Sometimes You Need Some Luck

Saturday morning Aug 17, 2000 the opening morning of the CA x-12 deer season.

Rob and I had drawn archery tags for the unit and planned to hunt just west of the Nevada border near Lobdale Reservoir, known for it’s population of grayling trout.

We set up camp about two miles east of the reservoir along Desert Creek’s north fork. Camp was basic, sleeping pads, cook stove and a couple of camp chairs for relaxing. 

On the first morning I chose to hunt high and Rob picked the desert to the North. After parking the ATV at an elevation of 10,000 feet, I almost immediately ran into a bachelor band of bucks feeding on an open ridge loaded with snowberry bushes. I tried an ambush which failed when the deer changed course and laid down in the sage. Temporarily I lost track of them and then found them again when they stood and joined up with a group of does. 

The seven deer consisted of four bucks and three does. The biggest buck was a 3×3 (about 22” wide) followed closely by a 4×4 (also about 22” wide), a 4×3 (about 18” wide) and a small forked horn. 

The deer meandered across the draw and eventually disappeared. I knew it would be a while before the bucks would bed, so I took advantage of the opportunity to glass for other deer. I moved up the ridge and glassed an open hillside across the canyon. 

Several does waited patiently to check their back trail before calling to their fawns, which had been hiding safely in the mountain mahogany. The four bucks reappeared as they climbed into view across the canyon. They reached a plateau and began milling about in preparation for bedding. It was now about 9:00 AM and the sun was beginning to force the issue – or so it seemed. The spot where they were apparently about to bed  was nearly unreachable by a human with bow and arrow, so I re-focused my glassing in search of attainable bucks. 

I moved into the shade of a patch of white pine and took note of a bench across the canyon, a spot that appeared to be perfect for big-buck bedding. The four bucks reappeared and left the plateau that could have been their fortress. They crossed  a small creek and began their ascent to the bench I had been watching. As the sun rose to a scorching overhead position, the four bucks bedded under mountain mahogany bushes on the bench. 

I considered the stalk – it would be a gruesome climb. Steep, hot and through brush. It was still early in the day and the bucks should remain bedded on that bench until late afternoon, if left undisturbed, so I headed back to the ATV and camp. I wasn’t confident that I could climb that mountain and approach the bucks undetected. Personal conditioning and wind direction were major concerns. 

Back at camp, Rob reported that he had spotted a very good buck and was planning to stalk a mountain mahogany patch out in the desert. I reported my findings and uneasiness about attempting a stalk. Rob attempted to encourage me, but it didn’t help. I ate lunch and returned to the hillside, still uncommitted to a stalk. 

Glassing the bench once again, I made a final decision to pass on the opportunity. I didn’t have “legs” for the stalk and the inconsistent wind sealed my decision. The bucks eventually rose and trotted off the bench, disappearing from my view. 

On day two, I chose to glass the open desert floor at about nine thousand feet in elevation, near the area where Rob had spotted the big buck on opening day. No deer materialized in the low ground so I headed back up the mountain for day three, with plans to check out a new area adjacent to the mountain where the four bucks lived. On my way, I once again came across the 3×4 and forked horn bucks, but not the two larger bucks. 

Once I arrived at the area I wanted to explore, I realized that it wasn’t the honey hole that I’d been looking for. Retracing my steps, I set up to glass the popular bench where the bucks had bedded on opening day. At 10:00 AM, the bench was visible, but no bucks were present. 

I decided to hike back to the ATV. After crossing the canyon and ascending the opposite slope, I raised my field glasses to check the bench one last time before departing. To my surprise, two bucks, a 3×3 and a 4×4 lay beneath the mahogany bush on the bench. It looked like the 4×4  and 3×3 I’d seen two days previously. I felt that I must try for them. From my new vantage point, I could see an easier route to the bench, a route that had not been visible to me the previous day,  but the wind was still uncertain.
After debating the wind direction while watching soaring red tailed hawks and considering other evidence available, I chose the down-canyon approach, but still feared that swirling wind would give me away. About 1:00 PM I began my assent. 

I took my time and rested periodically. I’d already covered a lot of ground this day. The steep slope and my poor conditioning made the climb challenging, but the slow pace and rest stops kept me going. By mid afternoon I was in position, 20 yards from the buck’s bed with two antler tines from the four-point buck in view above the top of the mahogany bush. I waited for the buck to stand. 

Fearing that he would spot me immediately, I planned to draw the bow at the first hint that he was standing. A half hour passed, then another and I remained ready. Eventually the horn tip shifted and I drew. False alarm. A few minutes later, the horn tips tilted again and as I drew the 65#  Jennings compound to full draw  – the buck rose. 

To my surprise, it was not the same 4×4 I had seen two days earlier. This buck was much wider, with considerable antler outside his ears, but it was a quick study. 

Holding at full draw, I considered a shot as the buck starred in my direction, quartering toward me. He had seen my movement. Within seconds he stotted off the bench and down the mountain. The shot offered had not been adequate.

But, I had seen two bucks so I remained motionless and waited for the 3-point. A few more minutes passed. The 3-point appeared from behind a different mahogany bush at about 50 yards.

He was feeding and appeared calm. I put my rangefinder on him – 54 yards – a little further than I cared to shoot. As his head disappeared behind a bush I began my sneak.

My very first step revealed another problem. Another buck, the original 4×4 that I’d seen on opening day, stood looking my direction. I couldn’t move closer. I remained motionless, unsure what the buck would do. Would he bolt and ruin any remaining chances?

The wind blew so hard that the extra length of webbing on my belt strap began to slap against my leg. I worried that they’d hear it.

Eventually the smaller 4×4 calmed down and began feeding away from me. But, in response to the bucks attitude, the 3 point buck was now acting nervous and began to stare in my direction. I decided to take the next available shot at the slightly larger buck.

When he began to reach down for something to eat and flicked his tail, I knocked an arrow, drew and released. The buck hunched up, kicked his hind legs and ran in my direction. As he passed, I attempted to knock another arrow and get a shot off as he slowed, but there wasn’t quite enough time before he stepped out of sight heading down hill – obviously hit.

I became quite anxious. I wasn’t sure where the arrow had struck, but after retrieving the arrow, I was certain of very good penetration.

I gathered my thoughts and waited a few minutes – then I carefully sneaked over the hill and found blood – a good trail. After following the blood drops for about 60 yards, I came upon the buck, laying in the trail, head up and looking down the hill that lay before him – apparently still unaware of what had taken place.

I waited as patiently as I could, hoping the buck would expire.

Feeling pain from the climbing and stress from the uncertainty of the situation, I sat down to wait – only 20 yards from the buck. I couldn’t see the buck’s body so another shot was out of the question. Instinct told me that the buck was probably mortally wounded, but I couldn’t be sure yet.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, I stood to verify the condition of the buck – he was gone. Searching the hillside, I relocated him about 50 yards down hill in a different patch of brush. Once again only his antlers, head and back were visible. I decided to attempt a shot at the neck of the buck.

From 20 yards, I was comfortable that I could hit the target, but would the arrow do the job? I drew and aimed at the base of the buck’s neck. At the release, the arrow glanced off the buck and he took off running down the hill for about 100 yards. Then he stopped and laid down in full view. Now I could see the wound. It appeared to be a liver shot. The arrow had entered the chest cavity about four inches behind the heart, but apparently no major blood vessels had been severed.

I decided to play the waiting game once again. I sat and watched with the buck looking in my direction. Several times he laid his head down and I thought it might be over, but each time he would raise his head back up.

Finally I started thinking about the time of day, I was running out of time. I needed to end this before sunset. Approaching the buck again, I ranged him at 50 yards. With vitals exposed, I wanted to reach 40 yards before I took the killing shot. At 40 yards I began to draw my bow and the buck bolted again – stopping in a small aspen patch about 50 yards further down the hill.

I walked slowly up to the deer. It was not the best shot, but I did have an angle at his chest. Desperate to put this all to an end, I drew and took the best shot I could. As the arrow penetrated deeply, the buck ran down the hill at full speed and disappeared out of sight. I ran to a vantage point, too late. He was out of sight.

I quickly picked up his trail and recovered the bloody arrow, complete penetration. A few drops of blood were splattered on snowberry bushes and sage, but after 20 more yards, the trail evaporated.

Downcast, and tired, I didn’t have the patience to search for the tiny drops of blood, but I felt certain that I could find the buck by checking the most likely spots for him to bed down. With about an hour left until dark, I felt an urge to hurry.

I searched up the canyon and down, across the sage flat and in the nearby aspen patch. Where had he gone? The sun was setting on my chances of recovering the buck in an edible condition.

I was doomed. Mentally and physically exhausted I climbed out of the canyon, not believing I could have come so close with such a bad outcome. I figured I’d recover the buck in the morning, but next-day recoveries are generally horns only. Laying out all night with intestines in place produces unpalatable venison.

Arriving in camp near 10:30 PM, I related the story to Rob. He volunteered to help in the morning.

Shortly after first light, Rob and I began to scour the buck’s trail, this time, with assistance, my reading glasses and a good night’s rest.

One drop at a time, I trailed the buck 200 yards across the sagebrush flat and into the draw where the small spring creek disappeared. Rob found blood on rocks along the edge of the creek and in the willows. It wasn’t long before Rob announced he’d found the buck.

A nice 3x3 buck taken with archery equipment in 2000.

Good news. He had fallen into the creek and had been covered by ice-cold mountain spring water all night. The meat was saved and so was my attitude. It didn’t take up long to complete a photo session, bone out the meat and load the bounty into my backpack for the mile-long hike back to the ATV. The hunt had been validated.

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