It was the fifth morning into my 2015 archery deer hunt, and I was walking the same dusty trail back to camp. I left the cruel woods early that morning, chased out by the looming heat and impending failure. My head hung low as I mindlessly kicked up dirt, and was suddenly awoken by a fresh set of bobcat tracks crossing the path.
I remembered last night when I was startled awake by a high speed chase around my tent and the screeching of a squirrel. Probably a bobcat, I thought.
Now, intrigued by these delicate tracks, I pulled out my camera and knelt down to take a picture. In this moment I was suddenly gripped with clarity and crushing emotion. It was the first time in a long while that I wasn’t thinking about deer, and was just enjoying nature. In this moment I was filled with love for every aspect of the woods. Just like the bobcat, I had a place there and knew I was accepted by a greater whole. Success or failure meant nothing.
Until now I was desperately pushing a dangerous energy ahead of me, filling the tranquil forest with thoughts of killing. This, I believe, is why we often fail in our hunting pursuits. There is a connection to life that only we humans don’t understand. Our gift of consciousness gets in the way. We must conquer ourselves before we can conquer others. This is the natural order of things, and a lesson I’ve been blessed to learn over and over.
These little surprises–like bobcat tracks–add up to a much larger experience, and that experience is what I’m really hunting for. This is really why I’m there.
Like any old marriage, the woods and I have our moments, both good and bad. Sometimes we ignore each other. But once in a while I remember why we’re still together, and why I love her so deeply. In the end, I’m to blame. It’s me that fights, not her.
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.
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?
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.
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.
This is Part 2 of 2 articles addressing changes in hunting in the future. In Part 1 we examined possible changes in the animals we hunt simply through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution. Not only are these animals getting smarter, but are capable of quickly adapting to new technology and modern hunting methods. What some modern-day hunters don’t realize–especially us older hunters–is that we must adapt just as quickly to our prey.
Future hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck or fail most of the time. In nearly three decades of big game hunting I’ve observed a split–or chasm–developing between traditional deer hunters and the new super-hunters. In the future, hunters will be divided into two camps based on their willingness to adapt to modern animals. These two camps are: a) Extreme wilderness athletes (super-hunters) willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any size animal or even no animal.
The following items will separate the new hunter from the traditional hunter:
-The future belongs to the EWAs!
(EWAs = Extreme Wilderness Athletes)
EWAs find time each day to work on their health via diet and physical training. It’s might not be critical to be “extreme,” but you’ll still need to be a wilderness athlete (WA). Being a WA simply means getting yourself to the animals no matter where they are. The bigger the buck, the harder you’ll have to work for it. The biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful hunters is physical fitness. Out-of-shape hunters simply can’t drag their butts up the mountain to where the deer are. Today’s superdeer rely on hunters to only make it so far, and where the hunter stops the deer begins. I know it’s pretty obvious, but the guy riding around on the four-wheeler will have far less luck than the guy burning boot leather in the steep stuff all day.
EWAs scout more days than they hunt. Scouting isn’t optional; scouting IS hunting. With fewer trophy opportunities in the future, you’ll need to locate prime areas ahead of the hunting season. Scouting not only means locating game, but devising a Plan B, C, and D as well.
EWAs don’t have to worry where the deer falls; they can always get it out. In the past, many of us refused to go too far into the mountain because we figured we couldn’t get the animal out if we got one. Not anymore. Wilderness athletes train hard enough to get anything out. And if it isn’t possible for one person, then they’ll enlist help from their friends, or have horses available. I spend about 20 – 25 day hunting deer each year. As much as I love so many days afield, I’d much rather drag a deer out after just 1 day! Whenever I catch myself making excuses for not going deep and steep, I remind myself of that it’s FAR easier (both mentally and physically) to spend a couple days dragging a superbuck out of some hell-hole than it is to hunt for days on end without success.
Go LIGHT! Future hunters hunt like cougars. In the cougar hath nature created the perfect deer killer. An adult cougar must kill a deer every 7-10 days to survive. No other animal kills more deer than a cougar. Whenever I want to improve my hunting skills, I look to this animal for advice. The first thing I notice is that cougars don’t carry any gear; well, aside from their powerful forearms, fangs, and razor-sharp claws. This goes hand-in-hand with my anti-gear mentality. Less gear = less weight = success. Simply put, the lighter your load the farther you can travel, and with less fatigue. Now, to survive as humans we need to carry a few basic necessities (fire, water, weapons, clothing, etc.), but there’s always room to cut weight. In places where water is abundant, I’ll carry a water filter instead of water bottles. One of the best ways to cut weight and reduce fatigue is to wear lighter footwear. Also, most bow manufacturers offer super-light bow options. In almost every crevice of your daypack you’ll find a way to reduce weight.
Future hunters will rely on skill rather than equipment. For quite some time I’ve been warning people of the phenomenon known as “equipment-bandade-syndrome,” or EBS. EBS can occur in both men and women who suffer from prolonged hunting failure, or PHF. To conquer PHF, hunters often attempt to buy their way out by purchasing some hot, new piece of equipment to solve some inadequacy. The reasoning is simple: It’s far easier to change your gear than it is to change yourself. Unfortunately there’s a million items out there to buy, whether it’s some high-tech camo, a new speed bow, or $3000 optics. ATVs are my favorite! Not too long ago ATVs became a requisite for hunting; every serious hunter suddenly needed an ATV. I don’t own one but I love ATVs because ATV-people rarely travel very far from their machines. This keeps the competition down in the woods. People with EBS need to focus on HOW they hunt, not the equipment they hunt with.
Future hunters have no fear. The woods belong to the brave. All hunters–men, women, and children–must enter the woods without fear of being killed or maimed. Fear is more common than many think, and the problem with being afraid of the woods is it interferes with your focus. To be successful, 100% of your focus needs to be on the vast subtleties of your prey and the environment around you. If you’re scared of the boogie-man or a bear around every bend, then you’ll miss subtle clues such as tracks, rubs, sounds, etc., which will lead you to your prey. The woods are especially spooky when you stay out after dark. But if you wait to enter the woods when it’s light, or return to camp before dark, then your missing your best opportunity.
Future hunters spend more days afield! To be successful you must be willing to put in the time. It used to be that one weekend was enough to get the job done. For me it was about four days. When I became serious about big bucks it stretched to a week, then two, and now it seems I’m constantly fighting free up every single day of the season. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s going to take many days to locate a decent buck and come up with a viable strategy to take it. These aren’t the same animals our grandpa hunted. We need to incorporate a more dedicated strategy if we are to be successful.
Future hunters are invisible. We discussed this last month, but as a recap being invisible means entering the woods in a way that you aren’t detected by the deer. This means using the wind to control scent, not leaving scent in the woods for the deer to discover at night, and avoiding audible and visible clues as you move through the woods. All of this is necessary because today’s big bucks hardly ever give you a second chance. If they detect any sort of danger they’ll flee the area and your hunt is over.
Another facet of being invisible is being invisible to the public’s eyes. Each year hunting becomes increasingly frowned upon by the ignorant, general public. To protect our livelihoods, it’s sometimes necessary to keep our hunting aspirations secret. More importantly is to keep your hunting locations a secret from other hunters! It seems that every time I disclose anything about my new hunting or fishing spots, a bunch of so-called friends and family follows me into the woods and blows up the area. In today’s hunting world there’s just way too much competition. At the same time there are far less areas that hold good deer.
An important law of nature dictates that “Quantity always destroys Quality.” Our population in Utah grows by more than 40,000 people each year, yet we have a fixed amount of natural resources; a fixed amount of deer, fish, habitat, and public land. From this crux brews desperation, meaning more and more people are eager to blatantly intrude upon our secret-sacred areas. Some of the best hunters I know are reluctant to even share field photos/stories with anyone in order to protect their dwindling honey-holes. I suggest you do the same. Like many hunters, I used to put hunting stickers on my truck. After having my tires slashed in the woods, I no longer announce myself as a hunter. If anything I might put pro-Hillary or PETA stickers on my truck just to protect my vehicle and my camp from anti-hunter terrorists, or even worse, competitive hunters with no moral scruples.
For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting more difficult. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of quickly adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them.
In the near future I foresee a divide between hunting camps, and the formation of two distinctly different hunter types: a) traditional hunters hunting yesterday’s ghosts and rarely having success, and b) modern super-hunters continually adapting to their prey, dedicating their lives and livelihoods this greatest passion, and having consistent success on quality bucks.
So that was the 2015 bowhunt; it came and went faster than I could imagine. What I expected to be just another same-old archery season, ended up being a whirlwind of ups and downs and a dramatic unfolding of failure and success, coupled with new ideas, concepts, and a solidification of theories that sprung up during the 2014 season. But in the end I failed, which was so spiritually deflating that I decided to take a month off writing and devote my energy to calming down and digesting it all. Fortunately, the whole adventure was documented in my super-top-secret field journal. There is now enough new information in this little notebook to fill an entire book, and someday it will.
Enough pleasantries, let’s move on to the facts. My hunt was 28 days long, but I devoted half of it to my wife Esther’s, limited-entry bull tag in Fish lake. This was the most difficult hunt of my life. The terrain was super-steep, thick, boulder-strewn, log-fallen and all-round unforgiving with 90-plus degree days. The myriad of cow and spike hunters chased the herds into the far reaches of the worst mountain tops long before we arrived. We beat ourselves ragged on two separate trips just to close the distance on this silent 320-class bull which wouldn’t respond to calls, so Esther had to shoot it bedded, facing us, at only 20 yards. Thus began a most grueling 11-hour pack out on our backs. All in all it was a wonderful success and Esther’s very first bow kill. Congrats, doll!
In the end I shot nothing…just like last year. So here we go again, into the even more difficult extended season. The difference this time is that I am building off of countless lessons learned last year. Not only is it my goal to shoot both a Pope & Young buck, but a P&Y elk too! Unlike last year, I’m not just saying it; I’m doing it.
So we say goodbye to the 2015 general season forever. Incredibly difficult throughout, but beautiful. The story has just begun; can’t wait for next year!
There is an image, not unlike the one above, that still haunts me today.
It was the muzzleloader hunt of 2001. I was still getting used to my new hunting area near Fairview, Utah. I knew the hunting pressure would keep the big bucks in the thick timber, so that’s where I spent my days. I’d never gotten a real trophy-size buck before, and up until then, I’d only seen a few true trophies in all my years of hunting. But I’d seen enough in this unit to know it was possible. These were the bucks I daydreamed about.
On opening morning our camp dispersed across the land. I dropped into the deep and steep pine forest below camp. The deadfall was so thick I had to hop from log to log, not touching the ground for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it opened up with aspens and narrow feeding swathes. Judging by the sign—and I was no expert back then—there were plenty of deer around, but where they went during the day, no one knew.
I’d grown accustom to blowing stalks on large deer, and as you’ll see, my confidence was way down. I knew there were big deer in this unit, attested to by an occasional flash of antler, a loud snort, and the sound of heavy hooves smashing away through the dense woods. I pressed on, but really, I’d already given up.
Judging by the high sun, it must have been close to noon. I knew the deer wouldn’t be up on their feet at midday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to return to camp and make excuses for my failure; blaming the lack of deer on the area and then bedding down for the day myself. That would be submission. No, I would continue my quest, beating the pine-needled forest floor to death with my stinky old boots.
I was still-hunting along on a steep and rocky slope. The timber was less dense at the edge of the pines where interspersed aspens and deer brush heedlessly begged for a more sun. My predator eyes suddenly and haphazardly caught the slightest bit movement a hundred yards below me in some tall brush. My cheap, murky binos came up and locked on. ANTLERS! Little bits of tines bounced and bobbed through the tall brush. What they were attached to I could not tell in the thick brush; no fur nor face nor hide nor hair, just bits of antlers appearing and disappearing. How big was he, I wondered? A two-point? A four-point? No way to tell and no shot; I needed to get closer.
Here’s where my lack of confidence shines brightest. Based on previous buck encounters, I told myself this would never work out. I didn’t really believe I could get close enough for a shot, but I had to try—I desperately had to try!
It’s different these days, here in the future. Today, I would just sit tight. The wind was most likely rising from late-morning thermals. I would sit and wait for the buck to feed into the open, even if it took all day. 100 yards is an easy shot with a gun. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. But this is how we learn…
I dropped to my butt and began my slow-motion descent. The pine needles were dry and loud, and the terrain was terribly steep. I used the wind and forest sounds to cover my approach. For twenty minutes I slid, scooted, and crab-crawled down the hill, drawing closer and closer to the sighting. Minutes felt like hours.
The buck eventually moved out of sight, swallowed up by the forest. Unable to keep tabs on him, I became increasingly skeptical. Did he bed down? Did he sense me and move off? Gotta get closer! I crept closer and closer until I was within a few yards of where I first saw him. All was quiet. Now what?
He’s gone! I must have busted him out. I knew this would happen. Oh well… I would’ve been a little upset if I ever truly believed I had a chance at this buck.
I stood up, slung the gun on my shoulder, and dug my GPS unit out of my pocket. I stared blankly at the screen as it tracked and tracked and tracked for satellites. There’s nothing more tedious than waiting for the GPS to track in thick timber. My eyes lifted and floated around the forest. What direction did he go, I wondered.
As my gaze drifted to the right, my lethargic eyelids suddenly flashed wide-open; my heart stopped. Fifteen yards away, a massive, tall, sweeping, 4-point antler stuck directly out from behind a large tree trunk. On the other side, the long gray line of a deer’s back extended outward.
No thoughts, just action.
In one motion my left hand opened and the GPS went into free-fall. My hand flashed to the butt of my gun. The GPS was halfway to the ground as my gun twirled like a baton in front of me. My right hand caught the gunstock and lifted it to my shoulder. The GPS bounced inaudibly as the gun’s muzzle swung towards the buck.
Too late. Heavy hooves dug into the ground with a loud thud and every trace of that monster buck instantly vanished into the woods. Frantically I aimed at the crashing and snorting of my invisible foe, but he was gone.
And that was that. Nothing left but a haunting technicolor image of a huge antler sticking straight out of a tree trunk, burned forever in the forefront of my long-term memory. For the duration of the hunt I beat myself up for my failure.
I am tempted to leave the story right there, but habit forces me find the good in the bad. I knew then, as I know now, that my biggest mistake was over-estimating the buck, and under-estimating myself. I failed because I accepted failure from the start. I had him in my hands, if only I’d been patient. If only I had believed this one burning truth: that he was “just a deer” and not an impossible phantom.
If you’re following this blog, I apologize for my 6-week absence, the longest hiatus away from my writings yet. I guess I just needed to re-find my Zen.
As a general rule I don’t like to complain, but the past few months, as we transitioned into springtime, has been rather difficult and stressful for me. Here are some examples:
Being constantly let down by family, friends, and work associates
Having my hide tanner (taxidermy) disappear with my pelts that I needed to run my taxidermy business
Ever-increasing pain and difficulties with my right shoulder which has put a serious damper on the one thing I love doing most: shooting archery
My little “adopted” feral cat, Pickles, was viciously attacked and killed by the local dominant tom-cat. Before that, I had to shoot my old pet goat, Walter, in the head when he became too weak and feeble to even sit up any more.
My first turkey hunt was a disaster when after fighting through torrential rain, snow and mud, the giant tom I stalked and shot in the last hour of the hunt ran off with my arrow. We never found him. This was the breaking point.
And these are just a few examples! But again, I hate to complain too much because I know EVERYONE is fighting a difficult battle on a daily basis–that’s just life. Still, when too much happens at once, a person can easily lose his inspiration, his drive, and even his Zen.
This is why I’ve been away for so long. How can I write inspired Zen-prose when the well is dry? Fortunately, the answer is gradually becoming clearer, and is two-fold:
First, life is difficult so that we might become stronger. As they say, “the axe is sharpened by friction.” Overcoming adversity is closely associated with the meaning of life: we are here to learn.
Second, my life is currently sad and deflating, but later it’s going to be amazing and beautiful beyond comprehension. It always is. It’s just a matter of time and perspective. While stewing in my misery, I can simultaneously glance in the mirror and see a blessed, bright and healthy living being staring back with a loving, bowhunting wife at my side. I can simultaneously look outside my window and view deer feeding and pheasants strutting around in my wild, lush, and green backyard in the country, and I suddenly realize that I’m living the dream-life I always imagined.
It’s all about perspective and embracing adversity. Yes, it’s taken a while to figure out how to mend myself, but I’m well on my way. My next several blog-posts will be dedicated to re-finding my Zen.
Whenever you fall, pick something up. –Oswald Avery
If you are following this blog, then I apologize for my absence. My last post was over a month ago. Work obligations are somewhat to blame, but more than that, it’s been my lack of inspiration following a long and difficult hunting season.
When the general season ended with no new venison in the freezer, I was somewhat perplexed. What did I do wrong? Going in, I was convinced I’d unlocked the secret to bagging big bucks. But try as I might, I couldn’t do it. Immediately following the hunt, I felt deflated and uninspired. Five weeks later, I’m just starting to realize that failure is exactly what I needed to keep my ego in check. How can a person ever fully understand big bucks in the first place? It’s impossible. They are brilliant, highly adaptable survivors!
All told, I spent 13 days hunting hard all over my prescribed unit, but never drew my bow on a buck. At the same time, I could have shot at least a dozen small bucks–mostly 2- and 3-points–but I was holding out for a trophy. This is what caused me so much grief. No matter how much ground I covered, and no matter how high I went, I was disappointed by the low numbers of mature bucks. I knew I could find them if they existed, but they were almost non-existent. Of the 50+ bucks I saw, only two were mature bucks in the 170-180″ class range; barely trophies in my book. Long story short, these bucks were either inaccessible or the stalk failed for one reason or another. Either way, the problem is with how few big deer there are anymore.
In observing so many deer in the wild, I was blown away by the sheer brilliance of the modern mule deer and the ways in which it’s adapted to avoid modern hunters. Their survival tactics seem well thought out and highly effective. For instance, some of the largest bucks would keep does between them and the timberline as a sort of security fence. Basically, a bowhunter would have to get through a string of does to get to the bucks, making it nearly impossible to hunt them. This and many other evasive tactics were documented and will be covered in my next blog-post.
So the hunt was a failure, but only because I failed to provide meat for my family. At the same time, the hunt was a huge success. The countless hours spent sitting alone in nature, watching sunrises and sunsets, creeping through the dark timber, and observing innumerable animals going about their business–all these things stirred my soul and rejuvenated my being. Life’s daily problems and stresses melted away. I saw the hand of God through all his creations, and all questions about the purpose of life were answered.
Fortunately the hunt isn’t over yet. The extended hunt began where the general season ended. Now, the extended hunt can be extremely difficult due to high hunting pressure, dry and noisy leaves on the ground, and the low numbers of scattered deer. At the same time, the odds go up when the snow flies and pushes big bucks down from the high country and concentrates them on the lower elevation windswept slopes. This occurs in mid-November, and that’s where my hunt will resume.
Yes, I failed to harvest a deer, but the season isn’t over yet. I still have an unused deer tag and an elk tag in my pocket, and I will succeed in providing meat for my family. I have learned humility through failure. I have found my inspiration and I’m full of hope. I still believe in Zen hunting, and through the process of Zen hunting, success is still a decision.