Better Lucky Than Good
It’s all about being in the right place at the right time
Colten Tholen, Wyoming, 2017
Our story is one of those hunts that you only dream of having or wish to have come true. It's also the story that maybe you don't always care to hear about. Regardless, it’s one I’ll never forget, and one that will always puzzle me. It will also continue to drive me to do better and to never give up, no matter how tough, low, or difficult a hunt may become.
I’ve been hunting western Wyoming since I was 12 years old. It’s always highly anticipated – the crisp mornings, snowstorms, and listening to bugling bull elk off in the distance. I always dream of big bucks in extreme areas where few are willing to go. This story was one of the hunts where I had to get out of my comfort zone.
As we made the five-hour drive through the wide-open sagebrush country, my hunting partner Cole asked, “What exactly are you looking for?”
I had asked myself this question many times through the years. Was I only after 180-plus bucks or did I just want to improve myself? I stated, “I just want something bigger than I have previously harvested.”
As we made it up to camp, we ran into poor weather. Snow and rain had saturated the earth, making it difficult for us to reach our desired camp spot. With some tactful maneuvering, we made it in. There was no time to get out and scout, so we set up camp with excitement and optimism.
The next morning, we found fresh black bear tracks 200 yards from camp. We then continued up the ridge where my twin brother had harvested his first deer five years earlier and we had located another 30” stud. High on top of a windy ridge, we spent our time waiting for the clouds and fog to blow over and give us a better vantage for overlooking the bowl we’d planned to hunt. However, the fog never lifted and the clouds never blew over.
We made our way back to camp having only seen two does the entire morning. Back at camp, we planned our noon and afternoon hunts. We decided to drive the dirt roads at lower elevations, just looking for something promising, or a perhaps a dead-end road we could get away from traffic and get back to where there was less pressure.
We soon realized we were seeing more deer closer to the roads than we had seen hiking farther into the drainages. We also came to the conclusion that deer numbers were down drastically following the bad winter.
As we made our way back to camp, we spotted a small three-point at dusk, giving us a glimmer of hope. That evening we huddled up in the Jumping Jack trailer and warmed our souls with a delicious steak dinner. That night, the rain began to pour down. It seemed that Mother Nature was going to throw everything at us to make us throw in the towel. On the bright side, I still had two weeks to hunt.
Not Much Better
The second morning began worse than the day before. We woke up to two inches of snow and fog. We started out with intentions of reaching our glassing point, but we quickly realized it was too foggy. We changed plans, hopping in the truck and heading down to lower elevations.
Once we reached a glassing location, we spotted some antelope and then two bucks feeding up the on hill. We didn't get a good look, so we made a plan involving me hiking up and over the ridge in the direction they were headed. However, as I hiked and continued to gain elevation, it was apparent that they had given me the slip.
I came up over the ridge and patiently searched, hoping the two bucks would give me a chance, but I only found the rising sun.
Cole and I me up on the other side of the ridge. We thought about hiking into the area where we had been the day before, but as we made our way over, we found that the road was too saturated and too deep for my truck. We then decided to go back to camp, have breakfast, and break down camp.
“As we drove, we joked about wanting some dumb luck…one of those stories you read or hear about where one ‘dumb’ buck is standing off the road, waiting for to be shot. A big dumb buck would do just fine.”
“As we drove, we joked about wanting some dumb luck…one of those stories you read or hear about where one ‘dumb’ buck is standing off the road, waiting for to be shot. A big dumb buck would do just fine. “Maybe some extras,” I joked."
Blind Luck and a “Dumb” Buck
Once camp was broken down and loaded up, the sun finally came out to stay, but we decided to look for a better location. I knew there was a burned area in the unit, so we headed that way hoping for a good glassing spot.
As we drove, we joked about wanting some dumb luck…one of those stories you read or hear about where one ‘dumb’ buck is standing off the road, waiting for to be shot. A big dumb buck would do just fine. “Maybe some extras,” I joked.
We began to near the burn area and I spotted a knob I thought looked promising. We began to pull over, but then Cole suggested we drive up to the next canyon. I took his advice and we continued down the road.
As we neared the pullout area, I looked up through the trees and spotted what I thought was an elk. I stated, “Look, there are some elk out on that bare hillside at one in the afternoon.” I wondered to myself why these elk were out on a random, open hillside.
As we came around the hill, I stopped and put my binos on the animal I had spotted. I quickly realized it was a big stud buck! I turned to Cole and said, “I’ve got to shoot him!” He confirmed and handed me my rifle.
I ran up the hillside 50 yards to get a little closer. In my panic, I soon realized I had no stable rest, no optics, and no rangefinder. I peeked back over the ridge to yell at Cole to bring me my backpack, but he couldn’t hear me.
I knew my chance would pass by quickly if I didn’t at least attempt a shot, so I settled in to an awkward position. Simultaneously, I tried to minimize my shaking from buck fever and steady my breathing after running up the hill. I focused on picking a spot with my Ruger 7mm-mag. I placed the crosshairs right at the top of his back and slowly squeezed the trigger. It was a miss!
Strangely, knowing I missed him on my first shot quickly helped me calm down. My second attempt was much more controlled. A direct shot made him jump and hunch up. I had hit him! Knowing he was hit, I continued to shoot until he disappeared over the ridge. It all happened very fast.
Cole came running up with empty backpacks telling me, “You got him! Now let’s go get him!”
I’ve never sprinted up a hill like that. Reaching the last place I saw him, I searched for tracks or blood, but found nothing. I began to tell myself I had missed and that he was gone. I then turned downhill and saw him piled up under a tree 30 yards away!
We approached him in disbelief. Somehow, he had grown bigger since I shot. We then began taking photos and reliving what had just happened. All I kept thinking was that I didn’t deserve such an awesome animal, and that he was too big. It shouldn’t have been that easy. I didn’t work hard enough to be blessed with such a fantastic beast. I stared and held him in awe.
We finally got around to skinning and quartering him and we then loaded up two brand new backpacks that had never carried meat. The pack out, although short, seemed so right. I was carrying out meat for my family and a trophy that I’ll look at for years to come. This buck will always remind me that “it isn’t over, until it’s over.”
The entire drive home we were in shock and awe. We couldn’t believe what had happened. If we had left camp five minutes earlier or later, we may have never seen him. If I hadn’t listened to Cole about continuing down the road another half mile, he would’ve gone unseen. Everything had to happen perfectly…and it did. This is a dream I don’t want to wake up from.