South Dakota, 2009, DIY, Public Land
A cold, stiff, northwest wind was blowing in my face as I crawled through the short grass prairie. I was trying my best to dodge the prickly pear cactus and yucca plants in western South Dakota with only limited success. My goal was to get even a glimpse of a trophy mule deer.
The overwhelming vastness of the area I was hunting was incredible - some 23 miles of river bottom, including the confluence of the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche Rivers. As I glassed the landscape, I reminded myself of how fortunate I was to navigate the same spring-fed cedar and cottonwood draws and view the spectacular landscape from the same knife ridges that once were occupied by Plains Indians. This area is etched deep by history, and even to this day, tepee rings from an old Indian camp are still visible on a windswept point overlooking the river.
As I stared off into the distant river breaks pondering those days long since passed, a ghostly mule deer suddenly appeared in the shade of a cedar tree. The magnificent buck was as heavy-horned as any I had ever seen. I moved my spotting scope and the glass fell upon him. He had incredibly massive, wide, mahoganycolored antlers. As I admired them, I noticed his most remarkable feature was his huge eyeguards. In my 30 years of hunting this river drainage, I had seen hundreds of trophy mule deer, but never one with eyeguards like that. He was truly a special buck.
We watched each other at 250 yards for ten minutes before he decided I was no threat. It was as if he somehow knew rifle season wouldn’t open for another 30 days. Content that he was safe, he continued feeding and then gently and ever so slowly walked over the ridge.
Without question, he was the buck I wanted. However, the odds of finding him again in a month, amongst the jagged, twisted, cedar-choked breaks, would be slim.
Over the next several weeks I returned to the same spot, hoping to catch another glimpse of him, but he had seemingly vanished. Maybe he was just passing through on that crisp October morning. Maybe he wasn’t real at all; just a fantasy of this trophy hunter’s dreams.
Rifle season finally arrived, and I stoked the wood stove in my wall tent on the eve of opening day. I peered into the hot glowing coals and my thoughts drifted back to him standing under that cedar tree. This time the image in my mind was paired with crosshairs.
I unzipped my warm sleeping bag an hour before daylight and stepped out of the tent. In that frigid pre-dawn darkness, I noticed a heavy bank of fog had rolled into the river drainage overnight. Considering the limited visibility, my first thought was to not go where I had last seen the big buck. In fear of not being able to see him or of spooking him deeper into the steep cedar canyons of the river breaks, I decided to wait until the fog burned off.
In adjusting my plan, I thought my hunting partner, Tom, and I would head to a neighboring river drainage and hunt the same place where I took a beautiful 183 buck two years prior. During the next three hours, we spotted several nice bucks, but not the special trophy buck Tom had his heart set on. However, the longer we stayed and hunted, the more the fog was burning off. Maybe with a little luck we would soon be able to go look for the deer that had been occupying my thoughts.
For a full account of Gary's adventure, go to page 18 in the June/July 2010 issue of Eastmans' Hunting Journal.