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Hope-Frustration-Pain-Success. Hunting on General Tags

Preface: I know this is a BOW-hunting blog, but there are plenty of entertaining GUN-hunting stories out there too. The following is the story of my brother’s 2015 rifle deer hunt. Enjoy!

Russ_Buck2015
(Story by Russell Allred)

Hiking to our base camp the day before the opener was a bigger chore than I had expected or wanted. When I was younger, hunting from the comforts of a camper and shooting bucks well-within view of camp was the norm. It was fortunate, because back then we would always drag the full carcass back to camp, rather than cutting it into quarters with the gutless method of today. Nowadays, just the hike to base camp is a long and arduous chore, much less the daunting task of the harvest and recovery of meat, if successful. Alas, this is what it takes as animals are pushed further into the recesses of the back country.

The hard-earned location paid off right away. That evening we were able to sit in camp and glass up probably 30 bucks. One buck, the biggest one, was a mile and a half away and way up high above tree line. It looked to be a good size in the spotting scope, and had unusually light colored antlers that in the setting sun looked almost bleached white. Compared to all the other bucks we were seeing, this buck was quite a distance from camp and there was no assurance that on opening morning it would still be there. Nobody wanted to get up so early in the morning to go after it, so I volunteered.

Very early, probably too early, I started hiking in the dark to the big buck’s area to see if I could get to it at first light before other hunters moved in. I had left camp so early, that I actually had to slow down and rest on the ridge top in the dark so as not to move into the buck area and spook the deer without ever seeing them. While relaxing in the dark, I could see the head lamps of other hunters well below me trying to make their way in the darkness, as well. Any headlamp in the area within two miles was easily seen in the dark. I imagined they all had the same ideas…get out early and beat out the competition. Well, I was ahead of them all. Naturally, I shined and waved my head lamp down into the valley and canyon far below, making myself known to all, “Here I am, this is MY area”. Marking my spot like a dog on a fire hydrant. Sure enough, the head lamp closest to me, maybe about three-quarters of a mile below me, suddenly stopped. The brightness of it peaked, indicating it was looking my direction. I could almost make out the cuss words as the hunter realized he had to come up with ‘Plan B’. Sure enough, he did not come up any higher.

When I finally got close to my target location it was just starting to get light enough to see and I had to crawl around a ridge of shale rocks. Crawling was necessary to keep from skylining myself. As I crawled along, I kept glassing to make sure I would see the deer before they saw me. Binos up, binos down. Crawl a couple of yards. Repeat.

Well, I guess I was just too exposed on the barren ridge, because suddenly I could see something standing just 250 yards ahead of me. Through the dim glass, sure enough, it was the very same light-colored antlers of the big buck with his two little buck buddies all staring right at me. Keep in mind, this area was way up high, and there was very little brush, so even though I thought I was being smart by crawling, they still caught me skylined. Even in the dark I stood out on the ridge line. Maybe more so with the dawning sky. I tried to prep my gun, but they immediately took off. I watched them go down to a gully about 600 yards away and stop and look back. The wind had been in my favor, by design, and maybe crawling had not completely given up my silhouette as human. So I did the only thing I could do and started crawling, again, to get myself some cover below the ridge line.

Well, after about 5 more minutes of this awkward crawl with gun in one hand and shooting sticks in the other, I heard something rattle the shale rocks above me and sure enough it was a dude on a horse. You see, this spot is so high up and so hard to get to, pretty much only dudes on horses go up there. The spooked bucks moved even further away. All I could do was stand up and quickly move toward where the bucks had been earlier, and to where I had better cover in a more brushy area. My bold move was partly out of frustration, but also strategic. I needed cover if I was going to be making anymore moves. But maybe more importantly, I needed the horseman to see me move into the basin ahead of him. I had nowhere else to go, but he could move all over the mountain on his horse. This was going to be my spot and he needed to know it.

Upon reaching cover, I sat down and started glassing. The horseman had seen me on the move and meandered away on his horse, seemingly without seeing the bucks I had been after, or the other 20 bucks 600 yards ahead and a little higher.

I watched as the big buck and his sentinels kept moving away, and eventually, I could not see them anymore. So I sat there and glassed for an hour. Glassed up about 30, or more, bucks around me within 500 yards. None as big as the one I had come all this way to chase.

The shooting down in the canyon got pretty busy for a bit. And deer kept pouring into the area I was in, I suppose to escape all the hunters below. Lots of does and smaller bucks taking cover in this little bowl where I had settled. No shooters, so I just practiced ranging them and aiming with my new scope.

After sitting for an hour and a half, I noticed a little buck up ahead of me about 450 yards. As I looked at it through the spotting scope, to my excitement and surprise, I noticed the tall white antlers of my target buck sticking up out of the sagebrush right next to the little buck. They had never left the area. Turns out the little buck was one of those two original sentinels and was still standing guard for his boss. The tall white antlers gave him away, even though I could not see any of his body behind the brush. I trained my scope on the brush directly in front of him and dialed in the yardage and waited for him to stand up. I knew it would be a long wait. But, so far, I had the bowl and the buck to myself.

After about 45 minutes I noticed two dudes way down below that were starting to head toward this buck. They had come into the bowl half an hour earlier, but were obviously discouraged to see that I had already claimed it with a much better vantage point, and they left. Probably, with the canyon below so full of hunters, they had nowhere else to go, so they returned. This time, however, though they could see I was on this buck, they must have decided that if I wasn’t taking the shot, then they were going to try for it themselves. That really upset me, so I continued to watch the buck very closely so I could take the shot as soon as it stood up, hopefully before they got into shooting range.

Jerks. I was about to get ‘duded’ by jerks. As if their aggression wasn’t enough, I had seen them glassing me with their rifle scopes. Probably with rounds chambered. I mean, why not? They were jerks and that’s what jerks do. I guess by ‘jerks’ I mean dudes. I am sure they were normally very pleasant people. Something about bone on the head of big game can somehow turn perfectly nice people into, well, jerks. Heck, here I am calling my fellow sportsmen ‘jerks’. I digress…

To complicate things, two more horsemen showed up just a couple of hundred yards directly above my buck. For me to take a shot, I would have to shoot in their direction. Even though it was probably theoretically safe with all the ridge and dirt to absorb any wayward bullets, it would be a shot that no one in their right mind would ever take. Nervously, I waited for them to see my buck and ignore my interpretation of safety and ethics and start shooting.

They never saw the buck, and slowly, too slowly, moved up and away. All the while my ‘friends’ from below were closing in on my buck. After about half an hour I was getting real nervous that these fine gentlemen were getting close enough to take a shot. So I decided to shoot at the brush it was bedded next to. Not the situation I had imagined, but I figured if I could get it to stand up, it would give me a good shot opportunity.

It took two shots before it got up, and then I had to fire 3 more shots to get it to go down. Which it did. I had been concerned those jerks (oops, there I go again…dudes) would start firing while I was, so I unloaded my gun on to make sure it was down. Now I was all out of bullets. I had never used more than one bullet before, so I had only carried five rounds that day to save on weight, and thought that even five rounds was overkill.

As I gathered my gear, I noticed that the buck was laying down with its head still up. Could be bad, but I figured it would die by the time I got over to it. So I grabbed my gear and went to it.

When I got to about 30 yards from the buck, I could see it staring above the brush right at me, laying down, but head up, still alert and very much alive. And I had no more bullets. Not sure what to do, I closed the distance, but when I got to 15 yards, it tried to run away using only its front legs (I later learned that I made a mistake on my new scope’s left-to-right turret that caused it to shoot more left, so two shots hit it back too far, and also hit spine; at 450 yards a small mistake is exaggerated).

This was a very steep mountain, so the buck pulled itself about 50 yards straight down the hill very quickly, eventually falling over on its back and getting its antlers stuck in some sage brush. Fortunately, this time it just laid there breathing heavily, but would get upset whenever I tried to move any closer. Without any more bullets, I wanted to slit its throat and bleed it out, but I did not want to keep chasing it down the hill or to get in a fight with it and possibly get myself stabbed by my knife or gored by its antlers. So I hoped to just let it lie for a few minutes and see if it would die. It was stuck in a very awkward upside down position, which I thought would aid in its quick demise.

After about 25 minutes, it seemed to just be content to lay there on its back stuck, but still alive. To make matters worse, the two dudes were down below me watching the whole debacle. And, I later learned, a friend of mine was watching it all through his spotting scope, too. I am sure I looked like the biggest clown on the mountain. The tables had turned. Surely, the two dudes below me were thinking “what a jerk”!

Finally, I mustered the courage, out of necessity, to inch my way close enough to the injured buck to finally make a quick thrust of the knife into its throat. It fought a little but, finally, just laid there and bled out and was dead in a couple of minutes.

The adventure did not end there, though. After field dressing the buck, I loaded the whole buck (that is…all the meat…quarters, back straps, and head) into my pack and it was extremely heavy. As soon as I started walking (literally at the first step), a big rain storm rolled in and rained on me for the whole 2 hours it took to haul this heavy pack back to camp in steep and rough terrain. I was cold and wore out and cramping in my back, legs, feet, and toes. Every time I stopped to rest and take the pack off, within a minute I was freezing, so I’d have to keep slowly moving to keep from hypothermia. My buddy, Danny, met me about a third mile from camp and took my pack for me the rest of the way. But it was a huge third mile. Probably would have taken me another hour at the exhaustive pace I was going. Took Danny less than 10 minutes.

I crawled into my tent and laid there for two more hours of pounding rain and pain. Eventually, as the rain let up, Danny’s father-in-law showed up with horses and hauled out the deer. I was able to make it home that evening. Tired, but glad to a successful end of another grand hunting adventure. And I would like to say a little wiser, except for the fact that two weeks later I found myself waking up in Idaho not knowing how I got there or where I was, although I did have a Salmon Idaho Hospital wrist band on. That was just the first day of a 10 day elk hunt that was much more interesting than this deer hunt…and with even more dudes.

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

The Learning Meadow: My Son’s First Deer

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Three years ago I took my son Jake to the Sawtooth Range in Northwestern Utah for his first muzzleloader deer hunt. It was a bust. There were too many people and not enough deer.

While bowhunting on Monte Cristo last year I stumbled upon a promising new area that very few people know about. There’s a nice feeding meadow atop a steep slope there. The first day I stumbled across 3-point buck feeding leisurely, but passed on him in hopes that Jake would find it during the fall muzzleloader season.

In September (2011) I took Jake to that little meadow, but lo, there was no 3-point. Instead, there was a giant, heavy racked 4-point bedded near the opposite side of the meadow’s edge. At the same instance we spotted him, he spotted us and stood up, offering a perfect broadside shot at only 75 yards. Well, Jakey had only practiced shooting square targets, and as much as he struggled to get this mighty beast in his sights, he just couldn’t. Frantically, I whispered, “SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT…” But didn’t. Instead, the buck turned and disappeared into the trees. At that point I almost blew my lid. “WHY, WHY didn’t you shoot?!” I implored. Jake replied, “I couldn’t see it in my sights good enough.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but what could I say? I was a frazzled mess as we trudged back down the hill towards camp. The next day was a bust and we went home empty-handed.

The following year, in spring of 2012, I went to Sportsman’s Warehouse and bought Jake a life-size, cardboard deer target. Never again would he shoot a square, paper target. A square target looks nothing like a deer or anything else you’d find in the wild. So, he practiced on that deer-shaped target during the summer while we made plans to return to Monte Cristo and our secret little feeding meadow in fall.

On the second evening of the hunt, we climbed up the mountain and sat in the trees at the edge of the meadow. A little while later, just as the evening light was fading, we heard a rustling in the brush. Sure enough, a respectable 3×4 buck with tall antlers slowly materialized at only 75 yards away. It wasn’t the same great buck as before, but it was good enough. Jake got into shooting position, but the cover was too thick for a shot. Fortunately, the buck continued feeding along and started walking right towards us! At fifty yards the buck suddenly jerked its head up as it recognized us as humans. Jake was ready and shot. As the smoke cleared, we could see the big deer prancing down the hill unscathed. We walked over to where the buck was standing and there was no blood. Jake missed it, plain and simple. This time I wasn’t upset and just asked him what went wrong. After thinking about it for a minute, he figured he must have dropped the gun at the shot, causing the bullet to travel beneath the buck. In other words, he didn’t follow through. At that moment, the feeding meadow would forever be called, “The Learning Meadow,” as Jake was learning some valuable lessons there.

Monte Cristo is tough! The next day, there were no bucks anywhere near the Learning Meadow. Another lesson: you can’t shoot at a deer one day and expect him to return the next. On Monday, we sat in a promising new area with lots of deer sign. But Monte sucks, and we saw no bucks. Shooting light was fading fast when we decided pack it up and move uphill towards the Learning Meadow. Maybe we could catch a last minute buck out in the open. As we approached the top of the draw opposite the Learning Meadow, a deer suddenly jumped out of the trees right in front of us and bounded across the open sagebrush hillside. Right away, I could tell it was a buck; a small buck, but a legal buck nonetheless. I asked Jake if he wanted to shoot it, and he said yes. Unfortunately, the buck was bounding directly away from us and offering no shot. Jake dropped to one knee while I set up the shooting sticks, just in case it stopped. Near the top of the ridge, 120 yards away, the buck paused and turned broadside. Jake was ready. Through a cloud of white smoke we watched the buck drop straight down like a sack of potatoes. Neither of us could believe it!

Jake’s eyes were wide with excitement as he stood over his beautiful trophy. I congratulated him and told him I was proud. The buck fell only a hundred yards from the Learning Meadow. Later that night, we dragged that little buck right through the Learning Meadow on our way back to camp. We took a break there. The meadow was dark and mysterious, but the lessons Jake learned were still there, burning bright as day.