If you keep at it, something will eventually go right

David Burgess, Idaho, 2016

The wind howled, blasting me with sheets of pelting snow. I set down my knife, shoved my numb hands between the hide and ribs of the still steaming buck, and waited for sensation to creep back into my fingers. I smirked and shook my head. Nothing about the last few days had been easy. It was only fitting I’d be butchering a buck in the middle of a blizzard!

Eye on the Prize

Two days before season, I’d packed into an area where I’d seen a big, cagey buck while scouting. Snow and a heavy backpack – loaded with rifle, cold-weather gear, and a borrowed tarp shelter and woodstove – had made the steep hike slow and slippery. Getting to camp had taken twice as long as expected and more than once I wondered if the extra gear was worth packing.

However, that night after temperatures plummeted and I awoke from the cold, I was grateful to be able to fire up the little wood burner and get more sleep. I didn’t know it at the time, but that shelter and stove would prove invaluable.

Freezing temperatures and strong winds carried through the next few days. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to turn up the cagey old buck. 

I did find another buck, that although narrow between his main beams, was tall and deep-forked. On the first two evenings, I’d attempted stalks on him. Both times, I’d come close to sealing the deal, but he slipped out from under me at the last minute. 

Two more days went by without sighting either buck. I was nearly out of food and contemplated cutting my losses and moving to a different area. I decided to give it one more morning, and wouldn’t you know, that’s when the big buck from summer made an appearance. 

He was way at the top of the mountain, feeding not 50 yards from where I’d seen him before. His antlers had finished well and the tines of his huge, typical, basket-shaped frame seemed almost too tall. 

He acted more paranoid than ever, too. His body language was tense. In the 20 minutes that he was in the open, he never ventured farther than a single bound from cover. Long before the first rays of sunlight splashed the mountaintop, he slunk into a thicket of subalpine fir.

I kept my spotting scope trained on the area for the next few hours and contemplated my next move. As old and paranoid as this buck was, it would be extremely difficult to get close to him.

I had only seen him twice, but in both instances, he’d been in that same place at the same time. It was a far cry from a pattern, but it was enough to make me think he might do it again.    

To make it work, I’d first need to hike down the mountain and get more food. I’d also grab my ultralight tent so I could bivy closer to the buck’s area. The next morning, I’d wake up well before first light and hike back in to an ambush spot within 250 yards of where I expected him to come out. 

A lot of things would have to line up just right, one of which was the weather. Unfortunately, it was about to take a turn for the worse…

Wrong Kind of Rush

During my hike, temperatures warmed and a system of ominous clouds wrapped around the mountain. By the time I made it to camp, just before dark, it was socked in with fog and dumping rain. Conditions were too bad to continue as planned, so I hunkered down and crossed my fingers that things would be better by morning. 

The weather only worsened throughout the day. By evening, it was storming and blowing like hell! I lay wide awake long into the night, unable to sleep from both the roar of the storm and the thought of a nearby tree snapping off and flattening me in my sleeping bag. When sleep did come, it was only in short bursts.

Sometime during the night, temperatures dropped again. At daylight, fresh snow tempted me to head out, but there was still thick fog. Rather than bumble up the mountain blindly, I sat tight and fed the fire.

The storm and fog finally began to lift in mid-afternoon. If I was ever going to make a move, it needed to be then. I moved slowly as I hunted up the ridge toward my intended bivy site. It was a good move, because partway there, I spotted the narrow, deep-forked buck from the first two days of season. He was way up the ridge, feeding on an open slope between two patches of timber.

For a minute, I hemmed and hawed. He wasn’t as big as the buck at the top of the mountain, but I was no longer in a position to be choosy, either. I was down to my last few days, there was more weather on the way, and he was a good buck. I’d be a fool not to try.

I had to lose sight of him while I stalked closer. By the time I made it within 200 yards, he was gone. Figuring he must have moved into one of the patches of trees, I got into position to wait him out.

After 30 minutes sitting, I was getting cold and impatient. Then, suddenly, he came bursting out of the timber.

I don’t know whether the wind swirled or the buck had just sensed something, but he was moving quickly.  As he stotted across the slope, I made a grunt sound with my mouth to try and stop him. He didn’t take notice.

He was just about to make cover when, for whatever reason, he did that classic mule deer “stop and look”. When my crosshairs passed across his vitals, I slapped off a shot.

In the recoil of the blast, I thought I saw him hunch up. I went up to the spot he’d been standing, sure I’d find him crumpled inside the tree line, but I didn’t. After a thorough search, I could find no sign of a hit whatsoever. I got his tracks and followed until it was too dark to see.  I was finally forced to accept that I’d missed cleanly. I felt angry and sick to my stomach, and kicked myself for rushing the shot. 

I continued on up to my bivy site, unceremoniously pitched camp, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was so physically and emotionally drained that I hardly noticed the sound of snow hitting my tent as I drifted off to sleep.

Temporary Defeat – Twice

Just after midnight I was shocked awake by icy cold and the weight of snow pressing in from my sides. The wind was howling and the storm was in full force. I kicked the snow off of me as best I could and tried to go back to sleep, but it never came. 

At 4:30 a.m., my alarm went off, but with a whiteout blizzard, that effort would be futile.  Instead, I made a cup of coffee and tried to wait patiently. 

Nine hours later, conditions hadn’t improved. Condensation and ice was building up inside my tent. My down sleeping bag was wet and I was cold and shivering. There was no point in getting hypothermia on the mountaintop when I had a woodstove back at my main camp, so I finally caved in, packed up, and headed back down.

After two hours of fighting knee-deep snow, I finally reached my camp. What I saw made my heart sink. The snow load had been too much for the ridgepole of my shelter and it had collapsed. The only sign camp was still there was a bit of stovepipe sticking out above the drifts. I went to work clearing off the snow and repairing the pole with a makeshift splint. By the time the structure was standing again and a fire was burning, it was nearly dark and I was absolutely spent. 

Tempting…But No

The storm continued to rage throughout the night. By the next morning, I could no longer ignore the gravity of my situation. Snow accumulation was nearly mid-thigh, and staying any longer was too risky. I needed to get down the mountain, dig my vehicle out, and make sure I could get out of the country. It wasn’t the way I wanted to end my hunt, but I needed to get out while I still could.

While tearing down and packing up camp, it seemed as if the weather was toying with me.  The winds that had been so strong for the past couple of days died down to just a whisper and the snow totally stopped.

As I hiked my way out of the basin, a hole opened in the clouds, showing a big patch of blue with the sun streaming through. I paused for a breather, gazed at the sparkling winter wonderland, and couldn’t help but picture that big old buck feeding and sunning himself. 

For a minute, I questioned my decision to go, but then I looked past the opening of blue sky. I could see another wall of snow headed my way, and knew there was no way I could stay.  I took one long last look and continued down into the next drainage.

A Test to the Bitter End

Even though my hunt was over, there was plenty of good country I had to pass through. So, just in case, I had my rifle available.

A mile and a half later, I cut a fresh set of giant buck tracks. They were headed down and in my general direction, so I quickly checked to make sure I had a round in the chamber.   

It hadn’t been 15 minutes when I contoured around a ridge and spotted a deer upslope from me. It was feeding with its head hidden behind a small fir, but the big, blocky body told me it had to be the buck I was tracking.

I quickly knelt down and looked through my scope. He lifted his head and allowed me a split-second glance. My heart about jumped in my throat! There was no question this was a buck worth taking. 

He was quartering away hard and walking uphill. I almost panicked, but then spied a gap just in front of him. I took a second to regain my composure, steady my breath, and let the crosshairs settle. When the buck’s shoulder moved through the opening, I touched the trigger. 

The buck dropped, rolled, and slid downslope for 100 yards before coming to a stop. For a moment, he lay still, but then regained his feet. Wasting no time, I snapped off another round.   Again, he dropped and went sliding. When he came to rest at the bottom of the drainage, he stayed down. 

Everything had happened so quickly, I couldn’t believe it. As the smell of burned powder dissipated, I stood staring at the buck – almost scared to blink for fear he’d disappear. Eventually the ringing in my ears told me it had to be real. With shaky legs, I made my way down to him.

As I got closer, the buck’s body seemed to keep growing. He had to be pushing 300 lbs. or more! When I reached his side and pulled his head from the snow, my jaw hit the ground. He had a huge typical, basket-shaped frame, and long, dark tines that seemed almost too tall. This was the cagey old buck from the top of the mountain!

I was stunned. I petted his swollen neck and examined his scars. He was an old veteran that had seen his share of battles and snowstorms. How ironic it was that the snowstorm forcing me to end my hunt for him had ended up pushing him from his high-country haunt and into my lap!

Time for appreciation was cut short. A wall of wind and snow closed in and reminded me I was racing the weather. I worked quickly and the wind chill cooled the meat in no time. I loaded everything up in one huge, heavy, awkward load and hobbled down the mountain as fast as my tired body would allow. 

It was a white-knuckler until the bitter, cold end. Luckily, I was able to get to my rig, dig it out, and just barely spin, slide, and skid my way out of the country: a perfect metaphor for this unforgettable and rewarding hunt.