I'm not usually one for grip and grin photos with animals I've harvested, but this one was one I'll be grinning about for a long time.
Six years ago this week, I took my dad on a real western mule deer hunt. I wanted him to experience western style hunting so I arranged a hunt with Western Lands Outfitters. Dad's lung health had been heading South for a few years due to over 50 years of smoking. His bout with COPD was already getting the best of him so his mobility was limited to only a few yards at a time. It was a grueling week with weather swings and trying to get him in position to harvest his deer. On the fourth day of the hunt, Dad's guide Shawn found a nice buck and he made a perfect shot on a beautiful heavy 3x4. It was so awesome but that would be the last hunt Dad and I would go on together.
Dad passed away this last November from complications of his COPD, and in February, I booked my own hunt with Western Lands Outfitters to commemorate my dad and our last hunt together. For me, this would be another important part of the healing process.
Fast forward to this past week and I arrived at camp ready for my hunt. I was greeted by the head guide, Tanner, who would serve as the guide on my hunt. I was also greeted by long-time Western Lands guide, Shawn, who was helping out for a two week stint for the first time in 3-4 years. The cool thing about this was that Shawn was the one who guided Dad on his hunt 6 years prior. Shawn would be guiding another hunter on this particular week.
That first evening, we went and shot my rifle to make sure it was still on target. Then Tanner and I drove around making a plan for the morning and visiting about why I was there and what I wanted to accomplish. He was so understanding and shared some of his past with his own dad. He didn't have to do that, but that really meant a lot to me. Tanner was going above and beyond and continued that throughout the week. He even took me over to the exact location where Dad harvested his buck and let me reflect on it for a little while. Special to say the least.
Over the course of the first couple of days, we put on lots of miles on foot and saw lots of good bucks including a couple of shooters on which I passed. I'm not picky, but I did have 5 days to hunt and wanted to soak up every bit of the experience. It seemed like everywhere we went, I could remember going there with Shawn and Dad. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do so far and Tanner was doing everything he could to insure I accomplished my goals.
On the third morning, we found a buck that I wanted to try and harvest. He was a strange nontypical buck still in velvet with extras. He was very unique to say the least. I had the crosshairs on him at 365 yds with a solid rest but his vitals were covered by sagebrush preventing me from a sure, clean kill. I wanted to wait. Just then, coyotes from the top of the ridge started up and spooked the buck and several of his friends out of the basin without me taking a shot. Ugh! This caused me to ponder over and over whether I missed my only opportunity for a great buck as we continued to search for the group the rest of the day. It was a long day not knowing exactly where they went to bed down. Later that day as the evening approached, Tanner spotted a couple of bucks less than a mile away. There was my buck! However, we had to move quick to get in position for another opportunity before the thermals switched. Off we went. Navigating through thick oak scrub and sage, we briefly spotted the bucks head looking in our direction about 150 yds away. Before I could get the rifle up, he and his buddies trotted over the top of the ridge. Tanner and I ran parallel to them into the next draw thinking they would come out on the bottom and give us a shot. I had been praying the whole day for just an opportunity to find him and God seemed to be answering my prayers. I knew Dad was up there looking down on me so I felt that if I had an opportunity, I needed to handle my part. I didn't realize how the tensions and emotions of the moment would build when I finally got my crosshairs on the buck a short 240 yds away. He and is buddies had reached the bottom and walking slowly up the other side. I was in a seated position with Tanner's bipod under the front of my rifle and my pack under the rear. I was kind of freaking out a bit as I put the crosshairs on him as Tanner tried to keep me calm. I don't know why I felt like I needed to rush, but I slammed the trigger as soon as he stopped and quartered to me slightly. I missed high. Emotions, heart rate, and respiration rates are soaring about now as I try and relocate him in the scope as all of the deer disappeared around the corner. We took off down the hill to try to get in position to take another shot when Tanner spotted the buck heading up another hill. Once again, I try to find him in the scope as I point directly into the fading sun putting all kinds of glare in the scope. I finally got him located with Tanner's help and fired another shot at 550 yds while he was walking uphill. That shot actually felt great, but again, I missed high as the buck eventually disappeared over the next ridge. I was deflated, defeated, beaten down both physically and emotionally as I tried to process what had just happened. It seemed the world was crashing in on me. I had let Tanner down, myself down, everyone back home, and more importantly I felt that I had let my dad down. We had worked so hard to get the opportunity and I blew it. Tanner was a huge part of helping me deal with it as he encouraged me saying that "it happens" and "if I'm not going to worry about it, you can't worry about it". "We'll have another chance." I then went back to prayer asking that God would help me deal with it, move on, and try to make sense of it. That's all I could do as it was getting dark on the long hike back. I also called my wife, told her about it, and just hearing her voice helped tremendously.
The next day, we headed back out in search of the buck, and this time, we had more sets of eyes looking for a buck for me. The other guide, Shawn and his group had tagged out the evening before and decided to help look for a buck for me while Tanner and I went back to search for the buck I missed the previous day. We had decided if Shawn found a buck, we would abandon our plan and go after it if it wasn't too far away. Remember, Shawn was the one who guided my dad and found his buck.
Well, not 30 minutes into our hike, Shawn called Tanner and had a good buck located. Tanner and I decided to abandon our plan, and head over as it would only take about 20 minutes or so to get there. First, I wanted to shoot my rifle at a rock to make sure it wasn't off to boost my confidence from the misses the day before. You don't want to be worrying about the accuracy of your rifle in high-pressure situations. I attempted to chamber a round, and surprisingly it wouldn't go in. We looked and noticed there was a bullet (not an entire shell) lodged in the barrel. Oh crap! We're still unsure how that happened, but with all that went on the evening before, who knows. At this point though, I was carrying a broomstick that was useless. Luckily, Tanner had his rifle in the Ranger and would happily let me borrow it.
By the time we made it over to Shawn, there were seven bucks on the hillside he was watching but they too had been spooked by a lone coyote. We arrived just in time to see them going over the top of the ridge into the thick of brush. Tanner and I went around the side of the ridge to try to cut them off or at least see where they were going with oak brush too thick to see anything. Shawn and his crew then proceeded to drive their rig over to the other side of the canyon to try to get a view of the other side of the ridge and maybe spot the buck. This had become a real team effort. An hour passed with no sign of the group when Tanner spotted two of the bucks bedded in the oak brush on the side of the hill about 450 yds across the canyon. We then knew that my buck might be bedded in there as well, so we started the waiting game. Meanwhile, Shawn and his group left and went back to camp.
We found a place to get comfortable, set up the rifle just in case, and settled in for the long wait for them to get up. 3 hours would pass before the bucks started to get up one by one and start feeding. Buck 1 was not him, nor was Buck 2-6. He had to be there somewhere. About an hour after the first buck got up, we spot Buck #7, my buck. However, all we could see of him was his antlers and sometimes his entire head, but never his body. It was just too thick, but that is how old bucks survive for years. All the other younger bucks spent several minutes each out in the open giving me ample opportunity to visualize my eventual shot on the buck I was after. After he milled around for 30 minutes or so, a young buck bedded down about 5 yds from him, prompting him to disappear behind the thick brush and bed down himself. It was 1 pm and I still wasn't presented with an opportunity. The waiting game resumed, but I had confidence that my opportunity was imminent.
Another challenge thrown our way: the weather. That Friday morning, it started out sunny with no wind, providing perfect conditions that wouldn't last. At about 10:30am, the winds picked up to what turned out to be sustained 35 mph with estimated 45 mph gusts. This continued for the rest of the day presenting doubt that if I was presented a shot opportunity, it might not be doable. Snow squalls were involved as well in the afternoon as we waited. During one of those, I prayed continuously. I prayed the Lord would again present an opportunity and guide my bullet for a quick kill if it was His will. If it wasn't, I was good with it. It had been an amazing experience that my dad would've been proud of. Harvesting a buck would be icing on the cake.
At 4:30 pm, with the winds still howling, the bucks started getting up one by one. This time they would feed around and start working their way back over the ridge to the evening feeding area. At about 4:40, I noticed the smaller buck closest to where my buck was lying start to feed on brush while bedded. I then told Tanner I thought that if the smaller buck got up, my buck would soon follow. He agreed. Well, within a minute of the smaller buck getting up, we spotted the antlers of THE buck. I got in the prone position behind my rifle which was already focused on the spot I thought the buck would go. Wind still whipping. Five minutes passed and he stepped into an opening in the oak brush presenting his vitals for the first time. I told Tanner that I had a shot and thought I could take it. My rest was as solid as it could be and my bubble was level. He told me to aim through to his offside shoulder and I prayed again thanking God for the opportunity and asked that He guide my bullet. At that very moment, the wind stopped completely. Yes, it stopped completely as I squeezed the trigger and delivered a shot exactly where I aimed. Tanner said good shot and to reload. I couldn't relocate the buck in the scope. I was again a touch frantic. However, Tanner turned and asked if I had it on safe to which I said yes. He jumped up with a grin and said something like, "Good, cause he's dead! You hammered him!" Elation set in as we hugged and yelled and pointed to the sky to say "Thank you!" It was the perfect ending to the perfect hunt. Tanner and I worked so hard and faced tons of adversity, ups and downs, and highs and lows to get to this point. It paid off.
Praise the Lord it all came together like it did, but I realize looking back that it all happened exactly according to His plan. I am a stronger person after this week, a better hunter, and I know my Dad has a big smile on his face right now.