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A Second Chance

The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:

My 2015 obsession.
The infamous Monsterbuck.

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.

Continuous boot-burning.
Continuous boot-burning.

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.

Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.
Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.

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.

Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.
Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.

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.

Idaho Part I
Idaho Part I

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.

Yet another camp.
Yet another camp.

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.

Idaho Part II
Idaho Part II

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!

My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.
My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.

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.

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Bowhunting: A Healthy Obsession

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The deer hunt is less than a week away, and not an hour passes without thinking about giant bucks.

Bowhunting is the only reason I get out of the bed in the morning. It’s all I care about; everything else in the world is secondary. I’m hopelessly obsessed!

Fortunately it’s a healthy obsession. You see, at this point in my life I’ve come to realize that although I’m good at several things, I’m really only GREAT at one thing: chasing down giant bucks with my bow. Don’t be mad; I didn’t choose it, it chose me.

Now that I’ve come to grips with this curse, I have only three goals in life. They are:

1. Shoot a monster buck over 200″.

2. Live a healthy and fit lifestyle so I can physically go about chasing 200″ bucks.

3. Work my butt off during the off-season to afford as much time as necessary to shoot a 200″ buck.

Pretty simple, right!?

Whatever you’re doing in life, I urge you to find your healthy obsession. We’re not born with magical gifts, rather we must search our passions and fight relentlessly to achieve the seemingly impossible prize.

Do or die doing!

2014 Bowhunt Part 2 of 3

Yesterday I got back from my second of three bowhunting trips to Southern Utah. I hiked in Monday morning and began hunting that evening through Thursday morning. Now that I’ve been EVERYWHERE, the area is no longer new to me. Here are the lessons I’ve learned so far:

  1. After spending seven full days in the Wilderness alone, it has been affirmed that all mysteries of the Universe, all questions about God and the nature of man, and every other question that could possibly arise in modern life can be answered by sitting alone in Nature.
  2. After spending seven full days hiking and exploring concentrically from the epicenter of my chosen area, I can now say that there are no great bucks worth pursuing, or at least not enough concentrations to make future efforts justifiable. Therefore, I will spend the last week of my hunt exploring vast, new areas of my unit.
  3. This week was hot and windy causing the deer to move much less, bed earlier, and unbed later.
  4. The only decent four-point buck I encountered busted me at ten yards when a psycho-squirrel went ballistic behind me and the buck caught my movement. If my arrow/broadhead combination wasn’t $20.00, I would have shot the squirrel.
  5. On the morning of September 2nd I saw a three-point and two-point in velvet. In the evening I saw the same two deer, but both had shed their velvet.

Yesterday morning I busted the biggest 2×3 I’ve ever seen out of a bed around 10:00 a.m. He had a very tall, 25-inch wide rack, and should have been a four-point. Just for fun, and to get a better look at him, I circled down the mountain where he passed by me at only ten yards. Not the caliber of deer I’m after, but fun to watch. Makes me wish I wasn’t a trophy hunter!

2014 Hunt Photos: 2 of 3

When you can’t shoot a buck, you can still shoot photos! Here are some photos from my second bowhunt of 2014:

September 04, 2014, 6:15 a.m.
September 04, 2014, 6:15 a.m.
My main watering spring...ahhhh...fresh mountain water with no man-made toxins.
My main watering spring…ahhhh…fresh mountain water with no man-made toxins.
Moon, conifers, and fall oak-brush.
Moon, conifers, and fall oak-brush.
Moss on the rocks. I love the texture.
Moss on the rocks. I love the texture.
Old-life; new-life.
Old-life; new-life.
Diverse habitat in my hunt area.
Diverse habitat in my hunt area.
3.5" buck track. This is the biggest track I found this year...but where's the deer?
3.5″ buck track. This is the biggest track I found this year…but where’s the deer?
I watched fall colors appear this week.
I watched fall colors appear this week.

Secret Bowhunting Tip #4: Hunt Alone

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As a young deer hunter I frequently hunted with a buddy, whether it was out of fear of being alone or just to have some company. But in almost every case we both failed to get a deer. So I quickly learned to hunt alone.

The main reason why you shouldn’t hunt with a partner is because it doubles your scent, noise, and visibility to the deer. And since a partner will probably be chatting about something, it actually triples the noise you’d normally make.

An even more important reason to hunt alone is because another person is prone to compromise the crucial decisions you’d normally make while relying on your instincts. Often times, for no particular logical reason, I am compelled to go left instead of right. But my hunting partner is simultaneously compelled to go right! And when I feel I should travel uphill, he thinks we should go down. So instead of making a simple, subconscious decision to move left, you stand in the woods arguing your case. Eventually you compromise and go straight instead. The problem is, by compromising—by splitting the decisions equally—you shoot each other in the foot. Your God-given instincts are rendered useless. You cease to be a predator and suddenly become a lemming. That drives me nuts! That’s the main real reason I hunt alone. Other than elk hunting where you might need a caller, I can’t think of a single situation where it would be beneficial to have someone hunting with me.

This of course doesn’t apply to teaching children and first-time hunters. Each year I participate in other people’s hunt, whether it’s my son, my wife, a friend, or a family member. It’s important for me to pass along some of the wisdom and woodcraft I’ve earned after two-and-a-half decades of deer hunting. But these are special cases, and I’m usually not the one hunting anyway.

I still occasionally break my own rule. Sometimes just for fun, or out of pity, I’ll let someone tag along with me on my personal bowhunt. The fact is, some people just haven’t learned to hunt alone, or maybe I’m bringing someone to a new area and want to show them around. What I’ve noticed with most “buddy-hunters” is that they’re usually stubborn know-it-alls. The reason they don’t hunt alone is because they haven’t learned that they should! These people follow me around all day, and sometimes they even heed my advice. But for the most part they go right back to doing their own thing—what they’ve always done—thinking it’ll work out, but rarely having success. When I hunt with these people, I have little or no expectation of success for either of us. Sometimes I don’t even take my bow out of the sling.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life is that you can’t help people who aren’t willing to help themselves. You can lead them to the best areas, but they’re gonna make the same mistakes they always made: underestimating deer, making too much noise, moving with the wind instead of against it, over-packing, resting when they should be moving or moving when they should be sitting. In the end, it’s not so bad because I actually learn more from unsuccessful hunters than successful ones.

When hunting alone, safety is my only concern. Some areas—such as the High Uinta Mountains—are just too big and rugged to venture into alone. One false step and no one will ever find your body. But that doesn’t mean I’m required to hunt with someone; I’m really just hiking and camping with them. In the morning when the hunt begins, I’m going out  on my own. In dangerous areas it’s good to have someone else in the general area—just not right next to you.

In two decades of bowhunting, I haven’t arrowed a single animal with someone standing next to me. Bowhunting is not a team sport. If you have a regular hunting partner, that’s great. Just make sure you set out in opposite directions before your hunt begins.

Secret Bowhunting Tip #1: Weight is Everything

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Be prepared. – Boy Scout Motto

Be prepared, not OVER-prepared. – My Motto

In this article I’m going to address weight issues. I’m not talking about body fat; if that’s an issue then it’s a personal problem. No, today I’m talking about unnecessary items we carry into the field, and which are most likely hampering our success.

Utah offers a great opportunity for bowhunters who still have unused archery tags at the end of the general season. It’s called the Wasatch Extended Archery Hunt. The “extended hunt” runs from the middle of September clear through the middle of December, and encompassing the entire Wasatch Front, and even the entire deer rut. I usually see more giant bucks during the extended hunt than the whole general season and scouting trips combined. The biggest downside to the extended hunt—particularly in November and December—is the steepness of the terrain coupled with deep snow and cold weather.

In late November, 2012, I hunted the extended hunt for a few days alone. There’s always a little apprehension when venturing into those steep and freezing mountains alone. No one knows ever knows exactly where I’ll end up, including myself. To feel safer that year, I brought tons of extra gear including extra clothing, food, water, hand warmers, boots, and even some reading materials for when I got bored. In other words I over-packed, and that was a big mistake. Instead of taking three hours to drag my sled up to camp, it took five and I didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am. For the duration of the trip, my legs cramped, I blew through my water, ate more food, and had to rest more frequently. Although it was warmer than previous years, I was more tired and miserable. Miraculously I arrowed a nice buck two days later, but with so much new weight, I had to leave half my gear on the mountain and return the next day to retrieve it. Not fun!

In 2013 I returned to the same spot alone, only this time I brought my brain. Before the trip I went over the list of junk I hauled up the mountain last year and then crossed out almost half of it. Most of that ‘extra stuff’ served only to make me feel safer and had no real use for hunting. Some of the items included extra food, extra water (I could just filter water as I went and /or eat snow), extra boots, a pillow, books, propane, extra knives, hand warmers, utensils, batteries, archery tools, a handgun, extra flashlights, lighters, etc. I also noticed that my big, leather hunting belt weighed twice as much as my skinny “church belt,” so I wore that one instead.  I even cut the tags off my clothes and the handle off my toothbrush. All in all, I probably removed 30% of my pack weight, and man did it pay off. I got up the mountain in record time, ate less, and covered more ground than ever before. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to be quiet while carrying a heavy day pack. In the end, I didn’t miss any of the junk I left home. Well, at first I did miss my handgun once I learned there was an active cougar den with kittens only 300 yards of my tent!

For most people, it’s hard to believe that such small items matter that much. But in truth, these items have a compounding effect. You never know which erroneous item will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Weight is especially  a negative factor when hunting in snow. More than anything else, a pair of heavy boots will fatigue you in the snow. For years I had two boot options for various weather conditions. One pair is a heavy, high-top, insulated cold-weather boot, and the other is a lightweight, breathable, un-insulated stalker-style boot. In 20I3 I stopped using the heavy boots altogether. What I found was the heavy boots always got too hot, primarily because of the amount of steep terrain I was covering. They were also noisy and very heavy compared to my stalker boots. Now, the stalker boots weighed only half as much (similar to tennis shoes),  but there were two minor drawbacks. First, my feet always got cold when I wasn’t moving, and second, they had minimal traction-tread. To counteract the cold, I simply wore two layers of wool socks. As for traction, I simply used a pair of lightweight ice cleats which worked wonders in the snow.

The next time you return from a grueling backcountry bowhunt, empty everything in your backpack onto the living room floor, and then make a list of everything you didn’t use. Is there still a tag on your tent? Why did you pack it into the woods? Were you going to eat it? Is there half a tube of toothpaste left in your toiletries pocket? Why did you pack extra paste?

Weight is everything; that’s what I learned in 2013. And surprise, surprise, fear is your worst enemy. Fear is why we over-pack. The more afraid we are of the mountain, the more extra stuff we cram in our packs; you know, just in case… And then there’s the great gear paradox:  the more we fear failure, the more hunting gear we carry around in our daypacks. Bowhunters, heed my plead:  You are the predator, not the crap on your back. You are too be feared, not the mountain. All that extra weight is an anchor keeping you from your goal. Pack light. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Be prepared, not over-prepared.

Click here for my Secret Bowhunting Tip #2: Success is a Decision