Dreaming of bucks in the Wyoming backcountry
As a young boy, I used to sleep in more often than not, while my dad and brothers went hunting. I guess you could say I hated the idea of losing my much desired sleep to go hike around with only a slim chance of harvesting an animal. It wasn't until I was about 13 or 14 years old that I fell in love with hunting. I would follow my dad around the hills, watching his every move, and hoping I could be just like him someday. I can't thank my dad enough for all that he has shown me over the years and for instilling a burning passion for the outdoors in me. I remember drooling over his collection of trophies over the years and hoping I would get the chance to harvest a few of my own someday. Fortunately, my hope came true and that is where this story begins.
For several years, I had been buying preference points for the elusive mule deer in Wyoming. I had done multiple studies over the years of which units produced the most quality mule deer each season and what the success rate was for the weekend warriors. I decided Region G had a very good percentage of Boone and Crockett bucks taken within its boundaries each season and that would be my region of choice that year. In 2014, I was lucky enough to draw a tag for Region G in this rugged state and September 15 couldn’t come soon enough. My dad would be coming along on this hunt with me, which made this dream that much more meaningful.
As soon as the news settled in, I was on the computer looking at information on mule deer, searching out past stories of other hunters in this unit, studying maps and drooling over new equipment that was essential for this hunt. From my perspective, a trophy class mule deer is one of the most sought after big game animals in the West. I was about to embark on my journey of chasing these grey ghosts that lurk in the shadows above the timberline and to say that I was excited was an understatement.
Pre-season scouting trip #1
The past winter brought mild conditions and the spring that followed was full of precipitation, which was excellent for antler growth for 2014. Early August brought our first scouting trip of the season and it showed nothing but promising results with plenty of bucks to choose from. My dad and I went home after two days of scouting with our heads held high and hopes of notching my tag on a great buck this season.
Pre-season scouting trip #2
As the days grew closer to opening day, I couldn’t help but imagine how the hunt would play out. This scouting trip was not much different than the last. We were locating on average about 40 bucks per day, but only a handful were worthy of the tag I had waited several years to draw. I set my goal this season on a 180” mule deer with very few exceptions. Only time and fate would decide if this was achievable.
Opening day this season fell on a Monday. We started packing our equipment the Saturday before the opener. For what seemed like hours, we were constantly going over our equipment, making sure we had everything so that we could leave early the following morning. We had a several hour journey ahead of us so we left well before daylight on Sunday morning to give us plenty of time to set up a base camp and then hike in a spike camp on a finger ridge we had picked weeks prior. We were headed up the river well before daylight and as soon as we stopped the truck we heard nothing but bugling bulls all around us. It was a dream come true.
As the sun started to crest over the ridges off in the distance, we were setting up our tent, unpacking cooking supplies and coolers and splitting firewood for our luxurious base camp. We didn't plan on using the base camp unless the conditions in the high country made a turn for the worst or we ran low on food. Once our base camp was set up and the final touches were made, we had our backpacks loaded and we were planning our next move. We decided we would ride our ATV about 10 miles from our basecamp to a near dead end trail; from there we would have about a four to five mile hike into the basin we had scouted weeks prior.
After a long hike, we arrived in the area we would be hunting for several days. We started setting up our camp on the finger ridge that overlooked two basins and a beautiful high mountain lake. This camp site was perfect and the views of the basins and lake that surrounded us left me pondering what was about to happen. The anticipation of opening day was eating me alive. I couldn't help but play out those perfect scenarios we all ponder each season. Whether I notched my tag on a big buck or not, I knew that these few days spent in the high country with my dad would be memories that I would not soon forget.
After a long sleepless night, I heard the sound of the alarm clock on the GPS and I sprang out of my sleeping bag with more energy than a kid on Christmas. The long overdue wait had finally began. After assembling a few essentials and grabbing the breakfast of champions (Pop Tarts), I was out on the ridge picking apart the basin with my glass. Much like our scouting trips, we had several bucks spotted, but it was far too early in the hunt to notch my tag on a buck that wouldn't surpass the 180” mark. We glassed hard the remainder of the day and saw several more potential shooters, but nothing I wanted to make a play on yet.
Like opening day, I was behind the glass yet again overlooking some of the same areas I had picked through the day prior. I turned up a few nice bucks, but I was still set on the 180” mark and I was prepared to go home empty-handed if I couldn't turn one up.
That evening, we spotted a buck in a nearby basin that looked like he might surpass my standard. We decided that we would hike to a ridge that would put us within range of this buck if he was as promising as he looked when we got over there. After a short hike, we set up the spotting scope to relocate the buck and, within a few minutes, we had him spotted yet again. He had about a 26” to 27” mainframe that was fairly symmetrical, but had weaker front forks. I decided he was worthy of my tag. I got out my rifle and got set up on him. My dad ranged him across the canyon at 683 yards, we dialed the turret on the scope and waited for him to turn broadside. Controlling my breathing as best as I could, I squeezed the trigger.
The shot felt good, but the buck didn't even move. I jacked another round in the chamber and touched another one off. Still, nothing happened. I couldn't believe what was happening. I felt comfortable with my gun out to 800 yards and I had no idea why I wasn't even coming close to this buck. After a few more rounds, and the buck barely taking any steps, I knew something wasn't right. We hiked down off the ridge and felt a very strong wind coming up the canyon that we couldn't feel from the ridge we were shooting from because of the timber. I thought to myself, "No wonder you couldn't hit the broadside of a barn." That is yet another story of, "the one that got away" to add to my collection and I was now at an all time low on my hunt.
This day felt different from all the rest. I woke up with high hopes that I could redeem myself on a good buck. The morning consisted of patchy rain storms, snow storms and inconsistent fog. We built a small fire down the ridge from camp to keep warm and dry out equipment. The fog made it hard to glass for more than a few minutes at a time. We would sit by the fire until the fog lifted, run out to our glassing point and pick apart the little bit of the basin we could see. We went through this process for a few hours and at 9 a.m. we finally spotted a good buck. We could tell he wasn't very wide but had good forks and mass. We watched him feed awhile longer, until he bedded in a small patch of scrub pines. We wasted no time getting in position that would give us a good shot once he fed out that evening. We got set up underneath the buck and decided to range the patch of scrub pines he bedded in. We pulled out the rangefinder... Click! No reading. Click! Still nothing. The batteries had died in our rangefinder in what seemed like the worst situation known to man. Why now? As much as I wanted to change the fact that the rangefinder wouldn't work, I couldn't.
My dad and I broke apart the mountain into 50 yard sections until we reached the scrub pines he was bedded in. We both agreed that 450 yards was a good estimate so we set the turret and waited. Through our spotting scope, we would catch a glimpse of the buck shaking his antlers or flicking his ears once in awhile. After what seemed like an eternity, the evening rolled around and I could see the buck stand up. He was getting antsy and looking down the canyon at something.
The buck bolted out of the trees he was bedded in and bedded down again about 75 yards away. What the heck made that buck dart out of his bed? I could see the front half of his body and didn't feel comfortable with that shot. I let the buck stand up and I went through the motions for the second time that hunt. I jacked a shell in, calmed my breathing and slowly squeezed the trigger. I shot, barely missing the buck before he took off.
The recoil of the gun made it hard to follow the buck on the run. A minute or two went by and I finally found the buck again, quartering away. Was I really going to get a second chance? I settled my cross hairs a few inches behind his front shoulder and I slowly squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped in his tracks and slid down the hill a few yards into some scrub pines. That excitement I felt on opening day was now tenfold.
My adrenaline was pumping as I ran up the hill to my buck. After laying this buck to rest, the highs and lows I experienced on this hunt flashed through my mind and I felt truly blessed to have taken a buck in such an amazing place.
We took a handful of pictures, and boned out my deer as quickly and safely as possible. It was a near 8 p.m. when we finished handling my deer so we got out the headlamps and loaded down our packs. We wanted to get the deer as far as we could that night to make less work for the morning. We weren't exactly sure where our camp was from the GPS coordinates so we decided to drop our packs and build a fire and wait until morning. We didn't sleep a wink all night because we were freezing and had to constantly stock the fire to keep us warm. That was the most miserable night I have ever experienced on the mountain, but by far the most rewarding.
After two long, grueling trips, we had our camp and my buck back at base camp. We took a much needed nap, packed up camp and headed home. The entire drive home, I couldn't help but replay the entire hunt over and over in my mind. The highs and lows, the missed shots and the memories that will last a lifetime.
Although hunting is much more than a game of inches to me, my buck ended up scoring 176 ⅜” B&C. I am truly blessed to be able to chase my dreams each and every season and I would like to thank my loving parents for being so supportive of my passion. I can't wait to be back in that same basin in a few years with my dad reliving my hunt, and this time, it's his turn.