I gasped as the cold water splashed over my head and back. Momentarily I lost my breath as goose-bumps covered my skin. Bathing in this freezing cold mountain water was not fun at all, but it had to be done. Not wanting to think about how cold it was, I took a deep breath and quickly ducked the rest of my body under the water. I washed as fast as I could but the icy sting from the small mountain stream was giving me a headache! Finally I jumped out of the water to dry off. Thank-goodness my daily high-mountain bath was over. Now I could get back to the very reason I was dipping myself into this freezing water in the first place: to bow-hunt high-mountain mule deer.
The hike into this 12,000 foot basin was a rough one…especially loaded with 75 lbs of hunting gear. After a three hour hike and an elevation gain of over 3500 feet, Matt and I finally heaved the gear off our backs and began setting up our camp. Although our backs and knees were throbbing from the hike, we both had huge smiles on our faces.
For me, there’s nothing more exciting and invigorating than having a few days to bow-hunt mule deer in the roughest, meanest, steepest most challenging mountain terrain in the world. And every year in planning these hunts I think I will find a magic way to decrease the weight of my backpack by at least 20 pounds. But after strapping on my bow and arrows, spotting scope, binoculars, tripod, rangefinder, tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, food, clothes, headlamp, water filter, first-aid kit, soap….well the list goes on and on. Needless to say, my backpack always seems to weigh the same. I always try to go as lightweight as I can, but through experience I have found that in the backcountry it’s always better to have a little too much gear, then to find yourself in a situation where you do not have enough. Those can be lessons hard-learned!
When choosing a backcountry camp location, there are two main factors I always try to consider. First, camp close to water where you can bath to keep clean as well as to have access to drinking water. Second, it helps to be close…but not too close to the area that you will be hunting. It is such an advantage in these high-elevation hunting scenarios to have easy access to drinkable water and to be able to hunt relatively close to camp.
After taking a quick icy bath and cleaning up, we hiked up to a good spotting location and began glassing for deer. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to locate a bachelor group of bucks. As it always does, my heart began to pound as I looked over the group. Believe it or not, there were 20 bucks in all, with 15 of them that I was certain would go Pope and Young. The smaller bucks were the usual 150-class deer, but there were three in the group that I thought would legitimately surpass the magical 180” mark. As daylight faded, Matt and I made our way back to camp and excitedly made plans for the next day’s hunt.
The year before I had been fortunate enough to take a nice 180” buck in the same general area. We had spotted the buck bedded up in some rocky cliffs high above us. We spent all day stalking in on him before he finally stood up and offered me a shot. It was an incredible thrill for me to take a trophy buck at nearly 12,000 feet! Yet as high as I felt when my arrow hit home, my heart sank pretty quick as I watched the buck fall head-over-hills for over 300 yards down the rocky cliffs before finally coming to a stop. Unfortunately he broke almost every point on his rack during his head-over-heels tumble. Never-the-less, with some creative taxidermy work, he turned out okay and soon I had a wonderful trophy on my wall!
As Matt and I discussed our strategy for the next day’s hunt, we both agreed that our best option would be to slip above the bucks before daylight and try to intercept them before they could reach the cover of the pines and settle into their beds for the day. The next morning, we woke up two hours before daylight and picked our way through the rocks and shale into our ambush location. At first light we located the group of bucks moving up the hillside towards us. However, they offered no shot opportunities as they fed below us to their bedding area in the thick pines. This left us with no choice but to go to “plan B”…..which was to try to slip in on the bucks from above them as they bedded in the pines.
We picked our approach carefully as we crept towards the pines, hoping to locate the bedded bucks before they spotted us. Suddenly I caught movement from below as the unmistakable shape of a velvet muley rack appeared through the pines. The group of bucks had bedded 60 yards below us. I picked out a nice four-point that had separated from the group and was bedded under a large pine directly below me. He was 55 yards away and had stood up to change positions in his bed. Fortunately he was completely unaware of our presence. I knew this could be the only shot opportunity I could get. I glanced at Matt who gave me the “thumbs up” so I pulled back my bow, aimed for 55 yards and let one fly. The shot appeared to hit home and the buck exploded from his bed. In seconds the entire group of bucks was scattering down the mountainside below us. Matt and I made our way down to their beds to look for my arrow and pick up the blood-trail. Initially the blood looked good, but it didn’t take long for the trail to peter out and we decided to back out and give the buck time. We didn’t come back until the next morning and after hours of searching, Matt spotted my buck laying up under some pine trees where he had died. I was elated to recover this high-mountain trophy and was grateful that Matt had been able to spot my buck where he had fallen under the pine trees. The buck was 25” wide and rough scored 165 Pope and Young.
As we loaded up the antlers and our gear onto our backpacks for the hike back down to camp, we paused at the top of the ridge and looked out across the miles high mountain peaks that stretched out before us in all directions. The view was spectacular……..Our knees ached, our backs were sore and our feet blistered….yet I knew we would be back the next year and I could not wait for another chance to chase the monarchs of the mountain in the country that I had grown to love so much!