There was no time to waste. I needed to get moving! I fumbled with my release, while I threw my binoculars and rangefinder around my neck. Heading up the hill at a jog, my heart rate climbed and steadied as I worked into a rhythm. If I was going to get a shot at this buck, I needed to see the route he was taking to bed. This meant I needed to top out the ridge as quickly as possible. I slowed down as I crested the ridge and slipped my facemask on. He had to be right in front of me and close.
A few years back, during one of our many discussions on hunting anything and everything, a close friend and I concluded that a large mule deer buck is perhaps the hardest critter in Montana to take with a bow. They are rare, tough to locate and extremely wary. In order to reach maturity in Montana, a buck has to be particularly cautious, and even a little paranoid. This is mostly due to a general rifle season that runs through the main rut. A buck that has the smarts to survive five or more rifle seasons is a very cunning animal. I've always wanted a good mule deer, but elk hunting has always been my number one priority. I've chased them in the high country while bivy hunting out of a backpack, but the truly large bucks have always eluded me.
On our annual elk trip, I and my long time friend and hunting partner were heading toward the prairie for an afternoon distraction of antelope hunting. Along the way we spotted mule deer feeding on top of a bald knob in the middle of the afternoon. Just out of curiosity, we put the glass on it to see what it was. When it lifted its head I knew instantly that it was a great buck. I wanted to go after him on the spot, but a plan was needed. The buck knew he was being watched and didn't want to move toward his bedding spot until we were gone. I needed to see where he was bedding before attempting a stalk. But a buck this old and smart would not make a move while we watched. After formulating a plan, I started up the backside of the ridge he was feeding on. The ridge top was wind-blown and bare except for a small patch of trees on one side, and a few scattered junipers on the other. Speculating that he wanted to bed either in the trees, or in the junipers, I planned on hurrying to the top of the hill. I would then try to locate the buck en route to his bed and either ambush him along the way or stalk him in his bed. Which brings me back to the rest of the story. When I did top-out the hill, he was nowhere to be found. This was no surprise to me; big mature bucks are exceptionally proficient at disappearing into thin air. In order for this to work, I needed to take my time and carefully look at all sides of the ridge. I would start at the last known location and work out from there. I looked into a deep sagebrush choked draw on one side and spotted a small four point bedded below. Maybe he crawled back in there. After picking the draw apart from several different angles, I decided the small guy was alone. Creeping around the hill a little further, I looked into the scattered junipers. After giving everything a quick once over, then a more thorough look, I finally spotted him. He was mostly hidden in a little pocket of overhanging junipers with nothing but his head and antlers visible.
After mentally noting the land marks, I backed out and swung over the ridge to get directly above the buck. I told myself, "Don't hurry things; there will only be one opportunity at this guy." I slipped off my boots and after a few deep breaths, eased down the slope. The patch of bedding junipers came into view about 30 yards away. I picked apart the shadows and could make out a few small patches of hair and an antler tip. That was all. There was no shot available. He had picked an impenetrable fortress to relax in. But I'm not so sure this guy knew how to relax.
Even if the buck stood up I wouldn't have much of a shot. I needed to be down the hill a bit more in order to slip an arrow into his little hiding spot. As I inched down the hill, I tried to mentally prepare for the shot that was sure to come. He was a mere 25 yards away, but I could do nothing but wait him out. All he had to do was stand up. As I stood there waiting patiently, the old buck must have sensed that something was wrong. In the time it takes to blink, he squirted out of the far side of the junipers like a jackrabbit being chased by a coyote. He stopped just on the other side of the brush out of sight. He wasn't sure what had spooked him and was trying to figure out what was there. I eased down on my knees and waited to see what would happen. Looking through my binoculars, I saw his head poke out from behind the juniper, staring right at me. I dared not move a muscle. I just watched him though my binoculars.
After a 10 minute stare down, he did the "pretend to relax and feed" thing, only to jerk his head back up for another stare down session. Meanwhile, my arms were starting to fatigue from holding my binoculars in such an awkward position for so long. Finally, he turned and started walking uphill perfectly broadside. I mentally ranged him, slowly raised my bow and drew, unconsciously hitting my anchor point. The pin floated on a tiny patch of hair as I leveled the sight. The arrow flew perfect and as he whirled, just for a moment, I could see there would be a good blood trail. Then nothing but a drifting dust cloud and the sound of clattering rocks. I wanted to keep the buck in sight, so I ran up the hill, grabbed my boots and headed towards his likely escape route. I made it there just in time to see him walk over the hill towards me, stumble around, and crash flat onto his chest. He was down!!
I backed off and went back to meet my hunting partner at our predetermined rendezvous point. He couldn't believe the story when I told him. I think he was as excited as I was. Well maybe not, because I was jacked! We hiked back up the ridge to take a look at him and get some great field photos. What a buck! I could not keep the smile off my face. He is a nice symmetrical four point that should gross around 175 P&Y inches. My hat is off to the guys that consistently kill big mule deer. They are an extremely hard animal to locate, and are even more challenging to take. In the future, I'm going to put more effort into hunting these elusive gray ghosts. Just knowing they are around will keep me hunting for them.