Idaho, 2009, Guided
I have been told that hunting is primarily recreation. I suppose that’s true, because whether we hunt for meat or for antlers, if we are unsuccessful, life goes on. If we are successful, though, it is cause for celebration! Late in the afternoon on October 28, 2009, I had cause. I had just taken the buck of my dreams after decades of searching.
I have been trophy hunting mule deer since 1983 and have learned many lessons over the years; some lessons were learned more than once. Big bucks are especially good teachers when the hunter is pursuing them with a primitive weapon. Whatever the weapon choice, there is some great recreation and adventure to be had between moments of frustration while hunting mature mule deer.
Each time I was successful taking a mature mule deer the antler size goal magically went up, so the last few years I have been lusting after one of those rare world-class bucks, the kind of buck with long massive main beams, freakishly long points and an outside spread over 30 inches - truly a rare animal even in the best antler-growing areas.
My main obstacle in attaining this goal was finding one of those rare, freakishly large-racked bucks before I got too interested in the intriguing antlers of a lesser buck. I wasn’t just hunting with over-the-counter tags, either. I have had more than my share of quality controlled hunt tags for mule deer, including a Unit 54 third season tag in Colorado, an Area 128 tag in Wyoming, and two Idaho Super Tags, all in the last five seasons. With each tag I took a nice buck - two in the 180 class - but never an exceptional buck. Even with the help of my hunting partners I just couldn’t seem to pass up gnarly mature bucks long enough to find and kill one of those rare world-class freaks.
After the 2008 season I was thinking seriously about my options for taking an exceptional mule deer. The only truly world-class animal I had ever taken was a 187 B&C bighorn sheep that I killed under the tutelage of outfitter Jon Barker. Jon is extremely quality conscious and tries to provide a great overall experience. This was the only outfitted hunt I had ever booked in the 36 years I had been hunting.
I knew I needed more than just another great tag; I needed professional help and Jon was it. He has an outfitter mule deer tag, which he combines with a fully guided hunt and lots of pre-season scouting. On top of all that, the area had a large fire recently, which with favorable weather tends to push an area toward the upper end of its potential. In January of 2009 I was able to secure the tag, so I had the professional help I hoped would make the difference.
Much of my joy of hunting is in the quest of reaching the goal, so my brotherin- law, Bret, and I went for a four-day backpacking/scouting trip in August to a remote part of the unit. Bret is always up for a rigorous hike and loves glassing for wildlife. We especially love finding and watching big mule deer bucks. On the three-day hike, we spotted a dozen or more bucks, one of which was significantly better than the others.
The day before the season opened, while Jon and his guides had their hands full with elk hunters, Bret and I hiked back into where we had scouted. We made our way in the dark, with snowflakes swirling in the light of our headlamps. In the following days, we had temperatures as low as 18 degrees with light winds, which is cold for that early in October.
Bret and I glassed and hiked for most of the five days. We saw fewer bucks than we had in August and couldn’t find the big one we were looking for. One of the high points of the trip was when Jon’s packer arrived with supplies. After eating freeze-dried meals and granola bars for three days, his barbequed chicken was the best we had ever had. We hiked out on October 13 and talked to him about when I should come back for the guided time I had booked.
His plan was to hunt the last part of the season with me, so I went hunting on another great Idaho tag I had (the Super Tag I had drawn) and got back to his camp on the evening of the October 27. The question of where to go hunting the next day was an easy one for him. There were two good bucks seen in the same area by his guides during other hunts they had just finished guiding in the unit.
On the morning of October 28, we went out looking for one of those bucks. We each went down separate ridges to cover the partly timbered area as best we could. It was a cold clear morning in the low 20s, which made glassing very effective. I had seen one small buck and some elk. Then, while glassing a distance ridge, I noticed a big deer back in a side canyon. I immediately tore off my day pack and pulled out my spotting scope. What I saw in my spotting scope is what every trophy mule deer hunter dreams of seeing. It was a huge, heavy-racked buck that was very interested in one of the does near him. His rack was wide, high, and heavy, with a great front end. He was one of the three best bucks I had ever seen alive in my life. I was torn between watching this great buck and taking down the spotting scope, but I had a bunch of distance to close to get into reasonable rifle range.
By the time I got over to where the buck had been, he had followed the does into the nearby timber, so Jon and I discussed our options. The plan was simple. Rather than go into the timber and risk spooking the deer, we just set up and watched the area where we had last seen the great buck, hoping he would show back up later in the day. It was 11 a.m.
Even though I had put on all the extra clothes in my pack, the immobility of waiting accentuated the cold. Every little breeze bit into my waning warmth. As the hours passed, it was necessary to flex and relax and re-flex major muscle groups to stay warm.
Then, at 2 p.m., we noticed movement in the timber. A smaller buck, which looked like an ear-wide three-point, was pursuing some does. Where did he come from? Were those the same does that had been with the big buck? Had the big buck slipped away through the timber unseen? The occasional glimpses of deer activity in the timber was a welcome diversion from the cold. Those younger bucks can make such a nuisance of themselves before they learn proper rutting etiquette.
At 3 p.m. I looked back across the canyon. There he was! He had had enough of the younger buck messing with his favorite doe and had come out of the timber to assert himself.
In the previous hours, I had ranged every tree and rock on the opposite hillside. He was at 280 yards. I put my binoculars down, rested my rifle on the spotting scope tripod, and waited for him to turn broadside. “This is almost the exact shot I made six days earlier on another buck at 290 yards,” I thought to myself.
Having recently made that shot gave me all the confidence I needed. When the crosshairs settled down tight behind the shoulder and just below the line of the back, my finger made contact with the trigger. At the shot, he lunged forward and slid down into the bottom of the draw he was in. I put an insurance shot into his massive chest as he lay on the ground.
I couldn’t believe I had finally done it. I wasn’t sure I actually had done it. I just sat there with the scope on him for the better part of a minute while what had just happened started to sink in. Jon let me get to him first. Wow; what a buck! Walking up on a world-class animal like that was truly a high point, or the high point, in a hunter’s life.
Hunting big mulies isn’t just recreation; it’s an all consuming passion that occupies at least part of every day of the year. Maybe I need professional help of another kind, but for now I’ll just revel in this success.
For those of us who care about numbers, this buck is almost 31 inches wide without any cheaters, and has a net typical main frame of 193 inches without any eyeguards. With the non-typical points, the gross score is over 220 B&C. What a buck!