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#SKRESUCCESS: Chasing Thirty

#SKRESUCCESS: Chasing Thirty

Family Deer camps in the 70’s and 80’s was spectacular. Families gathered from near and far to bring in the opening day of deer season with big camps, great food, nightly campfires, and tall tales. These were days never to be forgotten! As the pine sap from the fire created little explosions of cracking and popping, the old ones told and retold stories of big bucks that roamed these mountains. Stories, no doubt embellished a bit, about the big bucks that got away and the ones that didn’t. These stories stirred a flame of excitement within my youthful soul that would burn as eternal embers of passion for trophy mule deer hunting.

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Deer camp was a very special time and place for me. I was a very observant little sapling, especially when campfire conversation turned to stories of big bucks. I soaked up everything I heard about mule deer hunting and relished anytime I got new information or heard new stories. It didn’t take me long to recognize that the great mule deer hunters of my time considered a trophy buck as one that sported a 30-inch rack. In those days, there was never talk or mention of B&C scores, like there is today. I wondered why 30 inch was the benchmark for a trophy deer, but overtime I came to understand the rarity of such a trophy. Sometime in my hunting

career I read the results of a mule deer study conducted by researchers in Arizona and Wyoming. This study was conducted on the famed Kaibab Plateau in Arizona and the Wyoming range. As part of this study, they conducted check stations throughout these areas during several hunting seasons. From 1936-1951 on the Kaibab Plateau, they checked 8781 bucks and recorded data such as age, antler points and width. Of the 8781 bucks measured on the Kaibab, only 6% of those deer sported antlers 30 inches or wider. Likewise on the Wyoming range from 1989-2008 they checked 2396 bucks of which only 4% of those bucks sported racks 30 inches or wider. Clearly this study produced some solid and conclusive data that supports the rarity of a 30-inch buck. If 30-inch deer were rare during the mule deer glory days, they are even more rare today with the population of mule deer on a steep decline. The truth is, it’s a tough time to be a trophy mule deer hunter. Some of the challenges facing mule deer are the aging decay of winter range habitat, poor management practices, receding winter ranges due to development, and modern-day technology has all made it incredibly difficult for mule deer to thrive in the 21st Century. Furthermore, the age class that grows trophy mule deer is all but nonexistent in many of our western units. By nature, I’m not a doom & gloom type of person, however it’s hard to find a bright spot in the future of mule deer herds in the west. If there is one bright spot, it’s that the genetics are still present and with some better management practices we can once again reclaim world class mule deer hunting. If you love mule deer hunting as much as I do, be vocal and involved. We need big changes

before it’s too late.

Enough of the past, let me focus on the present and in a much more positive light. This year my brother and I landed good tags for mule deer in Colorado. I knew the unit we would be hunting was rich in monster mule deer genetics, but I also had a good friend who guides mule deer in the unit confirm what I had already heard from others: the unit wasn’t what it once was. I also knew the 2nd season could be good or bad depending on weather. We really needed some weather to drive deer out of the high country. As the hunt got closer my brother informed me that there was no snow in the forecast, and in my mind, I was settling in for a long hard hunt.

However, about 6 days before the hunt, mother nature pulled a two day storm out of her hat on the first two days of the season which consequently was the two days we couldn’t hunt due to other commitments back home. Monday dawned sunny and clear, and about the time we hit public ground we had two nice bucks cross the road in front of us. One of the bucks was a good one that my brother contemplated taking. Hunts rarely start like this for me, but I was grateful for the good omen we had been gifted. We stayed out hunting all day.

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Deer were pouring out of the high county headed for their winter range. We looked over a hand full of bucks and with the rut coming on it was encouraging to see so many does. Late in the afternoon we rolled up to a high point overlooking an expansive gulch littered with aspen and a small parchment of pine pockets. We immediately started picking up deer including a few respectable bucks. We were ready to move further up the drainage and glass when I spotted what looked to be two nice bucks in a thick patch of aspens. We kept eyes on them until finally they both moved through an opening, and it was then we realized they were both solid bucks. We quickly gathered up our packs and moved across the drainage and into a better shooting position. By the time we arrived at our predetermined spot, both bucks had re-bedded in a thick aspen grove. After a couple hours of waiting, one of the bucks began feeding our way. He crossed an open spot headed straight at us but never stopped to present an ethical shot. Fortunately, we were able to keep eyes on the buck as he fed into another patch of aspens. This allowed time for my brother, Adam, to get set up for the shot. Minutes later the buck popped out the other side of the aspen patch and his 6.5 PRC prevented any further travel. With a solid buck on the ground on the first day we were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Despite a tough pack out that night, we had plenty of enthusiasm in the tank to hit it hard the next day. I have learned in over 3 decades of hunting trophy mule deer, that if you have two deer tags in camp, one ought to be grateful to fill one of them with a big buck. While the hunt seemed to be going well, I was not all two confident we would find another good buck. The weather was beginning to warm, and the snow was melting fast. I have witnessed all too many times a hunt go from good to bad in just a couple of days due to a rise in temperature. The next day dawned sunny and clear and the ruts in the roads became creeks of running water from the snow melt. We took a long ride through some incredible mule deer country with a lot less deer sighting and a lot fewer bucks spotted. As the day wore on and our eyes grew tired of glassing, we elected to return to the drainage where my brother took his buck. One of the things we loved about this area was it had an elevated point where we could cover a lot of country with our big glass. It was now evident the bucks were starting to rut pretty hard, and this area held a lot of does. We arrived late in the afternoon and almost immediately spotted two nice bucks with one clearly better than the other. After running off another nice buck, the bigger buck covered a lot of country trailing a hot doe. His old tongue was hanging out as he eventually left the basin, we were in. I wasn’t totally convinced this was a buck I wanted to go after, so we elected to remain in our current glassing location until dark. Over the next hour we remained vigilant behind the glass turning up multiple bucks but nothing I was interested in

going after. As the sun began to set behind those big high mountains, we spotted 3 bucks making a run for the other side of the drainage exposing themselves out in the open. In big buck fashion, they made fast tracks for the safety of the aspens on the other side. I immediately noticed the lead buck as one that was wide and built like a big buck ought to be built. I wasted no time diving off my vantage point to intercept the buck, often running and even sprinting to get into place. I can’t say I’ve ever been good at putting myself in place to intercept a buck. It’s always a big guess as to what they are going to do and which path they are going to take. This time my calculations were perfect.

Once I was 300 yards from the bottom of the drainage I dropped to a kneeling position and immediately glassed up the buck on the other side less than 100 yards from the bottom in a decent size opening. By this time the buck had calmed down and seemed content to slow his pace, even pausing at times to paw at the snow and feed. By the time I was on him, he started heading for cover. I knew if he made

those trees, it would be over. When I realized, the buck wasn’t going to stop, I swung in front of him and lit the fuse on my PRC. The first shot spun him and when he stopped, I anchored him for good. With evening light fading, I approached this magnificent buck. As I lifted his wide dark antlers out of the freshly fallen snow, the stories I heard as a youngster echoed down the canyons of my soul and filled me with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation for these magnificent animals. Out of sheer luck and determination, I reckon by the old timer standards I had accomplished something pretty cool. As I admired the buck with the setting sun, I longed to ascend that ridge that separates the past from the present and share this experience with some of the great mule deer hunters of my youth, but for now I will be content to pass these stories on to the next generation of mule deer hunters in hopes that they will protect, and preserve this remarkable resource for future generations to enjoy.

As a side note; after returning from my hunt, I was comparing notes with my good friend and bow hunting aficionado, Marlon Holden, and quickly recognized my buck as one he hunted in the high country. The buck traveled many miles from the high country to the winter range where he was harvested.

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