The Majestic Muley Buck: Insights and Observations
In September of 2012, I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.
Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just out of bow range while scanning for danger below. I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. His head jerked left, then right, simultaneously assessing the danger and planning his best escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature! Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.
Nothing to do now; no point following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could I ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.
I just spent the last few days prowling around Idaho and still haven’t seen any decent bucks. Days are ruthlessly hot and dry, and nights are freezing, which is probably why I languish ahead with a painful head cold. My first step out of the dusty camp and my legs are sore with disease; my joints hurt, my muscles ache, my head throbs.
Foreign lands and no deer sign yet, but this remote valley looks promising. I’m headed toward the dark, north-face timber where I may get some reprieve from the glaring sun. But the route is thick with shrubs, oak brush, and cedars. Endless branches grasp at my body, tripping me and shoving me back down the steep slope.
I stop frequently to mop pouring sweat from my forehead with my camo cap. I’m still wearing the same stinky outfit I’ve donned for three days. Wind is my best ally, and my worst enemy. There’s no point trying to be quiet. I just need a vantage to glass from. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up; just following my nose and reading sign.
Moments ago something crawled across my neck. I swiped at it and monstrous orange spider fell to the ground. But I won’t be dissuaded. This is what I live for; it’s all I know. Only a year ago my arrow sailed over the biggest velvet buck I ever shot at. He’s long since vanished now, which is why I’m here in Idaho. Redemption. New woods and new hope. I push onward.
Long since out of tissue, both my nostrils drain continuously, leaving a slimy trail of moisture everywhere I go, likely the only moisture this forest has seen in months. Finally some tracks, but small. I follow to see where they lead. Maybe I’ll strap on my release; I hope I brought it. Just yesterday I was hiking in grizzly country when halfway up the mountain I realized I’d forgotten to load my arrows into my quiver. Stupid head cold!
My life has been various attempts at various activities, but bowhunting has been my one true passion, and better yet, the only thing I’m really good at. But here and now, it’s hard to tell. My brain is gripped with pressure, my body is weak. I push on because I know nothing else.
In the pines a squirrel fires up, barking relentlessly, giving away my position. I always carry a squirrel arrow, but it’s all for not; there’s always another squirrel, and the biggest bucks are always in the dark timber with them. During a heavy wind last year, I stumbled upon a giant 4×4 buck bedded in a patch of thick blowdowns. Before I could even pull an arrow, a squirrel fired up alerting the buck who quickly rose from his bed and melted away into the forest.
I try to imagine heavy horns moving through the brush, and then my arrow carrying cold steel through its chest cavity. The only way I win is if I wreak maximum carnage on an innocent, unsuspecting deer. I wince at the thought. Will I ever turn away from this bloody pursuit? Likely not, because life outside the woods has little appeal to me, and even less venison. A predator must eat.
At this time I’d like to formally apologize to my faithful and finely crafted compound bow which I’m currently dragging through an almost indescribable tangled hell. Only five years old and it’s already covered in battle scars; scratches, dents and dings. Sure it’s seen some fine moments, but this year it’s just a hiking companion. Its one moment of glory is a dirty coyote I sniped near camp in Utah.
After weed-whacking for hours I’ve arrived at a fantastic rock outcropping with views of the entire valley. Only an hour-and-a-half of shooting light and still no deer. I glass empty draw after empty draw, stacked in vertical rows below the summit. I want to underestimate the mighty buck; I try to convince myself that he’s just another dumb animal eating and sleeping his life away. But I know better. He’s an ingenious survivor, evading predators year after year with very little effort and hardly a conscious thought. How is that possible? A hunter, no matter his experience, goes to his grave having merely scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these amazing survivors. Outsmarting him is the greatest challenge, and I suppose this relentless pursuit is why it never gets old.
The rest of my first Idaho excursion was nothing short of a grim letdown. The once promised land is mostly bleak, ravaged by human intrusions, just like Utah. ATVs and trash litter the landscape and the woods are devoid of huntable game. Big bucks live short lives hidden away in dark holes far removed from human access.
Difficult to Bear: My Idaho Black Bear Hunting Story
The following is my 2016 Idaho bear hunt story. I hope you enjoy it!
The skies were dark and a steady cold rain soaked the steep mountainside. A big chocolate phase black bear was barely visible feeding in the dense brush forty yards below me. After ranging him several times and unable to make out his vitals, I knew I’d have to get closer. Any apprehension I had about getting close to dangerous predators was suddenly gone. I eased into thirty yards and nocked an arrow. The bear sat on his rump facing away from me. My eyes were locked onto him as I crept closer. I ranged him again at twenty yards. Close enough, I thought, wait for him to turn. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Something had to happen.
I don’t remember exactly when it started, but several years ago I felt compelled to challenge my bowhunting abilities by pursuing dangerous game with a bow. I suppose this is the natural progression of any serious bowhunter, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t completely confident I had what it takes. I would often play out the stalk in my mind, but when it came to getting close I always felt a tinge of panic. I knew that a bad hit could turn deadly, and so getting well within bow range would be the ultimate test of grit.
This year I miraculously drew an any weapon Idaho controlled bear tag with less than 1 in 40 odds. Like many hunters today, I read and reread the word Successful on the postcard, thinking there must be a mistake. It was hard to believe that a quality bear hunt was on the horizon. Back in 2012 I bought an OTC tag and took a kamikaze trip to Idaho looking for bruins. It was a complete failure. At no time did I feel remotely close to one of these elusive animals. I had much to learn. Now, with my hunt just a month away, I knew almost nothing about hunting bears.
The unit I drew is actually two large units, neither of which I’d ever seen before. The hunt spans the entirety of April and most of May, so there would be plenty of time to learn the area. In March I contacted the biologist for the region. All I really wanted was a starting point. Unfortunately, the information she gave me was pretty vague. When I asked about concentrations of bears, she said they were scattered evenly throughout the area. However, the northernmost unit had historically better harvest statistics, so that’s where I would begin my search. She also mentioned that it was a heavy snow year, so the best strategy was to avoid the first week of April to allow time for the bears to emerge from their dens. By the last week of April, all the bears should be out and feeding heavily on green shoots just below snow line.
My plan was to hunt the second week of April alone. Mostly I’d be looking for road access and bear sign throughout the unit. If that trip failed, I would return the last week of April with my wife, Esther, for a week-long excursion. I must admit that I felt much more comfortable having a “gunner” with me in case I got into trouble. Needless to say, my first trip was one of apprehension. In the meantime I dug around for more information online and was fortunate to find a few good starting points. I also read everything I could about hunting black bears. Some of the best information came from Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal. Years ago I began clipping and saving some highly informative articles written by Guy Eastman and the bear-slayer himself, Brian Barney. This lexicon of bear knowledge became the guidebook for my hunt.
After a long, eight hour drive across the plains of Southern Idaho, I arrived at the beautiful, moss-covered woods of Western Idaho. I set up my solitary camp alongside a muddy dirt road near a runoff-swollen stream at the bottom of steep canyon. Around 8:00 a.m. I headed up the slippery mountainside. From the information I gathered, bears like to feed for a couple hours on open, green, south-facing slopes during warm weather, and then bed down for a few hours in the dark timber, and repeat. Not even fifteen minutes into my hike I spotted my first bear feeding exactly where I expected: on a green, south-facing slope near old-growth timber. This was the first bear I’d seen in more than a decade, and my heart leapt with glee. Was bear hunting really this easy, I wondered? The bear was about a thousand vertical feet above me and too far to judge, so I needed to get closer. While scrambling towards the bear I suppressed a nagging inner voice that continually questioned my motives, asking “Why are you running towards this horrible beast?!”
In short order I arrived on the same elevation as the bear and shot some video from about 120 yards. He’d finished feeding and was ambling into the dark woods where I quickly lost sight of him. Judging by the distance between his ears, I estimated him as a younger bear. But what did I know about judging bears? Slowly, I made my way to where he disappeared. I soon realized he was gone and began hiking up the ridgeline. A little farther along I heard a scuffling in the woods below me. As I pulled up my binos, the hair rose on my neck and my hand fumbled for the .357 revolver on my belt. That same bear was digging out a bed just thirty yards away and somehow didn’t notice me. He just lay down and went to sleep. For the longest time I stood motionless, peering at the sleeping bear through my binoculars. He was indeed a young bear, and eventually I moved off to glass different parts of the mountain. A few hours later I glassed up another bear—a big blond sow with two cubs—half a mile away. I shot some more video and then moved along. As exciting as it is to see sows with cubs, they are protected and illegal to hunt, for obvious reasons. Still, my hopes ran high most of the day. Unfortunately that was my last bear sighting before getting socked in by storm clouds and running out of daylight. All in all it was a productive first day.
I woke the second day to an inch of snow. My goal was to cover as much new ground as possible. Apparently the bad weather had the bears down because I didn’t glass up a single bear, nor did I find any fresh tracks in the snow. I’d read somewhere that bears hate being out in the rain, and this was proving to be true. That night I stumbled back to camp wet and sore, and a little discouraged. At that point I decided to move camp to a different part of the unit.
On Wednesday I spent the day driving the muddy roads farther north. I soon discovered that most of higher elevation roads were snowed in. I would plow my truck as far as I could, then get out and hike. Overall I wasn’t finding much sign. That afternoon, while driving lower elevation roads, I spotted a huge blond sow with two cubs about a quarter-mile up the mountain. When she saw my truck, she bounded onto a boulder outcropping and took a defensive posture. She held her head high with her eyes transfixed on me while swaying back and forth. I half-expected her to come barreling down the mountain and tear my truck apart. I knew that sows were protective of their cubs, but this was ridiculous. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered?! This was my second reality check moment. If I were to continue hunting bears with a bow, then in a very real way I had to make peace with the possibility of death. Success meant that one of us was not coming out of the woods alive, and there was a fair chance it might be me! It was painfully necessary at this point—on this very hunt—to either accept the this fact, or go home. Did I really have what it takes?
Later that evening I went searching for a campsite. Just before the road became snowed in, I was able to glass up big, jet-black bear on a far-away hillside. It was loner bear, likely a boar. My game plan for morning was to drive as far up the road as possible, then hike after the lone bear. But the weather had other plans. On Thursday I woke to a full-on blizzard and knew my hunt was over. The bears would hunker down and the roads would only get worse. Best to cut my losses, take the knowledge I’d gained, and come back later with a plan. I was encouraged that in three full days I’d had four bear sightings. Still, I didn’t get a single stalk opportunity, and for such a difficult-to-draw hunt, I expected a little more. Perhaps they were still hibernating…
The following week we had beautiful warm weather, but I was stuck at home working. Then, just as we departed on another week-long bear excursion, it turned bitter cold and wet. Originally I planned for my wife Esther—who is deathly afraid of close-up bear encounters, by the way—to be my gunner and carry a rifle for protection. But in the week between bear hunts, I decided the mountains were just too steep to carry all that extra weight. Instead, she came armed with paltry can of bear spray. ;^)
Before setting out on the open road, curiosity had me searching the IDFG website for past harvest statistics for my unit. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that of the 75 tags given out, only 20 hunters were successful. That’s less than 30% success! Already, I was planning a third trip in May.
On the night of Sunday, April 24th, we pulled into the area that I’d left off on my first trip in the remote, muddy mountains near the Oregon border. There were no other hunters in the area, which I found encouraging. As we set up the tent we were accompaniment by the ghostly howls of wolves in the distance. There was something peaceful about having these blustery, wild mountains to ourselves.
We struggled to keep warm that night and into the next morning. On Monday we began hiking where the road ends and right away spotted a sow with cubs on a far-off, cliffy mountainside. We continued hiking all day, stopping frequently to glass. Eventually we dropped into the large canyon where I’d seen the lone black bear on my first hunt. There were numerous bear tracks in the area, as well as frequently used bedding areas surrounded by fresh scat. The whole time I felt we were very close to our quarry, but still we couldn’t turn up any bears.
After a hard freeze overnight, we spent Tuesday morning driving miles and miles of roads with no luck. In the evening we returned to the canyon with all the bear sign. We sat on a saddle with deep, dug-in bear tracks going over it and a rubbing tree littered with bear hair. I nicknamed this area “Bearea.” All was quiet, but then just before dark we caught sight of a sow with cubs walking along a logging road.
On Wednesday we went back to Bearea with intentions of exploring it entirely. Around 10 a.m. a heavy rain pinned us down in the dark timber. The relentless rain eventually chased us back to camp where we changed out of our soaked clothes. We were yet to see a lone bear on this trip and were getting a little discouraged. The rain let up that evening, and again we dropped into Bearea but to no avail. At that point we decided to move camp farther south, to where I had my first bear encounter.
Thursday was sunny and clear. We spent the whole day hiking from 4000’ to snowline at 5000’. We were excited to come across innumerable tracks, beds and fresh scat. Still, no amount of glassing would turn up a bear. Nonetheless, I was learning quite a bit about bears, primarily what I refer to as the “triple S” of bear behavior: shy, secretive, and slippery. Bears, like deer, don’t want to be found! Even if you spot a bear, they tend to move around a lot and eventually disappear. Sometimes we’d find a steamy, green pile of scat, but the reliever of such excrement remained invisible. I began to refer to them as “invisabears.” It became increasingly clear that at least one bear was living full time on this mountainside situated not far from camp. We just couldn’t turn him up. Frustration had me clambering from pine bed to pine bed, all over the steep slope looking bears that I knew existed but couldn’t be found. The day ended bear-free. While pondering bears that evening I decided we should start hunting bears like we hunt deer. We would wake very early on Friday and spend the whole day glassing and bed hopping. All the information I’d read about bears—that they emerge from beds several times to feed during the day—was apparently not the case here.
It was a cold and rainy Friday morning as we began our ascent up the mountain. When we arrived at our first vantage we spotted a lone chocolate phase bear feeding far above us in the low clouds that partially obscured the mountain. Determined to finally get my stalk on, I trotted up the near vertical slope with Esther floundering behind. Just as we were closing the distance on the bear, he disappeared into the clouds. Surely he’d bedded down in one of the dozens pine beds littered across the slope. So the rest of the day was spent hiking in circles looking for the lone bear, who for no particular reason I named Sedwich. We visited all the promising areas—and more—but again found nothing. Wet and discouraged, we returned to camp around 2 p.m.
We were officially out of dry footwear which encouraged us to go driving down one of the long, winding roads in the relentless rain. By late afternoon we hadn’t set eyes any bear and returned to camp for lunch. To my dismay the forest service had opened the locked gate on the logging road leading up the mountain where we had toiled for so long. With the impending weekend, I feared the area would soon get blown out. It was becoming very difficult to imagine a scenario wherein I might have a successful bear stalk.
In disgust we took advantage of the newly opened road and drove a short distance to glass. Not surprisingly, the bears weren’t out. As we sat pondering the demise of our endeavors, Esther suddenly leaned over and asked, “Is that your bear???” My binos flashed up and sure enough a large, lone bear materialized out of nowhere and sat feeding in the rain on an open slope 1000 feet above the road. Instantly I grabbed my pack, slipped on my soggy boots, and just before jumping out of the truck exclaimed to Esther, “Stay here!” Then halfway across the road I looked up and noticed a second lone bear feeding a short distance from the first one. When it rains, it pours bears! I looked back to Esther in astonishment, and then took off running up the mountain. Halfway up the near vertical slope I paused. I couldn’t breathe and both my legs had gone numb. I gasped and sweated, slipped and fell, then pushed onward. A few minutes later I arrived at the same elevation as the bears, and wouldn’t you know it, both had vanished! When I got within view of the truck, I waved and flailed my arms at Esther, hoping she could guide me with hand signals. To my dismay, she held both hands up, gesturing that she too had lost the bears. What now?!
Through drizzling rain I zigzagged to the top of the ridgeline, desperately trying to get above the swirling winds that had likely busted the bears. Soaked with sweat and rain, I glassed every bit of the mountain but turned up nothing. Darkness was falling, as were my spirits. The only option was to work back towards the truck and try again in the morning. While following a finger ridge down the mountain, a dark blob in the brush caught my eye. My heart jumped. It was the big brown phase bear, nearly invisible as it fed in the dense brush below. No shot; must get closer.
Staying above the feeding bear, I crouched low and skirted the hillside towards it. I ranged the bear at forty yards. He was feeding in circles, but only the top of his back was visible. Gotta get closer! I slowly eased into thirty yards, trying my best not to roll a rock down the hill. My heart thundered in my chest. I took long, deep breaths to calm myself, knowing this would likely be my only opportunity. I nocked an arrow and waited for him to present a shot. Instead the bear sat flat on his rump facing away from me. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Must get closer quick!
I meticulously closed the distance to 20 yards. Close enough, I thought. Wait for him to turn broadside. I drew my bow and held tight. He didn’t move; I let down. Seconds later he stood and slowly turned uphill, exposing his shoulder. My sight pin danced all over his vitals. I paused for a couple seconds and slowly breathed out. I resettled the pin and the arrow was off. To my dismay, less than half the arrow buried into its shoulder. The bear swung around to face me and somehow, in the same two seconds, I had loaded another arrow and redrawn my bow. The bear’s head swung left then right, then forward. His piercing eyes locked onto mine. When he raised his head to look at me, my second arrow sailed under his chin and disappeared into his chest. The bear swung around and barreled straight down the mountain, smashing through the brush as he went, and then disappeared into the dark timber below. I stood shaking in disbelief, oblivious to the rain battering down on me.
My first instinct was to head back to the car and get Esther. My second instinct told me to go after the bear. The rain threatened to wash away the blood trail and darkness was falling. In no way did I want to track a wounded bear in the dark. I pulled my revolver, and with my gun in one hand and bow in the other, slowly headed in the bear’s direction. The blood trail was heavy and full of frothy lung blood. Surely the bear wouldn’t go far. 200 yards down the mountain, at the edge of the dark timber, I slowed way down, glassing as I went. Fifty yards farther, in the tangled maze of a giant deadfall tree, my eyes locked onto the dark, furry patch of an expired bear. I was overcome by relief and a sense of accomplishment unimaginable. What had arguably been the most difficult and frustrating hunt of my life, had instantly transformed into wonderful success.
After verifying the bear was indeed finished, I hung my bow in a tree and jogged back to the truck. Esther burst from the vehicle and ran to meet me on the road. She raved on about how she witnessed the entire stalk, and her excitement throughout was equal to mine.
The rain died out as we approached the downed bear together.
My bear—Sedwich the bear—has become a major milestone in my life. I can’t think of a better way to challenge one’s skills and bravery than a close-quarters bear hunt with a bow. I also learned that there’s no such thing as an easy hunt, at least not alone in the woods with a bow. As with all hunting, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to learn everything they can about their prey and its habits. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these powerful creatures that we share our mountains with, but rarely get to see. For this reason I’ll probably never hunt bears again. Like all game animals, our beautiful black bears are a renewable resource for our taking. And indeed, blueberry-glazed bear steaks are quite delicious. But unlike elk and deer, there just aren’t a whole lot of them to take. These fascinating beasts have their own special place in the woods, and for me, preserving this hunt as an once-in-a-lifetime experience is plenty enough.
In the end my bear green scored 19.5 inches, making it my fourth spot-and-stalk Pope and Young trophy in seven years. Yet, as proud as I am of this accomplishment, I must remind myself that life’s most precious experiences cannot be measured in inches or trophy quality. How we hunt—and the people with whom we share our hunts—are what matters most. None of my bow trophies would have been possible without the love and support from my wonderful and understanding wife, Esther, who’s been by my side during all of these magical hunts.
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!
Hope-Frustration-Pain-Success. Hunting on General Tags
(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.
I never thought much about turkeys. I love bowhunting more than anything, but it was my wife Esther who took an active interest in the turkey. So I promised I’d take her.
In spring we drew turkey tags for Southern Utah. In recent years we’d come across plenty of turkeys while hunting deer in the Beaver unit, so that’s where we applied. Getting tags was easy enough, but that’s where easy ended.
First off, we decided to do it with a bow. I don’t do guns—I am a bow-snob…I mean purist—so now we were hunting unfamiliar prey with light tackle.
Second, Esther couldn’t get any time off work. Her work schedule is a consummate nightmare, but somehow she secured a weekend towards the end of the season in April. Now this proved to be a problem because the turkeys we ultimately hunted were already people- and call- wary. Can you say sloppy seconds?
Third now, the weather report called for heavy thundershowers and snow. Oh well, we were going for it.
We left late Friday night and already it was raining. Four hours later we set up camp in the back of the truck and went to bed. The morning was cool and lovely. We ventured across a small river and up the mountain. I decided to make a video of our ordeal, so Esther carried a bow and I carried a camera. I would be the caller for the first couple days, and after she got a shot it would be my turn.
We hiked for a few hours, made turkey calls, and got no response. A while later, we heard a turkey gobble out of the blue, so we set up a decoy, dropped back, and began some calling sequences. The turkey moved off and didn’t respond, so we kept hiking.
Later in the afternoon, some thick, black clouds rolled in so we began working back down the mountain. Well, about half a mile from camp, a gobbler fired up pretty close to us. We holed up under some junipers to devise a strategy, and that’s when the rain started. We pulled out our raingear and pretty soon it was a downpour. At some point I realized we were on the wrong side of the river, and if the rain continued we might get trapped on this side. So we bagged the hunt and made a run for it.
By the time we reached the truck the rain had turned to heavy snow. Later in the afternoon the snow let up so we ran back up to where we heard the gobblers. But they were gone. For the rest of the evening we hiked all over looking for tracks in the new snow, but found none. The turkeys had flown the coop! Makes sense though, since their ground-dwelling food was now hidden beneath a fresh blanket of snow.
The next morning we woke to a full-on blizzard. Around 10 a.m. it subsided so once again we crossed the river and headed up the mountain. We hiked from four inches to six inches of snow. We covered an immense amount of ground, but heard no gobbles and saw no tracks. The turkeys were gone.
Well, it seemed to me that the only direction they’d go was downhill, so we packed up the truck and headed to the bottom of the mountain.
It rained most of the day so we spent several hours driving the low-elevation dirt roads and scanning the hillsides for black blobs in the snow. We found none. In the late afternoon we decided to find a place to camp. I remembered a dirt road that gave access to the low-elevation drainage that we’d been hunting in, so we went there. As expected, it was very muddy. Basically, the steep dirt road drops into a bowl before turning back up the mountain. Well, half-way to the bottom, the truck started sliding sideways and I struggled to maintain control. We got to the bottom okay, but now we were really stuck. We slopped to a flat spot to camp, then, with a break in the storm, hiked up the mountain to see where we’d be spending the last day of the hunt.
Things began looking up.
Almost a mile up the muddy mountain, we heard a gobble. With a couple hours of light left, we rushed in, threw out the decoy, and made some calls. There were three gobblers, all struttin’ around us, but it was too thick to see them. I kept dropping back and making hen calls, but they just kept circling us nervously and gobbling every few minutes, but never showing themselves.
We pulled the decoy and repositioned in a better clearing, but they still wouldn’t come in. We pulled the decoy again and rushed toward them. We were getting close, and so was nighttime. Well, as we sat there trying to figure out where to plant the decoy, some big red heads came bouncing and bobbing through the sagebrush. The toms were about to pass right in front of us at only twenty yards! Esther nocked an arrow. The turks went behind a juniper and I whisper-yelled, “30 yards!” When they broke into the open, Esther let an arrow fly…and missed! The arrow sailed right behind the first turkey and the second turkey jumped straight into the air. Somewhat alarmed, they all trotted out of sight.
It’s funny how thin the line is between failure and success. In this case, it was both. After two hard days, Esther miraculously got a last minute shot. Although she missed, we were excited to finally be into the turkeys!
On Sunday we got up early and hiked to where we left the turkeys. We were excited, and I even carried a bow this time. Sure enough, we were greeted by gobbles. Several times we set up the decoy and made calls. The toms responded diligently, but wouldn’t come in. Instead they continued up the mountain and we followed.
Now this is where things get real bad; where Nate and Nature have a serious falling out.
With plenty of new snow, it was easy to follow their tracks. We spotted the turkeys a hundred yards ahead of us. I quickly set up a decoy and dropped back to call. Just as I started calling, a small herd of elk came running through the oak brush. The elk had caught our wind and ran right through the turkeys, nearly trampling them! The turkeys spooked farther up the mountain and we followed.
We caught up to the turkeys moving ahead of us in some boulders and brush. Squatting low to the ground, I trotted up and planted the decoy. No sooner had I started calling, some coyotes suddenly lit up howling like crazy a short distance behind us. The toms made one last gobble, some other turkeys across the canyon gobbled back, and then everyone shut up. Those were the last gobbles we heard. Esther and I followed the tracks way up the mountain into the deep snow, but they were moving too fast. Eventually the tracks led out of the huge valley, over a saddle, and gone forever. Stupid coyotes!
Frustrated, we turned back. While on top of the mountain, Esther decided to call into work and let her boss know we were stuck in the mud and may not get out by tomorrow. Her boss wasn’t in, but the nice fellow who answered the phone informed her that her 23-year old work-friend had crashed his motorcycle and died over the weekend. Now we were super-bummed for the rest of the day.
With the day slipping away, we had no choice but to make our way back to where we started. Who knows; maybe we could find some new turkeys.
We did! Half-way back to the bottom I spotted a hen walking in the sagebrush. I made some calls and some new gobblers fired up. I snuck out to the open and plugged the decoy in the mud and snuck back. I could barely make out some large, strutting males wandering back and forth in the trees ahead.
We started calling and this time a herd of nine deer came bounding out below us. Now, these deer were hell-bent on going uphill, and did so by running right through the turkeys. All the commotion spooked the turkeys off and again it was silent. You gotta be kidding me! First elk, then coyotes, and now deer!
With no other choice, we followed the toms into the dark timber. The snow had melted at the lower elevations, so following tracks was no longer possible. Fortunately, a short while later, we got them gobbling again. The problem was they refused to come in. Instead, they bedded down and expected us to come to them. We called for more than an hour with no luck.
Frustrated, I decided to make a move. I told Esther to hang back. I’d sneak above and around them, and if they spooked, they might run back towards her.
It didn’t work out that way. Instead, one of them busted me and all three toms slipped away down the mountain. I went back and got Esther. With only a couple hours of daylight, we decided to make one more setup at the bottom of the canyon.
After half an hour of futile calling, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch it get dark on my hunt and just give up. I told Esther I was going to enter the dark timber and sneak around for the last hour of light. She would stay in the ravine with the decoy and continue calling occasionally.
I worked very high up into the steep timber. I’d gone a little ways when out of the blue I heard something. “Cluck—-cluck—–cluck.” Well, this was new! I pulled an arrow. Sure enough, 40 yards below me, a huge chicken—I mean turkey—came sneaking through the woods alone and completely oblivious to my presence, clucking as it went. As it rounded a tree I let my arrow fly.
The arrow hit the giant black bird perfectly broadside and dead-center. The tom’s wings flapped wildly as it sprinted out of sight with my orange fletched arrow sticking straight out of its side. I was super excited as I dropped down to see my trophy…which was gone. I found a couple clipped feathers and some torn up dirt, even a speck of blood or two. I followed in the direction the stupid bird ran, found another feather, and then lost the trail. I started walking circles. I called Esther on the walkie-talkie to come help. She showed up and we search up and down and all over. The turkey was gone; run off to who-knows-where with my arrow. The problem with turkeys is two-fold: they don’t leave a blood trail, and they can SURE take an arrow!
It got dark and we put out our headlamps on. With no trail to follow we had no choice but to give up. I was so deflated as I walked back to the truck. Few words were spoken.
The next morning we somehow slogged the truck out of the mud and drove home with nary a feathered foe for food.
Later studies and videos proved the turkey’s can surely take an arrow. Basically, their stiff wings, when folded against their body create a sheet of armor, like a stack of zip-ties. It slows and even stops a sharp broadhead. In most cases it eventually kills the bird, but only after a lengthy sprint. A head/neck shot is really your best option.
The story ends here. But it also begins here. Next year you’ll find me and Esther in the same spot, early in the season, with both heavier arrows and a little experience in our quivers. When facing nature one-on-one, the mountain and its infinite variables most often wins. But this particular mountain still owes me a turkey, and I’ll never give up.
There is an image, not unlike the one above, that still haunts me today.
It was the muzzleloader hunt of 2001. I was still getting used to my new hunting area near Fairview, Utah. I knew the hunting pressure would keep the big bucks in the thick timber, so that’s where I spent my days. I’d never gotten a real trophy-size buck before, and up until then, I’d only seen a few true trophies in all my years of hunting. But I’d seen enough in this unit to know it was possible. These were the bucks I daydreamed about.
On opening morning our camp dispersed across the land. I dropped into the deep and steep pine forest below camp. The deadfall was so thick I had to hop from log to log, not touching the ground for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it opened up with aspens and narrow feeding swathes. Judging by the sign—and I was no expert back then—there were plenty of deer around, but where they went during the day, no one knew.
I’d grown accustom to blowing stalks on large deer, and as you’ll see, my confidence was way down. I knew there were big deer in this unit, attested to by an occasional flash of antler, a loud snort, and the sound of heavy hooves smashing away through the dense woods. I pressed on, but really, I’d already given up.
Judging by the high sun, it must have been close to noon. I knew the deer wouldn’t be up on their feet at midday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to return to camp and make excuses for my failure; blaming the lack of deer on the area and then bedding down for the day myself. That would be submission. No, I would continue my quest, beating the pine-needled forest floor to death with my stinky old boots.
I was still-hunting along on a steep and rocky slope. The timber was less dense at the edge of the pines where interspersed aspens and deer brush heedlessly begged for a more sun. My predator eyes suddenly and haphazardly caught the slightest bit movement a hundred yards below me in some tall brush. My cheap, murky binos came up and locked on. ANTLERS! Little bits of tines bounced and bobbed through the tall brush. What they were attached to I could not tell in the thick brush; no fur nor face nor hide nor hair, just bits of antlers appearing and disappearing. How big was he, I wondered? A two-point? A four-point? No way to tell and no shot; I needed to get closer.
Here’s where my lack of confidence shines brightest. Based on previous buck encounters, I told myself this would never work out. I didn’t really believe I could get close enough for a shot, but I had to try—I desperately had to try!
It’s different these days, here in the future. Today, I would just sit tight. The wind was most likely rising from late-morning thermals. I would sit and wait for the buck to feed into the open, even if it took all day. 100 yards is an easy shot with a gun. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. But this is how we learn…
I dropped to my butt and began my slow-motion descent. The pine needles were dry and loud, and the terrain was terribly steep. I used the wind and forest sounds to cover my approach. For twenty minutes I slid, scooted, and crab-crawled down the hill, drawing closer and closer to the sighting. Minutes felt like hours.
The buck eventually moved out of sight, swallowed up by the forest. Unable to keep tabs on him, I became increasingly skeptical. Did he bed down? Did he sense me and move off? Gotta get closer! I crept closer and closer until I was within a few yards of where I first saw him. All was quiet. Now what?
He’s gone! I must have busted him out. I knew this would happen. Oh well… I would’ve been a little upset if I ever truly believed I had a chance at this buck.
I stood up, slung the gun on my shoulder, and dug my GPS unit out of my pocket. I stared blankly at the screen as it tracked and tracked and tracked for satellites. There’s nothing more tedious than waiting for the GPS to track in thick timber. My eyes lifted and floated around the forest. What direction did he go, I wondered.
As my gaze drifted to the right, my lethargic eyelids suddenly flashed wide-open; my heart stopped. Fifteen yards away, a massive, tall, sweeping, 4-point antler stuck directly out from behind a large tree trunk. On the other side, the long gray line of a deer’s back extended outward.
No thoughts, just action.
In one motion my left hand opened and the GPS went into free-fall. My hand flashed to the butt of my gun. The GPS was halfway to the ground as my gun twirled like a baton in front of me. My right hand caught the gunstock and lifted it to my shoulder. The GPS bounced inaudibly as the gun’s muzzle swung towards the buck.
Too late. Heavy hooves dug into the ground with a loud thud and every trace of that monster buck instantly vanished into the woods. Frantically I aimed at the crashing and snorting of my invisible foe, but he was gone.
And that was that. Nothing left but a haunting technicolor image of a huge antler sticking straight out of a tree trunk, burned forever in the forefront of my long-term memory. For the duration of the hunt I beat myself up for my failure.
I am tempted to leave the story right there, but habit forces me find the good in the bad. I knew then, as I know now, that my biggest mistake was over-estimating the buck, and under-estimating myself. I failed because I accepted failure from the start. I had him in my hands, if only I’d been patient. If only I had believed this one burning truth: that he was “just a deer” and not an impossible phantom.
(Story published in Huntin’ Fool Magazine, Aug. 2011, Vol.16, Issue 8)
Drop-Tine Obsession: My Droptine Buck Hunting Story
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.
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 Spot. Okay, 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.
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).
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.