Blood, Sweat and Tears
The best bucks surely don’t come easy.
“As I skinned the deer, my knife slipped and sunk deep into the flesh of my inner thigh…my mind was racing with every thought imaginable.”
The Source of the Inspiration
As much fun as it is to hunt mulies at 12,000 feet with a bow in Colorado or the high desert of Nevada, to me it doesn’t compare to hunting the granite-filled mountains in my backyard in California. It’s the same brushy, timber-choked mountains I started hunting 25 years ago; the same mountains that drove me insane while trying to find deer.
I tried many different techniques and seasons, but nothing produced. There were tons of deer low on private property, but in the mountains where I wanted to hunt, they were like ghosts. I finally gave up and just hunted out of state.
In 2011, I decided to give it a go again. I scored on my first high country buck! It was just a forky, but I’d never been more excited. It sounds crazy, but you have no idea what kind of physical and mental anguish I went through to get that deer.
The following year is when it started coming together. I took a buck a thought I’d never top - a beautiful 160-plus 4x4. It was by far the largest deer I’d seen in the high country and he changed the way I now hunt this country.
I’ve hunted every year since then searching for another buck like that. Bucks over the 160 mark are few and far between in this area.
A Good Start
Just after the 4th of July, I started making day hikes into the high country. I make it a point to check out at least one or two new spots a year. Most the time they don’t pan out, but I’m always looking for another honey hole. I saw a fair amount of bucks, but nothing too exciting.
For the archery opener, my friend, Kirk, and I decided to hunt an area we had only rifle hunted before. Even though we didn’t scout it, we felt we could get on some deer there. It turned out to be a good decision, as I was able to arrow my best archery buck in the D Zone - a 140-class 3x4. That made my season, but it had just started. I still had one more tag and time to look for a monster buck.
I packed into my favorite spot with another buddy, and the first morning we got high on a ridge and glassed onto a slope that always seems to hold bucks. A few does were spotted before I noticed another deer standing inside some big timber. The spotter revealed that it was a big buck! He slowly fed out into the open and I was in shock; he was huge!
The wind was horrible, so I had to wait to see where he would bed before I could think about a stalk. He fed for several hours, moving maybe 50 yards in that time, before finally bedding in the shade of a lone fir tree surrounded by shale and brush.
He stayed there all day, standing up every few hours to feed and change beds. I watched all day hoping the wind would change, but it didn’t. Normally, I wouldn’t feel to confident in finding that buck again since these deer generally have a tendency to roam, but this buck’s behavior was different.
The next morning I found him just 100 yards from where he was in the day before. The winds were the same and we watched him until mid morning, until we decided it wasn’t going to happen that day either. So, off we went in another direction looking for another buck for my buddy to stalk. We had a few close calls and didn’t return to camp until after dark.
The third morning I found him yet again, but this time he had moved 300 yards downhill. With the wind still blowing hard the wrong way, all we could do was watch again. I took some video and watched until he bedded and then packed out. I had one more day to hunt before archery season was over.
Solo now, I hiked the three miles in to the now-familiar glassing spot. On the way in, I bumped into another buck I had been looking for; one I had found the year before. There he stood at 40 yards, but knowing what might be on the other side of the ridge, I just pulled out my phone and snapped a few pics and we both went our separate ways.
After 45 minutes of glassing, reality was setting in. He had moved; I knew it.
Suddenly, a deer appeared from behind a tree. It was a small 1x2 I had seen on that hill two times before and he was always above the bigger buck. I started glassing down lower. I glanced back up at the small buck and there was a second buck. It was him, right back in one of the spots from the weekend before! He eventually used one of the same beds.
Everything was just like the before except the wind was in my favor! Knowing his usual routine, I felt like I had plenty of time to make the stalk. I slowly worked my way in sidehill through loose rock until I was at 50 yards. I settled myself for a moment and then found a small lane that got me closer.
I stopped at 25 yards without a great view, but I could see the tips of his antlers. Everything was looking good, and if he stuck to his routine, he’d soon be up feeding. I waited, and waited, and waited…for five hours.
Finally, he got up. I couldn’t see his entire body, but I could tell he was facing away. I waited for him to get broadside before I stood up, but it never happened. He stayed facing downhill, slipping between the brush and out of sight.
The next thing I heard was rock sliding down. It sounded like he was getting out of dodge, so I crawled to my left where I had a lane. I watched the buck walk across the shale opening unspooked, stopping occasionally to feed until he reached his other bedding spot 100 yards away. I knew that spot was next to impossible, so I slowly backed my way out.
I hiked to the top of the ridge where I could see his bed and took a break. I snapped a few more pics and thought about what had unfolded. Apart from arrowing him, it was the next best possible scenario. I had managed to get that close and he never knew I was there. That made me feel better about my chances of finding him on the general opener even though it was two weeks away.
I’ve read countless stories, articles, and books about deer and observed them myself over the years. I’ve heard of bucks that have very small core areas, but this was the first time I had witnessed it. As much as I’d have loved to believe that this buck would still be there two weeks later, I couldn’t convince myself. He was in full velvet earlier. Surely after he shed his velvet, he’d change his habits and be gone. Also, the general opener brings out every tag holder for the zone - all 33,000 of them.
I had two things going for me. One was the remote, rugged location and the other was acorns. There was a good crop of acorns on this ridge and he had staked his claim in this spot.
Patience and Persistence Pays
The evening before the opener, Jared and I made the 2½-mile vertical climb to our camp. We set up camp in the dark and then settled in for a brief sleep.
When the alarm sounded, we gathered our things and set off for our glassing spot. We watched the sun slowly rise over the crest of the Sierras, lighting up the eastern slope in a way only Mother Nature can.
Nearly an hour of legal shooting time had passed and not a deer had been seen. I was beginning to get anxious. I needed to make a move so I could see more ground, so I dropped down lower on the ridge and swung to my right. I could now see farther downhill into the brushier portion of the ridge.
Within minutes, I spotted the buck just below his lowest bedding spot he had used before. It was a good thing I spotted him then, because right after I saw him, he bedded in the oak brush and was hard to see. It was still a little early and I knew he’d change beds again soon so we waited.
A while later he got up, fed, and bedded again. We gathered our gear and raced downhill until we had to slowly pick our way through the granite. We got within 200 yards and I got my rifle rested on my shooting sticks, prepared for the shot whenever he stood.
We waited for three hours before finally he stood, but he was facing away. When he turned broadside, he was head deep in brush. This went on for 20 minutes before he disappeared into a small ravine and then reappeared farther downhill.
He was headed over another small ridge when he stopped to munch on a few more acorns. This was my chance! I settled in and pulled the trigger, dropping him on the spot. His little buddy was still hanging around, so my friend used that opportunity to fill his freezer as well.
I stayed on point while Jared went back for our packs. We then found our way over to the bucks through the maze of brush. I took some time to admire my deer, give thanks, and process the events of the last four weeks that had led up to this moment.
I’d have liked to spend more time soaking it in, but it was warm and we had two bucks down. We dragged them uphill to the only tree around for some shade and went to work.
Cutting it Close
As I broke my buck down, I had one of the scariest moments of my life. As I skinned the deer, my knife slipped and sunk deep into the flesh of my inner thigh. I immediately applied pressure and moved to a semi-flat spot.
My mind was racing with every thought imaginable as I dropped my pants to see the damage. I was relieved to see that blood wasn’t squirting out of my leg.
We doctored it up as best we could and then finished breaking down my deer. When we finished, I stopped to check my leg and blood was pooling up inside. I gave it a squeeze and pushed out a bunch of old blood. I lay down for a while, waiting for the bleeding to stop. Meanwhile, Jared started packing loads of meat uphill.
I watched the sun slowly moving to the west, and as it started touching the ridge top, I got a real sense of urgency. I rolled up a gauze pad, placed it on the wound, and tied my t-shirt around my leg as tight as I could. There was one bag of meat left, as well as the rack, so I placed them in the pack and started the hike back to camp. I caught up with Jared, and an hour later, I hobbled into camp.
I had cell service and was able to call my wife and brother to share both the good and bad news. Thankfully, my brother, nephew, and friend were able to hike in the next day and help us pack out.
This was a bit of a dream season for me, taking my largest archery and rifle bucks in the high country of this general zone. Thanks to my friends and family who support my high country habit, and to my loving wife, who supports me every step of the way.