“Everything Can Change in 5 Seconds”
Thursday was filled with ups and downs. We had already been within bow range of 3 deer, on 2 separate stalks. Deer were everywhere that day. I don’t know if it was the weather, moon, or just dumb luck, but we saw more mule deer bucks Thursday than we had that week combined. I was getting the action I’d hoped for, and I couldn’t close the deal.
It wasn’t over. I still had one more stalk to make before sunset; an encounter with the buck we’d stalked earlier that morning. The emotions of that day are hard to explain to a non-hunter. There is such a wild collision of excitement, disappointment, thankfulness and regret that lands on the hunter’s heart in moments like those. The time it takes to go from utter failure to the best day of hunting in your life is measured in seconds. A brief moment when a deer appears, or an arrow flies, or a shot rings…and everything changes.
Thursday (10/17) …continued.
After our stalk was busted by that coyote, neither of us were in a particularly talkative mood. We’d been less than 40 yards from deer twice that day, we both knew the day was done. What more could we expect from these deer that they hadn’t already offered? The walk back to the truck was long and quiet. Back to square one, again.
Driving slowly through the canyon’s steep “roads”, Bryan held an optimistic attitude that I struggled to maintain. He knew how this worked, had seen it a hundred times, and was ready to plow forward. I was almost too busy beating myself up to notice those antlers off to the right of the road…”BUCK!”
Less than 100 yards from the road, just one ridge over from where we’d stalked that big 3×3 first thing this morning, he was bedded down. He hadn’t gone far at all! At the base of a thick evergreen tree, his antlers shone like ivory against the dark green needles. We continued to drive so we didn’t spook him, and made a full circle of the canyon to get above and downwind of him.
He was tucked in tight against that tree. It would be a hard shot. This must be his preferred type of cover, it was the same layout we’d found him in earlier that morning. He was tucked up in a drainage, with a steep bank behind, and a tree hanging above him. Protected from the wind, able to see for miles and he had a fortress at his back. How was I going to get him?
We drove most of the way up the back side of the canyon, and had a short walk to that finger. The tip of his tree was poking above the ridge like a signpost. Moving when the wind blew, I closed the distance to 50 yards. I could see the tree, but not the deer. Had he moved? I got closer, 40 yards. Now I was able to see antler tips, and the huge dirt mound behind that tree we hadn’t noticed from the other side. It looked like I’d have to be within 15 yards of him in order to shoot over that dirt bank.
I started crawling closer whenever the wind gave me cover sound. Watching his antlers for head movement, I slipped down the bank above him, slowly. After a couple moves I was able to see most of his rack, and the tip of his right ear. If he stood up now, I’d only have a head and neck shot. I needed one more shift to the right. From about 20 yards away from the deer, I waited for a wind gust to move a couple feet to the right. My heart was calm, my eyes were locked, and I felt like I could wrestle a bear…the adrenaline was kicking in.
Here comes the wind, move! I slid my right leg over and planted my knee, then my left. As my left followed, the wind suddenly died and my pants caught some very crunchy ground cover. The deer whipped his head to the right.
I clipped my release onto the bow.
His head started to rise, I drew.
I rushed to find vitals that were exposed past that evergreen tree, there was one small shot.
I settled my pin, checked my anchor, wrapped my finger around the release and began to pull my elbow back.
This was it!
Just before I heard the shot, I noticed a white flash through my sight window, THWACK! I looked up from my bow and saw the deer bounding off. Did I miss? Bryan couldn’t see the shot from where he was, but heard what he thought was a hit. Did I hit him? I didn’t feel like I did. We climbed down to inspect the arrow, no blood. No hair, no sign, no anything. It was a clean miss. He must have jumped forward just as I shot. I saw the white of his but through my sight, and my arrow saw nothing but sandy Nebraska soil.
He was surely gone now. How many deer are going to let you get within 20 yards, TWICE, and shoot an arrow an inch from their rump and hang around for the party? None.
Emotions tanked again. The ups and downs were starting to wear on me. I was prepared for the hiking, stalking, crawling, long shots, weather, everything but the emotions. I was done. The last bit of day we had left we watched some cut over corn, hoping to see some does. Nothing showed up and I was kind of glad they didn’t.
The ride to the canyons was quiet Friday morning. I can’t speak for Bryan, but I know what I was thinking, “Even if we get in close to them, Slick here can’t make the shot.” I tried to give myself a Payton Manning Pep Talk as we pulled onto the property. One more day, one more opportunity, and hey – all it takes is 5 seconds for everything to change, right?
Our first glassing spot yielded nothing. After giving it an hour of silence and glassing, we moved on to another vantage point. I was resigned to the fact we may not get another chance. Statistically, this had already been an incredible hunt. I’m sure you can imagine the storm that was unleashed in my heart when I heard Bryan whisper, “Bucks, six bucks, oh man some of those are huge!”
A bachelor group of mule deer bucks were working their way down the canyon, right towards the property line. In that group, there were at least 2 bucks that would score 170 or better. There was no way to get down wind or behind them without accessing from private property. We were handcuffed.
Watching them graze and bed their way through the morning, we kept glass on them for over 5 hours that morning. When they hopped the property line and disappeared into a canyon, we booked it over to the property edge and watched them slowly ease away, hoping the whole time for a coyote, a farmer, something to bump them back. It wasn’t meant to be. All of those eyes would’ve been hard to fool, but I wish I could have tried.
Third Times the Charm.
Back to our scouting point for lunch. While I tried to wrestle my emotions into check, I pulled out my sandwich and started glassing. I threw my binoculars up to look at the little drainage where I’d shot at the buck yesterday – for memory sake…HE WAS BACK A THIRD TIME!
Further down same the canyon draw, the buck was bedded again! Before either of us could finish our first bite of lunch, we were on the move booking it around the canyon. The stalk was familiar. The wind again in my face, we eased over the top of the ridge. Slowly, this time patiently, I moved in. I could barely see a single tiny tip of antler. Here we were again…
This time the dirt bank was higher. I could’ve been 3 yards behind him and had no shot. He was practically in a hole in the canyon. I’d have to wait for him to stand. I was frozen 18 yards away from the bedded 3×3, watching the tops of his antlers unaffected by the wind like a big red oak. I may have to crouch here a while.
After a couple minutes, Bryan signaled. He would circle down into the canyon bottom to distract him and try and get him to stand. Here we go.
I could see Bryan and the deer the whole time while the drainage blocked all his movement from the deer’s view. Just before he came into view, I drew, anchored, put my pin where his vitals should appear, and held. As Bryan eased into the deer’s line of sight, it looked right at him but didn’t move. Was he going to just lay there? I was starting to shake. The stalemate ended when he took a couple steps towards the deer. It’s up!
Never pausing in his movement, the deer stood and immediately turned towards me to run away from Bryan. I shot. What would’ve been a hit in the vitals was not because of the buck’s quick turn. I watched the arrow sink into his side as he took 3-4 steps towards me. He came far enough that I grabbed my bow with both hand to swing it like a bat if needed. Realizing I was there, he turned and ran to my left. As he did, I saw blood pouring out of his side. Maybe the hit was better than I thought.
He bounded down the canyon and up the other side. It was obvious he was hurting bad. His back right leg wasn’t cooperating with the rest of his body. Blood was spraying. This was over.
I dropped to my kneed and pumped my fists. The kind of thing I normally disapprove of. The deer vanished over the top of the next ridge. Bryan and I made eye contact and shared a long distance smile. I sat in silence for a moment, thanking my Father for the buck I’d been begging for all week. Easing down the canyon face, Bryan and I started looking for blood and trying to determine the next step.
Where the deer crossed the ridge in front of us, we found large amounts of blood. He was going to die, and it probably would be close by. We kind of expected to crest the ridge and see him lying in the next bottom over. Nothing. Following an easy blood trail through the next canyon, we crossed a fence and lost blood. What?! How could he have lost this much blood and still be moving so fast!
Bryan explained the mule deer’s propensity to run until they are out of blood, rather than bed like a whitetail. This one was definitely running. He must have covered ground like a streak of lightning, we’d already tracked him 100 yards up and down canyons. When we lost blood down in the bottom, we knew he could only have gone two directions. We split up.
I found nothing on my side and decided to climb to the top of the next ridge for a better view. Just as I got to the top I looked over to the direction where Bryan was tracking. He was walking back towards me at a steady, non-searching, pace. Just beyond him I could see something shining light brown in the middle of the green canyon bottom. I ran down the hill as quickly as I could. About 200 yards from where I’d shot, he fell. I sat beside him for a while and admired the biggest deer I’d ever seen. I felt his coat and antlers, and prayed again, thankful for this deer.
The End of the Journey.
It was all the two of us could do to lift him on the trailer-hitch-high platform. It would be a long evening, and we wouldn’t close the lid on the cooler until well after dark that night. I had finally closed the deal at the last minute of the last day; the perfect way to spend my final hours in Nebraska.
We skinned and quarted the deer while I learned some tips from Bryan’s days working at a deer processor. We packed the coolers to the brim, and I got packed up to leave. It was going to be a long 20 hour ride home and I was thankful I wouldn’t have to hear the empty coolers mocking me the whole way back.
We grilled the tenderloins for dinner, said our goodbyes and I slept that kind of sleep that only acomplishment and completion brings. The next morning I would leave before anyone was awake to get a jump start on the long journey home. I positioned the skull just right, so that I could see the antler tips in my rear view mirror and think about the week as I drove.
I was excited to see my friends in Kansas again on the way back through, stop and visit with Mark Huelsing for a bit, and get home to my family. The drive home felt twice as long as the drive out to Nebraska. Every stop for gas, ice, or to fend off butt cramps, was one step closer to home. I finally rolled into the driveway after 10pm on Sunday night. Walking through the door, I found big hugs from little boys who’s sweet mom had let them wait up for me. It had been nine long days away, and I was finally home.
In the coming weeks I’m going to write some reviews of the gear I used on this trip. If you’re interested in anything specific, or have any questions you want me to answer directly, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below and I’ll try to answer the best I can.
I know this post was long, thanks for hanging in there guys! It was the trip of a lifetime and I’ve really enjoyed sharing it with you.
This is the last post in a 5 part series on my 2013 Mule Deer Hunt, you can go back to PART 1 HERE.