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A mule deer hunt strengthens bonds between friends

For most hunters, as the trees fade into shadows on the last eve of the season, anticipation for next fall starts bringing a glimmer of excitement to an otherwise sad closing. We wonder whether we will draw that ever so coveted tag, or maybe dream of getting another crack at “the one that got away” with an OTC tag. I am no different. As 2019 came rolling in, plans were already starting to develop with my hunting buddy Tad of when and where to apply and dates we were going to need off work. This process hit a rather large speed bump in early March when during my off-season training, old man basketball, I felt “someone” step on my left heel.

After a visit to a specialist a few long days later, a completely torn Achilles was confirmed; not exactly the best start to the year. Being a very active guy, this put a huge dent in my spring, summer, and possibly fall plans. Just before exiting my pre-surgery appointment, I asked the surgeon what my odds were of being able to hunt this coming fall, specifically September rutting bulls. He was confident if the surgery went well and I rehabbed like a good little boy that September was definitely not out of the question. In fact, he said the steep hills would be great rehab for my deteriorated left calf.

Back to Full Strength

Fast-forward to when my hunting partner called me up to ask if I still wanted to apply for our usual long-shot mule deer hunt. After a lot of thought, figuring the draw odds were dismal at best for a nonresident and if my physical therapy kept going as planned I’d at least be able to gimp around, I agreed. As luck would have it, our party number was drawn and we were full-fledged, tag-carrying delinquents headed on a mule deer hunt. The real question was whether I would be serviceable enough to do this tag justice.

With the addition of the newly acquired tag in my pocket and the small detail that my wife specializes in the physical therapy department, my luck seemed to be turning for the better. Daily PT was the normal procedure in the following months. With hunting season as the main motivator, I was in the gym most days for hours, making two appearances on many days. I knew that with this injury, most individuals are not back to 100% for an entire full year, but I was going to do my best to be as close as I possibly could be.

With prior scouting missions not producing a buck that either of us would think twice about, the weeks leading up to the season left us both scouring over maps and electronic imaging 24/7. Discussing spot after spot, the best glassing points, and the easiest access points to keep us undetected was a nightly routine between the two of us. We were hopeful that we could turn up something three days prior to opening day.

As that wonderful haze of opening morning began to lighten our surroundings, hope began to build. Blacks and greys started to form shrubs and sage and the day was finally here. Perched on a large rock outcropping, we were in the perfect position to glass an adjacent bowl that we had scouted a buck frequenting only days earlier. As the sun began to creep over the hill and the rays of sunshine warm our chilly bones, we tried to dissect every bush, tree, and rock that might conceal a crafty old buck. Two hours into our sit, we had turned up an extremely small fork horn and one lone doe. Given the full moon, we knew the first few days could be slow. Knowing that angles are everything, I made a plan with Tad for me to move lower down the ridge to get a different perspective of the canyon.

Backcountry Tactics

Our agreement was that if Tad saw a deer that interested him, he would throw a rock down the backside of the ridge in my direction. If I didn’t return shortly, he knew what to do. Forty-five minutes later and I hadn’t turned up a single creature. Luckily for me, Tad was faring much better. As I crawled my way up the near-vertical cliff, I took a short break to let my lungs take in some much-needed O2. As I looked up the hill in the direction I was ascending, I noticed a rather large rock mid-flight heading my direction.

As I side-stepped and peered around the small Christmas tree blocking my view, I saw a surprised but excited Tad waving his arms and giving me the buck sign with both hands over his head. I began running if you want to call it that, up the hill only to have him also give the “slow down, it’s sleeping” sign. Good thing, because that wasn’t going to last long anyway. Upon arrival, tad informed me he was relatively certain he had spotted the buck that I had found two days prior, and the buck was within shooting range. After looking through the glass I also was certain this was the same buck. Tad, being the hunting buddy he is, said, “You found this buck, I think you should be the one who kills him.” This is why we make such a great pair, he lets me shoot first. 

With the buck bedded, facing dead away from us, we needed to get a better angle. In doing so, it wouldn’t hurt to cut the distance a bit. We devised a plan that would accomplish both. As we scaled down the razorback ridge, completely concealed by the rocks that formed it, we would periodically check on the buck’s location and angle. As we gained our desired angle and distance, we would be blocked by some sort of vegetation between us, on his side or ours. We made our way lower and closer. Finally, we ran out of real estate and knew we had to make it happen. Being more than an hour into our stalk and knowing he’d be switching beds soon, it was time.

As Tad got into position with the spotter, I found a suitable position to shoot from and began to get comfortable. I needed to remove a few pointy rocks that were extremely uncomfortable to my ribs, so I pulled them out of the ground and placed them off to the side. Given the steepness of the terrain and how gravity works, they didn’t stay put. One went rolling down the hill, making a relatively loud commotion. As soon as I heard this I got in the scope and was prepared for the buck to be on his feet, but he was content, just chilling there in the morning sun. I re-checked my yardage, held for the appropriate drop, and squeezed the trigger. Given the awkward rest I had, I immediately jumped off target, I pulled my plugs to hear the report. “Nailed it!” was the report back. As I found him in my scope, I saw that his initial bed ended up being his final resting spot.

As we walked up on the buck over an hour later, ground shrinkage was definitely not an issue. In fact, as we stood over that amazing creature we both just knelt down and gazed in silence. Until Tad turned to me and said, “Well done buddy. He’s a pig.” We high-fived hugged and fist-pumped probably twenty times over the next six hours of deboning and packing him out. 

Hiking out with smiles from ear to ear, I can’t honestly say who was happier for the harvest. It’s days like this that you realize the special connection good hunting buddies have. We both worked our tails off trying to find a good buck and even though my tag was the one that resided on this deer, it was just as much his as it was mine. That night, back at the truck with full bellies, a cold brew, and memories that will last a lifetime, the final preparations were being made to add another.

Make it a Double

As the blinding rays of light intruded upon our closed eyes, we began to awaken from our slumber. After a solid breakfast, the plan was made to relocate to a different trail system and backpack in further than we had scouted in hopes of finding a shooter for Tad. Later that afternoon, with five days’ worth of gear, we headed for our destination. We weren’t exactly breaking land speed records after our long steep walkout the previous day, but we eventually made our designated campsite. This location wasn’t ideal, but finding a flat site for two in muley country is a hard feat. 

We unloaded our packs down to the bare essentials and with just enough time to make it to our glassing point, took off. It was going to take us roughly an hour to get there and set up, but we were too anxious not to see what the new canyon might hold. Days earlier I had come across a very respectable buck, not far from this canyon. With any luck, he would have stayed put and might allow us an opportunity. Side-hilling along the backside to keep our wind, we began seeing fresh deer signs more and more frequently the closer we got to the saddle we intended to cross through. 

With light slowly fading and the shadows growing longer, we squeaked through the saddle that separated the two large drainages. As we popped over the hill and laid eyes on our destination we both smiled at the looks of the layout before us. “This is going to hold deer.” Tad said as he turned to find the perfect glassing location. This canyon seemed to have it all, a small intermittent stream in the bottom, some burnt timber with lush grass, and a thick patch of timber running right up the gut. Tad pointed to his right at a small rock formation not 100 yards away. This would hide us perfectly and give us a view of the entire canyon. We were far enough down the canyon that the downward thermals wouldn’t blow anything out and with that, we began to creep slowly towards the rocks.

Just then, we caught movement down and to our left. Two nice bucks had been watching us intrude upon their paradise. Off they bounded as Tad tried to steady for a shot. Being only 100 yards away I started calling out which buck to shoot. “The back one, the back one. He’s a shooter. Take the back one.” They stopped for a brief second to make sure the danger was legitimate and then off again they went. By now Tad was up and running further along the hill in order to not lose sight of the bucks rounding the ridge. Making our initial destination, the rock pile, Tad set up and readied for a shot if presented with one. The bucks were beginning to reach the start of some avalanche regen when they made a vital mistake. They both stopped one last time to check on the danger before entering the dense timber. I quickly confirmed the nicer of the two bucks was still in the rear, and Tad woke up the canyon with a blast. As the echo rang down the canyon, the buck lay motionless, twisted like a pretzel on the steep hillside, his buddy running for cover. As Tad turned towards me with that Tad grin, I gave him a fist pump and head rub. “Nice shot buddy.”

“Wow! That happened fast.” He said as we both lay smiling with our backs against the rock pile. “Dude, he’s got a sweet kicker off his left side,” I exclaimed as we both looked at each other and then back down the hill to check on him one last time. With light fading fast, we decided to retreat to our gear stash, unload our packs of any nonessentials, grab our sleeping bags and make the trek back to the deer from a closer and safer route.

As we approached the downed buck it was hard to see exactly what he was hiding. His hind legs were wrapped up and over top of his antlers. I videoed as Tad untwisted the grey ghost from himself. “That is a sweet kicker.” He replied as he first laid eyes on his trophy via headlamp. “This could be a long night.” He added as we both just grinned and laughed. After taking some nighttime photos to the best of our ability, which is not much, we began breaking down the buck. After only an hour or so we had the buck caped, deboned, and hanging on a meat pole away from the carcass. Now technically morning, we just lay there under the stars, reminiscing about the past couple of days and how tomorrow’s pack out was going to suck. Even given that “misfortune”, I can guarantee we both fell asleep that night with smiles on our faces.

The next day was everything that we had hoped for. After a nice Mountain House breakfast to lighten our load, we split the weight as equally as possible and headed for our gear stash. Once at the stash we made the difficult decision to test the old saying, slowly but surely. We loaded up everything we had to make one long and grueling push for the truck. Although the trip out took literally forever, we finally arrived at the truck shortly before dark with blood-stained clothes, sore feet, and grins from ear to ear.


Western Hunter

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