SNAAAP! The first thing that went through my mind was my rifle stock had just snapped in half! Thankfully, after I slowly rolled over, spit the dirt out of my mouth, and cleared my eyes, a quick visual inspection revealed that my rifle was still in one piece. The large crack that I had just heard was in fact a downed dead tree that I had just body slammed on my way to the ground after my boot became wedged under a dead branch that was hidden underneath the tall overgrowth vegetation. With over 100 lbs of meat on my back, I simply laid there, trying to figure out how I was going to get back on my feet.
After several minutes, I slowly attempted to get back on my feet, but sadly, the first attempt failed. The second attempt, however, was successful as I used my rifle to help leverage my way back up. No broken bones, no blood, rifle intact, antlers in one piece…….all was good. Even though I was in the remote backcountry, my first instinct once I was back on my feet was to look around to make sure that no one was witness to this entire spectacle; luckily, there was no audience to be had this day. Tired and sore, I dusted myself off and once again was making tracks toward the truck.
This was my first high country mule deer hunt with a rifle in five years and I must admit – it felt good packing a rifle once again. Over the course of those five years I have been hunting for mulies exclusively with a bow. Although I had enjoyed great success with the stick and string during that time, it always seemed as if there was something missing, but I could never quite put a finger on it. Honestly, there were times I thought I had lost the desire to continue hunting. Was I burnt out? Did I really want to continue hunting? The sole purpose of this hunt was to search for the answers to these questions that had been rattling around in my head in recent years.
As important as this hunt was to me, it simply could not take place just anywhere; it would need to be someplace special. Therefore, I decided to backpack into one of my all-time favorite locations for pursuing trophy mule deer located in western Wyoming. It is a place where I have taken several bucks in the past which made it the perfect setting to do the soul searching that I deeply needed to do.
Each time I lay eyes on this country I am amazed; this time was no different. The fall colors were on full display and the early morning temperatures were brisk and had a bit of a bite to them. This time of year, however, the temperatures can vary greatly and by the time I reached the top, temperatures were hovering near the 70 degree mark. After pitching my tent, I decided to kick back and relax for a short time. As I sat and took it all in, I couldn’t help but reflect back on past hunts I have done in this area. The memories were as vivid as if they were only yesterday. As they brought a smile to my face, I realized, I have truly been blessed to have had the experiences I have had.
After reliving those memories for nearly 30 minutes, I gathered my gear for my first evening of glassing and made my way up to the peak I normally glass from. This particular vantage point offers 360 degree views that most people only see on post cards. Glassing started out slow during the midafternoon but as the shadows began getting longer, four bucks materialized on the east-facing slope directly north of me. Three of the bucks were small, but the buck highest up on the mountain, definitely had my attention. After watching him for some time, I figured I would close the gap on him before it got too late just in case I decided I would take him.
I loaded up all my gear and began my descent down the ridgeline to the west. Once down in a saddle, I took the adjoining ridge to the northeast. This ridge took me to the top of the small basin where the bucks were feeding. As I peeked over the ridge, I immediately spotted the large buck out feeding in a small green patch above a small clump of pines. Rangefinder had him at 416 yards. I continued watching the buck until dark, but elected not to take him. After all, this was only the first evening of a four day hunt.
The smell of the Starbuck’s VIA brewing in my vestibule the next morning was unbelievable, and it tasted even better! What a way to begin the day in the backcountry……followed by locating the same big buck again. This time, unfortunately, he was a mile and a half away on a distant ridge. As I watched the buck, I began second guessing passing him up the evening before. He was a much better buck than what I had originally thought. I watched them feed for nearly 45 minutes and figured they would eventually feed back in my direction, but instead, they fed over the distant ridge in the opposite direction out of sight.
Rather than rushing over in their direction, I elected to slowly still-hunt the north-facing slopes between the deer and me. Not having any luck stirring up any other bucks, I finally found myself on a sagebrush knob directly above the basin the deer disappeared into. Rather than going into the timber, I decided to pick the trees apart with my optics. After several minutes, I located the big buck bedded down to the right of a snag of dead downfall. Ranged him at 426 yards and decided I would take the shot.
At the report of the rifle, the buck immediately disappeared into the timber to parts unknown. Disappointed, I made my way down to his bed to verify the miss. Sure enough – clean miss! It was now 1:00 pm so I decided to head back to camp to meet up with my brother Jim who was hiking in to join me for the remaining days. When I returned, Jim was at camp and we visited a bit before we glassed until dark without locating anything of any size.
The third day found Jim and I on our vantage point once again. After two hours of glassing, we failed to locate the big buck. Jim and I went our separate ways for the day and met back at camp at dark after a very uneventful day. The largest buck I saw that day was a 24” 160 class buck.
That brings us to the fourth and last morning of the hunt. The plan this morning was to enjoy a cup of coffee, spend two hours glassing, break camp and head home. Little did I know it would turn into a rather long day for both Jim and I. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even get to finish my cup of coffee before the morning’s excitement began. Yes, you may have guessed, the big buck was back in the same exact spot as the first time I had laid eyes on him. As the old saying goes, “Game on.”
Rather quickly, Jim and I made our way over to the top of the basin the buck was feeding in. Rather than going to the exact same spot I had went to on the first day, I went higher up the ridge which would put me slightly closer to the buck. As Jim and I peered over, the buck was still feeding in the exact same spot 363 yards away. I took a lot of time setting up for the shot. There was no room for error. As the rifle sounded, the buck began rolling. I had taken my first rifle buck in five years. I must admit – it felt good.
Although I was fortunate enough to punch my tag on this hunt, more importantly, this hunt turned out to be the catalyst that has refueled my strong desire to hunt trophy bucks in the high country. It made me realize that even though I enjoy archery hunting, I truly have missed pursuing these elusive gray ghosts with the big boom stick. Not only did this hunt give me another great hunting memory, more importantly, it gave me the answers that I had been so desperately seeking.