In September of 2012, I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.
Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just out of bow range while scanning for danger below. I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. His head jerked left, then right, simultaneously assessing the danger and planning his best escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature! Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.
Nothing to do now; no point following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could I ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.
I just spent the last few days prowling around Idaho and still haven’t seen any decent bucks. Days are ruthlessly hot and dry, and nights are freezing, which is probably why I languish ahead with a painful head cold. My first step out of the dusty camp and my legs are sore with disease; my joints hurt, my muscles ache, my head throbs.
Foreign lands and no deer sign yet, but this remote valley looks promising. I’m headed toward the dark, north-face timber where I may get some reprieve from the glaring sun. But the route is thick with shrubs, oak brush, and cedars. Endless branches grasp at my body, tripping me and shoving me back down the steep slope.
I stop frequently to mop pouring sweat from my forehead with my camo cap. I’m still wearing the same stinky outfit I’ve donned for three days. Wind is my best ally, and my worst enemy. There’s no point trying to be quiet. I just need a vantage to glass from. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up; just following my nose and reading sign.
Moments ago something crawled across my neck. I swiped at it and monstrous orange spider fell to the ground. But I won’t be dissuaded. This is what I live for; it’s all I know. Only a year ago my arrow sailed over the biggest velvet buck I ever shot at. He’s long since vanished now, which is why I’m here in Idaho. Redemption. New woods and new hope. I push onward.
Long since out of tissue, both my nostrils drain continuously, leaving a slimy trail of moisture everywhere I go, likely the only moisture this forest has seen in months. Finally some tracks, but small. I follow to see where they lead. Maybe I’ll strap on my release; I hope I brought it. Just yesterday I was hiking in grizzly country when halfway up the mountain I realized I’d forgotten to load my arrows into my quiver. Stupid head cold!
My life has been various attempts at various activities, but bowhunting has been my one true passion, and better yet, the only thing I’m really good at. But here and now, it’s hard to tell. My brain is gripped with pressure, my body is weak. I push on because I know nothing else.
In the pines a squirrel fires up, barking relentlessly, giving away my position. I always carry a squirrel arrow, but it’s all for not; there’s always another squirrel, and the biggest bucks are always in the dark timber with them. During a heavy wind last year, I stumbled upon a giant 4×4 buck bedded in a patch of thick blowdowns. Before I could even pull an arrow, a squirrel fired up alerting the buck who quickly rose from his bed and melted away into the forest.
I try to imagine heavy horns moving through the brush, and then my arrow carrying cold steel through its chest cavity. The only way I win is if I wreak maximum carnage on an innocent, unsuspecting deer. I wince at the thought. Will I ever turn away from this bloody pursuit? Likely not, because life outside the woods has little appeal to me, and even less venison. A predator must eat.
At this time I’d like to formally apologize to my faithful and finely crafted compound bow which I’m currently dragging through an almost indescribable tangled hell. Only five years old and it’s already covered in battle scars; scratches, dents and dings. Sure it’s seen some fine moments, but this year it’s just a hiking companion. Its one moment of glory is a dirty coyote I sniped near camp in Utah.
After weed-whacking for hours I’ve arrived at a fantastic rock outcropping with views of the entire valley. Only an hour-and-a-half of shooting light and still no deer. I glass empty draw after empty draw, stacked in vertical rows below the summit. I want to underestimate the mighty buck; I try to convince myself that he’s just another dumb animal eating and sleeping his life away. But I know better. He’s an ingenious survivor, evading predators year after year with very little effort and hardly a conscious thought. How is that possible? A hunter, no matter his experience, goes to his grave having merely scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these amazing survivors. Outsmarting him is the greatest challenge, and I suppose this relentless pursuit is why it never gets old.
The rest of my first Idaho excursion was nothing short of a grim letdown. The once promised land is mostly bleak, ravaged by human intrusions, just like Utah. ATVs and trash litter the landscape and the woods are devoid of huntable game. Big bucks live short lives hidden away in dark holes far removed from human access.
The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:
During the 2015 Utah bowhunt I came across a tremendous 200”+ typical mule deer buck which I called Monsterbuck. At our first meeting, he caught me by surprise. Shaking like a newbie-hunter with buck fever, I promptly sailed an arrow over his back at 50 yards. Later in the season I filmed him at 200 yards on an open hillside. He was in an unstalkable location and surrounded by three other deer, so I let him walk, hoping to get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans. Like many big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.
I promised myself not to obsess over this buck; it’s just too much pressure to bring into the woods. Apparently obsession is not a decision because that amazing buck crept into my mind every day for an entire year! I carried a picture of Monsterbuck around in my planner and reviewed the 2015 video footage often. Needless to say, I went into this year’s bowhunt with high hopes.
About a month before the season opener, I scouted for the Monsterbuck but couldn’t turn him up. No sweat, I thought, he’s a smart buck and will take a little more time to locate. Opening day was hot and dry, but I was brimming with hope and buzzing with energy. I picked up exactly where I left off last year. Right away I spotted a few forked-horns, but no Monsterbuck. I spent the rest of the day ghosting through thick timber and side-hilling steep slopes without rest. I never covered so much vertical ground in one day. I scoured the ground everywhere I went, but couldn’t find a single heavy-footed track. The evening hunt had me staring dejectedly at the same hillsides where the Monsterbuck had lived, but now completely devoid of deer.
And so went the next day, and the next. Eventually I moved camp low and worked upwards. Then north to south, and south to north, but still no Monsterbuck. For two weeks I clambered all over the beautiful and deerless mountains of Northern Utah. Morning, noon, and night I pondered where the Monsterbuck could be hiding, but turned up nothing.
Strangely enough, not only was the Monsterbuck missing, but so were seven other 4×4-or-bigger bucks I’d seen last year. At this point I was ready to take any mature buck, but all I could find were little ones. The best opportunity I had was a little 3-point buck that bounced into an opening at 20 yards and stared at me. I shooed him away and continued my fruitless search for something better.
By the third week I concluded that Monsterbuck had either, a) been killed by a hunter, lion, or poacher or b) had moved to another part of the unit, likely due to increased human pressure in the area. All I knew for sure was that the DWR had issued a bunch more tags for my unit, as evidenced by a notable increase in human traffic in the area. And if there’s one thing big bucks hate more than anything, it’s people pressure.
With less than two weeks left in the season, I was beyond dejected; I was mortified! I love bowhunting than anything, and to see it turn south so quickly was unfathomable. Each night I dreamed I was on the trail of the Monsterbuck, but he always stayed just out of sight. By day, I sat in the woods wondering if I was stuck in a nightmare; that any second I might wake to a more believable reality. Or maybe I was just a lousy hunter. Perhaps I’d just been lucky all these years and had been deluding myself until now. As more days passed, my hunting journal became a dark place in which to vent my frustrations. Something had to change…
Midday, halfway through the third week, while trudging across the empty landscape, it hit me: I had a valid Idaho hunting license left over from my spring bear hunt. I stormed back to camp, threw everything in the truck, and headed to Idaho. Having never actually hunted deer in Idaho, I went home first and collected some maps and some notes I’d gotten from an Idaho Fish & Game officer at the hunting expo.
My first morning in Central Idaho was memorable, not because I saw deer, but because I woke up to a terrible head cold. For the next three days I stumbled around strange mountainsides, sore and coughing while my nose drained continuously onto the dry forest floor. The first unit I visited was a bust—too open and too few deer. The next unit was heavily forested, but full of other hunters and very little game. The third unit was a little more promising, but just as I began to scare up some deer, my truck broke down and I barely made it off the mountain.
The Utah deer hunt soon came to an end, and with only four days left in the Idaho season I headed out for one last attempt. In reviewing my first Idaho adventure, I concluded that the biggest threat to success was people! Going in, I had the common misconception that Idaho was a vast wilderness full of game and opportunity. Not the case. It’s just like Utah: People everywhere, hunting, hiking, camping, and driving ATVs up and down every dirt road. As long as there’s an open road you won’t find a buck anywhere near it. This is why my Utah hunt failed. In order to avoid getting “peopled” again, I broke out my map of the unit and found the one point farthest away from any city, road, or trail. My hunt wouldn’t begin until I covered two miles of steep mountains early the next morning.
It was a rough night. Instead of drifting into peaceful slumber, I lay awake staring at the tent ceiling and thinking about the colossal disappointment the season had become. My unhealthy obsession with the absentee Monsterbuck had transformed a normally magical hunt into a desperate flail across a dreary landscape. I fell asleep counting the innumerable disappointments of the last several weeks.
On September 27th I woke long before the sun and headed up the steep and wooded ridge that separated me from solitude. I trudged like a man possessed, as if fleeing an oppressive regime and longing for new lands. As I approached the ridge top, deer began popping up on the horizon, first some does, then a small band of bucks. I continued on.
The sun finally broke the horizon, splashing light across a blanket of fresh snow splotched with golden aspen leaves. Pines glistened with melting frost as steam rose lazily from dark logs. Birds flitted about. An elk fired up in the canyon below. Deer tracks crisscrossed the forest floor, increasing in number as I went. The woods pulled me forward, upward, effortlessly. I felt like I was coming home after a long hiatus.
Nearer to the top, a group of large buck tracks appeared in the snow. They were fresh and meandering, so I sat on a log and listened. I was ready to take a buck—any old buck. I just wanted to hunt for myself, and for food, with no pressure to succeed, no worries about inches and scores.
A short time later there was a clacking of antlers and scuffle in the forest. I crept closer. Two bucks pushed and shoved each other with occasional flashes of fur and legs visible in the trees. I pulled an arrow and moved closer. Morning thermals began to swirl. Just as I was closing in, a breeze hit me in the back. I froze. Moments later the bucks bounded away, up and over the mountain. Oh well, I was going that direction anyway. It was still a wonderful opportunity.
The sun had been up for some time when I finally crested the ridge and dropped into the thick pines on the shadow side of the mountain. I had officially arrived at the farthest point from the human pile and was brimming with hope. There was really only one good corridor through the tangled briar and pines, and judging by the abundance of game tracks in the area, the deer used this route too.
After traveling a ways, my stomach grumbled. I sat down on a huge deadfall log and snacked on trail mix while pondering these new woods. Eventually I fished out my hunting journal and scribbled a short note about hope and opportunity, the only positive words the book had seen in some time. My contentment was short-lived, however, when a swishing sound erupted in the trees ahead. I whipped around to see antler tips poking slowly through the tangle. In one motion, I snatched up my bow and slid off the backside of the log onto my knees. Smoothly and mechanically I knocked an arrow and clamped my release to the string. I crouched low and stared fixedly ahead like a lion.
Ten yards and closing, the buck’s big, blocky, horse-like head appeared with tall, heavy antlers extending upwards into the canopy. Lazily, he angled down towards the game trail I had just been on. When his head disappeared behind a clump of trees, I drew my bow. He stopped. My heart pounded wildly, my eyes protruded from my skull, glaring through the bowstring. Time slowed down.
The buck remained motionless, hidden behind the trees just a few steps away. Did he hear me draw, I wondered? A minute passes. My muscles start to fatigue and my arms begin to shake. Another minute passes. He knows something isn’t right. I beg my arms to hold, but the bow finally collapses, yanking my trembling arm forward.
Looking to completely ruin my day, the buck immediately starts walking again. With all my might, I crank the bow back again. His head appears just five yards away, then his shoulder. My eyes, strained and blurry, fight to settle the pin as it dances all over the place. My release triggers and the arrow flies; it flies clean over the buck’s back and my heart sinks into my stomach.
The buck bounds into the next opening just seven yards away and looks back. Crouching lower I pull another arrow and load it as quickly and smoothly as I can. He’s still there, muscles taut, ready to blast out of my life forever. I can’t watch. My eyes squeeze shut as I draw the bow once more. When the string touches my nose, my eyes flash open. He’s still there and my second arrow is on the way.
Success has taken on a new meaning for me now. Many nights of delicious venison backstraps have passed while trying to figure out how to tell the story of my tall-antlered Idaho buck. Is it a story of a failed Monsterbuck hunt, or is the miraculous success of an incredibly short hunt in new lands? Perhaps neither. I think it’s really a story of self-examination, of finding my true passion again.
As a hunter I’ve come full circle. Long ago I just wanted a deer—any deer—with my bow. It seemed like such an impossible task back then, and sometimes still does. These days are spent tirelessly chasing 200-inch monsters around the hills. But this “trophy hunting” has lost some of its magic. In trying to prove myself, I’ve gradually reduced my greatest passion down to inches and strategy. My once insatiable love for the woods feels more like work now. Perhaps it’s time to hunt for the love of hunting again… We’ll see. All I know for sure is that I keep relearning the same lessons I’ve been learning all along: That success is so much more than just killing a deer. Success really lies in the journey. Success comes from pushing yourself to your physical and spiritual limits, and then letting nature take over from there.
This story, then, is a simple one to tell: One man, one mountain, one morning, and a second chance.
The following is my 2016 Idaho bear hunt story. I hope you enjoy it!
The skies were dark and a steady cold rain soaked the steep mountainside. A big chocolate phase black bear was barely visible feeding in the dense brush forty yards below me. After ranging him several times and unable to make out his vitals, I knew I’d have to get closer. Any apprehension I had about getting close to dangerous predators was suddenly gone. I eased into thirty yards and nocked an arrow. The bear sat on his rump facing away from me. My eyes were locked onto him as I crept closer. I ranged him again at twenty yards. Close enough, I thought, wait for him to turn. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Something had to happen.
I don’t remember exactly when it started, but several years ago I felt compelled to challenge my bowhunting abilities by pursuing dangerous game with a bow. I suppose this is the natural progression of any serious bowhunter, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t completely confident I had what it takes. I would often play out the stalk in my mind, but when it came to getting close I always felt a tinge of panic. I knew that a bad hit could turn deadly, and so getting well within bow range would be the ultimate test of grit.
This year I miraculously drew an any weapon Idaho controlled bear tag with less than 1 in 40 odds. Like many hunters today, I read and reread the word Successful on the postcard, thinking there must be a mistake. It was hard to believe that a quality bear hunt was on the horizon. Back in 2012 I bought an OTC tag and took a kamikaze trip to Idaho looking for bruins. It was a complete failure. At no time did I feel remotely close to one of these elusive animals. I had much to learn. Now, with my hunt just a month away, I knew almost nothing about hunting bears.
The unit I drew is actually two large units, neither of which I’d ever seen before. The hunt spans the entirety of April and most of May, so there would be plenty of time to learn the area. In March I contacted the biologist for the region. All I really wanted was a starting point. Unfortunately, the information she gave me was pretty vague. When I asked about concentrations of bears, she said they were scattered evenly throughout the area. However, the northernmost unit had historically better harvest statistics, so that’s where I would begin my search. She also mentioned that it was a heavy snow year, so the best strategy was to avoid the first week of April to allow time for the bears to emerge from their dens. By the last week of April, all the bears should be out and feeding heavily on green shoots just below snow line.
My plan was to hunt the second week of April alone. Mostly I’d be looking for road access and bear sign throughout the unit. If that trip failed, I would return the last week of April with my wife, Esther, for a week-long excursion. I must admit that I felt much more comfortable having a “gunner” with me in case I got into trouble. Needless to say, my first trip was one of apprehension. In the meantime I dug around for more information online and was fortunate to find a few good starting points. I also read everything I could about hunting black bears. Some of the best information came from Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal. Years ago I began clipping and saving some highly informative articles written by Guy Eastman and the bear-slayer himself, Brian Barney. This lexicon of bear knowledge became the guidebook for my hunt.
After a long, eight hour drive across the plains of Southern Idaho, I arrived at the beautiful, moss-covered woods of Western Idaho. I set up my solitary camp alongside a muddy dirt road near a runoff-swollen stream at the bottom of steep canyon. Around 8:00 a.m. I headed up the slippery mountainside. From the information I gathered, bears like to feed for a couple hours on open, green, south-facing slopes during warm weather, and then bed down for a few hours in the dark timber, and repeat. Not even fifteen minutes into my hike I spotted my first bear feeding exactly where I expected: on a green, south-facing slope near old-growth timber. This was the first bear I’d seen in more than a decade, and my heart leapt with glee. Was bear hunting really this easy, I wondered? The bear was about a thousand vertical feet above me and too far to judge, so I needed to get closer. While scrambling towards the bear I suppressed a nagging inner voice that continually questioned my motives, asking “Why are you running towards this horrible beast?!”
In short order I arrived on the same elevation as the bear and shot some video from about 120 yards. He’d finished feeding and was ambling into the dark woods where I quickly lost sight of him. Judging by the distance between his ears, I estimated him as a younger bear. But what did I know about judging bears? Slowly, I made my way to where he disappeared. I soon realized he was gone and began hiking up the ridgeline. A little farther along I heard a scuffling in the woods below me. As I pulled up my binos, the hair rose on my neck and my hand fumbled for the .357 revolver on my belt. That same bear was digging out a bed just thirty yards away and somehow didn’t notice me. He just lay down and went to sleep. For the longest time I stood motionless, peering at the sleeping bear through my binoculars. He was indeed a young bear, and eventually I moved off to glass different parts of the mountain. A few hours later I glassed up another bear—a big blond sow with two cubs—half a mile away. I shot some more video and then moved along. As exciting as it is to see sows with cubs, they are protected and illegal to hunt, for obvious reasons. Still, my hopes ran high most of the day. Unfortunately that was my last bear sighting before getting socked in by storm clouds and running out of daylight. All in all it was a productive first day.
I woke the second day to an inch of snow. My goal was to cover as much new ground as possible. Apparently the bad weather had the bears down because I didn’t glass up a single bear, nor did I find any fresh tracks in the snow. I’d read somewhere that bears hate being out in the rain, and this was proving to be true. That night I stumbled back to camp wet and sore, and a little discouraged. At that point I decided to move camp to a different part of the unit.
On Wednesday I spent the day driving the muddy roads farther north. I soon discovered that most of higher elevation roads were snowed in. I would plow my truck as far as I could, then get out and hike. Overall I wasn’t finding much sign. That afternoon, while driving lower elevation roads, I spotted a huge blond sow with two cubs about a quarter-mile up the mountain. When she saw my truck, she bounded onto a boulder outcropping and took a defensive posture. She held her head high with her eyes transfixed on me while swaying back and forth. I half-expected her to come barreling down the mountain and tear my truck apart. I knew that sows were protective of their cubs, but this was ridiculous. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered?! This was my second reality check moment. If I were to continue hunting bears with a bow, then in a very real way I had to make peace with the possibility of death. Success meant that one of us was not coming out of the woods alive, and there was a fair chance it might be me! It was painfully necessary at this point—on this very hunt—to either accept the this fact, or go home. Did I really have what it takes?
Later that evening I went searching for a campsite. Just before the road became snowed in, I was able to glass up big, jet-black bear on a far-away hillside. It was loner bear, likely a boar. My game plan for morning was to drive as far up the road as possible, then hike after the lone bear. But the weather had other plans. On Thursday I woke to a full-on blizzard and knew my hunt was over. The bears would hunker down and the roads would only get worse. Best to cut my losses, take the knowledge I’d gained, and come back later with a plan. I was encouraged that in three full days I’d had four bear sightings. Still, I didn’t get a single stalk opportunity, and for such a difficult-to-draw hunt, I expected a little more. Perhaps they were still hibernating…
The following week we had beautiful warm weather, but I was stuck at home working. Then, just as we departed on another week-long bear excursion, it turned bitter cold and wet. Originally I planned for my wife Esther—who is deathly afraid of close-up bear encounters, by the way—to be my gunner and carry a rifle for protection. But in the week between bear hunts, I decided the mountains were just too steep to carry all that extra weight. Instead, she came armed with paltry can of bear spray. ;^)
Before setting out on the open road, curiosity had me searching the IDFG website for past harvest statistics for my unit. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that of the 75 tags given out, only 20 hunters were successful. That’s less than 30% success! Already, I was planning a third trip in May.
On the night of Sunday, April 24th, we pulled into the area that I’d left off on my first trip in the remote, muddy mountains near the Oregon border. There were no other hunters in the area, which I found encouraging. As we set up the tent we were accompaniment by the ghostly howls of wolves in the distance. There was something peaceful about having these blustery, wild mountains to ourselves.
We struggled to keep warm that night and into the next morning. On Monday we began hiking where the road ends and right away spotted a sow with cubs on a far-off, cliffy mountainside. We continued hiking all day, stopping frequently to glass. Eventually we dropped into the large canyon where I’d seen the lone black bear on my first hunt. There were numerous bear tracks in the area, as well as frequently used bedding areas surrounded by fresh scat. The whole time I felt we were very close to our quarry, but still we couldn’t turn up any bears.
After a hard freeze overnight, we spent Tuesday morning driving miles and miles of roads with no luck. In the evening we returned to the canyon with all the bear sign. We sat on a saddle with deep, dug-in bear tracks going over it and a rubbing tree littered with bear hair. I nicknamed this area “Bearea.” All was quiet, but then just before dark we caught sight of a sow with cubs walking along a logging road.
On Wednesday we went back to Bearea with intentions of exploring it entirely. Around 10 a.m. a heavy rain pinned us down in the dark timber. The relentless rain eventually chased us back to camp where we changed out of our soaked clothes. We were yet to see a lone bear on this trip and were getting a little discouraged. The rain let up that evening, and again we dropped into Bearea but to no avail. At that point we decided to move camp farther south, to where I had my first bear encounter.
Thursday was sunny and clear. We spent the whole day hiking from 4000’ to snowline at 5000’. We were excited to come across innumerable tracks, beds and fresh scat. Still, no amount of glassing would turn up a bear. Nonetheless, I was learning quite a bit about bears, primarily what I refer to as the “triple S” of bear behavior: shy, secretive, and slippery. Bears, like deer, don’t want to be found! Even if you spot a bear, they tend to move around a lot and eventually disappear. Sometimes we’d find a steamy, green pile of scat, but the reliever of such excrement remained invisible. I began to refer to them as “invisabears.” It became increasingly clear that at least one bear was living full time on this mountainside situated not far from camp. We just couldn’t turn him up. Frustration had me clambering from pine bed to pine bed, all over the steep slope looking bears that I knew existed but couldn’t be found. The day ended bear-free. While pondering bears that evening I decided we should start hunting bears like we hunt deer. We would wake very early on Friday and spend the whole day glassing and bed hopping. All the information I’d read about bears—that they emerge from beds several times to feed during the day—was apparently not the case here.
It was a cold and rainy Friday morning as we began our ascent up the mountain. When we arrived at our first vantage we spotted a lone chocolate phase bear feeding far above us in the low clouds that partially obscured the mountain. Determined to finally get my stalk on, I trotted up the near vertical slope with Esther floundering behind. Just as we were closing the distance on the bear, he disappeared into the clouds. Surely he’d bedded down in one of the dozens pine beds littered across the slope. So the rest of the day was spent hiking in circles looking for the lone bear, who for no particular reason I named Sedwich. We visited all the promising areas—and more—but again found nothing. Wet and discouraged, we returned to camp around 2 p.m.
We were officially out of dry footwear which encouraged us to go driving down one of the long, winding roads in the relentless rain. By late afternoon we hadn’t set eyes any bear and returned to camp for lunch. To my dismay the forest service had opened the locked gate on the logging road leading up the mountain where we had toiled for so long. With the impending weekend, I feared the area would soon get blown out. It was becoming very difficult to imagine a scenario wherein I might have a successful bear stalk.
In disgust we took advantage of the newly opened road and drove a short distance to glass. Not surprisingly, the bears weren’t out. As we sat pondering the demise of our endeavors, Esther suddenly leaned over and asked, “Is that your bear???” My binos flashed up and sure enough a large, lone bear materialized out of nowhere and sat feeding in the rain on an open slope 1000 feet above the road. Instantly I grabbed my pack, slipped on my soggy boots, and just before jumping out of the truck exclaimed to Esther, “Stay here!” Then halfway across the road I looked up and noticed a second lone bear feeding a short distance from the first one. When it rains, it pours bears! I looked back to Esther in astonishment, and then took off running up the mountain. Halfway up the near vertical slope I paused. I couldn’t breathe and both my legs had gone numb. I gasped and sweated, slipped and fell, then pushed onward. A few minutes later I arrived at the same elevation as the bears, and wouldn’t you know it, both had vanished! When I got within view of the truck, I waved and flailed my arms at Esther, hoping she could guide me with hand signals. To my dismay, she held both hands up, gesturing that she too had lost the bears. What now?!
Through drizzling rain I zigzagged to the top of the ridgeline, desperately trying to get above the swirling winds that had likely busted the bears. Soaked with sweat and rain, I glassed every bit of the mountain but turned up nothing. Darkness was falling, as were my spirits. The only option was to work back towards the truck and try again in the morning. While following a finger ridge down the mountain, a dark blob in the brush caught my eye. My heart jumped. It was the big brown phase bear, nearly invisible as it fed in the dense brush below. No shot; must get closer.
Staying above the feeding bear, I crouched low and skirted the hillside towards it. I ranged the bear at forty yards. He was feeding in circles, but only the top of his back was visible. Gotta get closer! I slowly eased into thirty yards, trying my best not to roll a rock down the hill. My heart thundered in my chest. I took long, deep breaths to calm myself, knowing this would likely be my only opportunity. I nocked an arrow and waited for him to present a shot. Instead the bear sat flat on his rump facing away from me. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Must get closer quick!
I meticulously closed the distance to 20 yards. Close enough, I thought. Wait for him to turn broadside. I drew my bow and held tight. He didn’t move; I let down. Seconds later he stood and slowly turned uphill, exposing his shoulder. My sight pin danced all over his vitals. I paused for a couple seconds and slowly breathed out. I resettled the pin and the arrow was off. To my dismay, less than half the arrow buried into its shoulder. The bear swung around to face me and somehow, in the same two seconds, I had loaded another arrow and redrawn my bow. The bear’s head swung left then right, then forward. His piercing eyes locked onto mine. When he raised his head to look at me, my second arrow sailed under his chin and disappeared into his chest. The bear swung around and barreled straight down the mountain, smashing through the brush as he went, and then disappeared into the dark timber below. I stood shaking in disbelief, oblivious to the rain battering down on me.
My first instinct was to head back to the car and get Esther. My second instinct told me to go after the bear. The rain threatened to wash away the blood trail and darkness was falling. In no way did I want to track a wounded bear in the dark. I pulled my revolver, and with my gun in one hand and bow in the other, slowly headed in the bear’s direction. The blood trail was heavy and full of frothy lung blood. Surely the bear wouldn’t go far. 200 yards down the mountain, at the edge of the dark timber, I slowed way down, glassing as I went. Fifty yards farther, in the tangled maze of a giant deadfall tree, my eyes locked onto the dark, furry patch of an expired bear. I was overcome by relief and a sense of accomplishment unimaginable. What had arguably been the most difficult and frustrating hunt of my life, had instantly transformed into wonderful success.
After verifying the bear was indeed finished, I hung my bow in a tree and jogged back to the truck. Esther burst from the vehicle and ran to meet me on the road. She raved on about how she witnessed the entire stalk, and her excitement throughout was equal to mine.
The rain died out as we approached the downed bear together.
My bear—Sedwich the bear—has become a major milestone in my life. I can’t think of a better way to challenge one’s skills and bravery than a close-quarters bear hunt with a bow. I also learned that there’s no such thing as an easy hunt, at least not alone in the woods with a bow. As with all hunting, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to learn everything they can about their prey and its habits. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these powerful creatures that we share our mountains with, but rarely get to see. For this reason I’ll probably never hunt bears again. Like all game animals, our beautiful black bears are a renewable resource for our taking. And indeed, blueberry-glazed bear steaks are quite delicious. But unlike elk and deer, there just aren’t a whole lot of them to take. These fascinating beasts have their own special place in the woods, and for me, preserving this hunt as an once-in-a-lifetime experience is plenty enough.
In the end my bear green scored 19.5 inches, making it my fourth spot-and-stalk Pope and Young trophy in seven years. Yet, as proud as I am of this accomplishment, I must remind myself that life’s most precious experiences cannot be measured in inches or trophy quality. How we hunt—and the people with whom we share our hunts—are what matters most. None of my bow trophies would have been possible without the love and support from my wonderful and understanding wife, Esther, who’s been by my side during all of these magical hunts.
Preface: I know this is a BOW-hunting blog, but there are plenty of entertaining GUN-hunting stories out there too. The following is the story of my brother’s 2015 rifle deer hunt. Enjoy!
(Story by Russell Allred)
Hiking to our base camp the day before the opener was a bigger chore than I had expected or wanted. When I was younger, hunting from the comforts of a camper and shooting bucks well-within view of camp was the norm. It was fortunate, because back then we would always drag the full carcass back to camp, rather than cutting it into quarters with the gutless method of today. Nowadays, just the hike to base camp is a long and arduous chore, much less the daunting task of the harvest and recovery of meat, if successful. Alas, this is what it takes as animals are pushed further into the recesses of the back country.
The hard-earned location paid off right away. That evening we were able to sit in camp and glass up probably 30 bucks. One buck, the biggest one, was a mile and a half away and way up high above tree line. It looked to be a good size in the spotting scope, and had unusually light colored antlers that in the setting sun looked almost bleached white. Compared to all the other bucks we were seeing, this buck was quite a distance from camp and there was no assurance that on opening morning it would still be there. Nobody wanted to get up so early in the morning to go after it, so I volunteered.
Very early, probably too early, I started hiking in the dark to the big buck’s area to see if I could get to it at first light before other hunters moved in. I had left camp so early, that I actually had to slow down and rest on the ridge top in the dark so as not to move into the buck area and spook the deer without ever seeing them. While relaxing in the dark, I could see the head lamps of other hunters well below me trying to make their way in the darkness, as well. Any headlamp in the area within two miles was easily seen in the dark. I imagined they all had the same ideas…get out early and beat out the competition. Well, I was ahead of them all. Naturally, I shined and waved my head lamp down into the valley and canyon far below, making myself known to all, “Here I am, this is MY area”. Marking my spot like a dog on a fire hydrant. Sure enough, the head lamp closest to me, maybe about three-quarters of a mile below me, suddenly stopped. The brightness of it peaked, indicating it was looking my direction. I could almost make out the cuss words as the hunter realized he had to come up with ‘Plan B’. Sure enough, he did not come up any higher.
When I finally got close to my target location it was just starting to get light enough to see and I had to crawl around a ridge of shale rocks. Crawling was necessary to keep from skylining myself. As I crawled along, I kept glassing to make sure I would see the deer before they saw me. Binos up, binos down. Crawl a couple of yards. Repeat.
Well, I guess I was just too exposed on the barren ridge, because suddenly I could see something standing just 250 yards ahead of me. Through the dim glass, sure enough, it was the very same light-colored antlers of the big buck with his two little buck buddies all staring right at me. Keep in mind, this area was way up high, and there was very little brush, so even though I thought I was being smart by crawling, they still caught me skylined. Even in the dark I stood out on the ridge line. Maybe more so with the dawning sky. I tried to prep my gun, but they immediately took off. I watched them go down to a gully about 600 yards away and stop and look back. The wind had been in my favor, by design, and maybe crawling had not completely given up my silhouette as human. So I did the only thing I could do and started crawling, again, to get myself some cover below the ridge line.
Well, after about 5 more minutes of this awkward crawl with gun in one hand and shooting sticks in the other, I heard something rattle the shale rocks above me and sure enough it was a dude on a horse. You see, this spot is so high up and so hard to get to, pretty much only dudes on horses go up there. The spooked bucks moved even further away. All I could do was stand up and quickly move toward where the bucks had been earlier, and to where I had better cover in a more brushy area. My bold move was partly out of frustration, but also strategic. I needed cover if I was going to be making anymore moves. But maybe more importantly, I needed the horseman to see me move into the basin ahead of him. I had nowhere else to go, but he could move all over the mountain on his horse. This was going to be my spot and he needed to know it.
Upon reaching cover, I sat down and started glassing. The horseman had seen me on the move and meandered away on his horse, seemingly without seeing the bucks I had been after, or the other 20 bucks 600 yards ahead and a little higher.
I watched as the big buck and his sentinels kept moving away, and eventually, I could not see them anymore. So I sat there and glassed for an hour. Glassed up about 30, or more, bucks around me within 500 yards. None as big as the one I had come all this way to chase.
The shooting down in the canyon got pretty busy for a bit. And deer kept pouring into the area I was in, I suppose to escape all the hunters below. Lots of does and smaller bucks taking cover in this little bowl where I had settled. No shooters, so I just practiced ranging them and aiming with my new scope.
After sitting for an hour and a half, I noticed a little buck up ahead of me about 450 yards. As I looked at it through the spotting scope, to my excitement and surprise, I noticed the tall white antlers of my target buck sticking up out of the sagebrush right next to the little buck. They had never left the area. Turns out the little buck was one of those two original sentinels and was still standing guard for his boss. The tall white antlers gave him away, even though I could not see any of his body behind the brush. I trained my scope on the brush directly in front of him and dialed in the yardage and waited for him to stand up. I knew it would be a long wait. But, so far, I had the bowl and the buck to myself.
After about 45 minutes I noticed two dudes way down below that were starting to head toward this buck. They had come into the bowl half an hour earlier, but were obviously discouraged to see that I had already claimed it with a much better vantage point, and they left. Probably, with the canyon below so full of hunters, they had nowhere else to go, so they returned. This time, however, though they could see I was on this buck, they must have decided that if I wasn’t taking the shot, then they were going to try for it themselves. That really upset me, so I continued to watch the buck very closely so I could take the shot as soon as it stood up, hopefully before they got into shooting range.
Jerks. I was about to get ‘duded’ by jerks. As if their aggression wasn’t enough, I had seen them glassing me with their rifle scopes. Probably with rounds chambered. I mean, why not? They were jerks and that’s what jerks do. I guess by ‘jerks’ I mean dudes. I am sure they were normally very pleasant people. Something about bone on the head of big game can somehow turn perfectly nice people into, well, jerks. Heck, here I am calling my fellow sportsmen ‘jerks’. I digress…
To complicate things, two more horsemen showed up just a couple of hundred yards directly above my buck. For me to take a shot, I would have to shoot in their direction. Even though it was probably theoretically safe with all the ridge and dirt to absorb any wayward bullets, it would be a shot that no one in their right mind would ever take. Nervously, I waited for them to see my buck and ignore my interpretation of safety and ethics and start shooting.
They never saw the buck, and slowly, too slowly, moved up and away. All the while my ‘friends’ from below were closing in on my buck. After about half an hour I was getting real nervous that these fine gentlemen were getting close enough to take a shot. So I decided to shoot at the brush it was bedded next to. Not the situation I had imagined, but I figured if I could get it to stand up, it would give me a good shot opportunity.
It took two shots before it got up, and then I had to fire 3 more shots to get it to go down. Which it did. I had been concerned those jerks (oops, there I go again…dudes) would start firing while I was, so I unloaded my gun on to make sure it was down. Now I was all out of bullets. I had never used more than one bullet before, so I had only carried five rounds that day to save on weight, and thought that even five rounds was overkill.
As I gathered my gear, I noticed that the buck was laying down with its head still up. Could be bad, but I figured it would die by the time I got over to it. So I grabbed my gear and went to it.
When I got to about 30 yards from the buck, I could see it staring above the brush right at me, laying down, but head up, still alert and very much alive. And I had no more bullets. Not sure what to do, I closed the distance, but when I got to 15 yards, it tried to run away using only its front legs (I later learned that I made a mistake on my new scope’s left-to-right turret that caused it to shoot more left, so two shots hit it back too far, and also hit spine; at 450 yards a small mistake is exaggerated).
This was a very steep mountain, so the buck pulled itself about 50 yards straight down the hill very quickly, eventually falling over on its back and getting its antlers stuck in some sage brush. Fortunately, this time it just laid there breathing heavily, but would get upset whenever I tried to move any closer. Without any more bullets, I wanted to slit its throat and bleed it out, but I did not want to keep chasing it down the hill or to get in a fight with it and possibly get myself stabbed by my knife or gored by its antlers. So I hoped to just let it lie for a few minutes and see if it would die. It was stuck in a very awkward upside down position, which I thought would aid in its quick demise.
After about 25 minutes, it seemed to just be content to lay there on its back stuck, but still alive. To make matters worse, the two dudes were down below me watching the whole debacle. And, I later learned, a friend of mine was watching it all through his spotting scope, too. I am sure I looked like the biggest clown on the mountain. The tables had turned. Surely, the two dudes below me were thinking “what a jerk”!
Finally, I mustered the courage, out of necessity, to inch my way close enough to the injured buck to finally make a quick thrust of the knife into its throat. It fought a little but, finally, just laid there and bled out and was dead in a couple of minutes.
The adventure did not end there, though. After field dressing the buck, I loaded the whole buck (that is…all the meat…quarters, back straps, and head) into my pack and it was extremely heavy. As soon as I started walking (literally at the first step), a big rain storm rolled in and rained on me for the whole 2 hours it took to haul this heavy pack back to camp in steep and rough terrain. I was cold and wore out and cramping in my back, legs, feet, and toes. Every time I stopped to rest and take the pack off, within a minute I was freezing, so I’d have to keep slowly moving to keep from hypothermia. My buddy, Danny, met me about a third mile from camp and took my pack for me the rest of the way. But it was a huge third mile. Probably would have taken me another hour at the exhaustive pace I was going. Took Danny less than 10 minutes.
I crawled into my tent and laid there for two more hours of pounding rain and pain. Eventually, as the rain let up, Danny’s father-in-law showed up with horses and hauled out the deer. I was able to make it home that evening. Tired, but glad to a successful end of another grand hunting adventure. And I would like to say a little wiser, except for the fact that two weeks later I found myself waking up in Idaho not knowing how I got there or where I was, although I did have a Salmon Idaho Hospital wrist band on. That was just the first day of a 10 day elk hunt that was much more interesting than this deer hunt…and with even more dudes.
Recently I addressed some frustrations that today’s hunters have to deal with thanks to exponential population growth coupled with decreasing wildlife and habitat. What it boils down to is less hunting opportunity for everyone and ever-increasing competition afield.
For many years I’ve joked with fellow hunters about being “duded” while hunting or even during a stalk. My brother, Russell, wrote a story about his 2015 rifle hunt which perfectly illustrates my point. His exciting and insightful story will be published here on tomorrow’s blog.
By the way, each year many hunters write great stories which are never published in big-name magazines, and are therefore rarely heard. If you have a great hunting story that you’d like to share with the world, then email it to me and I’d be more than happy to share it here on the ZenBowhunter blog.
I never thought much about turkeys. I love bowhunting more than anything, but it was my wife Esther who took an active interest in the turkey. So I promised I’d take her.
In spring we drew turkey tags for Southern Utah. In recent years we’d come across plenty of turkeys while hunting deer in the Beaver unit, so that’s where we applied. Getting tags was easy enough, but that’s where easy ended.
First off, we decided to do it with a bow. I don’t do guns—I am a bow-snob…I mean purist—so now we were hunting unfamiliar prey with light tackle.
Second, Esther couldn’t get any time off work. Her work schedule is a consummate nightmare, but somehow she secured a weekend towards the end of the season in April. Now this proved to be a problem because the turkeys we ultimately hunted were already people- and call- wary. Can you say sloppy seconds?
Third now, the weather report called for heavy thundershowers and snow. Oh well, we were going for it.
We left late Friday night and already it was raining. Four hours later we set up camp in the back of the truck and went to bed. The morning was cool and lovely. We ventured across a small river and up the mountain. I decided to make a video of our ordeal, so Esther carried a bow and I carried a camera. I would be the caller for the first couple days, and after she got a shot it would be my turn.
We hiked for a few hours, made turkey calls, and got no response. A while later, we heard a turkey gobble out of the blue, so we set up a decoy, dropped back, and began some calling sequences. The turkey moved off and didn’t respond, so we kept hiking.
Later in the afternoon, some thick, black clouds rolled in so we began working back down the mountain. Well, about half a mile from camp, a gobbler fired up pretty close to us. We holed up under some junipers to devise a strategy, and that’s when the rain started. We pulled out our raingear and pretty soon it was a downpour. At some point I realized we were on the wrong side of the river, and if the rain continued we might get trapped on this side. So we bagged the hunt and made a run for it.
By the time we reached the truck the rain had turned to heavy snow. Later in the afternoon the snow let up so we ran back up to where we heard the gobblers. But they were gone. For the rest of the evening we hiked all over looking for tracks in the new snow, but found none. The turkeys had flown the coop! Makes sense though, since their ground-dwelling food was now hidden beneath a fresh blanket of snow.
The next morning we woke to a full-on blizzard. Around 10 a.m. it subsided so once again we crossed the river and headed up the mountain. We hiked from four inches to six inches of snow. We covered an immense amount of ground, but heard no gobbles and saw no tracks. The turkeys were gone.
Well, it seemed to me that the only direction they’d go was downhill, so we packed up the truck and headed to the bottom of the mountain.
It rained most of the day so we spent several hours driving the low-elevation dirt roads and scanning the hillsides for black blobs in the snow. We found none. In the late afternoon we decided to find a place to camp. I remembered a dirt road that gave access to the low-elevation drainage that we’d been hunting in, so we went there. As expected, it was very muddy. Basically, the steep dirt road drops into a bowl before turning back up the mountain. Well, half-way to the bottom, the truck started sliding sideways and I struggled to maintain control. We got to the bottom okay, but now we were really stuck. We slopped to a flat spot to camp, then, with a break in the storm, hiked up the mountain to see where we’d be spending the last day of the hunt.
Things began looking up.
Almost a mile up the muddy mountain, we heard a gobble. With a couple hours of light left, we rushed in, threw out the decoy, and made some calls. There were three gobblers, all struttin’ around us, but it was too thick to see them. I kept dropping back and making hen calls, but they just kept circling us nervously and gobbling every few minutes, but never showing themselves.
We pulled the decoy and repositioned in a better clearing, but they still wouldn’t come in. We pulled the decoy again and rushed toward them. We were getting close, and so was nighttime. Well, as we sat there trying to figure out where to plant the decoy, some big red heads came bouncing and bobbing through the sagebrush. The toms were about to pass right in front of us at only twenty yards! Esther nocked an arrow. The turks went behind a juniper and I whisper-yelled, “30 yards!” When they broke into the open, Esther let an arrow fly…and missed! The arrow sailed right behind the first turkey and the second turkey jumped straight into the air. Somewhat alarmed, they all trotted out of sight.
It’s funny how thin the line is between failure and success. In this case, it was both. After two hard days, Esther miraculously got a last minute shot. Although she missed, we were excited to finally be into the turkeys!
On Sunday we got up early and hiked to where we left the turkeys. We were excited, and I even carried a bow this time. Sure enough, we were greeted by gobbles. Several times we set up the decoy and made calls. The toms responded diligently, but wouldn’t come in. Instead they continued up the mountain and we followed.
Now this is where things get real bad; where Nate and Nature have a serious falling out.
With plenty of new snow, it was easy to follow their tracks. We spotted the turkeys a hundred yards ahead of us. I quickly set up a decoy and dropped back to call. Just as I started calling, a small herd of elk came running through the oak brush. The elk had caught our wind and ran right through the turkeys, nearly trampling them! The turkeys spooked farther up the mountain and we followed.
We caught up to the turkeys moving ahead of us in some boulders and brush. Squatting low to the ground, I trotted up and planted the decoy. No sooner had I started calling, some coyotes suddenly lit up howling like crazy a short distance behind us. The toms made one last gobble, some other turkeys across the canyon gobbled back, and then everyone shut up. Those were the last gobbles we heard. Esther and I followed the tracks way up the mountain into the deep snow, but they were moving too fast. Eventually the tracks led out of the huge valley, over a saddle, and gone forever. Stupid coyotes!
Frustrated, we turned back. While on top of the mountain, Esther decided to call into work and let her boss know we were stuck in the mud and may not get out by tomorrow. Her boss wasn’t in, but the nice fellow who answered the phone informed her that her 23-year old work-friend had crashed his motorcycle and died over the weekend. Now we were super-bummed for the rest of the day.
With the day slipping away, we had no choice but to make our way back to where we started. Who knows; maybe we could find some new turkeys.
We did! Half-way back to the bottom I spotted a hen walking in the sagebrush. I made some calls and some new gobblers fired up. I snuck out to the open and plugged the decoy in the mud and snuck back. I could barely make out some large, strutting males wandering back and forth in the trees ahead.
We started calling and this time a herd of nine deer came bounding out below us. Now, these deer were hell-bent on going uphill, and did so by running right through the turkeys. All the commotion spooked the turkeys off and again it was silent. You gotta be kidding me! First elk, then coyotes, and now deer!
With no other choice, we followed the toms into the dark timber. The snow had melted at the lower elevations, so following tracks was no longer possible. Fortunately, a short while later, we got them gobbling again. The problem was they refused to come in. Instead, they bedded down and expected us to come to them. We called for more than an hour with no luck.
Frustrated, I decided to make a move. I told Esther to hang back. I’d sneak above and around them, and if they spooked, they might run back towards her.
It didn’t work out that way. Instead, one of them busted me and all three toms slipped away down the mountain. I went back and got Esther. With only a couple hours of daylight, we decided to make one more setup at the bottom of the canyon.
After half an hour of futile calling, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch it get dark on my hunt and just give up. I told Esther I was going to enter the dark timber and sneak around for the last hour of light. She would stay in the ravine with the decoy and continue calling occasionally.
I worked very high up into the steep timber. I’d gone a little ways when out of the blue I heard something. “Cluck—-cluck—–cluck.” Well, this was new! I pulled an arrow. Sure enough, 40 yards below me, a huge chicken—I mean turkey—came sneaking through the woods alone and completely oblivious to my presence, clucking as it went. As it rounded a tree I let my arrow fly.
The arrow hit the giant black bird perfectly broadside and dead-center. The tom’s wings flapped wildly as it sprinted out of sight with my orange fletched arrow sticking straight out of its side. I was super excited as I dropped down to see my trophy…which was gone. I found a couple clipped feathers and some torn up dirt, even a speck of blood or two. I followed in the direction the stupid bird ran, found another feather, and then lost the trail. I started walking circles. I called Esther on the walkie-talkie to come help. She showed up and we search up and down and all over. The turkey was gone; run off to who-knows-where with my arrow. The problem with turkeys is two-fold: they don’t leave a blood trail, and they can SURE take an arrow!
It got dark and we put out our headlamps on. With no trail to follow we had no choice but to give up. I was so deflated as I walked back to the truck. Few words were spoken.
The next morning we somehow slogged the truck out of the mud and drove home with nary a feathered foe for food.
Later studies and videos proved the turkey’s can surely take an arrow. Basically, their stiff wings, when folded against their body create a sheet of armor, like a stack of zip-ties. It slows and even stops a sharp broadhead. In most cases it eventually kills the bird, but only after a lengthy sprint. A head/neck shot is really your best option.
The story ends here. But it also begins here. Next year you’ll find me and Esther in the same spot, early in the season, with both heavier arrows and a little experience in our quivers. When facing nature one-on-one, the mountain and its infinite variables most often wins. But this particular mountain still owes me a turkey, and I’ll never give up.
In 2013 I bagged a giant 200-inch buck. I was determined to repeat this feat in 2014. But dreaming too big doth a nightmare make!
The regular season was a frantic search for non-existent superbucks. The biggest buck I saw grossed well below 190”, and all told I passed up more than a dozen smaller four-points..
Fortunately, Utah offers an extended bowhunt which lasts from mid-September through November, and I’ve seen a few great bucks in recent years.
A week after the September general hunt ended I took a two day trip into the woods above Salt Lake City. I had both an unused elk tag and deer tag, as well as a floundering bowhunting blog dangerously void of hunting success. In the end, that trip sucked! Everywhere I’d seen deer in the past I found nothing but old tracks and other hunters. The biggest problem with the extended hunt is the pressure from hundreds of fools-like-myself who can’t get the job done in the regular season.
So I was patient and waited for November when the big deer come down from their snowy, high-country haunts to participate in the rut.
On November 5 I hiked a few miles up a steep canyon and pitched my tent beneath an old pine tree. For years this was the place to be during the rut. I once saw five 4-points all fighting for a small group of does. But this year there was very little snow, so I was a little skeptical.
I was feeling a little ill on my hike in. In bed that night I was suddenly gripped by a fever and sore throat. I tossed and turned all night, and by morning I was sick as hell. I went hunting anyway. Sadly, there wasn’t a single buck in the whole canyon. I spotted a couple decent elk in the distance, but passed them up in hopes of finding a good buck.
The second night was a disaster. I shivered and tossed all night with a full-body fever, sore throat, and coughing. I woke up dizzy and sore, but clambered out of my tent anyway. Determined to hunt through my illness, I somehow managed to hike even farther, covering 1000 vertical feet.
Finally, I spotted some deer rutting across a canyon: bits of antler, fur, and deer prancing around in the trees. Excitedly, I stood up, took two steps towards them, then reeling with dizziness, flopped back to the ground. My hunt ended right there. I dragged my bent-over body off the mountain, swaying like a zombie. Each step pounded in my head; every muscle and joint wrenched with pain. I passed a couple hikers on the way out. They said, “Hi,” and I could barely croaked out a sickly hello.
Ten days later I crawled out of bed and headed back up the mountain. Still weak and feeble, it took three hours to reach my lonely tent under the pine tree. The weather had turned bitterly cold that week. The cold air streaming down the canyon stung my exposed skin. This was going to be a cold hunt!
It was so cold that I could hear things freezing in my pack. By the time I crawled into bed, my water jugs were mostly frozen, my pile of boiled eggs froze solid in my pack and split open, my energy shots froze, as did my scent spray, Visene, and water filter. When I moved in the night, flakes of frozen condensation snowed down on me. I stuffed every bit of clothing I had into my sack and wore six layers of uppers including my down coat.
Cold be damned, by morning I was out hunting. I squinted through freezing eyeballs and couldn’t sit still very long before catching a chill. I wrapped a game bag around my neck and stuffed everything in my pack into my coat pockets just to trap in the heat. My lungs, heavy and tender from illness, coughed and wheezed in the frigid air.
There still wasn’t enough snow to push the deer down, so I hiked farther and farther up he canyon. On the evening of the second day, I finally located both elk and deer near the top. Unfortunately It got dark while trying to close the distance in the loud, crunchy snow.
I was planning to hunt three to four days, but was running dangerously low on food. I failed to anticipate the amount of calories my body would burn just to stay warm. On the third day I had no choice but to pull out early.
The following week, on November 22, I headed back to the hills for one more big push. The forecast called for heavy snow and blizzards, which I welcomed with open arms. Hopefully it would push the deer down lower.
The next morning, while hiking up the steep ridge above camp, the skies began to darken. Just as I was reaching the upper “elk zone”, I spotted movement way back down where my tent was. An entire herd of elk had moved in, including a few good bulls. Still trying to catch my breath, I began my descent. Halfway to the bottom, some damn hunter appeared and spooked the whole herd off.
It started snowing around this time. I followed the elk tracks for about a mile and a half until they left the canyon. Luckily I ran into a bunch of new deer tracks. The snow was really coming down and the wind howled through the aspens and pines. Pretty soon the unrelenting snow was blasting horizontally and stinging my eyeballs. I scrambled from pine tree to pine tree, ducking and diving for shelter from the blinding snow. It was late afternoon and I was nearly two miles from camp in a violent blizzard. The deer tracks soon disappeared under a fresh blanket of drifting snow, but at this point, shear survival took precedence over hunting.
Hoping to catch a break in the storm, I holed up under the bows of a huge pine tree. To pass time I pulled out my little video-poker game and poked away at the screen. I heard a scuffle nearby and looked up. Ten feet away stood a little 3×3 buck peering into my tree hollow and wishing I wasn’t there. He spooked out to 50 yards and stared back at me. Apparently I’d found the most coveted shelter in the woods because that poor buck stood there for 20 minutes turning completely white in the snow. With the end of the season nigh, I considered shooting him, but changed my mind. I envisioned myself out there field-dressing the thing, and then having to climb into its body cavity for warmth. No thanks!
With the storm worsening and evening falling fast, I had no choice but to make a run for it. I headed straight into the blasting snow, but hadn’t gone very far when up ahead, through the murky twilight, I caught the movement of a large buck chasing some does. A second later the wind swirled and blew them out.
My knee was killing me as I hobbled into camp that night. My clothes were soaked and I was starving, but at least I’d brought extra food this time. Tomorrow would be better.
The blizzard didn’t let up all night. Every couple hours I’d wake up and bang snow off my collapsing tent. I slept in until about 9:00 when the storm finally broke and the sun lit up a winter wonderland as I’d never seen. I burrowed out of my tent and dug my bow out of snow. It was caked with ice and wouldn’t draw even one inch. I worked on de-icing it with my breath and hands throughout the day.
The snow was well over my knees as I trudged up the mountain in search of that big buck from the night before. Later on I spotted a group of deer way up high and spent several hours working towards them. The higher I climbed the deeper the snow got and eventually I was forced to abandon the stalk. Completely exhausted from plowing snow, all I could do was head for the trail at the bottom of the canyon. When I got there I was surprised to see a beautiful 4×4 buck chasing some does on a nearby slope. Finally, some hope!
While contemplating my approach, a dog appeared out of nowhere and began barking up a storm. There was a cross-country skier coming up the canyon and his dog had run ahead, noticed the deer and went crazy. The deer splashed away through the snow and out of sight. In my weary state I knew I could never catch up to the spooked deer. Disgusted and exhausted, I hiked back to camp, threw my tent in the sled, and headed for home.
On November 28, the weekend after Thanksgiving, me and every other hunter with a tag headed for the hills. The Black Friday hunting pressure had pretty much blown out the entire mountain. I never saw it so bleak! I hunted a new, different canyon that day, closer to the road. Partway up a side draw I jumped a little forked-horn buck. He ran to 50 yards and stopped, just in time to catch one of my arrows through his chest.
My last chance buck didn’t come anywhere near my 200-inch goal; hell, it barely broke 20-inches! But I gained something. Actually I gained a lot. I gained venison. I gained humility; grim humility bordering on disgrace. I also gained strength; both mental and physical strength beyond measure! Never again would anything be too difficult; never again would any mountain seem too steep to climb.
You might be wondering, would I do it all over again? The answer is a decisive YES, starting this November.
I’ve related this fish story many times since that fateful day in 2012. It’s a great story about a great fish, and should be written.
The Lake Monster
Causey reservoir is a small dam located in Northern Utah. I fished there since I was a kid. Ice fishing seems to be the most productive method, and my family has been quite successful over the years. The ice generally freezes around mid-December and remains fishable through March.
The best thing about Causey is the variety of fish you can catch. I’ve caught kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, tiger trout, splake trout, cutthroat trout and even a sculpin, which is a small bottom-dwelling fish that looks like a cross between a frog and a turd. The 15 – 19 inch Kokanee are by far the most delicious and alluring fish, and on December 16, 2012, that’s what I was hoping to catch.
As my teenage son Jacob, and I were loading the car with ice fishing gear, I asked my wife Esther, once more if she’d like to join us. It was a cold and snowy day, so she declined and wished us luck instead.
When we arrived at the lake, I was dismayed to find it wasn’t quite frozen yet. There should have been safe ice on the inlet arms, but it was a late winter and the ice was thin and slushy. It looked like we’d be shore fishing the open water after all.
The snow was coming down pretty hard as we trudged through more than a foot of snow along the shoreline towards the open water. I setup the poles with a couple bobbers and bait and casted out. The wind was picking up and blew our bobbers into the edge of the ice.
For the next hour the snowfall increased and the wind blew harder. To keep our spirits up, Jake and I foraged continually on crackers and snacks while staring listlessly at our bobbers bouncing in the waves. Occasionally I’d check our baits and recast.
After nearly two hours without a single bite, our hopes were dwindling. But I’m a stubborn fisherman. I don’t pack my car, drive to nowhere, and sit in the worst of weather for nothing! All I really wanted at that point was one dumb little trout for dinner. As is often the case, my mind drifted to thoughts of Zen. Zen is something that’s been on my mind in recent years. It came about after several miraculous successes in fishing and hunting amidst the worst odds. My theory was that if a person focused hard enough on nature, perhaps he could somehow sway the odds in his favor. Certainly, it can’t hurt! But in this case, no matter how much I concentrated on my pathetic bobber, and no matter how much I wished for a fish, nothing seemed to happen. I couldn’t take it anymore; I had to make something happen.
Breaking a long and cold silence, I turned to Jake and said, “Do you think a person can materialize a fish?” He looked at me with half-inquisitive expression. Detecting that I might be speaking both rhetorically and irrationally, he just shrugged and mumbled, “I dunno.”
With that, I stood up and reeled my line in. It was time for a more active approach. I proceeded to cut off the bait and bobber and tie on a small, silver Mepps #0 spinner. Surely this shiny, little inch-and-a-half piece of fluttering metal would coerce some little rainbow into biting.
I walked 50 feet down the snowy shoreline and casted out to sea. The light lure on my 6-pound line fell pathetically short of its mark. I bounced and reeled it in with little interest from both the fish and myself. I casted again, swinging the pole hard like a baseball bat, and repeated the process.
Ten feet from the shore my line suddenly jerked and hung up. Instinctively I jerked back and set the hook. A snag? I thought. Nope, it started bobbing left and right. Wow, a fish! About the same second I realized I’d actually hooked a fish, my reel began screaming. The fish tore off with no intention of putting up a fight. I tightened the drag and cranked the pole hard towards shore with pole’s tip bent 90-degrees straight out to sea.
As the line continued flying off the reel, it occurred to me that I’d hooked into a whopper of a fish and had absolutely no control over it. It felt like I’d tied my line to a pickup truck and sent it on down the street. My heart rate jumped straight up.
As the fish ran, I would occasionally feel a weird bump and pause in the line. The fish was apparently hitting the lake bottom, trying to knock the lure from its lip. This was new to me; smart fish! When this method failed, he took off down the reservoir towards where Jake was sitting. Desperate to keep line on my reel, I followed along, running down the shoreline in its direction.
Anticipating a detrimental tangle with Jake’s bobber, I yelled ahead, “REEL IN! REEL IN! I have a monster on! Get your line in!” This woke Jake up. He did as I asked, then moved out of the way to watch the spectacle unfold.
I was still losing line, but less now. The fish, realizing that a hard left turn wasn’t going to free him, suddenly veered right and began dragging me back up the shoreline. After another desperate jog, the fish once again headed straight out to sea. Every minute or so I would tighten my drag down one more click. Surely I was close to the breaking point of my 6-pound test line.
Ten minutes into the fight and having gained not one inch, I knew, absolutely knew, two things: First, I would never see the humongous fish that I’d hooked. And second, I would do everything in my power and apply every ounce of my fishing experience to fighting the fish to the end.
My arm was burning and going numb; my heart raced faster. The last few loops of line were becoming visible on my reel. I winced, knowing that in a few seconds my line would break with a loud snap.
Then something amazing happened. About 150-yards out in the middle of the lake the fish broke the surface with an audible slosh, then waves. WAVES not ripples! There was a sudden pause in my line, then slack! The fish had finally reached its threshold of strength and turned its head my way. Instinctively I reeled to keep the line tight.
Then the tug-a-war began. I would crank a few loops back on my reel, then the fish would pull some off, and I’d crank ‘em back on again. This seemed to go on forever. But there was a twinge of hope. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of my foe after all!
Jake stood by my side, cheering me on without a peep, as you’d expect from any teenager.
Nearly twenty minutes into the fight, and with almost a full reel of line, reality hit me. The shoreline was incredibly steep. The fish had to be well over ten pounds and my line was only rated for six. If and when I got him to shore, there was no physical way I could drag it out of the water, not even halfway out, without breaking my line. I would have to go in after him.
Wide-eyed and trembling like an idiot, I turned to Jake and barked these orders:
“When the fish gets close to where I can see it, I’m going to hand you the pole and jump in. Keep the line tight!”
A minute later, in the dark water, a huge, shadowy form came cruising along the shoreline. It was exactly what I expected: a lake monster!
As it drew closer I loosened my drag and shoved the pole into Jake’s hand. Without pause, I jumped out over the water, twisting my body mid-air and splashing down just behind the fish. Crotch-deep in the icy murk, I shoved my arms underneath the fish and I hefted it out of the water as it swung side-to-side trying to escape my grasp.
The fish plopped deep into the snow near Jake’s feet and we just stood there stunned. “Holy COW!” Jake exclaimed. After much excitement and jumping around, I realized that I was soaked from the waist down and standing in a snow bank in a blizzard. The trip was certainly over at that point.
Jake snapped a couple photos of me and the fish, and then I tossed the lunker brown trout in the back of my truck and raced for home. I called ahead to tell Esther to start searching for a fish taxidermist in the area. An hour later I arrived home, still shaking and unable to calm down. I taped the fish out at 33-inches and a whopping 21 pounds. After more than three decades of fishing, I’d never seen a brown trout remotely close to this size.
Although the Utah fish and game department doesn’t keep individual lake records, the few agents I talked to said it was by far the biggest fish they’d ever heard of coming out of Causey Reservoir, and that a brown trout of that size had to be well over 20 years old.
A year later the Lake Monster was hung proudly above my television. During commercials I would sit and watch the fish in awe and fascination. The thing that stuck with me most from this adventure was the question I asked Jake just before hooking the monster:
“Do you think a person can materialize a fish?”
The answer is a resounding MAYBE! Just beware the fish for which you wish.