The mule deer is one of the most difficult species to take with bow and arrow. Large bucks are often incredibly wary and know how to travel using the terrain and other deer to their safety advantage.
One of the advantages of archery hunting is that during the early season these big bucks will often be found in open country and often on high ridges or in high-elevation bowls. One ridge we used to hunt in Southeast Idaho held a few big bucks during the first week of the Idaho archery season.
It was during one such early-season hunt that my brother, Rob, and I watched a very large buck disappear into a rock pile near the very top of a high ridge. The buck was so far away that we could only guess at how big he was, but we knew he was at least big enough.
It takes a special type of confidence to climb a huge mountain with the goal of hunting for one buck and at that, a buck that is probably one of the most experienced and wise old bucks in the country. The climb to the top of Snow Drift Ridge, as the mountain is called, takes about three hours from the point where we sat. Per our usual understanding, Rob got to go after the big buck as he had spotted it first. I set out after a smaller buck that we had also seen from below.
The climb was every bit as tough as it looked. When we reached the top, the wind was whistling at a good clip and the air was much cooler than it was below. Cloud cover added an ominous cast to the scene as we split up, each taking up position above the bucks we were after.
To add a little excitement to the hike, Rob had walked to within 15 yards of a bedded five point bull elk on the way up. We had elk tags, but the bull was gone before Rob had any chance.
I looked over at the point where Rob would start his descent and my knees felt a little wobbly. The descent would be off a very steep avalanche shoot with loose rocks that were perfect for falling. The cold wind and cloud cover made the approach even unfriendlier looking.
From this point on, I can only repeat Rob’s story as I recall it. He hadn’t climbed very far down the mountain before he spotted antlers below him. He knew right away that it wasn’t the large buck we had seen from below, but it was a four-point buck. He estimated that the bucks spread would be about 24 inches, and the times were all long and evenly matched. Since it was a good scoring set of antlers, Rob figured that it would probably make the Pope and Young minimum score of 145 points. This had been his goal from the start. The buck was in range and hadn’t seen him yet.
He used his range finder and found the range to be about fifty yards and down hill. He re-estimated the range, reducing his range estimate by a few yards to allow for the steep slope of the hill and knocked an arrow. At the shot, the buck ran a few yards and stopped. Rob thought the shot had been on target, but couldn’t see any wound on the buck. The buck walked off and stepped out of sight. Rob quickly climbed down to the spot where the buck had stood and spotted a few drops of blood on the rocks. He figured that the shot had been a non-vital hit, but hoped that he could track the buck and get another shot at him.
Rob sneaked slowly along the buck’s trail occasionally finding a drop of blood, while watching for any sign of the buck. He had traveled only a short distance when he spotted movement ahead. Huge antlers appeared before him as the original buck (the one we had spotted from the bottom of the mountain) fed slowly in his direction. The buck was enormous. He had a mainframe spread well outside his ears and massive antlers with cheater points sticking out several inches past his main frame on both sides. This buck had five points on each side of his antlers, counting the cheaters, and the bases had the largest circumference Rob had ever seen on a live buck.
At fifteen yards the buck acted suspicious and turned to walk away. At 30 yards the large buck stood broadside to gaze ahead. If Rob had been free to shoot, it would have been the chance of a lifetime. As it was, he felt an obligation to continue after the buck he had hit and only watched as the largest buck he had ever seen within archery range stood broadside at 30 yards.
Unfortunately, the first buck was never found. Rob felt certain his arrow had only clipped the buck’s leg. The actions of the buck after he hit it and the lack of blood sign indicated that this had been a non-fatal hit. At dark, he gave up on the buck and climbed down the mountain and later related his story to me.