(Story published in Huntin’ Fool Magazine, Aug. 2011, Vol.16, Issue 8)
My Droptine Buck Hunting Story
I first spotted the great buck, which I simply called “The Droptine,” during the 2008 archery season while hunting public land in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Northern Utah (known as Monte Cristo by the locals). He was the most amazing buck I’d ever seen, with a wide sweeping rack and long, matching, club-like drop tines hanging down below his ears.
I was exploring a steep, wooded hillside that morning when I bumped the incredible buck from his bed at the edge of some pines. As he quartered away I was able to get off a quick shot, but in my haste I misjudged the yardage and my arrow flew low. The arrow hit some dead-fall, splintered, twirled through the air, and bounced off the deer’s rump. I merely spanked him and then he was gone.
Having never seen a buck of this magnitude in the wild before, I became instantly obsessed. But for the remainder of the season I was unable to relocate him.
Monte Cristo is your standard north/south rocky mountain range in Northern Utah. It has everything mule deer love: tall mountains covered in aspen and pine trees, steep canyons with long ridges that drop into rolling sagebrush hills. Water is scarce, but adequate enough to support plenty of deer and elk.
For decades Monte Cristo was one of Utah’s premier deer hunting areas, but in recent years deer populations have declined due to high hunting pressure and diminishing winter range. With very few peaks from which to glass, and covered in dense timber, Monte Cristo is not a spot-and-stalk area. Big bucks are only found by busting brush in steep wooded areas, making it very difficult to locate them with any consistency.
In 2009 I planned to hunt exclusively for The Droptine for six days, beginning where I left off in 2008. But the great monarch eluded me until the third evening when he busted out of some trees 40 yards uphill, stood for a second atop a sagebrush knoll silhouetted against the twilight sky, and then disappeared before I could raise my bow.
By the sixth and last day I was getting desperate. My plan was to carefully still-hunt the entire mile-long ridge where he lived. For twelve hours I snuck slowly through the woods without rest, glassing every inch of forest for antlers. But he was nowhere to be found.
I was both physically and mentally exhausted when I reached the end of the ridge. With my head hung low, I turned back towards camp. Seconds later, as I rounded the end of the ridge, The Droptine suddenly exploded from a bed 40 yards below me in a thicket of trees. Through a cloud of dust I watched the big barrel-bodied deer bound away. I could hear him running for half a mile, down the canyon and up the other side.
I thought I was going to cry as I plopped down on a dusty game trail and dug my GPS out of my backpack. That day he had bedded half a mile from the last place I saw him. How do you hunt a deer that doesn’t move in the open during daylight; that is never found in the same place twice and instead, shows up at random like a ghost? The wise old buck lived a life without pattern; that is how he eluded hunters for so long.
The 2009 season was over. Every night for the following year, when I turned out the lights before bed, the image of The Droptine silhouetted against the sky would pop into my head. I lay awake night after night pondering the mistakes I made and planned new strategies for taking the mystical beast the following year. I was Ahab, and he was my white whale.
In the summer of 2010, as soon as the snow melted off the mountain, I went scouting for The Droptine, but wasn’t able to locate him. A week before the August archery opener, my brother Brent spotted The Droptine while checking trail cameras in the area. Those trail cameras, by the way, never did capture the ghost’s image.
Meanwhile, back home the Great Recession was taking its toll on my photography business, leaving me with a lot more time than money. I decided to use this to my advantage, planning to hunt The Droptine on two separate trips totaling ten days.
The archery opener started off slowly, but on the fourth morning, while sneaking to one of The Droptine’s old bedding areas, he, along with two smaller bucks, busted out of some new beds fifty yards below me. That was the last time I saw him that week.
A second five-day outing the following week turned up nothing and I finally accepted the fact that the old buck had grown tired of my chasing him and moved to another mountain. There was no choice but to give up. He was clearly a buck beyond my caliber, and I had already wasted too much time and too many tags pursuing him. I thought about all the other hunting opportunities I’d sacrificed just to chase this one deer. I was ready to make peace with my failure once and for all.
The next weekend, which happened to be the last day of the archery deer season, my girlfriend (now my wife) Esther and I embarked on a two-day elk hunt on a ridge parallel to the Droptine ridge. I’d seen more elk in this area and was hoping for a cow or spike bull. But all I could think about was The Droptine buck and how dejected I was. Esther lent a sympathetic ear to my rant:
“No one’s going to kill that buck. He’s gonna die of old age in a field one winter and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I didn’t digress. “I wish I’d never seen him, at least then I could enjoy deer hunting again. And yet, I’ll return again next year to chase a ghost through empty woods. I have no choice…”
The next morning we woke before light and snuck into the elk area, setting up on opposite ends of a steep timber swathe used as a bedding area. Everything was still and silent as I sat watched the big September sun slowly rise above the horizon. I was beginning to question our setup when I suddenly caught movement of wide antler tips swaying through the brush 50 yards downhill.
“Great,” I thought while raising my binoculars, “The elk are finally coming in!” But through the glass a deer’s head appeared, then two huge droptine clubs! I couldn’t believe it. Three years spent hunting for this creature, and now here he is walking right towards me!
The buck slanted behind a sparse line of pine trees, offering no shot. I was frantically searching for a shooting lane when I realized the tree line he was following ended abruptly right in front of me. If he kept his course, he’d pop out 20 yards away!
A quick glance at the grass to my left indicated the wind was starting to swirl. This is never going to happen, I thought. He’s too close. But the buck kept coming, slowly and cautiously at first, then picking up speed.
At that point I was a nervous wreck; my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my heart pounded so loudly that I was sure the buck could hear it too. In a full-on panic I glanced down at a sticker on my old Browning bow which reads, Stay Calm, Pick a Spot. Okay, at least I can pick a spot, I thought as I drew my bow back.
A second later the buck’s shoulder appeared and the arrow was off; I don’t even remember releasing it. As the huge buck spun and blasted out of sight, I caught a glimpse of my orange-fletched arrow sticking out of his side.
Suddenly everything was quiet again, as if nothing had happened. I sat dumbfounded for a second, awash in a swirling mix of disbelief and adrenaline surging through my body.
In an instant, I dropped my bow and went sprinting back through the woods towards Esther. She hopped out from behind a stand of pines, bewildered at the sight of a crazy man flailing towards her.
“I just shot my Droptine buck!” I yelled. At that moment, The Droptine had finally become My Droptine.
A tedious, half-hour tracking job over a sparse blood trail eventually led to the downed deer. The arrow had pierced both lungs, but the huge buck still covered 150 yards in great bounds down a nearly vertical slope. He expired in a brushy area, landing on landing on top of his sprawling antlers which anchored him from sliding down the mountain.
At the sight of the downed deer, a sense of relief and accomplishment washed over me that can never be equaled. After three years of failure, my wildest dreams had come true. I was finally liberated from my obsession.
Still in a daze, Esther and I pried the mighty buck free of its tangle and marveled at his majesty. I’d watched, even in fleeting glimpses, as The Droptine grew bigger and more spectacular than I ever could have imagined.
~ The End ~
*** Incidentally, the Droptine’s rack measured nearly 33-inches wide and gross-scored 201 5/8 (194 6/8 net P&Y). ***