My 2015 Wyoming mule deer season started similar to many prior years. A significant portion of my time was invested in preparing myself both physically and mentally; fine tuning and purchasing the best equipment that I could afford; and increasing my knowledge of mule deer behavior and the country that they live in. Although I have been privileged to harvest several good mule deer in the past, I wanted to make this season something special. This was my year to finally take the monarch of the mountain!
I spent numerous scouting trips into the back country in early July and August. I was fortunate enough to find several bucks that met and actually exceeded my expectations. I was feeling extremely confident when the archery season finally arrived. As opening morning came and went, my confidence turned into disappointment. There were an unusual high number of archers in the area and it seemed that all the big bucks that I had scouted had disappeared to their secondary locations. After a great deal of effort, I was unable to locate any of them during the archery season.
The days preceding the rifle season, I struggled with the decision of whether to hunt these areas or go somewhere else. After much debate, I decided to accompany my Dad, a brother, and a friend in an area that our family has been hunting for generations. This area traditionally has produced some excellent to monster bucks. I knew that with the antler growth that was possible this year, I should be able to find a trophy mule deer while having significantly less pressure. The opener started with an array of snow storms and freezing rain. Three cold, wet days later we were still pounding the mountain with little to no success. When the weather finally broke everyone else tagged out. I had ample opportunity on decent bucks, but elected to pass in order to have a chance at that monarch of the mountain.
For the rest of the rifle season, I continued to see good bucks, but just couldn't find the caliber of deer that I was looking for. After many miles and multiple excursions, I decided to go blind into an area that I had killed a good buck in a few years previous. Finally, I was able to turn up a trophy buck. Unfortunately, an opportunity was missed and no shot was taken. As I came off the mountain empty handed, it became clear that this may just be a learning year. With that being said, I wasn't about to give up. I was going to keep pounding until the season ended or I got lucky. Just as luck would have it, I happened to find the largest buck that I had seen in person all year the night before the season ended.
Excitement quickly turned to focus and focus turned to preparation. As this particular area was new to me, I spent hours studying the specifics of the terrain and trying to figure out the best approach to the buck on Google Earth. Anxiety began to build as I realized that I would have to complete a marathon hike through the most rugged and technical high country terrain that I had ever encountered. To make matters worse, I would only be able to have an evening hunt due to stringent commitments at work. The odds seemed to be stacked against me, but I had trained, prepared, and worked so hard for this moment. I wasn't about to let the mountain, circumstance, or my own anxieties defeat an opportunity at this great buck.
Time seemed to stand still as I went to work the next day. I had a hard time concentrating on any work as my mind constantly drifted back to the photos and video of this new buck. After what seemed like forever, it was game time. I hurriedly grabbed my gear and met up with my Dad. One of my best friends and hunting buddy had also agreed to come and find us after he had finished coaching football practice
The terrain was even steeper and worse than I had anticipated. Many times the route that I had planned became impassible. Often, I had to back track in order to find a different way through the cliffs. Due to the slowness of my pace, doubt began to enter my mind. Could I make it in time? Was the buck even going to be there? Thankfully my radio sprang to life and my Dad reassured me that the buck had just fed out into the same opening we had glassed him in the night before. Doubt vanished and with each step my drive intensified.
I knew that in order to make a play on this deer, I needed to end up either at the same level or above the buck. After what seemed like an eternity of climbing, I figured that I was high enough. I crested the ridge and looked into the draw that this big buck was supposedly in. Breathing heavily, I sat down in order to assess the situation and get my bearings. I soon realized that I was too far below the buck and not where I had wanted to be. My mind began to run in over drive as I contemplated my options. Just as I was about to grab my pack and drop back over the ridge to climb higher, I caught movement above me. Instantly, I picked out the buck feeding on top of a bench. Astonished, I realized that if I had been anywhere else on the mountain, I would not have seen this buck due to the many layers of terrain that this buck called home. As I glassed the buck I saw a typical main frame, awesome mass, great main beams, and giant backs! He was even bigger than I had originally thought!
I quickly built a good rest; ranged the buck, studied the wind and dialed the ballistic solution. The first windage mark of my Vortex Viper HSLR found and settled on the buck's front shoulder. My physique although screaming from fatigue gave way to a sense of calmness, confidence, and elation that only preparation can bring. The black webbed stock of my Remington Sendero felt as though it was an extension of my own arm. “This was it.This was the moment that I had worked so hard for!” As my index finger found the cool trigger, motor memory completely took over. At the bottom of my breathe my index finger broke the trigger and BOOM!
At the report of the rifle, I instinctively got back on target just in time to watch the vapor trail sail just inches over the buck's back! As the splash settled, despair entered the space that my confidence just milliseconds had before occupied. I watched as the big buck gracefully exited and vanished as only the grey ghosts of the high country can do. I lay there speechless and deflated. A million questions began racing, colliding, and dancing within my mind. Confusion was added to the mix as I reminisced about how I had shot this particular rifle and load all summer. I had made near perfect hits at this distance and much further reach time I had practiced. “How could I have missed?” I peered at the ballistics app with the various inputs that I had meticulously entered, re-worked, and verified countless times over the summer and early fall. Everything was in order and correct. My mind was still sorting through the various questions when the silence was again shattered by my Dad on the radio. Emotion filled my voiced as I told Dad that I was pretty sure that I had shot just over the buck. Dad asked if I had been able to record the shot and I answered that I hadn't. Everything had happened so fast I just didn't have the time. We decided that due to not having definitive proof of a miss the only ethical thing to do would be to climb up there and make sure. Just then my friend came on the radio and informed both of us that he was within radio range and would make his way up to my position to assist in whatever way he could.
I quickly gathered my gear; slung my pack over my shoulders and started working my way up to where the big buck had been. I was only part way there when darkness enveloped me. I turned my head lamp on and the limited visibility seemed to symbolize and encapsulate my feelings perfectly. My anxiety was slowly building; yet there was a glimmer of hope that somehow I could have hit the buck and just not realized it. As the adrenaline wore off, my legs burned as they had never done previously during the 18 plus days in the field. My breath was shallow and became more labored with each step. Digging deep, I found the courage to hang on to that glimmer of hope and just keep climbing.
I finally reached the vantage point where the monarch of the mountain had been standing. All my attention was instantly directed to finding any clue that would lead me to believe that the buck had been hit. It didn't take me long to find the big buck’s tracks. I began following the tracks up and through a higher saddle. I searched and searched and in the end had little to nothing to show for it. At this point,I knew that if the buck had been hit I would have found some evidence. As my hope was shattered, I sat down and again pondered just how this could have happened. Curiosity eventually turned to numbness as no answers to my questions came. I sat there in the dark for some time feeling as though I had just broken my leg with only 10 feet left to the finish line.
My friend's voice again came on the radio. I quickly realized that while I was feeling sorry for myself he was still climbing in the dark below me. I felt silly knowing that I was being so selfish. I told him to stay there and I would make my way down to him. It didn't take me long to find my hunting buddy and as we met a great sense of brotherhood overcame me. I was extremely thankful for my Dad and a great friend that would drop everything in order to help me. We reminisced about the events that had transpired earlier and after quickly refueling began the long hike out in the dark.
After a steep and treacherous decent out of the high country, we made short work of the remaining distance back to the truck. As I laid my backpack down, it surprised me that I felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride despite coming home empty handed. I reminisced that I could have given up, but I didn’t. I had hunted until the very end and endured things that many only read about. At that moment, I decided to name this buck "Lucky”. Lucky not because the buck was lucky in getting away, but my luck in being able to enjoy everything that I had experienced. A renewed sense of gratitude for the mountains, the animals that live there, the people that I've shared so many memories with, the health to be able to venture into the high country; and a loving wife and two boys that put up with my obsession all flooded over me. I stood there for some time just letting it all sink in. I knew that I was forever changed. As we drove away, I made a promise that I would do everything in my power for a shot at redemption in 2016. I am hopeful that “Lucky” will survive the winter and we can have our epic rematch. Until then I’ve got a lot of preparation to do in order to be successful when that moment arrives.
Author’s Note: A few days later I was able to take my rifle to the range.After a few rounds down range, it was apparent that my zero had shifted due to an increase in bullet velocity. After contemplating on how this could have happened, I remembered that I had used a different can of powder when I reloaded this last batch of cartridges. I had assumed that because the powder was the same lot number, it would perform exactly the same way. I was wrong and it cost me a heck of a good mule deer. I again learned that attention to the smallest of details is of utmost importance when it comes to hunting and being successful in the high country. I am happy to report that I learned from my mistakes and nine days later with the same rifle and load combination was able to harvest a great branch antlered six point bull elk.