My 2017 archery mule deer hunt started with several months of anticipation about being able to close the deal on a monster mulie with a bow. I had my sights set on a buck that my buddy Bobby told me had made it through the 2016 season. He had sent me pictures of the sheds and we both figured the buck would go somewhere in the low 200’s non typical. Bobby spent the summer looking for this elusive deer and also keeping me up to date on what kind of horn growth he was seeing with other deer on the property. We found two other bucks we thought were worth keeping track of in case we couldn’t find our mystery buck and had to go after our second or third choice. Having multiple choices is a good problem to have. Both these bucks looked promising as one had a heavy frame and looked to be about 26 inches wide and easily score in the 180’s. The other buck was not as heavy and a little weak on the fronts but was an older deer that was well over 30 inches wide. Bobby attempted to nail the wide buck the previous season, but found it easier said than done. They don’t get big by being stupid.
Bobby found late summer a difficult time to keep track of the bucks due to extreme dry conditions. He couldn’t drive around and get into the area where the deer were. They were hanging out on a portion of the ranch that was rolling hills and hay meadows with scattered CRP and everything was high. About a week before archery season, Bobby and I decided to focus on our number two and three choices since our first choice buck still wasn’t showing himself. Bobby had only been able to look at these deer from a couple miles away so we weren’t sure what to expect when we got close. Were these the deer we were looking for?
I showed up in camp the afternoon before opening day with my Hoyt Spyder dialed in and ready to hunt mule deer. It was late August and extremely hot with temperatures reaching into low 100’s, which left me concerned about deer movement since deer typically don’t move around during the in the heat of the day with those temperatures. We decided to head out and see if we could locate these deer that evening because Bobby hadn’t seen them for a few days but had a pretty good idea where they were hanging out. It wasn’t looking very promising. Then an hour before dark it was like a switch had been flipped. We ended up seeing 35 bucks that night. A 165 class 4×4 running around with three small bucks and a tall narrow racked buck that looked to be in the high 170’s. We went back to camp that night disappointed we hadn’t located the bachelor group with the two bigger bucks, but glad that we had seen that many deer in one evening. I was awake most of the night in anticipation of what was going to happen opening day. Maybe I was setting the bar too high for myself trying to make it into the 200 inch club with a bow.
Opening morning found us glassing from a high vantage point where we had a 360 degree field of view for miles in any direction overlooking the ranch. We located several animals before it was light enough to tell what they were. It wasn’t long before we could make out horns on what had previously just been dark shadows in the lenses of our spotting scopes. I had picked up two bachelor groups to our right, along with an antelope buck and a 4×5 raghorn bull that was rutted up and headed right at us. I decided I wasn’t interested in putting a stalk on any of the bucks we spotted. I didn’t want to go after a 165 on the first morning of our hunt, so we decided to try and get a closer look at the other two groups. We moved to a different vantage point so we could get a closer look as the bucks kept feeding out of view. Finding the first group, we saw the biggest buck was probably a 145-150. Then we saw the other group coming over the top of a knob directly below us, heads down and focused on filling their bellies before bedding down for the day. Suddenly, they picked up their heads and headed towards their bedding area, occasionally stopping to feed for a minute before moving on.
There were nine in the group and we got a glimpse of three that were definitely worth a closer look, but we had to change positions again to get a better look. Once we relocated the group, we immediately knew we had found our bucks. The wide buck was really wide, about 34 inches. The heavy framed buck stayed in the middle of the group with his head down, but we knew he was good. After that, we just waited for them to get a bit closer to their beds, then maneuvered around above them while keeping the wind in our favor. After a few of the bucks started to bed down in the draw, we moved into a better position 400 yards above them. We had a chance to look at the two big bucks for about a minute as they fed in our direction. The heavier framed buck began moving as if he knew something wasn’t right, vanishing up the draw before we could finish sizing him up. We watched the wide racked buck bed down in front of a patch of sagebrush and were taken aback by how far his horns stuck out on either side of the bush. Then it was a waiting game… We couldn’t start our stalk until the morning thermals started moving uphill, which was about 10:30 AM. That first stalk started perfectly as we closed the distance from 400 yards to 200 yards in about 20 minutes. Then the wind stopped and so did we, only moving when a breeze came to us. Everything was so dry it took an hour and a half to close the distance to 51 yards. It was finally going to happen! I was going to take a monster buck with my bow. I stood motionless for what seemed like days, waiting for the buck to stand and start feeding again. I watched the buck as he would fall asleep and wake up again, watching his horns slowly drop down and then jerk back up again. At one point, a couple of smaller bucks got up and started feeding, forcing me to crouch down behind a bush that was too small to provide any real cover hoping my camo would do its job. They finally bedded down, and I got back up and into position, ready to draw as soon as I was given a shot. Then it happened; the wind changed direction and I felt the breeze on the back of my neck. All of the bucks jumped up in unison and ran straight away over the next ridge without looking back once. What a sick feeling. I had my chance and now the two biggest bucks I’d seen were probably in the next county. The rest of the day was spent trying to locate another buck to put a sneak on. We had seen between seventy and eighty bucks on opening day by the time we got back to camp. It was a great day for seeing deer, but I couldn’t help but wonder what we would find on day two.
The next morning we started setting up at the same spot we had started the previous day. We had only seen a few deer, so we started to move to another location when we caught a glimpse of something right where we’d seen the big bucks the day before. I pulled up my binos and couldn’t believe my eyes. I was going to get a second chance at this monster. Other than the fact that there were only seven deer in the group, and the heavy framed buck wasn’t present, they looked like they were headed right back to the same beds. At the last second they wandered off into a finger just off the main draw and disappeared. We sat looking at a topo map trying to figure out where they may have bedded. We found an alkali pocket that looked like it might be big enough to hold six deer and had a few beds in it. We decided to move to the other side of the draw so we could glass the bedding area. As soon as we got to where we could see across, Bobby spotted one fork sticking barely above some grass in that finger and the sneak was on. We had to go back to the other side and start working our way slowly down the draw and try to locate the buck. As we moved closer to where we assumed the deer were bedded, I realized there was no cover … anywhere. We started question whether we had gone down right place when we saw white dust kick up about 35 yards away from us in a small depression. Mule deer sometimes stomp around and turn over the soil in their beds because it brings the cooler soil to the top. So, we just sat down, not knowing what to do and being stuck out in the open hoping the first buck to come out of the pocket to feed would be the big one, probably our only hope for a shot. We weren’t there ten minutes when a 140 class buck stepped out and started feeding to within twenty yards before spotting us. He stomped and snorted, alerting the other bedded bucks that something wasn’t right. I turned my focus back to the others and spotted antler tips moving around but nothing coming out. They weren’t quite sure where or what the threat was so I stood up and got ready to draw as soon as the wide buck stepped into the open. I watched his antlers move to the edge of the depression and lifted my bow. He took two more steps to the left, where I could see his head and neck, so I pulled back, knowing at any moment he was going to take one more step offering me a perfect broadside shot at thirty yards. The seconds felt like minutes and nothing happened. He just stood there motionless. I tried to make a quiet let-off, but my arrow jumped out of the rest and clanged against my bow. I watched helplessly as he ran over the hill with the rest of the group.
That afternoon, after much deliberation, we decided to hunt a completely different part of the ranch. After striking out twice on the wide buck and the heavy framed buck disappearing, we decided it was time to try and find another big buck. That evening we were sitting up on a knob with a draw running down each side that Bobby said usually held a few pretty good deer. It didn’t take long to glass up a good buck. We knew he was good and quickly worked our way within a hundred yards. He appeared to be a solid 180 buck, but I could tell he still hadn’t reached his full potential. We decided to back out and leave him in and see if we could relocate the original buck.
The morning of day three we had relocated the wide buck and the heavy framed buck in two seperate groups and put them to bed so it was just a matter of deciding which one to pursue. I knew the heavier buck would probably score better, but had history with the other, so I thought I would give it one more try, figuring that if the stalk failed, we could still get an afternoon sneak on the heavy horned buck bedded in the next draw over. After a rather quick sneak, we had closed the distance to 50 yards, and I was scooting on my back trying to close the distance and seal the deal. I hurried in too fast and pushed them out. So we turned our attention to the other buck. Once again, I got impatient, feeling pressure to take a shot, I got busted before it could happen. Angry and frustrated, we called it a day. I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to get my head back on straight for the next day.
Waking up rejuvenated, I told myself if I was given the opportunity I would take my time and be patient. I was going to enjoy doing this thing I love to do … chase big mulies. Just for giggles, we went out to try and find those two bucks again and, to our surprise, found them in the same draw we had on day one. It’s not very often you get a second chance on a big mule deer and this was number four. They were traveling in two seperate groups, and ended up bedding down about 300 yards apart. The buck I’d been chasing bedded down in a finger on the other side of the draw, just out of sight, while the heavy horned one bedded right below us in the main draw. After looking at the topo maps for several minutes and debating about what to do, I had to make a hard decision. The 34 inch buck was bedded in a tough spot to sneak, and the wind would be wrong, while the heavy buck was bedded in the perfect spot with the wind in our faces. I remember telling myself I wasn’t going to force it; not this time. We slowly eased our way down on the buck, taking care not to make a sound, constantly checking the wind. It took forever to close the distance this time. We stopped for a few minutes to try and figure out if we were too far up or down the draw as we wanted to make sure we set up right above them. We finally caught a break when we saw a cloud of dust down and to our right. One of the bucks was stomping around in his bed and unknowingly gave away their location. We adjusted our sneak and finally settled in right above them. Bobby stayed back as I ever so slowly and quietly eased my way closer, hoping to get within bow range. I finally made it as close as I was going to and settled in the middle of a patch of tall grass and waited.
An hour passed and everything was quiet. The wind was still in my face and I was feeling pretty good. Finally, some movement and a cloud of dust and I saw some antler tips starting to move out into the open. I drew back as the buck stepped out into view 25 yards away broadside. Only it wasn’t him, so I let off slowly and kept my head low, occasionally sticking it up for just a second to see if any of the others followed suit. This buck fed right in front of me for about twenty minutes and then slowly started to feed his way around me, sometimes getting within almost ten yards. It was exciting and nerve racking all at the same time. I could hear every sound, see every little head shake or ear twitch. I was enjoying being close, but with the recent events over the last few days, I was starting to worry that this buck might be my undoing. Sure enough, he eventually worked his way around me and caught my wind. I heard the dreaded foot stomp and cough, forcing me to get up to my knees and prepare for the other deer to bust out of there. He spotted me and took off up the draw, crossing over about 150 yards above the bedded bucks before stopping, stomping and coughing again to warn them of my presence. He skylined for a moment before disappearing from view, so I turned my attention back to where the others were bedded. Seeing no movement, I settled back in and waited.
After five minutes, I saw the dust kick up again and two other bucks start feeding onto the opposite hillside. My heart was beating out of my chest. He was going to start feeding anytime, and I was going to let my arrow fly. Getting up to my knees, I again readied myself for the shot and heard a small twig snap underneath me. I slowly lifted my head and saw those two bucks staring straight through my soul. We sat there staring at each other for what seemed like an eternity until they, like the first buck, bounded off over the hill. I waited for several minutes, figuring at any moment the remaining three deer would bust out of there and I would be that much closer to eating tag soup again. This is something I’ve grown quite accustomed to the last few years after deciding I was only going to take deer that were 180 plus. That doesn’t mean I would fault anyone for taking a 150-160 mule deer, or that I wouldn’t take a deer smaller than 180 if he had character or was considered a buck of a lifetime in the area I was hunting. I’ve just been blessed when it comes to mule deer hunting and was ready to pass on good bucks in hopes of taking a truly great buck.
Several minutes passed by and nothing happened. I didn’t know what to do. Had the bucks snuck out the bottom of the draw? Were they still lying in their beds half asleep and completely unaware of my presence? I eventually got my answer when I heard some movement and saw a small plume of dust kick up as the first buck, a mid 150’s, started to feed out into view on the opposite hillside. I checked a few times with my range finder to make sure I knew the different distances of several rocks and small pieces of brush so I could point and shoot once the big buck stepped out. Depending on when he came out I would be looking at a 39-58 yard shot. A second buck stepped out and I quickly recognized his mid 160’s frame with a couple extras. Then I saw the tips of the antlers to his left start to move into view and started to panic. The big buck was feeding away from me and quartering left, and as his entire rack came into view, I realized I had misjudged him. He was big…. Really big!
He had forty inches of mass and carried it all the way up, with a double eye guard on the left beam that I thought would push him over 190. As his full body came into view I stood up slowly and tried to come to full draw. I was shaking and seemed to have lost all my motor skills. I wasn’t tired, but it felt like my Hoyt had a 120 lb draw weight. I was panicking while I stood out there in the open waiting for one of those bucks to simply lift its head and end this stalk in the same way all the others had … failure. I closed my eyes and told myself I was back at the range and this was just a target. I opened them, drew my bow and aimed. Now I was calm, my pin settled right behind the front shoulder as he quartered away and gently squeezed the trigger. I watched as my Axis Carbon arrow hit its mark and the buck lunged forward before stumbling across the hill, stopping to look back my direction. I had knelt down at this point, and he couldn’t see me on the open hillside. The other bucks were milling around confused and unable to identify the threat. I’m really impressed with Sitka Gear camo. After standing there for about a minute, the big buck went crashing down into the thick brush in the bottom of the draw. The other two bucks stood there looking after him, and I raised both hands, one in a fist and the other holding up my bow in victory. I had just arrowed the biggest buck of my life! All my years of hunting had culminated in this unbelievable moment. As Bobby and I walked towards each other I started to think how I was about to put my hands on the buck of a lifetime, and I’d done it with a bow. What an amazing feeling! I turned to look back at the other bucks and watched them start to trot up the ridge.
I heard a noise below me and glanced over to see my buck running behind them with all but six inches of arrow sticking out of his left side bouncing around as he trotted up the hill. He wasn’t keeping up and stopped a half a dozen times, so I figured I hit him high and maybe clipped the top of a lung with a less than perfect shot. We decided to give him a couple hours before picking up the blood trail. I quickly found blood but lost it after just twenty yards. We got some reinforcements and pretty soon there were five of us searching for any sign of blood or my arrow. There were about six draws that he could have gone into and we had no idea which one he could be in. It had gotten to 102 degrees that day, and as I was walking, the sole came off one of my boots. This made it feel like walking in a sock. It wasn’t fifteen minutes and the bottom came off the other boot also. I spent the next few hours walking in boots with no soles and could feel the blisters forming on my feet. We later found out the bottoms of Bobby’s dad’s boots had come off too. We had been sitting in the sun for four days with the heat beating down on the bottoms of our boots and the glue just separated. In all fairness we were both probably in need of a new pair of boots anyway.
After covering a lot of ground and finding nothing, we decided to get up on the high point again and see if we could see anything moving at last light. About fifteen minutes before dark we spotted a little bear and the five bucks he had been with earlier about two miles from where they had been that morning. But … no sign of my buck. We thought he must be lying in the CRP where the other bucks were feeding or bedded in one of the draws between us and the CRP. Then we saw movement in the CRP a few hundred yards away from the others and after a quick look realized it was him. He headed out of the CRP and into the first draw, and then came up the other side of it a few minutes later. He then dropped into the next draw and never came up again that we could see, but at that point it was too dark to see anything. We headed back to camp and Bobby reassured me he was confident we would find him the next day. I did not share his optimism but was still hanging on to hope. I replayed the day’s events in my head, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. When I shot him, he was quartering away from me and going up hill. When I shot, my arrow buried in him all but the last eight inches, which I believed meant the broadhead had hit his shoulder on the far side preventing a clean pass through. When he went crashing into the brush in the bottom of the draw, I figured the broadhead had come loose, which is why the arrow was flopping around and barely inside him as he ran over the top of the hill. The fact that he had travelled over two miles and was running around seemingly uninjured seven hours after I’d shot him led me to believe that I hadn’t hit any vital organs and the broadhead was bouncing around harmlessly in no-man’s-land.
I didn’t get any sleep that night, and the next morning was greeted with 50 MPH winds and no deer moving anywhere. We decided to go back to camp and wait until the next day to continue our search. We were hoping that giving him the extra time might make it easier for us to find him in his bed, too stiff and weak to get up and run away, giving me an opportunity to finish him. By the morning of day six, I had convinced myself that he was lying there dead in one of those draws, and that we were going to be giving each other high fives within the first hour and a half. I’d regained my confidence and didn’t care about blisters on my feet. We each got on one side of the draw closest to the CRP field and worked our way down. No blood, no arrow, no deer. I wasn’t worried yet because we saw him go into the next draw two nights before so he had to be in that one. He wasn’t. We searched draw after draw with the same results. We had started the morning up on the high point searching for buzzards and horn tips but came up empty.
I started wondering about whether or not I was meant to be an archery hunter. Was it ethical? Was this buck suffering somewhere? Why would anybody bow hunt? It’s a tougher hunt with a lower success rate. It’s expensive and requires more time in the field scouting. I had given up all hope of retrieving this animal. Bobby seemed to sense my frustration and offered up one last option. At the very bottom of the draw we were in when I shot the buck was a water trough, and to the right of that water trough was an old two track that ran ⅔ of the way up the ridge opposite of where I shot him. It was the same side of the draw he had been on and it went all the way up to the high point we had glassed from every single morning. I felt that it was highly unlikely that this buck would have come all the way back to that same draw I had shot him in after being two miles away the last time we had seen him. Bobby said that going up that road from the bottom was about all we could do, and I figured at least I could go home knowing that I had done everything I could to try and retrieve this deer. We started up the draw and I saw something right at the top of a tall finger coming off the draw so I told him to stop. There were two crows sitting there on a rock so we glassed it, but couldn’t see anything. Then a couple of coyotes busted out of the top of that draw, and I started to feel hope creep back in. Then I heard Bobby say “you’re not going to believe this; I just found your buck and he’s dead as a doornail.”
I said, “You’re kidding me.” and broke into tears. I’m not extremely sensitive and I’ve never gotten emotional about a hunt before, but this was different. I had been up close to this deer on multiple occasions, and I had failed to get it done. I had almost lost this animal and had given up all hope. I pulled myself together and looked with my Vortex binoculars to where Bobby was pointing. There it was, an antler tip sticking out of sagebrush about sixty yards above the top of that finger. I gave Bobby a big hug as the realization swept over me.
This is why I bowhunt! It’s work, the excitement, the tears and the joy. It’s intimate and personal; it’s the highs and the lows of archery hunting.
As Bobby and I walked towards the deer, I took note of my surroundings. My buck lay dead less than two hundred yards from where I was when I’d shot him. As I got closer I was taken aback by how big he was. His rack just got bigger and bigger. We got to him and I finally got to put my hands on those antlers. He had a solid four by four frame with eyeguards. The left eyeguard was a double and he also had a 6 ½ inch inline between his G3 and G4. He was easily in the mid 190’s and my biggest buck to date. Then I noticed that my arrow was buried up to the fletchings in his side, and my Muzzy MX4 broadhead was protruding below the base of his skull at the top of the back of his neck. My buck had bedded down in that finger where the crows and the coyotes were, and when he did, he laid on my arrow and lost his life.
When Bobby and I got back down to the watering trough, his dad was there waiting. We set the tailgate down and placed the head on it. Then we searched around for a tape measure and began scoring. We were moving pretty quickly and trying to be very conservative with our numbers, but as we started adding everything up Bobby threw his pen down and said “That buck’s over 200 inches!” I couldn’t believe it. Most people don’t ever lay eyes on a 200 inch deer, fewer harvest one, and even fewer have the opportunity to do it with a bow. We hurried over to Bobby’s friend’s place who is a taxidermist to get a second opinion and he confirmed it was over 200 inches. It was measured several times and consistently came up between 204 and 208 inches, but we decided to let it go through the sixty day drying period and then get it scored by an official Boone and Crockett scorer. When my buck was finally scored, he grossed 206 2/8″ and netted 202 6/8″ non-typical with almost 39 inches of mass.
I’m thankful to OUTDOORS INTERNATIONAL for giving me this opportunity to work in the hunting industry. If you haven’t tried spot and stalk archery mule deer, I would highly recommend it.