Tag Archives: trophy buck

Better Than Perfect: My 2018 Deer Hunt

The Goal

A dire warning jumped from the pages of last year’s hunt journal: “Plan to hunt the entire 28-day season or plan to fail!” Midway through the 2017 season, the daunting task of arrowing a trophy buck inspired me to write these words. So my goal in 2018 was to hunt the entire season no matter what. I never had this luxury before, mostly due to work obligations. Last year was my longest stint in the woods at 18 days. In order to reach my goal I had to shirk work at every turn, turning down a myriad of jobs, not to mention several fishing trips and other opportunities. I was in for the long haul.

A Quest for Knowledge

I dedicated the first week of the hunt to helping Esther. I would set her up in prime ambush areas while I went off to explore new places and learn everything I could about big buck behavior. This strategy worked out great. Esther finally got a shot at a mature buck, and I got in the habit of collecting data and scouting rather than just hunting.

While exploring a new area one morning, I spotted an old 30-inch wide 3-point buck. I wasn’t completely sold on shooting a 3×3, but he was well out of bow range anyway. Instead I followed his tracks in hopes of learning where big bucks go during the day. The tracks wrapped around the mountain and eventually dropped off a dreadfully steep, shale-rock slope. It was hard to believe a deer would travel so far just to bed down. His route was confirmed by very large tracks and big, green droppings measuring three-quarter inches. They were such large pebbles that I’d always assumed they were elk droppings in the past.

Just when I was about to give up pursuit, the old buck stood up from his bed in a clump of trees 30 yards ahead. He, along with another big buck, took one look at me and hopped away. I stared blankly for a minute, and then had an epiphany: I’ve been hunting wrong my entire life! In 27 years of big game hunting I never realized just how far unpressured deer were willing to go just to bed down for the day. Sure I had my suspicions, but now it was confirmed.

The steep country.

In most of the hunting books I’ve read, the author categorizes big bucks the all same way, whether they are young-mature bucks (3+ years old), older bucks, or old trophy bucks. But young bucks act very differently than old bucks because deer learn exponentially each year they survive. They adapt rapidly to hunters with each encounter, so much so that old bucks (in the 6-10 year range) essentially become unhuntable. Biologists have theorized that 80% of bucks aged 5 years and older will never be harvested, and die natural causes instead. The great majority of bucks taken by hunters are only one or two years old. These “toddlers” have some basic survival instincts, but with so little experience, they cannot effectively avoid hunters. Old bucks on the other hand basically evolve into a completely different animal, so you need to hunt them differently.

Perfect Creatures

Mule deer are the most perfect creature I know of, even better, I dare say, than humans, at least from Nature’s perspective. Here’s what I mean: Deer ears are 10 times larger than ours; they hear everything. Their 310-degree field of view and night vision overshadows our own narrow focus. Their nose is tremendous, shaping their entire head into an olfactory funnel capable of smelling danger a mile away. Every big buck is built like a linebacker; muscular and lean, with the strength and agility to blast away from hunters for miles before setting up shop on some distant, near-vertical slope. Then there’s intelligence—but a different kind of intelligence. It’s widely known that intelligence is the human’s only advantage over the buck (weapons, optics, camouflage, etc. are all products of our intelligence). Yet 80% of bowhunters fail each year because they cannot beat the deer’s seemingly simple intelligence.

From first to last light the hunter gathers information and formulates a series of well thought-out plans to ambush his four-legged foe. The deer, on the other hand, catches the slightest human scent, and without actually seeing the hunter, completely alters his behavior so he’ll never cross our path again. Instantly he goes nocturnal; his evening routine becomes a night routine. He moves from bed to feed on a completely different route and schedule. Simultaneously, he decides to go a few days without water just to keep a low profile. And for the rest of the hunt that buck is never seen. All of this occurs in the buck’s little brain with lightning strike brilliance and hardly a conscious thought.

In hunting stories, people often state that “the buck made a mistake that morning,” or, “I just had to wait for the buck to make a mistake.” The truth is that big bucks don’t make mistakes, they just get unlucky. Every step a deer takes is deliberate, with the purpose of conserving energy and surviving. It’s people who make mistakes—continuous mistakes, actually—and then once in a while we get lucky. The buck is not only “smart” at surviving, but mentally tough from living in the cruel woods 365 days a year. He’s accustomed to constant pain, fear, and discomfort. So it’s hardly a chore for him to avoid a bow-toting hunter who can barely get own his lazy butt up the mountain. Worse yet, while we clamber around the mountain, complete with frustration, the buck sits in the shade of a seemingly random tree, half-asleep, and chewing his cud. Simply put, he’s vastly smarter at surviving than we are at hunting him. Thus, the mighty mule deer buck is God’s perfect creature, perhaps even better than perfect.

The Draggerbuck

Speaking of frustration, week one brought me face to face with a pair of velvet-clad bull elk. For years I fantasized about harvesting a bull in velvet, but these elk spotted me first and blew out of the area…permanently. Esther went home after the first week and I was left alone; just me, my tent, and the mountain. One day, while driving up a nasty dirt road in the velvet elk area, I glimpsed a wide deer butt in the trees. I backed up and was befuddled to see a massive antler glued to the head of an enormous sway-belly buck just 10 yards off the road! Long story short, I spent the next four days tracking that buck through heavy timber.

The Draggerbuck

Back and forth he went with no apparent pattern. All I could glean from this fruitless endeavor was that he dragged his right, rear leg, likely the result of a past human encounter. So I called him the “Draggerbuck.” I set up a trail camera in the area and eventually caught the old warrior on film. Thank goodness he was only a 3×4, because I was beaten and abandoned the pursuit altogether.

Putting it All Together

By the third week I’d seen a lot of new country and a lot of mediocre bucks; so many bucks that I gave up counting them. I’d fallen into a monotonous rhythm: Hunt prime feed at first light, then after 9:30 or so, when the deer had bedded, I’d go on an intel-gathering mission, following big tracks along travel routes while searching for likely feed, water, and bedding areas. Knowing that bucks will go to any horrible place just to avoid hunters, I really pushed myself. Around midday I would drag my sore feet back to camp for lunch and try to catch a “crap-nap” before setting out again. (Daytime sleep was rare and often interrupted). Then, in the early afternoon I’d head back out to explore prime areas and work bed-to-feed routes.

Through it all I never had a bad day because I was learning so much. Each day I returned to camp with a handful of clues—puzzle pieces if you will—that I’d picked up, photographed, or noted in my field journal. During periods of downtime, I meticulously pieced things together until a picture gradually developed. Sure there were gaps here and there, holes to remind me that the pieces are infinite, and can’t all be found. But we’re not meant to know everything; we can only get close. Some pieces probably got vacuumed up, and the dog probably ate some. But the picture was becoming clear and just what I’d hoped for: A monster buck, God’s most perfect beast, standing majestically in the timber, stoic and powerful, with a gleaming coat of coarse-gray fur, his massive antlers glistening above his muscular neck and wizened face. Dramatic, pastel-painted clouds loom overhead, and there’s a title at the bottom, barely visible in gold calligraphy etched in a boulder below his hooves. One word:  UNTOUCHABLE.  What a picture.

Glassing

In one of my secret areas I can glass an adjacent mountain peak where a band of bucks often feed late into the morning and then take a predictable route through the pines towards a known bedding area. I had the wind right one evening, so I took my time carefully working into the timber in hopes of ambushing the bucks as they came up to feed. I worked carefully through the thick timber until I found the perfect ambush point between two deer trails and set up there for the evening. I sat motionless until the whole mountain and even the squirrels forgot I was there. I listened intently and glassed often, but nothing happened. As darkness fell I stood up in dismay and wondered deeply, how can I be better than perfect?!

My Mountain Home

A lot happens in 27 days of hunting. I found a couple broken arrowheads and what appears to be a spear tip fashioned of pale blue flint. One night a horrible, screeching witch-monster (or something) walked past my tent at 2:00 am. 27 years of hunting and I’d never heard such an awful noise in the woods! It woke me from a nightmare and I lied there frozen in terror, listening as the monster moved through the trees. I slept with my revolver close that night, and then, undeterred, resumed normal hunting activities the following morning.

Spearhead?

The woods are cruel, I’ve decided. They may seem benign to the uninitiated, but to the veteran hunter they’re downright mean. Big buck areas are often protected by a near impenetrable network of barking squirrels, doe snorts, and crackling ground cover. Trying to navigate these obstacles is a daily exercise in futility. Squirrels are the worst and can effectively ruin a hunt. Observe any buck when a squirrel fires up with its relentless, mindless barking. The buck whips his head around and stares in that direction. The older bucks won’t even look, they just walk away.

It gets worse in September when the squirrels have amassed a collection of pine cones and become territorial. The entire pine forest becomes gridded out as squirrel territory. But there’s more going on than just random barking. Oftentimes, the obnoxious rodent simply ignores me until I’ve crawled into bow range. At that point, he seems to have a moral responsibility to alert the buck to my presence. I suspected this before, but now I believe it. Here’s one example: I’m sneaking down a trail when I hear some rustling 20 yards ahead. I crouch down as a mature 4×4 buck steps into view. As I raise my binos for a closer look, a nearby squirrel loses his mind. Then a chipmunk joins in. The buck turns around and glares at me before nervously moving off. This happens all the time, and now, at risk of sounding insane, I fully believe the squirrels are protecting the deer from hunters.

Week 4: Hell Week

Twenty days afield wears on a guy. Days and days go by without speaking to anyone. I stave off loneliness well enough, but then there are the constant bugs, heat, dust, and the crappy air mattress taking its toll on my spine. Weary exhaustion from waking too early, hiking all day, and getting to bed late makes time go by in a blurry haze. Days are very long and time is perceived differently. What day is it, I often wonder.

A day in the woods.

Summer gradually changes to fall;  mornings grow cooler and evenings grow shorter. Suddenly it’s a new month, a new moon, and a whole different season. Then there’s dinner: a can of soup, the same kind every night, alone in the dark, sometimes with moths floating in it. But you get used to it. Still, this hunt feels tougher than most, probably because work- and home-life were so stressful preceding the hunt.  It was a record year for ripped off, even by good friends, so I carried a lot of negative energy into this hunt. But I suppose it’s easier to spend a month in the woods when you’re disgusted with humanity.

As I sit in the dark, rhythmically slurping my soup, I suddenly realize that everything back home is a luxury. I ask myself, what do I really need to survive? The forest mind, now focused by chronic stinging silence, sees clearly that the vast majority of what consumes our lives is totally unnecessary. The constant din of technology—the TV, phone, internet, ads—is all distractions, even dangerously distracting, because these digital devices distract us from what really matters—purpose, meaning, friends and family. These are digital toxins, stealing away our precious time and scattering our minds. Modern man is becoming an aberration, the byproduct of over-consumerism and selfishness perpetuated by technology and too much information.

That ubiquitous phone-device we poke at all day is the portal from whence the monster comes. It feels like tentacles around my neck. Being self-employed, I live project to project, not by a wage. I haven’t had a paid vacation day in almost fifteen years, so time is valuable. But my phone rings and beeps all the time, interrupting my focus and wrecking my productivity. 90% of the time it’s no one I want to talk, or worse yet, scammers and crooks, seething vultures prying at my wallet and vying for my life’s energy. Even the device itself is constantly trying to sell me something, begging for updates or demanding upgrades. Like I need an upgrade; if anything, I need a downgrade!

Technology has gone too far. It’s a detriment to natural life. It’s ridiculous and abhorrent. Sci-fi predicted our fate a long time ago, and now, here in the future, the machine really has killed us, we just don’t know it yet. I shudder at the thought of returning home. I love the mountain; it’s my rescuer.

The Big One

By week four I’d seen nearly a hundred bucks and only two were worthy of my arrow (180 inches or better). 2% sucks, but it’s still better than most places in Northern Utah. Week four is also fraught with regret. That big 4×4 I passed up early in the season suddenly doesn’t seem so small. I busted him low, then high, and that was the last I saw of him. He changed mountains altogether, went nocturnal, and practically stopped existing. The following week I went looking for him and in his stead was a beautiful 4×5. I passed him too, first at 15 yards and again at 40. Now I’d be happy with either one. But I was convinced there was a bigger one lurking somewhere.

Well, I met that bigger buck with only five days left in the hunt. I estimate him at 190 gorgeous inches. I left camp early that morning, heading to the same far-off ridge where I chased the 30-inch buck early on. Just as the sun began streaming through the trees I heard a swishing sound in the dry brush, and out popped a monster buck 50 yards away. He was a majestic 4×4 tank-of-a-deer, beautiful and old. He was feeding broadside on a steep slope, barely visible in the thick pines. I pulled an arrow, but there was no shot. The buck was working steadily towards the only opening in the forest when a squirrel fired up. Then the wind began to swirl. The buck looked around nervously.

Realizing my only chance at a great buck was about to fall apart, my adrenaline surged and I began shaking like a little girl. The buck continued, slower now. I was coming unglued; my heart pounded and my hands shook. When he finally sauntered through the shot window, I settled my dancing sight pin best I could and hit the release. The arrow took a last minute nose dive into the dirt and the buck smashed away unscathed. After a minute of disgust, I raised my binos and lo and behold, there he was, deep in the woods, antlers sprawling through the trees. He was scowling at me—really scowling—like I’d never seen a deer do before. We stared at each other for several minutes before he finally turned and melted away.

With only four days left I hammered the monster buck area relentlessly. I found two prime feed areas and two prime bedding routes all bearing huge, pebble droppings. I put in full days afield, ghosting through the woods tirelessly, but I never caught up with that buck again. The great, unsolvable problem was navigating the “gauntlet” each morning. The whole area was booby trapped with does, squirrels, swirling winds, and lesser bucks sprinkled around perimeter. The bucks had the decency of just B-lining out of there, but the does were evil. They snorted, stomped, and sprinted around in circles alerting the entire forest to my presence. By the time I got to the big buck area, everything was blown out. With only three days left, and painfully aware of my empty freezer back home, I lowered my standards. Now any mature buck was good enough.

Day 27

Friday, September 13; only two days left. There was a short sentence scribbled on my bow hand in heavy ink: This is IT! Everything I’d endured all year came down to this. Besides, you never know which hunt might be your last. I took the same route that morning and by some miracle made it through the gauntlet. But as expected, the prime area was empty.

Reminder.

The secondary area was a third-mile away, so I needed to hurry. I was trotting through the woods at 7:45 when I spotted two small bucks feeding a short distance ahead. When I paused, a squirrel lit up like its tail was on fire. The two bucks looked back at me, and then promptly shuffled away. To the right a large bush swayed back and forth. A third, unseen buck was raking a bush with his rack, too distracted to hear the squirrel’s alarm. I pulled an arrow just as the bush stopped moving.

The buck, suddenly alarmed by the squirrel, began walking briskly to the right. Through the first opening he came to I glanced at his headgear, four points, good enough. His shoulder appeared and I launched the arrow without a second to spare. The shot felt good and the buck blasted up the near-vertical slope like a cannonball and disappeared in the trees. I stood for a while trying to get my bearings. It all happened so fast.

The blood trail was instant, crimson splashes on both sides of dug-in tracks blasting uphill. After a short bit I found my broken-off arrow covered in bubbly blood. Fifty yards up the mountain, his tracks veered sharply right and there he was, his grey body piled up in some yellow bushes with a heavy antler protruding upward.  I knelt down by the beautiful buck and grasped for understanding.

My 2018 archery buck.

Everything had transpired too quickly to process it. All these years of intense learning had led to this sudden, surprising encounter.  I was kind of expecting a grand crescendo to an epic hunt, but instead got an abrupt end to a chance meeting. Nevertheless I was happy; my spirit was full.

Conclusion

The story is really a short one. On a far-off mountainside, somewhere between two prime deer areas, a bowhunter met a random buck, and that’s all. A person can dedicate his whole life to learning about these wondrous creatures—collecting data, photographing, admiring, and pondering—but they’re really beyond comprehension and almost beyond reach. My buck appeared when I needed him to, 27 days into a 28-day season. But the real trophy was knowledge. In just two seasons I’d put in 45 days afield and went farther than ever before while simultaneously expanding my mule deer knowledge ten-fold.

My buck wasn’t really old, nor was his rack really wide, nor tall. He was just a solid 4×4 buck with good mass and some extra cheaters. But considering all I’d been through and how little time was left, I’d say he was perfect, maybe even better than perfect.

The Wall: My 2017 Utah Archery Buck

A New Beginning

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.

The Wall Buck

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 wall buck into the trees. That was the last I saw of him.

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.

Round Two

After seven days afield I drove home, dropped off the wife, 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 his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

September

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. I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places in hopes of finding another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring within. 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.

A Different Approach

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.

Doing Time

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.

A New Hope

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.

Home Run

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.

Letting the Buck Out of the Bag

My Utah Superbuck Obsession

 

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…

Drop-Tine Obsession

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

DroptineBuck

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.

DroptineBuck2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot location and distance.
Shot location and distance.

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

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

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

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

DTb