Picture Perfect - Justin Davis
"All the stalks that go wrong make the ones that go right just that much sweeter."
Justin Davis, Colorado, 2017.
I peered at the buck through the spotter as he fed with his ten buddies in the high alpine basin. It was the evening before opening day of the Colorado archery season and I couldn’t help but feel excited as I dreamed of getting a crack at the big kicker buck the following morning. This is what I had waited for all year long. Still, I knew the reality of hunting a specific buck and the things that could go wrong when doing so.
I think we’ve all been there as hunters. You dream of locating that great animal; that everything goes perfect; and that you come home with a great trophy. We all dream about it, but the very rarely does everything go as planned. More times than not, the buck you’re watching vanishes, or other hunters get in the way, or you make a mistake, etc. That’s the fun and challenge of hunting and the reason we keep coming back for more. It’s the ultimate game of chess.
I sat on the breezy knob with a great mule deer hunter and family member, Greg East. As we watched the buck feeding, we joked about the anticipation for the next morning and how stressful hunting can be at times. Maybe we were better off with a different passion, like playing video games.
We both agreed on a couple of things that we were surely going to happen. First, we would encounter hunting pressure of some kind. Second, that large group of deer - with all those eyes and noses - would make getting within range very difficult.
I couldn’t help but think back to another hunt in a different part of the state when I also watched a big muley the day before the season. I daydreamed of the perfect stalk and killing that big buck the following morning, but it was short-lived when other hunters showed up the night before the season. They hiked past me to camp closer to the basin where the buck lived.
Things got a little bizarre the next morning when they followed and sat 20 feet behind me, glassing over my shoulder at what I was looking at, and then proceeding to say they saw the big buck first. Being the nice guy I am, I let them have first stalk and they blew the buck out of the basin. Lesson learned; being the nice guy can cost you big bucks.
Located and Bedded
Opening morning arrived, and as the sky began to lighten, we glassed for the kicker buck. We glassed the basin the deer had been in the previous evening - the same place the buck had spent most of his time.
Greg quickly located the big bachelor group feeding higher up on the mountain than where we had left them the night before. Before we could even get to dissecting the group and locating the kicker buck, I happened to glass a different hillside for some reason and spotted a big buck trotting off the skyline. I quickly recognized him as the buck we were after. For some unknown reason, the buck had left his running mates during the night.
He trotted off the skyline and downhill, appearing very nervous. Greg and I laughed at the situation. This couldn’t be playing out any better in our favor. We also were relieved that, from what we could tell, there was no one else going after the buck.
The buck was heading toward tree line, and we were betting that he would go into the trees and bed down. However, to our surprise, he stopped short and started feeding. Things were going too perfect!
Over the next few hours, the squirrelly buck proceeded to feed and bed…and then change beds three different times. The entire time he appeared to be nervous, like he knew he was being watched. Finally, he entered a patch of krummholz and disappeared. We hoped he would stay put for a few hours.
Greg set up in a different position to keep an eye on the patch of trees hiding the buck. Meanwhile, I made a large loop around the mountain to get to my stalking route.
Traversing a scree field on the backside of the ridge, I soon found that the wind direction was unfavorable. I hustled as fast as I could across the scree field, just hoping I wouldn’t trip and take a digger. With the wind going a different direction than what I had planned for, I was forced to take a different route to get to the buck.
With the help of some signals from Greg, I finally managed to tiptoe inch by inch and get within 40 yards of where the buck had disappeared into the thicket. I couldn’t see him, so my only hope for a shot with the wind direction was to wait near where he entered the thicket. The wind somehow miraculously stayed in my favor. There were several times I was convinced it was going to switch, making for a real nail-biter.
Three hours later, after dealing with plenty of anticipation and sunburned skin, I caught movement through the branches. It was a flash of velvet antler as the buck got up from his bed. Just like that it was go time!
He slowly moved back out of the thicket, taking the same path he went in on. His body language showed the extreme cautiousness a buck his size often displays. He then peered uphill through the branches in my direction. I was positioned very still with bow in hand. A couple more steps is all I needed him to take.
In what felt like a blur, my arrow was on its way, covering the 38 yards in a split-second. The big buck turned, and death sprinted before tumbling down the hill. Somehow, despite the tumble, none of the velvet was torn up on his antlers.
In the end, everything went just like we always plan for it to happen, though it rarely does. From the buck itself, to the stalk, to the end result, it was picture perfect!