A Second Chance

By Zach Shetler

Eastmans' Bowhunting JournalZach Shetler
Idaho, 2009, DIY, Public Land

Scouting trips in early August for trophy mule deer in Idaho are hot, long, and most of the time, less than exciting. That is until you finally find that ONE that you have been looking for.

My cousin John and I were set up glassing an area where I had seen and taken pictures of a big four-point and a small non-typical the year before. Just a few mornings prior, through an early morning haze, I had watched what I thought to be a big-framed deer disappear over a ridge that we were now only a few hundred yards from.

I was taking pictures of some owls that were hovering over us, obviously annoyed by our presence, when John exploded into a fullon wrestling match with the spotting scope. John could probably be described best as “highly excited”. When the dust settled, and with his eye permanently glued to the spotting scope, he said, “That’s the biggest non-typical I have ever seen!”

After a few seconds of glassing him, I realized that he was the “small” non-typical that we had seen so many times last year. His narrow frame and huge G-4s were dead giveaways. John was still not convinced and didn’t think the deer could have grown that much in one year. I have to admit that it was a stretch, but I managed to get a few pictures of the buck before he slipped away. Later that night we downloaded the pictures and compared them to last year’s pictures. They confirmed that it was the same buck. However, this year he grew deeper backs, had more and longer extras, huge eyeguards, and was a lot heavier! I couldn’t wait to see what he would like after he shed his velvet.

The next month was spent with many unsuccessful scouting trips to that area. The buck seemed to have vanished. Experience told me that this was likely not the case, but that he was just lying in good cover during daylight hours. I stuck to it, watching the same area as much as I could, which my wife Jamie will tell you was almost every day. Without her support I would never have the success that I have in the field. Being gone days on end and coming home tired, worn out, and with an armload of sweaty clothes has to test her patience to the fullest, but she knows that I find a peace in the outdoors I can’t find anywhere else. Needless to say, she has been the source of most of the good things in my life.

Two weeks into the season, just as it was getting light enough to see, I found the buck as he walked into his bedding area. I waited nervously for the light to get better so I could find him lying down. Twenty minutes later, I found about six inches of his back tine sticking out of the brush.

A Second Chance

After giving it a good hard look through the spotting scope, I decided that the buck, now out of velvet, was still very thin antlered. I thought to myself that they always look bigger in the velvet. I’ve been fooled many times in the past thinking I’ve found a big boy, only to find them later minus the velvet looking very mediocre.

I decided that I would try to stalk in on him to take a picture, just for fun. A little “sock stalking” practice never hurts anyway. An hour later, I found myself 45 yards away and within sight of the tip of one antler. As I leaned up with my small digital camera stretched out in front of me, the buck snapped his head and looked at me, exposing his full set of headgear. That’s when I realized I had made a huge mistake - a 220-plus mistake! The buck was heavy and beautiful, and as he bounced away I realized that the thin back tine I thought I saw was just bladed out and I had the wrong angle. By the way, I never took a single picture.

That night I told my wife the story and she just shook her head laughing. “You did what?” she asked.

“I didn’t think he was that big until he got up,” I said.

She promptly reminded me that there was a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about it and that I should probably take advantage of every opportunity. I didn’t have much of a comeback for that. I also had to take a lot of “I told you so’s” from my cousin John, now victorious in his assessment of the buck in the velvet. I needed to make a second chance happen!

I returned to the area each of the next two days, but couldn’t locate the buck. It came as no surprise after blowing him out, so I decided to go back to the area that he liked in the velvet. I never got inside his comfort zone there, so I thought it would be a good bet.

A Second Chance

By 4:30 the next morning, I was following the blue light of my headlamp, stopping only to check my heading on the GPS. “Bed #1” marked the spot I set over a month ago. I wanted to get to a small ridge 200 yards from the beds and I wanted to get there before the sun started coming up. I made it to the spot ten minutes before light and I felt that I had done so quietly.

Only seconds after getting my binoculars set up on the tripod, I saw a white rump of a deer standing right in the beds. It was too dark to see anything else, so I waited. As the light crept into my binoculars, the bodies of three deer started taking shape. It was the nontypical and two smaller bucks we had seen in the area. Soon the deer bedded and I started planning my stalk. There was a big sagebrush that looked to be in bow range of the bucks. Getting there would be the goal.

I left my pack, took off my boots, and was off. I dropped into a small cut that led up to the beds and picked my way through the brush, stopping along the way to glass the buck. One step at a time I finally made it to a big sage I had picked out earlier. I nocked an arrow and got ready for a possible long wait for the buck to get up. To my surprise, when I leaned up to range the brush behind him, the buck was up and pawing at his bed. My heart started pounding! It felt like I was 12 years old again, sneaking up on my first deer with a bow and arrow. The feeling never goes away.

I quickly ranged the buck at 42 yards, then came to full draw behind the big sage and started slowly leaning out. The buck was quartering now, so I found the opposite leg in my sights, settled in, and released. The buck kicked his hind legs and was instantly out of sight! I jumped up to look for him and caught him running for just a few seconds before he went out of sight again. The other two bucks took a few bounces and stopped, just watching the other buck run off.

A half-hour later I tracked a great blood trail to one of the coolest bucks I have ever seen. I just sat there holding his black antlers in my hands thankful to have experienced what just happened.

Mule deer have a special place in my heart; there is nothing more majestic than a mature mulie, in my opinion. How they beat the odds year after year, especially on public land in general season hunts is a testament to their skills as survivors. For me as a bowhunter, they are the ultimate challenge and successful hunts are most often earned, not given. That’s what keeps me coming back. That’s why I love it.