As a career firefighter/paramedic for over 21 years I have had the distinct opportunity to learn lessons from others unfortunate circumstances. It was during the first couple of years of my career as a firefighter, I went through paramedic school as part of my apprenticeship training. Towards the end of the classroom portion of this grueling 9 months of paramedic school, we started the clinical phase of our EMS education. This involved doing “ride-a-longs” with other fire departments and private ambulance companies. What I soon found out is that I learned a great deal from these seasoned paramedics. The poise and ability of some of these street medics made a lasting impression on me but there were also some lessons learned of “what not to.” I was educated as much from the impressive skills of some amazing medics as from the occasional mis-step. It wasn’t so much the mistake that sticks with you, but your ability to learn and adapt and become better because of it.
In my line of work, there are constant reminders of mistakes people make, sometimes with very unfortunate results. Unless a person isn’t paying attention, it’s hard not to take something away from these moments. Parallels from that basic philosophy can be applied throughout life and also, used to become a better hunter and outdoorsman. There might be a perception amongst some that outdoor writers at Eastmans’ are a bunch of hard-core hunters that enjoy success at every outing; but I do think all of us here would agree that we have experienced plenty of hard knocks during our lifetimes of hunting the elusive and wary animals of the West. Its these “lessons learned from the ones that got away” that have helped me to become a better hunter. Perhaps even more that some of the successes that I have experienced.
I have been very fortunate to take some great bucks, bulls and other game over the last few years, but there are times when a reminder takes me back to a moment when things didn’t go well during a hunt. A plan gone awry, blown stalks, equipment snafus, and old-fashioned dumb mistakes were all part of great looking bucks and bulls getting more hunter education and some age. Trust me when I say that a few Colorado bucks and bulls have me to thank for some not-so-gentle reminders that stinky, orange-clad, two-legged critters are to be avoided without exception.
There is one mountain in particular that I have muzzleloader hunted for elk 4 times in the last 16 years. It’s alpine, high elevation hunting right around the 11,000’ to 12,000’ elevation range. The elk, the mountain and the elevation are unforgiving up there and during my hunts on that mountain, I flat-out screwed up on three different bulls that would range in size from 340 – 380 B&C. Big, old “stomper” bulls that almost any hunter would be proud to take home from Colorado public land including one that I might never see the likes of again in that country.
The largest of these bulls I still think of more often than I care to. In fact, I could easily say the memory of him probably haunts me to this day. I first saw this particular bull on opening day, crossing an alpine saddle at nearly 12,000’ behind a group of about 60 cows and calves. The way they were acting, the elk had probably been spooked by another hunter. Out of range and on the move, all I could do is watch as the herd thundered across the willow-choked basin and into the dark timber a mile away. This bull was an incredible sight with massive antlers, long tines throughout and 3rd points that looked to be two feet long! More than an ordinary bull’s bugle, his voice had a roaring sound to it. That image of him in the alpine, high above timberline on the shoulder of the mountain was as a sight that mere words cannot describe. I can still see those long, ivory-tipped tines in my mind as the bull whipped his head back and forth, throwing chunks of the tundra ten feet in the air. I became a mental wreck as my blown stalks accumulated throughout the season. Finicky winds, eagle-eyed cows that never seemed to relax and dumb luck plagued me as the days went by. The cows were as jumpy as gun-shy coyotes and would often take off at a run, completely leaving the drainage they were in.
The last morning of the season I watched as the bull followed his cows down into the timber to bed for the day and I conceded defeat. A few minutes later, the bull bugled again, this time a couple hundred yards to the west. I knew the elk were on the move towards a small saddle on the west edge of the basin. I literally ran as fast as I could, hopping from boulder to boulder, legs aching and lungs burning in an effort to literally “cut them off at the pass.”
The cows started filtering through the stunted spruce in the saddle at a distance of 90 yards and I readied myself for a shot at the bull. He appeared seconds later and stopped right in the saddle, unleashing a bugle that rang through the basin. I held dead-on his shoulder a pulled the trigger to hear the “pop” of a cap firing but the charge not igniting. I frantically loaded another cap and held again hearing “pop”. By now the bull had noticed my panicked movements and was looking right at me as I held on his shoulder for the third “pop.” He turned his head and walked away, leaving me with a hollow, frustrated ache. I hunted solo, and with a degree of dogged pursuit like I had never done, finally had my opportunity, and had simply blown it. I was as dejected as I had ever been on a hunt, exhausted from the grueling past days, the loneliness compounding the moment. I had a long walk back to the truck to beat myself up on.
I knew my gun was finicky but had failed to unload a charge from a close encounter a few days before and assumed it would still fire. A gradual accumulation of moisture in the powder foiled my possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at an honest to goodness Boone & Crockett class bull in the Colorado alpine. Simple laziness at unloading and checking my blackpowder rifle every night in camp kept me from taking home this truly exceptional wilderness bull.
Those other bulls that still haunt my daydreams are other stories but my mistakes are not just limited to elk. More than one whopper muley has done his part in humbling me. This grey ghost exposed my ineptness on multiple levels that early November morning.
A few years back I was hunting mule deer in western Colorado in a series of oakbrush choked canyons. There had been a weak cold front blow through the Rockies the night before leaving a nice 4” deep layer of fresh snow covering the hills that had been baked dry from a fabulous Indian summer like October. Finally, conditions that lent themselves to some good deer hunting had arrived.
I worked my way up a sloping ridgeline, skylined and basically just doing what I refer to as “rifle hiking.” Conditions were the best they had been the whole season and here I was breaking the textbook rules of mule deer hunting. I wasn’t sitting and glassing in optimal conditions. I was walking a route that would easily betray my presence to even the most dim-witted of critters in that canyon. The morning was cold and I walked in the sunlight to warm up because I hadn’t taken enough layers to sit and glass comfortably.
Higher up the ridgeline I hit a cow trail that angled off into the canyon. Worn deep from decades of bovine pounding, I casually walked down this sidewalk like trail, intercepting a smoking hot set of big buck tracks. These blocky prints evidenced a relaxed and unhurried travel by this deer, which just appeared to be moving through the country. The sight and size of these tracks immediately sent my imagination into high gear. I smiled and thought of how much fun it will be to follow the tracks and maybe jump him up out of his day bed. I assumed the buck would continue sidehill up the canyon, possibly bedding down.
The tracks were obvious and simple to follow in the fresh blanket of snow and it was easy to let my vision wander off the track and into the brush ahead. The bucks trail disappeared ahead of me 30 yards or so away and as I got closer, I could see the tracks in the snow break left and head down and across the canyon bottom. I threw my binoculars up, quickly scanning area below me. Instead of spotting a buck on the move, all I could see was tracks in the snow of an animal heading out and up the other side of the oakbrush choked canyon. What I saw at the end of the tracks took my breath away. A heavy-bodied, dark-antlered mule deer was cresting the skyline at a trot, six to seven hundred yards distant. Mature mulies always look big going away and get bigger as time goes by, to be sure. But I have seen and photographed enough truly exceptional deer in my life to know a whopper buck when I see one.
I stood there in astonishment, in awe of the big buck and cursing the bad luck of not spotting him in time to get a shot. Looking around, I happened to glance back at the route I had taken and noticed a knob on the ridgeline that I had crossed less than 20 minutes earlier. My form would have been sky-lined and clearly visible to a buck paying attention to his back trail. It was at that moment I realized I had flat-out blown it.
Careless hunting on my part was all to blame for missing this rare opportunity at a spectacular mule deer. I was just “taking my rifle for a hike” instead of carefully glassing and still-hunting my way up this canyon. I walked the easy route, skylined against the brilliant blue November, my silhouette obvious and invasive to anything wild in that canyon.
I had been unprepared to sit and glass in comfort that morning because I hadn’t taken the right clothes. Because of that oversight, I became too cold to sit during the hour when most animals were still on the move and easier to spot. I had chosen to walk the easy route instead of sticking to side-hill game trails on the cold north-facing slope and my form became easy to spot and I was often sky-lined. Unprepared for the day, sloppy hunting tactics and a lack of concentration towards the moment at hand were all factors towards this great buck getting a little bit wiser.
Redemption came but a couple of days later. The lessons I learned from the one that got away were quickly put to the test on this frigid overcast morning. Light snow dusted the same hills I had been hunting make game easier to spot. I sat bundled up and with my eyes pressed probably a little to firmly into the eyecups of my binoculars. Once again, the conditions were optimal and I intended to make the best of it. Mid-morning I spied a handsome, slate-grey buck ghosting through the quakies at nearly a mile distant. As soon as the buck bedded, I took off at a run in order to close the distance while he was still there. I had the wind in my favor and I stayed out of the buck’s line of sight. Carefully crawling over an adjacent ridge, I could still see the buck bedded and unaware at less than 300 yards. At that point, the shot was almost anticlimactic, taking the buck cleanly where he lay.
There have been plenty of other moments. The trigger snapping on an empty chamber as a whopper 3 point bounded across a open sage flat in a sea of pinion juniper taught me a lesson in firearm awareness. Blowing a band of bighorn rams out of an alpine cirque after weeks of unsuccessful hunting taught me about careful glassing. Settling on a bull that I intended to pass on, only to have his big 6-point brother taunt me from a hillside during the pack out was a lesson learned in goal setting and the value it creates. The list could go on and on.
These hard lessons haven’t been dealt in vain. I have learned and have grown as an outdoorsman and hunter because of them. A subconscious awareness has developed within me and some of my actions in the field have become second nature. The experiences of success and failure allow all of us to become better hunters and outdoorsman, but only if we are really paying attention.