I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do differently in 2020 to be as prepared as possible to maximize my opportunities to fill tags. The recently ended 2019 season left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I knew I could have done more to be in better shape physically as well as mentally for the grind of a hunt. I could have scouted more and spent more time shooting my bow. I had missed two different shots on bulls because of trying to take a quick shot instead of a good shot, and I had left three different hunts early instead of grinding them out. Two due to weather and no shooters located and another because our oldest son just had surgery for a broken knee four days into the hunt. I made a promise to myself that I would dedicate more time to my preparations for 2020, and I was going to start right away.
Out of my hands
The day after Christmas of ‘19 was one of the most difficult days of my life. My wife, Amie, got the call from her doctor that her test results came back positive for breast cancer. As anyone who has experienced this knows, everything in your life changes with this news. My full attention was now firmly directed to supporting and caring for my wife and taking care of our three kids. She would undergo surgery in early January and begin chemotherapy treatments a few weeks after that. Fortunately, there was some good news out of it all as we caught it very early and her prognosis was good.
I was able to sit with her for her first chemotherapy treatment, but then COVID hit. I would spend the next three treatment sessions sitting in the parking lot because only patients were allowed in the building. I was fortunate to be able to transition to working from home which aided in my ability to care for Amie as well as allow me to juggle my newfound second job as a full-time teacher for my kids as they moved to online schooling.
Most all of my plans to prepare for hunting season had been put on the back burner to this point. We knew the timing of treatments and additional surgeries for my wife, and as long as there were no setbacks we knew that she should be nearing the end of this tough road by the time hunting season came around. My wife understands how much hunting means to me, so we discussed the upcoming season. I decided I would still apply for some general tags in my home state of Utah knowing that even if I could only get out for a few days here and there, the time would at least be therapeutic for me. I also decided to apply for a limited-entry deer unit near my home knowing that I was unlikely to draw the tag.
Months later, when I saw the charge on my credit card for the price of the limited entry tag, I could not help but think this was just another one of 2020’s tricks–to give me a coveted tag but limit my ability to scout and potentially hunt the area. I knew that turning the tag back in meant waiting another four years at a minimum to draw it again, so I decided to make the most of it.
My first trip to my unit was in late June. I had never spent time in this area so I planned to get familiar with the roads and access. My e-scouting had given me starting points, but it had also made me wonder how concentrated the hunting pressure might be. The overall unit size is plenty big, but the mountains only took up a fraction of the unit. Utah is dry in a normal year, but 2020 had other plans, and we saw extended periods without rain and hot temperatures during the summer. After my first trip out and seeing the country firsthand, I knew that this hunt was likely going to have high pressure from other hunters.
My optimism faded, and I again contemplated turning in the tag. I made a second trip out in July for an overnight trip with my buddy Jarell. We were able to glass a good section of the country and learn some more of the unit. We did not locate any potential target deer, but we did find a couple of water sources for future reference.
My third scouting trip was a quick drive after work to glass for the evening and continue to check into new sections of the unit. I found one canyon that held a good number of deer and finally turned up one buck I would be happy to take if given the opportunity. My final scouting trip occurred a week before the opener. I found a few more deer and another hidden water source but knew that the canyon from the first trip was where I would start my hunt. Of course, my quad started having issues and was running poorly, which was just one more obstacle to deal with. I dropped it off for service, but it wouldn’t be ready for the opener. Luckily, I was able to find an alternative to get me by until mine was fixed.
The mountains are calling, and I must go
The day before the season started, I planned to work until noon and then load up and head out to the unit. My brother Shaun and his son Braxton would join me that evening and spend the first weekend with me. My wife was doing well, so I planned to hunt the first nine days of the season, knowing I could get home in an hour if needed.
Just as I was wrapping up my work for the day, one of my kids came into my office and told me that one of the lights in the living room was “leaking!” I did not have time for this! My wife had just taken a bath so I knew the likely source of the leak. I proceeded to tear off the front of the tub, then cut a giant hole in the ceiling in the living room only to be unable to replicate the leak. I did not have time to further diagnose the issue so I told her to just not use the tub. To add insult to injury, before I left I jumped in the shower, and in the middle of it, she came upstairs to tell me a different light had water dripping from it now. Unfortunately, I would have to deal with it when I got back.
I got out to the area later than intended and my fears of pressure looked to be accurate, as four other camps were set up at the mouth of the canyon. My brother joined in on the bad luck by getting a flat tire on his trailer on the way in. To top it all off, my boss had to inform me that I would not be getting the promotion I had been promised earlier in the year. My morale was low and the hunt hadn’t even started.
Finally, the hunt
Finally, opening morning had come, and we found ourselves in a good glassing spot where we immediately saw deer. Approximately an hour into our glassing, we spotted a good buck a couple of ridges over. We were extremely fortunate to spot this buck as we could only see the top 20 yards of that ridgeline, and he happened to be on top of it. He soon fed down into the canyon and out of sight, so we decided to make the hike up the adjacent canyon to try and get above him and find him in his bed.
We turned up a few of the other bucks we had seen but could not relocate the buck. For the evening we decided to move to a point where we would be able to see up that entire canyon to try and locate him feeding in the evening. The very first deer we set eyes on that evening was that buck and he was way lower on the mountain than where we first spotted him. He was with seven other deer, but he was the only shooter of the group. The deer disappeared into a group of aspens, so we waited to see which side they would come out on, as that would dictate where I might attempt a stalk.
While we waited, two other bucks came over the ridge, quickly moving down the hill. They were not spooked but they had somewhere to be. The canyon bottom had a dirt road but also had a small amount of water running down it. We knew they were headed for the water and decided that was where the big buck was likely headed as well. The deer came out to the right of the aspens and their trajectory suggested we were correct.
I dropped off the hillside, got down to the road, and worked up the canyon to where we expected them to cross. I finally spotted the deer 50-60 yards to my right and soon they were heading my way. The only good shooting lane was the dirt road itself, so I positioned myself on the edge next to some brush and ranged the opening I thought they would come out of. The first deer was a doe. She walked on to the road, stopped, and stared at me. She turned and looked away from me and I drew my bow. The second deer was the big buck and he stopped at the edge of the road. A smaller buck walked in front of him and blocked my shot. When the smaller buck moved to cross the road, the big buck walked out and stopped at 30 yards. The entire time I was drawn back, the only thing I was thinking about was my shot process and executing perfectly. I released the arrow and watched in slow motion as it hit its mark. The buck was down in seconds.
More than a trophy
This buck is my biggest to date, but he represents so much more than a trophy on the wall and meat in the freezer. I went into this hunt expecting it to be very challenging like the mountain of obstacles I had endured throughout the year. I had not prepared the way I planned to, but I persevered and was rewarded for it. We taped my buck at 178” gross with 42” of mass.
It is the lessons I learned from this hunt that are the greatest reward. I am grateful for my friends and brother who helped me with this hunt and my wife for her support of my hunting passion and her example of perseverance.
By Brian Thomas