Effort and diligent preparation lead to amazing results
Big alpine muley bucks have occupied my mind since I was a little kid. It seems the entire world is against the mule deer, yet they still find ways to thrive. Whether dodging hunters and other predators or migrating over 100 miles crossing highways and fences, life for an alpine muley isn’t easy.
It’s a rarity to find an old buck in the high country and even more special to get the opportunity to hunt one. Wyoming’s high country houses some spectacular bucks and every year you hear of at least one true giant that got killed. It always comes back to the popular saying, “Big bucks don’t get big by being stupid.” They are more often found hiding out in a dark canyon, thick timber, an old burn or thick aspen stands in lower elevations trying to avoid relentless hunters.
Although my desire for a world-class buck is immeasurable, hunting and being in the high basins on the mountaintops is something I desire just as much. I often describe my love of the high country in ways that sound almost like a romance. To find a giant old buck where there are rockslides, cliffs, and world-class views would be the pinnacle of hunting alpine muleys. As a tried-and-true mule deer hunter, I never give up on the idea that there is a bigger and older buck somewhere.
Every year I find myself in the mountains searching for big bucks from the end of July until opening day of archery on September 1. I look over as much country as I can and use as much spare time as I have behind glass and in my boots searching for a target buck. I go from drainage to drainage in the off-season until I find the one buck that I will hunt.
Appearing and Disappearing Like Magic
The summer of 2018 was no exception. In 2017, my buddy Kyle found a massive buck that we knew had some amazing potential, but he never harvested him. For the first scouting trip, I decided to go look for him with hopes he made it back to the high country with an even more spectacular rack.
On this scouting trip, I was accompanied by my two best friends and absolute mule deer hunting freaks, Josh and Storie. After spending three days looking for the massive buck, we ended up going into another basin where Kyle and I had seen some good bucks the year before.
As we peeked over the edge and were able to see the basin, I remembered a buck that Kyle and I had seen from a long way away on a smoky morning. The buck had been tucked into some scrub pine below a rockslide. We never got a great look at him but saw that he had matching kickers on his G-3s. He looked like a good buck, but not huge, so we moved on.
I told Josh and Storie about the buck from last year and I began to glass in that direction. Instantly, I picked up two deer. I put my spotting scope up and saw that one was really big, but I couldn’t see details.
The three of us made our way around the basin to a cliff edge to get a better look. This time when we brought out the spotting scopes, we were in complete awe. It was the buck from last year and man did he get huge! He had multiple extras and one was a big, long, split cheater on his left back fork. His back forks were deep and long tined, but what stuck out the most was his width. We estimated that his outside spread was close to 35”. This was by far the biggest buck any of us had ever laid eyes on in the high country.
The three of us sat there all evening drooling over this buck and the beautiful scenery. He was on a rockslide under a 300-foot cliff and offered a beautiful showing the entire evening. Sitting there watching him do what mule deer do was a moment none of us will ever forget.
Knowing each other’s emotions, there was time where it was silent and we just sat there in admiration. Without even thinking about the hunt that would inevitably come, the three of us discussed how amazing it was to be sitting on top of a mountain with the sun setting behind wildfire smoke and being in the presence of a world-class buck that none of us ever thought we would get to see. It was truly an honor and blessing.
Scouting alpine muleys is just as rewarding as hunting them. I love being in the mountains this time of year with my friends, sharing incredible moments watching deer and discovering how small we are and how big God is. I love learning about big cagey bucks - where they live, how they use the landscape, their daily feeding, watering, and bedding patterns.
We named him Big Al, and as the days passed, it quickly became Big Al the Magician. Someone was almost always up there looking for him and learning as much as we could. On the weekends that I couldn’t make it due to work, Storie would run up there and try to keep tabs on him.
In the past, we were accustomed to watching a buck seemingly all day long and learning every habit he had, but with The Magician, we only ever saw him a handful of times. It seemed every trip we made we would only see him for a morning or an evening on the last day up there. We scoured the mountain and used every angle we possibly could, but we had a hard time pinpointing his bedroom. We knew where his house was, but the bedroom he spent most of his time in was obviously in a spot that you couldn’t see from anywhere.
The summer was now winding down and the encounters we did have with him were spectacular. The archery hunt was about to begin.
You Choose Campsites Poorly
We went to the mountain two days before the archery opener to try and locate him and make a plan. However, he never showed himself until the evening before the opener.
Our hopes were high until we started to see the glow of a campfire directly below where the buck appeared. He was literally only a couple hundred yards from the two hunters that had moved into the basin! They had set their camp in the bottom of the basin right next to the water source that the deer were using. I knew with all the activity at their camp that he wouldn’t hang around for long.
My plan for the opening morning was to try and get a good vantage and locate him again. Just as big bucks are so notorious for doing when people appear, The Magician disappeared. We spent the next few days spreading out and covering the mountain from every angle and could never locate him again.
On the third day, the other guys had to go home after the morning hunt to head back to work. Meanwhile, I still had a few days to hunt.
With no new sightings of Big Al, I thought about everywhere we had looked. I knew everything about that mountain…everything but one spot. There was a small east-facing cliff that had some bedding areas above it. This was the only place I hadn’t looked.
Once I made it to where I had a clear view of the cliff, I raised my binos. Instantly, a big deer filled my view. It was him! He was up feeding on the steep slope just above the cliff.
Typically, it’s best to bed a deer before beginning a stalk, but I knew that he was going to bed again and it would likely be just above where he was feeding in a small patch of trees. I had a long way to go before the sun would drop and he would get up and start feeding again. I didn’t want to wait around and let him get up before I got there.
When I got 250 yards from the cliff edge, I took off my backpack and boots. With wind checker and bow in hand, I began my stalk. The arid summer made for a very slow stalk. All the vegetation was dried up and if accidentally stepped on, it could be the end of the stalk.
Finally, I made it as close as I could to the group of trees I thought he would be bedded in. I raised my rangefinder to get a range, and as I was looking through it, a giant rack appeared! The Magician stood up out of his bed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He had no clue I was there and everything I thought would happen so far had.
Just as if God was orchestrating it himself, the buck took a step forward and put his head down behind a bush to feed. I ranged again and dialed my pins. I had been practicing for this moment for years. I had done everything necessary to be in this moment.
I raised my bow, drew, and settled my pin. The world stopped spinning and before I knew it, the explosion from the bow filled the evening air. He pinwheeled straight down the cliff line and out of sight. My shot felt great, but I never saw the arrow hit.
With pure adrenaline coursing through me, I ran to his bed and looked around. I glanced in the direction he ran and couldn’t believe my eyes. There he lay, not 60 yards away! I fell to the ground and was overcome with emotions. I could hardly breathe. I’ve always had a goal of taking a giant deer with my bow in the high country and it had just happened.
After taking pictures, I crawled back up to the top of the mountain where I had phone service and called Josh and Storie. It felt so good to tell them that all of our hard work meant something. I just wished they were there to share that moment.
Storie informed me that he was going to come help me get him out and take pictures of him for me. He took some of the most remarkable pictures, some that really did this amazing buck justice.
The Magician had eluded hunters for years. After taking him, a guy from Idaho sent me pictures of my buck’s sheds. He had been picking up on his property for the past three years. Every year he was magnificent.
When Kyle and I saw him from a long way away in 2017 and didn’t think he was huge, we were very wrong. His set that year went around 210. I learned a very valuable lesson to always get closer and double-check.
However, passing on him last year was a blessing all on its own. He gross scored 224 in velvet and he has a 35-¼” outside spread. I took him during his biggest year.
Thank you to my dad for instilling the love of the hunt in me. Thank you to Josh and Storie for helping me scout and being the best hunting partners a guy could ask for. Good friends are hard to come by. It doesn’t take long for life to teach you that but it’s truly a rarity to find someone who will be there no matter what the call. Thank you to Brian for involving me in The Wyld Company. I can’t wait for what the future holds for us. Most importantly, thank you to my wife, Stasia, for always being there for me and encouraging me to pursue my dreams. I love you.
Originally Published in Western Hunter Magazine Vol 18 Issue 1 Jan/Feb 2019