Hunting big game with archery tackle is one of the greatest challenges a person can face, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Stalking close to unsuspecting prey, and then harvesting that animal with a stick-and-string stirs the primal spirit and reconnects us with nature in a way that gun hunting can’t. But did you know that bow hunting also has several advantages over the gun? Let’s look at a few:
1) Early Seasons/ Late Seasons: In most western states, the archery seasons occurs before the rifle season. In Utah for example, the archery hunt begins in mid-August when deer are still in their relaxed summer routines which makes them more predictable and easier to stalk. They are also velvet-clad which keeps them out of the thick timber.
By the October rifle hunt these same bucks become hard-horned and tend to stick to thick timber, making them harder to locate.
States like Idaho and Utah also have archery-only, late season rut-hunts which allows archers to take advantage of giant, rut-crazed bucks which are much easier to locate after the rifle season ends.
2) Longer Seasons: Most western states have much longer archery seasons than rifle. In Utah for example the general archery season is 28 days long compared to the 9-day rifle hunt. It certainly helps to have time on your side, and having a season that’s three times longer will allow many more opportunities.
3) Warmer Weather: Early season means warmer weather, and warmer temperatures means more time afield. You’re also less likely to get snowed out of your hunt.
Cold weather wears on your overall attitude, thus compromising mental toughness. It’s far much easier to get discouraged when you’re cold and wet.
And finally, warm weather affords lighter clothing and less gear to pack around, making you quieter and more mobile.
4) Easier to Spot: Summer bucks wear a reddish-orange coat throughout August which makes them much easier to spot against green vegetation. They also run in bachelor herds well into September, and since there’s more of them, they’re easier to spot. By October most big bucks are running solo and holding tight to heavy timber during daylight hours.
5) Better Draw Odds: Probably the greatest advantage of archery is ease of drawing a tag. In the unit where I deer hunt, I’m guaranteed an archery tag every year. But gun hunters are only able to draw every other year due to high demand. This is an important archery advantage, because if you can’t get a tag you’re not going hunting!
The same advantage applies to limited entry and other high demand tags. In Utah it takes an average of two years longer to draw a limited rifle tag than a limited archery tag.
6) Quiet Weaponry Means More Opportunities: As any archer can attest, it’s just a matter of time before you sail an arrow over some unsuspecting buck that you’ve spent hours stalking. But if you have a quiet bow–as most bows are–you’ll likely get a second chance. This happened to me last year, and fortunately my second arrow got the job done.
Probably the worst disadvantage of rifle hunting is that all the deer on the mountain are alerted after the first rifle shot. After that, any deer with any sense goes into deep hiding and becomes extremely difficult to find.
7) Archery Makes You a More Skillful Hunter: Sure, there are many skillful rifle hunters out there, but shooting accurately is only half the battle, for both rifle and bow. When the deer are holding tight to timber, you’ll need to have some decent stalking and locating skills. That’s what the bow affords: it forces you to be quiet and patient, to slow down, and to learn everything you can about your prey in terms of behavior and habits. Inevitably, the byproduct of all of this extra effort leads to a deeper connection to nature and a richer hunting experience.
When I made the transition from rifle to bow, I was blown away by how little I knew about deer behavior, much less my ability to stalk close to them. I burned many tags while building these skills, but in the end I’ve become a far more effective hunter.
Above all, archery hunting makes the whole experience far richer than simply sniping deer with a long-range rifle. Long after the meat is gone and the antlers are nailed to the wall, that experience will linger on. And isn’t that what we’re really hunting for?
Opening morning and it’s on! But not really, because the deer are effectively off. With increased human presence this year, the deer have sensed danger and left the area. It takes 20 days of futile hunting before I really understand what has happened: All the mature bucks flipped the ON/OFF switch to OFF, and have become unhuntable!
That’s pretty much the story in Northern Utah last year. After several years of mild winters, deer numbers steadily rose to the point that the DWR issued more tags. It’s a traditionally difficult unit to begin with, but with the slightest increase in human traffic the deer simply left the area and/or became completely nocturnal. I’ve never seen anything like it!
So I hunted from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top, and north to south. In some real nasty country I found tracks and beds, affirming there were still in fact deer around. But as the sun came up each day, they were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the Twilight Zone. In 2015 I counted 8 different 4×4-or-bigger bucks, including one 200” typical. In 2016 I counted ZERO!
I spent one frustrating day hiking farther and farther into a really remote canyon—almost too remote for even elk. Just as I was questioning my sanity for bothering, two mediocre 3-points blasted out below me. Being completely stealthy on approach, I couldn’t figure out how they’d sensed me…unless they were completely neurotic…and that’s when it hit me: Bucks have the ability to decide whether to be huntable or unhuntable. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. Here’s how:
Mature mule deer bucks are bigger, stronger, and faster than us. They also see just fine at night, maybe even better than they do during the day (according to biologists)! Deer are always nocturnal, so being totally nocturnal simply means they don’t get up and feed during the day. They also don’t drink water each day which helps them reduce daytime movement. And no matter what any “seasoned” hunter tells you, deer are smart (well…comparatively). They are highly adaptable and need to be in order to survive extreme climates, terrain, and predators that they encounter every day. When spooked by a hunter, a buck easily blasts through tangled brush, taking special care to keep trees between him and you, all while following a carefully planned escape route. The hunter hasn’t the slightest ability to chase after, or even to relocate the wizened old buck which is capable of covering vertical miles with ease and disappearing for days.
Flipping the Switch
For a deer, flipping the switch to OFF is probably not a conscious decision, but an instinct, and such a simple whim that it just happens without the necessity of thought. The buck spends a few days feeding and sleeping in some impenetrable patch of choke cherries on some ungodly-steep slope while waiting out the hunting season. I know because I found one of these very spots (I spent every day peeking behind every tree, after all). Sure there was deer sign in there, but it was so thick that I was literally climbing through with both hands. Visibility was only inches and the unavoidable cacophony of my approach would spook any deer long before I ever saw it. All I could think was, “This is exactly where I would be if I were a deer.”
So, what’s the solution? How do you beat the unhuntable buck? You can’t. It’s game over. In my case I left the mountain and hunted out of state. Everyone knows that increased pressured makes hunting harder, but there’s a tipping point where the buck decides to go farther and deeper than humanly possible. After years in the woods, he’s learned where these places are and when to use them.
One question remains: If a deer can become unhuntable, why doesn’t he just remain in that state all the time? Well, he’s an animal; naturally lazy, hungry, lonely, and curious. He doesn’t enjoy holing up on a hill if he doesn’t have to. He also knows that hunts are short and hunters eventually leave the mountain.
In the end, it comes down to hunting pressure. If an area has little hunting pressure, the buck might not even know the season is on and just goes about his summer routine. Becoming unhuntable is simply a tool he uses in order to survive during dangerous times, the same way he occasionally uses his antlers for fighting, and then forgets about them.
If you think about it, being invisible to man isn’t that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Deer share the mountain with much more elusive animals like cougars, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, etc. Many of these animals are nocturnal, but more notably they’re born with the natural inclination to hide from people. Comparatively, hooved animals like elk and deer are certainly shy of people, but not overly wary. For whatever reason they must learn to associate people with danger. It’s likely because we’re the only predators capable of killing them at long ranges…which is new and unnatural.
On the topic of long-range weapons, I’ve also observed the deer in my unit are holding tighter to the dark timber than they did in the past, even very early and very late in the day. It’s my belief that the popularization of long-range rifle hunting just within in the last decade is causing bucks to hold tighter to the deep timber where long-range rifles are rendered pretty much useless. Think about it: A group of bachelor bucks are standing in the open, and one suddenly falls over dead long before the report of the rifle is heard. The far-off shot is difficult to pin-point, and therefore difficult to avoid. The remaining buck’s only option is to dive into the timber and not come out. How many times will this happen before the old bucks stop coming out all together, and then teach their apprentices to do the same?
What is the future of deer hunting? Are deer getting smarter? Are they adapting to human predators as fast as we’re developing more efficient ways to kill them? If deer are bigger/faster/stronger than us, will there come a time that they are no longer huntable? All of these valid questions, and definitely up for debate. During a recent hunting seminar, someone asked the speaker if he thought deer were getting smarter. He replied, “No, I think deer are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.” I quietly but wholeheartedly disagreed, and then wondered how much time this guy really spends observing deer in the nature.
All I know for sure is that I’ve watched deer become unhuntable, and since unhuntable deer quickly spoils my season, I’ve opted to hunt elsewhere, which is really the only option. Sure, I know the caliber of bucks in my old unit, but I won’t waste my time there. No matter where you hunt, there will always be another area with less pressure and huntable bucks. Remember, bucks hate people pressure more than anything, so you must avoid people with as much fervor as you hunt for deer.
Spring black bear season is fast approaching, so today I’d like to offer my top 10 tips for bagging a black bear spot-and-stalk style.
Full Disclosure: I am NOT a professional black bear hunter. I bow hunted bears in Idaho on two separate occasions (2012 and 2016), and last year was my first successful hunt. That being said, I spoke to two different biologists in advance of each hunt and studied everything I could find on black bear hunting, habitat, and behavior. Still, it took many days to finally get the job done.
Interestingly, much of the theoretic data I collected in the preseason proved wrong. For instance, one article stated that early morning was the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as later. One biologist mentioned that bears absolutely hate the rain, but I ended up shooting my bear in a steady rain storm. Go figure.
Ultimately, spot-and-stalk success comes from boots on the ground and relentless time in the field; in other words, real-life experience. Now let’s get on with my tips.
Spot and Stalk Black Bear Top 10 Tips:
1. Food is Everything: Someone once said that black bears are just big hairy pigs. They eat, dig, and root around constantly, rarely holding still for very long. Since they’re so distracted, it should make them easy to hunt, right? Kinda. Like deer, bears feed for a while, then bed down for a few hours and repeat. The good news is that bears are easy to spot and generally found out in the open.
Spring bears primarily feed on new grass shoots, wild onions, clover, dandelions, and other spring offerings. It is imperative to talk to your regional biologist to find out what the bears are primarily feeding on in your area.
As for time of day, my advice is to hunt bears like deer: Get to a high lookout before first light and start glassing steep, grassy, south-facing slopes adjacent to old-growth forest (used for bedding). Of the nine bears I encountered last year, most were spotted in the early morning or late afternoon.
Even in the best units, you’ll likely glass many miles before actually laying eyes on a bear. If you can’t glass up a bear, keep moving. Get away from the roads, explore remote canyons, and cover as much ground as possible. Bears are solitary animals and are spread out across their range. This leads to tip #2.
2. Look for Sign: If glassing fails, the next step is to locate an area that looks “beary” and look for sign. You’re looking for large piles of black or green dropping, claw marks on trees, tree trunks rubbed smooth with hair attached, diggings, tracks in mud, turned over items, and dug-in tracks (see photo below). I’ll break these things down separately as we go, but basically you’re just looking for concentrations of bear sign and focusing your efforts there.
The most common sign you’ll encounter is droppings, aka scat. Droppings come out wet and green, then quickly oxidize to black (within 24-hours in warm weather). If you’re not finding droppings, keep moving.
3. Examine the Trees: An area dense with claw-marked trees is a good indication of a likely bear hang-out. Black bears–especially cubs–like to climb trees which leaves claw marks in the bark.
Bears also rub on trees just like deer, and they always have their favorite rub tree. Rub trees occur near trails or beds and are generally conifers with easily identifiable smooth spots with hair stuck to it.
4. Watch for Tracks: Unlike deer, bear leave few tracks because their foot pads are wide and soft which spreads their weight out. Most bear tracks are found in snow, mud, or soft dirt.
Another strange phenomon I found was “dug-in” tracks. Dug-in tracks are frequently found near bedding areas. Rather than soft tracks, these are trails that bears uses every single day while traveling from feed to bed. Because they step in the exact same spots each day, it creates staggered depressions in the ground. (see photo below)
Bear tracks will help you judge the size of a bear. Basically the main pad (front or back) of a mature bear (sow or boar) will be 4.5 inches or wider. Sow tracks generally don’t get bigger than 4.5″, but a big boar will stretch up to five or six inches.
5. Locate Bedding Areas: Bear beds are similar to deer beds and are usually located in thick stands of trees not far from feeding areas. Bear beds often look like large nests, whereas the bear pushes branches and ground cover out to the edges of the bed. Bears also like to bed on the cool, dark north-face near the tops of ridges. Also, just about every bed I found had multiple piles of scat nearby.
6. Watch for Items Turned Over: What the heck does this mean? Rocks, logs, and cow pies turned upside-down. This is something I never read about before, but everywhere I found bears or bear sign I found multiple items turned upside down. A rock lying next to a depression in the ground where it previously lied is most common. In springtime bears are primarily herbivores, but they really love protein from insects, grubs, mice, and other animals hiding underground. You’ll also encounter occasional diggings. Diggings consist of a random two or three-foot holes dug into the dirt where the bear went after a squirrel or other animal.
7. The Triple “S” of Bear Behavior: Secretive, Shy, and Slippery: Assuming you’ve found a good feeding area with lots of bear sign, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a bear. On several of my hunts I found areas littered with bear sign, but no bears anywhere. Slippery: Bears have a bad habit of disappearing right in front of you. They mosey behind a tree and they’re suddenly gone from the world. They are such quiet animals and chronically secretive. They are very shy and simply don’t want to be found.
Being patient is the key to bear success. When a bear finds a good feeding area/hillside, he’ll likely stay on it for several days. If you’re in a good location, or if you glassed up the bear earlier in the day, he’ll likely re-appear sooner or later in the same general area.
8. Watch the Nose: Bear hunting is technically easier than deer hunting because unlike deer, bears have relatively poor hearing and eyesight. However, the bear’s nose is equal to or better than a deer’s nose. Simply put, if he smells you it’s game over, so hunting according to wind direction is critical. Be sure to use a windicator when searching for or stalking bears.
Note: Bears have short attention spans. If a bear sees or hears you, hold very still and he’ll likely forget you were there.
9. Watch the Weather: Just like deer, bears avoid heavy rain or snow. However, a light or sporadic rain doesn’t seem to bother them. Hungry bears will happily brave the elements, and bears are always hungry! In my experience rain was not a factor, but snow and freezing temps were real bad news.
On two separate occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in the next day it disappeared from the mountain. This is especially a problem in the early season (April and May) when the bears are living close to their dens. When the snow flies, they head back to their dens and won’t emerge again until the weather is better. It’s much easier for them to just go back to bed and wait for brighter days.
10. Know the Anatomy: Unlike hooved animals, bears carry their vitals (heart/lungs) further forward in their chest. When a bear is broadside the front shoulder blocks the vitals. Therefore, you must time your shot for when the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze my arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow hit the bear’s big, powerful shoulder which stopped my arrow short of the vitals. Fortunately he swung around to face me and my second arrow sailed under it’s chin and into the chest. He didn’t go too far, but I was lucky. Fortunately bears don’t react the same way as deer; they’re more likely to stay put after a poor shot instead of instinctively sprinting away.
I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize that the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs and/or bait, but in my experience there’s nothing more exciting. challenging, or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.
Who is the greatest mule deer hunter in the world? That’s right, it’s Mr. Cougar (aka mountain lion). Out West an adult cougar kills a mule deer every 10-14 days. That’s 30 deer per year!
Why do we care? Because the average western hunter is lucky to kill just one mule deer in a year. At that rate how can anyone expect to improve their skills, especially when hunting with primitive weapons? Perhaps we can learn a few things from our feline friends…
Cougars are actually similar to humans in many ways. For instance, we’re both predators and meat-eaters with forward-placed eyes designed to catch fast motion. We’re similar in size and even color: a cougar is tan/orange just like a human before he dons some fancy camo pattern. And just like cougars, we love to hunt mule deer!
A few years ago I started comparing my own hunting style with that of a cougar. I found this to be a surprisingly helpful way to hone my hunting skills and make decisions afield.
How to Hunt Like a Cougar
Below I’ve listed several traits that make a cougar such an efficient mule deer hunter, and how we can learn from them:
• Cougars stalk very close: Killing is done eye to eye, paw to hoof. Survival means stalking very close and remaining completely undetected. Deer can’t see super-slow motion or fine detail, so the cougar capitalizes on those weaknesses. Stalks can last several hours, and even then, most stalks end in failure. But the cougar persists and eventually eats. The two greatest virtues a hunter can glean from cougars are patience and persistence.
• Cougars are light on their feet: Have you ever seen an obese cougar? Heck no. Mature males typically weigh 125 to 220 pounds, and they only eat as much food as is necessary to survive. Cougars also eat 100% organic, lean meat and avoid processed food and carbs. Instinctually, cougars know that over-eating will slow them down and make them inefficient killers. What can we learn? It’s pretty obvious: stay trim.
• Cougars hunt alone: Cougars rarely hang out in packs, and when they do it’s usually a young family or juvenile group. Adult cougars live and hunt on their own. There’s no reason in the world they would hunt in a group. Hunting in a group increases visibility, doubles their scent, and slows them down. A cougar doesn’t get home sick or lonely either, which makes him mentally tough and distraction-free. For all these reasons, bowhunters can benefit greatly by hunting alone too.
• Cougars cover lots of ground: A cougar’s home range is anywhere from 10 to 300 square miles, and he often travels hundreds of miles in search of game. He’s constantly mobile. If a cougar keeps hunting the same mountainside every day, he’ll eventually run out of food and starve. Human hunters might consider doing the same. If you aren’t finding deer where you have in the past, it might be time to move on. Being flexible enough to explore new areas (or new units) could be the ticket to success this season. More importantly is being physically able to cover lots of rugged country once you’re out there.
• Cougars don’t carry extra weight: Killing is done using powerful fangs and claws, not heavy, cumbersome weapons and a pack-load of gear. The cougar travels light, carrying only the basic necessities to live full-time in the wild. Sure, humans have different physical needs, but how different are we, really? We have a coat, the cougar has fur; we have a tent, he has a den; we have shoes, he has footpads, etc. Is a GPS, binos, cell phone, or camera really necessary to kill one mule deer? As for weapons, there are a myriad of lightweight options available. Many bow manufacturers make compound bows weighing less than three pounds, and traditional bows weighing less than one pound!
• Cougars minimize scent: There’s no question that cats are clean animals, and the cougar is no exception. Unlike pack hunters (wolves and coyotes) the cougar hunts alone. Thus, he incorporates daily tongue baths and carefully buries his stinky treasures, all for the sake of reducing his presence afield. For us humans, vigilant scent reduction increases your overall success by reducing your footprint in the woods. Of course 100% scent elimination is impossible, but there are a number of ways to reduce scent without going overboard. I am a big proponent of field baths as well as scent-eliminating sprays, deodorants, and detergents.
Down through the ages cougars have used their innate and learned hunting skills to locate and kill more mule deer than any other animal on earth. This perfectly adapted predator doesn’t require fancy gadgetry, technology, apps, or upgrades to be successful. The next time you’re thinking about making changes to your hunting routine, ask yourself, “What would Mr. Cougar do?”
Final Note: If you ever get a chance, buy a tag and shoot a cougar. They are tasty, but more importantly we really don’t need the competition.
While bow hunting last year, it occurred to me that success can be divided into three equally important pillars. To put it in perspective, I created the diagram below:
Think back to your last hunt. Were you successful? If not, which pillar did you fall short on? Since each step is equally important, it should be easy to pinpoint where you need improvement.
Let’s break it down:
The first step, locating a buck, is something you can start doing right now. The best way to locate more bucks is to study their behavior, habitat, and ecology. You can also research harvest data and biologist’s reports on the unit you are planning to hunt. Then later, the scouting begins.
The second step, stalking a buck, is not always intuitive. Getting close to big bucks is the hardest step to master because, unlike shooting, it’s something we rarely get to practice. What it really boils down to patience: knowing when and how fast to move depending on conditions such as wind and cover.
Finally, shot execution. Almost everyone I talk to is pro-class shooter…until their arrow flies wide of an unsuspecting buck. Bowhunters are lucky just to get one or two shot opportunities in a season, so it’s very important to prepare for real-life hunting scenarios in advance. The best way to do this is to practice shooting in different positions, unknown yardages, around objects, and in adverse conditions such as wind.
I’ll certainly keep this “wheel of success” in mind when going into the next hunting season. I call it a ‘wheel’ because it just keeps on turning, year after year. After completing all three steps in a season, it begins again the following year. The goal is to keep the wheel from going in REVERSE, which only happens when you blow a stalk or botch a shot.
Watching my arrow sail harmlessly over a world-class buck at 50 yards wasn’t heartbreaking; it was traumatizing! After replaying the shot over and over for a year, I concluded it was either an error in ranging, or more likely I settled the wrong pin (60-yard?) due to buck fever. Consequently I made some drastic changes to my bow setup last year, starting with my bow sight.
For years I used a standard multi-pin, fiber-optic bow sight. When the single-pin (slider) sight came out, I wrote it off as just another unnecessary gadget which would likely introduce more problems than anything. But after carefully weighing the pros and cons, I decided to try it–and I’ll NEVER go back.
Single Pin Pros
1) It’s far easier to focus a single pin on a small target than to wade through multiple-pins–or worse yet, shooting between the pins–especially under high stress.
2) Multiple pins–whether 5 or 7–take up way too much space in the sight picture. A long row of pins is not only distracting, but blocks too much of the target or animal’s vitals.
3) If you’re shooting heavy arrows and/or pulling a light draw weight, the pins on a multi-pin sight will be spaced widely apart. This adversely affects accuracy. A single-pin sight that can be dialed to the exact yardage has proven to be far more accurate in my experience.
Single Pin Cons
1) The most obvious drawback to a single-pin sight is that every time the animal moves, you have to re-adjust the sight. If the animal moves a lot, or is walking towards you, it can be very frustrating. But after actually using it in the field (and arrowing three animals in 2016), I realized just how rare these scenarios occur. In most cases you’ll have plenty of time to range the animal and move the slider; it only takes a second.
2) Moving a single-pin sight creates extra movement. Again, this proved to be a nonfactor. When hunting thick timber, I leave my pin set at 20 yards and don’t worry about it. If an animal busts out at 25-30 yards, I just have to hold a little higher. When I’m hunting more open terrain I leave the pin at 30 or 40 yards, but it really doesn’t matter because animals that far out are usually calm and won’t notice the slight movement of my hand. After all, just drawing your bow creates far more movement than scrolling a slider wheel.
Just about every archery manufacturer makes a single-pin sight now. My only recommendation is buy a sturdy, all-aluminum model that can stand up to the rigors of hunting.
If you’re not yet ready to commit to a single-pin sight, then you should consider a hybrid sight. In a hybrid sight the top few pins are fixed, but the bottom pin is movable. This solves most issues listed above, but again, you still have multiple pins blocking the target. My advice is to keep it simple: one pin, one man, one giant buck.
This footage taken shortly after taking my 2016 Boone & Crockett buck in Idaho. It was extremely hot, flies everywhere, I was dehydrated, but very pleased with the outcome of an impromptu bow hunt. I hope you enjoy this short film!
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.
Off to Idaho
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.
Finally, a year later I’m letting the buck out of the bag. Actually I never bagged this buck to begin with, so unless someone else has, he’s STILL out of the bag.
Either way, this amazing 200″+, Northern Utah mule deer buck has haunted me every day since the 2015 season ended. I promised myself never to obsess over a buck (again), but not a single day went by for the entire year that I didn’t think about it.
The pictures in this article were taken from a video I shot at only 200 yards. At the time, he was surrounded by three other deer and there was no way to get closer. So I let him walk, thinking I might get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans.
Like most big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.
Hoping to get a second chance in 2016, I spent nearly 20 days of the season looking EVERYWHERE for him–high and low– but he was nowhere to be found. He is gone.
If you happen upon this tremendous buck, please give him my regards and tell him I miss him.
P.S. Despite the great heartbreak and strife of my 2016 bow hunt, I was still able to score on an impressive Idaho buck (story soon to come.) All is not lost…
The bowhunt is a only a few days away and the anticipation is making me crazy! How bout you?
The question that continually haunts me is how big-a-buck should I pass up? My goal is always a 200-inch buck, but what if a 195″ walks by? What about a great 170″ drop-tine?
Most bowhunters are just happy with any mature buck. Novice hunters might be happy with a spike or forked-horn. Others would be fine just putting meat in the freezer, horns be damned.
In order to make the decision to pass easier, I’ve compiled a short list of things to consider before you loose an arrow:
Are you more concerned with meat or horns? Maybe both? After all, meat comes with horns–it’s an added bonus. I don’t believe in killing deer simply for horns. To me, the meat is sacred. That being said, the bigger the buck, the more meat. A big, mature buck can weigh twice as much as a yearling, making trophy hunting a meat-wise prospect.
How many days are available for your hunt? If you’re seriously limited–like just the weekend–then any buck is a great buck! But if you really don’t need the meat, then holding out and eating the tag is quite okay. There will be more deer next year.
When I first started bowhunting, I only had four days to get it done. My system was easy: First day 4-point, second day 3 or 4 point, third day 3 point, fourth day anything!
Are you hunting a quality area? If so, you can expect multiple opportunities. So it just makes sense to hold out for a quality buck. If your area sucks, then any buck would be great.
If the buck in front of you is good, but not great, ask yourself, “Will I be happy with this buck once it’s down? Is this buck worth blowing my entire season on?”
These are important questions, especially for the seasoned hunter. You’re not getting any younger. If the buck doesn’t meet your goals, you may have serious regets for the next 12 months.
Many years ago, I would be tickled pink with any mature buck. For the longest time, I would pull an arrow at the slightest hint of a buck. Now, in order avoid year-long regret, I refuse to pull an arrow until I’ve summed up the buck and am absolutely sure it’s the one I’d be happy with. Once my arrow is nocked I’m in killing mode and it’s a lot harder to let the buck walk.
In the end, the decision to shoot is completely yours and should be based solely on your own personal goals. Pressure to succeed should come from one’s own desire to progress as a hunter, and not from your ego or desire to impress other people.