“Pull, pull, pull,” were the last words I remember thinking to myself, a fraction of a second before the arrow began its journey towards the big buck I had spent the last seven nights dreaming about.
I say seven nights because it wasn’t until opening morning that I located the particular group of bucks that “Tank” was with. The hunt was ultimately a solo backcountry endeavor, but the scouting leading up to it was not. Over the course of three late summer scouting missions with my youngest son and wife, I had seen numerous bucks but none that stood out like this one. One of the highlights of the entire summer was the time spent scouting with them in the backcountry. They got to experience what many never will, the effort and preparation that goes into successful hunt before the season ever begins. Austin is already looking forward to his first backcountry bow hunt, which is the true success in my opinion as a father.
Opening morning found me spiked out at 10,500 feet on the highest point I found water flowing out of a spring near the Continental Divide. I had a 2500 vertical foot climb to get to my predetermined glassing spot by daylight. At sunrise, I was comfortably set up behind the binoculars searching for bucks. I glassed up several decent bucks at first light, but none worthy of a stalk. I quickly moved around the other side of the peak to glass another basin before the sun forced the deer into their beds. No sooner had I sat down and began glassing when I spotted a group of bucks on the basin across from me. I counted seven bucks and two of them were bruisers. I watched the bucks until they bedded in the alder brush. While waiting for the bucks to bed, I sent an inReach message to my wife with news that all was good and I had found a mature “shooter.”
The bucks eventually bedded, but not in a spot where I could get stick-bow-close. The group contained four small bucks whose sole job appeared to be surrounding the bigger bucks to prevent a close encounter. Over the next several days, the group of bucks moved daily to new ridges and bedding spots along the two secluded basins they called home. Each time, they strategically chose a location with bad wind and a good vantage for the smaller bucks serving as guards.
Each morning found me excitedly searching for them and praying they would bed in a good spot for a stalk. I knew I’d likely only get one opportunity at the two big boys.
I made a couple of stalks on other mature bucks on day two and four. One was spoiled by a small buck re-bedding for the third time and walking right into my lap at five yards. The other was a lower percentage stalk with a marginal wind, which ultimately swirled and saved a nice 4×4’s life while I was waiting for him to stand at a mere 10 yards. Both stalks resulted in me getting super close undetected and neither really bothered me when they failed. I had gained confidence in my ability to stalk in close and more importantly, I still had a tag in my pocket that I really wanted to attach to one of the two the big bucks I’d found on day one.
Day six on the mountain found me at the top once again. It also found the bucks bedding in an impossible location, once again. I was running low on food and optimism. I made an executive decision to head to my vehicle a few miles away and restock my Mountain House supply, then head 30 miles south to a friend’s cabin. Hopefully the company and a good night’s rest would refuel me for another run at the big boys… I spent that evening visiting and swapping stories around a fire with Scott and Craig, followed by that good night’s rest. The next morning I hunted a nearby area they had seen deer in before the season started. I did find deer, but none were mature. Energized and rested I headed back into the backcountry in search of the big bucks I’d been playing cat and mouse with all week.
Sunrise on day eight found me back at 12,600 feet, glassing for the bucks that “Tank” and the big 3×4 were with. I spotted a handful of deer, but all were either in a bad location or weren’t mature. The longer I glassed though, the stronger the winds blew straight up the mountain in my face. This was it, the steady wind I’d been waiting for!
I moved along the steep slope toward the next basin, hoping to locate the target bucks. Just before I crested the ridge I laid down and belly-crawled slowly to a vantage point. Good news, I had them located. The bad news was they were bedded right out in the open. Armed with optimism, I surmised that they wouldn’t stay there long in the blazing sun and now was the time to circle the peak to get above them. A mile long hike and two hours later I was 300 yards directly above the group that had re-bedded in the chest high alder brush.
The smaller bucks were bedded about 75 yards above the two big bucks, who were bedded only a couple yards apart. How was I going to get through the smaller bucks and to the big boys? I saw a small depression about 20 yards east of the small bucks and decided to try to sneak past them. About 50 yards from the smaller bucks I shed my pack, pants and boots. Once in “stealth mode,” I began the sneak past the small bucks. After what seemed like an eternity I found myself 20 yards downhill from the small bucks and nearly out of cover. I belly crawled back towards (but below) the bucks and waited for my wind to drift up to them. Soon, four small bucks and a nice 4×4 bounded up the hill and over the top. It worked, I had successfully blown the small bucks out in a safe direction leaving the two shooters below none the wiser.
As I slowly stalked closer to the two bigger bucks, numerous thoughts raced through my mind. I’d just purposely blown out smaller bucks I could’ve likely shot. I’d just ignored the “get my first traditional buck under my belt” advice that I’d heard from numerous people, some of which are accomplished traditional hunters and others who thought I was crazy for chasing deer with a recurve in the first place. I remember praying the entire way “Lord, please keep this wind solid and steady.”
Stubborn Becomes Cooperative
An hour later my prayers had been answered and I was now about 13 yards above the two big bucks. However, I had to sneak back up the mountain about five yards to gain enough elevation to sneak an arrow over the alders, should one of the bucks walk into the small opening. An hour later, the bucks remained bedded but the wind remained steady. No longer nervous, I was more than ready for one of the two bucks to rise. I didn’t care which one and I couldn’t tell which buck was which anyway. They were both tucked tightly into the tall alders, giving me only brief flashes of antler through the brush.
Finally, I saw the closer buck’s rack rock. “He’s getting up!” I immediately drew my bow and waited for him to step out. After what seemed like an eternity holding the 55# recurve at full draw, the buck finally stepped into the small shooting lane. I glanced briefly at his rack to make sure he was a shooter and then immediately back to his vitals and picked a spot to focus on.
I’ll never forget watching the fletchings disappear into the hair on the buck’s chest or the tuft of hair floating in the air after the buck had leaped off the bench and down the mountain.
I ran to the edge of the bench trying to keep eyes on the buck in the sea of alder brush. The big 3X4 that was with him bounded off to my left.
“Nope, that’s not him…” Looking down the mountain, I caught a glimpse of a large framed buck trotting through the rocks.
“Is that him?!” A quick scan revealed no additional deer, so I shifted my focus back to the big buck.
“Wait that’s him, it’s Tank!!” I knew he was big, but was still shocked when I was able to actually focus on his rack. I didn’t dare look at it when he walked into the shooting lane because where I look is where the arrow goes with my instinctive shooting style.
He stopped, then started backing up. Recognizing that he was about to tip over in the rocks I yelled “No, No, not there!!” The buck looked back up the mountain in my direction and then took off trotting again. A short distance later he bedded on a flat bench safe from the rocks that would destroy his beautiful velvet covered antlers. The crisis had been averted!
Moments later, the buck reached his final bed… I collapsed to my knees in elation. Looking down at the wooden riser in my hand, seeing the wooden recurve limbs jet into the horizon I was in disbelief. I’d done it, I’d harvested a true mountain Monarch with a stick bow.
I hiked back up the mountain to retrieve my clothes and gear, then began the emotional walk towards the hard-earned buck that only a hunter understands. After a quick prayer of thanks, I began the task of taking pictures and processing the deer for the 3 mile pack back over the mountain and to the 4Runner. Two trips, nine miles and a gallon of sweat later I was on the road to home.
All I could think about on the trip back to civilization was, “I’m truly blessed.” Blessed to harvest such a monarch. Blessed to have the support of a beautiful wife, a loving family and great friends. Blessed to be able to pass the love for hunting on to my young sons. Blessed to be part of a community of traditional hunters who’ve coached and encouraged me the last two years. Technically this backcountry journey was a “solo” hunt but trust me, I didn’t get here alone!