When you see terrain from a distance it always seems like it’s no problem; like it’s easily navicable. The angles aren’t too steep. This hill’s not that tall. The deception was so thorough as I looked at the mountain from the closed window of the truck that even out of shape and overweight as I am, before I stepped foot on that mountain I was convinced that it would be a moderate climb no more difficult than any other climb I had done before. I’ve hiked some rugged country here in Kentucky, and I’ve done some backcountry hiking in Montana. This would be no different. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill donning my Eberlestock X1 pack with my rifle in its scabbard and shooting sticks in hand, reality took hold. The angle is that steep, steeper than I’ve ever climbed without a trail underfoot. The hill is that tall, taller than it looked gazing out of the window of the truck. But this was why I was here. While an animal on the ground is the motivating factor in hunting, it’s the hunt that draws me in. The pursuit of that animal is what makes hunting addicting. Anyone can sit seventy-five yards from a salt rock and shoot the first half-decent buck that wanders by and stops to get a lick. It’s something altogether different to chase an animal in its environment and push your mind and body further than you’ve ever pushed yourself before; further than you thought yourself capable. It’s the pursuit that defines your trophy when your buck is on the ground, not only number of points on his head. Steven Rinella said that there’s trophy animals and trophy country: today my pursuit for a trophy mulie would instead see my tag placed on some trophy country.
As we started up the hill it was apparent just how difficult it would be for this native Floridian. It was steep, and to make it more challenging it was a northwest facing cliff that hadn’t yet seen the few inches of snow that fell on it the day before melt off. By the time we had climbed a hundred feet in elevation or so I was gassed. My not-nearly-oft-enough worked heart beat like a hummingbird’s and my thighs were asking just what made me believe that it’d be a good idea to make a climb like this. But despite the work and pain I knew that what I was doing was special. It was what was required in order to accomplish my goal whether I shot an animal or not. It was me not quitting, following through on a commitment. This climb was not only making me a better hunter, but a better man, father, and husband. If presented with that hill as a hiking opportunity, it’s likely I would have passed. But the possibility that the buck I’d come here for would be on the other side of that climb was enough to push me to take up that challenge. It was never even a question as to whether I’d do it or not, even having stopped a handful of times for a couple of minutes to rest my legs and catch my breath, sometimes cussing at the terrain for making the top always seem closer than it was. I was determined to get to the top. I was trying to get to where virtually every experienced hunter and hunting book I’ve read will tell you to go: where most other hunters won’t, and the top and beyond was where most other hunters won’t go. At some points the climb was so steep I had to use my hands to climb, not because it was easier, but because it was the only way. I often found myself using one small tree or else another to help me along, and sometimes as the only way to keep a small slip on the snow covered rocks from being a big one. But step by step I could feel progress. I could see the top getting closer, even when what I thought was the top wasn’t. I could see the bottom getting further and further.
As difficult as that climb was for me, as soon as I got to the top I knew that it would be the easy part. The climb was just a hurdle, but it was a factor I could control. There were still deer to find, and I could only find deer if there were any deer to be found.
Once we got to the flat at the top of the mountainside we looked at the map to compare it to what we had in front of us. We knew that anywhere on the top of that mountain and to the south was public land without any property markers to worry about for miles. We knew that the top of the ridge was reasonably flat, wide, ranging from two hundred yards to a quarter mile across, and easily walkable. We knew we could hunt all day towards the east and not run out of land. We knew that the other side was every bit as steep as the climb up was, and that the climb on the other side of the drainage was just the same. It’s one thing to see the land on a map, to see contour lines showing you the peaks and valleys, but something else entirely to experience the full scale of the land as it surrounds you. Just as the climb up was much bigger than it looked from the truck, what was beyond dwarfed the topographic map on the small GPS screen we used to get our bearings while we sat on a rock resting after our climb up. This place was big, and everything was far. Finding an animal would be difficult enough, killing one would be even harder, and retrieving and packing it out would be even harder than that.
After looking at the map and coming up with a method to hunt this mountain we walked to the far side of the flat to verify that we had a good plan. We would find a point that stuck out of over the canyon drainage, sit down and glass everything we could see. If we didn’t find anything, we’d still hunt the edge of the ridge up to the next point and do it again. If we did find something we’d plan a stalk and either go straight after it, or else get in a better position to take a better look. Neither of us had a spotting scope, but we both had a good set of binoculars. They weren’t enough.
Though there are certain types of places where big bucks like to hang out during the day,* they could really be anywhere, and in order to adequately survey this kind of country to find deer, you need to tear apart every rock, shadow, and shrub that you can see, and then you need to do it again with a spotting scope just to make sure you didn’t miss that ear hanging off the side of a rock or those antlers sticking up from the top of a bush. What I also lacked was patience. Glassing vast amounts of country requires a type of sit-still that I haven’t yet trained. We could have sat at each of those points and glassed for an hour apiece and there still would have been places that we hadn’t yet seen for any longer than a cursory glance. It also didn’t help that I didn’t really know where to concentrate my glassing efforts so I was often overwhelmed by feeling like I had to survey all of it. I didn’t know that I should pay special attention to the top third of the cliffside along the finger ridges that came down, or to concentrate on small openings in between the trees where a buck might feed for short periods on a cold day. My only thought was that perhaps deer would be looking for a bit of relief from the cold that had rolled through over the previous thirty-six hours by sunning themselves on the south face.
As we slowly hunted our way along the south edge of the ridge we noticed fresh tracks of all kinds that were left in the previous day’s snowfall. Bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, a lion, an elk, and various other critters, but not a single deer print. Despite the lack of any tangible evidence that deer were there we pushed onwards confident that we’d eventually run in to deer. There was one thing we knew, however: if there were deer, they weren’t going to be on the flat, but on the face, and that meant that we could essentially cut the amount of land that we’d have to hunt in half, a not altogether bad thing considering how large the area was. Rather than being forced to still hunt the flat and glass open territory, we could concentrate on what was below us and across the canyon and not worry about spooking a deer up on the top with us. As soon as I sat down at at our fourth observation point and pulled my binoculars up, John said the magic word: “Deer. A doe and fawn.” She’d popped out of the tree line of a stand of trees hundreds of yards in front of us. Not ten seconds later he said the one word that was better: “Buck”, putting his arms up by his head signalling that he’d seen something with antlers.
I immediately got up to get to John so that we could take a look at this deer and figure out our next move. As soon as I saw him, I took out my laser range finder to get a fix on how far he was so that I would know how far I needed to go to get in range in order to take a shot. But when I looked at him again with my binoculars, I knew that before I could really start thinking about taking a shot, I had to get a better idea of what he looked like. He was five hundred and thirty-eight yards away, and without a spotting scope we could only tell that he had antlers, and not a thing about what those antlers looked like. We couldn’t see points. We couldn’t gauge mass. We couldn’t discern width. All we could see was that he did have antlers, and he was chasing that doe pretty hard. And even though my goal for this hunt wasn’t to find the biggest deer in Weston county, I did want to kill a mature buck; a representative mulie for that region. One that had a chance at being a mule deer rather than one still learning how. One that would help symbolize the work that I’d put in to the hunt, and the work that it would take to retrieve, debone, and carry a buck off this mountain. I wasn’t there to shoot a monster, but I wasn’t there to shoot a littlun either. Fortunately we wouldn’t have to wait long before we’d be face to face.
As soon as we realized we’d have to take a better look we were on the move. Rather than travel along the edge where he could see us, we moved in to the flat and hastily made our way in his direction using the ridge line as cover. He too was moving, and quickly, in our direction apparently annoying the doe so badly in his biologically driven need to mate that all she wanted to do was get away. In retrospect that should have been an indication that he was likely a smaller, immature buck that didn’t stand a chance at mating with that doe unless by sheer luck. Mulies, unlike whitetails that breed by bucks being with individual does, breed by mature bucks forming harems of does. He’ll mate all of them, and in general little bucks don’t stand a chance. By the time we had reached the spot we picked out to take a closer look, he was only one hundred and fifty yards out. My heart was pounding, both from the adrenaline of the hunt and from moving quickly. And then just as I had started to put my gun in my shooting sticks John whispered, “just a forkie.”
Without a second thought I put my rifle down. I wasn’t there to shoot a forkhorn buck, likely just a two and a half year old, and so there was no reason to have my rifle in my hands. This buck would live, and even though I wouldn’t experience killing and retrieving this deer, I would enjoy every minute I could be with him just as I had with those does two days earlier. He may not end up on my wall and in my freezer, but he would still make me a better hunter.
By the time I had put my rifle down, he knew something was amiss. He couldn’t exactly see us, but he knew we were there and stared right at us. Apparently curious, rather than pronking off in an effort to save his skin he began to inch towards us as we stood there looking at him over the edge of the ridge. He was as interested in checking us out as we were him. After a few steps he disappeared under the edge of the ridge line and we lost sight of him, but we knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Thirty or forty seconds later I noticed his crab-claw horns as they slowly emerged from a draw just to our left that would bring him up to us. Slowly he crept, as we had before, in an effort to get a better idea of what we were by putting the wind in his favor. As he pulled out of the draw and on to the flat I remembered vividly the lesson I had learned two days before when I was busted by a pile of does: the best camo is a bottle of sit-still. So I didn’t budge an inch except for the movement of my eyes as he stopped in the open thirty one yards from us. For fifteen or twenty seconds that buck stood there trying to sniff the air as he looked at John and I and us at him. Though he didn’t seem startled, he quickly made his way back down the draw and off of the flat. He took a handful of steps to our right, then fled after the doe he had been chasing with three soft grunts as if to bid us farewell. As quickly as he appeared a few minutes earlier, he disappeared and we wouldn’t see him again.
After we watched that buck disappear around a bend in the direction we had come from we kept moving along the ridge and hunting the same way we had been for the past three or four hours. Find a point, sit down, and glass. After walking a couple of miles along that flat and seeing only that one doe and her suitor we finally cut our first set of deer tracks. A lone deer on the move. A buck moving quickly and deliberately, sniffing the air for stray does. Rather than keep going along the ridge, we decided to follow the tracks to see where they might lead us. We followed those tracks for about a quarter of a mile then suddenly they were gone. I looked briefly to see if I could catch on to them again, but I never did. They lead down a steep draw and I wasn’t about to follow. I didn’t make that climb in order to drop down off the mountain without knowing that it was for a deer rather than just the dream of one.
The original plan was to hunt the sunny side of the ridge as far as we chose, then cross the flat and hunt the shaded side on the way back, but by the time we got as far as we were going to go, we decided that we’d rather hunt the sunny side of the canyon further down than where we had originally started. We hiked back to first emerged on to the flat and methodically worked that sunny side yet again, only headed in the opposite direction. On our third observation point we finally ran in to deer again. A whole pile of them in the bottom by the creek. “Three does. Four. No, five . . .” John said. As I pulled up my binoculars I immediately saw three more coming in from our left towards the five we already had spotted. Then two more. Ten does and fawns in all slowly starting to emerge from their thicket where they had been bedding for the day. We figured that during the rut, there would definitely be a buck close by, and there probably was though we never did find him despite glassing for over an hour. At that it was time to go. Neither of us wanted to leave well before dark, but we both felt the need to get of the mountain before light ran out. We just weren’t prepared to descend the hill at night, so we upped and left.
I never did find the buck I was after that day, but what I did find was the desire for more. Small patches of public land or private ranches just aren’t going to be enough anymore after having a taste of the big country. Going in to the deer’s environment, the very place that deer evolved to live and evade predators, and hunting him is the ultimate test of endurance and fortitude. It’s the ultimate motivator to learn continually about the woods, the flow of nature, and my own personal limits. It’s a place where I can accomplish my innermost desires and do things I didn’t think was possible. It’s a place where I can be humbled and where perspective is key. And while I may never be able to find the mule deer that drives all of my desire, I will find something far more valuable in the process.
* In Public Land Mulies: the bottom line by David W Long, the types of places that mature bucks prefer to bed for the day are described as being “bucky”.