By Billy Kennington
As I gently slid the tripod holding my binos to the ground, the monarch instantly froze. I could see his senses ramp into overdrive as he became acutely aware that danger was somewhere near. I had been careful, but not careful enough and he had me pegged. After contemplating my options for a few milliseconds, my mind began screaming. I realized that my next action would be the catalyst that pushed me into fulfilling a lifelong goal or cause heartache for the rest of my life. Brushing the doubt from my mind, I just knew that I could make it to my rifle positioned only feet away. Springing to life, my legs carried me the short distance and I instantly settled behind the rifle as my preparation took over.
Mule deer have always fascinated me and my obsession with these beautiful animals began at an early age. Ever since I was a little boy, I have dreamed of outsmarting the biggest buck on the mountain. Over the years, I have been privileged to take several bucks that I am proud of; however, I have never been able to harvest a giant that I’ve worked so hard for.
2018 started just as many years prior. In the beginning months of the year, I spent as much time as possible studying mule deer behavior, e-scouting in order to identify specific areas that I wanted to target, and preparing myself physically for the upcoming season. As winter rolled into spring, and spring into summer, I have never felt more prepared for fall.
August brought many early mornings. My younger brother and I spent as much time as possible scouting various areas. After several trips, we were able to find several bucks that made the hit list. Although, I was excited about the mature bucks that we were finding; I felt significant pressure. This past winter was very mild and with the wet spring, I knew that the potential for a giant was there. I was frustrated that I just couldn’t find him. This all changed on the last scouting trip before archery season.
My Dad and I decided to take a weekend trip into a range that we had not been in for a few years. We spent a day and a half combing the area with very few sightings of any deer. We knew that we were running out of time and decided to walk through a zone that held the best feed and cover. We knew that it was risky, but also knew that there was no way to glass this area unless we were right in the middle of it.As we carefully dissected the country, there was one specific area that looked like the prime bedding area for a big deer. Trying to make as little noise as possible, we carefully traversed the technical terrain. As I came around a tree, just as I had suspected, we came face to face with a bedded buck.
The buck was alert and his ears were pinned forward. As I began surveying this buck, I realized that this was one of the biggest framed deer, I have ever seen. I really wanted to take full advantage of the situation and get this giant on camera if at all possible. Slowly, I slid the camera out of my backpack and the buck remained frozen. Still looking away from him, I set the camera in such a way that both Dad and I could look at him without making direct eye contact. As I looked through the camera display, I discerned that the buck’s tine length was extraordinary, his mass was exceptional, and he had amazing eye guards. This was the caliber of a deer that I had been looking for all my life, and I knew that we had found something extremely rare and very special.
We couldn’t move without spooking this monster so we just sat there admiring every aspect about him. He let us watch him for a few minutes and then he figured it was time to leave. Standing in one motion, he rose from his bed. After licking his lips and flicking his tail he was gone. We both sat there speechless.
After the buck left, we instantly went into search mode. I knew that we had the evening to figure out his core area and gain as much information about this buck as we could. We immediately went down to the giant’s bed and found his track. It had several distinguishing characteristics including being enormous. In the soft dirt, it was easy to track him to the rest of his bedding area. There in almost each of the beds was his track. I then knew that he fancied this area and had been using it considerably over the summer. From there, I found the access points into the bedding area and figured out his most likely feeding and watering areas. Just as I had suspected, I found his track in all of those areas. We left the mountain knowing that our plans for the upcoming and even future seasons had drastically changed with only a mere sighting.
Upon returning home my every waking thought was of this buck. I spent every moment that I could, researching this specific area and trying to pattern this giant. I realized that this buck’s core area was extremely small. I hypothesized that this was how he had survived for so long, but also recognized that I had a legitimate chance of turning him up again. I was concerned that we had spooked him, but from previous encounters of mature bucks, I knew that he would most likely return if left alone. It was one of the harder decisions that I have ever made while hunting, but I decided not to go back into the area in order to let him return to his patterns.
As we arrived the afternoon before the rifle opener, my heart sank. There were several other camps already in the area. I was frustrated, but also knew this was public land hunting. Emotions were high and sleep did not come easily as a thousand scenarios went through my head about just how the next day would play out.
The alarm rang and after a quick breakfast, my brothers, Dad and I each parted our separate ways. For me, the best approach at the giant buck was to ambush him as he made his way from his watering/feeding area. Just like clockwork the wind switched just as the sun illuminated the high ridge above his bedding area. I carefully slid over the crest of the rim and down the opposite side using the available cover for concealment. After setting up my equipment, I slowly began surveying the land. Nothing. Several shots rang out down the canyon. At that moment, I knew that I had to keep my composure and subdue the anxiety that was building within me and just focus.
As I had made several passes over the feeding areas, I started picking apart the bedding areas. Still nothing. 30 minutes had passed since shooting light and I was becoming discouraged. Just when I was starting to worry that the buck had changed from his normal patterns, I picked up movement. With one glance, I knew it was him. He was strategically working his way up through the cover to his bedding area. Although he saw me move, I shouldered the rifle and settled in for the shot. As the crosshairs instinctively found his shoulder, my rifle recoiled. I saw the giant hunch and then almost instantly lurched forward. He began putting as much cover and distance between us as he could, but was obviously hurt. I worked the bolt and just as he took the last step off of a bench, the crosshairs found his spine and I fired. THWACK! Just as quickly as it all started, the giant disappeared out of sight.
I knew that he was hit hard, but made sure to give him enough time to expire. After what seemed like eternity, I made my way down to the buck. Just as I had suspected, the monster was laying just out of sight off the crest of the bench. As I approached this striking animal the realization of what had happened hit me like a freight train. I had finally done the impossible! I sat there shaking with adrenaline and it was a surreal moment as I let my emotions get the best of me.
After taking pictures for a considerable amount of time, my little brother radioed saying that he was working his way towards me. As we sat there admiring this monarch, I was ecstatic to learn that my brother had also harvested a great buck as well. We made quick work of my buck and with heavy packs made our way back to camp. Once in camp my other brother, Dad and a new friend reminisced on the events that transpired that morning. Knowing that moments like these are truly rare, we sat there for an extensive amount of time basking and reliving the memories that only the mountains can provide.
I’m truly grateful not only for the life of this animal, but for what this adventure and others have taught me about myself. Although it took a long time, I am a better person for the adversity that I have been through in order to accomplish this goal. Taking a giant once sometimes can be luck, but repeatable success on mature animals requires significant time and preparation. I look forward to spending the time and completing the preparation necessary in order to someday repeat this once in a lifetime experience!