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The Wall: My 2017 Archery Buck


2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.

In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.

Southern Utah.

A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the others into the trees. That was the last I saw of them.

Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience, and the challenge. Above all it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.

After seven days afield I drove home, dropped the wife off, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.

A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting and contorting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.

Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. Enjoy it! I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places, hoping to find another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.

The hunters moon.

Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.

Hairy current berries.

Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”

The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.

I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.

Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.

Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.

Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.

My 2017 camp.

I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.

Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.

I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.

Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.

As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.

An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.

It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.

The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.

Deer retrieval route.

Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.

This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.

Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres, and the wall crumbles.

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.

hunt2016_002

Letting the Buck Out of the Bag

My 2015 obsession.
My 2015 obsession.

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.

A sentinel buck that ran with my buck.
A sentinel buck that accompanied my buck.

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.

A look from behind.
A look from behind.

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…

My 2014 Archery Buck

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Here it is folks, my 2014 trophy buck!  Okay, it was an off year, but I couldn’t be happier.  With only two days left in the season, I was very fortunate to find this buck up a little side canyon. After Thanksgiving, the area was being pounded by dozens of other hunters (or “dudes” as I call them).

I busted this little two-point halfway up a dense draw. He ran to fifty yards where he stood for a while before returning to feeding. For fifteen minutes I debated whether or not to take a shot. Would I find bigger buck? Highly unlikely. Do I need meat for the winter?  YES!!!

The buck stepped through a narrow opening in the trees. As I shot, he stepped again… I was worried as I watched my arrow hit several inches behind where I was aiming. The buck exploded down the canyon and out of sight.

I hurried over to where he stood and found my arrow: a clean pass through with lots of dark blood. Thank goodness it wasn’t guts!

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I waited a while then wandered down the canyon. The blood trail was easy to follow as it was coming out of both sides. About 100 yards down the canyon I spied a motionless pile of fur. The shot was good, hitting liver and lots of vital arteries.

As I sat in the snowy canyon cleaning my harvest, I couldn’t believe the season was finally over. I thought about the many challenges I endured this year–blown stalks, swirling wind, dreadful heat, blinding blizzards, and a major illness that wiped out half the November rut hunt for me. I also thought about the dozen or so BIGGER bucks I passed up for a chance at a real monster that never came.

Shot on the 28th; my lucky number!
Shot on the 28th; my lucky number!

In the end, I wouldn’t be that much happier with a bigger buck earlier on. For the trophy hunter, it’s all or nothing and I never found what I was looking for. But I’m also a meat hunter, and so this little buck means a lot. His death means continual life for me and my family.

Dragging my organic, free-range food back from God’s grocery store
Dragging my organic, free-range food back from God’s grocery store.

It’s easy for the trophy hunter to lose sight of what’s really important. The experience, the opportunity, and the passion supersedes the kill. The reality is, we are extremely lucky to live in a time and place where we can still partake in this wonderful tradition of hunting. I know that without it I would be lost in a world devoid of purpose.

I hope all of you had a great season this year. I’m already looking forward to next year. Good luck in 2015!

Zen Hunting Now Available on Amazon Kindle

In valiant effort to get with the times, an eBook version of my book,

3dbook1

is now available on Amazon for only $4.99!

This is a spectacular value for this limited edition, 200-page, 70-photo literary work. Order and read Zen Hunting now by clicking the link below:

Zen Hunting: A Bowhunter’s Path to Purpose and Enlightenment

(A signed paperback or hardcover copy is still available by request).

My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

superbuck_001

Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

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The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

arrowhead

Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

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While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

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The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

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Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

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Edge of perfection: My First Elk

Utah's High Uinta Mountains
Utah’s High Uinta Mountains

After nearly two hours of coaxing the massive bull elk in, exchanging bugles and blowing cow calls, he’s finally within bow range. But as I raise my bow ever so slightly, he catches my movement and whirls away. The charade is up. I’m busted; but I don’t care. Just to be part of such an exciting experience up here in the High Uinta Mountains has been worth it. Desperately, I blast another cow call. The bull stops and looks back in my direction. It’s not over yet…

It all started a year ago when my brother, Brent, and I hunted this area for a week with hardly a response from the nearly nonexistent elk. On the last day of that hunt I finally had enough and jumped over to the next drainage where I found myself literally surrounded by elk. Unfortunately, it was too little too late as I was unable to get a shot before dark. But it gave us hope for next year—actually, it gave Brent hope. As for me, I realized long ago that the only way to avoid a disappointing elk hunt was to stay home. For fifteen years I felt detached from the prospect of actually shooting a bull. In the years that the deer came easily, elk remained ghosts in the woods that I hardly ever saw. A great chasm had grown between me and the majestic elk. Seeing their caricatures in magazines, artwork, and free mailing labels never connected with me.

Just getting away from work and my relentless projects was nearly impossible this year. As the hunt drew nearer, I worked seventeen hours a day just so I could leave town for five days. On Monday morning I finally managed to escape the cold, steely claws of responsibility, and literally ran out the door to my awaiting 4×4.

Three hours later, I was standing on the side of the worst dirt road ever, watching my rear tire deflate in front of me. Suddenly a truck came ambling over the hill; lo and behold, it was brother Brent. He climbed out of his truck wearing an unfamiliar, ear-to-ear grin that only a successful elk hunter could wear, and immediately began telling me the story of the bull he’d arrowed three days earlier. While I loaded my tire with Fix-a-Flat, he recounted the exciting details of his hunt and how he was able to call his bull in for a fifty-five yard shot. At that moment, any rivalry we had about “who’s the better hunter?” was gone. I was just glad somebody in our family finally nailed down a branch-antlered elk after twenty years. I was honestly very proud of him. However, as I prepped my pack to head into the hills, I turned and said half-jokingly, “Well, I’ll just have to find a bigger one!” He replied, “Do it!”

Three and a half miles up the mountain I’ve located two bright yellow tents hidden in the trees: my new home for the week. It appears no one’s home, but I let out a little “locater bugle” just in case. My other brother, Russell, suddenly jumps out of his tent with  bow in hand, and I laugh. He’s seen so much action up to this point, that he’s sure a bull has just wandered into camp.

Elk Camp, 2009
Elk Camp, 2009

We have about two hours of good light, so after catching me up on all his recent elk encounters, we head off to a nearby meadow. The evening falls quickly, and as expected we get no response from our calling. I sleep well that night with nary a vision of antlers dancing in my head.

5 a.m. comes way too soon, but I’m ready. Bowhunting is what I practice year-round for—it’s what I live for. We head out into darkness up a steep and rocky trail leading to a large meadow a mile away. This is where we’ll begin our first “set-up.” Our typical set-up goes something like this: Russ and I sit down about 50 yards apart and begin a series of cow-mew calls to imitate a herd of elk. After a minute, one of us will let out a series of estrus (cow in heat) calls followed by a lone bugle. Then we wait for a response. We repeat this process every five minutes for up to forty-five minutes. Then, as is usually the case, we look at each other in disappointment, regroup, and try it again elsewhere. This set-up is no different.

Farther up the mountain, we do our second set-up and again, there’s no response. Now this is the elk hunting I’m used to, and I’m thinking this trip will be just like all the rest…whoo-hoo! Most years, I’m cold and shivering half-way through the first routine, but this morning is surprisingly warm for the elevation (9000 feet). This will force the elk to bed down early and probably hurt our odds. Again, I prepare for disappointment.

By disappointment, I’m purely talking about my yearly lack of elk steaks and back-straps that a lowly artist needs in order to survive the winter. Don’t get me wrong, every minute spent traipsing through Utah’s gorgeous backcountry is savored. It’s what keeps me coming back each year, even after eating “tag soup.” I love the smell of the woods, the truly fresh air, and especially the quietness. I love sitting beneath the tall lodgepole pines that reach forever upward towards the clear skies, bald peaks, and fast moving clouds. There are pinkish rocks and boulders strewn everywhere, which provide a quiet foothold on an otherwise crunchy, pine-needled forest floor.

I love watching all the wildlife too: the moose, the deer, the odd high-altitude birds with their strange songs, and even the annoying squirrels and chipmunks that jump from branch, barking at us for invading their territory. They’re all here with the elk, living together in harmony. I soak it all in while becoming happily alienated from the contrived reality back in the city.

A little while later we’ve arrived at Chuckles Point. It’s a high mountain point named by Brent who once got a great response from a bull he affectionately named Chuckles. He named the bull Chuckles because of its distinctive bugle, whereas at the end of each bugle it would let out a series of chuckle-laughs as if to mock Brent’s efforts.

Russell at Chuckles Point.
Russell at Chuckles Point.

There’s fresh elk sign in the area, so we get set up again. This time, halfway through the routine we get a clear return bugle. Game on! Suddenly I remember what I’m doing up here. Russ and I alter our routine with a series of cow calls to draw him in. The wise old bull is interested, but hangs up and refuses to come closer. Each return bugle is quieter, indicating that he’s moving farther away. If we cows aren’t coming to him, he’s not coming to us. Eventually, the bull is gone.

It doesn’t help that each time we set up, the wind changes—swirling one way, then the other. As luck would have it, the wind continues to shift like that all day. Later, when the wind has driven Russ completely nuts, I tell him, “Who cares [how we set up], the wind is just gonna change anyway…” But being a newbie to the elk hunting arts, he still has hope, which I find amusing.

Our next three set-ups are uneventful as we manage only an occasional, far-off call back. It’s 3:30 p.m. now; it’s hot and we’re exhausted. It’s nap time whether we like it or not. My dusty day pack makes for a fine pillow; the thick pine-needled ground makes for a soft bed. At this elevation dreams are strange:

A giant bull appears at twenty yards, but as I draw back to make an easy shot, I notice an old woman riding atop the beast like a horse. She’s okay with me shooting though, and moves her leg so I don’t hit her…

The sun is dropping and shadows are getting long; it’s wakeup time. Russ and I make our way to Rub City, so-named for the abundance of trees rubbed and thrashed by mighty elk antlers over the years. When the elk are in this drainage, this is their bedroom; it’s where they live and rest during the day. To begin our routine, I split off from Russ and head uphill. Thirty yards uphill, I am surprised by an explosion of animals as a group of bedded elk jump to their feet and go crashing through the timber. I make an immediate cow call which stops one large cow at forty yards. She stands there staring back at me for a minute and then the wind begins to swirl. Just before Russ catches up, the cow lets out a strange alarm bark and trots off. It’s exciting to actually see elk, but at the same time I’m disappointed that we busted them out. Well, that’s elk hunting, I guess. This has actually been the most exciting elk day ever; we’ve actually seen and heard elk, which is truly special.

High mountain stream.
High mountain stream.

It’s around 6 p.m. now, and we have time for maybe one or two set-ups before dark. We finally arrive at our destination: the far eastern end of a large meadow we call Eight-Cow Meadow. It’s a secluded east-to-west meadow, very long and oval-shaped, widening to about 200 yards at the middle. Russ and I set up fifty yards apart at the edge of the treeline in hopes of drawing an elk across the meadow from the opposite wooded side.

This call routine goes on and on and eventually my ears can no longer take the barrage of squeaks and squeals from the loud calls. I love quietness in the woods and this grand cacophony is the one thing I hate about elk hunting. Annoyed, I proceed to stuff wads of toilet paper into my ears. So here I am sitting flat on my butt with my bow lying on the ground, and after forty-five minutes of futile calling, I’m looking back towards Russ and wondering when we can finally surrender to the empty woods. As I finish yet another routine bugle, suddenly BOOM, a big nasty bull screams at us from the left. In one fluid motion I hop to my knees, snatch up my bow, knock an arrow, and swing around to face the noise. He’s close and should erupt from the woods at any second. All senses are on high alert and my first thought is, the wind is bad, blowing steadily in the bull’s direction; he’ll surely blow out of here.

A minute later, everything is still quiet. Our eyes are transfixed on the thick woods. The bull has hung up and is silent, staring back at us and listening. We have to do something quick or he’ll leave. Russ blows a couple estrus calls, and I let out a small bull bugle. Since the bugle got him to respond in the first place—and since he sounds like a big bull—he’ll probably be happy to fight off a smaller bull for some cows. Another minute passes. Then suddenly, the same throaty bellow shatters the air; same distance, different direction. It sounds as if he’s circled around to the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. Russ scrambles over to me as we try to figure out exactly where the bugle came from. I’m certain that it came from the opposite side of the meadow, but Russ thinks it might be behind us…but he’s not sure.

We decide to sprint across the meadow to close some distance and try to draw him down from the trees above. Russ offers to do the calling while I sneak up into the steep woods to intercept the bull. Not gonna happen. As I go sneaking into the woods, we get the same bugle and chuckle, only now it’s coming from the side of the meadow we were just on! It occurs to me that the bull was actually behind us (as Russell previously thought) and his bugle was reflecting off of the wall of trees across the meadow (where we are now). In other words, we’re on the wrong side. Oh well, we’re here now, and in a millisecond my role changes from hunter to caller in hopes of drawing the bull back across the meadow towards Russell who’s waiting at the meadow’s edge.

I am completely energized by this, certain that I can coax the bull in. I run farther up into the dark woods and make more calls. I want to make the big bull think I’m a little bull running off with the cows. The bull keeps responding to my calls, but the farther I go up the mountain, the more distant his bugle sounds. He knows something isn’t right and is not coming any closer—smart bull. I blow more calls, then grab a tree branch and begin smashing the limbs off a dead tree, attempting to mimic a frustrated bull tearing up a tree with his antlers. Next, I grab a bunch of large rocks and roll them down the hill to mimic hoof sounds. There’s no hesitation; this craziness is absolutely necessary to convince the bull that I’m a herd of elk. But all remains quiet, and I’m afraid he’s not buying it.

BOOM, anther bugle sounds, only now it’s coming from farther up the meadow. The bull has outsmarted us and is moving away, skirting just inside the tree line on the opposite side of the meadow. I run through the trees on my side, paralleling his movements and stopping occasionally to make cow calls. His response is becoming less frequent. I have no idea where Russ is at this point, so it’s every hunter for himself. Russ tells me later how he crossed back to the bull’s side of the meadow in attempt to close some distance.

At mid-meadow I’ve managed to mirror the bull’s movements according to his calls. The sun has dropped behind the mountain and darkness looms. My chances of ever seeing the bull shrinking by the minute. Oh well, the excitement thus far is more than you could ask for from any hunt. But it’s not over yet; I blow more calls, break more sticks, and roll more rocks. The next bugle is very loud and much closer. I can’t believe it; the bull has entered the meadow and is coming my way! Quickly I begin my descent towards the meadow’s edge. Fifty yards from the meadow, another bugle erupts and I freeze. Through an opening I see a massive, tan elk body and dark antlers moving through the meadow below me. My eyes widen; my heart races. I don’t have to count tines. This is a wily old herd bull—a real monarch.

At the edge of the meadow there’s a giant pine tree that I can keep between me and the bull. When I get there, I crouch behind the massive trunk and mess of lower branches. From this vantage I am able to see not one, but two elk; the big noisy bugle-boy and a smaller elk (probably a cow) holed up on the opposite side of the meadow. The bull is walking back and forth in the middle of the meadow. I hear Russell’s estrus cow call farther down-meadow and I’m relieved. It keeps the wary bull interested and distracts him from his even warier cow. The big bull turns and walks towards Russ, then changes his mind and walks back towards the cow. I take a yardage measurement: he’s 114 yards away; twice the distance I need for a clean shot. To make things worse, the cow turns and trots back towards the trees with the big bull following quickly behind. This guy’s about to exit the meadow altogether and in ten minutes my sight pins go dark. Pointing my elk calls toward the forest behind me, I start making desperate cow calls. The bull pauses, looks in my direction, then slowly turns and begins zigzagging towards me. He’s in no hurry and keeps stopping to look around. When he stops, I let out a call: estrus, bugle, mew, bugle, mew, estrus—whatever keeps him coming. This intense game of cat and mouse is working! Half-way across the meadow he lowers his head and tears at the ground with his giant rack, ripping up grass and mud and tossing it in the air. Frustrated and ready to fight, he keeps coming steadily towards my calls. He’s almost within bow range now. Kneeling behind the big pine tree, I’m frozen like a statue with one crazy eyeball peeking through the branches.

After nearly two hours of this craziness, I’m again focused and calm. Closer and closer the bull comes, staring right through me. I can’t range him; I can’t even move. His head goes down and my rangefinder goes up. It reads forty yards exactly. But as I raise my bow ever so slightly, he catches the movement, jumps, and whirls away. The charade is up; I’m busted! Desperately I blast another cow call from my Hoochie-Mama. He stops and looks back. Unsure of what I am, he veers left and starts quartering away quickly. It’s now or never. I figure he’ll probably see me draw my bow, but it’s my only chance. The sight pins scroll over his ribs, 20, 30, 40, 50; 50 yards is about right. Through a little twelve-inch opening in the branches, my arrow is off, streaking through the growing darkness.

Shot location.
Shot location.

THUMP. A strange sound rings out and the elk takes off trotting through the meadow. I didn’t see where my arrow went, but it sounded like a hit. Immediately, I blow a couple shaky estrus calls. The bull slows down and glances back at me occasionally as he continues away. Did I miss? About eighty yards into the meadow the bull suddenly jumps to his right like he’s losing balance, takes two more steps and just tips over. A weird cloud of surrealism washes over me. When I see that he’s not getting up, I burst from my cover and run into the meadow yelling, “HE’S DOWN! HE’S DOWN!”

Russ yells back from across the meadow, “WHAT?”

“HE’S DOWN! I GOT HIM!”

Russ appears running through the meadow towards me. “WHERE?” he shouts.

“Right there in the middle of the meadow; that’s him,” I say, pointing to a light colored pile sticking up out of the grass.

We exchange a very excited high-five and begin poring over a myriad of questions, trying to make sense of the last two hours. As we approach the mighty beast, I’m still in a daze. Russ begins counting tines, “Five-by-six,” he says. I have to reach out and touch one of the massive antlers to convince myself it’s real—but it doesn’t work. This situation, the intensity, the timing, the sheer lethality of a perfectly placed shot—the whole event is unquantifiable. There’s no way to ground my thoughts and feelings in an impossible situation that I don’t even trust. I give Russ my camera for documentary reasons, like when you see a UFO or Sasquatch. It’s not until I sit upon the bull’s massive body and feel its warmth in the cold night air that I feel a connection with reality again.

My first bull elk.
My first bull elk.

The arrow hit just behind the last rib, angled perfectly through the vitals, and lodged in the opposite front shoulder just under the hide. An absolutely perfectly placed arrow at fifty yards adds even greater mystery to a perfect hunt that still perplexes me today. Admittedly, I am a decent shot, but under that kind of pressure, not to mention shooting through tree branches and low light, maybe I was just lucky. To my credit, I think my year-long practice paid off. Too many botched shots on the previous year’s deer hunt caused me to obsess over shot placement all year long. And in the process of refining my skills, archery evolved from a fun hobby-sport to a way of life.

As we quartered the animal out by headlamp, I mentioned to Russ that this hunt had happened on a razor’s edge of perfection. It couldn’t have happened any other way; there were just too many variables. For example, a week-and-a-half earlier I had taken a perfect, fifty-yard broadside shot at a deer and missed wildly, only to learn that my new broadheads flew erratically outside of thirty yards. Thus, I replaced them right before this hunt. On that same hunt, I put a stalk on a small bull and was ready to take a forty yard shot when the wind changed and blew the herd out. Had the wind been different just a week earlier, none of this would have happened.

Special thanks are in order to the following people who made this hunt possible: Mom and Dad for packing the meat off the mountain, Brent for letting me use all his fancy camping gear, and Russell for all the extra elk calling, water filtering, meat hanging, and BS’ing. Unlike deer hunting, elk hunting is a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends in the great outdoors.

Mom and Dad packing the elk out.
Mom and Dad packing the elk out.

Drop-Tine Obsession

(Story published in Huntin’ Fool Magazine, Aug. 2011, Vol.16, Issue 8)

DroptineBuck

I first spotted the great buck, which I simply called ‘The Drop-Tine,’ during the 2008 season while bow hunting a heavily hunted public area of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Northern Utah (known as Monte Cristo by the locals). He was the most amazing buck I’d ever seen, with a wide sweeping rack and long matching club-like droptines hanging down below his ears. I had been exploring foreign hillsides all morning when I bumped him from his bed at the edge of some pines. As he quartered away I was able to get a quick shot off, but in my haste I misjudged the distance and the arrow flew low. The arrow hit some dead-fall in front of him, arrow shattered, twirled through the air, and bounced off the deer’s rump. I merely spanked him, and then he was gone. Having never seen a buck of this magnitude in the wild, and on public land for that matter, I became instantly obsessed. But for the remainder of the season I was unable to relocate him.

Monte Cristo is your standard north/south rocky mountain range in Northern Utah. It has everything mule deer love: tall mountains covered in aspen and pine trees, endless steep canyons and ridges, and rolling sagebrush hills. Water is scarce in most places, but adequate enough to support plenty of deer and elk. For decades Monte Cristo was one of Utah’s premier deer hunting spots, but in recent years, deer populations have declined drastically due to high hunting pressure and diminishing winter range. With very few peaks from which to glass and covered in dense timber, Monte Cristo is not a spot-and-stalk area. Big bucks are only found by busting brush in steep wooded areas, making it very difficult to locate them with any consistency.

In 2009 I planned to exclusively hunt The Drop-Tine for six days, beginning where I left off in 2008. But the great monarch managed to elude me up until the third evening when he busted out of some trees 40 yards above me, stood for a second atop a sagebrush knoll silhouetted against a twilight sky, and then disappeared before I could raise my bow.

By the sixth and last day I was getting desperate. My plan was to carefully still-hunt the entire mile-long ridge where he lived, as well as the adjacent canyon. For twelve hours I snuck slowly through the woods without rest, glassing every inch for antler. But he was nowhere to be found. Both physically and mentally exhausted, I was ready to give up. With my head hung low, I turned back towards camp. Seconds later, as I rounded the end of the ridge, The Drop-Tine suddenly exploded from a bed 40 yards below me in a thicket of trees. Through a cloud of dust I watched the big barrel-bodied deer bound away. I could hear him running for half a mile down the canyon and up the other side. I thought I was going to cry as I plopped down on a dusty game trail and dug my GPS out of my backpack. That day he had bedded half a mile from the last place I saw him. How do you hunt a deer that doesn’t move in the open during daylight, that is never found in the same place twice, showing up anywhere at random like a ghost?  The wise old buck lived a life without pattern; that is how he had eluded hunters for so long.

The 2009 season was over; time to throw in the towel. Every night for the following year, when I turned out the lights before bed, the image of The Drop-Tine silhouetted against the sky would pop into my head. I lay awake night after night pondering the mistakes I’d made and planning new strategies for taking the mystical beast the following year. I was Ahab, and he was my white whale.

DroptineBuck2

In the summer of 2010, as soon as the snow melted off the mountain, I went scouting for The Drop-Tine, but was never able to locate him. A week before the August archery opener, my brother Brent spotted The Drop-Tine while checking trail-cams in the area. Those trail cameras, by the way, never did capture the ghost’s image. Back home, the ‘Great Recession’ was taking its toll on my small photography business, leaving me with a lot more time than money. So, I used this to my advantage, planning to hunt The Drop-Tine on two separate trips totaling ten days.

The archery opener started off slowly. But on the fourth morning, while sneaking to one of The Drop-Tine’s old beds, he, along with two smaller bucks busted out of a new bed fifty yards below me. That was the last time I saw him that week. A second 5-day outing the following week turned up nothing, and I finally accepted the fact that the old buck had grown tired of my chasing him and moved to another area. At that point I had no choice but to give up. He was a deer beyond my caliber for sure, and I had already wasted way too much time and too many tags pursuing him. I thought about all the other hunting opportunities I’d sacrificed while chasing just one deer and was ready to make peace with my failure once and for all.

The next weekend, which happened to be the last day of the archery deer season, my girlfriend (now my wife) Esther and I embarked on a two-day elk hunt into the same area, but on a neighboring ridge where I’d seen more elk sign. Our objective was cow and spike elk, but on the drive up all I could think about was The Drop-Tine and how dejected I was. Esther lent a sympathetic ear to my rant:

“No one’s going to kill that buck. He’s gonna die of old age in a field one winter and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  I didn’t digress. “I wish I’d never seen him, at least then I could enjoy deer hunting again. And yet, I’ll return again next year to chase a ghost through empty woods. I have no choice…”

The next morning we woke before light and snuck into the elk area, setting up on opposite ends of a steep timber swathe used as a bedding area between feeding areas. As I sat watching the big September sun rise slowly above the horizon, all was quiet, nothing stirred. I was beginning to question our setup when suddenly my eyes caught the motion of wide antler tips swaying through the brush 50 yards downhill. Great, the elk herd is moving in, I thought as I raised my binoculars. But through the glass a deer’s head appeared, then two huge drop-tines! I couldn’t believe it. Three years and eighteen total days spent hunting for this creature, and now here he was, walking right towards me!

The buck followed slowly behind a sparse line of pine trees, offering no shot. I began frantically searching for a shooting lane when I suddenly realized that the tree line he was following ended abruptly right in front of me. If he kept his course, he’d pop out 20 yards in the open! A quick glance at grass to my left indicated the wind was starting to swirl. This is never going to happen, I thought. He’s too close. But the buck kept coming, slowly and cautiously at first, then picking up speed.

At that point I was a nervous wreck; my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my heart pounded so loudly that I was certain the buck would hear it too. In a full panic I glanced down at a sticker on my old Browning bow which reads, Stay Calm, Pick a SpotOkay, at least I can pick a spot, I thought as I drew my bow back. A second later the buck’s shoulder appeared and the arrow was off; I don’t even remember releasing it. As the huge buck spun and blasted out of sight, I caught a glimpse of my orange-fletched arrow sticking out of his side.

Shot location and distance.
Shot location and distance.

Everything was suddenly quiet again, as if nothing had happened. I sat dumbfounded for a second, awash in a swirling mix of dumfounded disbelief coupled with adrenaline screaming throughout my body. In an instant, I dropped my bow and went sprinting back through the woods towards Esther. She hopped out from behind a stand of pines, bewildered by the sight of a crazy man flailing towards her. “I just shot my Drop-Tine!” I yelled. At that moment, The Drop-Tine had finally become My Drop-Tine.

A tedious, half-hour tracking job over a sparse blood trail eventually led to the downed deer. The arrow had pierced both lungs, but the huge buck still covered 150 yards in great leaps and bounds down a nearly vertical slope. He expired on a steep, brushy slope, landing on top of his sprawling antlers which anchored him from sliding down the mountain. At the sight of the downed deer, a sense of relief and accomplishment came over me which can never be explained. After three years of failure, my wildest dream had come true, and I was finally liberated from my obsession.

Still in a daze, Esther and I pried the mighty buck free of the tangle and marveled at his majesty. I’d watched, even in fleeting glimpses, as The Drop-Tine grew bigger and more spectacular than I ever could have imagined.

The Drop-Tine’s rack measured nearly 33-inches wide and gross-scored 200 5/8 (194 6/8 net P&Y).

DTb