I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about sitting on that ridge nearly every day since returning. Getting hammered by the blistering wind, trying to keep my eyes focused on the bucks I shared the basin with; life seemed to be at a standstill. It was day three of our seven-day backcountry trip, and I’d finally laid eyes on what I’d come all this way for.
Four grey vertical lines appeared as it started to get light out. It had to be a deer, I thought, anxiously trading my binoculars for my spotter. Nothing; too dark for my spotter, so I went back to the binos. It’s not moving. Do I keep staring at this until my mind turns it into a deer? What am I missing on the rest of the mountain right now? My mind was a flurry of activity. Just as the sun started to reveal the landscape in detail, I confirmed that it was in fact a buck. A small fork-horn, shedding his velvet on a section of brush. Cool, I thought as I studied him, and once again I switched to the spotter to get a closer look. I was fascinated by the way he destroyed the bush, trying to get the velvet off his antlers. As soon as he beds down, I’m going after him.
Half an hour went by and he was still working on the bush. I decided to look at the rest of the landscape through my binos to see what I might have been missing and as soon as I clipped the binos in I noticed he wasn’t alone. A nice 4×4 stood a stone’s throw away, feeding on the same patch of vegetation. Back to the spotter. My excitement getting the best of me, I stretched a grin that could have been seen by anyone glassing the same basin. I changed my mind and immediately shifted my focus from the fork-horn to this new, much larger buck.
As before, I studied him for fifteen minutes or so. I decided to scan around one more time, free-handing the binos, leaving the spotter focused on him. Of course. While scanning, I saw that barely twenty yards from him was an even bigger buck. Had I zoomed my spotter back to 15x I would have easily seen all three! Rookie mistake, I guess that’s how you learn. Just an hour before I was set on taking a fork-horn, but in the past few minutes I’d switched from a nice buck to an even nicer buck. And then I saw all three bucks looking up the ridge, roughly four-hundred yards above them. Could it be? I heard the sound of rocks tumbling down the mountain and quickly scanned. More deer.
Instantly, I picked out two bucks running down the mountain. I couldn’t believe what this old buck looked like: a 2×1 with a 30+ inch spread, still in full velvet. He was noticeably more grey than the others, had a roman nose, and limped slightly, confirming my suspicions of his age. The younger bucks did not welcome him to their group; they chased him off and then distracted themselves by fighting with each other.
Within minutes, they seemed to recognize the experience of the older buck and decided to follow him in search of a bedding area. Watching the five bucks for a good part of the morning, I studied their every move as they headed into a section of thick timber to bed down. It was go time; I made breakfast and lightened my pack, only taking the necessities to increase my efficiency on the mountain. My brother joined me on the first part of the stalk, as he’d spotted a bull elk in the same vicinity of the bedded mule deer. Here is where things differ the most from hunting the rolling hills of Pennsylvania: instead of heading directly to the bedded deer, we had to climb almost five-hundred feet in elevation to find a spot where we could access the basin and then then play the wind to attempt to get within my muzzleloader’s range.
Just as I began to shoulder my pack, my heart sank. A gunshot rang out above me in the direction of the bedded deer. Did someone just shoot one of the bucks I was after? If not, did it cause them to head deeper into the pines? After hiking higher up, we spotted the other hunters tracking the deer they’d shot at and agreed that it was a different buck. While the shot may have spooked the deer out of their bedding area, we didn’t know for sure. We pushed on, hoping that they’d decided to hold up where we’d last seen them.
After about an hour of hiking, we’d closed to within two-hundred yards of the bedded bucks. We were still well above them and could not see exactly where they were so I dropped my pack, took off my boots, and pulled on a pair of heavy wool socks. This would allow me to get in close without too much noise. My shot would likely not be over fifty yards.
Leaving my brother back with my gear, I headed off. With every carefully placed step, I repeated the same saying in my head, slow down; they’re not going anywhere. With every foot placement my socks would quietly grip the ground and allow me to feel each and every stick flex under the bottom of my foot. I have never been so focused in my life. The wind was perfect; the sun pushing the thermals up the mountain in the exact direction I needed them to. This is going to happen, I thought to myself. This is going to happen.
At that moment, just as I came across the hoof prints of the bucks from a couple hours earlier, a patch of clouds began to appear above me on the ridge line. I knew what was coming next, and as the clouds obscured the sun, the winds shifted. I froze in position and lowered to the ground as flat as humanly possible. The gusts swept down into the valley, making the minutes feel like hours. I hugged the ground until the clouds passed, allowing the thermals to sway in my favor again.
Moments after the winds shifted, I heard and felt a deep thud; a sound and feeling that can only be associated with a hoof hitting the ground. I eased the hammer back to half-cock on my muzzleloader, putting slight pressure on the trigger to silence the loud click of the sear seating itself in the notch of the hammer. Did the deer catch my scent and take off? I hunkered down to wait and see if I could pick up the sound again. I only heard one thud, I thought to myself. There were supposedly five bucks bedded in the vicinity. They would make more noise than that, right?
About fifteen minutes passed and nothing changed, so I eased myself up to my feet to continue the stalk. I was within fifty yards of where I thought they’d bedded for the day but the timber was so thick that I had a hard time seeing anything past twenty yards. I would take a step or two and stop, scanning the woods with my eyes, then with my binoculars. Nothing. It had taken me two hours to cover the last two-hundred yards, and there was nothing to be found except tracks from hours before.
Where did they go? Did they wind me? Were they even bedded there to begin with? Did the shot up the valley spook them before I started the stalk? Did I miss them as they snuck into the drainage on the far side of the timber patch? Were they watching me and I just didn’t see them? I ran every possible scenario through my head. I was overwhelmed with thoughts of what I’d potentially done wrong. While I sat in that patch of woods, debating about leaving my brother up on the hill and continuing through the timber, hunting in my socks, I realized how efficient this method was. I have never felt so in tune with what was going on around me before. Being completely silent, studying every inch of the ground as I moved forward. I loved it.
Simply put, I was hooked. I have not found anything else in my life where I can maintain such focus and not be distracted by this or that. Interaction with nature is a necessity in my life, and I came out thinking more clearly than ever before. While I slipped and slid my way up the mountain to my brother, I did so with a gleaming smile. That was awesome. I’d never been so happy about being unsuccessful.
Don’t get me wrong, connecting with the vitals of a mature mule deer buck at the end of that stalk would have been great, but part of me would have left that mountain empty had that happened. What would I have learned being successful on my first stalk? I might have left Colorado thinking mule deer hunting was easy and that anyone could do it.
That ended up being the only stalk I made that week. I would see three of those five bucks again: a coyote was chasing two of them, and the other was caped out in another hunter’s backpack.
All in all, it was a great trip. I learned a lot about high country mule deer and the places that they live. While I didn’t notch my tag, I did get an excuse to return to the mountains in search of these amazing animals again.