Running the Gauntlet

By Jason Burns

Eastmans' Hunting JournalJason Burns
Wyoming 2008, DIY, Private Land

Growing up in Michigan, I’ve been chasing whitetails since I was quite young. The number of whitetail deer hunters in my home state is very high and the number of trophy deer is not. There are many reasons to hunt, and I’m not saying trophy hunting should be everyone’s priority, but I can tell you it sure beats the “if it’s brown, it’s down” mentality.

It only took one trip to Wyoming and I was hooked; I haven’t missed a year since ’95. It was about 12 years ago when I learned that we would no longer be able to hunt an area near Sheridan. The owner of the ranch we had been hunting had decided to retire and sell the ranch. I met the new owner, Walt, in ‘97 at the local tavern in a small town south of Sheridan. It took a few years of building trust and friendship, but he now allows me to bring up to five deer hunters each year and as many antelope hunters as I can find. This is more of a joke than reality but it’s his dry sense of humor that really makes it funny. I usually find myself laughing randomly weeks after the trip at some of his witty one-liners.

As usual, the night before opening day I tossed and turned throughout the night. The excitement of “walking the draws” in search of antlers seems to keep me up every year. There’s just something about the dry desert-like terrain and the smell of fresh sage that never gets old to a guy from Michigan. A few years ago, I grabbed a handful of sage and stuck it in a little bag for the ride home. Every now and then I open it just to bring back the memories.

The alarm was set for 5 a.m. but I turned if off ten minutes early. We hit the local gas station at 5:30 and ate a breakfast sandwich. We then grabbed a few sub sandwiches, chips, and a case of bottled water and hit the road. Our morning drive takes well over an hour and we wouldn’t be coming back into town until well after dark. I’m always equipped with a box of band aids and Chapstik for the troops since it seems every year someone forgets to break in their boots before the trip and they never think about the dry air.

I arrived at my favorite morning spot just before daybreak; perfect timing once again. I like to sit in the morning for the first few hours to scope out what I call “the Gauntlet.” On occasion, we catch a buck moving into this area first thing in the morning to bed for the day. The Gauntlet is a gnarly set of twisting and turning canyons carved from sandstone with one main ridge through the middle and about 15 cut draws that branch from it on both sides. The hike through it takes over 2-1/2 hours if you “do it right” and it’s treacherous the entire way. As you walk, you’ll find yourself balancing on crushed slip rock along steep grades and walking a few feet from a 50 or 100-foot cliff edge. It’s not a hike for those afraid of heights. And yes, you need to evaluate the climb out before you think about pulling the trigger.

Running the Gauntlet

Not many trees grow in the Gauntlet, but it’s loaded with sharp cliffs, cactus, Spanish bayonets, and scraggly sagebrush. Over the years, I’ve seen cattle in just about every part of the area that we hunt but I never see them in the Gauntlet. This is my favorite area but it’s not because of the number of deer I’ve taken out of here or the number of deer we see from year to year. I keep track from one year to the next and during the five days of hunting I have seen as many as 40 bucks and as few as 21.

It is my favorite spot because the three biggest deer that I’ve ever seen have been in this section of jagged cliff rocks. In 2007, I was lucky enough to harvest one of them - a 5x6 with a 30-inch spread and a gross score of 184. In other areas of the ranch, I tend to see mulie bucks in small bachelor groups or with a few does, but not here – if you’re lucky enough to see one, he’ll be alone.

We always see a variety of animals while hunting this ranch: coyotes, badgers, prairie dogs, bobcats, rattlesnakes, thousands of rabbits, and of course, cattle.

Thanks to the cactus and sharp rocks, we’ve trashed a few tires over the past 12 years. We’ve also managed to total a rental vehicle when we slipped off the two-track on a rainy day.

Although I spent time glassing this area each morning, I like to “save” it for the second or third day of the hunt. This allows it to become a safe haven for the big boys while we hunt around it in places like “The Long Draw,” “The Old Cabin Draw,” “The Grey Hills,” and “Antelope Basin.”

At 9 o’clock, we left the area to hunt the draws to the south and east. My friends, Scott Cowsill and John Beckwith, harvested two nice 4x4s before noon on the first day of the hunt. It was the first mulie for each of them and they were both very happy. Scott had taken this trip the year before and John two years before but both were unsuccessful. Now, I was the last in the group with a mulie tag, which is usually the case, so we turned our attention to pronghorns and hunted some of the rolling hills and basins on the ranch.

John harvested an antelope in the afternoon, and we decided to hit Old Cabin Draw at the end of the day. As you might imagine, there’s an old broken down homestead along the way in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There can’t be an existing home today within 20 miles and I have no idea how they traveled in and out of there on horseback as there are no roads near that cabin. Every time I see it, I have the same thought. “I wonder how many monster bucks have walked by this place over the past 75 years.”

Scott was still in pursuit of an antelope, so we decided to work the draw together. He took a finger draw to the east and we agreed to meet at the bottom in an hour and a half just before dark.

Ten minutes into it, I saw something in the distance. It was a nice buck, a shooter. He was on the move but just walking. I was on him quick and I know the rule, “He’ll give you one look.” I patiently waited for my chance. I saw him pause and look in my direction and I already had him in the scope with the crosshairs on his shoulder. I took a deep breath and slowly squeezed the trigger. To my surprise, he looked around for a second and bolted as if nothing touched him. Then he was out of sight, just like that.

I grabbed my rangefinder and realized I had misjudged the distance. Even after 12 years of hunting this area, I still missed it. In fact, I wasn’t even close. The bullet must have hit below the belly and I had missed a wallhanger. I searched the area for blood to make certain but found nothing. My best guess is he was a 5x5 with a score in the 160 range. For the next hour and a half, I replayed that scenario in my head over and over.

Running the Gauntlet

On morning two, I took my spot in the basin glassing the Gauntlet and was still stewing over the events from the night before. I didn’t see anything moving into the cliffs, so we opted to pursue antelope. Scott and I filled our tags within a few hours and I now had the only open tag left. It was time to hit the Gauntlet.

It was now 1 p.m. and it was hot - really hot - and as dry as a desert. I filled my pack with bottled water and a sandwich and then headed in. The guys said they’d pick me up at the bottom at around 4:00. Here I was again, like most other years, the last hunter in the group with a tag and standing on the top of the Gauntlet hoping to catch a glimpse of something special.

As I started down, I recalled the deer my friend Carl took out of here a few years ago. He took the shot at 4:30 and we finally got it out of there at 12:30 that night, and it took four of us to do it. That was one of the three biggest deer I’d ever seen.

I came up to the first overlook, a great spot to sit and glass the far wall to see if anything was bedded in the shade under the cliff rock. I’d seen a few here over the years but nothing today. I did, however, catch a white patch in the draw across the ridge in my binoculars. It took 20 minutes or so to work my way across the ridge while trying to stay out of sight.

I worked my way over to a group of rocks and peered over the top with my binoculars. Across the canyon, under the rim and sitting in the shade, was a nice 3x3. I think he was an older buck that may have had a better scoring rack in past years. The antlers were heavy and wide but lacked the typical mule deer Y-shaped G-2/G-3. Although a nice mature buck, I opted to move on. It was only day two.

The next two draws were a bit more jagged and the walk is a little tougher because it’s along the side of a steep ridge and the rocks below your feet are loose. But, the next draw is where I’d seen deer in past years so I was optimistic. I hit the top of the draw and sat down to glass and catch my breath for a few minutes. I looked under rimrock, into sagebrush, and near every little shady spot I could see, taking my time to look for the smallest feature of a deer.

After 20 minutes or so of glassing, I moved down to the last section of the Gauntlet. The heat was starting to get to me and I was down to my last half bottle of water. It was well past 4:30 but I wasn’t going to rush through the last section.

There’s a little cave near the bottom of the last draw and I stopped to take a look. My anticipation for the day’s hunt was winding down and I was beginning to think about day three and the areas that I’d hit tomorrow. The last draw curls off to the south and leads down to the twotrack where the guys would be waiting and it’d take another 30 minutes or so to get there. I looked back for just a minute and remembered that there was a small draw that curled off to the north, mainly made of wind and water carved sandstone. Not wanting the day to come to an end quite yet, I decided to head to the top of the ridge for a quick peek into that small draw. I wasn’t worried about the skyline as I was simply taking a quick peek.

As I came to the ridge top, I caught a flash of movement in the rocks. I saw flickers of something moving down that little draw but couldn’t tell what it was. He busted out of the bottom at full speed and I knew immediately he was a shooter. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing him here. I was at the end of the hunt; he was supposed to be up in the gnarly stuff that I had already passed.

Nonetheless, I shouldered my Ruger and tried to locate a lightning bolt in my scope. Thankfully, I’ve learned over the years to always keep my 4-12x scope powered down to 4x when hiking. Trying to find a moving animal in a scope jacked up to 10 or 12 power is not going to happen.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “What’s the distance? Is he going to stop and give me one look?” It didn’t appear that he was going to stop and he was increasing the distance fast.

Then, he slowed to a trot and stopped to look back at what had spooked him. I was already on him, and although I thought about it, I had no time to reach for my rangefinder. I knew this area and I guessed he was 250 yards away. After the shot, I ranged him at 274.

I can’t explain in words the feeling I had for the next few minutes. I sat down and looked through my binoculars for five minutes before taking one step toward the downed buck. Hot, sweaty and probably bordering on dehydration, I was in a world all to myself.