It had been almost 20 years since I'd gone mule deer hunting with a rifle. But with several archery bulls in the last several seasons I decided to switch gears and give it a try in October of 2015. Switching gears into looking for deer proved to be super fun. I roamed new parts of regional public lands, places that I'd never seen or necessarily even knew were public. That alone became addicting and within a handful of days in the field I'd had so much fun I declared the effort a success. The best buck I had yet taken followed not long after.
Along with fishing, many of my fondest childhood memories took place in the sagebrush deserts of SE Oregon deer hunting with my dad. Mule deer bucks were an icon of my imagination, and the quarry of my first years as a big game tag holder. Lady luck never smiled upon my father and I though, and short of one forked-horn buck from the majestic Steens Mountain our dreams of gripping 4x4 racks remained only that. In 2013 I lost my father as a result of a freak cycling accident. Our relationship had broken down over the 5 or so years leading up to that, and now when I reach for some of my best memories with him, they take me back to deer hunting in the 1980's. My dad had outrageous enthusiasm for many things. He would light up like crazy at the most modest-sized fish or game animal. Unfortunately he never harvested anything that could be considered even close to trophy class and neither had I. When I look back now at these photos, I can only imagine the excitement he would express if he could see me with a buck like that. His voice rings in my imagination, and I can hear him saying "What a buck-WOW I'm so proud of you son!"
As described in my post from last Fall, 2016 brought me incredible success and the continuation of my newfound streak. Armed with knowledge gained in last year's deer hunt and confidence that only a blood stained backpack can bring, I eagerly anticipated 2016's general rifle season. Following a ten day bout with the worst cold I can recall, I made my plans for my first deer hunt of the season. I've often stated that because of my love for adventure, tagging out on the first day of any season would suck. With that echoing in my mind I contemplated strategies as I admired a handsome buck bedded far below me. He was 490 yards away and on a random plot of private land. But I speculated if I stayed put, he would eventually get up and migrate uphill into better cover once the morning sun eventually blazed down on him. As I'd hoped, the buck did just that and wove his way through the sage up the steep terrain of crags, bitter brush and willows.
Still far out of range, I watched the buck disappear into a fold of terrain. He was now off the private land and onto public ground. An hour later he had not emerged so I opted for a stalk that would deliver me to a close range vantage into the hidden gully. As I approached the crest above the buck, I slowed to a creep with my rifle mid-shoulder. The day was calm as a candle flame without a breath of wind, and I could hear each pebble crunch under my footsteps. A short distance below me I heard a light rustling and knew that had to be the buck. I peered through the tops of brush and spotted antler tips tilting back and fourth. The slightest squeak of my rifle sling jolted the buck's attention and the rack spun to my direction. He was 70 or 80 yards away, and I'd spotted him first. Yet he had me pegged even though he directly couldn't see me. I was only inches below his field of view, and if it weren't for his antlers I'd never know he was there. The standoff began as his vigilant stare seemed to penetrate the partial sagebrush curtain that concealed me. I was mid-stride and straddling a large bush. A few minutes into the stillness contest I could swear he was going to hear the muscles in my legs and ass quivering and cramping.
The slightest movement would certainly tip him off and he'd be able to vanish down the steep ravine with one jump. I'd intentionally delayed this stalk until direct October sunshine would have the day's warming thermals sliding uphill. I was sure glad of that as the bucks rack finally began to rotate and wobble again, indicating that he'd returned to feeding from the golden delicious colored willow in front of him. It was clear that in these conditions the buck could hear the slightest sound and even a careful slow motion step was going to draw his attention back to me. My feet may just have well been planted in cement. If I was going to have a shot at this buck I'd have to find a way to make it happen from the current scenario, and I couldn't hold my awkward stance much longer. At half a sloth's pace, I raised my rifle into shooting position, eventually bringing the glass of scope to my eye. I was able to see his head and neck, but the old growth sage blocked his body. The ground threatened to crunch at even the slightest shifting of weight from one foot to another. I kept trying to find my crosshairs a clear line of sight to the mass of the buck's body. I extended painfully high on tippy toes and leaned as far to one side as I could. Craning my neck and torso I found the shot. For a second I contemplated a checklist; nothing behind the buck to worry about hitting; yes. I had my tag in my pocket and was sure I was in the right unit; yes. This is a beautiful buck and although I wished the experience of deer hunting could take me exploring longer, I can't accept the potential of a buck like this as a haunting memory of hindsight regret. So I let the lead fly.
At 70 or so yards and no time seem to pass between pulling the trigger and the bullets impact. The shot was too close to hear the definitive thump of a hit. The buck simply vanished from view. As I approached the spot where he was standing I expected to find him on the ground. But he wasn't there. Close examination revealed not a drop of blood. Scanning steeply downhill in the direction he'd fled I could see tell-tale tracks hauling ass down the draw with enormous gaps between each stride. The narrative in my head had taken a sharp turn, dumbfounded I reconstructed the events and contemplated how I possibly could have missed. I recalled a time when I was 13 or 14 and a fantastic non-typical buck with extra points appeared at a similar close range like this. Crystal clear I remember setting my sights squarely on that magnificent buck. The close range shot felt perfect. One jump and he too vanished out of sight. Hours later my dad and I left with shoulders slumped and my head hung in disappointment and disbelief. Somehow I'd missed the buck completely. I felt so embarrassed and incompetent. It was a common feeling my old man and I knew, a sour pill we each had to swallow every fall during a decade or more of hunting together. But as with my archery bull the month before, I shook these thoughts out of my head and reassured myself that the shot was solid. I strapped my pack back on, chambered another round and set my gaze to the line of tracks unraveling away from me. When I reached the farthest visible track a splash of red practically leapt from the sage. "I knew it!!!!" I proclaimed to myself. A short distance later the trail revealed all the signs of a buck hit hard and whirling out of control down the mountain. I could plainly see where the buck had died mid-air, lost his legs and fell into a tumble. The tracks told the story as clearly as if I'd witnessed it in real time. I paused and took a knee on the slope knowing my dandy buck was expired somewhere right below me. For so many years I'd dreamt of savoring a moment like this, and I soaked it all in. Seconds later I spotted him, at peace and waiting there to be claimed.
Very similar and slightly larger than my buck last year, this harvest represented tremendous fulfillment for me. Still far short of true trophy class by technical definition, I gazed in awe at this buck which is a prize trophy to me. Flat-out beside myself with joy and pride I reconnected with my dad, imagining the things he would be saying and the beaming smile that would be on his face had he been there with me. Sweat dripped steadily from my hat as I worked to field dress, de-bone and strap the buck to my overloaded pack. I was overcome with happiness and gratitude.
Now at my desk a year later I cherish this memory and look forward to the opportunity to take kids of my own deer hunting one day, with the recognition that these are the greatest days of our lives. Stop and soak your moments in. I think you'll be glad you did.
First Lite Ambassador, Bryan Huskey, is a photographer and filmmaker in Boise, Idaho. You can check out his work here. He is also the founder of Keep 'em Wet Fishing, a non-profit organization that advocates and educates about best practice release methods for fisherman who are not keeping their catch.