March/April 2012 EBJ (Issue 70) - Being careful not to expose too much of my silhouette, I peeked over the ridge and began to survey the aspen draw below. As I lifted my binoculars to my eyes, I caught movement to my left. There, not 50 yards away was the unmistakable outline of a huge velvet rack. There was no need to use my binoculars to confirm what I saw…this was a huge buck.
I quickly dropped out of sight by taking a knee. I felt like a quarterback in the huddle trying to call a game-winning play. It was fourth down and the game was on the line…the play had to be perfect. Thoughts were buzzing through my head. Do I stalk closer? Do I use my rangefinder? When should I draw? I knew that all the decisions I made in the next minute would make or break a chance of a lifetime.
"Calm down,” I told myself. I removed my pack and slowly crawled eight to 10 yards closer. I carefully did a pushup to peek over the rise. Again I spotted the buck’s antlers as he fed from my left to right. I raised my rangefinder and tried to hit an aspen tree that was in front of the deer. After several misses due to a shaky right hand, I had my yardage…41 yards. A smile came to my face. This was the yardage I shot in my backyard all summer. As the buck slowly fed between two aspens, my window of opportunity opened, but with two quick steps it slammed shut.
The buck was content to eat a bush that concealed his head from view. I looked in the direction the deer was heading and the maze of aspens became tighter and tighter. I knew I had to make a move now. I slowly took two steps to my left that would help open up a shooting lane. The first was a success, the second a disaster. I hit what I have nicknamed "rattlesnake weed.” When you step on this weed it will scare the living daylights out of you and any wildlife within 200 yards.
The sound hit the buck’s ears instantaneously. The buck locked in on me like a dog on point. I have a saying I often use, "to kill a trophy mule deer with a bow you only need everything to go right.” I just broke my own cardinal rule. If I was going to kill this buck, I needed some serious luck.
This hunt didn’t start off with a golden ticket. "Successful” was not the word of choice on my draw notifications. Luckily we have a great back-up plan. In fact, Brent, Jayme, Eric and I have used this back-up plan 17 times in the last 20 years. The area we hunt isn’t known for its numbers of deer or its trophy potential, the competition is minimal, and the sunsets are unforgettable. If you hike far enough into any area, there is a good chance a few bucks have lived long enough to reach trophy status.
Our hunting trip consists of three legs: the drive, a wheeler ride, and a hike. The drive isn’t bad, it’s long enough to get you pumped up about the upcoming adventure, and just long enough on the way home to wipe you out. A four-hour drive from Salt Lake knocks out the majority of the drive. A short trip from there and we are unloading the four wheelers for a torturous two-hour ride. This is the only part of the trip I dread. This is where one careless move can ruin a trip. The final leg of the trip is the hike. This is not a normal backpack hunt where you live out of your backpack changing locations daily. We have a camp that we have used for years. When we reach camp the pack is retired until the trip out. The heavy loads and steep mountains remind us each year of our fading youth. After battling the mountain for two or three hours, we reach our camp. The feeling of dropping your pack is hard to describe. It not only symbolizes that you’re still healthy enough to make the voyage, but also kicks off the beginning of another hunt.
After setting up camp and fetching water, we were off. Our expectations for this hunt were high, maybe too high. For two years straight, we learned the patterns of a couple of great bucks. Although we’ve had several close calls, we were never able to close the deal. We were hoping this year we would finally figure them out. The first two days were spent hunting our normal spots, but we quickly learned that things had changed. With near record precipitation, the vegetation was thick and water was everywhere. One by one we would return to camp with similar stories…very few deer.
On day three Jayme and I headed down the mountain hoping to find an elevation the deer preferred. It wasn’t long before we were running into bucks. Jayme was a small branch away from closing the deal on a great looking 170- class buck. My luck was also changing. On the way back to camp I spotted a 150- class buck. After glassing the area around the buck for 30 minutes, I could only find one other small buck. I decided to stalk the pair to make sure there weren’t a few more bucks hidden in the shadows. An hour later I was 38 yards away from the larger buck. Unfortunately, these two deer were alone. The fact that I was seeing bucks and that I just completed a successful stalk rekindled my spirits.
The next morning found all four of us, with headlamps on, heading down the mountain to hunt the lower elevation. One by one we peeled off the trail and headed into the aspens. As hunters departed, I’d give them the good-luck nod. I went a little lower than the others. When I entered the woods I stopped briefly to tap my lucky charm wrapped on my bow. My three girls, Brook, Maya and Gabby made me a good-luck charm consisting of three brightly colored pipe cleaners. They told me if I took it with me it would bring me good luck. I wrapped it around the top of my riser. Just above the charm is a sticker from a golf company, Black Clover. It says ”Live lucky.” I tapped the pipe cleaners three times and said, "Girls give me some luck.”
I finally reached the canyon or small draw that I wanted to hunt. I couldn’t help but think it looked perfect. It had big mature aspens, good visibility and with plenty of rolling hills to conceal my approach. As I started to glass, I spotted the buck mentioned in the beginning of this story. After a short stalk, I was at full draw and this is when I hit the rattlesnake weed. I was caught at full draw with no shot opportunity. I had been in this situation many times in the past and none of them have worked out well.
I had a million thoughts running through my head, most of them negative. As the minutes rolled by fatigue was taking its toll. I tried to stay positive, "The wind is right and he never saw me move, I probably look like a stump,” I thought to myself. Although I knew better, with no cover behind me, I am sure I looked more like a hunter at full draw. My physical abilities and adrenaline were nearly tapped out. Just as I was making one more deal with the Lord above, the buck looked the other direction, shook his head and took two fatal steps. "Check your level, pick a spot, good release,” I told myself. The arrow was off and it felt perfect.
The buck exploded, running hard with a noticeable disability. When he reached 150 yards, he nearly disappeared because of the dense aspens. At last glimpse, it looked like the buck turned toward me and went down, but I wasn’t certain. I quickly bugled three times in a row, which is a signal to my hunting partners that we need to talk.
Within a half hour, Brent and I were slowly glassing and stalking the area where I thought I watched the buck go down. At a hundred yards, I noticed a branch that looked like an antler, but it was much too big to be an antler fork. But, we soon realized this was the buck and the celebration began. When I lifted the buck’s head, I was blown away by the size of this buck. My whole body was shaking. When you wait 20 years for a moment like this, it’s special.
Brent and I packed up the meat and cape and headed for camp. At around 9:30 p.m. we made our grand entrance. Jayme checked out my bow trying to see if I was missing arrows. He overlooked the 196-inch antlers draped over my shoulders. I put the antlers next to the fire and everyone was speechless. These guys know how hard it is to close the deal in this area and I will remember that evening for the rest of my life. We had steaks cooked over the fire that would rival anything from Ruth’s Chris Steak House. We told stories about all near misses in the past and also a few about today’s success. A warm fire, excellent food, great friends and the firelight shining off the velvet rack, life was good.
A few days later, we broke camp and headed back. As I weaved through the aspens, I could feel the weight from my pack dig into my shoulders and a smile spread across my face. I thought about what had transpired over the previous few days and couldn’t have been happier. "To kill a trophy mule deer you only need everything to go right.” I guess I proved my theory wrong. Sometimes you just need to "Live Lucky.”