We all owe a lifetime debt to someone, that first person who introduced us to the great outdoors and fueled our passion to pursue big game. For me, it’s my father, he is the person who introduced me to hunting. Beginning with small game and gifting me a .22 magnum on my 12th birthday and then slowly revealing the stories and mystery of the great taxidermy and other trophies in his man cave.
At age 14 I became the proud owner of a Winchester .270 and in the fall of 1988 I would punch my tag on my first big game animal, a mule deer. The indelible ink had dried on me and I became a big game hunter for life.
Sharing that first big game hunt with my dad fed the addiction. Over the years we have shared close to 100 big game hunts from Alaska and Canada down through the continental US and into Old Mexico. Plenty of trophies were taken over those years and we ate tag soup many times as well.
One trophy of my Dad’s always amazed me and is my favorite buck in his trophy room, his Eagle County, Colorado mule deer from 1984. That buck was taken just before my 10th birthday. Over 209 inches with Double drop tines, incredible mass, and a body that had to be mounted on a medium elk form to come close to fitting the cape. This buck has always been the centerpiece in every house he has lived in and rightly so.
PLAYING THE POINTS GAME
Colorado, much like most western states, issues many big game tags based on preference points which you earn ONE each year you are unsuccessful in drawing. Unit 44 in Colorado, where my dad took his monster mule deer, was one of those places that took a load of points to acquire so I made the decision 24 years ago to continue applying until I had that tag.
You see, I had heard the stories of that great hunt and others with my uncle so many times, there was no other option in my mind. As a child I would shed hunt and hike those very same mountains and hills with my dad, dreaming of the day I would get to hunt the elusive timber bucks of Eagle County.
Last year I decided it was going to be time to cash in my points. The 4th season was still out of reach requiring more than the 23 points I had however the 3rd season was 2 days longer and still in November which gave us a chance to hunt the pre-rut. It was a gamble I was willing to take and if any type of weather hit the high country we were going to be in for a great hunt.
An email from Colorado in the summer confirmed my 24 years of waiting were over and I held one of 5 coveted Non-resident tags for unit 44-3rd season.
TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT FITNESS
Living at 793ft elevation in north Texas wasn’t going to help my lungs be prepared for the high country considering my hunt would truly start at 9000ft elevation and go up to 12,000ft elevation. Like all of us, I knew how to drop weight and train for a hunt, however I enlisted Verge Fitness in North Dakota to hold me accountable each day with a specific training and nutrition program accompanied by many texts and video chats. Aaron and C.J. made sure I dropped 30 lbs and was more than ready physically to tackle whatever the hunt threw at me.
My dad and I met up in Eagle the day before season. We covered every road, hiked to many places he had marked on topo maps in the 1980’s, and overall got the feel of the entire unit. As we climbed hills my Dad told the stories of his hunts.
“Right past that log I shot my first buck in this unit”
“This mountain was one of my favorites, it always had a big buck or two”
“Over there we saw a monster but never caught up to him”.
It was an amazing experience just being here retracing the steps he had walked decades earlier. It was important for me to have my dad here, not just for his knowledge of the area and to help with the hunt but if I was fortunate enough to get a buck, it would be my 100th big game animal and 70th with a muzzleloader which were both big personal milestones.
Opening morning found us in some great high country and we only saw a few deer. We found most of the buck sign still up very high around the 10,500 ft elevation and higher. We put almost 12 miles on our boots that day on a few different mountains and the best buck we had seen was a young 140 class.
The second day we decided to push north and explore some more. We found some great habitat and saw seven bull moose but still the deer sightings were scarce. The deer we saw were young bucks or a few doe/fawn pairs together. We ran into most of the other non-resident tag holders and they were reporting the same results. Needle in a haystack was truly becoming the reality of the hunt.
Day three started off much the same way however we knew we were in for some weather and with any kind of luck we would have a few feet of snow drop. In my mind the snow would give us two specific advantages, fresh tracks to follow and hopefully push the big old bucks down out of their high country haunts.
By late afternoon we had been pushed down the mountain due to 16 inches of fresh heavy snow. There were a few times I was pushing snow with my bumper and honestly plowing the logging roads above 10,000ft as we seemed to be the only truck up that high. We dropped down in elevation and concentrated on the lower hillsides to glass. Still not seeing much we moved down toward the creek where we had seen the moose as it provided a great vantage point to scour miles of mountainside in search of deer.
Within the last 30 minutes of light I finally saw a respectable buck. The distance was about 2 miles and his profile had me pretty excited however when he faced me he seemed to instantly shrink. Even in my Leica 60X Spotting scope I just couldn’t decide if he was big enough. The exciting part is that he was with 3 other bucks and a small group of does and he was definitely posturing and showing his obvious dominance.
That night we poured over the maps to see how we could get above or close to where we had seen the bucks and hatched a game plan. Dad knew this mountain well, in fact the bench right below where we last saw the bucks was exactly where he had taken his biggest mule deer in 1984, the hillside they stood on was where he took his shot.
That night it continued to dump snow to the tune of 16-20 additional inches up high. It seemed like all of the signs were pushing in a singular direction.
GOING ALL IN
We woke early and were on the mountain well before the first glint of light hit the horizon. We had feet of snow to push through and miles to cover to get to where we last spotted the bucks from the evening before. Hours into our day we rounded a snowy ridge and laid eyes on the same group of deer. At that point I really started breaking down the bigger buck.
Once again I was not sure he was the buck to end my 24 year wait. His mass was obvious, back forks were deep, spread was narrow and certain looks were honestly not impressive. We waited for them to crest the next ridge and bed in the aspens before we closed the last 500+ yards. Another storm had blown in which dropped temps to 11 degrees and cut visibility to under 100 yards which I used to my advantage on the stalk.
I was now 70 yards above the bedded buck who was hidden in the aspen choked bowl with the other 6 deer. I kept the crosshairs focused as I waffled in my decision. My dad was just up the ridge wondering why I was hesitating for a solid 25-30 minutes.
As frost nip set in, I saw his matching extra forks in front and knew this was the right buck. I moved just enough so he would see me and stand. As he bolted from his bed he let out the loudest blow I’ve heard and bounded over dead falls with no shot opportunity. I stayed on him steady and as most mature mule deer do, he stopped and glanced back only to have a .50 caliber bullet already in the air to end our standoff.
As we approached him the body size simply took my breath away, he was enormous. The same unit, on the same mountainside, almost exactly to the day 36 years after my dad took his biggest mule deer, I had just taken my biggest mule deer and my dad was there every step of the way.