Sunday, September 4, 2016

My First Mule Deer

As summer draws to a close and the air cools, it's hard not to think about the upcoming fall and what it brings. I find myself daydreaming of cold, crisp mornings and the smell of pine and sage. The anticipation of what the hunt may bring and the reward of the hard work it takes to climb mountains and hunt big game. I imagine myself "billy-goatin" up steep Idaho mountains and finding that secret, big buck hangout where there are so many large bucks, It's a tough choice which one to harvest. I also find myself remembering past hunts and their exciting moments.

The year 2013 was especially good to me, and I owe all of my success to the Von der Heide's, my (now) in-laws. I was a total rookie. The previous year, I nearly slept through my opportunity to shoot a decent whitetail deer. Luckily, I was awoken by my brother-in-law and was very fortunate to take this deer. But that's another story entirely. 

When the fall of 2013 rolled around, I could hardly wait for the general deer season to open. We had our season planned out; try for mule deer early and if we didn't succeed, go North for whitetails. Rick, my father-in-law, decided we would hunt an area where he had some success in the past.

Rick and I headed up to the mountain the evening of opening day. We parked my truck at the bottom of the ridge we planned to hike down the next day. I grabbed my gear and jumped into the truck with Rick and we continued on up to the top of the mountain where we would set up camp. I remember the tamaracks and aspens giving the hillsides a sense of warmth with their oranges and yellows. We found a suitable spot for camp, set up the tent and made dinner. We planned to be hiking down the ridge before light the next morning, so we would get to bed early this night.

The next morning, we found the woods covered in a thin layer of frost. It's always tough to dress for the day when you're hunting in the early fall. Freezing temperatures in the morning and warm afternoon temperatures make dressing yourself in the morning a pickle. Layers are the key, so I wore lots of them. We began our slow, methodical descent down the ridge. We tried to walk as quietly as possible, but the changing season had caused many plants to turn colors and drop their foliage, littering the woods with crunchy leaves. A stealthy approach would simply not exist today.

We decided to take a peak on the more open hillside to our East. We crunched our way through the brush and popped out near the open, where a crash and a couple thuds diverted our eyes to a fleeing doe. Our guns were up immediately in case a buck was with the doe. The doe appeared to be alone, so we worked our way back to the center of the ridge. We found a trail that made quiet walking easier. We noticed a more open area below us where we could now see approximately 200 yards. We slowed our pace to scan for deer. There! 150 yards below us I spotted the gray shape of a mule deer in the open. Rick and I immediately crouched a little, going into hunt mode. Our eyes focused like lions searching a herd for a potential victim. The butt of a mule deer disappeared behind a large tree and clump of bushes, grabbing the attention of my straining eyes. I wasn't able to catch more than just the butt, however two deer were still in the open. One looked like it might have some small headgear, so we inspected with our scopes.
"2 point," I whispered.
"Yeah, and the other is a doe." Rick muttered behind the scope of his rifle.
"There's one behind that tree, but I didn't get a good look. Did you see it?"
"No, I only saw the two."
The two deer in plain view were now agitated and briskly headed for cover. I'm sure our whispering was no match for the large ears of a mule deer.
"That one behind the tree is still there. It hasn't come out." I said, looking into my scope again.
"Let's just wait a bit. Maybe blow that grunt call again, see if it walks out?"
I blew the grunt call a couple of times as we sat on the sloped trail. I'm not a good shot from a standing or kneeling position, so I put the bipod of my rifle out and got into a comfortable, steady position. If the deer behind the tree walked out, and was a nice buck, I wanted to be ready. We continued waiting for a few minutes before another deer approached from the right.
"It's that 2 point again." Rick exclaimed. "The grunts must have brought him back to investigate. You could shoot him. That's meat in the freezer."
"I want to see what that deer behind the tree is."
Our view of the open area where we saw the deer

The 2 point eventually wandered off to the left and out of view. I hoped that the deer behind the tree hadn't snuck away. We waited for maybe another 5 minutes before movement caught our eyes near the tree. A deer appeared and began to walk directly away from us. Even to the naked eye, we could tell it was a large buck. My heart went from 60 beats per minute to 160 in one second.
"OOhhhhhhh... BIG BUCK." Rick whispered and quickly looked through his scope.
I already had the crosshairs on him, studying him as he strutted farther away. He appeared to have a great 4 point typical frame rack on his head. A dandy deer by anyone's definition. My excitement was nearly uncontainable as I tried to focus on my breathing. The buck was walking directly toward a large tree. If he turned to the right, he'd give us a broadside shot. If he turned to the left of the tree he would disappear from sight. The moment of truth was approaching, but I was solid. The buck turned to the right. BOOM! I pulled the trigger as his body became broadside to us. He collapsed in his tracks, directly in front of the large tree. I began to shake with excitement and shock of what had just happened. I stood up and hugged Rick, while still keeping one eye on the downed deer at the bottom of the hill. 
"I was just about to pull the trigger when you fired." Rick said, shaking his head.
"Oh man. Well I knew if he went to the right I had him. If he went to the left it wasn't going to happen. I'm glad he went to right."
"I was going to shoot him in the neck if he started to go to the left. I wasn't going to let him get away."
We continued to keep an eye on where the deer went down. We could see the bushes moving a little still, so we waited a while longer before approaching him.
"Rick! My first mule deer!"
"He's a nice one. That's a great buck for a general hunt".
We began to walk down the trail towards the deer. The bushes were no longer moving but I had my gun up in case he got up. We approached the downed deer and it was apparent that he had passed. We took many photos and admired the great buck. His antlers were very symmetrical and each point was very long.


We quartered him up, loaded the meat on our packs and got ready for the real work.
"Shall we pack him back up to the suburban? Or should we hunt our way down with him on our backs?" Rick asked.
We had only gone down the ridge maybe a 1/3 mile from the top and my truck was probably 2 miles down the ridge.
"I think we should hunt our way down that ridge so you can get a deer. We might as well keep hunting," I said confidently.
"Ooo-Kay." Rick replied.

We set off down the ridge with heavy packs, keeping an eye out for deer. We decided to veer off to the right to make the trip a bit shorter. The hill began to steepen as we descended further. There was no obvious trail either and the hillside was littered with deadfall. We were trying to find the side ridge that would take us directly to my truck and we believed we were on the right one. My pack was really starting to feel heavy; the shoulder straps digging in with each footfall. I was carrying a hind and front quarter, the back-straps and neck meat, as well as the antlers and cape. I was very thankful that Rick was there to help me carry the rest, but I was now regretting our decision to hike down the mountain instead of up.

As we continued down the hill, we began to see less and less deer sign. We still hadn't found a great trail that lasted more than 50 yards either. The slope of the ridge was still incredibly steep and my shoulders and hips were really starting to hurt. I was definitely earning my first mule deer. To top things off, we were approaching what looked like an impenetrable wall of tall brush. Rick was even starting to complain a little as we looked for a better way around the brush. With no trail in sight, we decided to go straight through the thicket of alders. BAD IDEA! Once we started through it only got thicker. I was crawling over branches and sticks, walking through spider webs and being whacked in the face by every other branch. The antlers of the deer were getting hung up in the sticks as well, making our trek through this brush patch pure misery. But all I had to do to make things better was turn my head and look at those antlers, putting a big smile on my face.

The brush patch eventually led to a creek where we were able to hop from one rock to another for a short amount of time. Then we ascended onto another ridge and continued our steep journey down to the road. It seemed like eternity, but eventually we popped out onto the road where we took a much needed 20 minute break. It was now 4:30, and it had taken us over 6 hours to descend about 2 miles! I figured the truck had to be downhill from us and only around a couple more bends. I told Rick I would walk down the road and bring the truck back up and get him and my deer on our way back to camp.

I set off down the dirt road with renewed energy. I no longer had 65 pounds on my back and I was walking on a nice gradual downhill road. I expected to see my truck sooner than I did. In fact, when I finally got to my truck and drove back up to Rick, it was a total distance of 1.3 miles; hardly around the next bend!

After loading up the deer, we headed up to camp where my brother in law Trevor, would meet us that evening. It was sure fun to show off that deer to Trevor when he arrived. The next day we hunted down the same ridge. We spotted numerous other deer, but no shooter bucks. That first mule deer buck now sits on the wall and every time I look at it, I remember that great hunt. 


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