As I inched my way through the sea of chest high mountain willows, I was not only tired and sore, but extremely frustrated. It was day number nine of what turned out to be the most physically grueling hunt of my life. The day before, I had blown a shot on a massive buck and after a day and a half trying close in again, the last glimpse I got was of him entering the bottom of a huge alpine basin that was covered by nothing but willows. To be honest, I didn't know if I was ever going to see the buck again. But I couldn't give up.
It was my first high country archery mule deer hunt. I have always been a rifle hunter. I always figured it was tough enough to bag a trophy mulie with a rifle, much less trying to outwit one of those amazing animals with a string and a stick. But then it happened. Realizing the need for new tests, I decided to take on what is arguably the toughest bowhunting challenge in North America.
If I was going to have any chance of succeeding with my personal challenge, I thought the first step was to get top-notch archery equipment. Then, I had to practice shooting. The next step was to set a goal. I decided on a minimum gross score of 180 Pope & Young. I would have two hunts in which to accomplish that goal. The first would be in Colorado the last week of August, the second would be the first week of September in my home state of Wyoming.
Opening morning began as if I had scripted it. Within the first hour of glassing, I had a smoker buck located on the opposite side of the basin I was glassing. My hunting partner, Scott Mansor, and I figured the buck's typical frame had to be close to 190 P&Y; he had cheaters on both sides that pushed his outside spread to 35 inches.
Over the course of the next four days, I was able to put only two stalks on the buck that we were now referring to as "Billy." We had spotted him at an elevation of 12,700 feet, among mountain goats. I was 0-2 against Billy, but the bad news was I wasn't going to get a third chance. Our hunt was over and we needed to pack up and head home because we had an archery hunt planned in Wyoming. But during the hike out, I decided to forgo the Wyoming hunt and return for another chance at Billy.
After studying several maps at home, I decided to use a different trailhead on my return trip, which would provide me with better access to Billy's hideout. Four and a half hours later, I was perched up on a small rimrock at 12,000 feet. There was just enough room to set up my one-man tent. After getting camp somewhat organized, I made my way to the top of the ridge and began glassing for Billy. I glassed until dark, but never laid eyes on him.
At first light the next morning, I was picking the basin apart again, but still no sign of Billy. I had glassed for about a half hour when a blanket of fog rolled in. I continued glassing through the small openings of the fog, but still nothing. At 9 a.m. the fog lifted and I spotted a doe about half a mile away. There was another deer standing behind the doe and it appeared to have a large body. I set up the spotting scope and sure enough, it was Billy. I watched the deer until they fed out of sight before beginning my descent into the basin. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the small ravine Billy was previously in, he was gone. I was now 0-3.
About an hour before dark I decided to head back to the top of the ridge and glass the basin where I was camped. I spotted several deer feeding about one mile to the south. There were four bucks and two does. I watched them through the spotting scope; two were good bucks. One of them had a huge typical frame with a few extras and great mass. I watched them until dark and hiked back to camp.
As I stood outside of my tent brushing my teeth, I noticed an ominous thunder and lightning storm heading my way. I knew I was not going to be having any fun once the storm hit. I ducked into my tent and prayed that I would not be struck by lightning. Over the course of the next hour, the flashes of light were unreal. It was flat scary. I have been through a lot of lightning storms, but never in the open at that elevation. I felt helpless. Just before every clash of thunder, I could feel the intense wind sweep over my tent as if it were trying to rip it off the small rim rock cliff. The storm was now directly over me. Even with my sleeping bag over my eyes, the intense light from the lightning bolts could still be seen. It was probably the longest hour of my life.
After failing to locate Billy the next morning, I figured I had better make my way over and look for the other bucks I had spotted the previous evening. The good news was the bucks were still up feeding in the same location. The bad news was they were in a spot that I thought would be impossible to stalk. That thought had no sooner crossed my mind when I glassed two other bowhunters down in the bottom of the valley start their way up toward the bucks.
I figured it was going to take them at least four hours to get into position. As I watched the bucks bed down in a couple of small willow patches, I realized I could make things work to my advantage. Odds were, I figured, the hunters were going to blow their stalk. If I could position myself in the right spot, I might be lucky enough to benefit from their misfortune. I sat and studied the hillside and tried to figure what escape routes the bucks might take. There were several small rim rock cliffs that ran from south. I figured the bucks would follow one; it was just a matter of which one. I decided the cliff that began just below and to the north of where the bucks were bedded was the most logical escape route. As I continued to glass the hillside, I picked out a small cluster of trees that were 30 yards below the rim rock. It would provide me with just enough cover, yet it was far enough away that I wouldn't interfere with the other hunters' stalk.
By 10 a.m., the others were two hours into their stalk. I decided to begin my hike toward my predetermined spot. Two hours later, I arrived. Once there, I glassed two of the bedded bucks. I was still a quarter of a mile away and they had no idea I was there. I assessed the situation and my surroundings. I began range finding several landmarks. I would either have a 30-yard shot angling uphill, or a 60-yard shot straight downhill.
At 1 p.m., the two bowhunters finally had their elevation gained and began side hilling toward the bucks. They were moving very slowly and were continually glassing new country as it came into view. They had one thing going against them though, they came in a little low and the wind was angling uphill. The bucks had them pegged before the hunters ever had a chance. I watched as all of the bucks became nervous; I knew that something was about to happen.
Once the first buck decided to take off, they were all gone. The other hunters hit the deck, but it was too late. The deer were scattering in different directions with the big, heavy buck and a doe heading toward me. I became so focused on the buck, I didn't even notice when the doe peeled off and went a different direction. All I knew was that there was a hell of a buck coming my way and I had only a little time to prepare.
Occasionally, the buck would stop and look back at the other two hunters. Every time he would stop, I worried that he was going to change directions, but he just kept coming. When the buck was about 80 yards out, he needed to decide whether he was going to go below the trees I was hiding behind, or above them; he chose the high route. I was going to have a 30-yard shot.
At 50 yards, the buck had to drop into a deep ravine. I drew my bow. When the buck exited the ravine, he was only 35 yards out and that is when it happened. He winded me! I picked a spot and released. Everything felt good with my shot, but in one continuous motion, the buck managed to put on the brakes and did a complete 180 as my arrow arced toward him. Unfortunately, I hit the buck low, grazing the right front leg. I was sick as I watched the buck head straight downhill and disappear out of sight.
I knew it wasn't a fatal shot, but I gave the buck a half hour to settle down before pursuing him. I kept following the buck's tracks and what blood I could find as he headed lower on the mountain and to the south. I continued to track him until just before dark without getting another shot. I was near the bottom of the large basin and had a long hike back to my camp. Once back at my tent, I began breaking camp and loading it in my pack. I figured I would move my camp down into the head of the basin.
The next morning, I was sitting on the opposite side of the basin where I had last seen the buck. After an hour of glassing with no sign of him, I decided to hike over to where I stopped tracking him the night before. Once there, I began following the buck's tracks as they zigzagged back and forth among the small rock ledges. There wasn't very much blood, and at times, I found myself having to crawl on my hands and knees just trying to find a drop.
As I made my way across one of the rock ledges, I caught a glimpse of the buck going through one of the last small patches of timber on the ridge. He was entering the large sea of willows, which covered the entire bottom of the huge basin. Once in the willows, he totally disappeared. I had to figure out how in the world I was going to find him.
End of the Trail
I circled around to the other side of the basin and dropped into the willows above the point where I saw the buck enter. I began to slowly zigzag back and forth. After twenty minutes of wading through the chest high willows, I caught a glimpse of the buck's antlers heading down toward the creek in the bottom. He didn't come out on the opposite side, so I figured he probably bedded near the creek. The wind was in my favor and with the thick willows, there was no way he was going to see me until I was well within bow range. As long as I could do the stalk quietly, I liked my chances.
I began moving toward the buck as slowly as I could. As I neared the bottom of the creek, I began to wonder if the buck had slipped out on me. There was a small knoll between the creek and me. As I slowly peeked over the crest of the hill, I was relieved to see several antler tips sticking up out above the waist-high willows. The buck was bedded, but little did he know that his large antlers protruding above the willows had given him away.
There was really no need to range the buck, but I had my rangefinder in my right hand so I decided to range the antlers anyway; seven yards. Looking back on it, I am amazed the buck didn't hear me push the button on the rangefinder.
I slowly drew the bow and once at full draw, all I could see was antlers. I intentionally made a small noise with my right foot that I figured would get the buck to stand up. It worked. He immediately jumped to his feet and as soon as he did, I let the arrow fly. It not only hit home - it hit hard and went all of the way through him. The buck leaped across the creek and came to rest in the small willows on the opposite side. It was over. I can't even begin to describe the emotions I was feeling. Nine days, 64 miles hiked and 26,000 feet in total elevation climbed. I had my first high country buck with a bow. As I approached the buck, his antlers seemed to get larger. His antlers had an outside spread of 28 inches and six-inch bases. The typical frame scored 190 4/8 and had 10 1/8 inches of extras, for a total score of 200 5/8 Pope & Young.
The transition from rifle hunting to bowhunting was a great learning experience for me. It has helped me become a more patient hunter, which has always been one of my weaknesses. Because you have to be so patient, it is amazing how much you learn watching the same deer for several days, waiting for the right moment. I will say this, after nine days of bowhunting these truly amazing animals, I walked away from this hunt with a newfound respect for my favorite animal - the mule deer.
Bow: Mathews Switchback XT
Arrows: Easton FMJ 400
Sight: Spot-Hogg Hogg-It Hunter
Broadheads: G5 Montec
String: Winner's Choice
Binoculars & Spotting Scope: Swarovski
Clothing: Sitka Gear
Boots: Danner & Kenetrek