I have two unbreakable rules that apply to my bowhunting, and I hold to them like a bulldog to a bone. Rule number one: The family has to come first. Rule number two: Don’t take marginal shots. By the time last season ended, I had broken them both.
Setting: The eastern plains of Colorado, the day before Thanksgiving. “Honey, I realize tomorrow is Thanksgiving but I promise, if you let me stay I won’t hunt for the rest of the year. He’s huuuge. . . Pleeeease?” I begged into the payphone in a windswept prairie town. The soft whine in my voice was designed to extract sympathy. “He’s really a giant, and if I can just stay for a few more days I won’t go hunting again for the rest of the year.”
Silence. Oh no, she’s going to cry, I thought. Instead, I was in for a shock and so was my bank account. Tammy must have just finished reading a book on the art of negotiation because she came away from that phone call with a Caribbean cruise for both her and her mother. I got to hunt a deer for a couple more days, and in the desperate process had broken Cardinal Rule Number One. I’d taken my first step down the slippery slope that leads to bowhunting addiction. I would need to find some therapy, but that could wait. I had a buck to hunt.
I ended up getting the deer, and upon arriving triumphantly home with my prize, I loudly announced to the entire family that I was done for the year and that I was looking forward to making up for lost time with them. For nearly a month I did an admirable job as husband and father until the phone rang one evening.
“Ninety-nine, he’s one of the biggest bucks I’ve ever seen in the desert,” my buddy, Greg Krough, said in hushed, almost reverential tones. Greg started calling me Ninety-nine when I helped one of his clients earlier last season on an Arizona elk hunt. Greg is a guide and an incredibly good one at that. His elk hunters had (before I helped him out) killed 98 bulls in a row, and he was shooting for 100. My poor guiding skills broke his string of success, and he’ll never let me forget it.
Greg offered to show me where he’d seen the buck. He even volunteered to help me glass. Because he is one of the best game spotters in the world, and a tremendous asset on any hunt, I was a might too quick to accept. I hung up the phone with a vow to be hunting the buck before the end of the week.
Immediately, my eyes got big and darted from side to side. Who had heard me? How was I going to slip by my wife? I wanted to hunt that buck in the worst way. No, I actually needed to hunt him. Tammy is a great wife. She must have felt that nearly a month of being responsible (a long time for me) was reparation enough for the Thanksgiving indiscretion. She reluctantly went along with my plan.
Yes! The thought of hunting another giant buck sent a shot of adrenaline through my system. The addiction came back to life with the subtlety of a July 4th fireworks display. Immediately, I threw my gear into the back of the truck and pointed it toward the desert; there was barely enough time for a goodbye kiss and a hug for the boys. Five and one half hours later I was sitting on a ridge top, palming my favorite binoculars once again. Ahhhh.
Greg and I found the buck the next morning. He was a sight to behold–the first legitimate 30-inch, 180-inch-plus desert mule deer I’d seen in my entire lifetime. I immediately wanted that buck like none I’d seen before. He was bedded along the side of a dry wash, and when he got up he began walking down the very bottom of the ditch, I ran a mile to the outlet of the wash and took up a position where I could cover its entire width, or so I thought.
The next time I saw the buck, he was 80 yards away heading straight away from me, still in the wash. He had slipped past me by walking right next to the wall of the wash below, less than 30 yards away. I only thought I was covering the whole thing. I kicked myself as I began to realize that I’d just messed up a sure-thing setup on a world-class mule deer. In desperation I ran nearly a mile ahead and set up again, but there was no shot.
I had planned on being gone only a couple of days, just to see if we could find him, then I was supposed to head home to take care of some things. When the time came to leave, all I could think about was the buck, but I didn’t dare call my wife for an extension–I couldn’t afford another cruise.
After several restless days in the office, I was once again back in search of the buck. This time I had worked out five days to hunt. I didn’t find the buck until right at dark the evening before the last day. I set up the next morning on a hill overlooking the wash where I’d seen him the evening before. Out of nowhere I spotted him coming across the desert on the other side of the wash–straight at me. I nocked an arrow and lay down. When the buck hit the other side of the wash, 100 yards away, he turned abruptly in the wrong direction. I knew he was heading toward one of his bedding areas, but I didn’t have any time left. I had to leave for home immediately.
Now I was totally in the grip of the addiction. Two days later I was sitting in my office trying to work, but the image of that buck continued to haunt me. In my heart I knew he was bedded at that very moment in a spot where he could be stalked. I could think of nothing else, so I got up at 2:00 a.m. the next morning and made the five-hour drive for only a single day of hunting. I chased that buck and six does all around the desert that day, but every time I got close, something happened to give the buck a free pass. He had more lives than a cat.
This animal had become more than just a mule deer. The hunt had become personal. Long since, Tammy had taken to calling me Ahab and the buck my great white whale. She merely shuddered, held up a hand and turned away every time I lapsed into a discussion of the buck’s antlers or the hair’s breadth within which I’d come of shooting him.
The Archery Trade Show was scheduled for January 25th through the 27th last winter, and I was supposed to attend to represent several of my key sponsors. I couldn’t very well skip that, but the thought of being away from the buck for several long days was unpleasant at best. The day after getting home, I told Tammy that I had to try one last time. She knew without explanation what I was talking about.
I planned to get up early again to head down to hunt the last three days of January, whereupon the season would end–I’m sure none too soon for Tammy.
help,” she said.
“I can quit anytime,” I retorted.
“Well, then quit now.”
“I’ll quit February 1st.”
Two hours of sleep were enough, and once again I hopped into the truck during the middle of the night and headed toward the buck’s haunt. On the previous trip I had set up a ground blind near a waterhole. Late in the morning I spotted the buck and several does heading straight toward the pool, so I dropped behind a crease in the rough terrain and ran the mile and a half to the blind and beat them. Everything was perfect. They were coming straight toward me, and once again I figured I had him. I should have known better.
The buck was with an obviously hot doe, and as the rest of the herd came in and drank leisurely, the buck hooked the doe out of the group and pushed her away. Finally, the other does had drunk their fill and drifted back out onto the flat to join the sequestered pair. When they were all out of sight, I took off after them.
Several maneuvers later I had him dead to rights once again. I was set up across a dry wash from the deer, and all the does had crossed easily within range–all the does but one, that is. When the buck goosed the hot doe she blew across the ditch like a gray locomotive, with him right on her tail playing the caboose. How many close calls could my poor heart take?
I kept following, finally working in front of them again. The buck’s mind was completely preoccupied with the doe, making it easy to beat his senses, but I still had five does with which to contend. When I rose up to draw, they had changed course slightly and now were walking straight toward me. I lay back down on the desert floor in the wide open. Within moments, the only thing between the deer and me was my 3-D leaf camouflage clothing. It worked great. They passed only a few feet away, and when the buck was five yards past, he turned and stepped behind a bush.
This was my chance. I quickly rose up on one knee and drew my bow. If I leaned hard to my right I could find an opening to the buck’s chest, but I held my fire, waiting for a better shot when he stepped out. Right. The doe spotted me and came out of her skin. The buck went with her but stopped after only 15 yards–now behind the only other bush within 50 yards. No shot.
“Ninety-nine, you are one pathetic loser,” Greg said with a broad grin as I made my way up to him through the cat claw and cholla. I normally might have resented that remark, but today I agreed wholeheartedly. “How could you have a buck at full draw at five yards and let him get away?” Greg had been watching through binoculars 400 yards away.
The next day I found the buck with one doe, a smart old doe at that. She was also in estrous, and he bred her once while I worked out my stalk. From their course, I knew if I could get to a certain mesquite tree, they would pass within 30 yards. I was less than 20 yards from the tree when I spooked a covey of quail. The outburst caused the deer to change course again. I quickly got down into the wash and cut them off.
In front of them again, I waited. They had to cross an opening before they would be in a position for me to get a shot. Time stood still as they worked their way across the opening ever so slowly. Finally, they bedded down right inside the edge of the opening, just 15 yards from where I needed them. I couldn’t get any closer without the risk of spooking them, so I simply lay down. Four and a half hours later, I was still laying there when the doe stood up and milled nearby.
When the buck finally stood, he wasted no time. He came at a fast walk and was quickly within five to 10 yards but screened by thin brush. When the brush is close to the animal, the risk of deflection is nearly nonexistent. I’d made the shot several times in my bowhunting career, so I took steady aim and triggered the shot. The arrow seemed to hit an invisible net and turned downward just before reaching the buck. It never occurred to me that the other times I had made this shot had been with conventional broadheads, and now I was using a mechanical head. One of the blades came open on contacting a thin twig, pulling the arrow badly off course. So much for upholding Cardinal Rule Number Two in my personal bowhunting code of ethics.
We looked for the buck the next day, but the desert had swallowed him.
After 12 days of hunting and five 11-hour round trips, I had been within bow range of the giant buck seven different times. The white whale had won. Looking back, I can say with all honesty that the buck had turned me into a weak-willed pathetic loser.
However, I have proven to myself that I can quit. I quit chasing big mule deer Feb. 1st, just like I promised. Just don’t ask where I’ll be next August when the season opens again. You know where I’ll be.
I’ll get him then.
Editor’s note: Greg Krough at Mogollon Rim Outfitters can be contacted at Dept. PB, P.O. Box 163, Chino Valley, AZ; (928)636-4807.