Follow along on Josh’s exciting, once-in-a-lifetime archery mountain goat hunt in Utah. Watch as he gets it done on opening day!
Follow along on Josh’s exciting, once-in-a-lifetime archery mountain goat hunt in Utah. Watch as he gets it done on opening day!
I never felt so tired! It was 4:30am on the nineteenth morning of my Utah bow hunt. Whenever I lied down to sleep my mind swirled with strategies to outsmart the giant, velvet-clad buck I called “Big 5.” But he always managed to stay one step ahead of me.
I spotted Big 5 on the fourth day of the deer hunt. He was feeding in a thick, oak brush-covered hillside, and I raced to get ahead of him in the fading evening light. Just as I was closing in, the wind shifted and blew him out of the canyon. I spent the next week searching surrounding canyons and exploring other parts of the unit, but couldn’t turn him up. Although I saw plenty of other bucks, none compared to the amazing Big 5. At that point I decided to devote the rest of the season to hunting this one buck.
Just before dark on the twelfth day, Big 5 reappeared in the canyon where I first saw him. There wasn’t enough light for a stalk, but I returned to camp with newfound hope.
My mind buzzed with excitement as I lied in bed anticipating the morning stalk. But wouldn’t you know it, over night a great herd of elk moved in and pushed all the deer out. I spent the next three days searching for him, but to no avail.
During this time I joined forces with two elk hunters—Brian and Mike—who were hunting in the same general area. We had an agreement: I would keep tabs on any big bulls, and they would keep an eye out for Big 5.
Just when I was beginning to lose hope, Mike spotted Big 5 crossing into the canyon at dark on the fourteenth evening. The next morning I sneaked into the deer’s primary feeding area, but ended up busting him out again while still-hunting through the thick and noisy oak brush. This was the lowest point of my hunt.
Bowhunting is a low-odds venture to begin with; things don’t work out most of the time. As a rule, bowhunting success comes from having multiple opportunities, and the fastest way to limit your success is by hunting for one deer exclusively.
To keep hope alive, I wrote a list of positive affirmations in my hunt journal. Of particular note was a reminder that not only do I have 27 years of bowhunting experience under my belt, but I’ve been down this road before: Hunting for just one deer. Only this time was different. I didn’t have three years to get the job done!
Hope returned on day 16 when I discovered a new buck—a massive, old, wide-racked 4×4 I called the “Tank”—in an adjacent canyon. He wasn’t as impressive as Big 5, but the longer I watched him the more I fell in love. He was a magnificent deer, and if nothing else he served as a good backup. The season was half-way over after all, so I was relieved to have another target on my very short list.
So you can imagine my disappointment when, the very next morning, I found that Tank and Big 5 had joined forces! They were now feeding together—along with a few smaller bucks—in the bottom of the canyon where it all started. And just like that, all my eggs were in one basket: Bust one, bust ‘em all.
Desperate to make a stalk, I threw down my glass, picked up my bow and scrambled to the bottom of the steep, aspen-choked canyon. But just as I was closing in, the wind changed and blew one of the smaller bucks out of his bed. I turned and backed out immediately to avoid further damage.
The next morning, in complete darkness, I snuck to the bottom of the canyon hoping to get in front of the bucks before first light. But once again my plans were foiled when I glassed up the bucks feeding at the top of the canyon! As morning dragged on, the bucks side-hilled out of view and disappeared. Once again they stayed one step ahead of me.
By day nineteen I was at wits end. At some point during the restless night I hatched a plan to get ahead of the bucks. I knew from experience that big bucks get big by being unpredictable. So if they fed at the top of the canyon yesterday, perhaps they’d be at the bottom today. Again, in the cover of darkness I dropped down the canyon. And wouldn’t you know it, the bucks stayed high! This time, however, I wasn’t letting them out of my sight.
Immediately I ascended the aspen ridge between us, and then watched as all three deer—Big 5, Tank, and a smaller 3-point—fed along the ridge top and eventually bedded beneath a couple big pine trees. I pulled out my notebook and drew a diagram of the bedding area, noting landmarks that I could use during the stalk. But first I’d have to wait for the thermals to stabilize.
I returned to camp and was just about crawling out of my skin waiting for the south winds to prevail. Finally, at noon I set out on a low-odds stalk towards the bucks, knowing that one false move could blow the bucks out forever. Surely they were growing weary of my chase.
The midday sun beat down on my face as I crested the ridge fifty yards above the bedded bucks, but thick oak brush obscured my view. Must get closer.
Hot, south crosswinds carry away my scent and the sound of my footsteps amongst the loose gravel on the hillside that grows steeper with each step. A frightened chipmunk shrieks and scurries away. I freeze for a minute, then take a range from the lower limbs of one of the trees: 45 yards. I slowly load an arrow and continue forward. Everything must be perfect now.
Each footstep is timed with the occasional gust of wind or the raspy sound of flying grasshoppers. I take another range: 35 yards. I wince as the wind continually dips down, then rises again. My heart-beat quickens; sweat beads up across my face. I take another step and look up again. Fuzzy antlers are suddenly bobbing through the oak brush. Big 5 is up and feeding, but only his head is visible.
I slowly raise my bow and scan ahead for a shot window. The situation unfolds in strange contrast: the natural world flows lazily along, but my mind is frantic as I try to manage a myriad of details in a heightened state of awareness. I’ve been here before; I know the odds. “What happens next? How does this end?”
The buck slowly feeds towards a little, two-foot gap in the oak brush. It’s all a blur as I draw my bow and track the buck with my 30-yard pin. He finally steps through and my arrow is off. There’s an audible “thunk,” and then pandemonium as all three bucks explode down the mountain. Seventy yards out, Tank and the smaller buck regroup and look back, but Big 5 continues out of sight.
Twenty minutes later I begin tracking down the mountainside. There’s blood right away, and for the first time in weeks I feel a sense of relief. A little further down the canyon and there he is. In my haste to shoot, the arrow hit forward in the neck, but did the job.
Like a dream, I reach down and grasp the buck’s sprawling antlers in my hands. I feel strangely numb. Whatever elation I’m supposed to feel has been cancelled out by the rigors of mountain, dampened by loss of sleep, and swamped in disbelief. Sometimes a hunter gets lucky; other times he earns it. In this case, the only luck I had was seeing the buck in the first place. I gave this hunt everything I had; I paid full price for my trophy.
Long ago, in a personal attack fueled by jealousy, an old “friend” once said to me, “I don’t have to shoot the biggest deer on the mountain to prove I’m a man!” I don’t disagree, however it does prove other things: That you have a special skill set; that you are a provider of meat; and above all, you are the top predator you were meant to be. And that, my friends, puts you one step ahead of the rest.
As a dedicated bowhunter, the thought of driving dirt roads and looking for deer runs counter to everything I love about deer hunting. It took a dreary year like 2020 to push me to such detestable methods.
I beat myself ragged trying to find a buck in Utah that season. My usual public land area was swarming with stir-crazy city-folk fleeing the pandemic. All that commotion in the mountains drove big bucks back to their private land haunts and my hunt ended in failure.
When the hunt ended I turned my attention to Idaho where five years earlier I took an incredible trophy buck. With high hopes Esther and I loaded the truck and headed to Southern Idaho for last two weeks of bow season.
Upon arrival I was dismayed to see my beloved deer unit overrun by thousands of sheep. Severe drought and waves of sheep had decimated the deer habitat, and for ten days I couldn’t to turn up a single good buck. With only three days left and desperate for meat, I decided to take a doe.
I’d seen plenty of does running around, and I expected an easy, one-day endeavor. Boy was I wrong. On the evening of the 28th I hiked up a ridge with plenty of deer sign. A group of six does appeared feeding on a steep, wooded slope.
Just as I entered bow range, a woodpecker flew into a dead pine tree next to me. There was a small crack, and then a large branch came crashing to the ground next to me. Not surprisingly, the entire doe group spooked out of the area.
No problem, I still had two days left.
In the morning I headed back up the mountain. I was slowly picking my way through a patch of dry brush when a group of does appeared in front of me. I crouched down quickly and pulled an arrow. The wind was perfect and the does were oblivious to my presence.
Suddenly, the whole herd exploded in all directions and ran away. Flabbergasted, I stood up to see a pack of coyotes filtering through the brush. I was enraged and I launched an arrow at one of the intruders, but my arrow skipped off a branch and missed.
Perhaps I was trying too hard. It’s just a doe, after all! That evening I set up ambush on a roadside waterhole. Earlier in the hunt I’d seen deer near the water and figured it would be a good ambush spot.
The mountain was falling into shadows as I sat motionless 30 yards from the water’s edge. The pond was surrounded by trees, so a deer could approach from any direction.
I was lost in thought when I heard a light crunch behind me. Slowly I turned my head and saw a big doe pop out of the trees just 10 yards away. Before I could raise my bow, the doe snorted and bounded off. Of all the places to sit; what terrible luck! With only two hours of light left I called Esther to pick me up.
No more mister nice-guy; desperate times call for desperate measures. Creeping around the cruel woods and sitting water had proved fruitless. It was time for some good old-fashion road hunting. Everyone knows that deer are much less concerned by slow-driving vehicles than camo-clad hunters.
We pulled onto a side road next to a big mud puddle left over from a past rainstorm. I didn’t think much of it because there was a camp full of drunken miscreants nearby blasting hip-hop music over their smoky campfire.
You can imagine my surprise when I spotted a lone doe standing on a hillside 100 yards away and looking longingly at the water. Clearly she was waiting for darkness to make a quick water run. With this in mind, we drove a short distance up the road. Once out of sight I hopped out and instructed Esther to drive further up the road and wait.
Racing against nightfall, I dropped into the timber and backtracked towards the water. It was so quiet that I couldn’t even shift my weight without crunching pine needles. Now I was stuck. I balanced my feet on two dried cow pies to muffle my footing and waited.
With only minutes of light left I began to wonder if the doe was going to show. Suddenly she appeared, silently weaving through the trees 15 yards in front of me. In a steady, slow movement I raised my bow and drew back.
The doe caught the end of my draw and jerked her head up in fright. Before she could whirl, my arrow was off, catching her in the shoulder. She spun around and crashed headlong into a Christmas tree, then got her feet and bounded away.
After confirming a good blood trail, I radioed Esther. Before I could get a word out she told about a doe she just saw by the truck.
“I don’t care about that, I just shot one! Come help me track it.”
The doe ran away so fast that the blood trail petered out quickly. The dug-in tracks led through the sagebrush and then crossed the dirt road, it’s hooves touching only once in the dust on the road before disappearing in some rocky terrain.
Three hours passed as we continually backtracked and crawled forward on hands and knees trying to find the next track or sign. We split up and wandered in ever-widening circles, but to no avail. How could this mortally hit animal elude us?
There was no choice but to back out and return in the morning. Coyotes howled in the distance as we walked back to the truck making me uneasy about leaving the deer overnight. Esther suddenly stopped and asked, “Hey can we just check one thing first?”
“I wanna check where that doe popped out by the truck?” Could it be the same deer, she wondered?
I was doubtful, but the timing was uncanny. We turned around and walked back to the truck turnaround spot. On the way I interrogated Esther. “What was the deer doing? Was it running? Did it look hit?”
“No,” she replied, “It just walked out of the trees, saw the truck, and went back into the trees.”
“Well, we better take a look.”
A minute later we arrived at the flat spot where Esther had parked. She showed me where the deer was standing, but there was no blood. Discouraged, we began walking in circles and you can imagine my surprise when I nearly tripped over the doe lying less than 20 yards from where she’d parked. What were the odds of my deer running 300 yards and expiring right next to the truck?
It’s been a long time since I’ve been proud of taking a doe, but that deer got us through the winter and was just what I needed after 37 fruitless days afield. As it turns out, adventure can be found just off the side of the road. Perhaps I won’t be so quick to disparage the fine art of road hunting in the future.
The deer herd in my Southern Utah hunting area is on the decline thanks to a long-running drought, in conjunction with an ever-increasing human presence. Locating any remaining bucks means relying on an array of trail cameras placed along known deer routes across the mountain range. Every year we capture one or two photos of cougars prowling around, but last season was different. Over the course of a single month we captured cougar pictures on all four cameras.
Of course you’ll find cougars wherever deer are concentrated, but in recent years we’ve been seeing more and more cougar sign including deer kills, paw prints, clawed-up trees, and of course trail-cam photos.
My theory is that when deer numbers decrease rapidly, cougars (commonly referred to as mountain lions) are forced to roam over more territory in search of their most common prey, the mule deer. This, of course, increases the odds of running into a big cat while hunting. To make matters worse, when deer numbers are down, hungry cougars will actually consider humans as prey, although attacks are quite rare.
In three decades of deer hunting I’ve only seen a handful of cougars. About half were seen at night by headlights on remote dirt roads, the other half up and prowling during daylight hours. It wasn’t until the 2021 deer season that I actually came face-to-face with a lion in the woods and was even forced to defend myself.
It all began halfway through last season’s bowhunt. It was just another hot afternoon as Esther and I trudged up a dusty trail leading to a pine ridge where we like to hunt. Esther was excited to show me some trail-cam photos of a decent 3-pointer from earlier in the week. Sweating and puffing from the steep hike, we settled down on a log and began scrolling through the photos.
We’d only been there a minute or two when a series of blood-curdling screams and a loud scuffling sounds broke the silence about 50 yards into the heavy timber. At first I thought it was another hunter-jackass messing with us. However, the screams grew louder and morphed into what sounded like a sheep in distress…or at least something very non-human. Esther and I sat frozen, staring blankly at the timber. Seconds later everything was silent.
At that point it I figured it must have been a cougar attack and said to Esther, “I think a deer just got whacked by a cougar….” Of course I’d never actually heard a cougar attack on a deer, but what else could it be? Sasquatch, maybe?
As a self-proclaimed naturalist I was overcome by curiosity and stood up, saying, “Hey, let’s go take a look.”
“I’m not going over there!” was Esther’s immediate reply.
“Just stay behind me. If it’s a lion he’ll just run off.”
Everyone knows that big cats out West are naturally afraid of people and take every precaution to avoid humans. This is reinforced by the fact that humans are the cougar’s only natural predator. But I can’t fault Esther for being nervous. Only two years previous she had a very unnerving encounter with a lion on another trail. In the gray hours of morning she came around a bend at the exact same time a cougar was coming from the opposite direction. The cougar didn’t run away, but instead crouched low and stared at Esther from only fifteen yards away. Following the standard cougar-avoidance protocol, Esther yelled and waved her arms to scare it off. When that didn’t work she loaded an arrow and drew her bow. When he still didn’t budge she released the arrow which skipped off the dirt right next to the cat. Instead of running away, he just turned and walked casually into the woods.
A dangerous cat is a danger indeed. Due to their explosive short-burst speed, there is no physical way to outrun a cougar. They can grow to roughly the same size and weight (and color) as an adult human; a full-grown male lion can weigh more than two-hundred pounds. Cougars prefer ambush-style hunting: crouching in wait and then pouncing on his victim. He uses his powerful arms to pull down his prey, and then kills quickly by sinking his fangs into the back of the neck and severing the spine. Other tactics include crushing the windpipe and suffocating his victim. Either way it’s a quick and silent death. Your best chance at surviving a cougar attack is to fight back. If at all possible, go for the eyes. Cats are very careful to avoid personal injury and will back off if you threaten bodily harm.
Now back to our story.
Cautiously we tiptoed into the timber in the direction of the scuffle. Coming around a clump of stunted pines we found a yearling doe lying flat on the ground, gargling and gasping with its eyes rolled back in its head. Claw marks were raked horizontally across her hind quarters. The cougar had obviously heard us coming and ran off before we arrived.
Instinctively I loaded an arrow while Esther suggested what I was thinking anyway: “Maybe we should put it out of its misery.” But I decided to wait since, strangely, there was no blood present. About twenty seconds later, the deer’s eyes rolled back into place. She suddenly swung her head up, looked around, then sprang to her feet and bounded away as if nothing happened.
At that point we slowly backed out and into the open. On the way out I joked, “Looks like I saved a deer’s life. She better send us a thank you card in the mail.”
Esther was planning to hunt this area in the evening, but after the nerve-wracking experience she decided to follow me into a different area instead. On the way I joked that the cougar might be plotting revenge for having his dinner plans ruined. In retrospect I was only half-joking, because that’s exactly what the cougar did! Before splitting up for the evening, I suggested she sit with her back to a tree and keep an eye behind her. But the evening was uneventful and at dark we walked back to the truck together.
Twenty-four hours later I found myself once again huffing and puffing up the mountain alone, this time about a mile away. I was thoroughly focused on deer; the cougar encounter already ancient history in my mind. After all, what were the odds of running into the same cat, even if he was now desperately hungry and maybe even seeking revenge?
I arrived at one of my favorite areas and immediately spotted two forest grouse pecking around. Realizing that any meat was better than no meat, I stalked toward the bigger bird. He got nervous, however, and flew into the low branches of a nearby tree. Moving closer for a shot, I settled my pin on the little target and released. POOF! The grouse fell to the ground in a shower of clipped feathers. Excitedly I trotted over to collect my bird, but to my dismay he was gone; apparently just a grazing shot. From there I walked in ever-widening circles around the trees scanning for the bird.
A moment later I spotted a grouse walking across a flat towards some nearby cliffs. I followed the bird, but when I got closer he busted from the cliff edge and soared into the wilderness 1000 feet below. Realizing it must have been the other bird, I turned back to look for the one I’d shot at.
But when I turned around my heart stopped. Sitting in the shadows, half-hidden behind a deadfall tree and exactly where I’d been standing just a minute earlier, was a big cougar staring right at me. Only his head and muscular shoulders were visible above the log, his eyes locked on mine. It didn’t seem real at first, and all I could do was stare back as my mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation. Was it real or someone playing a trick on me? Now what?
The hackles on my neck suddenly stood on end as I realized the gravity of the situation. First off, I was standing in the wide open with sheer cliffs at my back. Second, the cougar wasn’t budging and likely contemplating his next move. Finally, in all likelihood he was the same cougar from the previous night, now hungry and vengeful. At any moment I expected the great cat to explode across the flat in a tawny blur and rip me to shreds.
Without another thought I quickly and smoothly grasped an arrow from my quiver and loaded it onto my bow without looking down. Then, in one fluid motion I drew my bow while calculating the distance to the cougar. My sight pins scrolled across his face. Looks about thirty yards…
A second later my arrow whizzed into the shadows and found its mark with a loud CRACK!
The cougar disappeared into a flurry of dust and debris, its tail whipping wildly above the log. Instantly I pulled another arrow, this time fumbling to load it with my shaking hand. The scuffling suddenly stopped. Was he dead?
The cat sprang up on another log situated perpendicular to the one he’d been sitting behind. Without looking back he casually walked the length of the log in the opposite direction, then hopped to the ground and meandered into the trees as if nothing happened.
I waited until the cat was well out of sight and then walked over to where he’d been sitting. There was no blood or arrow at first, just a few tuffs of tan fur mixed with pine needles and branches. A short distance later the blood trail started, dark red and drizzled steadily along the log and off into the woods.
For the moment I had no intention of following the cat, and instead spent some time looking for my arrow, the whole time wondering where I’d hit him. It was clearly a good hit, but there was no evidence that the arrow passed through, nor did he carry it off. The only possibility was the arrow hit him high on the head, a glancing, slashing blow that knocked him temporarily senseless, and then skipped into the woods.
At last I cautiously followed the blood trail into the woods. It was my responsibility, after all, to follow-up on a wounded animal. The easy-to-follow drizzle trail continued for about 300 yards and then stopped abruptly as the forest grew thick with minimal visibility. At that point, and with darkness falling fast, I decided that following an injured, man-stalking cat into the thick stuff was a bad idea and backed out.
Interestingly, I returned to the site in the morning and found an entirely new blood trail. This blood was from a deer, however, its dug-in tracks intermingled with that of a cougar who’d apparently taken it down very near the same location as my encounter. Was it the same cat? We’ll never know.
Although I continued to hunt the same general area for the next couple weeks I never saw the cougar again, nor did I expect to. He learned a valuable lesson that day: To associate people with danger. Still, I’m looking forward to next season. If we meet again he should be easily identifiable; perhaps I’ll name him “scar.”
Of all the big game animals I’ve chased over the last 30 years, the Rocky Mountain goat is the most fascinating, strikingly beautiful, and toughest I’ve ever seen. He is a rare creature, living exclusively along a sparse band along the Rocky Mountains, ranging from Alaska down through Colorado and Southern Utah. Because he spends his days climbing vertical mountains, he is likely the strongest animal—pound-for-pound—in North America.
The first time you see him, with his stark white coat gleaming against the gray cliffs, it almost seems unfair that such a rare gem should be so easily spotted as he feeds carelessly on patches of dry grass in the wide open. But as you begin plotting your approach over the deep chasms between you, with thousands of vertical feet given and taken, you soon realize that a simple stalk is actually an all-day, perilous venture into the bowels of hell, and always one misstep away from serious injury or death. As Esther would lament later under the weight of a crushing backpack and half lost in the nighttime gloom of unfamiliar woods, “This hunt unit should have a warning label on it…seriously!”
What does it take to get your goat? Well, aside from the usual requisites—such as shooting proficiency, general fitness, and patience—goat hunting requires more than you might think. First you’ll need about half a lifetime to accumulate the number of points necessary to draw the once-in-a-lifetime tag. For me it took eighteen years, so I got lucky. Second, to hunt a goat you must be a goat. No matter how much physical training you undertake in the off-season, it won’t be enough—period. Goats live in the worst terrain on earth, places where most other creatures and plants cease to exist. Unless your exercise program involves scaling jagged granite cliffs at 11,000 feet while donning a heavy pack and carrying a cumbersome bow, you won’t be ready. Finally, you’ll need a viable exit plan. Big old billies can weigh up to 300 pounds and fall in places where you couldn’t get a horse. Heck, you might not even get yourself out.
With this in mind, let’s go hunting!
My deer hunt was a disaster. In a mere four year span, the ever-increasing gaggle of outdoor enthusiasts have turned my once wild mountain into a clown-town mountain bike and hiking resort; people everywhere, all the time, on every road and trail. The biggest and wisest bucks have since fled back to the vast private lands, now refusing to take part in the public land people party up top. Four hot and exhausting weeks down the toilet, my greatest passion ripped away, another mountain ruined and lost forever.
Realizing failure early on, my mind frequently drifted to the mountain goat tag lying on the kitchen table back home. I couldn’t imagine how this fluffy, conspicuous animal could be anywhere near as difficult as the wily old mule deer buck… Or could he… I was continually haunted by the unknown. All I knew for sure was that I’d never seen an easy hunt before, and wondered what surprises lay ahead.
Perhaps I could have scouted my goat unit if only I had a vehicle. In July my truck motor blew up on the highway and became a permanent fixture at a redneck repair shop 150 miles from home. At the same time, Esther’s car was recalled by the dealership for a three month stint requiring a new engine due to some pretty shoddy engineering. So I did my scouting at home, 200 miles away from the goats.
My first call was to a fine fellow named Kendall who’d posted a compelling YouTube video from his Nebo goat hunt last year. He’d done extensive scouting beforehand and was gracious enough to answer all my questions and point me in the right direction. My second call was to a DWR biologist who provided even more information.
Of particular interest was the location of goats. Although Nebo is a large unit, the goats inhabit only a few square miles of the three highest peaks, and you won’t find even a trace of goats below ten-thousand feet. There were only nine archery tags issued for the entire Mt. Nebo unit this year, but it doesn’t take much to blow out an entire peak, as I would soon to discover.
A few days after the deer hunt ended, Esther and I loaded twelve days worth of supplies into our emergency-bought, nineties beater truck and headed north to the bald peaks of Nebo. Fall colors were changing and elk were bugling as we settled into a fine tent camp beneath the great shadow of 12,000-foot Mt. Nebo.
Just around the corner from camp we found ourselves within viewing distance of a myriad of tiny white dots scattered across the sheer, granite cliffs two miles away. Judging by the various sizes of the goats, we determined the majority were family units of nannies and kids. The males, or billies, run about 40% bigger than the nannies and tend to live alone or in groups of two or three. Other than body size, there’s no good way to judge the animals from two miles away. All goats—whether billies, nannies, and juveniles—have sleek, swept-back, dagger-like horns ranging from seven to ten inches long and being all but invisible at long distances. Clearly this would be a boots-on-the-ground hunt. Thus, an all-day hike was planned for the following day.
I sure learned a lot about goats that first day. At first light we glassed up some promising goats from the camp overlook, and then set forth on a several mile hike around the canyon to get into position 1500 vertical feet below them.
It was around midday when I reluctantly peeled off the trail and headed straight up a steep knife ridge towards them. Much of the hike was spent scrambling on all fours, picking my way around rock walls, and clambering up noisy scree slopes while stopping occasionally to glass. Most of the goats remained bedded all day, only rising occasionally to change beds and grab a quick bite to eat. The biggest billies lived right in the cliffs where a stalk would be impossible.
It was fascinating to watch them traverse the cliffs with nary a concern for sheer drop-offs. Mountain goats have large, wide hooves with hard rubbery soles that cling to rocks. Their short, stumpy legs and compact bodies provide a low center of gravity for balance. There is no mountain too high for goats. If the peak stretched up another 5000 feet they would be at the top.
Eventually three large goats came into view a few hundred yards away, including one very large billy, a smaller one, and a big old nanny wearing a DWR tracking collar. Unfortunately they were bedded in the wide open with a wall of cliffs behind them. With no possible approach I continued higher in hopes of finding a good ambush position when they fed out later.
The terrain grew steeper as I went, gradually turning to cliffs in all directions. While working around an outcropping I spotted a goat bedded thirty yards below. He turned and looked up at me but didn’t spook. Instead he unbedded and actually walked right towards me. In a surreal moment, he stood broadside just five yards away and stared at me, framed against a massive fortress of broken cliffs and crags.
Eventually he wandered off and for the rest of the afternoon I sat on a heavily used saddle and watched the three goats from earlier. At four o’clock they all rose and began feeding in wide circles on the open hillside.
With only two hours of light left, it was time to make a move. The smaller of the three goats fed into some cliffs while the big billy fed downhill 200 yards below the nanny. Based on what I’d observed so far, goats aren’t nearly as spooky as deer. With their funny little elf ears, small black noses, and beady eyes, these animals obviously relied on extreme terrain for protection more than their natural senses. In fact every goat I encountered on this hunt seemed perplexed to see a human sharing his extreme environment.
The only possible route to the billy was through the nanny. She continually watched me as I poked my way down the cliffs and scree slopes. At 70 yards she got nervous and wandered off. Methodically I closed the distance to the billy who must have thought all the noise I was making was coming from the absent nanny. But when I got to 150 yards he looked up while I was looking down and pegged me in the wide open. Goats generally don’t run to avoid predators, but rather march steadily into vertical cliffs; and that’s exactly what he did. For the last half hour of light all I could do was watch him feed out of sight. At that point I knew this could be a very long hunt.
I only got lost twice while walking the three hours back to camp in the dark. When I finally arrived, Esther was on the verge of tears, certain that I’d fallen to my doom somewhere. This would become a regular occurrence for her.
I woke the second day with various aches and pains from the waist down. After spending an arduous day on Nebo, I was excited to try an entirely different peak: Bald Mountain, aka Baldy. Baldy seemed a little friendlier than Nebo: not quite as steep and with better access via a dirt road. Unlike Nebo, Baldy has patches of sparse pine trees which would be more conducive to close-quarter style hunting.
We didn’t spot any goats from the road, but there was still a lot of mountain hidden from view. We parked the poor truck shortly after the road turned into a pile of sharp boulders with all four tires spinning and not going anywhere.
A lovely morning hike through the golden aspens and fields of choke cherries soon turned into an all-day, up-and-down leg burner, alternating between cliffs and wide-open grassy bowls corralled by steep rocky ridges. We glassed as we went but no goats appeared.
Shortly after reaching the right goat elevation we ran into a harvested goat carcass, obviously taken by a hunter a week or two earlier. Well, congrats to the lucky hunter, but bad news for us. With the goat’s demise, the remaining goats likely spooked further into the vast reaches of Bald Mountain. We continued on.
Around noon we arrived at a great lookout from an 11,000-foot ridge. Our eyes strained through the glass as we dissected the mountains for miles, but turned up nothing. I could tell by Esther’s demeanor that she was done for the day, and thus put together a new plan. From here Esther would sit and glass the far hillsides until 5:00pm. Meanwhile I would clamber about the cliffs on the main peak in hopes of turning up a hidden goat. All the goats I’d seen thus far would feed until about 10:00am, bed down, and then rise again at precisely 4pm to resume feeding for the evening.
Clamber as I might, I turned up nothing but old beds and sign. At 6pm I got a message from Esther that three big goats were feeding a mile north of her lookout. It was too late for a stalk, so we planned a return trip in the morning to chase after them.
At last light we were able to glass up the goats from the road and verify that they were in fact billies based on their “urination posture.” (Billy goats pee like horses with their legs spread apart, while nanny goats squat like dogs). I was lulled to sleep that night by a combination of excitement, anticipation, and dread.
Fearing the weekend would bring more hunter competition to the mountain, we woke well before light and hit the road. Our previous days’ effort turned up a better road jump-off for quicker elevation gain. But I suppose it’s all relative; what’s a 500-foot advantage in these mountains?
Hurrying to reach the goats before they bedded, I hiked like a mad-man up the dark hills, leaving Esther far behind. My lungs burned and heaved in the cold morning air while a metallic blood taste filled my mouth. Still I refused to rest, knowing only one thing for sure: there’s nothing easy with goats.
I reached the lookout ridge around seven and spotted two of the goats feeding leisurely along the next ridge a mile away. Just one more canyon to go. I burned up an entire hour descending a perilous avalanche chute, sliding and clinging to roots while dislodging various boulders that went crashing down the mountain. I kept glancing up at the goats and was glad they were still too far to hear the great cacophony.
Happy to still be in one piece at the bottom, I began an immediate ascent toward the goats. From this point everything came unraveled. The shifting thermals began sweeping upward towards the goats who were now obscured by the curvature of the hill. To reduce my scent I ripped off my sweat-soaked shirt and stuffed it in my pack.
Next I made a wide arc to get above the goats before they winded me. While doing so I was absolutely horrified to see three other camo-clad dudes—a hunter with two buddies—suddenly appear on the horizon above me. “[Insert raging string of expletives here].” My worst nightmare come true; and such wonderful timing! Still, the compassionate inner Nate wondered what hell these guys must’ve gone through to get where they were; certainly there was no better route than the one I’d taken. Nevertheless, here we all were on the same peak, pursuing the same once-in-a-lifetime opportunity against all odds. May the best hunter win!
My carefully calculated stalk was now a flailing bee-line in the direction of the goats. But when I arrived, they were gone. In their stead was a big 5×5 mule deer buck staring at me with a familiar look, as if to ask, “What the heck is a person doing in this place?”
The three dudes looked equally frustrated as they continually scanned the hills in all directions. Either the goats had seen their approach and bailed, or they’d winded me. Either way they were gone. While the competition poked around a few hundred yards above, I pursued my only option, working lower and lower down the mountain while intermittently peeking over the cliffs where the goats must have fled. Still nothing.
At ten o’clock Esther radioed me from the lookout. She was still full of hope until I informed her of the dudes and the disappearing goats, at which time she blew a fuse. After everything we’d been through, we got duded; always more people! After a murderous rant, she asked with exasperation, “So, what’s your plan?” I looked up from the radio and slowly scanned the miles of emptiness in all directions. The wind whistled by and the sun beat down from a cloudless sky.
“There is no plan,” I finally growled. Then, after another pause, “I’ll call you at eleven…” Expecting nothing more from the day but blisters, I kept working down the mountain and glassing clumps of trees in vain hope that one of the goats had bedded nearby.
Movement suddenly caught my eye a 100 yards down in a dark tangle of trees on the cliffy north face. Through the glass my heart leapt at the sight of two white patches milling about and hooving the ground to make day beds. One goat bedded down facing me and I froze in the wide open for a full hour while he chewed his cud and stared in my direction. He finally got up, kicked the smaller goat out of its bed and laid down facing away. At this time I carefully crawled twenty yards lower to some shade and that’s where I sat for the next five hours, 80 yards above the goats and unable to make a peep.
I passed the time writing in my notebook, eating snacks, fighting off flies and bees, and periodically checking the goat as he lay bedded. Was it a mature billy? It was hard to tell from this angle. Maybe a nanny…? My lack of experience with such beasts kept me guessing, but it really didn’t matter. Considering what a person must go through to get within bow range, any mature goat is a good goat and I was intent on making something happen. But for now there was no move. He was bedded directly above some tall cliffs, and even if I had a clear shot, the goat would likely take a flying leap, as is their nature. No, I would wait them out, all day if necessary.
Meanwhile Esther sat patiently on her high perch crouched in some shadows. At one point a nearby rock slide crashed and echoed through the hills. Being out of radio communication, Esther feared I’d fallen to my doom, and thus sat helplessly wondering of my fate all day long.
At 3:30pm I was elated to see movement. The smaller goat soon popped into the open and fed out of sight. I lifted my bow, ready for the bigger one, but he remained bedded for another hour. As the mountain fell into shadows, the wind cooled and began shifting up and down. I winced each time it changed, expecting the goat to suddenly jump out of his bed and disappear. At 4:30 he finally stood , but was in no hurry to enter the open. Instead he just stood there sniffing the air and looking around, waiting for the shifting winds to give away any lurking danger.
Somehow he missed me and eventually walked into the open. Unable to move, all I could do was range him at fifty-six yards before he disappeared out of view. The moment of truth was finally upon me as I began a low-odds stalk into the great wide open.
Each footstep was carefully placed around loose talus rocks that rattled like bits of broken chinaware scattered across the slope. As I crept closer, the big goat began to materialize; first a white shoulder, then a rump. I ranged again—forty yards, but no shot.
I inched ever closer while crouching low and holding my loaded bow in my left hand, my right arm held out for balance. More of the goat came into view as he fed perpendicular to my approach. My heart beat quickened, drumming louder and louder in my ears. Something was about to happen, here in this vertical wilderness on the shadowy side of nowhere.
In the middle of an awkward step, a sudden high-pitched chirping pierced the night. Seventy yards below me in a patch of trees a chipmunk, who was apparently upset with the whole spectacle, erupted into an uncontrollable barking fit. My eyes flashed back to the goat who was feeding no more, but staring intently in the direction of the chipmunk. I froze in a hunched position and stared fixedly upon the top half of the goat’s head. His face shifted left and right, then back at the chipmunk. He suspected something was wrong.
After several minutes the goat began alternating between short feeding spells and looking around nervously. I was still stuck at forty yards with no shot and no way to get closer. This went on for untold minutes, but was finally cut short by a loud snort above me, followed by total pandemonium. While watching the big goat, the smaller one had wandered in above to investigate. I read somewhere that goats don’t run, but this little billy stirred up a cloud of dust as he rumbled downhill past the big goat.
Just as the whole evening was imploding, I raised my bow and launched a forty-yarder as the big goat whirled and ran after his buddy. Not accounting for his rapid acceleration, my arrow missed cleanly. Both goats thundered towards the cliffs, and then paused suddenly to look back at me. I was ready with another arrow and in a split second drew my bow, settled the pin for what I figured to be sixty yards, and released.
My arrow’s orange fletchings shone brightly where the arrow hit: squarely in the goat’s massive shoulder. Not much penetration, but perfect trajectory. Instead of running into the cliffs, the billy scrambled into the chipmunk trees, staggered for a moment and lay down. His young apprentice, clearly unhappy with the whole situation, walked over and stood by his fallen leader and stared up at me. I sat down and stared back.
After a minute I glanced up at my invisible wife on the ridgeline, still sitting in the dirt after a silent, eight-hour ordeal. I wondered how much of the spectacle she had seen. It turns out a lot. With trembling hands, I fumbled my radio out of my pocket and hailed her. “Hello?”
“Did you hit it?”
“Yeah, he’s bedded below me,” I whispered. “I can’t talk now; I’ll call you back.”
Light was falling fast as the big billy lied motionless in the shadows. I couldn’t tell whether his head was up or not, but a decision had to be made. This isn’t the kind of place where you just back out and return in the morning. If a follow-up was needed it would have to be tonight. Reluctantly I began scooting closer. The smaller goat shifted uneasily, and when I got within forty yards he walked over and kicked up the wounded goat who slowly stood, took two steps, and staggered.
Both goats began a rapid descent straight down an avalanche chute, but the big one couldn’t keep his feet and fell over. He slid a short distance, then got back up, and fell again, this time barrel-rolling down the mountain and out of sight.
I sighed with relief; it was finally over. I hiked up to get my pack and personal effects and then made a careful descent down to the goat. But after a hundred yards he was still MIA. Did he get up and leave? I called Esther on the radio, but she couldn’t see anything. Figuring it was going to be a long night for everyone, I told Esther to start making her way down to me, preferably while it was still light.
It was evident that the goat tumbled more than once, likely rolling each time he tried to stand. Another hundred yards down the ravine and there he was, caught up in some small boulders, one slip away from launching down another series of never-ending cliffs.
A flood of feelings rushed over me, mostly relief, but also gratitude for a clean kill and recovery of this magnificent animal. In near disbelief I reached down and stroked the coarse white hair on his massive shoulder. The great barrel-shaped beast was bigger than I thought, nearly impossible to maneuver for pictures and always threatening to slide into the abyss. Upon his noble horse-like head was a pair of stout, black horns measuring nine inches, albeit missing a few pieces due to his long tumble.
I wish I could end the story right here—a lovely three day hunt in paradise—but it was far from over. The next forty-eight hours went like this:
Esther arrived two hours later by headlamp and in tears. Not tears of jubilation, mind you, but genuine tears of mountain terror and exhaustion. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get myself out!” she exclaimed.
We cut up the iron-tough goat until 4:30am, hung the manageable parts in the trees, and then hiked out via the least horrible route. We arrived back to camp completely hammered at 8am and slept for an hour before waking to a multitude of flies buzzing around camp. I knew it was way too hot to leave meat hanging, even at 10,000 feet. We were on a serious timer; anything less than full bore meant losing the whole goat.
There had to be a better route back to the goat. Poring over maps, we discovered a low road running a mile and a half (as the crow flies) and two-thousand vertical feet below the canyon the goat was in. No trail meant busting timber the whole way in, but at least it would be downhill on the way out.
It took all day to get to the goat, at which time we loaded half the monster into our packs and began our downhill trek. The out-route had to be altered due to some dangerously steep slopes and heavy packs. Soon we found ourselves hiking down a slippery, boulder-strewn stream for a mile in the dark. This route proved far too time-consuming, and so a new one was plotted for morning.
Seven hours later we were back, this time coming in from above. This high route was definitely shorter, but also a gamble. Sure enough we got cliffed out and spent half the morning side-hilling dangerous terrain. Just before arriving at the goat, Esther spied a black bear sow with cubs across the canyon. One of the game bags containing a hind quarter was torn open on the ground, the meat partially consumed and swarming with flies. Fortunately we’d hung the rest over some north-facing cliffs and it was fine. In the end, though, the lighter load probably saved both us, as well as the remaining meat.
Despite being cooked out by the midday sun, I was energized at the prospect of ending the ordeal once and for all under the strain of a final pack out. However, no amount of pep talks could get Esther jazzed as she struggled continually to keep up. One word of wisdom for any future goat hunters: You must elicit help from at least three of your biggest, burliest buddies before undertaking such an endeavor. Goat hunting is not an ideal couple’s activity.
Our final out-route ended up being the same one I’d taken the day I got my goat: a ridiculous up-and-down scramble over terrain that would make an elk queasy. Still, we plowed ahead, determined to save our hard-fought meat. We finally arrived back at the truck around 1pm in a grossly over-distressed physical state.
It still wasn’t over. The incessant heat of “endless summer” had taken its toll on our ice supply. So without rest we busted camp and barreled down the road, past the tourists in flowery shirts photographing fall colors, past strings of RVs catching the waning weeks of summer, past weekend fishermen leisurely tossing flies at a mountain stream, and finally into town for a pile of dry ice. For the first time in five days we were able to stop and take a relaxed breath of air. The goat was saved.
A week later, as I sit back and enjoy a delicious goat steak, complete with sautéed onions and mushrooms in a delicious wine sauce, my body is healed and my spirit is full. My mind drifts back to the good parts of the hunt: the awesome sight of Nebo’s granite peaks, the enchantment of fall’s brilliant colors, the wide variety of wildlife seen along the way, but especially the heart-pounding excitement of the final stalk.
There is no animal quite like the Rocky Mountain goat, neither in beauty nor toughness. With an ever-increasing number of hunters vying for the coveted tag each year, only a handful will ever get the opportunity to chase the great white king of the peak. For those lucky few, this hunt should be considered an honor. The chance to match wits and might with such a beast is to test oneself in every way. My gratitude for this hunt will stay with me forever.
For the record my goat green scores just shy of 49 inches, placing him in the top 20% of goats ever taken with a bow and arrow. Though I’m thoroughly pleased with the outcome, I’m equally glad it will never be repeated.
It can’t be said enough: There’s nothing easy with goats! And maybe there shouldn’t be. Aside from the fine table fare and the beautiful taxidermy mount-to-be, I think the greatest gift from this hunt is perspective. For as long as I live nothing will ever seem all that difficult again.
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…
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.
That evening 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 evening 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.”
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 stalk from below. 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.
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 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 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 sniped 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.
When hunting in dense timber, it’s almost impossible to verify a deer that you’ve spooked because of how 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. 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 hunter 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 bowhunters 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 across 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.
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 to 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!
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.
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, until their short lives are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In September, 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 outside 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. He jerked his head left and right, simultaneously scanning for danger and planning his 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 in 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 one ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.
I just spent the last few days prowling around Idaho and still haven’t seen any decent bucks. Days are ruthlessly hot and dry; nights are freezing, which is probably why I languish with a painful head cold. My first step out of the dusty camp and my legs are sore with disease; my joints hurt, my muscles ache, my head throbs.
Foreign lands and no deer sign yet, but this remote valley looks promising. I’m headed toward the dark, north-face timber where I may get some reprieve from the glaring sun. But the route is thick with oak brush and cedar. Endless branches grasp at my body, tripping me and shoving me back down the steep slope.
I stop frequently to mop pouring sweat from my forehead with my camo cap. I’m still wearing the same stinky outfit I’ve donned for three days. Wind is my best ally or my worst enemy. There’s no point trying to be quiet. I just need a vantage to glass from. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up; just following my nose and reading sign.
Moments ago something crawled across my neck. I swiped at it and monstrous orange spider fell to the ground. But I won’t be dissuaded. This is what I live for; it’s all I know. Only a year ago my arrow sailed over the biggest velvet buck I ever shot at. He’s long since vanished now, which is why I’m here in Idaho. Redemption. New woods and new hope. I push onward.
Long out of tissue, both nostrils drain continuously, leaving a slimy trail of moisture everywhere I go, likely the only moisture this parched forest has seen in months.
Finally some tracks, but small. I follow to see where they lead. Maybe I’ll strap on my release; I hope I brought it. Just yesterday I was hiking in grizzly country and halfway up the mountain I realized I’d forgotten to load my arrows into my quiver. Stupid, stuffy head!
My life has been various attempts at various activities, but bowhunting has been my one true passion, and better yet, the only thing I’m really good at. But here and now, it’s hard to tell. My brain is gripped with pressure, my body is weak. I push on because I know nothing else.
In the pines a squirrel fires up, barking relentlessly, giving away my position. I always carry a squirrel arrow, but it’s mostly futile; there’s always another squirrel, and the biggest bucks are always in the dark timber with them. During a heavy wind last year, I stumbled upon a giant 4×4 buck bedded in a patch of thick blowdowns. Before I could pull an arrow, a squirrel fired up alerting the buck who quickly rose from his bed and melted away into the forest.
I try to imagine heavy horns moving through the brush, and then my arrow carrying cold steel through its chest cavity. The only way I win is if I wreak maximum carnage on an innocent, unsuspecting deer. I wince at the thought. Will I ever turn away from this bloody pursuit? Likely not, because life outside the woods has little appeal to me, and even less venison. A predator must eat.
At this time I’d like to formally apologize to my faithful and finely crafted compound bow which I’m currently dragging through an almost indescribable tangled hell. Only five years old and it’s already covered in battle scars; scratches, dents and dings. Sure it’s seen some fine moments, but this year it’s just a hiking companion. Its one moment of glory was a dirty coyote I sniped near camp in Utah.
After weed-whacking for two hours I’ve arrived at a fantastic rock outcropping with views of the entire valley. Only an 90 minutes of shooting light left and still no deer. I glass empty draw after empty draw, stacked in vertical rows below the summit.
I want to underestimate the mighty buck; I try to convince myself that he’s just another dumb animal eating and sleeping his life away. But I know better. He’s an ingenious survivor, evading predators year after year with very little effort and hardly a conscious thought. How is that possible? A hunter, no matter his experience, goes to his grave having merely scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these amazing survivors. Outsmarting him is the greatest challenge, and I suppose this relentless pursuit is why it never gets old.
The rest of my Idaho excursion iss nothing short of a grim letdown. The once promised land is mostly bleak, ravaged by human intrusions, just like Utah. ATVs and trash litter the landscape and the woods are devoid of huntable game. Big bucks live short lives hidden away in dark holes far removed from human reach.