Duzy the Dream
7 Years in the Making
After feeling the weight of my rangefinder fall from my body and hearing metal meet the natural world, I lunged out of pure reaction, desperate to stop it from rolling uncontrollably down the hill in front of him. As I grasped it with my toes, I knew my worst nightmare was soon to unfold... I blew it.
It’s difficult to understand how a dream materializes. Is it born in our soul? Our heart? Or in our minds? I truly don’t know but I would like to think it’s shaped in all parts of us. The soul creates it, the heart loves it, and the mind works relentlessly in forming a path to complete it. This dream of mine was to take a mature mule deer, bow in hand, and on top of the world; my little world. I have been in an endless pursuit to fulfill this dream for the last seven years. Through those seven years, “Life” and “Big Deer Hunting” has never ceased to humble me, teach me, and make me stronger. I, like all the others before me, have dealt with a plentiful share of defeat and heartache. Some, I expected I would never recover from.
In 2015 I caught myself doing what we all do, glassing a distant ridge while allowing my imagination to run wild with aspirations of seeing what lays beyond and out of sight. I never stopped wondering, e-scouting, talking, and dreaming about what that area could be hiding. In the summer of 2019, I was severely ill stricken and forced to sit out on some very crucial scouting with my hunting partners Braxton Hamilton and Josh Saltsgaver. After missing the second scouting trip of the season, I finally began to recover. As the third scouting trip was quickly approaching, I upsettingly decided to sit out due to not feeling completely recovered. After they had already departed, I changed my mind. With my energy at about 50%, I set off to go where I had daydreamed and talked about for so many years.
The Distant Ridge
To finally lay my eyes on the country was truly astonishing, and the feeling of accomplishment raced through my veins. As I waited in the dark for the first rays of light to crest the ridge, my heart was pounding, and my lungs felt like they were bleeding from the grueling hike. The rays became stronger and brighter and the area seemed to flourish with life. Bears were on the next ridge back, moose in the drainage below, elk roaming the green aspen groves, and deer in the highest strips of vegetation surrounded by sheer rock and blue sky.
I was a bit taken back in that moment. It felt as if I was exactly where God intended for me to be. I began evaluating every deer in sight, quickly organizing the bucks in my mind by maturity. The best buck was a great deer who had the “cool factor” to him, no doubt about that. My study of his body condition and the place he held in the pecking order with the other bucks helped me decide that he was young. Young with great potential. He was a buck I would much rather walk away from rather than hunt, in hopes of seeing him again in future seasons.
The summer of 2020 started off staggeringly depressing as we drove into one of our scouting areas which was full of people. We relocated bucks from the previous year, yet none of them fully evolved into shooters as we had hoped they would. The morale was low amongst us. As the following work week completed, I decided it was time to go back to that distant ridge and see what it was hiding this year. Yet again, I was heading into this area with big ideas and curious thoughts. The sun rose and with it again the area breathed life. I was locating deer, however none were too exciting. As midday approached and the air became warmer, everything headed into dark timber to escape the heat.
Suddenly, as I was re-assessing my time and location, I spotted three bucks feeding across an open hillside behind me. Through my bare eyes alone, my adrenaline spiked. My heart was racing as I raised my binoculars. In a frantic fashion, I repositioned my spotter onto the group of bucks. Instantly, I knew I was watching a special class of a deer. Heavy, wide, and long tined; a buck with all the qualities one dreams of. I left the mountain feeling exceptionally fortunate. Experience has taught me to understand the difference between scouting and hunting. Scouting a deer of his class is becoming harder every year, while hunting a deer of his class is an even harder and a more privileged opportunity.
As the scouting season continued, I did not return to that distant ridge. Braxton and I focused on other areas for the rest of August, in search of more deer of his class. We departed from our last scouting trip, two days before the opener, and hiked toward that distant ridge through the night. We reached the ridge at midday the day before the opener. In a short time we relocated Duzy in the next drainage, as that was what we began to call him all month while talking and planning. We watched him until there were nothing but stars above.
Opening Day At Last
My nerves were oddly at rest. Upon waking up we were blanketed with a very wet couple of inches of snow, and fog filled the air. In short time we located Duzy in the timber before any of the sun’s sensational warmth touched the country. I glassed all the surrounding ridgelines and peaks, just to see what I didn’t want to see, yet expected I would. Another hunter was skylined on the highest peak. After a few minutes he was heading in the opposite direction. I once again reached calm as he moved away and Duzy nestled into the timber out of his sight.
Duzy and his companions bedded in a small pocket of timber in a stalkable location, Braxton and I planned an approach, and I began the stalk. Minutes later Braxton whistled at me to come back. Sure enough, Duzy and his running mates were on their feet again. Suddenly they blew out of the timber pocket! We watched them as they ran all the way across the drainage and ended their escape in small patch of timber at the top of a very steep hillside. They had a 100-foot cliff above them, a rockslide to their left, and a direct corridor to deep country on their right.
Braxton and I were confused and frantically searching to see their source of fear. I then located another resident buck to the area just below where Duzy had been. I took my eye off him for a split second, and he was gone. The hunter from first light was now in my spotter and my heart sank. I stayed on him while Braxton kept his eyes glued on where we last saw Duzy. I then watched the man pick up his arrow where I had just lost sight of the smaller buck. He stabbed his arrow into the earth and began circling.
With Duzy now bumped, another hunter in the area, and a wounded deer, I felt like the day was a wash. Braxton and I decided to bail off the ridge and cross over to help this guy try to locate his buck. We found his arrow, the blood trail, and his boot tracks but not him. After searching for this mystery man, we decided to head back to our vantage point in hopes of seeing Duzy before nightfall.
A Second Chance
Once we returned to our glassing spot there was no sight of any deer in the area. My morale was low, as one would expect, so Braxton called me out and forced me to get my mind right. After a “reset” conversation, it was time to grind again. The sun was beginning to set, which lead us to question everything. Then suddenly to my surprise, I located Duzy! Just a few feet away from the timber patch foraging on what little vegetation there was on that steep mountainside. Morale was lifted and as we sat and watched, the gears started to turn on an approach to get within bow range.
It truly felt like a now or never ultimatum; then Braxton said, “Tomorrow is never promised.” He could not have been more right, and I went for it!
Time was of the essence, so I bailed off the ridge and worked straight up the other side in hopes of getting parallel with Duzy when thermals would shift. I would then stalk across toward the timber patch. As I reached my landmarks, I slowed down and waited for the wind to shift. Thermals began to change, and I moved into the final and most risky obstacle of them all: a giant rockslide with zero cover, within direct sight of the timber patch below the deer. The sun was fading as the thermals became more consistent. I was forced to move quickly to avoid any wind swirls and race the waning shooting light. I made it through the rockslide without sounding the alarm and was now in the wide open, with the wind in my favor, and within range of the timber patch.
I peered into the timber in hopes of seeing the bucks before they saw me. Nothing. I inched closer. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement below… antler tips! A quick range revealed they were 60 yards out. The antler tips became more revealing as I began to see more than one deer. I could not make out Duzy, but the bucks were headed in my direction.
I ranged the next tree I expected the bucks to move past at 30 yards. I slid my range finder back into my pocket. As I prepared my bow, I began to feel the weight of my range finder leave my body. It bounced off the earth and started to roll down the steep embankment. I felt all my hard work, my family’s sacrifice, and my hopes and dreams slip away. I lunged, extending my leg to stop it.
I fully expected to hear the bucks bound away, but I heard nothing. I held my bow in my left hand like a waiter holds a platter of food; parallel with the hillside, inches from smacking it on the rocks. I slowly reached down, obtained my range finder and gradually began to raise it back up. As I got taller, I started to see the deer again, all with their heads down feeding. “How is this happening?”, I thought to myself.
I carefully stood up and for the first time I could see Duzy. He was a touch lower than the others. With my rangefinder now back in my possession, I ranged him at 55 yards. I stuffed my rangefinder deep into my pocket and prepared my bow for a 60-yard shot as he was feeding downhill. I planted my back foot into the earth for a stable shooting platform and drew back. I hit all my anchor points, my pin was rock steady on Duzy, and then the bow seemingly exploded.
Time seemed to slow as I watched the fletching of my arrow begin its flight in his direction and then lost it as it closed in. He bucked and real time began again. I watched him as he bounded down the hill, and could see that my shot was true. He made it 50 yards, stopped, and took his final steps. As he fell into the earth, I did also. I watched as his companions went back to feeding just feet away from him. The sun set, and with it, so did my dream.
I would have never been able to pursue my dreams and passions if it weren’t for my wife Maira and daughters at home. They truly sacrificed more than I did in this pursuit of my dream. Thank you to my brother Rick for everything he has taught me. Also to my best friends Braxton, Josh, Brian, and Clay for always supporting me, and most of all thank God for giving me the life I have, my opportunities, and everyone mentioned above. If you can dream it and your heart can believe it, you can achieve it. Never quit.
Storie Ratcliff - Wyoming, 2020