Sometimes the pursuit of one animal can and does consume a hunter. The animal becomes ingrained in the imagination, even creating sleepless throughout the season. Moments in time, wondering where the animal is and most importantly, where he will be found on opening day.
The year 2012 would introduce me to not just one of these animals but two. Two mule deer bucks that would be everything I was looking for in a buck. I won't make any apologies for it, when it comes to deer I am a trophy hunter. My standard for pulling the trigger is a big bodied, mature animal. I look for mass in the antlers, a white face, and in most cases a big frame.
I met the first on a cold clear morning in August scouting for elk. The smoke was thick from a fire that burned 80,000 acres in the area. It was an eerie feeling sitting behind the spotting scope waiting for twilight to end and day-light to burn holes in the smoke. Eventually the morning breezes came and opened the basin up for glassing. In my passion to see where the elk were living after the blaze I ignored the usual spots big deer spend their summers.
As my wife and I were about to call it a morning I made one pass directly underneath a patch of red rock cliffs on the southern end of the basin with the binoculars. At that moment I was introduced to the buck I would spend the rest of scouting season watching. His forks were deep, filled out with great mass, and a very tall frame. He wasn’t wide like many mule deer hunters want, but he was the whole package.
The shadows began to disappear beneath the trees and the buck followed them to a scrub pine patch to bed down for the afternoon. To his credit he remained well hidden, even with 60x zoom trying to pick apart the pines for his antlers or summer red hair. An occasional flash of velvet antler would shine through the pines to keep my interest for the next three hours.
Reluctantly I picked up my things and headed back to camp. The 20 minutes it took to there were spent checking often to make sure that he kept his bed while I was moving away. I didn’t think about much else the entire trip home.
Sleep was hard to come by, but 12 days later I found myself in a new spot where my partner and I could easily watch his hangout and learn his patterns. Panic set in when he was nowhere to be found in the ribbon cliffs where he had been before. I abandoned the binoculars in favor of the spotting scope for picking apart the brush and bucky overhangs where he might be trying to disappear from sight.
Then at 9:45 he appeared, as if he had been there the whole time. He was on top of the ridge working through a group of trees that concealed much of his movement. Slowly he worked his way down to the bottom of the trees and into clear view.
His body was changing from red to the grey-ghost fall camouflage. His antlers were still in velvet and putting on their final mass. He was even more impressive now than he was on the first trip. Satisfied that I had found the buck I wanted to pursue, we headed home. It was time to wait for opening day.
September 14th came and it was finally time to start hunting. Pulling up to the trailhead was exciting and frustrating at the same time. Only one vehicle had beat me there, but it still meant there would be at least one other person hunting the same area.. One vehicle the day before the opener isn’t bad for a General unit in Wyoming, but still an internal fight knowing I would have competition.
The trail closest to the deer's home lead me past another hunter who in his great wisdom, camped in the middle of the basin. Competition is part of hunting the general units, but I wished to myself that some hunters would learn not camp in the middle of the best deer spots. I still had a mile to go and one last hill to climb.
To my relief, or so I thought, there were no other camps set up on the ridge. The toughest part was finding a place for the six man tipi on a slope that really didn't have much flat ground. After a short search I made do with what I could and planned to simply move the next afternoon with Travis. Truthfully, the rush to set up camp was driven more by the desire to see the deer again.
Optics and water loaded in the pack I started back to the top of the ridge to find the best location to glass for the buck. Much to my surprise I found a small tent, hidden in the trees. I let out a shrill whistle in hopes of locating the hunter who would be sharing the ridge with us. He whistled back and stood up revealing his glassing location.
I wanted to be mad that there was another hunter in the area, but after talking with him for a short while I realized this guy was all right. His name was Trevor and he had been looking at this area on a map for several years, but never hunted it, he had decided that this was the year. He came in from another trail to the west and made his way to the same tri-basin area that I intended to hunt. By the end of the evening a friendship had started.
We parted ways that evening, him to his tent and me to meet Travis on the trail. We shared where we planned to hunt in the morning and figured that we would run into each other over the course of the next few days. I went to sleep that night worried that I might lose my deer, but had gained a friend in Trevor.
Travis and I woke the next morning and quick to get out of bed as only opening day of deer season can do. Smoke from the summer fires had settled back in the high country to make early morning glassing tougher than normal. Shooting light crested the Eastern skies and the crack of a rifle from the top of the basin Trevor was hunting sounded. I didn't think it was a hit with the lack of a whop, but Travis wasn't as sure.
Immediately my heart sank and thoughts ran back to all of the hours spent watching the monarch of this basin. My hope was that Trevor hadn't shot at the buck I was chasing, but had found another good one to shoot. Not long after the shot we saw Trevor start to make his way down into the basin to look for his deer.
We glassed the rest of the morning and didn't find any deer that we wanted to bring home. A little after midday we made our way back to the tipi to move camp to a flat spot. As we finished the relocation Trevor showed up, with no blood on his hands or antlers in his pack. For the time being it was a relief. He described the deer he had shot and it didn't sound like the buck I was after.
For the next two agonizing days we searched the basin for the deer. He was nowhere to be found, but big bucks have a way of doing that. Travis and I decided to try a basin further north in hopes that he would show himself there. Trevor was low on water and decided to make his way down to the stream that flowed out of the basin we were camped above and resupply.
Afternoon settled into evening and the weather changed into a windy mix of sleet and rain. The temperature dropped fast and made glassing tough. As I heated some instant coffee over the gas stove the crack of a .300 Weatherby Mag. broke the sounds of wind and rain. Radio silence ended and Trevor let Travis and I know know that he had found the big buck's hiding place while in the bottom.
Two more shots rang and the buck was down for good. My heart again sank but was also happy for a new friend who had just managed to take a deer that dreams are made of.
As evening turned to twilight Travis and I headed down the ridge to help Trevor pack out his trophy. Lightning picked up and motivated us to get off of the ridge as fast as we could. At the bottom we confirmed it was the deer that I had been watching that summer. Turns out that this was also the deer that he had shot at on opening morning.
Part of me was disappointed and another part of me couldn't have been happier for another hunter who worked hard to find a good deer. After some pictures we loaded up the meat, gear and antlers for the final trip up the ridge.
A short haul up the hill later, Trevor decided to join us in the six man with the comfort of the wood stove and company to relive the hunt. We did our best to measure the deer with a multi-tool ruler and string and settled on somewhere around 190 B&C. Unofficially it ended up being 191-192 B&C, a magnificent deer.
I fell asleep that night wondering what I was going to do with the remaining month of deer season. All of my plans involved the deer that now lay outside of my camp with another hunters tag on it. Little did I know that I would soon be introduced to another deer who would keep me up at night.
Lesson Number One The Mule Deer Taught Me:
Never give up on a basin when a quality mule deer lives there! I knew in my heart that he was there and should have trusted my scouting. 3 days of hunting his home doesn't mean he isn't there, it just means that he is hiding. Exhaust every angle and every possible place that can change the vantage point into a deer's home. They know where to hide to escape pressure. Trevor found the deer in the first area that I ever saw him, hidden in a depression between two small pines. When Trevor glassed him up all he could see was antlers between two sets of trees.
Lesson learned, don't give up, trust your scouting, he is still there!
Part 2 is coming soon!