As September 10th slowly approaches, you will hear every man, woman and child tell you all about the alpine mule deer hunt they are planning. There is no denying the romance that is attached to the idea of packing into the most beautiful terrain around, finding that big buck and then packing your camp and deer back to your truck.
Everyone wants to climb into that basin that hasn’t been hunted, where the game has never seen a human and the deer are so big that you need a horse to get them out. For most hunters, it will always be a romanticized daydream. That’s not to say those basins and deer don’t exist, because they do and I’ve been there.
Just the same as everyone else my fall hunt planning begun as soon as the freezer door closed behind this spring’s black bear. I teamed up with another hunter whose ideas seemed to match mine. The plan was simple. We would drive to the mountains before the season opened and hike into the ‘valley of bucks’ on the eve of opening day.
The hike is as much guesswork as it is instinct, with nothing to follow but an old trappers trail covered in deadfall. You really need to pay attention. We used bright orange and pink flagging tape on trees along the trail in case we had trouble finding our way out. Four hours later and we saw our first glimpses of the alpine, not the sweet pocket we are heading for but alpine nonetheless. During this moment of rest, as we are about to pull out the binoculars, three hunters emerge from the woods behind us. Turns out it’s a friend of mine and his two companions. It was hard to not have strong feelings about sharing the mountain with other hunters — at that moment you can visualize all your hard work vanishing down the drain — but at least it was a friend, someone I respect and trust. In the end, it was quite nice to have some extra company up there.
Luckily for us, the other group has plans to hunt toward to east and we will hunt the western side, the border was set along a ridge separating the valley of bucks from the rest of the area. After no time at all, one of us found a deer on the green slopes over a mile away. It’s a four-point deer, meaning it has four points on at least one antler, which makes it a legal buck at this time of year in this region. Although the buck is on the wrong side of the mountain, it increases my optimism about the area we are headed for.
From the rest area, we part ways from the other group and wish them luck, continuing upward through the semi-open forest towards the peak of the mountain. Soon the forest breaks wide open with very few trees and we are looking straight up the ridge we plan to glass from. It’s not a long hike but it takes quite some time to covers the steep terrain. As soon as possible we break out the glass and begin to tear apart the terrain, letting the eyes do the walking. Just as before it doesn’t take long until we are looking at deer. This time it’s a very solid four-point accompanied by a younger two-point buck and a doe. Finding those deer, on that ridge, that day… it was a real treat. A reward for the effort already endured.
Glassing these deer we can’t help but smile and celebrate, our plan is coming together, all the pieces of the puzzle align and it’s clear that the rest is up to us. We try to hide our excitement as the other group of hunters has set up camp below us and they are busy glassing in the opposite direction. We don’t need them poking their heads over our ridge and seeing what we have seen. The sun was about to set, so we left our tents after dinner to quickly glass once more and see who else had joined the party. I had my spotting scope and my partner used his binoculars. He found a deer straight away and encourages me to hurry up with the spotter. Once I get settled on the target area, all I can manage to say is “go get your spotting scope”. There was now over ten deer, mostly bucks. I didn’t want to explain what I was seeing, instead, I’d rather he experience it for himself. Darkness soon fell on the mountain and we were left to imagine what the morning might bring.
The anticipation for the next day kept me awake most of the night, tossing, turning and visualizing those deer. Everything we had planned for and hoped for was coming to fruition, so much time pouring over maps and Google Earth, we were finally here. The valley was as incredible as imagined, the pristine green slopes, the smell of alpine flowers and the magnificent mountain peak surrounding us. We were camped perfectly above the bucks, right where we imagined them. Not just any bucks, but those bucks you read about, big groups, in full velvet, sparring each other and bedding in the wide open. This valley was simply amazing.
The next day we woke up early full of excitement and anticipation. Enjoying our oatmeal and a quick coffee well before sunrise. We are extremely exposed on the ridge, bundled up in down as we will be glassing head-on into the wind and that beautiful warmth from the sun is still a few hours away. We tuck in tight behind a small clump of trees to avoid being skylined when the sun is at our backs. It’s still too dark to see the far side of the valley, but it doesn’t take long to clear up. I think we were both as surprised as each other with what we saw. There was a parade of deer, feeding out of the tree line in the valley bottom up to the steep slopes towards the furthest ridge. We had not seen this many deer yesterday. As they fed up and away they all looked like kings, at first glance you’d swear they were all “shooters”. Time to take a breath, relax and stop shivering for long enough to analyze some bucks.
We relocate the beefy four point from yesterday, he is easy to spot with his impressive brow tines. The other deer look promising but one by one we confirm there is only one legal buck in the group. Some very nice bucks in there, but without that fourth point, we cannot pursue them. We are patiently watching the group of deer move up the far ridgeline. Once the sun finally breaks over the mountain tops behind us, it is clear what the deer are doing. That far ridge is the first part of the valley to get sun. Those deer get right up to the skyline and bask in it to warm up after a long cold night. The mature bucks bed down and watch the younger boys test themselves with some gentle sparring. The does bed away from the action and soak up that golden sunlight.
Currently, we are over a mile away from these deer. It’s a task to keep tabs on them all. It seems like new deer are intermingling with the group. New bucks we had not seen before, sitting on the top of the ridge, totally skylined. It was amazing, the silhouette of the antlers against the morning sky was a sight to behold. Eventually, we could tell that deer from the next valley were also coming to this ridge for the morning sun. That’s when things started to get very exciting as there were two more legal bucks in the group. One was a younger three point with a crab claw making him legal, but only just. The other was a legit four by four, nothing to compare to the original buck with the tall brow tines, but a beautiful buck nonetheless.
Our current position was great for glassing but somewhat challenging for hunting. We would need to jump the ridge and cross some very exposed sections of rock and boulder before we would be hidden again by one of the many finger ridges within the valley. The hunting gods saw our predicament and sent in the support team. A thick fog rolled across the whole mountain, taking away our ability to see more than 100 yards in front of us. We capitalized on the opportunity, packing our bags with enough food to last two days, sleeping bags, clothes and a “kill kit”. Thinking we may have to spend a night under the stars depending on how the stalk goes, we wanted to be prepared.
Like a greyhound craving to catch the rabbit, we jump over that ridge and start making some headway. That feeling of success is already in the air. The fog lifts just in time for us to slip behind the first of four finger ridges, we use this time to fill up our water in one of the many creeks. Once rehydrated, fed and composed we sidehill across the mountain towards our next vantage point. Using absolute caution not to skyline ourselves, we crawl into some more trees and break out the glass. The bucks are still out in the sun, Mr. Brow Tine has bedded below the intruder four point with some smaller bucks. We take inventory on the situation once more and then risk the exposure on the other side of the finger ridge, the sun at our backs kept us in shadows. Halfway down the exposed slope, we notice that Mr. Brow Tine is up and moving with a two-point buck. Moving in our direction towards a clump of trees in the wide open. We watch the two bucks slip behind cover and not emerge. They must have bedded down. The other bucks are also starting to meander into cover. At the time it felt discouraging, watching our quarry disappear but ultimately it was a blessing. If we can’t see the bucks, they probably can’t see us. We make it up and over the next two ridges without any sign of the bucks. Our best interpretation is that Mr. Brow Tine is bedded in those trees and doesn’t plan to move anytime soon.
Now within 275 yards of the tree, we hunker down in some decent cover. My partner is shooting first. I’m spotting. We wait for quite some time before we see any movement. First, we see antlers and then a whole deer on the underside of the trees. A deer has sprung from his bed and is having a stretch. Excitement goes through the roof, but it’s just the two point. It’s a good sign, it lets us know they didn’t leave while we were out of sight. We both hope that the younger buck moving around and acting like a teenager might annoy the older buck enough to move beds. The young two-point rejoins the old boy behind the trees, as we wished and hoped for, Mr. Brow Tine is now getting restless. Not fifteen minutes after, and we see some more movement. This time on the high side of the trees, antlers moving up and down through the branches. Mr. Brow Tine was feeding. I was fumbling like a child with a phone skope while my partner was glued to his rifle and ready to fire.
Quickly, I abandon the hope of filming the shot and focus on being a good spotter. The buck is one step away from the last step of his life. What was really only a few moments felt like an hour, but finally, he steps forward. The report of my partners rifle resonates through the valley. It’s a great hit. The buck uses his last moments to run around the trees to the low side, where I can see blood raging from his mouth. The steep terrain doesn’t help the situation, and when he finally falls, Mr. Brow Tine is on a one way street to the bottom of the valley. Not a violent tumble, just a fast and furious bobsled ride.
We exchange some well-deserved celebrations, keeping our composure as we still need to kill another buck. A few deer show themselves after the shot, but they don’t know what the threat is or where it came from. We have performed a perfect hunt. Mr. Brow Tine is out of sight but certainly dead, we allow twenty minutes or so for the other deer to simmer down. I start covering ground towards the last known location of the intruder buck while my partner heads straight downhill in search of his giant. We don’t really set a plan, we are both self-sufficient for the night. In my mind, I would like to avoid going into the valley bottom but I know it’s a real possibility.
All of the deer are out of sight since the shot rang out, all the intruder deer have slipped back into their own valley. I pick my way closer and closer to the last known location. Trying my best to not expose myself to any deer that might be just over the ridge. After a slow and cautious approach, I arrive at the tree where I last saw the intruder four-point. No deer spooked bit also no deer spotted. I begin to foolishly edge further and further into the intruder’s valley. It’s a semi-open hillside with clumps of trees just like the ‘valley of bucks’. It doesn’t occur to me at the time that those deer would be so close to my location and I pay dearly. I catch a quick glimpse of my four-point moving between trees, I freeze in place but it’s too late. A large-bodied three-point deer has me pinned. I try to outlast his stare but the gig is up. He gives me the mule deer roar and they take off. Moving quickly around the mountain in clear sight. Six big bucks, four of which I have never seen and three younger bucks, cruise around the mountain. Bounding away and looking more and more impressive with each stride. They stop to look back from the far side. I range the original four point at 500 yards. It’s across the valley so my shooting position is poor, to say the least. I manage to get my pack propped up as a front rest. I check my data and make the adjustments for the long shot. I fire. The six bigger bucks confirm that I am a threat and cover even more country. Moving through trees and then finally cresting over the far side of the valley. I had missed, plain and simple. Kicking myself for the missed opportunity, I turn the glass back to the remaining bucks. No shooters.
Deciding to push my luck, I begin to close the distance between me and the bucks. Maybe there are more deer or maybe I’m stupid enough to go into the third valley for the day in pursuit of the six deer I had already missed on. It doesn’t take long to get around the valley. As expected I bumped another deer, a velvet-covered three-point deer jogs out from behind a tree and gives me the signature look back. I pay him very little attention and continue walking. He turns and takes a few steps away from me. As he turned I noticed his right side had some unusual antler growth. Well now I’m just curious, I throw up the binoculars and see he has a typical three point rack on his left side but his right was a terrible mess of antler. Points in all directions. A quick count free-handing my binoculars had this guy as a six by three.
That romanticized notion of alpine mule deer comes back to me, the classic photo of a giant four-point buck strapped to my Seek Outside backpack. This buck just didn’t fit the bill. He was legal but he wasn’t the buck you bust your ass for like I already had. Or was he? I went back and forth with myself for far too long, rifle goes up then rifle goes back down. This happened at least five times. Then it dawned on me, the hunt isn’t determined in the size and score of the antlers. The quality of the hunt had already been written. Which buck I chose to shoot was a minor detail that would have no effect on my perspective looking back on this experience.
BANG! To my disappointment, this buck has the same fate as Mr. Brow Tines and begins a heavy sled ride down the valley. Luckily he gets caught up quickly in a creek. It’s now 3:30 pm, I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight but I get working as quickly as possible. The terrain is so steep and the buck so heavy that if I move him from the creek he wants to slide. So I’m reduced to working in the running water with the buck all bunched up.
By 5:30 pm I have a full load of venison and a wild set of antlers on my back and I’m back on the ridge looking across the ‘valley of bucks’ towards my camp — a long way away. Being just stupid enough to not know when to stop, I promise myself I’d be sleeping in the comfort of my tent tonight. One foot in front of the other I try to cover as much ground as possible before dark. About a third of the way across the valley I look toward to valley bottom to see my partner with his own load and a set of dandy antlers. He is having a rough time moving that big load up the hill. Not sure I can really help in any way, I push on for camp.
Darkness falls just as I arrive at the boulder fields. Using my headlamp and cursing at myself for the unnecessary risk I continue through some ugly terrain. 9:30 pm and I crest the ridge I had been glassing from thirteen hours prior. The first thing I see is the group of three hunters moving around their camp with headlamps. Finally, the rush of excitement hits me and I let out a big cheer. Trying to let the others know what we had been up to for the day. Through the wind, I can’t tell if they responded.
I unpack my meat and get it into the only tree near camp. Totally exhaustion steals my appetite and renders me only capable of crawling into bed. I fall asleep quickly but wake soon after, worried about my teammate out in the valley. I had no idea if he was safe or was he still climbing his way back to camp. I lay awake just hoping that he was safe trying to catch up on some rest.
I wake at first light to glass. I’ve never had to glass for a human before. I spent quite some time looking over the area I last saw him, but nothing so I head back to the tent for coffee and breakfast. I also do some meat care, picking off the rogue hair and trimming the fat. I stop my chores every twenty minutes or so to glass. Finally, at around 8:30 am I see him. Under a tree, wrestling with that big load and coming to his feet. Now I can relax. I spent the rest of the morning cleaning my meat and trading stories with the other hunters. They had a nice deer hanging also but were still glassing hard for another big buck. Whilst I was down there chatting they found a nice deer and one of the guys went after it. In that time Mr. Brow Tines and a very exhausted hunter made it into our camp. He had spent the night in an emergency blanket and said he slept like a baby.
After a few war stories and a few pictures, we decide that we will head for the truck today. Looking back on the situation, we should have stayed for another rest day as the pack out turned out to be a bigger undertaking than we had imagined. My partner was already exhausted and it did not take long before he started to lose the internal battle with himself. The loads are heavy and the terrain is rugged, these conditions are manageable but once the mind turns sour, it’s just a matter of time before the mountain wins the battle.
Tired, sore and hungry we arrive at the truck at 10:30 pm, we pack our gear away and start the search for a greasy burger. It’s not until 2:00 am that we finally get to stuff our faces with food that didn’t come from a bag. Unfortunately, we had to share the space with dozens of drunken partygoers. Nothing quite like coming from such a beautiful place and now being surrounded by dozens of people who are so far disconnected from the wild places that surround them. It irritated me to no end, we’ve all being that drunk guy before, but in this instance, I felt very annoyed. Next time I think I’ll skip the burger and head home to see my family first.
So that was it, September 10th, the season was over before it even got started. That thing that we crave and obsess over all year had come and gone in a matter of days. One thing is for sure, I have a pair of incredibly unique antlers that will tell their own story long after this one is forgotten.