August/September 2011 EHJ (Issue 126) - The odds were stacked against us. The country looked desolate and uninhabited. In fact, during a quick pre-scouting trip to the area, my mom said, "This is where you’re hunting? I don’t think there’s any deer here…but if there is one, you guys will find it.” Little did we know that those words would come back to haunt us and lead us to the thrill of a lifetime.
The archery and muzzleloader deer seasons had come and gone, and it was down to the Utah rifle hunt, all or nothing. My dad and I had been hunting southern Utah for about five years, and we had come to know the rollercoaster of excitement and heartache that comes with hunting in such barren and dusty land. Although we knew there were plenty of places to find a deer, we were always dreaming of finding that once-in-a-lifetime buck. That dream is what brought us, year after year, to some of the most deserted and isolated country the state has to offer.
We went days and years without getting a shot at one of those dreamy giants. Dad and I were relentless, though, and it was hard to get us discouraged. We kept coming back, trying some new places, but mainly sticking to the spots that we felt were capable of holding a big buck. We knew that my mom was partially right - that there were, in fact, not very many deer down in the low country - but we also knew that if we saw even one buck, it could be a very good one.
This year was a little different than before. I was busy at work and didn’t even get out during the archery or muzzleloader hunts. It was all I could think about and our planning started coming together as we did some research. It was typical canyon country, with some isolated pockets of cedars and thick brush surrounded by apparent wasteland. We figured it was worth a try, and we went "all in.” We were either going to hit pay dirt or spend five days in some of the most barren, albeit beautiful, landscape in all creation.
Because I was busy with work in southern Utah, my dad drove up from central Arizona a few days before opening day of the rifle hunt. This was basically all the time we had to scout this new area. In three days, Dad found some goodsized tracks and also some doe tracks, as well as a couple of spots where the deer were watering. He said that even though he hadn’t seen one deer while scouting, something very large was making huge tracks in the sand and that these big tracks were worth hunting, so I headed over on the eve of opening day.
It was drizzling when we woke up, but we didn’t let it bring us down. It only made the trip into our hunting area more difficult. We got to a high point as day broke, and were perturbed to see another group of hunters in the area. "They must know that buck is in here too!” we thought.
We skirted around the other hunters and walked farther down the ridge. It started raining harder now, so we took shelter under some cedars to wait it out.
As the rain subsided, Dad and I split up and kept working the ridge. He found a set of big tracks that might have been fresh before the rainstorm. I got on those tracks and decided I was going to follow them to the bitter end. Either I would find the buck or at least find out where he was headed for the day.
I followed the tracks through three more rainstorms, two valleys and over one other mesa. I tracked him through cedars and sagebrush, grass, sand, mud and rocks. Six hours later, with the scent of wet sage and desert rain in the air, I found myself still wondering if these tracks were fresh. The only indicators were the fresh-looking droppings, which also could have been deceiving given the recent rain.
I had already looped around and crossed my own path three times and knew that the buck had done this buttonhooking on purpose. I continued on the track, circling stands of cliff rose, and I could picture the buck munching on this "deer candy” earlier in the day. I was nearly dizzy from the circling and meandering from drenched bed to drenched bed.
As I rounded a cedar tree, I came across a fresh bed. I knew it was fresh because the ground was dry and it was raining! The buck had outsmarted me by watching his own tracks from uphill! There was no question now as to whether those tracks bursting out of the bed were fresh. The buck was right here, right now! My blood pressure and heart rate both began to skyrocket.
It was obvious to me that the buck was running when he left the bed; sets of four deep hoofprints all together every five yards told the tale. I moved quickly up the ridge and found myself in a sort of bowl at the head of a canyon. There were 30-foot cliffs above me as I stood silent on top of a series of benches heading into the canyon to my right. I noticed that the deer had run along the base of these cliffs and would not be able to climb to the top after he had entered this geographic bowl. I decided to take the high ground and get to the top of the cliffs, where I would be able to see across the canyon.
I reached the rimrock and was about a quarter of the way around the bowl when I spotted the buck. He was bedded down directly across the canyon from me, looking my way. His entire body was in full view, as was mine to him - no cedar branch, no cliff rose, not even a blade of grass stood between us to help block the view. The buck and I had both gone into the "invisible” mode.
I picked him up in my binoculars and it wasn’t one of those times when you ask yourself, "Is he big?” No, I looked at this buck for about half a second and the decision was made. I took the time to open my bipod and get into a prone position. When I looked at the buck through my scope, he hadn’t moved, so I quickly ranged him at 137 yards. I took the shot and the buck ran over the ridge. I saw something flash through the bushes where he had disappeared and I could only hope that was him going down!
Meanwhile, my dad heard the shot and was headed my way. By the time he found me stretched out on the rimrock and staring through my scope, I had stopped shaking, but I still didn’t know if I had hit the buck. While my dad kept an eye on the bush, I advanced and found the buck lying right where I had left him! I told my dad, "You better get over here quick! He is BIG!”
As I walked up to the buck, I could tell he was deep-forked and heavy-beamed. I was pleasantly surprised to get my hands around this perfect four-point with four small cheaters on his right side. We must have sat there in awe of this magnificent creature for an hour, for that was the time to reflect and give thanks. We realized that we could have carried out that same game plan hundreds of times, only to come up empty-handed.
Most hunters would agree with me that it’s quality time spent with family and friends in God’s creation that makes the hunt enjoyable. The thrill of getting a bonus like this buck makes it truly memorable. This is what it’s all about. We had finally harvested the buck of a lifetime, maybe even two lifetimes. Through the years, all of the time we had dedicated to studying and observing mule deer had paid off.
By the way, we hunted the rest of the season and never saw another deer. My mom was right when she said, "…if there’s one deer here, you guys will find it.” That’s all we needed to find; just one.