Tag Archives: Utah

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.

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.

A Second Chance

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

My 2015 obsession.
The infamous Monsterbuck.

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

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

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

Continuous boot-burning.
Continuous boot-burning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idaho Part I
Idaho Part I

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

Yet another camp.
Yet another camp.

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

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

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

Idaho Part II
Idaho Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success!

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

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

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

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

hunt2016_002

Trouble with Turkeys

turkey-sized

I never thought much about turkeys. I love bowhunting more than anything, but it was my wife Esther who took an active interest in the turkey. So I promised I’d take her.

In spring we drew turkey tags for Southern Utah. In recent years we’d come across plenty of turkeys while hunting deer in the Beaver unit, so that’s where we applied. Getting tags was easy enough, but that’s where easy ended.

First off, we decided to do it with a bow. I don’t do guns—I am a bow-snob…I mean purist—so now we were hunting unfamiliar prey with light tackle.

Second, Esther couldn’t get any time off work. Her work schedule is a consummate nightmare, but somehow she secured a weekend towards the end of the season in April. Now this proved to be a problem because the turkeys we ultimately hunted were already people- and call- wary. Can you say sloppy seconds?

Third now, the weather report called for heavy thundershowers and snow. Oh well, we were going for it.

We left late Friday night and already it was raining. Four hours later we set up camp in the back of the truck and went to bed. The morning was cool and lovely. We ventured across a small river and up the mountain. I decided to make a video of our ordeal, so Esther carried a bow and I carried a camera. I would be the caller for the first couple days, and after she got a shot it would be my turn.

turk1

We hiked for a few hours, made turkey calls, and got no response. A while later, we heard a turkey gobble out of the blue, so we set up a decoy, dropped back, and began some calling sequences. The turkey moved off and didn’t respond, so we kept hiking.

turk2

Later in the afternoon, some thick, black clouds rolled in so we began working back down the mountain. Well, about half a mile from camp, a gobbler fired up pretty close to us. We holed up under some junipers to devise a strategy, and that’s when the rain started. We pulled out our raingear and pretty soon it was a downpour. At some point I realized we were on the wrong side of the river, and if the rain continued we might get trapped on this side. So we bagged the hunt and made a run for it.

turk4

By the time we reached the truck the rain had turned to heavy snow. Later in the afternoon the snow let up so we ran back up to where we heard the gobblers. But they were gone. For the rest of the evening we hiked all over looking for tracks in the new snow, but found none. The turkeys had flown the coop! Makes sense though, since their ground-dwelling food was now hidden beneath a fresh blanket of snow.

Untitled-4

The next morning we woke to a full-on blizzard. Around 10 a.m. it subsided so once again we crossed the river and headed up the mountain. We hiked from four inches to six inches of snow. We covered an immense amount of ground, but heard no gobbles and saw no tracks. The turkeys were gone.

Well, it seemed to me that the only direction they’d go was downhill, so we packed up the truck and headed to the bottom of the mountain.

It rained most of the day so we spent several hours driving the low-elevation dirt roads and scanning the hillsides for black blobs in the snow. We found none. In the late afternoon we decided to find a place to camp. I remembered a dirt road that gave access to the low-elevation drainage that we’d been hunting in, so we went there. As expected, it was very muddy. Basically, the steep dirt road drops into a bowl before turning back up the mountain. Well, half-way to the bottom, the truck started sliding sideways and I struggled to maintain control. We got to the bottom okay, but now we were really stuck. We slopped to a flat spot to camp, then, with a break in the storm, hiked up the mountain to see where we’d be spending the last day of the hunt.

Things began looking up.

Almost a mile up the muddy mountain, we heard a gobble. With a couple hours of light left, we rushed in, threw out the decoy, and made some calls. There were three gobblers, all struttin’ around us, but it was too thick to see them. I kept dropping back and making hen calls, but they just kept circling us nervously and gobbling every few minutes, but never showing themselves.

We pulled the decoy and repositioned in a better clearing, but they still wouldn’t come in. We pulled the decoy again and rushed toward them. We were getting close, and so was nighttime. Well, as we sat there trying to figure out where to plant the decoy, some big red heads came bouncing and bobbing through the sagebrush. The toms were about to pass right in front of us at only twenty yards! Esther nocked an arrow. The turks went behind a juniper and I whisper-yelled, “30 yards!” When they broke into the open, Esther let an arrow fly…and missed! The arrow sailed right behind the first turkey and the second turkey jumped straight into the air. Somewhat alarmed, they all trotted out of sight.

It’s funny how thin the line is between failure and success. In this case, it was both. After two hard days, Esther miraculously got a last minute shot. Although she missed, we were excited to finally be into the turkeys!

On Sunday we got up early and hiked to where we left the turkeys. We were excited, and I even carried a bow this time. Sure enough, we were greeted by gobbles. Several times we set up the decoy and made calls. The toms responded diligently, but wouldn’t come in. Instead they continued up the mountain and we followed.

Now this is where things get real bad; where Nate and Nature have a serious falling out.

With plenty of new snow, it was easy to follow their tracks. We spotted the turkeys a hundred yards ahead of us. I quickly set up a decoy and dropped back to call. Just as I started calling, a small herd of elk came running through the oak brush. The elk had caught our wind and ran right through the turkeys, nearly trampling them! The turkeys spooked farther up the mountain and we followed.

We caught up to the turkeys moving ahead of us in some boulders and brush. Squatting low to the ground, I trotted up and planted the decoy. No sooner had I started calling, some coyotes suddenly lit up howling like crazy a short distance behind us. The toms made one last gobble, some other turkeys across the canyon gobbled back, and then everyone shut up. Those were the last gobbles we heard. Esther and I followed the tracks way up the mountain into the deep snow, but they were moving too fast. Eventually the tracks led out of the huge valley, over a saddle, and gone forever. Stupid coyotes!

Frustrated, we turned back. While on top of the mountain, Esther decided to call into work and let her boss know we were stuck in the mud and may not get out by tomorrow. Her boss wasn’t in, but the nice fellow who answered the phone informed her that her 23-year old work-friend had crashed his motorcycle and died over the weekend. Now we were super-bummed for the rest of the day.

With the day slipping away, we had no choice but to make our way back to where we started. Who knows; maybe we could find some new turkeys.

We did! Half-way back to the bottom I spotted a hen walking in the sagebrush. I made some calls and some new gobblers fired up. I snuck out to the open and plugged the decoy in the mud and snuck back. I could barely make out some large, strutting males wandering back and forth in the trees ahead.

We started calling and this time a herd of nine deer came bounding out below us. Now, these deer were hell-bent on going uphill, and did so by running right through the turkeys. All the commotion spooked the turkeys off and again it was silent. You gotta be kidding me! First elk, then coyotes, and now deer!

With no other choice, we followed the toms into the dark timber. The snow had melted at the lower elevations, so following tracks was no longer possible. Fortunately, a short while later, we got them gobbling again. The problem was they refused to come in. Instead, they bedded down and expected us to come to them. We called for more than an hour with no luck.

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Frustrated, I decided to make a move. I told Esther to hang back. I’d sneak above and around them, and if they spooked, they might run back towards her.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, one of them busted me and all three toms slipped away down the mountain. I went back and got Esther. With only a couple hours of daylight, we decided to make one more setup at the bottom of the canyon.

After half an hour of futile calling, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch it get dark on my hunt and just give up. I told Esther I was going to enter the dark timber and sneak around for the last hour of light. She would stay in the ravine with the decoy and continue calling occasionally.

I worked very high up into the steep timber. I’d gone a little ways when out of the blue I heard something. “Cluck—-cluck—–cluck.” Well, this was new! I pulled an arrow. Sure enough, 40 yards below me, a huge chicken—I mean turkey—came sneaking through the woods alone and completely oblivious to my presence, clucking as it went. As it rounded a tree I let my arrow fly.

The arrow hit the giant black bird perfectly broadside and dead-center. The tom’s wings flapped wildly as it sprinted out of sight with my orange fletched arrow sticking straight out of its side. I was super excited as I dropped down to see my trophy…which was gone. I found a couple clipped feathers and some torn up dirt, even a speck of blood or two. I followed in the direction the stupid bird ran, found another feather, and then lost the trail. I started walking circles. I called Esther on the walkie-talkie to come help. She showed up and we search up and down and all over. The turkey was gone; run off to who-knows-where with my arrow. The problem with turkeys is two-fold: they don’t leave a blood trail, and they can SURE take an arrow!

It got dark and we put out our headlamps on. With no trail to follow we had no choice but to give up. I was so deflated as I walked back to the truck. Few words were spoken.

The next morning we somehow slogged the truck out of the mud and drove home with nary a feathered foe for food.

Later studies and videos proved the turkey’s can surely take an arrow. Basically, their stiff wings, when folded against their body create a sheet of armor, like a stack of zip-ties. It slows and even stops a sharp broadhead. In most cases it eventually kills the bird, but only after a lengthy sprint. A head/neck shot is really your best option.

The story ends here. But it also begins here. Next year you’ll find me and Esther in the same spot, early in the season, with both heavier arrows and a little experience in our quivers. When facing nature one-on-one, the mountain and its infinite variables most often wins. But this particular mountain still owes me a turkey, and I’ll never give up.

Happy Thanksgiving!

2014 Bowhunt Part 1 of 3

On Friday I got back from my first four-day bowhunt in Southern Utah. I hiked in Monday morning and began hunting that evening through Thursday. Since the area is still new to me, I considered this to be a scouting mission for the last two weeks of the season. So far, here are the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. There are about 10 bucks living in the immediate area by camp. All but two are smaller, 2, 3, and 4 points–not mature bucks. The other two, which I did NOT get good visuals on, are average-sized, mature four-points in the 160-inch class range. As far as I’m concerned, these are “settlement bucks,” or bucks I will only shoot if I cannot find any bigger before the season ends.
  2. The surrounding area, which extend for miles in all directions, contains only sparse amounts of deer, mostly does. I also couldn’t find any heavy deer traffic areas, and only a few random large-buck tracks.
  3. All bucks are still in velvet and the younger bucks still have their summer red-coats. The older bucks are beginning to grow out their gray winter coats. Because the bucks are still in velvet, they are living mostly in and around open feeding areas.
  4. Undisturbed, the bucks tend to bed down around 9:30 a.m. On cooler days, they begin feeding early, around 4:30 p.m.
  5. Deer are concentrated and feeding only the East and Southeast facing slopes.
  6. Scent control is impossible. Although I try to diminish my human scent with scent-eliminating laundry and body soap, by the second day of hunting the deer can smell me immediately and bust out of the area. At the same time, I had 5 does and fawns bed down within 10 yards of me on the fourth day when the wind was in my favor.

That’s all I have right now. I’ll be hunting most of next week so stay tuned for part 2.

2014 Hunt Photos: 1 of 3

Here are some photos from my first bowhunt of 2014:

Here’s why deer in my area aren’t centered around water. Many rocks have pits that collect rain water.
Here’s why deer in my area aren’t centered around water. Many rocks have pits that collect rain water.
I found this broken arrowhead near camp.
I found this broken arrowhead near camp.
A small stream running through an open meadow.
A small stream running through an open meadow.
Water springing out of the rocks.
Water springing out of the rocks.
One of three horned toads I ran into. They are very unafraid of people and gentle to handle. Probably good eating in a pinch...
One of three horned toads I ran into. They are very unafraid of people and gentle to handle. Probably good eating in a pinch…
Inside my tent, and a boring photo from a camera test.
Inside my tent, and a boring photo from a camera test.
Elderberries grow in great abundance in my area. I eat hundreds a day to stay hydrated. Also a good source of fiber.
Elderberries grow in great abundance in my area. I eat hundreds a day to stay hydrated. Also a good source of fiber.
When I came home this buck was wandering through my yard. Notice the archery target behind its head!
When I came home this buck was wandering through my yard. Notice the archery target behind its head!

The Buck of Destiny

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Is this the buck of destiny? Well it’s not on my hit list…yet.

As I was walking out my front door today I noticed this handsome little two-point buck feeding in the empty lot next door. I barely had enough time to grab my camera and snap this shot as he made a high jump and then fed within 20 yards of our house.

When my wife and I moved out to the country in 2012, we just wanted a yard big enough to shoot our bows in. Little did we know there was a whole herd of deer living along the slough that passes behind our house. We’ve seen up to 21 deer at one time! Below is the biggest buck we’ve seen:

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The best part about having backyard deer is that you can really learn a lot by observing their natural behaviors. Sometimes I try to move about the yard undetected. I watch how they react to different sounds and movements. I observe their daytime routines, feeding habits, and anything else I can learn. The fact is, the better you understand your prey, the better hunter you’ll be.

So, today’s buck was a real treat. We haven’t seen bucks all summer and now they’re here, in the backyard. And just in time, too, because tomorrow is the big day. I’m finally heading into the hills on my first bowhunt of 2014. When I return in a few days I’ll update this blog, hopefully with a bunch more pictures of much bigger bucks.

Still Holding Out For the BIG One

I’ve had deer on my mind lately…probably because the season is in full swing and here I am sitting behind my computer!

Unfortunately, I’ve chosen the difficult and lonely path of a trophy deer hunter. What this means is I’m holding out for a true, one-in-a-million, mule deer giant, also known as a superbuck. What makes a superbuck you ask? In Utah a “trophy” is defined as any buck with at least a 30-inch spread. But a trophy is really in the eye of the beholder. In my mind, a superbuck is:

  1. At least 30 inches wide.
  2. Has at least 5 points on each side (eyeguards included).
  3. Is a mature buck with a huge body and worn down teeth.
  4. Has long and massive main beams with deep forks.

If the buck doesn’t have at least three of these four qualities, I’ll pass. Passing any big, mature mule deer is extremely difficult. Not only is it rare to find any mature bucks these days, but getting within 50 yards or less is nearly impossible. The biggest challenge is when you come face-to-face with a “good” buck–not a great buck. It’s easy to get excited and fool yourself into thinking he’s bigger than he really is. And what if you don’t get another chance? But when you pull the trigger, it’s all over. Remember the old saying: “You can’t shoot the big ones if you shoot the small ones.”

I didn’t set out to become a trophy hunter, it found me! For decades I was happy to bag any buck. The problem is with human nature. It’s human nature to continually seek bigger and better things. Complacency and mediocrity might be common traits nowadays, but it’s really an anomaly. Human consciousness compels us to achieve more and more, even sometimes to our detriment. For me and my mule deer aspirations, I simply choose excellence because I can. I just love big bucks.

Trophy hunters sometimes get a bad rap. Some people associate trophy hunters with “head hunters” or people that shoot deer not for the meat, but for their headgear. This is sometimes true, but for me, bigger heads means bigger bodies, and that means more meat. Besides the meat, their regal, majestic heads are just beautiful!

I only get to hunt one deer a year; why not make it something I’m proud of?! I hunt trophies not for the glory, but to prove to myself that I can. This year I refuse to settle. No matter how difficult, no matter how much time I must spend afield, I won’t even think about pulling an arrow until I’ve verified a genuine superbuck. My mantra is: One tag, one year, one superbuck!

I’ll probably need some superluck…

Holding Out For the BIG One

The archery season is in full swing and NO, I haven’t even gone hunting yet. I don’t hunt the opener for the following reasons:

  1. The deer are under a lot of pressure after opening weekend and go into deep hiding. A week or two into the season and they usually calm down and fall back into their normal summer routine.
  2. The bucks are still in velvet, and I just like hard horns better. Velvet is deceiving. Velvet adds about 30% more false mass to a buck’s rack, making quick judging a little more difficult. When that velvet comes off, well that’s the true measure of the deer’s rack. Plus, velvet has to be carefully preserved in and out of the field, which can be a pain. But in the end, it comes down to personal preference. Some people just love fuzzy bucks.

So, I have three more days to get some work done, and then I’m gone! I’ll pick up where I left off last year, in the Superbuck area. I only spent a couple days there last year, but from what I’ve seen it looks very promising. There’s plenty of feed, water, and best of all, very little pressure.

Wish me luck!