200 yards away. The buck turned his head and was looking back to try and figure out what was going on. As I sat and looked at the buck’s magnificent velvet covered rack, I knew my hunt had just taken a turn in a very different direction. It was at that moment I decided I was going to put my tag on that particular buck or go home empty handed. Little did I know at that time exactly how long that would take.
The next morning found Nate and I making our way over to where we last saw the bucks the previous evening. Surprisingly, before we had made it even a half mile, we came across the three bucks before the sun was even up as they were headed over the top of an extremely steep face that led into to the adjacent basin. For the life of me, this didn’t make any sense. There was no reason these bucks should have been going where they were going at that time of the morning.
We never saw the bucks the remainder of the day or the day after that. Something didn’t add up. Then it donned on me, when we first spotted the bucks on the second day of the season, they were most likely pushed into that basin by hunters on opening day. When we came across them early that morning, they were in fact heading back to the drainage in which they actually had originally come from. Now that we had that little piece of information sorted out, it was time to break camp and head for the other drainage where I was now confident we would find the bucks.
Early afternoon found us looking into the new basin. It only took about five minutes of glassing and we had the three bucks located bedded under a large cliff. They were perched on the high mountain bench which provided them with a great view of the basin below. Indeed, this was the basin they called home. The good news was we now knew where they would go if we were to bump them. That afternoon I blew stalk number two and confirmed our thoughts. The bucks went into the next basin where we first spotted them. Unfortunately, we played cat and mouse with them for several days but only got within bow range of the buck on one other occasion, before he seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet. Our hunt ended in disappointment, but we did however, learn enough about the buck’s habits and where he lived, that we felt we had a great chance of putting a tag on him the following season.
The following summer I was extremely busy with work and only had time enough to make one scouting trip into the basin. Although I saw a few decent bucks, I never laid eyes on the large 30 incher. Even though I never saw him, I had a good feeling he had survived the hunting season and winter. If indeed he did, I felt that I knew more about that buck than the buck knew about himself. I knew where he ate, drank and slept and I really liked my chances the second time around if he was in fact still alive.
The day before the opener, my cameraman Aaron Mills and I strapped on our packs and hit the trail. Several hours later, we sat down and took a rest and grab a bite to eat and I put the binos on the hillside where I last saw the buck the previous hunting season. As if it was meant to be, within 100 yards of that exact spot, there he was. He was standing in front of a large boulder looking down into the basin. I turned to Mills and said, “Game on.”
Just the thought of knowing the buck was still alive made the following two hour climb to our campsite much easier. Normally this extremely vertical climb is a real ball buster, but this time I had a grin from ear to ear all the way to the top. Once camp was setup, we made ourselves comfortable and watched the bucks feed until dark. To say I was excited would be a great understatement. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night because my mind was racing 100 miles per hour thinking about the buck and what the morning might bring.
After only about two hours of sleep, and running every possible stalk scenario through my mind, it was time to get up. I wasn’t the least bit tired though as we sat and watched the bucks up feeding at first light. They were feeding below a huge cliff and were gradually moving back towards their bedding area which is located above the cliff in a group of small scrub pines. It would take them quite some time to feed across the bench and then climb up to their preferred bedding area which would allow us ample time to complete the stalk, get set up just above their bedding area and then we would just have to sit and wait for them to arrive.
As we neared their bedding area, we picked out a spot just above an outcropping which would give us several shooting lanes at the bucks as they climbed out of the rocks and into the scrub pines where they normally bed. Now it was time to just settle in and wait. And wait we did. The morning hours were now gone and it was now approaching noon. I finally leaned over and told Mills,” if they aren’t here by now, they aren’t coming.” That meant one thing – they had decided to bed below the cliffs. This was not a bad thing. I knew exactly where they bedded below the cliffs and it would be a relatively easy stalk to get above them and into bow range.
The first part of the stalk was extremely slow going. There was a bunch of loose rock and one wrong step could send a rock tumbling which would immediately be the end of our stalk. Finally, we reached the small scrub pines located just above the cliff. Footing was much quieter and we soon were at cliff’s edge looking down onto the bench where we last saw the bucks feeding that morning. There were two sets of beds the bucks normally use on this bench. The first is on the outer edge of the bench in several small alpine willows, while the second is underneath a rather large overhang on the cliff. As we peeked over the edge, I could see the beds in the willows were empty. This meant the bucks were most likely under the overhang which would require us to sit tight until they got up and fed away from the bench before we would be able to see them.
Before we knew it, an hour had passed - still no bucks. We had a steady uphill breeze so patience was key at this point. Mills and I kept taking turns peeking over the edge hoping to catch a glimpse of antlers. Then it happened, we heard rustling in the willows below us and to our right. One of the smaller bucks was up feeding below us and to our right. My heart was beating out of my chest knowing that I may have an opportunity on a monster buck in only a few short moments. As I peeked to my left, there he was! He was feeding to my left alongside the other smaller buck. The angle was perfect as he was slightly angling away from me with his head down feeding. I signaled to Mills to start filming. The angle was extremely steep, and with the rock outcroppings on the cliff it was going to be tough to thread an arrow through the narrow openings of the rocks but it was now or never. A quick click of the rangefinder gave me a reading of 46 yards. I dialed my adjustable sight to 46 and slowly came to full draw. My pin found its mark and I released almost immediately.
The two bucks immediately disappeared to our left. The other buck to our right was alert and looking around in an attempt to figure out what all of the commotion was about. I honestly thought I had missed, so Mills and I hunkered down and out of sight of the remaining buck hoping that we might get an additional opportunity at the buck. After about a minute, I slowly moved to my left in an attempt to locate the two bucks. As I peeked over the edge, they stood side by side about 80 yards away looking back in the direction they had come from. I turned and whispered to Mills that they had stopped and were staring back in our direction. As I took a second peek, I noticed something didn’t seem right about the large buck. He was starting to wobble and he immediately bedded down. I hunkered back down and turned to Mills and said “we got him, he just bedded down.” Shortly after bedding down, the buck began rolling down the incline and the celebration immediately ensued.
While all of my bucks I have taken are special in their own way, this particular buck really meant a lot to me. Given the fact that we knew so much about this buck’s routine and habits, I felt a real personal connection with him. Persistence, patience, a positive attitude and two long years of extremely hard work of patterning this buck, had finally paid off.