Tag Archives: mule deer

The Wall: My 2017 Archery Buck


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

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

Southern Utah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hunters moon.

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

Hairy current berries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2017 camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deer retrieval route.

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

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

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

9 Surprising Facts About Mule Deer

With the Utah archery deer hunt only a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about mule deer, particularly their behavior and ecology. In reflecting on past hunts, I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor contributing to hunting success is having an intimate knowledge of your prey, whatever animal it happens to be. By learning your prey, you can more accurately dissect the mountain and predict their locations and movements.

I really love mule deer. Not only are they exciting to hunt, but these brilliant survivors are endlessly fascinating to observe in the wild. I’ve read just about every book and article written on mule deer and have kept careful notes along the way. Today I’d like to share some of the most surprising facts I’ve learned about mule deer:

1. In 1900 there were only 10,000 deer living in Utah; today there are more than 350,000! The main factors contributing to herd growth is better resource management, relatively mild weather in recent times, and an increase in predator control efforts. Considering that only 30% of today’s hunters are successful in bagging a buck each year, it’s surprising how many deer there really are out there.

2. Before 1950 half the bucks harvested in Utah were mature (3.5 years and older). Today only 10% of bucks harvested are mature. This is obviously the result of “quantity over quality” management, coupled with high demand for tags and the resource manager’s desire to maximize permit sales. For the trophy hunter you’ll have to sift through lots of deer to find a true trophy. In Utah only about 1 in 56,000 bucks harvested will make Boone & Crockett.

3. Using their sensitive snouts, deer can detect water up to two feet below ground and then use their hooves to dig it up. During hunting season water isn’t a concern unless it’s really hot and dry, in which case the deer must drink once a day. Because it’s so dangerous to travel to water, the deer will often sniff it out. The deer’s nose is estimated to be 1000 times more sensitive than humans. They also use their incredible sense of smell to find best food sources, find mates, and of course to sniff out predators like ourselves.

4. Deer have a 310-degree field of view, as compared to humans who see less than a 180 degrees. Not only can the deer see 86% of it’s surroundings, but he has amazing night vision and motion detection. For all of these strengths, however, it sacrifices the ability to see colors in the red spectrum and fine details.

5. Most big bucks are “hiders,” as opposed to “runners,” when encountered in high-pressured areas. If you typically hunt in dense cover, chances are you’ve been seen by far more deer than you think. The bucks that run are either small or know they’ve been spotted.

6. Mule deer antler growth exceeds two inches per week during spring and summer, and then greatly declines the first week of August. Final antler size is largely determined by three factors: age, genetics, and available forage. A wet spring and/or early monsoon season is your best chance to harvest a trophy buck.

7. The unusual form of bounding (called stotting) where all four legs leave the ground simultaneously, is unique to mule deer and was adapted to escape cougars in mountainous terrain. No other big game species in North America uses this unusual mode of locomotion. Not only is stotting useful for navigating heavy cover, but is done quickly, covering 22 to 29 feet with each bound on level ground.

8. The average home range for a deer is only .6 square miles. Since deer don’t like to wander outside their home range, it might seem easy for us hunters to locate a buck. The problem is that deer are highly adaptable to human pressure and will quickly evacuate the mountain to predetermined safe zone, sometimes miles away from it’s home range.

9. Elk compete directly with mule deer, especially on winter ranges. Although elk are 3.5 times bigger than a deer, biologists estimate that one elk is the equivalent of 5-8 deer in terms of winter range degradation. In areas where both elk and deer populations are high, elk will gradually replace the mule deer. The greatest long-term threat to mule deer, however, is the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which will likely force the mule deer into extinction! Enjoy the great muley while you can.

Fascinating creatures, aren’t they?! I hope you enjoyed these facts.

The Majestic Muley Buck

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.

Sick in the Woods

Idaho 2016

Hunt Journal Entry: September 11, 2016

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.

The On/Off Switch: How Bucks Become Unhuntable

Opening morning and it’s on! But not really, because the deer are effectively off. With increased human presence this year, the deer have sensed danger and left the area. It takes 20 days of futile hunting before I really understand what has happened: All the mature bucks flipped the ON/OFF switch to OFF, and have become unhuntable!

That’s pretty much the story in Northern Utah last year. After several years of mild winters, deer numbers steadily rose to the point that the DWR issued more tags. It’s a traditionally difficult unit to begin with, but with the slightest increase in human traffic the deer simply left the area and/or became completely nocturnal. I’ve never seen anything like it!

So I hunted from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top, and north to south. In some real nasty country I found tracks and beds, affirming there were still in fact deer around. But as the sun came up each day, they were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the Twilight Zone. In 2015 I counted 8 different 4×4-or-bigger bucks, including one 200” typical. In 2016 I counted ZERO!

I spent one frustrating day hiking farther and farther into a really remote canyon—almost too remote for even elk. Just as I was questioning my sanity for bothering, two mediocre 3-points blasted out below me. Being completely stealthy on approach, I couldn’t figure out how they’d sensed me…unless they were completely neurotic…and that’s when it hit me: Bucks have the ability to decide whether to be huntable or unhuntable. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. Here’s how:

Mature mule deer bucks are bigger, stronger, and faster than us. They also see just fine at night, maybe even better than they do during the day (according to biologists)! Deer are always nocturnal, so being totally nocturnal simply means they don’t get up and feed during the day. They also don’t drink water each day which helps them reduce daytime movement. And no matter what any “seasoned” hunter tells you, deer are smart (well…comparatively). They are highly adaptable and need to be in order to survive extreme climates, terrain, and predators that they encounter every day. When spooked by a hunter, a buck easily blasts through tangled brush, taking special care to keep trees between him and you, all while following a carefully planned escape route. The hunter hasn’t the slightest ability to chase after, or even to relocate the wizened old buck which is capable of covering vertical miles with ease and disappearing for days.

For a deer, flipping the switch to OFF is probably not a conscious decision, but an instinct, and such a simple whim that it just happens without the necessity of thought. The buck spends a few days feeding and sleeping in some impenetrable patch of choke cherries on some ungodly-steep slope while waiting out the hunting season. I know because I found one of these very spots (I spent every day peeking behind every tree, after all). Sure there was deer sign in there, but it was so thick that I was literally climbing through with both hands. Visibility was only inches and the unavoidable cacophony of my approach would spook any deer long before I ever saw it. All I could think was, “This is exactly where I would be if I were a deer.”

So, what’s the solution? How do you beat the unhuntable buck? You can’t. It’s game over. In my case I left the mountain and hunted out of state. Everyone knows that increased pressured makes hunting harder, but there’s a tipping point where the buck decides to go farther and deeper than humanly possible. After years in the woods, he’s learned where these places are and when to use them.

One question remains: If a deer can become unhuntable, why doesn’t he just remain in that state all the time? Well, he’s an animal; naturally lazy, hungry, lonely, and curious. He doesn’t enjoy holing up on a hill if he doesn’t have to. He also knows that hunts are short and hunters eventually leave the mountain.

In the end, it comes down to hunting pressure. If an area has little hunting pressure, the buck might not even know the season is on and just goes about his summer routine. Becoming unhuntable is simply a tool he uses in order to survive during dangerous times, the same way he occasionally uses his antlers for fighting, and then forgets about them.

If you think about it, being invisible to man isn’t that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Deer share the mountain with much more elusive animals like cougars, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, etc. Many of these animals are nocturnal, but more notably they’re born with the natural inclination to hide from people. Comparatively, hooved animals like elk and deer are certainly shy of people, but not overly wary. For whatever reason they must learn to associate people with danger. It’s likely because we’re the only predators capable of killing them at long ranges…which is new and unnatural.

On the topic of long-range weapons, I’ve also observed the deer in my unit are holding tighter to the dark timber than they did in the past, even very early and very late in the day. It’s my belief that the popularization of long-range rifle hunting just within in the last decade is causing bucks to hold tighter to the deep timber where long-range rifles are rendered pretty much useless. Think about it: A group of bachelor bucks are standing in the open, and one suddenly falls over dead long before the report of the rifle is heard. The far-off shot is difficult to pin-point, and therefore difficult to avoid. The remaining buck’s only option is to dive into the timber and not come out. How many times will this happen before the old bucks stop coming out all together, and then teach their apprentices to do the same?

What is the future of deer hunting? Are deer getting smarter? Are they adapting to human predators as fast as we’re developing more efficient ways to kill them? If deer are bigger/faster/stronger than us, will there come a time that they are no longer huntable? All of these valid questions, and definitely up for debate. During a recent hunting seminar, someone asked the speaker if he thought deer were getting smarter. He replied, “No, I think deer are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.” I quietly but wholeheartedly disagreed, and then wondered how much time this guy really spends observing deer in the nature.

All I know for sure is that I’ve watched deer become unhuntable, and since unhuntable deer quickly spoils my season, I’ve opted to hunt elsewhere, which is really the only option. Sure, I know the caliber of bucks in my old unit, but I won’t waste my time there. No matter where you hunt, there will always be another area with less pressure and huntable bucks. Remember, bucks hate people pressure more than anything, so you must avoid people with as much fervor as you hunt for deer.

A Second Chance

The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:

My 2015 obsession.
The infamous Monsterbuck.

During the 2015 Utah bowhunt I came across a tremendous 200”+ typical mule deer buck which I called Monsterbuck. At our first meeting, he caught me by surprise. Shaking like a newbie-hunter with buck fever, I promptly sailed an arrow over his back at 50 yards. Later in the season I filmed him at 200 yards on an open hillside. He was in an unstalkable location and surrounded by three other deer, so I let him walk, hoping to get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans. Like many big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.

I promised myself not to obsess over this buck; it’s just too much pressure to bring into the woods. Apparently obsession is not a decision because that amazing buck crept into my mind every day for an entire year! I carried a picture of Monsterbuck around in my planner and reviewed the 2015 video footage often. Needless to say, I went into this year’s bowhunt with high hopes.

About a month before the season opener, I scouted for the Monsterbuck but couldn’t turn him up. No sweat, I thought, he’s a smart buck and will take a little more time to locate. Opening day was hot and dry, but I was brimming with hope and buzzing with energy. I picked up exactly where I left off last year. Right away I spotted a few forked-horns, but no Monsterbuck. I spent the rest of the day ghosting through thick timber and side-hilling steep slopes without rest. I never covered so much vertical ground in one day. I scoured the ground everywhere I went, but couldn’t find a single heavy-footed track. The evening hunt had me staring dejectedly at the same hillsides where the Monsterbuck had lived, but now completely devoid of deer.

Continuous boot-burning.
Continuous boot-burning.

And so went the next day, and the next. Eventually I moved camp low and worked upwards. Then north to south, and south to north, but still no Monsterbuck. For two weeks I clambered all over the beautiful and deerless mountains of Northern Utah. Morning, noon, and night I pondered where the Monsterbuck could be hiding, but turned up nothing.

Strangely enough, not only was the Monsterbuck missing, but so were seven other 4×4-or-bigger bucks I’d seen last year. At this point I was ready to take any mature buck, but all I could find were little ones. The best opportunity I had was a little 3-point buck that bounced into an opening at 20 yards and stared at me. I shooed him away and continued my fruitless search for something better.

Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.
Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.

By the third week I concluded that Monsterbuck had either, a) been killed by a hunter, lion, or poacher or b) had moved to another part of the unit, likely due to increased human pressure in the area. All I knew for sure was that the DWR had issued a bunch more tags for my unit, as evidenced by a notable increase in human traffic in the area. And if there’s one thing big bucks hate more than anything, it’s people pressure.

Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.
Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.

With less than two weeks left in the season, I was beyond dejected; I was mortified! I love bowhunting than anything, and to see it turn south so quickly was unfathomable. Each night I dreamed I was on the trail of the Monsterbuck, but he always stayed just out of sight. By day, I sat in the woods wondering if I was stuck in a nightmare; that any second I might wake to a more believable reality. Or maybe I was just a lousy hunter. Perhaps I’d just been lucky all these years and had been deluding myself until now. As more days passed, my hunting journal became a dark place in which to vent my frustrations. Something had to change…

Midday, halfway through the third week, while trudging across the empty landscape, it hit me: I had a valid Idaho hunting license left over from my spring bear hunt. I stormed back to camp, threw everything in the truck, and headed to Idaho. Having never actually hunted deer in Idaho, I went home first and collected some maps and some notes I’d gotten from an Idaho Fish & Game officer at the hunting expo.

My first morning in Central Idaho was memorable, not because I saw deer, but because I woke up to a terrible head cold. For the next three days I stumbled around strange mountainsides, sore and coughing while my nose drained continuously onto the dry forest floor. The first unit I visited was a bust—too open and too few deer. The next unit was heavily forested, but full of other hunters and very little game. The third unit was a little more promising, but just as I began to scare up some deer, my truck broke down and I barely made it off the mountain.

Idaho Part I
Idaho Part I

The Utah deer hunt soon came to an end, and with only four days left in the Idaho season I headed out for one last attempt. In reviewing my first Idaho adventure, I concluded that the biggest threat to success was people! Going in, I had the common misconception that Idaho was a vast wilderness full of game and opportunity. Not the case. It’s just like Utah: People everywhere, hunting, hiking, camping, and driving ATVs up and down every dirt road. As long as there’s an open road you won’t find a buck anywhere near it. This is why my Utah hunt failed. In order to avoid getting “peopled” again, I broke out my map of the unit and found the one point farthest away from any city, road, or trail. My hunt wouldn’t begin until I covered two miles of steep mountains early the next morning.

Yet another camp.
Yet another camp.

It was a rough night. Instead of drifting into peaceful slumber, I lay awake staring at the tent ceiling and thinking about the colossal disappointment the season had become. My unhealthy obsession with the absentee Monsterbuck had transformed a normally magical hunt into a desperate flail across a dreary landscape. I fell asleep counting the innumerable disappointments of the last several weeks.

On September 27th I woke long before the sun and headed up the steep and wooded ridge that separated me from solitude. I trudged like a man possessed, as if fleeing an oppressive regime and longing for new lands. As I approached the ridge top, deer began popping up on the horizon, first some does, then a small band of bucks. I continued on.

The sun finally broke the horizon, splashing light across a blanket of fresh snow splotched with golden aspen leaves. Pines glistened with melting frost as steam rose lazily from dark logs. Birds flitted about. An elk fired up in the canyon below. Deer tracks crisscrossed the forest floor, increasing in number as I went. The woods pulled me forward, upward, effortlessly. I felt like I was coming home after a long hiatus.

Idaho Part II
Idaho Part II

Nearer to the top, a group of large buck tracks appeared in the snow. They were fresh and meandering, so I sat on a log and listened. I was ready to take a buck—any old buck. I just wanted to hunt for myself, and for food, with no pressure to succeed, no worries about inches and scores.

A short time later there was a clacking of antlers and scuffle in the forest. I crept closer. Two bucks pushed and shoved each other with occasional flashes of fur and legs visible in the trees. I pulled an arrow and moved closer. Morning thermals began to swirl. Just as I was closing in, a breeze hit me in the back. I froze. Moments later the bucks bounded away, up and over the mountain. Oh well, I was going that direction anyway. It was still a wonderful opportunity.

The sun had been up for some time when I finally crested the ridge and dropped into the thick pines on the shadow side of the mountain. I had officially arrived at the farthest point from the human pile and was brimming with hope. There was really only one good corridor through the tangled briar and pines, and judging by the abundance of game tracks in the area, the deer used this route too.

After traveling a ways, my stomach grumbled. I sat down on a huge deadfall log and snacked on trail mix while pondering these new woods. Eventually I fished out my hunting journal and scribbled a short note about hope and opportunity, the only positive words the book had seen in some time. My contentment was short-lived, however, when a swishing sound erupted in the trees ahead. I whipped around to see antler tips poking slowly through the tangle. In one motion, I snatched up my bow and slid off the backside of the log onto my knees. Smoothly and mechanically I knocked an arrow and clamped my release to the string. I crouched low and stared fixedly ahead like a lion.

Ten yards and closing, the buck’s big, blocky, horse-like head appeared with tall, heavy antlers extending upwards into the canopy. Lazily, he angled down towards the game trail I had just been on. When his head disappeared behind a clump of trees, I drew my bow. He stopped. My heart pounded wildly, my eyes protruded from my skull, glaring through the bowstring. Time slowed down.

The buck remained motionless, hidden behind the trees just a few steps away. Did he hear me draw, I wondered? A minute passes. My muscles start to fatigue and my arms begin to shake. Another minute passes. He knows something isn’t right. I beg my arms to hold, but the bow finally collapses, yanking my trembling arm forward.

Looking to completely ruin my day, the buck immediately starts walking again. With all my might, I crank the bow back again. His head appears just five yards away, then his shoulder. My eyes, strained and blurry, fight to settle the pin as it dances all over the place. My release triggers and the arrow flies; it flies clean over the buck’s back and my heart sinks into my stomach.

The buck bounds into the next opening just seven yards away and looks back. Crouching lower I pull another arrow and load it as quickly and smoothly as I can. He’s still there, muscles taut, ready to blast out of my life forever. I can’t watch. My eyes squeeze shut as I draw the bow once more. When the string touches my nose, my eyes flash open. He’s still there and my second arrow is on the way.

Success!

My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.
My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.

Success has taken on a new meaning for me now. Many nights of delicious venison backstraps have passed while trying to figure out how to tell the story of my tall-antlered Idaho buck. Is it a story of a failed Monsterbuck hunt, or is the miraculous success of an incredibly short hunt in new lands? Perhaps neither. I think it’s really a story of self-examination, of finding my true passion again.

As a hunter I’ve come full circle. Long ago I just wanted a deer—any deer—with my bow. It seemed like such an impossible task back then, and sometimes still does. These days are spent tirelessly chasing 200-inch monsters around the hills. But this “trophy hunting” has lost some of its magic. In trying to prove myself, I’ve gradually reduced my greatest passion down to inches and strategy. My once insatiable love for the woods feels more like work now. Perhaps it’s time to hunt for the love of hunting again… We’ll see. All I know for sure is that I keep relearning the same lessons I’ve been learning all along: That success is so much more than just killing a deer. Success really lies in the journey. Success comes from pushing yourself to your physical and spiritual limits, and then letting nature take over from there.

This story, then, is a simple one to tell: One man, one mountain, one morning, and a second chance.

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Letting the Buck Out of the Bag

My 2015 obsession.
My 2015 obsession.

Finally, a year later I’m letting the buck out of the bag. Actually I never bagged this buck to begin with, so unless someone else has, he’s STILL out of the bag.

Either way, this amazing 200″+, Northern Utah mule deer buck has haunted me every day since the 2015 season ended. I promised myself never to obsess over a buck (again), but not a single day went by for the entire year that I didn’t think about it.

The pictures in this article were taken from a video I shot at only 200 yards. At the time, he was surrounded by three other deer and there was no way to get closer. So I let him walk, thinking I might get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans.

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

Like most big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.

Hoping to get a second chance in 2016, I spent nearly 20 days of the season looking EVERYWHERE for him–high and low– but he was nowhere to be found. He is gone.

If you happen upon this tremendous buck, please give him my regards and tell him I miss him.

A look from behind.
A look from behind.

P.S. Despite the great heartbreak and strife of my 2016 bow hunt, I was still able to score on an impressive Idaho buck (story soon to come.) All is not lost…

The Future of Hunting: Part 1

The next two articles address the future of hunting and the changes I predict will happen to both hunters and their prey through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution.

esther

Rest assured hunting will change in the future, just as it has been changing rapidly over the last 10 or 20 years. The three primary factors driving these changes: a) an exploding human population, b) the development of super high-tech hunting equipment, and c) the hyper-adaptation of prey-animals which is necessary for their survival, especially with elk and deer.

What’s been occurring, and will continue to occur is a split–or chasm–developing between hunters and super-hunters. Hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck, or they will fail most of the time. Most hunters can be divided into two camps depending on their priorities. These two camps are: a) Super-hunters dedicated to the sport and willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any animal whether a spike or a 4-point.

A similar split is occurring between regular deer (and elk) and super-deer. This means that there will be isolated groups of younger, less experienced, and less pressured animals that react much like their ancestors did and get shot. The rest will adapt quickly to modern hunters, develop much more specialized bodies, and evade the average hunter for life.

In this article we’re going to focus on the changes that I predict will occur, or are occurring, in today’s deer and elk:

muledeer_013

Changes in Deer:

– Deer will become completely nocturnal. The reason you see more deer at evening and morning is because they’re most active at night. But if left undisturbed, deer will occasionally rise and feed during the day. In the future, not so much. Deer’s eyes are already adapted to see well at night, but in the future I predict that their eyesight will become further specialized to low-light conditions. The trade-off is that their eyes will become highly light-sensitive, causing them to bed even farther into super-deep/dark timber and never emerge until it’s completely dark. So much for seeing deer early and late.

– Deer will grow narrower racks. This is already the case in places like Oregon and Washington where the bucks live in dense timber most of the time. But if all western deer adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, they will be forced to move more frequently through dense timber and thus grow narrow racks.

– Deer will grow longer legs, similar to elk. Deer naturally have a difficult time moving through deep snow; basically anything over 30 inches. Because of this, deer–unlike elk–are forced to winter on lower elevations. The detrimental problem is that humans have developed almost all winter range elevations, especially here in Utah. And any deer forced to winter in low elevations is highly susceptible to death via highways, dogs, poachers, destruction of native forage, and overall human-induced winter-time stress which forces deer to burn up all their fat reserves before spring green-up. As this is a fairly recent phenomenon, today’s deer haven’t had time to develop bigger bodies and longer limbs which would allow them to winter much higher up…but they will!

– Deer will grow bigger hooves. Until recently, deer haven’t lived in very cliffy or rocky terrain. But they are starting to. Today’s animals, with their dwindling habitat, the threat of long-range rifles, and increased hunter pressure, are forced into some very unnatural and rugged terrain. My brother-in-law Josh actually found bucks living in and around caves in the unit where he hunts. Have you ever noticed how small a deer’s hooves are compared to cliff-dwelling species such as sheep or goats? As a taxidermist I have the unique opportunity of comparing characteristics between different species. Sheep and goats have approximately the same body mass as deer, but their feet are nearly twice as large. Other than size, another interesting difference between deer and goat hooves is the foot pad. The footpad of any hooved animal is made of a softer, cartilage-like material. But the goat’s hoof is much softer than the deer’s which allows goats to grip onto rocks easier. I predict that deer will develop not only bigger hooves, but softer ones too.

– Deer will grow bigger brains. Any trophy hunter already knows how incredibly smart today’s bucks are, but they will become smarter yet! This is a simple law of nature: survival of the fittest/smartest. As humans develop smarter and smarter hunting technology, the deer will be forced to adapt. In an article from last year I wrote about all the different–seemingly ingenious ways–that deer have adapted to hunters just in my lifetime. Big bucks are using multiple levels of thinking to evade hunters. Some examples include using does as security buffers between open feed and treeline, moving into non-deer habitat such as caves, and using complex sentinel-based security systems.

elk-6a

Now let’s look at future changes in elk:

– Elk will be silent, like deer! After just a few decades of calling to them, big bulls are becoming silent. This was the basis of the relatively recent invention of the “silent calling” technique, wherein modern bulls often approach without calling back to the hunter. Thirty years ago it was easy to bugle a bull in. As this became increasingly ineffective, we began cow calling to them. But even this technique is becoming increasingly ineffective. Bulls are beginning to mistrust any calls, and instead relying more on wind direction and scent to verify a threat. Also, as archery equipment becomes more innovative and effective, bulls are hanging up farther and farther back. Since both cow calls and bugles are the elk’s greatest weakness, I predict a time when elk are completely silent and use scent and wind direction to rut around–just as deer do.

– Elk will grow narrower and smaller racks. Just like deer, elk will move deeper and deeper into the timber and will therefore grow narrower racks for easier travel through dense timber.

– Elk will grow bigger ears. Relative to their bodies, elk ears are fairly small, albeit efficient. But as with mule deer, there’s always room for bigger ears. Since elk will become more timber-dwelling, and since sound doesn’t travel nearly as far in thick forests, elk will need bigger ears to funnel available sound waves.

– Elk will develop better vision. Elk and deer eyes are practically the same: good night vision, wide field of vision, and sensitive to movement. But deer species’ eyes have two major weaknesses: a) they can’t see the color red, and b) they can’t see fine detail. This is why an elk can’t see you standing five feet away, unless you move. Of course they use their noses to make up for it, but their eyesight is still relatively weak compared to our own. So, in the future I predict the elk and deer will either develop the ability to see red, and/or their eyes will evolve to see better detail.

– Elk will have smaller bodies. During the last ice age, animals had much bigger bodies. This allowed them to survive low temps, move through deep snow, and evade larger predators such as saber-tooth tigers. After the ice age animals got smaller. Today’s elk are relatively giant compared to other western big game animals. This is advantageous during winter, but for the rest of the year it hinders them in two primary ways: a) they need water more frequently, and b) they need to eat more, and more often. As any predator knows, it’s much easier to ambush an animal that’s feeding and watering. Unlike deer, this makes hunting elk over water a viable option. Also, because elk are grazing animals–rather than foraging animals–it’s easier to predict food sources and travel routes. In the future, smaller elk won’t need to water as often, and will likely adapt their palate to browse-type foods such as forbs/shrubs/etc. As a result, they will bed earlier, rise later, and probably become completely nocturnal as well.

– Elk will grow smarter. I suppose they’re already kinda smart, but they’re getting much smarter. Last year, while hunting with my wife, we called up a herd bull using estrus calls. The bull came stomping in, and then, just before showing himself, pushed two cows right through us. When the cows passed the shooter they picked up her scent and bolted taking the bull with them. This well-thought-out security measure worked perfectly. Very admirable, but very disappointing. In the future I predict much more complicated hunter-evasion techniques by these highly adaptive animals.

Conclusion:

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting harder by the year. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them. There are many factors at play, but it just proves that technology is not the answer. On the flip side, we should be thankful that our beloved deer are such brilliant survivors. Otherwise there would be nothing left to hunt, here in the future.

Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll analyze the future of hunting and the inevitable division between hunting camps. I think you’re gonna like it.

Trophy Hunting: Good or Bad?

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I’m a trophy hunter. On average I spend around 23 days a year beating myself up in the mountains just for a shot at a giant trophy buck. Most years I come home empty-handed or with a “settlement” meat buck. What can I say; I just love giant bucks! I love big bucks primarily because for the great challenge they provide to a seasoned hunter like myself. I also think they’re beautiful, cunning, and beyond exciting to chase with a bow.

Anti-hunters hate trophy hunters. They think we target big bucks strictly for their headgear and with little regard for meat or sustenance. This may be true of a misguided few, but for me every ounce of meat is considered sacred, and great pains are taken to pack it off the mountain.

This negative attitude towards trophy hunters isn’t just held by ignorant liberals, but by some hunters as well. I was conversing with a hunter last year about the decline in big bucks over the years. Knowing that I was a ‘trophy hunter’ he said, “Well, if people wouldn’t shoot all the big ones, there might still be some around.” At first I thought he was kidding–which he wasn’t–and then responded, “Uh, isn’t that the point? To take the biggest buck you can?” I don’t remember the ignoramus’ response…

Anyhoo, this got me thinking. While in the woods last season I asked myself, “What are the pros and cons of trophy hunting? Overall, is it more beneficial to target trophies, or more harmful?”

As it turns out, trophy hunting is very beneficial, both to the deer herds AND to non-trophy hunters. Here’s the list I came up with:

Trophy hunting does all of the following:

– Provides larger, more mature animals which better fills the freezer and feeds the clan.
– Removes old, declining, and territorial bucks from the herds which allows greater opportunity for younger bucks to mature. In effect, this allows greater opportunity for non-trophy hunters AND expansion of the deer herd.
– Research shows that 80% of bucks 5 years and above will die of old age, NOT harvest. Since these bucks are essentially un-huntable, then trophy hunters don’t compete with non-trophy hunters.
– Trophy bucks provide a far greater challenge to seasoned hunters who choose to pass up small bucks–often every single day–for an opportunity at a trophy. Since trophy hunters are most often UN-successful, this leaves more animals in the woods which means greater opportunity for other hunters. This also allows younger deer to reach maturity. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
– Instead of shooting the first buck he sees, a trophy hunter passes up many bucks. Consequently he spends many more days afield. This equates to a longer season and many more deer encounters, and in my opinion that’s the best part of hunting.
– Don’t be a “baby killer!” Being a trophy hunter means you’re not killing yearling or two-year-old bucks. Young bucks haven’t gained enough experience to effectively evade predators and hunters yet. It doesn’t seem entirely fair to kill these “babies” before they have a fighting chance. Several years ago there was a kill-anything mentality around our elk camp. On the last day of the season I had a young elk calf approach me unsuspectingly at 20 yards. I drew my bow, but then took one look at it’s cute, fuzzy face and just couldn’t release the arrow. I got some razzing back at camp, since “calves have the most tender meat,” but for me it just didn’t feel right.
– Oh, and let’s not forget the greatest benefit of trophy hunting: A big, beautiful rack displayed on the wall in magnificent glory to serve as a lasting reminder of an unforgettable hunt! Nature really is the BEST art.

In conclusion, I can’t think of a single disadvantage to trophy hunting; well, other than frequent failure. But oft-found failure is easily overshadowed by the occasional harvest of true monster-buck.

Happy trophy hunting this year!