A journey of a lifetime…and then some

It’s hard for me to decide which I like more – massive, deep-forked mulies or the hunters back in the old days who pursued them. I’m equally as drawn to a big non-typical mule deer rack as I am to an old-time hunting photo of someone in an old red velvet crusher and blue jeans holding a big buck, a vintage .30-30 and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Perhaps a classic Willys jeep or an old Tote Gote motorcycle somewhere within the frame might complete the perfect ensemble.

The hunters of that era were truly hardy. Most never had a pack, unless it was a crude old government or military pack board, and few even packed any water. Most times, they simply strapped an old fixed-blade knife to their belt, put a candy bar in their shirt pocket, laced up the old work boots, and set out after meat and adventure.

There were no boot dryers for their uninsulated leather boots; only campfires or woodstoves. There were no ballistic turrets; it was open sights or at best a simple 4x scope. There weren’t any trail cameras, and honestly, the entire concept of “scouting” was foreign.

Those who like gadgets and technology might say hunting is better today. Hunting purists might argue the opposite. I’m not saying it was better or worse back then, but there’s no doubt it was different.

As someone who has spent a large amount of time researching mule deer hunting history for both work and hobby, I have to say that my passion goes far beyond just big antlers and vintage photos. The hunters of that era had a real charm to them. I’ve interviewed thousands of them over the years, and almost without exception, they were/are a genuinely happy lot, with great charisma and social skills. Almost all of them experienced the Great Depression, lived through World War II, and epitomized all that was truly special about the Greatest Generation. Mostly unassuming and always with a welcoming smile, they were truly a special bunch.

Born That Way

From an early age – long before I was able to hunt – I was instinctively drawn to mule deer. Something about their solitary nature, choice of habitat, and ever-unique headgear drew me in like a moth to a flame. No one forced it on me and I really can’t explain it. It was just there, and it was strong in me.

I’d like to think that my own hunting life experiences mirror what many hardcore mule deer hunters in the West have lived. I came from simple roots, growing up in a small hunting town in the mountains of central Idaho. Mule deer were a staple of our hunting efforts. It quickly became a major part of who I am; my identity.

Perhaps where my heritage might be more unique than most, though, are the generations of my family that preceded me in similar efforts. When I was younger, I thought I was pioneering my own path. However, the older I got and the more I learned – both about hunting and my own family – the more I realized that path had been laid down over many generations. I was simply retracing many family hunting trails, with the same eager mind and relentless pursuit as my own family before me.

But when did it start and where do I fit into it? Was it 1869 when my family first arrived where I live? Or 1984 when I could finally hunt for myself? Is it living and hunting in the present, or about those who came before me? Or those who will hopefully come after? Is it about me? Or is it simply an honor to have been a part of the process; to have been able to take part in something as special as hunting for mule deer in rugged backcountry places? Back when I was a kid, these questions never existed, but as I think about my place in it, I think it’s all of the above.

Seven Generations of Mule Deer Hunters

My family first settled in central Idaho in 1869 when my great-great-great-great-grandfather Marvin Kilborn moved from the promised land of western Oregon to some mostly unsettled ground in a mountain valley in Idaho. I can’t help but wonder what he saw, witnessing the last of the Indians and plowing virgin soil. Did he ever see a grizzly here before they were eradicated? Did he ever see a giant mule deer in an era when mature bucks were commonplace?

Another branch of my family settled in the same area in 1916. Harry and Rosa Purnel and their large young family made it there by pushing a Model T up and over some of the extreme travelways of the time to get there. He died long before I was born, but I have a photo of him and several other men on a hunt near my hometown in 1927. He’s holding a yearling buck, and several other deer are shown as well – a truly successful hunt in a time when not a lot of mule deer were to be found due to a few decades of heavy subsistence hunting.

The author’s great-great grandpa, Harry Purnel (far left), holds a small mule deer buck following a successful hunting trip with friends in 1927.

I look at that photo with all my local expertise of exploring that same country and try to pick apart where they might have been. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve hiked the same ridge where he downed that little meat buck.
Yet another branch of my family – and perhaps the lineage where the “hunting gene” is the strongest – is the Daniels family. My great-grandpa, Lewis Daniels, was a well-respected man. He was a leader; a tough man who did many things reflective of that gritty era of the Great Depression. At one point, as the first federally appointed game warden in eastern Idaho, he was paid to patrol the Idaho-Wyoming line on snowshoes, apprehending elk poachers in efforts to let the elk population grow.

The author’s great-grandpa, Lewis Daniels (right), holds up a 28-point buck he took during a hunt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in 1922.

In 1922, he and some like-minded friends of adventurous spirit went on a remote expedition into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. While on that hunt, he killed a giant mule deer (a 28-point buck according to his own writing on the photo). They also took mountain goats on over-the-counter tags (yes, you could just go buy a mountain goat tag and go hunting back then). I’d give anything to see that big buck rack and to know what happened to it, but as was the way of that era of hunters, it slipped away, likely gone forever.

The Daniels side of my family, from Lewis all the way down to me, were all true explorers. Perhaps where this was the most prominent was my great-uncle and Lewis’ son, Henry “Hank” Daniels. Any spare moment would find him exploring a new jeep trail, working a job that would land him in the mountains, or chasing anything from big ol’ bucks to waterfowl.

Hank had a keen wit and adventurous spirit, and was fortunate to live in the golden era of mule deer hunting in Idaho – the 1950s through the 1970s. Hank’s ability to zero in on big bucks was legendary locally. He had amazing intuition about the instincts of big mule deer and how to work them to his advantage. He also set out on occasion specifically to kill a big buck, which was not as common back then.

As such, it’s an interesting coincidence that a favorite story he would tell was hooking up with my great-grandfather Albert Kilborn (from a branch of my family mentioned earlier) simply because Albert had one of the first four-wheel-drive jeeps to be found in the region. It didn’t take Hank long to see the value of such a setup for hunting late-season bucks at a time when deep snows discouraged other hunters.

From my mid-teen years – roughly the same time when the “mule deer hunting gene” really began to express itself intently – I was drawn to Hank. Hank had a way of drawing people to him anyway. A charismatic man with everything but a serious answer, he always had a way of commanding the room. He was also a natural at most everything he tried. He built his own house, was an accomplished self-taught wildlife artist, a woodworker, and plenty of other things; but the thing that caught hold of me the most was his hunting prowess and ability to tell a story.

Ed Martin’s giant Idaho non-typical, taken on a hunt with the author’s great-uncle, Henry “Hank” Daniels in 1966, is the largest mule deer ever taken by a hunter in that area.

Back in the day, Hank was a big buck magnet. He and his M1 Garand .30-06 with the quick-loading 8-shot clips were a lethal combination. In fact, he and his partners were so good that they took several B&C-class mule deer – as many or more truly giant bucks than anyone I know.

In 1966, Hank and his hunting partner, Ed Martin, drove out in mid-November to a likely hunting spot and found two sets of tracks in the snow. Both were huge bucks, and each man followed a different set after they split up. Hank wasn’t able to take the buck he was after, but Ed found the mother lode. At the other end of that set of tracks was a 279-5/8 B&C non-typical giant – a thick-necked, roman-nosed monster with Coke-can-thick bases, 35 points, and nearly 40 inches wide. A true pioneer of his era, Hank even got the buck on film – perhaps the biggest buck ever filmed in that era.
One year later, in 1967, Hank was at it again. He and his brother-in-law, my great-uncle Ferd Muller, along with another friend, Harold Whitaker, were hunting a mule deer rutting area. Spaced 50 yards apart, the men were pushing a draw when a heavy, deep-forked non-typical jumped up. Ferd fired quickly and knocked the buck down, but only stunned it by hitting it in the antler. Hank followed up by killing the buck. It was a massive buck that would later be scored at 238-3/8 B&C.

In 1975, Hank was at it again. He had his 11-year-old son, James with him. Still too young to pack a rifle, James was there to watch and learn – and learn he did. There were several men in the hunting party, and they were spaced somewhat equally apart in some lower foothills country, making a deer drive through the sagebrush.

Hank’s instincts told him that if there was a big buck there, it would likely hunker down until the marching line of hunters had passed and then sneak out on their backtrail.

On that hunch, Hank pulled up and waited, long past when everyone else had gone. As young James grew impatient and seemed more interested in throwing rocks, Hank kept his steely gaze where it needed to be. Sometime later, a buck with crazy antlers appeared like a ghost, head low to the ground as it weaved its way through the sage, doing exactly as Hank had pictured.

Hank’s 43-point buck, complete with roman nose, thick neck, and assorted scars, was taken with an M1 Garand in low sagebrush foothills.

When the dust settled, Hank had another monster mule deer on the ground. This jaw-dropper had ultra-heavy bases, with so many points they were nearly impossible to count. When it was officially scored at 249-2/8 B&C, it was determined the buck had 43 scoreable points – the most ever recorded on any deer in Idaho history.

Hank, who was also a meatcutter and familiar with the finer observations of a carcass, noted that this old warrior had been through the wringer. The buck had a healed-over bullet wound across the top of his rump, another through his neck (signified by white dots on each side of his neck), and at some point the deer had also actually taken a load of buckshot in the face. There’s no doubt when looking at the photo of that deer, with the big roman nose and scar on his neck, that this was a true grizzled veteran.

Sadly for me, Hank’s big buck hunting days were over by the time I was old enough to hunt. He had long since figured out that cow elk tasted a whole lot better than rutting mule deer, so he had little interest in resurrecting that part of his hunting legacy, even as I was chomping at the bit for it. I had to settle for tagging along on his cow hunts, still eager to spend time with him and still hanging on his every word. He was a special man who lived and hunted in a special era, and I’ll always be envious of that.

The author’s dad, Rusty Hatfield (right), surveys the scene following a successful hunt for a big buck circa 1969.

A Domino Effect Changes Everything

In some ways, even though it wasn’t intentional, Hank had a huge impact on many things that happened in my life. In the early 1990s, Hank sold those two huge mule deer to an antler collector. He needed money for some home improvements and since the antlers were more novelty than treasure to him, he let them go. I was devastated when I found out.

However, that simple act set in motion a domino effect. It got me thinking about those big bucks and all the history that went with them, so I interviewed him and wrote down his stories, more for myself than anything.

After I had them documented, it led me to think about Howard Paradis, Clarke Childers, Ed Martin, Roy Eastlick, and many others around my hometown who had taken big bucks back in the old days and whose names were listed in the record books that I had memorized. Those men were all in their 60s or 70s by then, and all that history was in danger of slipping away.

It ultimately led me to write a book called Idaho’s Greatest Mule Deer, a 400-page hardcover book that preserved a huge amount of history surrounding many of the biggest mule deer ever taken there. To this day, it remains one of the things in my life of which I’m most proud. Many of the hunters featured are gone now, but to have been able to talk with each of them and hear those special stories from their own mouths was truly special, and I’m grateful.

Those dominoes continued when the writing of that book led me to be offered a job as Boone and Crockett Club’s Assistant Director of Big Game Records, working with and for the great Jack Reneau. Side note: the man who hired me was then-Executive Director of B&C, George Bettas, who now serves as our own Hunting & Conservation Editor for WHM.

That move also led me to my wife, my children, and ultimately to my current career, where I serve as this magazine’s Editor. For me, it’s my chance to be a true steward of the hunt; to protect it and present it in a respectful way and hopefully help steer it in a better direction. All this because of my love for mule deer and a simple act of a hero of mine selling his mule deer antlers – a hunter’s “butterfly flapping its wings”, if you will.
On another side note, which I will say with a big smile, those two big non-typicals that Uncle Hank sold now reside on my wall, where I consider it an honor to be their caretaker.

Following Familiar Footsteps While Chasing My Own Dreams

When I think back to all these hunts in my family over so many decades – nearly all in the exact same country – it makes me think of many things. How many hundreds of miles have I hiked and canyons have I glassed that my own family before me also hunted? What did they see on those treks?
It’s also interesting to see how each generation in my family seems to mirror some of the common themes of the day. With my great-grandpa Lewis Daniels, it was the old .30-40 Krag and some high lace-up boots, exploring his home state.

With his son, my great-uncle Hank, it was the M1 Garand leftover from WWII and an occasional leaning toward specifically hunting for big bucks.
My dad hunted with the standard Remington .30-06, and had the advantage of four-wheel drives.

Now it trickles down to me – a more hardcore backpack hunter with a .300 Win.-mag; a hunter who applies for tags in multiple states with hopes of hunting big mulies in other historic destination areas in addition to my home state of Idaho.

In some ways, I feel like an island; as though this love for hunting big, solitary mule deer all started and ended with just what I’ve done and known. Yet there is the proof, in things I’ve seen and other things I’ll never see or know, that my own family laid that foundation long before I ever existed. It’s a dizzying and intriguing thought; a thought that crosses my mind more often as I get older.

Taken along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, the author’s 2008 buck was a true trophy.

When I first started hunting mule deer, all I had was “the itch” and the good fortune of close proximity to good hunting. I spent incalculable hours and days hiking along hoping to find a big buck – a trophy mule deer like one would see in Outdoor Life back then. I’d never seen a buck like that, but I knew they must exist, because they were there in photos and on my own family’s walls. I plastered my bedroom wall with big buck photos as my internal fire grew.

From an eager but ignorant teen to the man I’ve become today, I’m somewhat proud to say that the fire hasn’t waned. To the contrary, it’s as intense as ever. I’ve gotten older and wiser. I’m now a legitimate threat to even the savviest of big mule deer. I’m at that stage where my overall knowledge and physical ability are still strong, and my ability to strategize and decipher information is great. Yet I also live in an information age and competitive era where it becomes more and more difficult to fasten a tag to such a grand prize.

Perhaps my best trait, though, is my hunter’s resolve – the ability to see each day as a fresh, clean slate where that big mule deer I seek so desperately could be right in front of me. It’s the ability to wash away day after day after day of defeat; to wake up each morning at a ridiculous hour and put my body in treacherous terrain and circumstance; to suffer greatly both physically and emotionally, time and time again, with the dream that today might be that day; the day I find “the one”.

However, perhaps defining the success of the hunt that way is ultimately a disservice to the hunt itself. I’ve actually been fairly fortunate. I’ve taken a fine collection of big mule deer in my time.

In 2008, I was fortunate enough to take a fine 30-inch mature buck on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. The Front is a grand and historic mule deer area full of giant rock reefs and grizzlies.

The next year I took my largest buck to date – a 34-inch, 200-class monster buck in the famed high country of western Wyoming. Truth be told, I probably didn’t deserve that buck. He simply walked out in the open and I shot him. I’d like to think that it was a gift for all my effort and suffering over the years and for bucks I perhaps did deserve that simply got away.

A classic Wyoming trophy mulie taken on a high country backpack hunt in exceptionally rugged terrain in 2012. This type of hunt, which tests the mettle of even the best hunter, is the type of hunt the author prefers. This hunt was featured on the TV show, The Western Hunter.v

Three years later, I took another fine buck in Wyoming on a grueling backpack hunt in steep country at 10,000 feet. That hunt tested my resolve physically, but the end result was a fantastic dark-antlered typical that just missed B&C.

I’ve also been fortunate to take several tremendous bucks in my home state of Idaho – too many to list here – that all occupy special places on my wall and in my mind.

Ultimately, the question arises though. What if? What if I never accomplish my own dream of taking a true B&C non-typical like Hank did? Will I have failed? Will the disappointment sting after my body gives out and I’m left with nothing but photo albums of past hunts? Resoundingly and emphatically, I must say, “No!”

Why? Because to have hunted mule deer at all is to have truly lived. To think of each day that tested my mettle, or to think of each view I witnessed, or every memory I made along the way with friends and family is priceless. Hunting mule deer – for a true public land mule deer hunter – is about a special journey. It’s a journey laced with views of high mountain basins, the smells of sage and pine sap, the feeling of extreme cold and burning legs, of lungs begging for air, and a lifetime of sweat equity. Taking a big buck is truly nothing more than the icing on an already perfect cake.

This fall comes a new step in my progression; the one I’ve really been waiting for. This fall, my ten-year-old son will have his first deer tag in his pocket. This milestone forever changes the focus of my journey from my own efforts to helping my children with theirs. His own journey will now begin, with some initial guidance from my own experience and perspective. Hopefully it will send him down a good path; a path that starts with me, but it’s one he will finish on his own.

This article was originally written as a special chapter in Boone and Crockett Club’s book, “A Mule Deer Retrospective”, available at www.boone-crockett.org. It has been slightly refreshed for this version as it appears now.