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Slivers of Opportunity: My 2019 Deer Story

Southern Utah in September

A Grim Assessment

Walking down the dusty trail in the dark, I grumbled, “Even if I do write a story about this hunt, it’ll be a short one:  Every day was horrible, and then it ended”.

“Well, it’s not over yet,” Esther replied.

I wished it was.

It was a strange hunt, and a strange year. Winter arrived late and went long, as did spring and then summer, throwing the entire year one month late. So August was really July, and therefore the deer took their time migrating up the mountain, resulting in half the deer. Add to that an ever-increasing amount of human-hunters—twice as many as past years—and you have the perfect storm: Twice the dudes; half the deer.

Aside from that, I was about to nuke my entire known life and move to the boonies—300 miles away—in desperate attempt to salvage what good years I have left far away from the stifling mass of  humanity. All of springtime I spent finishing my basement in anticipation of selling my Hooper home. The worst case scenario was to sell my home during the hunt, which would force me to abandon the hunt early to move. So of course, that’s what happened.

Since the August opener was really July, the weather was unseasonably hot and dry, creating a forest substrate like potato chips everywhere you went. No matter how carefully we moved, the deer always heard us coming, forcing us to hunt on established hiking and game trails, a low probability venture indeed.

The opener also coincided with a glaring full moon. This is bad for hunting because it allows deer to feed and move more at night, making them harder find during the day. Add to that a billion yellow-jackets and flies constantly circling your face, and conditions couldn’t be worse.

All that aside, I was deer hunting, so I was hopeful and happy. Amidst constant complaints I held fast to my goal: to shoot a great buck over 200 inches. It’s been way too long since I arrowed a true trophy buck, and I was determined to make this my year. Well, I might have picked the wrong year to reinvent myself…

Opening Day

My goal was to pick up where I left off last year. Last year I didn’t find the “land of giant bucks” until twenty days into the hunt. This year I headed up before light on opening day, climbing a thousand vertical feet through heavy timber, but nobody was home. The next day was the same, and so I began exploring other areas. As soon as I left my area, some clowns (other hunters) moved in, bombarding it morning and night. By the time I determined there were no other good areas, the clowns moved out and I moved back in.

Late one evening, as I sat in ambush at a historical deer crossing, a true giant with wide-sweeping antlers showed up. Unfortunately he was out of range, and it was too dark to count points. As nighttime swallowed him up, I began my 1000-foot timber descent back to the truck. With newfound hope, I tried a morning ambush. This time the deer sniffed me out from below and blasted away.

The next night found me in the same spot, but just as the buck’s sentinel materialized, a mysterious nighttime wind shifted upwards and blew the deer out. The following night I chose a different approach, but the mysterious winds still blew uphill, and the deer never showed. Now, everyone knows that cooling air blows downhill in the evening. It’s simple physics: cold air falls. But not here, not in the “Bermuda Triangle.”

Traditional hunting grounds.

That’s when it hit me: the biggest, baddest, unhuntable stud-bucks used this area because there’s no way to get in front of them without being winded. Mornings are even worse because, as the deer work uphill from feeding, the warming air follows them, negating a morning stalk. An ambush from below also means chasing bucks over crunchy ground, which is impossible. Either way, those bucks winded me for the last time and left the mountain for goods. Back to the drawing board.

Slivers of Timber

In this age of high hunting pressure and long-range weaponry, big bucks adapt quickly or die. The first thing they do is move as far from people and roads as possible, living on extremely steep slopes, the kind of stuff mountain goats like. Next they go nocturnal. Bucks are mostly nocturnal in the first place, but big bucks are completely nocturnal. The only reason we ever catch them on their feet is because they have a hard time differentiating complete blackness from twilight. If you happen to catch a group of elk or deer feeding in the morning, you’ll notice they really don’t get moving until the sun crests the horizon, and then they’re gone. This is probably the most frustrating part the early season: you only get two slivers of daylight each day to catch them moving: 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night.

After that, they’re headed to fragile bedding areas which should be avoided at all costs. If you bust a buck from his “hard bed” (primary daytime bed), he’ll leave the area for the rest of the season. Thus, the best daytime strategy seems to be returning to your boring camp and wasting the entire day sitting around waiting for the next sliver of time to make your move.

The long-range rifle, which has gained popularity over the last decade or so, has had the greatest observable impact on big game animals. My recent extended stints in the woods have shown that big deer antlers are narrowing. They still grow the same amount of bone on their heads, but it’s much more vertical than horizontal. Reason being—of course—is that deer are holding tighter to the timber, and a wide rack only slows them down.

Perhaps the animal most affected by long-range rifles is the pronghorn (antelope). Esther drew a limited antelope tag this year, and when I took a day off deer to and help her, it took less than 12 hours to realize I couldn’t. The only way to locate the sparse antelope was to drive the vast dirt roads and glass. But whenever the antelope spied a vehicle, even a mile or two away, they’d take off at a dead run until they were miles farther. These poor speed goats spend their entire lives in the open sagebrush. Over the years, long-rangers have been sniping them from the road at unconscionable distances of half a mile or more! Esther’s only real chance was to pick a random water hole and sit in a ground blind for days at a time. It almost worked too, but that’s another story.

Inevitably, modern big game animals are growing more cautious. If you’re lucky enough to find a mountain with high deer density, you’ll still have a near-impossible time locating the giants. Giant bucks are only found in tiny slivers of terrible timber on steep, high-elevation slopes. Using territoriality, they take over the deepest woods where the wind is always in their favor. They live by their over-sized snouts, using scent rather than sight to dictate their movements.

Hunting the dense timber.

When hunting in dense timber, it’s almost impossible to get eyes on a deer that you’ve spooked because of the way they move. Big bucks don’t just beeline away, but rather dive behind the nearest tree(s), and then zigzag from cover to cover, ensuring the hunter never gets a clear shot at them. Even unpressured bucks zigzag through cover throughout their daily movements. If you get a chance to track a big buck, you’ll notice he rarely travels in a straight line, but moves from cover to cover, always avoiding open areas. On top of that, deer make very little noise when moving. The same crunchy ground that makes a human sound like a bulldozer is nearly inaudible with a deer’s carefully placed hoof.

Finally, ‘big bucks’—any buck over five years old and having antlers scoring over 180-inches—are extremely rare on public land. How rare? In thirty years of deer hunting I haven’t found an area/unit/region where more than two percent of the bucks meet trophy criteria. Skillful hunters can still find big bucks, but you’re lucky to get more than a sliver of opportunity. Despite all of this, about half the bow hunters I see are still road hunting with bewildering hope. Many small, inexperienced bucks are regularly picked off this way, but a serious hunter must adapt continually with each passing year, just as the deer do.

Where Are They?

Each night Esther and I returned to camp and conferred with Brent about the bleak situation. We concluded that the majority of deer must be lower on the mountain due to the unseasonably dry conditions. So we spent an evening in the even hotter lowlands, but still saw nothing. Ultimately we learned that the majority of deer were situated on intermediate lands, somewhere below 9000 feet and lower elevation private property. From that point we began exploring these new slivers of forest, and right away we saw more bucks.

One morning, Esther and I took a mile and a half climb through rough country to get to one of these spots. At first light, Esther had a nice 4×4 buck appear at 20 yards. Her shot was true, but the arrow penetrated poorly and the deer ran off with hardly a speck of blood.  Desperate to relocate the buck, we kept returning to the area. By this time, my aspirations of arrowing a trophy had drastically declined. Considering the conditions, I was ready to take any mature buck. A dude must eat!

Late one morning, while ghosting through heavy timber, I spotted a decent 4×4 rack sticking up and facing me from a stand of trees. By all descriptions, it appeared to be the same deer Esther shot days earlier. Unfortunately I was pinned down in the sweltering sun. Minutes felt like hours as I stood there with swarms of bees and flies circling and landing on my face. I wanted to scream and run away, but couldn’t move. Eventually the buck got nervous and melted into the timber.

This hunt was the opposite of my usual “Zen” hunt; it was torture. Every day was Groundhog Day: hot, cloudless, dusty and buggy.

Man-Eating Cougars

As if we didn’t have enough troubles, the lions paid a visit. On opening day I came across a freshly shredded fawn, and figured there must be a cougar in the area; no big deal. The next morning, while hiking up a well-used trail with Esther, I was disappointed to find boot tracks of two hunters traveling ahead of us. A short distance later, big cat’s tracks overlapped the dude’s tracks, and all three continued up the trail for nearly a mile. All evidence suggested the cougar was actually following the unsuspecting hunters in the predawn murk. Esther and I eventually split up; I went around the backside of the mountain and she continued along the trail. After a couple hours of fruitless hunting, I radioed Esther to meet up for our hike out. She sounded a little shaken up as she related the following story:

Shortly after separating, she rounded a corner in the trail and came face-to-face with a cougar coming back down the trail. At 20 feet, the lion semi-crouched while staring straight into her eyes. Apparently the cat had backed off the two guys—a daunting meal for sure—and by luck stumbled upon a lone, medium-build woman instead. In a semi-panic, Esther began waving her arms above her head and yelling, but to no avail. The cat stood its ground, assessing its newfound prey. Fearing the worst, Esther loaded a trembling arrow and flung it past the cat’s face. Somewhat discouraged by this gesture, the cougar casually turned and strolled into the forest. Esther’s morning hunt was suddenly over, too.

Cougars on camera.

Cougars primarily prey on deer while avoiding more dangerous prey, like people. But when deer numbers are low, like this year, they must consider alternate food sources. That’s fine and good, except that an over-abundance of cougars puts the remaining deer on high alert, making hunting and stalking exceptionally difficult. This appeared to be the case here.

Note:  The next time Brent checked his trail camera in the area, there was a photo of what was likely the same cat prowling around at night.

September: Round Two

By September (really August by weather standards), Brent had abandoned the deer woods and headed to Idaho to chase elk. Over Labor Day, Esther and I went back home to work and pack things, whereas our house had gone under contract. When we returned to the mountain three days later, something magical had happened: big bucks began popping up in all the traditional areas!

In one of our favorite areas, Esther would setup a lower elevation ambush while I prowled around higher up the mountain. On the first morning I busted a group of deer near the trail, and was happy to see some real good antlers in the group. That evening I snuck into the same area, and sure enough, a beautiful, tall-antlered buck appeared feeding 100 yards away. But just as I began my stalk, a horrible squirrel fired up in a nearby tree. The buck immediately whipped his head up and stared in my direction. The squirrel methodically worked his way down the tree, limb by limb, barking wildly until it was five feet away, screeching in my face. I could feel my face turning beet red and wanted nothing more than to send an arrow right down his throat. The next time I looked up, the buck was walking nervously away.

The next morning found me in the same place hoping to catch the big buck coming out of feed. Sure enough he appeared in almost the exact same spot, cautiously surveying the open shooting lanes in front of me. Just as I began loading an arrow, there was a loud snort behind me, and then another. I turned slowly around to see an angry doe a few yards away, stomping her feet and snorting relentlessly. Horrified, I turned back to see the buck had vanished. I must be cursed! That big buck was nowhere to be found the next evening and again the next morning.

Meanwhile, Esther was getting a similar dose of bad luck. While I was getting busted by various, nefarious wildlife, she had a mature buck come feeding along just 10 feet away. But as she began drawing her bow, two unsuspecting hunters came traipsing through the area and spooked the deer off.

The People Party

My mountain doesn’t feel like my mountain anymore. This beautiful, high-altitude portion of the Dixie National Forest is a popular destination for campers, cyclists, and hikers. Most years, the cold and wet weather of early fall invariably chases most of the campers away; but not this year.

Endless summer beauty.

Instead, the perpetual bluebird skies and warm weather encouraged human activity all over the mountain throughout the entire hunt. Not good. You see, deer hate people more than anything. They don’t discriminate between hunters and recreationalists, so with each encounter with a random cyclist or hiker, they grow increasingly wary, and consequently less huntable.

Worse yet is the great Highway of Death. To access my woods, one must traverse a busy, two-lane highway for many miles. Throughout the summer and fall I can count between 8 and 12 dead deer on the road in just a fifteen mile stretch. Half the collision-killed deer are fawns, and the rest are does and smaller bucks. This has a detrimental effect on herd numbers, and it gets worse every year.

The Highway of Death isn’t just perilous to deer. Throughout the hunt, emergency vehicles could be heard whirring up and down the highway. One lovely evening, as Esther was driving back from antelope hunting, she observed an oncoming driver drift onto the shoulder, over-correct, and come skidding into her lane before rolling twice down a gully on her side of the road. The male driver got out okay, but his wife was carted off to the hospital with critical spinal injuries. A deer was blamed for the over-correction, but from Esther’s vantage, it appeared to be good old-fashioned driver distraction.

Day #21

We rested our area 24 hours, but unable to turn up anything better, returned for an evening hunt. Determined to outsmart the squirrels and does, I took a lower route into the buck’s feeding area. Sneaking quietly along, a forest grouse suddenly exploded from the brush in front of me. I thought nothing of it until I eased around a tree and found The Big One staring at me 60 yards away, obviously alerted by the grouse. He didn’t stick around.

I hit rock bottom. Surely the mountain had turned against me! Absolutely mortified, I turned and dragged my feet back down the trail, grumbling to Esther the whole way back to the truck. How could the one thing I truly love be so miserable? So many painfully early mornings, sweating and heaving up and down the mountain on sore feet, eating crappy meals way too late, and then long, hot days in the bugs and dust; it was taking its toll on my body and sanity.

I hated the mountain. Every day I fantasized about sleeping in and spending the whole day sitting on the couch in my undies watching NFL with a cold beverage. Oh, to be comfortable and in control again. How I longed for an easy hunt, just once in my life!

Day #22

With no real hope or plan, we almost didn’t get out of bed in the morning. Esther was leaving for her antelope hunt later that day, but I convinced her to join me for one more shot at deer. We took the usual route, Esther low, Nate high. But this day was different. A cold wind howled all morning, a sharp contrast to the previous three weeks.

As expected I found my area devoid of deer, and with nothing better to do, began wandering aimlessly into the wind, just killing time, really. Then, deep into the woods, I was surprised to stumble upon some fresh, green buck droppings, jarring me back to alertness. The bucks weren’t gone after all; they were just living deeper into the dark woods.

I estimated their direction of travel and looped around to get in front of them. Slipping quietly down a small ridge, I rounded a spruce tree and there he was, forty yards away: the big one, with a heavy, symmetric 4-point rack and a great wall of fur. Behind him, a sentinel buck milled around, oblivious to my presence. The big buck caught my movement and froze, staring in my direction, partially obscured by a tree. Knowing he was about to bolt, I quickly loaded an arrow and drew. To my dismay, a pine bough stretched across his vitals. Would the arrow clear it? I began a slow motion crouch until my knees hit the ground. Bending even lower, I settled the pin and hit the release. My arrow sailed just under the branch, and then under the buck’s chest, burying deep in the dirt behind him. As expected, he bounded away.

Immediately I loaded another arrow, and simultaneously the second buck trotted forward, stopping with his front half showing in the same clearing. Fearing an empty freezer back home, I settled my pin and let him have it, narrowly threading my arrow forward of some branches that obscured his back half. He whirled and blasted away.

My, how quickly things change!

I worked down to where the buck was standing and immediately found blood—lots of blood—unlike I’ve ever seen before. It was basically a steady drizzle, as if someone had walked through the woods pouring red syrup on the ground. Where the buck paused, there were great pools of blood. The whole time I expected to see him around the next tree, but no luck. The tough buck trotted a quarter mile, and then dropped down an incredibly steep mountainside. I slowed way down, following the red carpet and glassing ahead. Just when I thought the buck was somehow unkillable, I spied an antler in the shadows of a tree. He was bedded with his head still up! Afraid he might recover and run, I crept forward for a follow-up shot. At twenty yards the buck laid his head down for the last time; he was mine.

My 2019 archery buck.

Conclusion

 As I pried the buck loose of the tree, the same old emotions spewed forth. I was simultaneously overjoyed by success, but disappointed at missing The Big One. My buck wasn’t the glorious trophy I came to the mountain for, but then I wasn’t the same person either.

I radioed Esther for help, and then sat for a while with my deer, listening to the wind whistle through the pines in the middle of nowhere. Sadness loomed as I pondered mine and the deer’s fate. These powerful animals are smart survivors whose daily existence is one of pain, hardship, and fear. But they just take it, year-round, without complaining, until their short lives cut even shorter by some natural or unnatural foe like me.

Maybe we can learn something from our quarry: accept the pain and discomfort, even revel in it. These admirable beasts deserve our greatest respect, and we deserve what the mountain dishes out precisely because we take so much.

My sacred hunt always plays out in a familiar way:  In seeking antler-clad glory, the mountain beats me down, and then, in my darkest hour I find humility. The hunter earns his meat.

The End.
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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.

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Hunting Pillars vs. Zen Hunting Pillars

The Pillars of Hunting vs. Pillars of Zen Hunting

A few years ago I was fish-guiding a bright, twenty-something-year-old man named Cliff. He was eager to fish, but just as eager to converse about the wonders of nature. Throughout our impassioned conversation I laid out some personal Zen-like experiences I’d had in nature and how these experiences ultimately led to great success.

Cliff was fascinated with the concept of Zen hunting and asked me what the “pillars” of Zen hunting were exactly. I was a little dumbfounded by his question because, up until then, I’d never thought of Zen hunting in terms of ‘pillars.’ Long story short, I went home wrote down what I considered the pillars of Zen hunting to be.

Before we get all philosophical about hunting, let’s first examine the normal, non-Zen, hunting pillars, and then contrast them with Zen hunting pillars.

Note: The following isn’t an official list of hunting pillars, but rather a compilation of both personal experience and knowledge gleaned from experts in the hunting field.

Traditional Hunting Pillars of Success

  1. The right equipment
  2. Good physical conditioning
  3. Locating/scouting
  4. Stalking close
  5. Shooting accurately

Zen Hunting Pillars of Success

  1. Aloneness (quietness)
  2. Patience
  3. Letting Go
  4. Openness (humility)
  5. Oneness

(There you go Cliff! The pillars are finally written in stone.)

Hunting Pillars Compared

When we compare the pillars of Zen hunting with the pillars of conventional hunting, you can see they are very different; actually I don’t see any similarities at all. That’s because each list is a completely different approach to hunting. The items in the first list are mostly tangible and readily available, while the Zen items are more of a mindset approach to hunting. As we analyze the Zen pillars, you’ll see that each is really a step—one leading to the next—and completed in consecutive order. In other words it’s a path.

Obviously you can’t practice Zen hunting without including some normal hunting pillars, like stalking and shooting. On the other hand, you can practice regular hunting without using any Zen pillars at all—heck, most hunters already do. Either they don’t know what Zen hunting is, or they’re already applying some Zen to their hunting style and just don’t know it.

The concept of Zen hunting (or Zen-anything) is mostly foreign to Westerners because we tend to be results-oriented and gear-minded. We look at nature as a commodity—something to be tamed or dominated. Moreover, today’s society has a decreasing attention span, the byproduct of this hyper-information age and its constant distractions. We get bored easily and lose our focus. All of this leads to an impatient or aggressive approach to hunting, and more often than not, to failure.

The way we combat this is through Zen hunting. Zen hunting is all about using down time afield to focus the mind and reconnect with our natural hunting instincts. This is best done alone since another person often serves as a distraction.

The Zen Process

The first step is to free the mind of distractions and expectations through the natural mediation that comes from just sitting or walking in the woods. This takes time, so be patient. Letting go of expectations is the hardest part because human nature expects instant results. As hunters we expect to kill something. We have a goal in mind and are dead set on reaching it. In Zen hunting, our eyes are open to the bigger picture.

The simple pleasure of communing with nature is satisfaction enough. Our newfound appreciation for the woods softens our kill drive, and when this happens we connect with the energy of nature and the life force of the planet (hopefully you believe in such things). This is what it means to be “one” with nature, or to achieve “oneness.”

Nature lives and breathes at a slow, rhythmic pace. You can see that rhythm in the way things move: clouds, trees, and animals, and hear it in the wind and bird songs. Zen hunting helps tune us in to that rhythm. No longer do we push our ego-driven “kill energy” ahead of us, but instead, we move with nature. In effect Zen hunting acts as a natural camouflage.

Zen hunting also gives us a heightened sense of awareness. We become more attentive to the infinite supply of subtle clues which will eventually guides us towards our quarry. Simply put, we become better hunters by using Zen afield.

That’s the whole process; easier said than done, but attainable all the same.

Final Thoughts

The goal of Zen hunting is to become a part of nature rather than apart from it. Since humans are nature in the first place, it only makes sense to reconnect with Nature to meet our needs. That is the goal of Zen hunting, and also the mission of this website: To reconnect modern-day hunters with the timeless rhythms of nature and to guide them towards a more successful and fulfilling hunting experience through Zen hunting principles.

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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.

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Prehunt Meditation 2017

Prehunt Meditation 2017

Can you feel it? The changing season, a shift in the sun’s angle? Nostalgic aromas of ripening vegetation? We’re almost there, almost in the woods.

If you’re like me, you’re already out there, in your mind. Wits sharpening, watching the ground for clues, listening.

The annual ritual of prehunt mediation is upon us. We look like we’re working a job–we go through the motions–but we’re really out there, in the woods, sharpening our Craft–woodscraft, stalkcraft, bowcraft, huntcraft.

As my spirit stretches into the wild landscape, I’m reminded of so many experiences unwritten and nearly forgotten. But the hunter spirit stirs the sediment of the mind into a swirling patchwork of sights, sounds, and smells.

In my next few articles I’m going to reach into murk and materialize some of these experiences. I hope they’ll inspire you to do the same.

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A Second Chance: My 2016 Idaho Deer Story

My 2016 Idaho Archery Buck Story

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.

The 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.

Off to Idaho

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.

Redemption

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.

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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Staying Sane Afield: Managing Down Time

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Managing Down Time Afield

Don’t you just love sitting amongst the pine needles and leaves, amidst the awe-inspiring beauty and peacefulness found only in nature? Don’t you just love how time slows way down while bowhunting on a warm September day? Me too.

But sometimes enough is enough!

If you spend any amount of time afield, you’re going to encounter downtime. Downtime is normally a good thing. But if you’ve been hunting the same mountain for multiple days and not much is going on, then downtime can get downright excruciating.

On a hot August day, when the animals seem to have hunkered down at first light and nothing’s moving; you’re getting low on water and camp is miles away; you’re already sitting in the best possible ambush spot and there’s nowhere to be for the next 8 hours; well, sometimes hunting gets downright boring! Worse yet is when you get rained in or snowed into camp for hours or days on end.

The problem with excessive downtime (aka boredom) is pretty soon your mind gets restless, and restlessness leads to discouragement, or god-forbid, homesickness. You start worrying about home stuff, or work stuff, or what your wife or girlfriend is up to in your extended absence. You start fantasizing about hot showers and sleeping in and mowing the jungle-lawn you’ve abandoned for so long.

This “mind creep” is not good. Mind creep leads to discouragement, and discouragement always threatens your success, or in the very least, your commitment level. When you get discouraged, it’s easy to fabricate any excuse to leave the mountain early. So a good hunter must learn to manage boredom, a skill sometimes referred to as “mental toughness.”

Avoiding Boredom

In order to while away hours and hours of downtime afield, I’ve developed multiple ways to stay entertained. Here are some examples the might help you as well:

Video Games:

I hate video games; I mean, who has time for them, right?! But I love poker, so I bought a little video-poker machine that I pack with me almost everywhere I go. Fortunately it’s very lightweight and fun as heck. I remember the first year I had it, it was such a blast that I didn’t even notice the little buck that walked right up on me. Since then I’ve been a little more cautious about becoming sucked in.

Like an ancient Neanderthal, I still have a flip-phone. But I’m aware that most people now carry smartphones with them in the woods. And I’m more than certain that these fancy-phones have an infinite capacity for entertainment value which will help get you through some pretty slow times afield.

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Read a book:

Long before video games, many-a-hunters carried books into the field, and some still do. Nothing can kill time (or put you to sleep) like a good book. I always keep a good book or hunting magazine back at camp. Unlike video games, books are quiet, lightweight, and easy to burn in the event of a weather crisis.

Sleep:

Sleeping in the woods is almost critical. If you’re a bowhunter, chances are you got up at the most ungodly hour. That’s awesome! Success often comes from waking long before first light. But eventually you’re gonna crash. This is good; you need to crash! This is how you recharge your hunting batteries. Getting an hour or two of solid rest in the trees does wonders for mental toughness. It’s also where you get the energy for that grueling, three-hour stalk later in the day.

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Keep a Hunt Journal:

This is no joke. The blog you’re reading right now would not be possible without a good, lightweight field journal. I recommend every hunter keeps a hunt journal. You’d be surprised just how often you refer back to it in the future for helpful tips and tidbits about your area.

I actually carry two journals! The linear, pertinent events of the day are kept in one journal, and the other is for nature-induced insights of grandeur. Throughout the monotony of everyday city-life, inspiration is being continuously leached from my soul. But in the woods, God shines forth a veritable fountain of infinite and voluminous inspiration upon my humble carcass! I soak it in and write it down; I can’t get enough. I love writing in the woods. I’d go crazy if I didn’t.

Practice Ranging Stuff:

In my experience, the biggest bucks seem to suddenly appear in front of me with no manners or warning. There’s rarely time to range anything. So a good bowhunter learns to judge distance effectively, and the best way to learn distance is to practice. Whenever my boredom alarm starts ringing, I reach for my rangefinder. Over and over I’ll pick out trees (or whatever), guess the range, and then check it with my laser rangefinder. This excessive practice does wonders for your distance-judging abilities. Besides, if you’re bored it’s probably because you’re sitting there watching a game trail or stuck in a tree stand. And since you need to know the range of several landmarks anyway, you might as well make a game of it, right?

Take Field Photos:

If you hunt long enough and hard enough, eventually you’re gonna THWACK some monstrous monarch of the woods. The whole world will be sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to read your story in some big-name magazine. The problem is that these magazines require multiple, high-quality field photos documenting your adventure. The more photos you have, the greater chance you have of getting published. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make documentary photos throughout your entire trip.

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I find that the best times to make photos is during downtime. The possibilities are endless, but here’s a few ideas: a) shoot some scenery, b) shoot some closeups of your equipment juxtaposed with the landscape, c) set the camera’s timer and shoot yourself glassing, stalking, hiking, camping, sleeping, etc., d) take some photos of wildlife or sunsets or bad weather; there’s almost always something to shoot. Even if you don’t end up using the myriad of photos you take during the hunt, you’ll still have plenty of great memories to bring home and share with family and friends. In the end, these photos will become invaluable to you. Long after you’re gone, your legacy will live on, documented in living color.

Conclusion

Being a trophy hunter is serious business, but we must remember that hunting is supposed to be fun too. Hunting is a leisure activity that removes us from our hectic lives and grounds us with the natural universe. Turning downtime into funtime is one of the best ways to keep the spirits up afield. Have fun out there!

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New Year’s Goals Part 2

2016 New Years Goals Part 2

My brother, Russell, had some great comments regarding hunting goals. His comments and my reply are worthy of it’s own article.

Russ wrote:

“Making goals that you really set in your heart and are realistic is critical. My heartfelt goals this year were to help my daughter harvest her first big game animal. She harvested both a buck and an elk. It was awesome. I was perfectly happy with how the season went, even though I did not set any lofty goals for my own hunting, as I was concerned about the time dedication. I did manage to harvest my best buck to date, although that’s not saying much. Gotta really think about my goals this coming year. Might be time to harvest a really decent bull elk.

I think you’ll get it done in Utah this year. But i am curious, which state(s) are you going to add to your schedule that will still allow you the time you need for the Utah general hunt?”

I wrote :

Good points, Russ. Here’s some clarification:

Last year I set a goal to shoot a 200″ buck AND help Esther with her limited-entry hunt. Turns out you can’t do both. So really I sabotaged my goal from the start. But that’s okay; I wouldn’t trade Esther’s big bull for any buck! It’s WONDERFUL to help people. There’s nothing more noble than setting a goal to help someone with their goal, especially family.

My lofty goals are deemed ridiculous by most people; I mean, how can I expect to shoot a 200″+ buck on public land with a general tag?! Am I setting myself up for failure? Am I setting unrealistic goals? NO, because I’ve done it twice already and I know the secret recipe; unfortunately that recipe takes incredible resources, mostly time.

It’s important to realize that in setting a ridiculously high goal you must do something every day to get closer to it: physical training, shooting practice, map study, scouting, scouting, and scouting. Most importantly is to acknowledge your goal every single day. Keep it in the forefront of your mind. Format your mind to focus all possible energy and decisions on your goal, and you’ll find a way to reach it.

As for out-of-state hunts, I only have one in mind: IDAHO. I am a man of big vision and little means; a po’ folks po’ folk. For this reason I refuse to pay into the yuppie system of buying points in multiple western states, especially while Utah has such great bucks, even on publc land/general units. In my opinion the point system is evil. It might seem fair, but it really takes away opportunity from young hunters and new hunters, while catering only to the rich. Many of my archery students ask me how they can get started in hunting. They assume they can just buy a bow and an OTC tag for any game species. Imagine their surprise when I explain they must pay into the system for decades just to draw a decent tag!

I paid into the system for years, earning points for multiple species for my son. Now he has no interest in hunting. Where’s my refund? My wife’s ex-boss’ dad paid into the system for 15 years and finally drew his moose tag. It arrived in the mailbox shortly after he died of old age!

That being said, I need more opportunities, and since Idaho is one of the only states that doesn’t have a draw system, it’s my best chance at getting a tag. Also, Idaho has several general deer hunts that don’t conflict with Utah’s season.

Congrats, Russ, on your biggest mule deer last year and good luck with your big bull goals. Dream big! Remember, elk are EASY!

To read the previous article, click on:

New Year’s Goals Part 1

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Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year

Thank good golly goodness 2015 is over!

Actually it wasn’t too horrible, but I sometimes accuse myself of being overly critical. Call me a pessimist, but I’ll argue that although it’s unhealthy to be too self-critical, the only other option is to be overly accepting of mediocrity in which case I would never achieve my lofty goals and instead recede into the apathetic quagmire of an aging inflataperson.

I entered 2015 with one goal: to shoot a 200″+ mule deer buck with a bow. It didn’t happen. I failed for three primary reasons:

  • First, because there are so many people in the state of Utah now, I drew my 5th choice general deer unit and right away lost my inspiration.
  • Second, I failed to scout my 5th choice unit because of work, and work sucks, and work kept me in the smoggy city when I should have been out scouting for giant bucks.
  • Third, I spent half of the general hunt helping my lovely wife with her L.E. elk hunt in Southern Utah where I didn’t even carry a bow.

After all that, I entered the Wasatch extended hunt, where I’ve never even seen a 200″ deer, and failed there too.

So 2016 will be different. I’ve mentioned many times on my blog that SUCCESS IS A DECISION. Last year, while wandering endlessly down empty game trails, an annoying inner voice insisted that success is NOT a decision; that there are simply too many variables working against me, and therefore I can’t make that decision. By the time the season ended, a stronger voice confirmed that success is in fact an easy decision, so long as you are willing to do whatever it takes, which means putting in the time and effort equal to the lofty magnitude of a 200″+ monster muley…and I did not do this.

So, this year I have one resolution and one goal only: a 200″+ mule deer buck with a bow. This year I will make it happen and here’s how:

  • I will decline any and every job/work/responsibility that conflicts with my deer hunt.
  • Whatever crappy unit I end up drawing, I will scout every single week starting in spring and leading up to the hunt. I’ve always believed that somewhere, in every single general unit in the state, there’s a huge 200″+ buck. If you are willing to put in enough time you will find it.
  • And finally, I will hunt out-of-state. The problem with Utah is you only get one tag and that equals one opportunity. I need more opportunities.

That’s all folks. I hope all of you are setting high resolutions and standards for this coming hunting year. Remember, success is always a decision as long as you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

P.S. You can expect much more new blogs and information here in 2016. In 2015 I received tons of hunting related insights and revelations and took tons of notes in the field. All of this will be shared here in 2016.

HAPPY NEW DEERS!

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100th Blog Post Celebration

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My 100th Blog Post

Hello Zen-bowhunter blog readers. Today marks my 100th blog post. A year and a half in the making, my little archery/hunting blog is still going strong thanks to you, my loyal readers. My sincere hope is that everyone has enjoyed at least some of my content. I truly believe there’s something here for everyone, not just hunters.

One of my greatest passions in life is seeking self-improvement through archery. Archery is an individual sport, which means each person learns and grows at his own pace. There is no competition or pressure to succeed, except from yourself. Most people find archery (and bowhunting) to be a wonderful, meditative way to achieve clarity and peace and even Zen. After all, Zen-through-archery has been taught in Japan for a thousand years. My goal in this blog is to help you succeed in both Zen-archery and in life. Once a person achieves Zen, he realizes he can do anything he puts his mind to.

On a personal note, we are entering the peak of the mule deer rut in Utah. This means the biggest bucks will be climbing down from the high country to participate in their annual mating ritual. For those of you that still have an unused archery tag, it’s going to be an exciting (and COLD) month. Maybe I’ll see you in the hills.

Best of luck in your own endeavors, and may the Zen-force be with you!

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