December/January 2012 EHJ (Issue 128) - Dawn…its amber edge and pink puffy clouds, advanced on the eastern horizon. Bob Schnee and I slipped quietly down an old abandoned jeep trail that led to a hidden arroyo. The cries of a solitary coyote cut the brisk morning breeze and subtle dry grass aroma of the high prairie. Providing light for our approach, the harvest moon faded into a dark sky over the snow capped Spanish Peaks to the west. Hopefully, a big mule deer buck was still here.
The river bottoms south and west of us held good concentrations of deer. Mature bucks were joining herds of does in the alfalfa fields. Finding the great buck we were seeking would be a challenge, as he might be in the river bottom country on neighboring lands.
There had been a few spotting’s of this wary old buck around the arroyo - two months prior, while inspecting active windmills, and again while hunting pronghorn antelope. Sensing human activity, this massive buck disappeared – with good reason; he potentially carried a 220-inch frame.
The arroyo was capped to the south and west by scattered dark green junipers. Small patches of reddish-brown brush, amidst acres of dried out dead grass, and pale green cholla cactus filled its bottom and sides. Orange rays of sunlight exposed the arroyo, as daylight broke across the eastern horizon. After scanning the brush with binoculars for five minutes and seeing nothing, temptation was to move to a large patch of junipers that hid a windmill water site and a small brushy meadow - this was the last place the great deer had been seen. Instinct whispered, "Stick to the disciplines of glassing, you can’t glass enough!”
The focus changed to the open prairie. One mile away, on the southern horizon, a lone pronghorn antelope stood. Below him, 300 yards closer, the gray body of a deer became visible in the middle of a cactus flat. The spotting scope revealed a five-point buck with short tines. The old monarch lived with three other bucks, so we needed to examine this area closely.
Two other deer were discovered nearby - a small four-point and a heavy horned, massive bodied buck. At 1,400 yards, there was no hiding the rack this brute possessed. The spotting scope showed at least eight points on one side, and six on the other - his deepest forks looked to be twenty inches long. This deer was not a thirty-inch wide trophy that many mule deer hunters seek, but guessing him at 26 inches, with extra tines, deep forks and kickers, Bob and I agreed, "He was a stud!”
As predicted, the bucks bedded an hour after daybreak, but in the open prairie, not the junipers as anticipated. These resting deer lay facing into the western wind, providing a great opportunity, as they were vulnerable to an eastern approach.
Bob placed a great value on hunting this buck by the laws of fair chase, fooling the animal in his element, and accepting the risk of failure if he spooked the buck before getting the shot. Normally, as a guide, I would insist upon being with the hunter and directing the hunt - this hunt was different. Putting aside personal desires, Bob’s best chance would be to go alone. My job would be spotting from a mile away. Any mistake, and chances at the incredible buck would end.
At 10:30 a.m., after waiting to gain the advantage of the day’s heat and predictable winds, we headed three miles south for a pasture southeast of the arroyo - strategy and hunting experiences filled our conversations. The deer were almost two miles to the northwest, and would not see Bob’s approach. Advice upon parting was, "You have all day, don’t rush it,” "you have all day.”
Four hours passed as Bob patiently closed the distance. At noon, while concealed by a small ridge and with Bob still a half mile away, the deer stood and grazed for forty minutes, bedding 200 yards to the west in the cholla. This time, they faced three directions, except east. The nearly three foot tall cactus hid the bucks from Bob’s approach.
Prairie winds shifted briefly, gusting straight out of the north, forcing me to relocate. Luckily, the wind shifted back to blowing out of the west and the deer calmed. Bob’s only concern with the wind was a nonexistent eastern wind, and that the steady breeze help him stay cool on a warm day. At 400 yards, Bob had reached a landmark where the real hunt would begin - this lone bush provided cover, where he could scan the arroyo.
After signaling back and forth, he began a slow and cautious stalk along the arroyo’s rim, toward the concealed and resting bucks. Staying low to the ground and moving a few yards at a time, Bob would stop, look for the deer, and check my reactions.
At 3:00 p.m., the small four-point stood, looking to the east and the approaching hunter. Bob, now within 125 yards, stopped as instructed. Neither hunter nor hunted were visible to each other, due to the many cholla cactus. The medium-sized five point stood as well, and these two bucks "buddied” up and fed to the west - the big boy never budged.
Bob became concerned when he saw the two feeding deer minus the great buck. The last of three signal’s given on this hunt was to move closer. Hopefully, his majesty would be visible once he cleared a small rise that could interfere with the shot. Forty-five minutes passed and Bob crawled within sixty-five yards of the bedded giant. Occasionally, an antler tip revealed itself, as the buck turned his head, but the chollas concealed the buck exceptionally well. The four-point returned, touched noses with the bedded giant, and lay next to him, unaware of lurking danger.
Twenty minutes passed and the fourpoint walked back to his feeding friend. Now 4:15 p.m., the giant buck began to fidget. Still, he remained bedded. From a distance, it looked like he wanted to get up, but to him, something didn’t feel right. The other two bucks, fed 100 yards to his west. Ten minutes passed and I wondered, "Did he know of the Bob’s presence?” How do these great bucks just seem to sense danger?
Compounding matters, a fourth buck appeared close to me. This nice three point, moved toward me, laying down forty-six yards from my observation post. Startling this deer could spook the trophy buck that Bob was after, so now he was truly on his own.
Finally, at 4:45 p.m., the great buck shifted again and stood, looking directly to the cholla patch that Bob was hiding in. Several intense minutes of scanning passed, then the monarch made his move. Bob, still waiting for a shot, could see the gray and white mask of the buck’s face, his classic roman nose, a massive swollen neck, and enormous antlers. Walking into the open grass, he displayed the stiff legged walk of a rutting buck.
Aching from the stalk, and the hours of sitting, Bob prepared for the shot - eighty yards from glory. Later that night, he would pluck souvenirs of prickly pear and cholla cactus, while reflecting on the day. Turning to the north, the buck stopped, presenting a quartering shot.
Suddenly jumping, the great deer kicked his rear legs, and took off running. A second later the report of Bob’s rifle filled the arroyo. The buck ran fifty yards, turned, took two wavering steps, and dropped - the living chapter on a great monarch had closed.
This deer possessed a rack unlike any I’d seen before - nine points on one side and seven on the other. There were two kickers coming off the backside we had not seen, and he carried a devil’s tine split eye-guard. The main forks measured 22 inches and 18 inches tall. He later would rough score 225-1/8.
Once reunited, Bob and I shared a handshake, a hug, and a few humbling moments. Though excited, we were tired. That special feeling of a successful hunt of a magnificent animal, amidst the beauty of the land, the crispness of an autumn evening, a stunning sunset followed by the rise of the harvest moon, left us feeling speechless. A common value of gratitude was expressed, fortunate to have shared this experience together.
Bob paid his final respects to the buck, by dressing him in the field, and assisting with skinning and caping. Bob insisted that every ounce of meat would be utilized with his family and friends.
This hunt had it all. From sunrise to sunset, it was a near perfect day. A mentally and physically challenging hunt to outwit one of natures grand animals in his habitat, and being successful at the challenge of stalking such a giant deer. The values of knowing we hunted by the rules of fair chase, and the humbling bond that happens when a guide and client are presented with a special animal. It’s hunts like this that keep me wanting to come back as a guide. No two hunts are the same, but on this one, patience and persistence earned a great trophy, and an even better hunt.