The One

By David Leavitt

David LeavittDavid Leavitt
Idaho, 2007, DIY, Public Land

When I first laid eyes on him, I knew he was the one. I was making a quick scan of the distant horizon with my binoculars; all I saw at first was a head and antlers sticking out of the yellow desert grass, sage, and lava rock which covered the ridge top. I came to a quick, jerking stop and did a "bino double-take." I scrambled to get my spotting scope focused on the fantastic buck.

On 45 power, I could make out the gray-white of his nose and face, along with antlers that had long, deep forks and carried their mass clear to the tips. The brilliant sheen on the buck - accented by the rising October sun at my back - was a spectacle I will never forget. I lost any interest in the other bucks on the hillside and stayed glued on that magnificent monarch for the next seven hours.

I was nine days into my hunt (two of them had been spent scouting) on an Idaho mule deer Super Tag. I had drawn the tag that summer. This tag allowed me to hunt any open unit in the state of Idaho for mule deer, and I almost drove myself crazy vacillating among the possibilities.

I was born and raised in Idaho, and vividly remember a deer hunt deep in the Owyhee Mountains as a newly licensed youngster with my family. I was lined out on top of what back then seemed like a very long ridge. I was told I could walk it straight back to camp. The excitement wore off quickly. By mid-morning I was bored, carrying my rifle over my shoulder and scuffing my feet as I stumbled down the ridge. Suddenly, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye in a little sagebrush-choked draw to my right. I turned and there, sneaking away, was the most magnificent buck any 12-year-old had ever laid eyes on.

The buck fever was immediate and intense. I pointed the little .30-30 I was carrying, firing blindly at the animal, forgetting any marksmanship skills I'd ever been taught or practiced. The first bullet hit rock two feet over the buck's back; the shattering shale kicked him into overdrive. I frantically worked the rifle's action and emptied every round from the magazine after the fleeing buck. I didn't touch a hair; in fact, I was surprised I hit Owyhee County - but a passion for mule deer hunting was born. During college, I spent time hunting the famed area of southeastern Idaho, and then returned to the southwest and central Idaho regions I had hunted for years.

I started hunting mule deer almost to the exclusion of other big game and worked at honing my skills by practice and reading every article and book about mule deer I could get my hands on. Over the years, I've taken a handful of great 180-class bucks. They included a beautiful, tall, 189 buck in central Idaho and a wide 183 buck out of Nevada. I really wanted something over 190, and that's what I set my sights on when I drew the Super Tag.

I studied the Idaho regulations and went through the booklet unit by unit more than I ever had before. I eventually settled on three great units to focus my efforts. Fortunately, I had great resources to turn to and a good knowledge of two of the units. I was already good acquaintances with a couple of Idaho Fish and Game conservation officers in my home town and I turned to them for information. They in turn networked me with other Fish and Game officers, who were a tremendous help.

I scouted intensely during August and September. Often I didn't see a lot of game, but just learning the topography was a huge head start. My two hunting partners, Walt Delbo and Don Larson - both of whom have taken Boone & Crockett mule deer - were of great help. They had intimate knowledge of one of the units, and I spent hours going over maps with them. I purposely picked units that would allow maximum hunting time, starting in October and extending well into the rut in November.

Walt, Don, and I had also drawn mule deer tags in Nevada, and had ten days set aside during early October for a high country hunt there. A crazy early snowstorm sent us reeling and Walt was the only one to tag out on the last day of our hunt. Back in Idaho, Walt headed out on a great draw tag elk hunt with his son. A couple of days later, Don headed back to Nevada for round two.

I had a lot of time to think about those things as I sat in my little rock nest, periodically checking through my spotting scope to see what my buck was doing. I was also trying to concoct a plan for a stalk - which seemed impossible because no fewer than forty deer were either feeding or bedded at any given time in the general vicinity of the big buck. Also, a large rimrock canyon gaped in front of me; the buck was on the opposite side.

I had seen a low 170-class buck and several does on the other side of the canyon, right at the edge of the rim. I glassed the small draws and depressions slowly and began to pick more deer out of the mildly sloping opposite hillside. Midway up the incline I spotted a nice 180s buck that really drew my attention. I got my spotting scope focused and studied him for several minutes as he slowly fed along broadside. I left my scope on him and picked my field glasses up, continuing to search the broken rock.

That's when I saw the big desert buck with those antlers sticking up in the air, and nothing but blue sky for a background. Once I had him pinpointed, I could actually see his headgear with my naked eye. I had ranged the closest buck across the canyon at just over 800 yards and, when I couldn't get a reading with my rangefinder on the bedded big buck, I roughly estimated him to be another 400 yards.

The big buck lay in his bed on his perch, occasionally turning his head, until 1:30 p.m. Suddenly, he rose to his feet. my heart sank, as I thought he would saunter over the hilltop and out of sight. The buck stood on the ridge top, fully outlined from head to toe, and I began to worry that some other hunter with keen eyes and a good set of glasses would spot him. Ten minutes and a 180-degree turn later, he settled back down in the exact same bed. That lasted for 30 minutes. He stood again and began to slowly feed down the mild sloping ridge which ran parallel to my position.

As the buck meandered down the ridge, I watched as he dropped his antlers and moved a couple of small, inferior two-points out of his way. That was when I noticed his thick neck and realized I was seeing the early part of the rut. I had resigned myself to watching the big four-point until dark, backing out and being in position before light the next morning. As the late afternoon wore on, I realized the deer between me and the big four-point were standing and turning to feed up the slope they occupied. I surmised if I could sneak to the opposite rim I could close in to a reasonable shooting distance. Using the broken rock columns and ledges as cover, I bailed off the canyon edge after I got one last final position on the buck.

After dropping a few hundred feet in elevation, I was completely out of sight of any prying eyes and was able to move quickly to the creek bottom. I fought through the thick riparian brush and began my slow, stealthy climb up a boulder field on the opposing canyon wall. When I finally poked my head over the rim of the canyon, I was relieved to discover the wind was still drifting into my face from the southwest as it had been all day.

What bothered me was I couldn't see a single deer. I began to scroll slowly up the slight slope and had almost completely revealed myself when I finally saw a doe next to the very spot where I had seen the big buck for the first time. I squatted down, knowing I hadn't been detected. I used the terrain to advance another 100 yards.

I concealed myself behind a large boulder and rose up. To my surprise, the 180-class buck was bedded 80 yards in front of me. He wasn't spooked; he was actually dozing. I searched hard for the big four-point, and after several minutes, I finally saw the unmistakable thick tips of the buck's rack as he walked and fed in a slight depression 200 yards away. I could see only his antlers and ears.

The buck close to me stood and began to feed, quartering toward me. I hunkered down and watched in amazement as the big buck I had my sights set on channeled his attention toward the180 buck. He began to make a slow, direct, steady approach. As he closed in, his gait got stiff and his big mule ears drooped low. His neck lengthened out and it became clear he was intent on bullying the smaller buck.

I slid my rifle into a perfect rest on top of my pack. At 70 yards, I put one bullet into the right shoulder of the big buck, dropping him in his tracks. That's when the shaking, reminiscent of my hunt years ago in the Owyhees, began.

The nice 180-buck stood bewildered and unable to figure out where the shot had come from. I regained my composure enough to retrieve my digital camera from my pack and snap a photo of him standing only yards from his fallen opponent.

The buck was fantastic; I could not have been any more pleased. I stared, took pictures, and savored the moment, wishing my good hunting buddy Walt might have been there to share it. The buck had a two-inch chunk missing out of his right side G-4 that probably would have been an impressive extra point. My trophy unofficially gross scored 201-1/8", with a great seven-inch extra inline point on his left side.

Being able to hunt anywhere in the state was quite an experience. Beyond that, taking this buck was the perfect ending to one of the greatest hunts of my life.

About the Author:
David, 42 years old, has been married to his wife, LeeAnn, for 16 years. They have two boys - Logan, 8, and Lucas, 5 - who both love the outdoors. David has been a police officer with the Boise, Idaho department for 11 years and is a sniper on the SWAT team. He is a native Idahoan and loves to hunt Idaho and all over the West. Trophy mule deer hunting is his passion, but a Dall Sheep hunt is a major goal for him.

Equipment:
Rifle: Winchester Model 70 .300 Winchester Magnum with Leupold Boone & Crockett VX-III.
Ammo: Federal 180-grain Nosler Partition.
Optics: Swarovski SLC 10x42 binoculars, Nikon 16-47x60 compact spotting scope, Leica LRF 800 rangefinder.
Pack: Eberlestock Gunslinger.
Boots: Meindl.
Knife: Buck.
Camo/clothing: Cabela's Open Country, REI Capilene base layer, Cabela's Dry Plus raingear.
Accessories: Canon PowerShot compact digital, Garmin Etrex Vista GPS, Stoney Point Pole Cat shooting sticks, REI tent, REI 700 fill power down sleeping bag.