For many of us hunting is a year-round endeavor; planning, scouting, training, and finally the opening day is upon us. February of 2016 began no different for me, as I started training for the upcoming season. Hauling a fifty-pound bag of sand in my pack up the local “bitch hill” a few times a week, is my training of choice for upcoming backpack hunts. I didn’t have any concrete plans for the season yet, but I knew that the mountains of Northern British Columbia, and the adventures they hold, were calling to me. Two years prior I had accompanied my friend Jeff on a fly in hunt for Stone’s sheep and mountain goat, and I have been hooked on the mountains and experiences a Northern backpack hunt has to offer since. This was something that I had dreamed of since I started hunting in 2007. That first trip was a hard one, it was August 1st, a season opener hunt. The temperatures were hot and the bugs were out en masse. This hunt also opened my eyes to the mental exhaustion that hunting can bring, as we didn’t see a single sheep that whole time. We came back sunburnt and defeated, but we weren’t even home and all I could think about was how badly I wanted to do it all over again!
In 2015 I headed north with Jeff again in search of Stone’s sheep in a different area. We saw sheep this time, and a lot of grizzly bears, but no rams that were legal. Early on in 2016, I started talking with my friend Brandon about another trip North, as he already had a ram and we both have always wanted to hunt caribou. Mountain caribou have been one of my dream animals since I started hunting when a friend loaned me some Jim Shockey hunting DVDs. The caribou hunts were by far my favourite to watch, as the country they lived in was spectacular, and the animals themselves were fascinating and unique. We came to the conclusion that a fly-in hunt in Northwestern B.C. would be our best odds.
Fast forward to early September, and Brandon and I were headed North for our fly-in caribou trip. Before I left, my son Jack gave me one of his small toy trucks to bring with me for good luck, and I would keep that truck in the top lid of my pack all season. The plan was to hunt caribou and maybe goats if we saw some, and head South of the lake in search of sheep for me if time permitted. Brandon and I both held caribou tags, he also had a goat tag, and I had a sheep tag just in case we were feeling really energetic. When we arrived at Tatogga Lake Resort, we checked into our small cabin and started to organize our gear, as the flight was scheduled for the next morning. We ran into our pilot outside, and he mentioned that he hadn’t been able to fly the past four days due to bad weather. There were parties of hunters scattered at various lakes waiting to be flown out, and one of the parties had been grounded for the last seven days in a remote backcountry lake.
He told us the following day’s weather was looking good, and to our luck he was going to our lake first thing in the morning to pull a hunting party out. That evening we enjoyed a world-famous Tatogga burger — our last luxury meal until the hunt was over.
The next morning we were on the docks waiting to take off at first light, our pilot quickly loaded us up and we were airborne. An hour and a half later the plane’s floats were brushing the waters of our destination. Our excitement to get in was mirrored by the happy faces of the hunters waiting to be picked up, and the energy was palpable by the time we reached shore. One of the groups had a beautiful ram in tow, which lifted our spirits for the potential of sheep in the area. We didn’t waste much time at the lake, stashing our extra gear up a tree in a large bucket and started our hike into the alpine along an old horse trail. Three hours later we broke tree line and were on the plateau where we would target caribou. Just as we got to the top I saw a young bull run off into some timber — a good sign of things to come. We couldn’t hunt yet, as British Columbia has a six-hour waiting period after flying before one can legally hunt. We continued hiking until just before dinner time and the bad weather started to roll in, so we set up camp just in time to dodge a short snow storm. Spent from the day’s hike and excitement, we crawled into our sleeping bags and called it an early night.
The next morning marked our first day of hunting. The decision was made to cover ground and get a lay of the land. The first day was uneventful, although we cut a fair number of wolf tracks and spotted some goats on a far-off cliff face. As it was already getting late in the day, we decided that we would head toward the goats first thing the next morning. We made our way back to camp just as a blizzard started to blow in again. Hunkered down in the tent for an hour or two, Brandon and I went over some maps and Google Earth images. The snow eventually let up, and we spent the remainder of the evening glassing from camp, turning up two more goats right across from camp. They must have moved over the ridge while we were inside the tent. Watching them through our spotters, we put them to bed that night and decided to check them out first thing the next day.
It was a cold, frosty morning, with clear skies as far as the eye could see. The goats were still on the bluffs across from camp, so we made a loop around behind them, stalking into 450 yards. They were bedded on separate ends of a small knob overlooking the valley. We slowly crept into 300 yards, taking cover behind some boulders for two hours, waiting for an opportunity. The crisp mountain air cut through us, we were freezing our asses off. Clouds were rolling in and out, and when the intermittent sun touched our faces it felt as if someone had turned on the heat for split second. Finally, one of the goats stood up to stretch and Brandon made an excellent shot, anchoring it in place. Thankfully it didn’t slide down into the shale below, preserving the horns and saving us from a hellacious pack out. We quickly snapped some pictures, deboned it, loaded our packs and headed back to camp. On our way back, in a far-off basin, we thought we saw a black bear that turned out to be a lone black wolf working the area. Too far to go with our packs full of goat meat.
The next day we continued to search for caribou but didn’t see a single one, nor had we seen any sign in the area. With this information, it was decided that the following day we would pack the goat back to the lake, and head up a different valley for caribou.
Night gave way to morning, and we hastily packed up and began our hike back, an hour in we spotted something in the distance across the plateau that looked out of place. Our binos came up fast, revealing a small herd of caribou feeding on the plateau. Our smiles could not be contained, and we quickly made a plan. Following the dips and contours of the land, we slowly made our way closer to the herd. Once we were within 500 yards of them, we were certain it was a herd of nine bulls. The spotters came out and we confirmed that the herd held several legal bulls. A few of them still had velvet hanging off their antlers, dangling like old shredded curtains. We made a plan to drop off the left edge of the plateau to stay out of sight, figuring we could close the distance and be well under 400 yards. We dropped our packs, I marked them with my GPS to be safe, and took off towards the caribou, crawling on our stomachs in the final stretch to close the distance to 330 yards. Brandon graciously let me take first pick, and then he made the decision on his bull. I put my bull in the crosshairs, and slowly squeezed off a shot — the caribou dropped in his tracks — not a second after I heard the bark of Brandon’s rifle, followed by a second shot and his bull was down. Just like that, we had two bulls in the salt and a pile of work ahead of us. I could hardly believe it! We jumped up and hugged in celebration before racing to grab our packs and get to the bulls.
Charged with adrenaline and excitement, the goat meat and camp in our heavy packs was barely noticeable. As we approached the bulls, we looked them over in awe. An attempt was made to drag them together for pictures but they were too damn big and heavy, certainly bigger than we anticipated — there was no ground shrinkage with these guys. We took some pictures and began to debone the meat after we had both caped out our bulls. With already full packs, we planned on taking a load of meat to the lake and coming back the next day to retrieve the rest. We laid the meat out and covered it with a siltarp, placing rocks on it to keep it from blowing away. Before we left Brandon said, “I’m taking the head out too”. I paused for a moment in thought, “Oh shit really? Well, I will as well!” With the head and capes strapped to our cumbersome packs we started slowly making our way across the vast plateau towards the horse trail that would take us back to the lake.
It seemed to take forever to get to the trail — if you’ve hunted a plateau before you’ll know that things look a lot closer than they actually are. We made the grueling hike back to the lake that afternoon, hung all the meat and set up camp for some much-needed rest. That was by far the heaviest pack out both of us had endured. The next morning we went up as light as possible to load up the rest of the meat, and made our way back to camp with two more heavy loads. We cracked some beers that night and just relaxed, taking it all in. We discussed our options, and made the difficult decision not to head South for sheep — we didn’t want to risk losing the meat to a bear or spoilage. A message was sent to the pilot with our InReach to pick us up the next day, and truthfully we were both worn out from two full days of heavy packing. A doubleheader caribou hunt is no cake walk. It had been a memorable adventure, though it almost seemed too easy. Such is hunting – it’s all about being in the right place at the right time — and I’ve done it long enough to know not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
After a float plane out and a sixteen-hour drive south, I was finally home, and would begin the butchering process on my caribou. I started to butcher my own wild game after being unsatisfied with the quality of meat I was getting back from butchers that I paid to do the work. Sure it takes a lot of time, but when I pull a pack of steaks or burger from the freezer, I know exactly what I am getting. I know where that animal lived, how it died, and who cut and wrapped it. I was responsible for the full process from field to plate, and that is equally as important as the hunt to me.
With a caribou in the freezer, and the late season rolling around it was time to shift my focus to mule deer. I feel very fortunate that I can drive twenty minutes from my door and be hunting in prime white-tailed and mule deer habitat. As I already had a good supply of meat for my family, I told myself I would finally hold out for a big-stinky-swollen-necked-rutted-up buck. I wanted to stretch this season out as long as possible, to have a chance at the buck of my dreams. I hunted hard all September and all of October. I saw a good number of bucks, and a couple that were very tempting but I stayed true to my goals. There is something special about hunting the mule deer rut, the cold air, the snow, the smells and the action! It is undoubtedly one of my favourite times of year to hunt.
It was mid-November, and winter was starting to get into swing in the interior of B.C. I decided to take a chance and try a totally new spot, a spot that I have looked at over and over again on Google Earth but had never been to, or even close to. I woke up extra early that morning to get to my chosen spot well before daylight. I wanted to give myself extra time, in case there was any trouble finding the area I wanted to hike into in the dark. I had my entrance point to climb the mountain marked as a waypoint in my GPS. The drive that morning took a little longer than expected as the roads were bad, and I came close to hitting the ditch a couple times on the way to the trailhead. I was probably driving too fast for the conditions but the anticipation of exploring a totally new area was too exciting and I just wanted to get my boots on the ground!
Once there, I changed into my hunting boots, laced them tight and strapped on my Kahtoola Microspikes — a must for last season deer hunting in my opinion. As I climbed, I made my way up the hillside through an old burn. With a fresh dusting of snow, I was excited for the potential to cut multiple tracks on my way up through the timber. Surprisingly I didn’t cut a single track until an hour into the climb, three-quarters of the way up the ridge. This was a bit discouraging as the road below was covered in deer tracks from the night before. Doubt crept into my mind, “Had I made the wrong move?” My plan was to follow the ridge west and continue up another hillside to the top of the mountain, where I would glass down some promising looking fingers.
Once at the top the ridge I stopped for a quick snack — my favourite — a vanilla Honey Stinger and some water. I checked my GPS and headed west to my planned destination, the ridge was windy and the snow was blowing hard off the trees, the wind gusting hard in my face. Shortly after starting off I came across a pair of boot prints heading the opposite direction. I tried to not let that get into my head, but I wondered if someone had beat me up there and already moved through the area I planned on glassing. Upon closer inspection the boot prints looked crusty and windblown, I figured they were a day or two old. I carried on slowly, stopping every five or ten steps to lean against a tree and glass for any sort of horizontal line in the timber. The mercury had dropped and I was starting to get chilled while moving slowly along the ridge. I decided to drop off the ridge, and down about fifty yards to side hill along the valley. I kept on moving for another hour with no sightings, and barely any tracks. Doubt crept in again, “Maybe this spot isn’t as good as I’d thought.”
I stood there leaning against the tree, weighing out my options. Suddenly I saw movement near the bottom of the drainage. I quickly brought up my binos and found a small three-point buck trotting up the hill near the bottom of the ravine. My heart started pounding, I had finally found one. I continued to scan the area for any other movement, being that it was the peak of the rut. I picked out two muley does standing near where I saw the three-point feeding. The three-point was now making his way back down towards the does, I lost sight of him behind a small knoll, and then he came running out again, only to turn and trot up the same hillside he’d come down. That is when I saw it.
The first time I laid eyes on him was from directly behind, and quite a ways up the hill. All I could see was tall, thick, dark antlers. They looked bloody huge, certainly the biggest mule deer I had ever set eyes on in real life. He was chasing the three-point up the hill to protect his does, and I was worried he would slip away, vanishing into the timber never to be seen again. The wind was still blowing hard into my face, so I made my way down the hill to close the gap. I made it to 165 yards, laying down prone and resting my rifle on my pack. The hill was fairly steep, over thirty-five degrees downhill, so it was hard to get a solid and comfortable rest. I laid there trying to find the buck between the trees, I needed to make sure that he was in fact, a legal buck — four points on an antler, not including the brow. I picked him up coming back down the hill towards the does, he was quartering towards me and I easily counted four on one side. That is when shit got real, and I thought to myself, “This is going to happen.”
I waited for a clear lane through the trees and set my crosshairs on his shoulder, held my breath and remembered to squeeze the trigger and not pull it. I tried not to focus on how big he was, just on making a good shot. I felt the trigger of my .270 WSM break and heard the hollow thwack as he was hit. He spun 180 degrees on impact and stood there. Racking another cartridge into the chamber I fired again, but missed — it was rushed and my adrenaline was pumping hard at this point. He started to slowly walk away and then turned broadside, he was in rough shape, but I did not want to risk losing this deer. I waited for a clean lane and let another shot go, losing sight of him in the recoil. I got my scope back on him just in time to see four hooves straight up in the air and the buck sliding down the snowy slope! I couldn’t believe it, my dream became a reality.
Every time I kill an animal I have mixed feelings that rush through my head. Adrenaline, excitement, remorse, relief, happiness. This was no different, and the many emotions were staggering. After regaining composure, I quickly grabbed my pack, dug the three empty brass casings out of the snow and made my way down the hill. I got to the spot where I thought I had shot him — there were tracks everywhere — it looked like a rodeo had taken place. I could not find blood or any sign of him. I looked back up the hill and checked the range, I was 40 yards short. I went a little further and crossed the slide path going down the hill. The air was filled with his scent, the pungent smell of a rutted up mule deer stung my nostrils. I looked down and followed the trail with my eyes, there he lay, hung up in a dead tree.
I ran down to him, my heart in my throat. He was massive, and I couldn’t believe it. I had always wanted a buck with a sticker and or a drop point, and he had both. I quickly sent my wife an InReach message telling her I’d shot a huge buck, and that it was probably worth putting on the wall! I had always wanted a “wall hanger buck” and I’ve shot some decent bucks in my time, but typically I shoot the first mature four-point I come across. This year I told myself I wanted to hold out and hopefully find something special. And that I did!
I quickly got to work and took some pictures to have memories of this special day, noticing my sons “lucky toy truck” in the top lid of my pack as I dug out my camera. The weather had changed too, the sun had come out and the temperatures were climbing nicely. I had to tie the buck off to some trees to prevent him from sliding downhill while I worked on him. I caped him out and then began to quarter and debone all the meat. I found two entry holes, confirmation that I had missed my second rushed shot. Laying out all the meat in the snow to let it cool while I continued butchering, I was amazed at the size of the body on this deer, and suddenly I wished I wasn’t by myself. With the deboned meat loaded into game bags, and my pack lined with a contractors garbage bag I was almost ready to pack off the mountain. I rolled the cape up and strapped it — along with the head — to the top of my pack. I could barely move my pack by hand, I set it up and tried to lift it as I usually do, but I couldn’t get it off the ground. Once again this season, I had a pack as big as the smile on my face.
I sat down and buckled myself into it, rolled over on to my knees and stood up, tightening the hell out of the belt. I cinched up the shoulder straps and tightened the load lifters. The weight was crushing, but I was running on adrenaline. Grabbing my trekking poles and gun I set off back up the mountain. It was a slow and tedious climb, ten steps, stop, ten steps, stop. My glutes and quads were on fire. Finally, I made it to the top of the ridge and sat down on a fallen tree, as I dared not risk sitting on the ground and struggling to get up again. Hiking back along the ridge, I followed my footprints until I got to the point where I had to start making my way down the hill I had hiked up that morning. Before I started the pack out, I’d stuffed my hip belt pocket with snacks. Hastily I tore open a pack of Cliff Shot Bloks, dropping two into the snow. Shit! I didn’t dare bend over and try to find them with that pack on, as I knew I would topple over. Slowly I made my way down the mountain, soon realizing how big the rack was. It was getting hung up on the trees and branches I was walking between.
As with any old burn, there were many big holes and stumps buried under the snow that I couldn’t see. On my way down, I stepped into a dip with my left leg, buckling my knee backward. I started to go over and quickly put my trekking pole out to stop the fall, promptly snapping it in half like a toothpick. I went down hard on my left side and I thought I’d wrecked my knee with the way it bent backward. I laid there like a turtle on its back, wondering if my knee was going to be OK or if I was going to have to hit the SOS button on my InReach. I tested the waters, bending my leg, it didn’t feel that bad surprisingly. I tried to roll over and get up but I couldn’t budge, so I unbuckled my pack and rolled out of it.
Strapping the broken pole to my pack, I set it up and sat into it once again. Buckling and tightening the straps, I slowly stood up and made my way down the hill with one pole. Grabbing onto every tree I could with my free hand, I kept myself from taking a nosedive as my leg and knee were starting to feel pretty wobbly. I decided to take one last break on another fallen tree that was about hip level. As I sat on the tree and took the load off my feet the tree snapped under the weight, sending me flying back to the ground. Just like that, I was stuck on my back kicking and wiggling like a turtle again! It felt like deja-vu as I repeated the process from earlier, unbuckling and getting my pack re-situated. Down the hill again I went.
Four hours after leaving the kill site I was back at my truck, I dumped the pack into the box in relief and unloaded all the meat. Light as a feather without the pack on, I climbed into the truck and hit the road with a great big shit-eating grin on my face. All the pain and suffering was forgotten. I was ecstatic, and couldn’t wait to get home and show my wife and son the buck of my dreams.
I had cut off and packed every piece of edible meat on that deer, including the heart. One of my son’s favorite things to do is run the pedal on the meat grinder when we’re making burger and cut the brown freezer paper with the slide cutter on the paper dispenser. I knew he would be excited to help me butcher this buck.
Over a year later, all the meat from that deer has been eaten by my family but this old boy will be on my wall forever. Every time I look at him I will remember that day, the lows and highs, sweat and pain, and I will forever give him the respect he deserves. It took me ten years of hunting to finally find a buck that I thought deserved a spot on the wall, and every memory and experience leading up to that moment is reflected in this deer.
2016 was a dream season for me and one that I will never forget. I was fortunate enough to experience success while hunting two of my bucket list animals. While that season will always be a highlight of my hunting career, I still have two more dream animals on my list — Rocky Mountain goat and a Stone’s sheep. Here’s hoping there’s another dream season in the not too distant future. Oh, and yes, living in B.C. is as good as it sounds!