Going in light and coming out heavy


Wyoming sunset
All photo credits: Ben Blakeley

I didn’t grow up hunting big game like most hunters. My dad was more into upland game hunting and we’d go with my uncle every year. It was our fall tradition. In his younger days, my dad used to go deer hunting with my grandpa, but it wasn’t a tradition that stuck with him, so it didn’t get passed down to me as it does in most families. Up to that point in my life, the only big game I’d harvested was a black bear.

Hunting the big bucks in the high country first came up on my radar back in July 2013 when I was going through the contact list on my phone. I found a friend’s number whom I hadn't talked to in a few years named Jake. I still considered him a good friend; we'd just grown a little out of touch. I sent him a text to see if he even had the same number still and, luckily, he did. We got to talking about life and soon the topic of conversation turned to hunting, just as it should between good friends, right? He told me he had drawn a mule deer tag in Wyoming, had done some scouting and was excited for his hunt to open. He told me I should look into applying for the same tag next year and, if I drew, he'd take me to his spot and show me around. He said the only way to hunt this area was by backpack hunting, which really caught my interest. He said he’d seen some really big bucks up in the area and that's all I needed to hear. He did end up harvesting a really pretty, very symmetrical 4x4 that season that scored in the mid-180's. To say I was a little jealous when he sent me the picture of him behind that buck would be an understatement.

Fast forward to spring of the following year. I ended up drawing the tag I'd put in for. Jake had also put in again but hadn't drawn. I contacted him the day the Wyoming results came out and one of the first things he said was, “We've got to get up there and find you a good buck!'” That was music to my ears.

The time I spent hiking those high country basins and ridges that year will forever be ingrained in my memory. Those places can feel so remote and seemingly untouched that it’s almost like you might be the first person to have ever been there. The scenery is gorgeous and it’s something you have to experience first-hand in order to fully appreciate how special places like that in this world really are; words just don’t do them justice.

High country basin

We were only able to make one scouting trip before the season opener even though the original plan had been to make several. Life has a funny way of doing that sometimes. But we did manage to find some really big bucks, so my hopes for the opener were really high.

On Friday before the season opened, Jake and I were driving up to hike into camp after we got off work. The plan was to do as much glassing as possible and, hopefully, find a shooter buck that we could try to pattern as much as possible before opening day. We started the over four-mile pack in at 11 p.m. It had cooled off substantially over the last few days based upon the weather reports and we found the reports to be pretty accurate as we saw frost all over during the midnight hours of the hike in. We left the truck and were able to hike by moonlight for quite a ways as long as there wasn't much tree cover. Watching our shadows sprawl out in front of our every step over the frost covered ground while walking by the soft light of the moon felt almost surreal.

As we climbed the rolling hills and passed through meadows, we could hear bulls bugling in the distance. When we were in the middle of some deadfall we heard the closest bugle of all and it sounded like it was getting closer. We stopped and turned off our headlamps. Soon we heard some crashing coming right for us. When it sounded like it was about 10 to 15 yards away and began to slow, we flipped on our headlamps and pointed them in the direction of the noise. A big 6x6 velvet bull swung his head back and forth in the beams of light, looking pretty confused and promptly took off the way he'd come. I think he figured out we weren't elk.

We rolled into our campsite at between  2:30 and 3 a.m. We set up the tent quickly, rolled out our sleeping bags and promptly fell asleep.

We were up and glassing after about three hours of sleep. Getting out of the tent to this view was exhilarating; I felt like I was on top of the world. It made me really appreciate how lucky we are to be able to escape the daily grind for a while and spend time in places like this.

The morning was a little slower than we had expected, but we saw some activity that gave us hope, one, in particular, being a wide 4x4.

He was still in full velvet—the only one of the trip we’d see like that.

The big wide 4x4

The rest of that day was pretty slow. We didn’t turn up a whole lot that got us too excited. All in all, it wasn’t the best day for glassing big bucks. All I could think of most of the day was the big buck I'd seen that morning in full velvet. Little did I know we'd meet again...

The day before the opener was a really slow day in terms of seeing deer. Jake had hiked to a peak across the draw from camp to get a view of the back sides of some ridges and bowls while I stayed close to camp to glass. I never saw much, but he told me when he got back to camp that night that he’d seen the big velvet buck hanging out in a little bowl that had been out of my view. That gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to turn him up the next morning.

When the alarm went off at 4:35 a.m. I don't think I’d slept at all. I was so nervous, anxious and excited that I could hardly contain myself. It’s a strange mix of emotions that all hunters can relate to. The plan was for me to slip down a game trail to the bottom of the draw and go up the opposite side, side-hill for a bit, and wait for first light by a group of trees while Jake stayed back near the camp and glassed for me.

Gear Shop - Shop Now

As I sat by the small group of pines anxiously awaiting the first rays of dawn to creep over the hill behind me, I was nervous, to say the least. I'd been anticipating, planning for and talking about this hunt for several months; what if I never even got a chance to shoot today? We had to leave that night since Jake had to work the next day. What if I got a case of buck fever and missed? Several thoughts were racing through my mind as dawn crept over the hill and I was finally able to make out silhouettes of trees and rocks. I knew the time had come. I was going to give it my best shot (no pun intended) and hope for the best. I had already dropped everything and was proceeding from this point with only my rifle, binos, rangefinder and a trekking pole to help keep my balance.

I crept up to a ridge and sat and glassed for a while, but didn't see anything. I slowly started edging out of the trees and down the narrow, steep draw. I stopped a few more times and hunkered down to glass my surroundings, listening intently for any sound, but still wasn't seeing or hearing anything. I slowly made my way to the bottom of the ravine and started up the other side. I still wasn't seeing anything whenever I'd stop to glass. I slowly made my way to the opening I’d been aiming for in the tree line on the next ridge. I crept up to the opening on my stomach, feeling as if all my senses were in overdrive. It was the most alive I'd felt in a long time.

I thought I heard some branches snap above and to my left and looked up, but didn't see or hear anything. Then, there was some noise below and to my left. I looked and saw the velvet buck I'd seen two days ago trot briskly out of the trees below me and start to circle and head uphill. He looked back occasionally as if he knew something might be up, but he never looked up at me or even in my general direction. I thought if he continued his current path he would cross the ridge I was on, hopefully only 100 to 200 yards up from me. As I settled in for a shot, I double-checked I had around ready and started ranging to a dense cluster of trees, an opening in some scrub pines, a big rock way up the hill; I wanted to be prepared if he popped out anywhere along the hillside.

The big buck on the hillside

I only had to wait for probably four to five minutes, but it seemed like hours before the buck appeared right where I was hoping. He still seemed suspicious and didn’t stop to give me a shot. He crossed the draw and started heading up the opposite side from where I was. As he made his way up the hill, I was staring at him through my scope, waiting for a shot as he went in and out of the trees. Suddenly, he stopped and looked downhill. I didn't need any more of an invitation and sent the bullet on its way. I quickly reloaded as he headed into some trees before I could get another shot off. I hadn’t noticed any signs of a hit and was sure I'd missed as he trotted into the trees. Just when I thought I’d blown a great opportunity, I heard a little crash in the trees he’d gone in to. It’s amazing how quickly your emotions can change when hunting. I began to get really optimistic, only to watch him come out of the other side of the trees still headed the same direction. I was just about to touch off another shot at him when he turned hard right and angled straight downhill. Before I could shoot, I lost him behind the tip of a tall pine, but I did manage to see something through my scope that immediately raised my spirits: his muzzle had been covered in bright red! Not a second later I heard a much bigger crash. My heart probably skipped a beat or two at this point. I didn’t take my scope off that group of trees for the next 30 minutes until Jake made it over to where I was after hearing the shot and seeing my signal to him.

The green arrow in the picture below is where the buck was when I shot and the red arrow in the next picture to the right is where he piled up at. Both pictures were taken from where I was sitting when I shot.

Location of buck before the shot

Where the buck died

When Jake finally crested the first ridge I’d crossed, I pointed out to him the group of pines I'd last seen the buck go into. I watched him through my binos as he looked down into the trees with his, moving around a little to get a different vantage point. After a few seconds, he called back to me and said, “I see a dead buck!” To say I was happy is an understatement; I was overjoyed! I scrambled over to where he was. Out of respect, he had waited for me before going right up to buck to get a real good look at him. When I first saw the buck, he was on his back with his feet in the air piled up against a fallen tree. It's a good thing that dead tree was there to stop him or he probably would've taken a much further tumble. Pictures just can’t do justice to how steep that country really is.

Buck piled up against a log

After we got him rolled over and I got my hands on his antlers, I felt a supreme feeling of gratitude and respect for this animal. High country bucks are tough, tough animals and they live in a harsh and unforgiving environment. I was in awe of all that had transpired in the last couple hours and felt very humble and grateful for this opportunity. I could not have been happier with my first buck! It was a dream come true!

Before we got to work boning him out, I gave Jake a hug and thanked him for all his help. I would never have had this experience without a good friend like him. We took several pictures of the fruits of our labor and then got to work.

Wyoming mule deer

On the hike out, when we were doubled over our trekking poles taking a short breather, something Jake had told me a few weeks back popped into my head: ”The plan is to go in light, and come out heavy.” The rest of the hike out, I would repeat that phrase to myself, looking down at my shadow from the afternoon sun with antlers rising off of each of my shoulders and I would just grin. That was the happiest I’ve ever been while working so hard in all my life and I only hope to have many more experiences just like it!

Pack out

I had a shoulder mount done and am really happy with how it turned out. There was no way to save the real velvet because he’d been too close to rubbing when I shot him so I had some fake velvet put on because that’s how I see him in my mind when I think about watching him through my scope that morning I found him. Still, to this day, several years later, my wife will catch me staring up at him on the wall, my thoughts wandering around 10,000’ high peaks and pristine alpine basins.

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