As Featured in Winter 2016 Issue of Western Hunter Magazine
A lot of us spend our lives chasing dreams and careers that take us far from home. A year and a half ago, and after ten years away, I moved back home to the mountain valley where I was raised. I’ll admit, it felt good to have a resident deer tag in my pocket again, where I could chase bucks in the same basins and ridges that I frequented as a boy. Things change over the years, and it seems that held true with my home hunting country as well. The romance and intrigue of the high country seems to have found a lot more hunters than in years past; hunters who are willing to put weight on their backs to pursue mule deer in the high country.
The mountains rarely change though, and I knew that there were still a few places that are still foreign to human presence. My goal was to find those places, and the bucks that inhabited them.
As the snow melted off the high peaks and alfalfa grew on the valley floor, I anxiously waited for August. August brings almost fully-grown velvet racks, good weather, and great opportunities to scour the high country basins for bucks that stand out from the others.
This year was particularly busy, as I as opening a new sporting goods/online store in my hometown. However, many of the scouting trips were to areas that were close to home, and easy to reach in the mornings before work. The longer scouting trips were spread across the last valuable Saturdays before the archery hunt started.
Spots Spotted in a Spot
On one such Saturday, in mid august, Billy Kennington and visited a new area -- trying to look into an adjacent, hard to reach basin, I stayed lower in the drainage and he went high.
Two bull elk moved down the drainage above us. They had recently shed velvet and were battling some small saplings.
As I continued to glass, I spotted a buck feeding 700 yards above me but in the bottom of the drainage. I watched him feed as the sun came up, taking some video and a few photos through my spotting scope. He was the only buck I saw that morning, but I immediately knew he’d be worth remembering. He was a beautiful typical, with sweeping G-4’s that I knew would push him close to 30 inches wide. He was almost perfectly symmetrical, with great mass along his main beams.
He’d been feeding in the early morning dew, and the top of his velvet was dark and wet. I referred to this buck as “Spots,” and as the sun rose higher in the morning sky, I watched him feed into a patch of small pines and disappear from view.
The following Saturday, I returned to see if I could locate him again. I had no luck, so I moved farther up the drainage and located three more four-points. One was a great typical with a great frame, and long main beams. I gladly would have hung my tag on either one of those deer, as both were deep-forked, mature bucks. Seeing another buck of that caliber in the same drainage made my decision easy. I knew where I would focus my archery season and the first few days of the rifle season, if necessary.
On opening morning of archery season, Billy and I hiked to the edge of the basin as the stars started to disappear from the eastern half of the morning sky. We sat for a few minutes, waiting for enough light to glass, and then slowly eased into some small pines on the lower end of the basin.
There, 150 yards away, was the buck I had first found several weeks earlier. He was alert and looking toward us. I’m sure he saw movement, as I had to scamper over a large deadfall tree in the bottom of the basin. We all froze.
“There’s Spots!” I whispered back to Billy, who was far enough behind me that he couldn’t see the buck. After several long drawn-out seconds, he put his head down and walked into a small open draw to our left. The wind was perfect, so I decided to make a play. I crept up the hill, glassing for any movement or velvet tines after each step.
I finally reached the edge of the open draw and could see him in the trees on the other side. He was 80 yards away and walking back toward me. His trajectory would bring him on the far side of a decent-sized pine tree, and then he’d be less than 40 yards uphill from me. I was ready, arrow nocked, hidden behind a small sapling. “What could go wrong? This buck is dead,” I thought as I ranged the pine tree and waited.
It all happened so fast, and I discovered a couple of things over the following few seconds. First, I really dislike squirrels. Second: big mule deer are SMART!
The buck was alert, as they typically are, but was still moving and feeding in my direction. A squirrel let out a high-pitched scream from a few yards to my left and the buck suddenly came to full attention, his ears perked forward. He looked to my left, where the sound of the squirrel originated and must have decided he wasn’t safe in the open. He went exactly where I thought he would, only much faster and in four big bounds.
As he cleared the pine tree, I was at full draw and whistled as soon as I saw him clear the other side. He heard me and stopped, but he had moved forward enough to obscure his face and 80% of his body behind some small saplings that were halfway between us. We stood frozen for a few seconds, with me at full draw.
I stepped slowly to my left and then took one more step. With each sidestep; I could see a few more inches of his body. I needed two more steps to have a clear shot as his vitals, but he only gave me on before he walked into the trees.
Seconds later, his head popped back out, and then he turned his back toward me and walked into the trees. Knowing my odds were low of catching up to him with archery tackle, I pulled back. I didn’t want to disturb him too much and end up having him change his habits or push him out of the draw.
I walked back down to relay the events to Billy. “Did you know that buck speaks Squirrel?” I asked him. He looked at me with a confused face, and like me, couldn’t believe what had just happened!
Over the next four days of the archery hunt, we didn’t see him again, but I did learn a few valuable things about his mountain home. We were able to find a small, but valuable water source, and watch the movements of the other deer in the area.
Sometimes it actually Works:
We didn’t return until the night before the rifle hunt started. I hoped our absence would put the deer at ease and have them feeding on opening morning. The weather that night was cold, wet, and foggy. We set up our tents in the rain and filtered water in the dark. I was anxious to see what the morning would bring.
Our tactics changed a little bit with our new weapon choice. Instead of stalking into the bottom of the basin at first light, we moved under the cover of darkness to some small pines in the middle of the basin, where we could see and make a shot if either of the big bucks showed themselves.
As the light grew brighter, I was on full alert, trying to locate the gray of a deer body through my binoculars. Those first few minutes of light feel usually like hours when no deer are spotted. In reality it wasn’t long before I saw him. I was glassing toward the head of the basin and then turned my head to my right. Immediately, I could see the large body of a buck moving across a small bench. I raised my binos and immediately recognized Spots.
After a quick range, I set my trekking poles up as shooting sticks and found him in my scope. I took a breath, and as the crosshairs settled, one shot echoed across the high country. My bullet had found its mark and anchored the big buck where he stood.
As I approached him, the events of the past few weeks and years played through my mind. I’ve scouted a lot of bucks, and hunted some of them. Rarely do things come together like they had with this buck. From finding him and our archery encounter, to having him in the open on opening morning, I felt extremely fortunate to have the chance to hunt this buck.
I ran my hands across his wet cape and antlers, still stained red from shedding his velvet. The morning fog rolled in as we took photos and admired him.
There are few things more rewarding than or as difficult as a backcountry hunt. Thankfully, I had great hunting partners to spread the weight across our packs and return home to excited kids and anxious wives. All the while, we looked around this country for new, out-of-the-way places where a big buck might be living next season.
Watch the video of this hunt here: