Colorado, 2008, DIY, Public Land
"Thump, thump, thump." The loud, evenly spaced sounds were coming from directly behind me. I spun around and unslung my rifle in the same motion. A big buck had waited until I walked by and was now making his escape. I shouldered the rifle and got the fleeing buck in the scope at 30 yards. I instantly saw it was a mature buck nearly 30 inches wide and with long tines, but the mass was on the light side. I made a snap judgment that he was in the 180 class, and since it was opening day, I let him go. Five seconds later he was over a rise and out of sight. I wanted a better look, so I ran 100 yards to a vantage point. Like many other bucks have done to me, he somehow disappeared in wide open terrain. I tipped my hat to the cagey old buck and continued my hunt in the low barren hills.
Deer hunting around my home in Colorado has always been the highlight of my year. Opening day for me, at age 47, is still like Christmas morning for a seven-year-old kid. Part of the reason for that feeling is the deer. In late fall when they are fattened up, dressed in winter coats, and rutting with swollen necks and antlers stained almost black, the older bucks are an awe-inspiring sight. They are as smart and elusive as they are handsome. Hunting such magnificent bucks is the ultimate challenge for me and my friends.
The other reason the deer hunt is so special is because it's the biggest social event of the year. Friends from all over the country come to town. We call it the "Super Bowl of deer hunting," because it seems like all of the other big game hunts are merely training for the supremely important Colorado deer hunt. Everyone wants to win the bragging rights, but we all want the others to do well also.
We gather in the evenings to celebrate and discuss each day's hunt, but we all go our separate ways during the day. We learn from each other's successes and failures. As a result, each of us has an encyclopedic knowledge of the local hunting areas, tactics, and countless strategies - depending on variables like weather, timing, and hunting pressure.
Even with all of our knowledge and experience, we don't kill very many big bucks. The bucks usually win. Every big buck that we do bag is reverently appreciated.
Many hunters come to Colorado expecting to find huge bucks just standing around in the open. They are invariably disappointed. The deer have many advantages and the older bucks know every trick in the book.
The winter of 2007-2008 in the Colorado mountains was one for the record books. Unprecedented amounts of snow fell and stayed. Deer herds struggled for their lives over several months. The deer could hardly move and there was almost no available browse. When the snow finally melted, it was obvious that many deer didn't make it. Many older bucks succumbed.
This was on my mind before the 2008 season, but I figured at least a few good bucks were still out there. I thought that I could still get lucky if we got some snow. Weather has proven to be the most important factor for my success or failure in the past. A couple of days prior to the opener it had not snowed or rained in weeks and temperatures were 30 degrees above normal; conditions couldn't have been worse. There was hope though; snow was forecasted for the second day of the hunt.
On opening day, I decided to hunt extremely low. I hiked all day in the heat and dust, covering probably 15 miles of badlands. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for tracks. I found only one big buck track. I jumped the buck, which was the 180-class deer at the beginning of this story. Satisfied that the low country wasn't ready yet, I started hunting higher.
The forecasted storm did not come, either that day or the next. I kept checking the forecast at night. The storm was out West, producing heavy rain and snow. They kept saying it was coming, but kept postponing its arrival. The news made the first few fruitless days pass in a calm and serene waiting mode. It was now November 4, which for me has always been the date when it seems as if a switch is flipped and the pre-rut begins. That day was no exception. Early in the morning I spotted three big bucks squaring off and posturing like they were about to fight. They were a mile away. I hustled over, but they were gone when I got there.
When I went to bed that night it was raining in town. The next morning it was still raining but snowflakes were now mixed in. It was what I had been waiting for. I figured there would be plenty of snow at the higher elevations. Some hunters would look at the wet conditions and wait until the storm was over before going afield. Not me; I was practically jumping up and down with joy. I knew this would be the best chance I could have to tag a big buck.
I headed out of town at 4 a.m. with a smile on my face. An hour-and-a-half hike up a steep brushy slope put me where I needed to be. First light found me in prime deer habitat with forests of aspens and conifers interspersed with slopes of oakbrush and sage. There was 8-10 inches of fresh snow on the ground and the snow was still falling heavily. This hampered visibility, but not as badly as you might think.
I soon started seeing deer. The dark bodies were easy to detect with the white background, although it took extra time to determine if they were bucks or does. I saw a number of does, a couple of small bucks, and one heavy-antlered stud buck. The big boy was too far away for a quick approach and soon entered a vast timbered area, so I continued climbing the mountain. I was ecstatic that the snow had come and that I had a perfect day; plus, there were still two more days in the season. I knew something good would happen before the end of the season.
At noon, I reached a knob that provided a good spot from which to glass. It was still snowing hard. I was looking around for some heavy conifers to crawl under and eat my lunch, with plans to build a small fire. When I looked straight down, I noticed a small buck bedded in plain sight. I decided to thoroughly study the adjacent aspen forest.
My mind started racing when the first look through my binoculars showed what appeared to be part of a large antler. I pulled out a spotting scope for a closer look. It was part of an antler all right, and it looked big! It was part of a front fork, and it was apparent that it was no ordinary buck. Lunch and a fire were instantly forgotten as I weighed my options.
I tried to range the buck, but the falling snow prevented a clear reading. I was able to range a point at 227 yards that was not quite halfway there. The thought of sitting on that cold snowy knob all day while waiting for a chance to evaluate the buck and maybe take a questionable shot through thick cover at 500 yards didn't appeal to me at all. On the other hand, the thick, soft blanket of fresh snow and the gently falling flakes seemed like the ideal conditions for a stalk.
I picked a route and a landmark to head for and dropped into the forest. The slope was very steep and covered with fallen aspen logs that were jackstrawed in all directions. Stepping on a slick log under the snow would result in a certain fall. That might have been a hidden advantage because it forced me to go extremely slow and take great care with every step.
After an hour, I reached my landmark. From there, the buck should have been bedded directly in front of me, but so far I had seen nothing. I stood perfectly still and studied the snowy quakies and brush, moving only my eyes. About five minutes passed. Where was he? Had he detected me? Suddenly, my peripheral vision caught movement down to my right. I turned to look and saw the buck 40 yards away, walking and feeding. I got a good look at his rack, but only for two seconds before his head was completely hidden behind the trees. It was enough to know that I would not pass.
The buck stopped, hidden except for a part of his shoulder visible between two quakie trunks. I raised the rifle, settled the crosshairs, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle sounded like thunder in the close cover and falling snow. The buck ran straight forward into my view, collapsing and expiring after 30 yards.
A feeling of immense satisfaction came over me as I approached the fallen deer. The mature, exceptional buck was overwhelming in its size, character, balance, and sheer beauty. The stalk and moment of truth being up close and personal was the icing on the cake. This hunt would rank as one of the best ever. I spent the rest of the day leisurely caping and quartering my prize. The next day, two friends, David Gardoni and Rick Yraceburu, helped me backpack the buck out.
Back at home, the 9x8 rack measured just under 32 inches wide, with a 29-inch main frame spread. Mike Duplan scored him at 206-3/8 gross, with a 188-inch typical frame.
My buck was estimated to be seven years old and likely weighed over 300 pounds live weight. He also had an old scar on the bridge of his nose. He had fought hard for breeding rights in previous seasons. He had survived many hunting seasons and a horrific winter. This trophy will be honored, and never forgotten, for as long as I live.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill is 47 and has lived in Colorado all his life. He loves to hunt, fish, hike, camp, ride horses and mules, and just generally enjoy nature with his family. He is married to his lovely wife Christy and has two children, Jake, 13, and Natalie, 11. Bill's kids have received a hardcore education all of their lives and are now becoming equal partners in the backcountry.
Bill will receive a pair of Swarovski 10x42 SLC binoculars for his cover story. For details, see page 4.