August/September 2013 EHJ (Issue 138) - Robert Rath III works as a Placer County trapper, so to say he’s an outdoorsman and hunter might be an understatement. Rath started deer hunting at age 12 and has been hunting the Granite Chief Wilderness in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada range for 23 years. The area is steep and rugged, ranging from 6,000 feet in the drainages to 9,000 feet at the granite peaks.
Opening day of the general rifle season in the Placer County portion of zone D-4 arrived cool and dry per usual for late September in California’s high country. About a half-hour after legal shooting light one of Rath’s longtime family friends, Skip Houser, shot and killed a young forkhorn. Rath, along with his father and Lynn Shalley helped Houser get the buck back to camp.
During this time, Vince Houser, Skip’s son, was driving to camp to hunt the following day. Instead of driving straight to camp he decided to hunt his favorite finger ridge while there was still an hour of legal daylight. While glassing the alders and dark timber below Hauser saw a good 3x3 and immediately reached for his rangefinder. While doing so, he saw another buck walk out of the timber right behind the first, and even at that distance Hauser didn’t even have to glass the beast to know that it was the largest rack he had ever seen in California! He rested his 7mm Mag. on a boulder and touched one off. The buck jumped and disappeared into the timber.
With daylight fading fast and Houser not prepared with his normal gear on such a spur-of-the-moment hunt he decided to go into camp and get Rath. When he arrived the rest of the group was finishing a supper of fresh liver and onions. Hauser told them the story of his recent encounter and they decided to look for the buck in the morning.
Dawn arrived and Rath, Hauser, and Houser’s father went out to search for the buck, about four miles from camp. They positioned the elder Hauser high at a rimrock stand about 300 yards to the south where the buck was last seen. The younger Houser told Rath to climb high several hundred yards to the north of where the buck might be. Hauser slowly worked below into the dark timber and looked for sign.
Three hours passed... no sign...no blood. Houser radioed Rath that he hadn’t seen hide or hair of the trophy and was going to ease on out toward Rath. He took a few steps out of the timber into the open oak brush when he caught movement about 400 yards above him. With binoculars raised, Hauser could finally make out that it was the same buck that he’d shot at the evening before. The buck was crouched low and sneaking out to the north on a bench, pausing behind every clump of brush.
With hand gestures Houser made sure that Rath knew that he’d seen the buck. Rath, who was on a rock ledge almost vertically above the beast was closer to the buck, about 100 yards, but still couldn’t see him. Houser was frustrated because the sly, mature, buck wasn’t offering a clear shot and was heading farther downrange.
Rath scrambled toward the ledge to get a better view of the bench, then eased to the north in the direction that Houser pointed in an attempt to head off the summer-coated cervid. He stopped at the end of the ledge about 300 yards from the buck where he could see the entire bench below. He waited. And waited... and waited... no sign of the buck.
Thirty minutes passed. Rath decided to backtrack while still-hunting/glassing. His high country bowhunting experience may have helped as he carefully peered over obstacles to glass the bench below. As he crept, he eased down closer to within 40 yards of the bench.
Methodically, he tried to pick apart the bench using his binoculars. Finally, about 150 yards into the backtrack, he caught sight of a brownish black tail about 40 yards below in the shade of a fir pocket. The deer was bedded and the rest of its body was hidden behind brush and branch. The wind was still in Rath’s favor... game on!
It was approaching noon. Rath crawled around trying to find an opening. Finally he saw a big fork well above what was the buck’s head.
Rath said, "At that point I felt like I was bowhunting a mulie in Nevada.”
He began looking for hair on a shoulder through the fir branches and found some through a tiny hole. At that distance he was confident that if the bullet deflected he’d get a second shot. He rested his Winchester Model 70 on a rock, peered through the Leupold scope, positioned the crosshairs, and pressured the trigger. A handloaded 168-grain Berger bullet sizzled through the air, piercing the dark timber.
"He flopped over and rolled several times down the hill and disappeared in the brush,” recalled Rath. "It wasn’t until I got within 10 yards of him that I realized it had to be Vince’s buck. But when I looked him over he only had one bullet hole in him. It was overwhelming but I kept my emotions to myself because I realized how disappointed Vince was going to be. To his credit he took the news graciously though, and was just as excited as if he’d taken the buck himself.”
The Rath buck was estimated to be eight-and-a-half years old and about 180 pounds on the hoof. It officially grossed 185-2/8-inches and has been entered into the California Records of Big Game.