It's been nearly three decades now since I first came face-to-face with a massive- antlered mulie buck. Reflecting back on that morning long years ago, I clearly remember how my heart raced with excitement as I peered over the stunted alpine brush at a velvet-antlered trophy such as few archery hunters will ever have the opportunity to encounter. Though I was unable to harvest that trophy, I became forever hooked on the challenge of bowhunting the ultimate trophy that the West has to offer--a mature mule deer buck. From the plains, to the rocky mountaintops, these majestic trophies have awed me over and over again throughout my countless days in the field, and if I'm lucky, things will stay this way for many more years. Yes, certainly, give me a big mulie any day!
As I pulled into southeastern Utah, my anticipation level peaked. I'd already beat the odds by pulling a tag for the San Juan unit, and now I planned on doing everything within my power to be worthy of the opportunity at my fingertips.
Setting up a nice base camp on a high mesa, the smell of evergreen permeated the warm summer air. The season was still three days away and I planned on using every bit of my time wisely. Looking around me, it was very clear that I would need to accomplish as much scouting as possible in order to get a feel for the country and it's game. The heavily vegetated canyons stood in stark contrast to the open country in which I'd bowhunted mule deer previously. It was going to be a real chore to figure out how to find (much less, bowkill) the big bucks that certainly resided here. But that was okay with me; after all, it was just such a challenge that had lured me here in the first place.
As the next three days rolled by, mornings came early and bedtime late. Countless miles were logged looking for clues as to how best to approach success on a hunt that seemed an almost insurmountable task. It was becoming very clear to me that this type of habitat did not lend itself easily to effective glassing techniques. Clearly, patience and stealth were going to be the keys to success here. And since neither of these attributes were my strong points, there was going to be a tough row-to-hoe for me in the days ahead. Oh well, nobody said it was going to be easy!
Rolling out of my warm bag in the cool pre-dawn darkness of opening morning, I quickly crammed down a snack, grabbed my fanny pack and bow, and headed toward a distant area that I'd scouted. Making my way by the faint light of a starlit sky, I slowly crept up to the rim of a deep, dark canyon that promised to provide an interesting day of still-hunting and scouting. Taking a seat at the edge of the canyon rim, I waited for the light of a new day to begin spilling on the scene. In the distance, a pack of coyotes serenaded the rapidly departing night, while a herd of elk made small talk amongst themselves in another area.
Breathing in deep, the smells of moist, rotting vegetation, pine and sagebrush filled my lungs, bringing a familiar, peaceful, easy feeling that flooded through my soul. Closing my eyes for a moment, my mind wandered through thoughts that thrilled me completely. I was a blessed man--healthy, happy and here, bowhunting for a short while. Here in a small, but new-to-me, and oh-so-wonderful, part of God's great creation, and feeling very predatory. I was ready to harvest some meat for the table, and some antlers for memories sake. With contentment and excitement flowing through my veins, I wondered how a person could feel more alive.
This is some of the "red rock" canyon land and mesa country of the San Juan Unit of southeastern Utah that the author's hunt took place in. Finding suitable glassing locations was tricky forcing the author to adapt and make due with what he could.
By dim light, I quickly made my way to the canyon floor. Turning up the drainage, I slowly began to still-hunt through the intermingled oak brush and aspen thickets that dotted the canyon sides. Cool morning air poured steadily in my face, and I had traveled only a short ways when distant movement caught my eye. Kneeling behind a large fallen log, I slipped my bino's up to my face and assessed the situation. In a second, the source of the movement became starkly clear; it was elk. It quickly became evident that I was looking at a large herd of velvet-antlered bull elk, some of which were also very large-antlered. Fascinated, I settled down for a while, hoping to get a better look at the parade of antlers that milled about less than 100 yards away.
With time, I realized that all the elk were slowly making their way to a certain area just out of my sight. Wondering what the attraction might be, I waited patiently for the big guys to exit. Just as the last of the bulls were moving away, my attention was riveted to another animal arriving on the scene--a high-racked mule deer buck! Giving this guy the once-over, I quickly determined that he was one that I'd be proud to harvest. Such being the case, I quickly slipped my shoes into my fanny pack and began to move forward. It appeared that the buck was headed down the hill toward the same destination that the elk had earlier shown so much interest in. Looping that direction, I hoped to get in his line of travel.
Shortly, I found myself inching over a slight rise that obstructed my view toward the deer. Just as I began to top the rise it became apparent what the attraction was: water, in the form of a small pond. As the big buck worked his way toward a drink, I began to crawl toward the berm on the small tank. If I made it undetected, I was definitely going to have a good shooting chance.
As I slid up behind the pond dam, I quietly wondered if my hunt could culminate this quickly and easily. Somehow this didn't seem right, but then again, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth either. Peering carefully over the pond dam, I spotted the buck in the process of drinking. Nocking an arrow, I came to full draw and slowly rose into a clear shooting position.
This secluded pond provided a shot at a monster mulie. Unfortunately, the author didn't connect due to a deflected arrow.
As my eyes settled on the scene, I realized that the massive buck was quickly walking back up the hill away from the pond. Not having a good shot angle, I simply held my position while waiting for fate to run its course. At about 40 yards, the buck finally slowed,
turned broadside and lowered his head to feed. I couldn't believe my good fortune! Settling my sight pin on the right spot, I quickly let 'er rip. Crack! Zing! In a split second, I knew that I'd blown it and that my arrow had deflected. As the buck tore out of the area, my mind settled to the reality of the moment. Less than an hour into my first morning and I'd already had a close encounter with a trophy buck.
The next few days consisted of many hours and miles spent scouting and still-hunting through some awesome mesa and canyon country. All types of new sights awaited around every turn. Spotting many deer, I was often sorely tempted by the size of some of the antlers, though none quite matched the 190-class buck of the first morning. Deep down I knew that I'd probably already used up all my good fortune on monster bucks for a long time to come. Regardless, I was going to hang in there because hardheaded perseverance had been good to me in the past.
As the second week of my hunt rolled around, a slight sense of anxiety was starting to set in. I held a good tag in my pocket and I desperately wanted to fill it with a trophy buck. Hunting harder and longer each day, it seemed that things weren't going my way. Buck sightings were dropping, though elk sightings were increasing by leaps and bounds. The bulls were starting to rub their antlers, and I'd actually spent a good deal of time watching them. In one instance, a 350-class six-by-six had spent nearly an hour working a single tree over while slowly stripping his entire rack of velvet. Watching this episode from a distance of about 50 yards had truly left me amazed. But where had the bucks gone? Were they also in hiding, while rubbing their antlers free of velvet? Had a surge in testosterone made them become much more reclusive? I didn't have answers to these questions, but I did know one thing, wherever they were, I needed to find them fast because time was quickly running out.
A New Plan
With three days of my hunt left, I decided to make some changes. I would load a backpack and head into some fairly remote sections of my hunting area. On past hunts, when all else had failed, this approach had been a lifesaver for me. A willingness to go that extra mile had been my savior many times and there was no reason to believe that this hunt would be any different. And besides, I knew that no trophy could be more satisfying than one earned through hard work. Also, since I'd already missed my chance at a certain "gift horse," I couldn't blame my current predicament on anyone but myself. It was now time however, for me to stop crying over spilled milk.
The author had to alter his hunting plans and move to a new area. Obviously, the move paid off with the harvest of this nice 160-inch Utah mulie.
Leaving base camp around midday, I carefully followed the lead of my topo map as I headed for a distant ridge. I felt certain that this was the type of place that could offer the kind of habitat and seclusion that a big old mulie buck would like. Putting one foot in front of the other, I hiked along as the midday sun beat down, sweat rolling from my brow. Crossing a small stream, I filled up on its cool, clear water as fingerling trout flitted about. Now came the real work, climbing to where I hoped to spend the evening hunting. Wetting a cloth in the creek, I tucked the rag in my backpack for later. I knew that by the time I made it to the top of the 2000-foot climb ahead, I'd be glad that I had something to refresh me.
As early evening arrived, I humped-it onto the summit of the ridge. Picking a flat spot, I quickly set up my one-man tent, slipped my sleeping pad and bag inside, and grabbed a few gulps of water. Wiping down with the damp rag of earlier, I sat in the shade for a moment and let the mountain breeze do its work. Cramming down a few snacks, I grabbed my bow and set out for the evening hunt. Inside, I prayed for some action.
As I inched down the ridgeline, only a short time passed before distant movement caught my eye.
A well set up and comfortable base camp is an integral part of most western archery hunts. Get the gear and do-it-yourself!
Dropping to a knee, a quick look through bino's revealed a small mulie buck browsing in an oak brush thicket. Settling down for a wait, I began to carefully scan the entire area. Soon, other movement became another deer, then, many more deer. In all, there were a total of five bucks, one of which packed antlers of interest. Though not the trophy that I'd dreamed of, this buck was no slouch and I decided I would give him a try.
Slipping off the side of the ridge, I carefully, yet quickly, made my way to a position ahead of the buck's line of travel. Concealing myself in the cleft of a rock outcropping, miraculously, in short minutes the group of bucks fed to within bow range. Slowly pulling my bowstring back to my face, I settled my 30-yard sight pin on the larger buck's chest, and sent an arrow on its way.
Minutes later, as I sat beside the fallen buck. I was amazed at just how quickly the tide had changed. Long, hard days with little action, had quickly turned into one evening of short, easy hunting. Once again, my mind drifted to a certain saying about "gift horses." Smiling inside, I accepted this one with no reservations.