By Keith Kline
The morning of Oct. 9th 2016 found me and my hunting partner, Jake, headed west at 80 m.p.h. Our destination?……….IDAHO! Our species of focus?…….MULE DEER! This would be my second year participating in the annual “IDAHO INVASION” hosted by Altitude Outdoors. The Idaho Invasion is a fun, social, and lighthearted hunting competition that takes place on public land in South East Idaho. Hunters compete for the Ricky Bobby award which is given to the hunter who harvests the biggest Mule Deer during the competition. There is also a team award for the team whose bucks have the highest combined score.
We arrived a few hours early in Afton, WY where the cabins we would be staying at were located. This left us enough time before dinner to drive to some of the trailheads that we had picked out using Google Earth. We wanted to be sure that we could find them in the dark and we also wanted to get an idea of how many people were camped in our chosen area. The type of country that we would be hunting was a lot more open than I had imagined, covered in a mixture of timber and sage brush parks. Our optics were going to see a lot of use over the course of the following week. Happy with our chosen starting point, we headed back to the cabins to meet the rest of the hunters and get ready for opening day. Excitement was high that evening and big, heavy antlers were on everyone’s mind.
Opening day found us hiking into our glassing spot at 4:15AM. The wind that was hitting our faces had a chilly bite to it and I could see my breath rising up through the glow of my headlamp, I was thankful that I had brought my down jacket with me because I was definitely going to need it during the morning glassing session. As the sky began to turn gray and the darkness melted away we spotted a bull elk feeding in the creek bottom and a hunter making his way toward the area we were glassing. We decided to get ahead of the hunter and follow the ridgeline while occasionally stopping to glass. While walking along the ridge I looked up to see a 160’s class buck silhouetted against some pines, I motioned for Jake to kneel down. My rangefinder confirmed the buck to be 328 yds. away. With no plans of shooting a 160” deer this early in the season, we just sat there watching the buck when Jake exclaimed “He has a two more bucks with him! One has a giant frame!” it was two late though and the bucks slipped into the trees before we could get a good look. As I turned to tell Jake “good eye!” I noticed a deer come up over the ridge to our right, another buck! Still holding my rangefinder, I got a quick reading of just over 500 yds. At first glance I didn’t think the buck was a shooter, so Jake dug out his spotter to get a better look as the buck headed across the face of the open ridge. “Uh, you might want to re-think that!” Jake whispered “I bet he hits 180!” I quickly got behind my rifle and snapped another range reading….700 yds, dialed my elevation turret and looked through the scope. The buck had moved a bit further but it didn’t look like much, maybe 10yds, so I squeezed the trigger. At the report of the rifle, the buck swung left and disappeared into the trees. I took another range reading on the sage brush the buck had hopped and it read 784 yds. At that distance it had only appeared that he had gone 10 yds when in reality, he had covered 84 yds. Angry at myself for rushing the shot and not getting a solid range after I had KNOWN he had moved, we went up to check for blood even though we were sure the shot had been low. With a miss confirmed, we hunted the rest of the day up the ridgeline but only turned up a handful of small bucks and does.
That night at dinner I received advice from Brad Carter, and Mike Johnson that the buck likely would hang out in the area and still be in the same patch of timber the next day, it would be wise to continue hunting that area for the buck. I figured with all the hunting pressure in the area, and getting shot at, the buck would have high tailed it to the next county! To be honest, I had already given up on ever seeing that buck again. Knowing these guys eat, sleep and breathe Mule deer, I decided to follow their advice and the next morning found me above the same patch of timber the buck had disappeared into.
After several hours of glassing, Jake and I were only able to locate a small 3×4 and a spike. We decided we would hike up the ridge and glass a few of the higher slopes for the afternoon. As we started hiking, we ran into two other hunters and stopped to ask them if they had been seeing much. They had shot a small buck the day before and had not seen a whole lot after that. We talked for about 20 minutes then went on our way. The action higher up the ridge was pretty uneventful except for watching two bull elk feed about ½ mile away. Around 3:00 pm we decided to slowly make our way back down the mountain toward the truck. When we got to the spot where we had talked to the other hunters, we opted to walk out on a finger ridge to take one last look at the bottom of the timber that the big buck had disappeared into the day before.
We had only gone about 100 yds. when a group of deer busted out right below us and stopped in a small patch of trees on the opposite side of the draw. We could tell the last one had antlers and looked like a good buck….possibly the same buck as the day before! Since I had already gotten an opportunity at a deer, I figured it should be Jake’s turn to shoot. We quickly got set-up. The deer did not act like they knew what had spooked them but they knew something was not right and stayed hidden behind the safety of the trees. We waited patiently and soon the does began to feed out into the open. The buck on the other hand was not cooperating and stayed behind. I decided to sneak further up the ridge to see if I could get a good view of the buck, it worked! I motioned for Jake to join me and signaled I had a clear view of the buck’s vitals. Jake worked his way up with his rifle and got in position. The old buck had moved behind another tree and appeared to be making his way toward the top of the ridge where he could disappear into thick cover. This old guy was smart! He would stay behind a pine and when he needed to cross an opening he would bolt through to the next pine, staying hidden as he worked his way toward the top. When he got below the last opening at the top of the ridge he just stood behind the trees for what seemed like an eternity! Jake had left his spotter down low on the ridge so he wanted to sneak down to see if he could get it. He said “If that buck looks like he is going to move to the top while I’m down there, DUMP HIM!”I chambered a round and got ready.
All was going smooth, Jake had retrieved his spotter but as he was working his way back up toward me, one of the does locked eyes on him. I knew at any second she would bolt away, taking the buck with her. Sure enough as soon as she made a run for it, the buck took off across the opening 215yds away from where I sat, headed for thick timber at the top of the ridge. I settled the crosshairs behind his should and squeezed. The unmistakable sound of a bullet meeting flesh told me it had found its mark. The buck made three lunges back down the hill and toppled over. After a round of high fives and fist pumps, we gathered our gear and headed over toward the buck. As we got close to the deer I heard Jake mumble some expletives and as I peered around him, I caught my first up close look at the buck’s antlers…..He was the same buck I had missed and he was big! In fact he was the biggest buck I had ever harvested to date. With great mass and a few extra tines I could not have been any happier! We snapped a few grip and grins with our phones, and with the last of the daylight fading, we got to work boning out the buck for the long walk out. 4 hours later we arrived at the truck, tossed in all of our gear and headed for camp. When we arrived, Mike Johnson was just starting his seminar on the proper way to cape a deer, perfect timing! He caped out my buck and after dinner Brad scored him at just shy of 180” and estimated him to be around 6 years old.
The rest of the week Jake and I hunted hard and had opportunities at a few other bucks but they were all smaller than the personal goal he had set, they got a pass this year. On the last day another hunter in our group shot an awesome buck that ended up winning the Ricky Bobby award with an amazing 200” of bone! I learned a lot about Mule deer on this hunt but I think the most important thing I learned was, even though things don’t go as planned the 1st time……DON’T GIVE UP!