September/October 2011 EBJ (Issue 67) - Mentally drained and physically exhausted, I sat there in disbelief. To say I was bummed would be a gross understatement! The swing of emotions in such a short span of time was simply unbelievable. Only moments earlier, Nate Simmons had the camera rolling and I had a huge rush of adrenaline as I was about to come to full draw on the unsuspecting buck, which was only 37 yards directly below me.
Instead of exchanging high-fives in celebration of our great accomplishment, we now both found ourselves sitting there, not saying a single word, as we watched the buck scoot across the basin in what looked like some sort of an attempt to break a land speed record. Seconds later, the only remaining signs of the buck were the small clouds of dust he left in his wake. It was just another typical day of hunting high country mulies.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time archery hunting mulies in the backcountry has undoubtedly felt the same wide range of emotions I was feeling at that moment. One minute you are high on an unbelievable adrenaline rush, the next you feel as if you just watched your favorite dog get run over by a truck! But honestly, it is these same extreme highs and lows that keep archery hunters coming back for more, year after year; it is addicting.
As the small clouds of dust disappeared, it would have been real easy to sit there and feel sorry for myself, but I learned a long time ago that you simply need to suck it up and get your head back in the game, so that’s exactly what I did.
I immediately began glassing and within ten minutes of blowing the previous stalk, I had three bucks located on the opposite side of the basin. One in particular had my full attention. As I zoomed the spotting scope in, I soon forgot about the previous buck. As a matter of fact, after getting a good look, I was now glad that it had not worked out. This buck was much larger, had an outside spread of 30 inches and was very tall. I turned to Nate and said, "Game on.”
After making our way back across the basin, we were approaching the small ravine where we had first spotted the bucks feeding. As I peeked over the edge, I could see two bucks, but not the big guy. We were in bow range and the wind was unsteady; therefore, we needed to move closer and close the deal as soon as possible.
What happened next I remember as if it only happened yesterday. It was the sound of hooves hitting rocks as the three bucks busted out of the drainage and came to a stop 200 yards away. The buck turned his head and looked back, and as I sat and looked at the buck’s magnificent velvet-covered rack, I knew my hunt had just taken a turn in a very different direction. It was at that moment I decided I was going to put my tag on that particular buck or go home emptyhanded. Little did I know at that time exactly how long that would take.
The next morning we came across the three bucks before the sun was even up as they were headed over the top of an extremely steep face that led into the adjacent basin. For the life of me, this didn’t make any sense. There was no reason these bucks should have been going where they were going at that time of morning.
We never saw the bucks for the remainder of the day, or the day after that. Something didn’t add up. Then it dawned on me; when we first spotted the bucks on the second day of the season, they were most likely pushed into that basin by hunters on opening day. When we came across them early that morning, they were in fact heading back to the drainage they actually had originally come from. Now that we had that little piece of information sorted out, it was time to break camp and head for the other drainage, where I was now confident we would find the bucks.
Early afternoon found us looking into the new basin. It only took about five minutes of glassing and we located the three bucks bedded under a large cliff, which provided them with a great view of the basin below. Indeed, this was the basin they called home. The good news was we now knew where they would go if we were to bump them.
That afternoon I blew stalk number two and confirmed our thoughts. The bucks went into the next basin where we first spotted them. We played cat and mouse with them for several days, but only got within bow range of the buck on one other occasion before he seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet. Our hunt ended in disappointment, but we did learn enough about the buck’s habits that we felt we had a great chance of putting a tag on him the following season.
The next summer I was extremely busy with work and only had time enough to make one scouting trip into the basin. Although I saw a few decent bucks, I never laid eyes on the large 30-incher. Even though I never saw him, I had a good feeling he had survived the hunting season and winter. If indeed he had, I felt I knew more about him than the he knew about himself. I knew where he ate, drank and slept and I really liked my chances the second time around if he was still alive.
The day before the opener, my cameraman – this time, Aaron Mills - and I strapped on our packs and hit the trail. Several hours later, we sat down to take a rest, grab a bite to eat and put the binos on the hillside where I last saw the buck almost a year ago. As if it was meant to be, within 100 yards of that exact spot, there he was! He was standing in front of a large boulder, looking down into the basin. I turned to Mills and said, "Game on.”
Just knowing the buck was still alive made the two-hour climb to our campsite much easier. Normally, this extremely vertical climb is a real killer, but this time I had a grin from ear to ear all the way to the top. Once camp was setup, we made ourselves comfortable and watched the bucks feed until dark. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
After only two hours of sleep and running every possible stalk scenario through my mind, it was time to get up. I wasn’t the least bit tired though as we sat and watched the bucks up feeding at first light. They were feeding below a huge cliff and were gradually moving back toward their bedding area, located above the cliff in a group of small scrub pines. It would take them quite some time, allowing us ample time to complete the stalk, get set up just above their bedding area and then wait for them to arrive.
As we neared their bedding area, we picked out a spot just above an outcropping, which would give us several shooting lanes at the bucks as they climbed out of the rocks and into the scrub pines where they normally bedded. Now it was time to wait - and wait we did. The morning hours were now gone and it was approaching noon. I finally leaned over and told Mills, "If they aren’t here by now, they aren’t coming.”
That meant one thing – they had decided to bed below the cliffs. This was not a bad thing. I knew exactly where they bedded below the cliffs and it would be a relatively easy stalk to get above them.
The first part of the stalk was extremely slow. There was a bunch of loose rock and one wrong step could send a rock tumbling. Finally, we reached the scrub pines located just above the cliff. Footing was much quieter and we soon were at cliff ’s edge looking down onto the bench. There were two sets of beds they normally used here; the first was on the outer edge of the bench in some small alpine willows, while the second was underneath a large overhang on the cliff. As we peeked over the edge, I could see the beds in the willows were empty. This meant the bucks were most likely under the overhang, which would require us to sit tight until they got up and fed away from the bench.
An hour passed; still no bucks. We had a steady uphill breeze, so patience was key at this point. We kept taking turns peeking over the edge, hoping to catch a glimpse of antlers. Then it happened; we heard rustling in the willows below us and to our right. One of the smaller bucks was up and feeding. My heart was beating out of my chest knowing that I might have an opportunity at a monster buck in only a few short moments. As I peeked to my left, there he was! He was feeding to my left alongside the other smaller buck. The angle was perfect, as he was slightly angling away from me with his head down feeding.
I signaled to Mills to start filming. The angle was steep, and with the rock outcroppings on the cliff, it was going to be a narrow shot window. A quick click of the rangefinder gave me a reading of 46 yards. I dialed my adjustable sight to 46 and slowly came to full draw. My pin found its mark and I released quickly.
The two bucks immediately disappeared to our left. The other buck to our right was alert and looking around in an attempt to figure out what all of the commotion was about. I honestly thought I had missed, so Mills and I hunkered down out of sight, hoping that we might get an additional opportunity.
After a minute, I slowly moved to my left in an attempt to locate the two bucks. As I peeked over the edge, they stood side by side 80 yards away, looking back. I noticed something didn’t seem right about the large buck. He was starting to wobble and he immediately bedded down. I hunkered back down and turned to Mills and said, "We got him! He just bedded down!”
Shortly after bedding down, the buck began rolling down the incline, signaling the official end of the hunt. The celebration immediately ensued.
While all of the bucks I have taken are special in their own way, this particular buck really meant a lot to me. Given the fact that we knew so much about this buck’s routine and habits, I felt a real personal connection with him. Persistence, patience, a positive attitude, and two long years of extremely hard work of patterning this buck had finally paid off.