A Fling and a Miss: A Solo Archery Mule Deer Hunt

A Fling and a Miss: A Solo Archery Mule Deer Hunt

       I’m a solo hunter and not shy about why I chose to hunt this way. This hunt was going to be different- or so I thought. I was going to be chasing mule deer, the love of my life, with my bow. I was new to archery, new to the unit, and new to the idea of going on this hunt with a buddy. Not just any buddy- but an animal chasing, buck and bull slaying, pro guide, and all around all star human being. I was stoked!

       The first morning of the hunt we climbed up the mountain toward the fresh snow line that fell the night before. We knew this would be pushing animals around so welcomed the cold dust. What we were not expecting or welcoming were the wind gusts that picked up shortly after mid morning. We aren’t talking a little side ways breeze. We’re talking “helicopter landing 20 feet above our heads” type of wind gusts! 40-50mph gusts blowing directly in faces. We were unable to even steady our glass to have a look up top let alone imagine bringing steady a bow at draw- while holding for wind.

       We backed down the mountain and packed up for the day and called this hunt a bust. Due to unforeseen circumstances my buddy wasn’t able to make it back to chase the mule deer a couple days later when my schedule allowed. In true solo form, I threw my gear in the rig and headed back up the mountain with my bow, my gear, a lot of excitement and very little experience.

        I arrived at the base of the mountain well before dawn and got my gear unloaded and prepped for the hike. The night before had brought us a fresh 6” of snow. The mountain was silenced and calmed by the heavy fresh blanket with the clouds dropped down beneath the peak of the hill. Fully geared I made way up the mountain by the light of my lamp. The snow was soft but slick. Every step up the mountain felt heavier as I tried to keep pace to make it to my glassing rock before sunrise. As I finally reached halfway up the mountain the snow felt deeper. Deeper and more slick. More slick and less forgiving. Every step now partnered with words of frustration. After only an hour of hiking I ran short of darkness and short of my goal. The sun crest and I was in grey light. I decided to stop now and peel gear and prep to glass the bowl to see where animals were moving rather than risking being busted in the pre morning light.

        Through the thick fog of the mountain I made out some brown bodies contrasting from the white powder of the hill. I could see them- but I couldn’t really “see” them. I knew they were deer but I struggled to make out if this group held any bucks. As I slowly scanned the group I saw a deer- near a tree. Standing by a small tree. Feeding near a tree? Standing in front of a tree? There was no tree! This was a buck and his thick dark antlers were standing announced above his head as he fed uphill away from me. I guess I was around 1,000 yards below them from this distance.

        At this point I had made up my mind I was going to forgo any buck between him and I. I strapped my bow on to my pack and grabbed my walking sticks in order to make a better pace up the mountain through the snow. The thick fog was my greatest help as I would have never been able to close the distance up the ridge line as there was no cover at all rather than sparse knee high rocks here and there.

        It took me about 30 minutes to get up to the top of the finger I was working up and glassed across the small bowl where I last saw the buck. Of course, as mule deer do- he was gone. They were gone. Nothing! Panic set in and my thoughts instantly turned to worse. He busted. He saw me. I passed them. Someone was above me. Pushing these doubts aside, I began to slowly side hill closing the gap toward the group. At this time I was having an interesting problem. There were deer. Deer everywhere. Doe were all over the place! They were feeding through the snow and slow to move as movement took so much effort. But they were between me and the buck! I didn’t want to bump them and risk them blowing out the deer on the other side of the small finger i was pursuing. It was painful. My movements were painfully slow. It was damn near boring trying to glide from rock to rock as to not bump these deer. I was actually frustrated! What a crazy problem to have so many deer within such close distance that my pace has to slow to a crawl.

        FINALLY, I’ve made my way to the top of the opposite finger where I knew the group of deer that held my monster buck must be. I left my pack and all my gear behind the top of the crest and literally army crawled up to the edge. I glassed down below me- found them. Scanned, scanned, scanned- YES! There he was! My crown branched buck bedding facing away from me about 200 yards below. They were bedded up against the inside of a finger out of the wind. From where I was glassing I figured I could make my way down the outside of the finger- climb up about 30 yards to the edge- and make a shot down from that angle about 45 yards above him. I laid and watched him for about 20 minutes considering my play.

         It was time. Now or never. I needed to move now because they would be getting up to start afternoon feeding any moment. I loaded my pack and held my bow in one hand and kept one walking stick in my other. The finger they were bedded below was sunny side on their side, shaded on the opposite side. Due to the shade and the fresh snow I was going to have to hike down a slippery slope with inches of thick fresh snow. I began the trek keeping my walking pole below my lead foot. It was guiding my steps and testing the ground below the snow. It didn’t take long to get down to where I felt the deer were about parallel side hill- just up and over the finger. I decided to drop my pack here. Get rid of the weight and go as ninja as possible to shooting position. I made a visual plan of the route I was going to take through the snow to the top of the finger. When I got to the top I knew they would be just 40-50 yards slightly below. As I got within 10 feet of the top of the finger my trekking pole failed me and I slipped on a covered stone. I didn’t just slip. I piled. I actually rolled head over heels down the snow covered shaded shale. After a couple full rotations of tumbling- bow and trekking poles clanking together- I came to a stop. Literally spit snow from my mouth, whispered a few choice words, and frantically crawled to the crest. With this cam motion I knew someone would hear and most likely bust from their beds.

         I got to the top and drew my glass to my eyes as quickly as possible. My eyes instantly saw deer and they were on the move. Away from me. Going up the hill. Away. My buck was behind the group of does pushing them away from me up the hill and in a direction I could never pursue in open terrain. He was already out of bow range. They were gone, it was over, this stalk and my hopes of arrowing this stud dissipated as quickly as the morning fog. But then something happened. I’ve never seen this before. I was actually taken aback and didn’t know how to respond. The buck stopped pushing his doe. Looked back toward the crest of the finger I was perched, and began to make his way back! He was coming back?! He pushed his doe away but was coming back toward me!

        As quickly as my numb fingers could- I grabbed an arrow and knocked it securely. I was glassing the buck and judging his distance and trying to make a guess of what his line of travel would be. I ranged directly below me at the angle I thought he might crest the knob I was on and found a large boulder. I ranged it. 62 yards. Long shot. I knew if he was below the boulder it would be out of range, if he was above the boulder it would be within a 50-60 yard shot. I stood straight up behind the one boulder that was just about my height- drew my bow. Took a deep breath and slowly stepped out from behind the stone. As though he was posed for a magazine cover, the buck stood broadside eyeing the bowl below him just in front of the boulder I had glassed. He’s in range. Must be around 60 yards. I began my shot process and placed my string firmly on my cheek- looked down my peep- WHITE. Nothing! There was nothing in my peep. I could see! I stepped slowly behind the stone, let down my bow and frantically searched for the problem. In the tumble I had just recently took moments before my bow had gone a few flips in the snow and the soft fresh powder was stuck IN MY PEEP! I took a swift hard breath and cleared my peep. Confirming it was good I drew back again and slowing took a step out from behind the stone. He was still posed! I tuned my sight to adjusted range, completed my process, and squeeze off my shot. The arrow zipped through the air and I could hear the unique sound of broadhead breaking through dense air. INCHES! I cleaned MISSED inches over the top right shoulder of the buck. The miss was followed by the sound of carbon fiber arrow bouncing through rocks behind him. He aggressively turned backward, I stepped back behind the tall stone and knocked a fresh arrow. I drew back and stepped out from behind the rock to locate the buck- he was there! At this point I had no time to range but I knew he was within 10 yards of my quick judgement based on how far he ran down the hill. He was quartered toward me trying to assess what I was. Squeeze- zip through the air- THWAP! The sound of broadhead piercing flesh and he instantly responded to the impact. He violently swung downhill away from me and began a limping sprint toward the bottom of the drainage. His sprint turned to a run, then turned to a jog, and ultimately a walking limp. As the look of a defeated athlete, he stopped. He slowly turned toward me looking up at the finger I was on and began to gently lean back and forth. By this time I had dropped my bow and had my glass to my eyes. I could clearly see where he was losing blood- and A LOT. Quickly. The hit was good. I could see my arrow still fully lodged from one side through to the other. As gently as he turned to look up toward me, he turned and limped away with a trail of bright red trailing behind. He took 10 slow steps up and over a small crest and I lost sight.

        At this point I knew what was happening just on the other side of that crest- he was fading fast. I took out my phone and found my contacts. My thumbs were shaking as adrenaline raced through my veins. I found my buddies contact- who should have been there with me. I drafted, “I just killed a monster, he’s dying, I shot a monster! I can’t believe you’re not here.” I was at the peak of the moment. Allowing all the feelings to process and truly taking them all in. I stood leaning over my trekking poles giving thanks for this opportunity. Excitement mixed with fatigue and an empty belly now was the time to eat something. Of course I wasn’t hungry but needed to give my buck some time and force myself not to pursue. I ate a sandwich. Slowly. Impatiently.

        I waited exactly 60 minutes. Not 59, not 61. I made my way down to where my shot made impact to evaluate the scene and began tracking my buck. It was not difficult to track as the bright red blood glowed from the white snow. I got to the crest where I lost last site of my buck. I stood and raised my glass to my eyes and slowly scanned the landscape. His track was pronounced, his movement was not hidden. He could not escape his fate that he would find a short 50 yards from the crest I stood. There he was.

        I made my way down to the final resting place of my buck and it felt almost as a poetic movie scene. He lay with half his body in a babbling brook of melting snow. The sound of the water over the rocks was gentle and peaceful. It’s as though he chose this place. I scanned the area and could see where he leaned resting against a large rock in his final moments. His next step would take him down into the stream. It’s in this scene, if you allow it, can reveal the beauty through the violence.

       After some time giving thanks to God for His amazing creation and for the health he has given me to pursue this passion- I began the work of now taking from this animal the true gift he has given.

       I have deep respect for the art of the hunt. The passion of the pursuit, and the legacy of those that have gone before us. Not those that kill- but those that honor the life we take and understand the reasons we take it. The responsibility that has been given to us. It was the responsibility of those that have come before, those of us that pursue the hunt now, and the future generations that we bestow these lessons upon.

 

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