A crisp, dark night provides pure reflection following a successful hunt.
“Sitting atop a makeshift mattress of fragrant green boughs, I held my palms open to the throbbing red coals and watched dancing sparks rise from the flickering flames and disappear into the night. I closed my eyes and breathed deep, soaking up the perfection of it all…”
There was no wind; my pin was steady. I pulled through the release and snow exploded as the buck lunged forward and disappeared into the trees. I sank to my knees, drew in a deep, ragged breath, and waited for my nerves to unwind. The shot looked perfect, but time would tell...
Two months earlier, I'd been on the same mountain with my wife. The grass and wildflowers had been lush and thick, and the biting bugs had been even thicker. We'd sprinted up the mountain, racing a swarm of mosquitos so dense they'd clogged our airways, making us hack and gag. At the top, we'd hurriedly thrown up the tent, leapt inside, and - thinking we'd escaped - breathed a sigh of relief. We then switched on our headlamps to find the swarm had gotten in behind us. It took an hour to swat the lot.
The next morning, armed with a Thermacell that thankfully gave reprieve from the bugs, I glassed up the buck for the first time. At first, I'd been most interested in his ears. They flopped wildly back and forth like little helicopter props, making him look so goofy I almost laughed. But I knew exactly what he was going through - the bugs were driving him nuts!
He joined up with three other bucks and I quickly forgot about his ears. He stood head and shoulders above the others, and by comparison, it was easy to see his deep chest, swayed back, and sagging gut. His antlers weren't monstrous yet, but they clearly had mass. He was just the kind of old buck I had hoped to find.
Ten weeks later, I was back in the same spot. Summer wildflowers had been replaced by a blanket of snow; the biting bugs by bitter cold. Temperatures on the first night pushed the outer limits of my gear and I did a whole lot of tossing and turning rather than sleeping.
I thawed out with a hot cup of coffee the next morning. Through my spotting scope, I watched a group of bucks meander through a timbered edge at the top of a big basin. At 9 a.m., they disappeared into the timber to bed. Then, just after noon, two of the bucks came back out. I recognized the tall-tined two-point and basket-racked four-point from summer scouting.
They fed halfway across the basin and stopped at a solitary bush in the middle of a big opening. They nibbled at it and rubbed their antlers on it. They then began to spar with each other. After a few minutes, the tall two-point had enough and gave the four-point a big shove. The bucks then continued across the basin and disappeared into a thick pocket of trees.
Soon after, a snowy white-out cloaked the mountain. Thus, my hunt for the day was over.
Throughout the night, I knocked accumulating snow from the walls of my tent. By first light, the weather finally began to let up. Overcast skies started to break up and the sun poked through, lighting up the mountain like a Christmas tree.
A string of four bucks popped out in the big basin. It was the bachelor group from the summer. The floppy-eared old-timer was in the back, looking fat and healthy. His antlers were now very impressive.
The bucks worked their way up the big basin and by 9:30, they had bedded in the same group of trees as the day before. Then, like clockwork, shortly after noon, the basket four-point and tall- two-point came out of the timber. Right behind them followed the big floppy-eared buck.
They moved partway across the basin, stopped at the solitary bush in the middle of the big opening, nibbled at it, rubbed their antlers on it, and then began to spar with each other…again. When they'd had enough, all three bucks turned around and headed back to the patch of trees from which they'd just come. They bedded at the very top edge.
I watched for a while and contemplated my options. The place they'd bedded wasn't a great spot for stalking, and if they stayed there, I'd have no way to sneak close enough for a shot. But, if they got up and moved across the basin to the pocket of trees on the other side - like they had the day before - I might just be able to intercept them. They'd already demonstrated a pretty regular schedule, so I decided it was time for me to make a move.
It took 3.5 hours to work my way up the mountain to the pocket of trees. No tracks were coming out the backside, so I felt confident the bucks hadn't gotten past me. Stalking conditions were perfect - the snow was deep and quiet and there was a steady breeze in my face. Carefully, I slipped into the timber patch.
After 1.5 hours, I'd covered a little more than 100 yards. I thought I heard a grunt, so I strained my ears and trained my eyes in that direction. A few minutes passed. I wondered if I'd just imagined the sound, but then it came again, low and soft; definitely a deer grunt.
Antler tips flashed just beyond the ridge ahead. Then, all three bucks came spilling over the top, single-file, high-stepping, and magnificent. Their hides were frosty-gray - ghostlike in the evening light - and steam billowed in plumes from their snouts. The tall two-point led the string and the big floppy-eared buck was second in line.
They came straight at me. Then, 48 yards out, they took a sudden turn, angling uphill. When the big buck went behind a tree, I yanked on my bowstring. All three bucks stopped, one of them having caught my movement. There was no shot at the big buck; all I could see was his neck and head sticking out from behind the tree. He stared straight at me.
I was sure it was all over, but then he turned and continued uphill. Just before entering a thick clump of trees, he paused.
There was no wind and my pin was steady. I pulled through the release and snow exploded as the buck lunged forward and disappeared into the trees. Then all went dead quiet...
The Perfection of It All
It was nearly dark when I went up to the spot and found my arrow. It was lying right on top of the snow, red from tip to tip. The dappled blood trail was easy to follow. I found the buck 80 yards away, piled up at the edge of a steep, rocky drop-off.
I felt no rush to get to the work ahead. The sky was crystal clear and I had the whole night ahead of me. I sat by the buck's side for a while and just appreciated the moment and his beauty.
His antler bases were knobby and heavy. Mass carried up through long, upturned main beams. In addition to thick, webbed back forks, there was an extra point that kicked inward off his right G-2. His big floppy ears were torn, each in the same place, and his teeth were ground down nearly to the gum line. He was big and old and gnarly - everything I'd hoped for and then some.
I took my time breaking him down, being sure to make good clean cuts, and then setting the meat out on the snow to cool. It was dead calm out, brittle cold, and because of no moon, pitch black. The beam of my headlamp and the stars overhead that blinked like little shards of twinkling glass were the only exceptions.
It was too steep and dangerous to attempt a pack out in the dark, so I moved the meat and antlers upslope from the carcass and into a thick little thicket of trees. I broke a big pile of limbs from an old dead tree and got a fire going.
Sitting atop a makeshift mattress of fragrant green boughs, I held my palms open to the throbbing red coals and watched dancing sparks rise from the flickering flames and disappear into the night. I closed my eyes and breathed deep, soaking up the perfection of it all: the chill of the night; the warmth of the fire; the ache and tiredness of my body; and the satisfaction of a successful hunt - my first buck with bow and arrow.
David Burgess, Idaho, 2017