July/August 2012 EBJ (Issue 72) - My heart pounded deafeningly as I scrambled across the marble-like scree. At just over 12,000 feet, my lungs gasped for air. I hurriedly climbed over the knife-edged peak. "Antlers! Massive antlers,” I said. My adrenalin-filled arms swiftly lifted my binoculars to my eyes, as I scanned the basin below. I couldn’t believe my eyes; both bucks were bedding in a stalkable spot.
After they settled in, I slowly eased off my sweat-soaked pack, slipped my boots off, and slid on another pair of wool socks. Slowly, I inched forward in the red zone, cognizant of my every move. At 25 yards, I sat motionless; afraid any movement on my part would be spotted. An hour passed like minutes, and then I saw velvet antler tips dancing above the pines. My body tensed in anticipation of the upcoming shot. I kept telling myself to focus and pick a spot. The smaller buck emerged first and fed directly toward me. At 15 yards, any small movement would send him and my target buck racing into the towering pines below. Suddenly, the big buck emerged, 30 yards below. He began feeding his way farther away from me. My patience was tested as I watched him slip over a small ridge, exposing only the tips of his massive, velvet-covered antlers.
My body ached from lying motionless on the unforgiving rocks beneath me. Yet, I remained still, determined. Another tense hour passed when the smaller buck made his way back to his cozy midday bed. Now it was only the big buck and me and the perpetual cat and mouse game that defines high-country mule deer hunting. His massive antlers bobbed as he quickly moved back to his bed. This was my chance. I slowly eased back my bow. He was 50 yards away and moving at a brisk walk.
Will he stop? Should I whistle? I wondered.
Then, in the blink of an eye, I made my decision. Don’t shoot, be patient. I slowly let my bow back down.
Since 2007, except for one year, I have made the annual voyage to western Colorado in pursuit of high-country mule deer. For many years, my heart has burned deep with the desire to fulfill my dream of holding a set of velvet antlers. A dream achieved deep in the vast wilderness, hunting solo. However, countless hours, numerous dollars, a lifetime of stories, and three blown opportunities have netted me zero mule deer. Thus, many times I have wondered if this was ever meant to be. But despite my doubts, my desire still burns deep, and I have continued to chase my worthy high-country opponent.
To achieve this dream, I have endured much, like strenuous conditioning. In preparation, I ran the Bighorn Mountain 50 miler as a way to mentally and physically prepare for the high country. I’ve also undertaken seemingly endless days of shooting arrows and the disappearance of thousands of dollars over the years. All of this while my wife was at home seven months pregnant and chasing our two-year-old daughter. This has defined my life for the past four years. This is not simply a passion, but rather an obsession. It’s a drive that bowhunters harbor. It drives us and leads us to new heights. With enough hard work and persistence, any dream now seems achievable.
I arrived at my unit several days prior to the opener. Plan A was to hike into the west side of the unit and scout. If things didn’t look promising, I would hike out and then hike back into the east side and spend the remainder of my time there. As fate would have it, the deer sightings on the west side were minimal, and so, with a night’s rest in town and a normal meal, I headed up the winding, dusty, aspen-lined mountain road, prepared for the quest ahead. Strapped in the pack on my back was ten days worth of supplies. As I pushed forward up the quiet, steep wilderness trail, I once again wondered if this were meant to be?
That Friday evening, my excitement mounted, I caught a glimpse of a buck. Even from over a mile away he looked extremely wide and tall. I knew I was getting closer to my dream. I could picture the velvet antlers in my grasp! Needless to say, I went to bed that evening and slept fitfully with thoughts of that buck and the adventure that lay ahead. Boom! Crack! Suddenly thunder and lighting exploded all around me, lighting up the oil- like darkness outside. In the high country, lighting is my biggest fear. Little did I know, but this storm was a precursor of the storms that would haunt me everyday. My quest was to become even more challenging.
Saturday morning awoke clear but with a heavy blanket of frost. I slung on my pack and my legs burned as I trudged upward, once again in pursuit. After settling into my glassing spot, my warm sweat gave way to a shivering across my body. Finally, the warmth of the sun warmed my back as I scanned the basin below. Suddenly, antlers filled my binoculars. Two very respectable bucks and one enormous buck fed several hundred feet below me. The biggest buck of the three carried the widest spread I have ever seen on a mule deer. I watched in amazement as they effortlessly worked their way up and over a saddle protected by two jagged mountain peaks. Once they vanished over the saddle, I hurriedly packed up and loped my way across the verdant basin in hopes of finding this enormous deer again.
I crawled over the rocky ridge top, carefully glassing the terrain below as it appeared. To my delight, the three bucks came into view not more than 300 yards below me. I could tell by their movements that they were getting ready to bed. Fortunately, they only had a few bedding spots, all of which would present excellent stalking opportunities. I eased over the knife-edged ridge that separated the two basins, which provided me with an undetected approach to get within a hundred yards of my target buck. Once in position, I sat patiently, watching and waiting for them to bed in an approachable spot.
Bang! Crash! Without warning, boulders began raining down from above on the opposite side of the basin. The deer frantically scattered downhill into the safety of the thick pine forest several hundred feet below. As I sat there in disbelief over what had just occurred, a clap of thunder erupted in the western sky. I scrambled back to my one-man tent as the sky darkened and began spitting dime-sized pieces of hail. As the storm raged on, I slipped into my tent, dejected for the remainder of the day. My dream seemed farther away than ever.
Sunday began just as all the others; clear, crisp, and cool. Once again, I climbed up to my original glassing spot, attempting to harness my remaining energy and determination as I chased the elusive giant deer. However, I was unable to find the bucks from yesterday, so I headed north to glass up some new country. Almost instantly, I found the massive buck from yesterday, but this time he was with a new and much smaller buck than the day before. The sun was high in the sky when the bucks tucked themselves into the stunted pines. Calming my excitement, I forced myself to methodically plot my course, a plan that would get me within a hundred yards and perfectly above them.
At last, I got into position. As I did, I pleaded with the bowhunting gods to keep the wind true. The good news was now I knew the animals’ exact location. This knowledge allowed me to slowly ease another 15 yards closer and get tucked into the uphill side of the stunted pines that harbored my buck. The bad news was the sun was barely dodging the growing cloud cover, which would cause the wind to swirl quickly. However, I would not be daunted. I had come this far, and so I steeled myself for the many hours it might take while the rocks pushed into my knees and bootless feet.
The winds swirled, the skies darkened, and I despaired that at any moment, I would hear their hooves thundering down the mountainside, taking with them years worth of dreams. However, suddenly, the smaller buck emerged. At a mere ten yards, I felt as if he could hear my pounding heart. Fortunately, he fed away from me, giving me the opportunity to shoot undetected. My palms were sweaty and my mouth ran dry as his massive antlers loomed over the pines. The realization of my dream stood before me. The meaning of all those lonely miles, quiet nights, and empty time away from my young family would be defined in the next several minutes. I slowly stood and brought life to my bow limbs. The buck stepped out into the open basin. He stood motionless, completely unaware of the ominous danger 45 yards uphill. I felt oddly at ease as I settled my sight pin over his massive chest. As in practice, I let the arrow go.
The bow exploded, but in horror, my arrow sailed harmlessly over his back, smashing with a bang into the rocks below! I dropped to my knees like a heart shot duck.
My eyes darted upward, still in disbelief of missing this world-class animal. However, I could still see the tips of his antlers peering above the small ridge. Snapping myself from my despair, I nocked another arrow. Both bucks stared holes into the boulders below, looking for what had made that noise. The bigger buck began making his way up and out of the basin. He had two choices, either continue up and over behind me, putting him within 30 yards, or head several hundred yards down the basin to get around the 50-foot rimrock cliff spanning that distance. Luck was with me as the huge buck chose up and over!
As his antlers bobbed closer and closer, I concentrated my eyes on the upcoming shot. At 30 yards, all I could see was his rack, but from the position of his left G-2, I could tell he was looking opposite my direction. In one fluid motion, I stood and drew back my bow and released. My sleek arrow arched through the golden sun as it quickly sliced the air and then I saw it! My arrow impaling the broad chest of my buck! He slowly stumbled off, his tail twitching as he bedded within 150 yards of me.
The flood of emotion that engulfed me is unexplainable. I floated down the basin to my fallen buck as several bighorn sheep darted off. It all seemed surreal. Then I grabbed his velvet antlers in my hands. I quietly paused for several minutes to honor an animal I cherish and respect with the highest of regard. Then an urge overtook me and I yelled, "I did it!”
For years, I have thumbed through Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, envious of my fellow bowhunters, but today I have joined their rank! I pursued a dream, a worthy adversary, and persevered. The journey and its culmination tested me in most every way possible, and in the end, I proved worthy.
My buck is now honored in my living room on a worthy pedestal. He officially gross scored 201-2/8 and netted 183- 7/8. But beyond the numbers, beyond the praise and slaps on the back, this adventure has been a defining moment in my life, teaching me what I am made of and what I can accomplish. For years, I pursued the mighty mule deer, and in the end, out of that rocky ridge, I found myself.