In the early 70s I started hunting mule deer in the Pine Forest Range located in northern Nevada. Starting in 1973, every year for 20 years my wife Margie and I would spend our vacation time camping, hunting, and fishing in this beautiful place. And each year my obsession grew for big bucks. I would pester Jim Jeffers, the biologist for that area of Nevada, always asking if he had observed any 40-inch bucks during his aerial surveys. He would say that I was crazy, and tell me that he only had seen a couple in his 20-plus years of surveys. Pursuing anything that could help me find big bucks, I researched everything that would tell me what it took to produce monster mule deer: genetics, age, habitat, the best states and where in those states to hunt.
My pursuits have led on hunting adventures into the Fifty Mile Bench of Utah, the Kaibab Plateau along the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Bass Hill in California, Unit 44 in Colorado, Steen’s Mountains in Oregon, Navaho Indian Reservation in Arizona, Rio Arriba County in New Mexico, and Tin Cup Creek in Idaho. After 20 years of hunting these states I finally went to Wyoming in pursuit of my dream for a Boone and Crockett buck.
It was September 1992 when I ventured into the mule deer hideouts of Wyoming. Showing the way was a good friend, Frank Gonzales. Frank and I worked together for several years and shared a passion for hunting. Frank had hunted Wyoming and told me that he knew a spot where we would find big bucks. Frank was the only person I knew that would backpack, eat freeze-dried dinners, and sleep on the ground for several nights to experience the magical moment when those massive, wide antlers appear in the spotting scope and cast their spell—a spell that infects and enslaves the hunter to a lifelong pursuit of big bucks. After a 12-hour drive, we slept at the trailhead the first night. With guns, optics, sleeping bags, tent, food, clothes, and rain gear, we were on our way the next morning. We started into a drainage that led to one of the most rewarding hunts of my life. Both of us shouldered packs approaching 75 pounds. We cruised up the trail for the first couple miles fueled by the cold, crisp mountain air filling our lungs while the reds and yellows of autumn filled our eyes. I knew that one of those stringers of timber in the lofty rocky basins held a buck that appeared in every big buck hunter’s dreams.
The deer season had been open for two days. As we hiked deeper into this enticing drainage, much to our dismay, we started to run into horse hunters returning to the trailhead with some very nice bucks. One hunter stopped to show off an awesome 32-inch, 5×7, which I must confess, made me envious. The further we went, the more hunters we encountered. Fed up with all the horse hunters, Frank and I decided to leave the trail and follow a ridge to the top of a huge mountain. We climbed for eight hours with our overweight packs; when darkness fell, we had scaled only three quarters of the mountain. Finding a place flat enough to roll out a sleeping bag was not possible on the steep mountainside, so using a broken branch as a shovel, we scraped out enough of a flat spot for our sleeping bags. Leaving the trail and creek with only two quarts of water each, and the weather being unseasonably warm with temperatures in the 70s, we decided to save the water for drinking and skip the freeze-dried dinners. Exhausted and hungry, I drifted in a restless sleep where I chased big bucks all night.
Daybreak was clear and warm. The excitement of this new place and the potential of finding big bucks made the final ascent to the top go by quickly. We were counting on the northern exposure of one of these high alpine basins holding a small pond of snow melt to fill our canteens. The drought and unseasonably warm September dried up all those hopes. With a quart of water and a Power Bar in the last 30 hours, we worked our way along the backbone of the best big buck country I had ever hunted. After several hours of glassing our way through this new and beautiful place, I noticed that I had lost my scope covers. I told Frank that I was going to back track and look for them.
I returned unsuccessful to find Frank watching a huge 4-point bedded a half-mile away under a lone pine tree in one of the steepest rock chutes anywhere. Above the buck on top of a craggy ridge was a large Rocky Mountain goat guarding the buck’s back door. It took several hours to circle around and come up above the buck’s bed. When we dropped our packs for the final stalk, I told Frank to take the buck since he was the one who found him. Frank replied, “We will see how things play out.”
Cresting the ridge only to find the goat and the buck gone proved to be a very depressing moment. After a few seconds of frantic searching I found the buck standing on the edge of a stand of heavy timber about 200 yards below.
Frank was 15 yards to my left. Whispering to Frank, “I said there he is, take him.” Frank replied, “You take him.”
This went back and forth several times with the buck two steps from vanishing forever. Finally, Frank said, “You shoot. I do not have a good shot.” With a solid rest and a perfect squeeze, my .300 Weatherby Magnum sent a 180-grain Nosler ballistic tip, almost instantaneously the report of the whack signaled a solid hit. A second later Frank fired, I turned and asked Frank why he had shot. Frank replied, “I did not know how good he was hit.”
After sliding down the steep chute to the buck I found myself in awe of the size of this magnificent trophy. I had been an official measurer for Boone and Crockett for several years, and I had not measured or even seen anything that came close to the quality and size of this buck.
After photos, we began skinning and boning the deer for the long pack out. While skinning we could tell the buck had been hit with both my shot and Frank’s shot. Both were fatal hits. I tagged the buck since I shot first. By the time we had completed processing the buck, it was dark. After finishing the last of the water we decided we had no choice but to spend the night where we were. Once again the mountainside was so steep that scraping out a spot against a bush for our sleeping bags was the only way to keep from rolling down the steep slope. As darkness fell a full moon rose silhouetting the huge antlers which I had placed on top of a bush at the foot of my sleeping bag. Looking up at my buck’s antlers positioned perfectly on top of that bush with the full moon filling the sky in the back round is a memory that is still as vivid as if it happened last night.
Dawn broke on the third day finding us out of water. Being severely dehydrated and almost spent, we headed for the trailhead. Our overweight packs carried the additional load of a boned-out deer along with the cape and antlers. The weight of Frank’s pack compounded by the steep decent drove Frank’s toenails into the front of his boots and hobbled his progress. In the days and weeks to follow his toe nails turned black and fell off. There’s no substitute for good boots!
It was about noon before we reached the bottom, and still, we were a half-mile from the trail and creek. My throat felt as if it would swell shut and my head was spinning. The temperature was in the 70s. Leaving Frank with the meat in the shade of a tree to nurse his toes, I took the canteens and made for the creek. Cold water has never tasted so good! Until I started to swallow, my throat was so dry that my first swallow stung and burned to the point that the pain brought tears to my eyes. I returned with full canteens and after a short rest Frank and I made it to the trailhead by late afternoon.
After a steak dinner and a good night’s sleep, we started the drive home, but not without a quick stop in Afton where I bought a quarter-inch steel tape and rough-scored the buck at 209 inches with a greatest spread of 29-7/8 inches. I told Frank that there had not been a typical mule deer shot that scored that much in the last decade, and it truly was a world-class mule deer.
On the drive home I said, “Frank, if you had known that this deer was as tremendous as it is, would you have given me the first shot?” He replied with a smile, “Yes, it means more to you than it does to me.”
I continue to seek that magic moment that pulls me into the chase every fall. Though I have hunted for the big bucks every year, I have not been able to find the quality of the hunt or a trophy that comes close to the adventure Frank and I had in 1992. I have not shot a deer since—and probably will never shoot another one—but I will always hunt for that magic moment.
Witness the hard-core determination of North America’s most successful hunters. They combined physical conditioning with research, fair-chase ethics, and shooting prowess to seek out and harvest legendary trophy animals.
Thirty hunters. Thirty record-book trophy big game animals, most of them taken without guides on public lands. Thirty epic tales to share back at hunting camp. These are the real-world stories behind some of the top-scoring trophies ever recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club.