How Practice Almost Didn't Pay Off

By David Dukat
Arizona, 2009, Guided, Public Land

How practice almost didn't pay offWe slipped into the area where we had last seen the buck, moving left to right through the junipers, trying to spot him before he spotted us. Suddenly, Trevor froze and I knew he had found him. I was just a couple of yards behind him, but directly behind a thick juniper and couldn’t see a thing. Trevor whispered he was right in front of us 80 yards out, staring him down. I eased a bullet into the chamber and inched out to have a look…

As with most hunts, this adventure started long before opening day. Although the apex of the adventure was unfolding before my eyes, the most important part was many hours and days before.

Hunting is a strong tradition in my family and hunting deer in my home state of Nebraska is an annual event. Just out of college, I took a nice mule deer in Wyoming with my uncle and he encouraged me to apply for moose and sheep tags if I wanted a true adventure. As luck would have it, I drew a moose tag the following year. I took a nice Shiras bull and began attending national hunting conventions the next year. These are great places to understand the hunting potential the world has to offer. Although I didn’t book any hunts for many years, I began to expand my horizons.

Nearly ten years after drawing that moose tag, a friend of mine bought a package for three at an auction for tag application assistance and he offered me one of the packages. I accepted, and it was there that I learned about the top trophy producing units in the western U.S. I did my best to take advantage of the services and soon found an excellent elk tag in the mail. That was nearly six years ago, but the main thing I learned through the process was that if you want to take a great animal, you need to hunt where they’re found. Record books and drawing odds are a great indication of where to start, and, of course, Eastman’s now dedicates a section of each magazine to this research.

That led to drawing a mule deer tag in the famed Strip of northern Arizona. It goes without saying that this is one of the most coveted tags in the country for mule deer fanatics. Although I had many preference points, I didn’t have maximum points, so luck must have been with me.

This is where my experience with hunting conventions, tag applications, and research really began to pay off. When I began applying for premium tags, I made myself a promise that if I drew a tag and didn’t have time to scout, I would hire an outfitter. I did just that.

Personally, when I hire an outfitter, I don’t care if he has a nice camp with my own room and bathroom or if the food is comparable to the finest restaurants. I want someone who has done his homework and knows the area I’m hunting. I want him to have a plan and a backup plan and a backup for that backup. He should know every nook and cranny and where the trophies are at all times of year. Most guys who are good at the outfitting business aren’t in it for the money. It’s just a big part of who they are.

How practice almost didnt make perfect

The next thing about quality outfitters is that they tend to book up in a hurry. You need to have them found before you draw the tag. When I drew the tag in Arizona, I found out about it on my way home from work. The draw, results were posted that afternoon and a friend called as soon as they were online. He checked my draw status and my next phone call was to the outfitter. I chose Arizona outfitter Clay Bundy, who lives and breathes the Arizona Strip, and when the draw results were posted that Friday, he was booked by Sunday. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for researching outfitters, so do your research before the draw and keep their number handy when the results are posted.

The next step in preparedness directly involves you. Outfitters’ biggest complaint is that hunters aren’t prepared when they arrive. Preparedness can mean many things, but most important is being in shape and knowing your gun, bow, or muzzleloader intimately, and your capabilities with it. There are many unknowns, so the more you do to prepare, the better your odds are of taking that trophy of a lifetime.

This leads us back to where I left off earlier. I had been shooting my rifle for months before drawing the tag, so I thought I was prepared in that aspect. I try to stay in decent shape year round, but step it up before a physical hunt to assure I’m as ready as possible.

It was day one of the hunt and Clay and his guides (Trevor in my case) spread us out in areas where he knew there were trophy bucks living. We didn’t spot any good bucks that morning, but headed out again after lunch. We climbed a large knob and began glassing, getting some help from a couple of friends, Dan Hunsaker and Steve Richards, from a different angle.

A couple hours into the hunt, Dan and Steve spotted a good buck, so we decided to go in for a closer look. After diving off the peak, ascending a steep grade, and crossing numerous ten-footdeep ravines, we finally got into the area where the deer was holed up.

As I stepped around the small juniper behind Trevor, the buck spooked and went bouncing away from us – not the encounter I was hoping for. Amazingly enough, though, he stopped more than once. I had been practicing with my shooting sticks from both sitting and standing positions throughout the summer, so I felt reasonably confident in my shot in this situation.

My preferred shot would have been sitting, but when I dropped down and prepared for the shot, I could only see the buck’s antlers. Trevor slid the tripod over to use and I could now see the buck. Once Trevor confirmed the buck was of the size we were looking for, I fired.

To my dismay, I missed the shot, but again luck was with me when he stayed put. I adjusted and squeezed the trigger, and this time sealed his fate. I was still dumbfounded about my missed first shot, but being able to approach such a tremendous trophy has a way of easing the mind.

It wasn’t until a week later on my annual trip to Nebraska that I realized what I had done. When I headed off the top of the knob, I had turned my scope down just in case we jumped the buck in close proximity. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to turn it back up. The ballistic reticle only works accurately if the scope is at a specific power, and those thousands of shots and all of the practice throughout the year were nearly all for naught, thanks to a poor memory.

Despite that one failing, this event further proves that the more work you do to prepare, the better your chances will be of taking that trophy of a lifetime when the opportunity arises. I spent months preparing for the hunt, but it still took some luck to take this trophy buck. You can never be too prepared and it takes more than just drawing the tag to take a trophy. The buck is an awesome typical that gross scored 190 with an outside width right at 30 inches.

How practice almost didnt make perfect