“Get your rifle and shoot that buck,” was all I heard as I scrambled to throw my pack down and shouldered my rifle. With a few quick adjustments of the scope the “Freak” buck illuminated my view. I quickly realized that after spending numerous days in this basin, we had never seen this buck before. Brad and I talked quietly, debating the opportunity that had just presented itself. I kept thinking to myself that this “Freak” had awesome character; yet, for some reason, just didn’t change my desire to stop hunting my target buck. After taking some bantering from Brad, I decided to pass.
*Above: This is the first view Billy had of the buck and elected to pass.
As I began working my way the few feet back to Brad and his spotter, the buck picked up my movement. He turned and started heading uphill. Brad again questioned my sanity and told me that I had just passed on the buck of a lifetime! He told me I better take one last look as my opportunity was fading fast. As I looked on his digiscope, the buck turned and I finally got a good look at his left antler. I realized that although narrow the buck had much more mass, points (including a drop tine), and an extremely long G2 that weren’t visible to me earlier. With this new information, I quickly started to question my own reasoning! Much to Brad’s relief, I quickly got back on my rifle.
After studying the wind for a few moments, I was confident in my ability to make the shot. Brad quickly gave me the range and I dialed the scope to the calculated solution. The buck stopped in some cover and was quartering away, just exposing his vitals. After taking a deep breath and settling the cross hairs, I added gentle pressure to the trigger.
The shot echoed throughout the canyon. Brad announced that the buck was hit, but not down. The buck was moving up the ridge through the trees and sneaking away only as mature bucks can do. I worked the bolt and got back on the buck just as he disappeared over the rise and out of sight.
We reviewed the footage and quickly realized that I had hit the buck much lower than I had wanted. After discussing our options and giving the buck some time, we elected to climb the vertical distance above us so that we would approach the buck from above. We figured that with the difficulty of the terrain, the only option that the buck would have was to bed. We presumed that we could relocate him from above and finish the task at hand.
After checking the wind numerous times and using the cover to conceal our approach, we made our way to where we figured the buck would be bedded. We glassed, changed positions and glassed again. This process went on until it seemed like we had been looking for hours. At this point, we were certain that the buck hadn’t stopped in any of the likely bedding areas. As the sun was setting in the west, we decided that we better be more aggressive and get on his blood trail.
We proceeded to find familiar landmarks and easily located blood. We decided that I would track the buck and Brad would watch up a head, so that we didn’t miss or jump him. At first, the buck seemed to be just side-hilling across the mountain. However, this was short lived because we literally began crawling on our hands and knees to get through some of the rough country that this buck had previously traversed. I couldn’t believe the tenacity, strength, and drive of this animal to survive. He just seemed to keep going and going, without even hinting that he was going to stop or give up.
After tracking him for about a half of a mile, the blood trail diminished to a drop every ten yards and then stopped completely. I continued to have hope because his track were easy to find and I knew that the buck was running out of area due to a large band of large cliffs that cut through the basin. The buck even if he was healthy would not be able to get over those cliffs.
I prepared for a close encounter and quietly followed the track towards where we knew that he had to be going. As we came to the cliffs, I was astounded that he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Just then we heard a noise down below us and then silence. I knew that he was close and prayed that this whole adventure would be over soon.
In order to cover all escape routes, we split up. The plan was for Brad to get my attention if he located the buck. We quietly and gently stalked down the mountain covering every escape route from where the sound had come from. NOTHING! I kept thinking that there was no way he could have gone anywhere without us seeing him. Yet, somehow he had. We regrouped and knew that the buck now had the advantage and was hiding out of sight. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that our only option was to back out and try again tomorrow.
We slowly made our way back to camp. Although, Brad had shot one of our target bucks earlier that morning, camp was pretty somber. We were both exhausted due to the roller coaster of emotions that we had just been through and the total events of the day. Feeling helpless and a little hopeless, it was a long night without much sleep.
We decided to glass all the water holes and feeding areas at dawn knowing that these were the two things that the “Freak” buck needed in order to survive. Dawn turned into morning and morning turned into mid-morning without a sighting. I was crushed.
We spent the next several days searching and watching without any sign of the buck. We stayed as long as we could, but knew we had an obligation to get Brad’s buck off the mountain before it spoiled. The plan was to pack Brad’s buck out and then I would venture back into the basin the next day on a solo trip. I planned on bringing several game cameras and planned on setting them on the various water sources in order to try another angle at re-locating the buck.
The next day, I made my way up the drainage and into the basin just as the first rays of light penetrated the darkness. I spent the morning glassing and found several bucks, but not the one that I had been longing to find. After the thermals changed, I figured that I would try an area high in the basin that we hadn’t made it all the way through previously. Keeping the wind right, I slowly worked through the patch of trees in an effort to find any sign of the buck. After a while, I found a game trail and decided to follow it just in case my buck had been able to make it that far.
After about 100 yards on the game trail, I stepped around a tree and came face to face with one of the biggest bears that I have ever seen in my life. He hadn’t seen me yet, so I quietly pulled the cover over my face and gently sat down in order not to spook him. Instantly, he knew something was off and began checking the wind and stood up. I was floored at his size and knew that if possible, I needed to capture this magnificent creature on camera!
I knew the last thing I wanted to do was startle him so I kept my composure and froze. After what seemed like eternity he calmed down, slide on his haunches, and then back on the ground. Since he had settled down, I quietly reached into my pack and grabbed the camera. When I looked up again, HE WAS GONE!
Having some experience with bears, I knew that he was most likely going down wind. I knew that I needed to make an exit for my own safety. I retreated the way that I had come and slipped back out of the patch of trees. After watching my back trail for some time, I figured that the bear hadn’t followed me. I stuck with my original plan and set trail cams at various water sources and hoped that I would catch a picture of my buck. I spent the rest of the day looking for signs of my buck, but again came up empty handed.
I just couldn’t get over not knowing what had happened and ventured back into the basin numerous times. In the end, I covered every square inch of the basin and was positive that somehow my buck had been able to make it up and over the top. This was the only way to explain how he had just disappeared.
On one of my last trips into the basin before the snow made the voyage impassible, I retrieved the cameras. After checking the cards, I wasn’t surprised that the “Freak” buck hadn’t shown himself. However, I was excited that the bear had frequented the spring many times and was glad to finally capture footage of him. I knew he was big, but the pictures on the camera confirmed what I had seen.
Winter came and went and the pit in my stomach prevailed. I longed for closure and followed up on several leads of freak bucks that had showed up on the winter range. Again, they weren’t my buck. After numerous discussions, Brad continued to think and feel that that buck was still in the basin somewhere. I’ve come to realize that Brad’s intuition almost is always right. We ultimately decided to head back in as soon as the snow left.
On an early July morning we were sitting in our usual glassing spot. As the sun again rose above the peaks, I kept thinking of just how lucky I was to once again experience the beauty of the high country. I was also grateful for all of the memories that have been made in this basin and for great friends to share them with. Little did I know, what memories the next four hours would bring!
After our morning glassing session, we began setting trail cameras and building blinds for the upcoming archery hunt. After finishing our work, we decided to venture into the upper part of the basin. Brad had never been there before. We both thought it would be a good idea to explore this area a little more. As we climbed and came to a clearing in the trees, Brad stopped dead in his tracks. He gave me the craziest look I have ever seen. My mind began to race thinking that he had seen the bear. As I was feeling a little vulnerable he quietly, yet emphatically said, “There is your buck!”
As I came back to reality, I could see the tops of two white tines sticking out of a wash. We both raced up the hill and stood in disbelief as I picked up the dead head. Multiple emotions surged through me as we stood there admiring the buck. I was elated that we had finally found him; yet, saddened because of the given circumstance. After the initial shock worn off, I looked up and realized that the bear had been about 10 yards from where the deer carcass was. I couldn’t believe that I had been so close; yet hadn’t seen him. I recognized that because of the way the carcass was in the wash and the tall grasses that was present during last fall, there was no way that I could have seen him coming in from the angle that I did. As I replayed the events of the past 10 months in my mind, all the pieces of the puzzle were now starting to make sense.
After enjoying the movement a great deal, we made our way down out of the basin. For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace with the situation. Finally, after multiple trips and a great deal of effort, I was able to pack this buck off the mountain and have some closure. Soon after arriving home, I contacted the local Game Warden and was provided an Interstate Game Tag. Finally, the “Freak” buck was mine and with a great deal of effort everything had come full circle!
I honestly can say, that I did everything that I could have done in order to prepare for and execute the shot. It was a shot that I make all the time. I may never know if it was me or just an outlier with my setup on that particular day. I do feel that given the circumstances, we did everything right and did everything in our control to recover this beautiful animal. I am not proud of what happened, but have no regrets with our efforts. I also am proud that I had multiple opportunities at other mature bucks; yet, choose to only fill my tag on this deer or not anything at all.
It is too bad that an animal had to suffer because of my short comings, but I am grateful for the closure. I also now know that the “Freak’ buck fed other animals on the mountain and I am grateful for that. I don’t know if the bear finished off the buck or just found him. I also don’t know why the thought never crossed my mind that the bear was there because he was feeding on my deer. I guess everything happens for a reason.
I am so grateful for the lessons learned from this experience and I do not take it lightly. I have learned that even when you prepare obsessively for every aspect of the hunt, sometimes it is not enough. I also have learned and realize that through hard work and persistence things do work out, even if it is not the way that you hope for. Mastering high country hunting is both an art and a science and takes years and decades of hard work to obtain. I realize that I am not there yet, but wouldn’t give up these stepping stones in the journey for anything. I am grateful to finally put this behind me and look forward to continuing my quest to reach my goals and making memories that only the high country can provide!