Up until this last spring I had been applying for a mule deer permit in Colorado for the better part of a decade. I guess my lucky number came up with the help of all those preference points because I had finally drawn a deer permit! I called a hardcore, die-hard hunting friend of mine named Jonah to inform him of my good fortune. Having spent a lot of time in the unit I had drawn, he graciously offered to go along with me on the hunt. I knew if anyone could help me harvest a super-sized mule deer it would be him.
A week of pre-season scouting proved to be worth its weight in gold. We began glassing for deer in the pre-dawn darkness on opening morning. A white rump would materialize in contrast against the dark mountainside. Then the deer would turn broadside and, like a magic act, it would disappear into thin air. As the light conditions grew to the point where we were able to start picking deer out of the sage, we found two of the three bucks we were looking for. Within a matter of minutes both were bedded down. Though they were three quarters of a mile apart from one another, they both bedded within 100 yards of a road. One bedded down out of sight in a thin line of pine trees that intersected a large open park while the other lay down right in the open sage brush.
As we discussed options for possible stalking routes we heard the distant sound of a four-wheeler. It was only the start of what was yet to come. By a half hour after legal shooting light there were hunters everywhere. Pickups, jeeps, four-wheelers you name it we saw it.
We decided our best option was to sit and watch the bucks and let them decide for us what our next move would be. Throughout the day, as we watched from a mile away, hunter after hunter passed by the two bucks and never had a clue they were there.
The buck that bedded in the open apparently had had enough action when the third vehicle drove past him. After it quieted down a little he stood up and slinked his way into a nearby stand of aspens.
At one point a white pickup stopped within 80 yards of the deer. Panic stricken, I watched in horror as the hunter got out and walked around his pickup, then began glassing. I knew the buck would not put up with that much commotion so close to him. Almost none of the hunters we'd observed were stopping to glass; when they did it was for only a quick glance. Amazingly, the deer simply froze like a statue. After a while he slowly lowered his head sideways, leaving one antler resting on the ground. Forty-five minutes later, the hunter drove away, completely unaware he was within yards of a very respectable mule deer.
It was obvious the bucks we observed were not spooked by the myriad of hunters scouring the countryside, so we decided to look for a deer we had seen only briefly the night before. We had only a fleeting glimpse of this particular buck before it had gotten too dark to see, but we thought he was better than any deer we had seen so far.
During that evening's hunt, a buck of the sort dreams are made of emerged from the timber. At over a mile away, the sight of him and those antlers would darn near take your breath away. His antlers were so out of proportion to his body, they looked unnatural. When the buck walked away from us, it looked as if his antlers grew out of the sides of his white rump and then curved up two feet over his back.
We spent the next three days trying to find the big bruiser, and when we did, we tried to figure out how to get close enough for a shot without spooking the seemingly countless other deer in the area we would have to wade through. We thought we would have only one chance. Being as all the other hunters in the area had completely overlooked him, we decided to wait and watch. We hoped that if we were patient enough the deer would eventually make a mistake.
I had brought my rattling horns, buck grunt, and doe bleat calls with me. I even went so far as to purchase an $8 bottle of 'doe-in-heat' scent with the hopes that if the buck roamed at night he would come across the scent and stick around until morning.
On the third evening of hunting season, Jonah stayed up on higher ground, armed with his spotting scope, hoping to locate the buck before the lengthening shadows turned into one and darkness enveloped the country. Meanwhile, I carefully walked down off the skyline and through the pines to the bottom of the ridge. I emptied most of the deer scent on one wilted aspen that was visible from the ridge line above. I thought to myself, if a buck was hanging around this tree in the morning it would be in a good location for a shot. I climbed back up the hill and started a rattling sequence. I waited 10 minutes, then rattled some more, all to no avail. At the very least we were hoping that curiosity would get the best of him.
With the inky darkness, if we didn't have the optics we did I doubt we would have been able to see him. But there he was, three quarters of a mile away. He was peering out of the trees with his ears purked up, looking our direction. Minutes later we were feeling the ground for our gear. We silently hiked up to the pickup without turning our headlamps on.
The next morning we found the buck had moved during the course of the night. He was following a handful of does as they made their way for higher country. I grabbed my rifle, shooting sticks, rattling horns and off I went, hoping for a shot, but it wasn't meant to be. I couldn't catch up with the buck and his does before they bedded in some thick cover for the day. We decided to be patient and wait for evening.
Since we wanted to make sure the buck didn't move during the day and keep track of his approximate location, we set up shop on a high rocky outcropping that allowed us a commanding view of the surroundings. Surprisingly enough, the time seemed to fly by as we waited for evening.
Things were looking perfect as the does came out of their bedding cover at 200 yards. Time seemed to stand still waiting for the buck to show himself. His sixth sense must have kicked in because he had circled around downwind of us. The next thing I knew he busted out of the trees well beyond the reach of my rifle, acting as if two hunters were trying to harvest him. The buck headed in the direction where I had been rattling. As hard as he was running, he looked as though he wasn't going to stop any time soon.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I was reflecting long and hard about the seven years I'd been applying for this permit, and how conservative we had been in our efforts to ensure a successful stalk. Now I was watching the buck of a lifetime disappear out of sight for the last time.
As we hiked in the dark back to the pickup, I decided to pursue one of the bucks we had found while scouting. I thought a fantastic deer was better than no deer, after all, there were only three days left of season and the buck of a lifetime had just run out of my dreams and wouldn't likely be seen again.
I don't know who was more disappointed when the buck blew out, Jonah or me. Jonah volunteered to come back in the morning to look for the monster we had been trying to get for the past four days.
When the sun came up the next morning, I was looking at one of the bucks we located during pre-season scouting. He was a heavy horned buck that would make even the most serious mule deer hunter take a second look. Like usual, he bedded in some sparse aspens in a perfect spot for a stalk.
I was thinking to myself, "I'm looking at a great buck almost anyone in their right mind would shoot on opening day, and he doesn't even compare to the brute of a mulie we'd been pursuing the past few days." Looking one last time at the buck, I said to him "It's your lucky day." Then I was off to meet with Jonah.
He was excited when I found him. "I've been watching him for a half hour and he's 80 yards from the tree you sprayed the doe scent on! We've got to move, he just stood up and he's feeding his way into the pines," he said. Leaving everything except my shooting sticks and rifle we began running down the canyon rim like a couple Olympic sprinters.
The rangefinder read 381 yards. I knew I could make the shot, but I wanted to get closer. As I dropped into the canyon, the lower I got the taller the trees became and ultimately blocked the view of the deer. He was already in the trees and we could only see bits and pieces of him. It was going to have to be a 50 yard shot or a long shot. We were both surprised the deer was up this late in the morning and I decided with the window of opportunity we had it was going to be a long shot.
Aiming for 400 yards, I squeezed the trigger. The deer exploded into the pines and disappeared.
"You took the hair off the top of his shoulders!"
I was numb with disappointment that I had just missed the largest deer I had ever seen. Instantly I realized I should have held for 350 with the down hill angle, coupled with the fact that he was 381 and not 400.
Then disappointment fluttered into hope as the deer appeared in a small shooting lane between two trees farther up the mountain. I wiggled into the shooting sticks and acquired a solid rest. I wasn't going to rush this one, and took a couple extra seconds to double check that everything was perfect. The brush and pine covered country dissolved the crack of the rifle. Instantly the deer vanished into the sage at the bottom of the scope! Peering through the scope I blinked once and then focused my attention on the one dark brown antler angling up above the sage brush.
Giddy with adrenaline, I looked up at Jonah, and we started a premature celebration of hooting and hollering! All of a sudden the deer was up and moving. A couple of follow up shots later and he was down for good.
When we reached the deer there weren't many words spoken at first. We just stood there speechless and admired the magnificent animal.
The buck's antlers are 34 inches wide and we unofficially gross scored him at 212 6/8'. I could hunt the rest of my days and never see a deer of this caliber again. I owe it all to my good friend Jonah and his never say die attitude.