Flopping around in our cozy bed in the camp trailer, I couldn’t tell you what I was more annoyed with, Casey’s obnoxious snoring, the coyotes yipping right outside the door, or the fact that I didn’t notice the road that cut right through the canyon we were hunting the evening before! How could I have not noticed that darn road?! I had loaded the maps from the On-X app and studied them diligently. I could tell you exactly where the private ground started and the National Forest ended, almost on the dot, without even looking at my phone, but somehow I had missed noticing that road. It was a feeling that I just couldn’t settle and was kicking myself (and Casey too, to get him to stop snoring). That road could have been the difference between an unfilled tag and a successful hunt for my Dad and the afterthoughts of how we could have hunted that canyon differently were keeping me from getting any kind of rest that night!
It was the 4th day of our hunt. Casey, Josh and I had luckily already filled our tags, but the challenge of hunting public land mule deer seemed even more taxing after recognizing the limitations of my Dad’s physical ability after his 12-round boxing match with sarcoma cancer. The days before had been filled with a realization that although we were thrilled to have Dad as a returning member of our hunting party of 4, it was definitely in a very different capacity. The guy that once scaled the rolling hills and steep canyons of the Idaho high desert, better than the 3 of us combined, was now a bit slower moving and not quite as able as he once was. If Dad was going to notch his tag on this trip, we were going to have to hunt quite a bit differently than any of us were used to. Although this truth hurt all of us, it wasn’t going to ruin the awesomeness of the fact that Dad was once again a part of our posse! We just needed to put our chins to the ground, cover as much of the area as we could and stare through our optics even harder. I had no doubt that we would get Dad set up on a buck. I don’t think I have wanted something so badly, ever and we were all determined to make it happen.
The evening of my sleepless night, we had come up on a little bluff overlooking the tail end of a pretty deep canyon. The same canyon actually, that Casey and I had hiked to the top of and jumped the buck he killed a few days before. As the four of us meticulously scoured the sage brush and aspen groves through our binos and spotting scopes we were distracted by the magnificence of a 200+ head herd of elk in the far distance. As we oohed and aaahed over the handful of giant bulls in that herd, a small bachelor group of bucks suddenly appeared within 1,000 yards of us and all at once our eyes instantly moved from elk to deer. Every single buck in the group was worth tagging and we were all happily surprised. It was the only group of multiple shooter bucks we had seen over the last few days which would give Dad even more of a chance at making it happen! We began to put a game plan in place. I opened the On-X app with the little sliver of cell service I had and we determined the group was well within public ground. That was the extent of my map research in the excitement of that moment. We studied the terrain and Dad felt confident that he would be able to make the hike needed to close the gap within a comfortable shooting range of the three bigger bucks. So with shooting sticks in hand and his .338 strapped over his shoulder, Josh and I watched as Dad followed Casey through the sage and rocks. We would be the spotters watching the movement of the deer through our spotting scopes. 30 minutes later, Dad and Casey looked to be set up and watching the bucks from a new vantage point. Within seconds of watching dad settle his rifle on the shooting sticks, a few does and yearlings spooked and ran into the same flat that the bucks were feeding. Right on the heels of one of the yearlings was a mangy coyote, and a few of his friends began yipping nearby. We watched as one of the does charged the dingo trying to make her fawn his supper. It was funny to watch the coyote back down and head the opposite direction. She certainly showed him who was boss, but all the commotion set the group of bucks into high alert and they began to feed up and over the top of the flat. Josh and I waited anxiously for Dad’s crosshairs to find one of the bucks, switching our eyes from spotting scopes to binoculars, watching Dad and Casey then back to the bucks, over and over again. I hate that anxious feeling of not knowing. A million questions go through your mind. Can they even see them? Are they too far? Is he going to shoot? Why isn’t he shooting? Agghhhh!!! Josh and I nervously watched and waited for another 20 or 30 minutes until the last and smallest buck fed over the hill. No shots. Dad and Casey slowly made their way back to us and although we were all a tad bit bummed to not be heading back to camp with a buck to skin, we all smiled in knowing that Dad had made the hike and closed the gap on those bucks. Had those darn coyotes steered clear, those bucks may have fed right down to him and made his effort even more rewarding. But, it just wasn’t meant to be and maybe his tag was meant for an even cooler buck! While we all chatted about the events of that hunt, we listened to the chirping and whining of the now close approaching herd of elk. If you have not ever had the chance to sit and listen to a group of talking elk, you are missing out on something truly amazing! As the sun said its last goodbyes and tucked itself into bed behind the mountains, our binos could pull in just enough light to see the elk make their way across the flat and down into the draw below us like a line of ants. We all joked and laughed about the several groups of elk hunters we had stopped and chatted with over the last few days. Not one of them had yet to see an elk, and of course ironically, we had now seen upwards of 300.
We made our way back to camp that evening and all of us agreed it was much colder that night than it had been. Maybe the chillier temps would bring out the bucks and this gave us hope for what the morning hunt might bring. After a quick dinner, we settled into our bunks and it wasn’t long before the choir of snoring started. I pulled my phone out to idly look over the way points I marked on the map earlier. Listening to the coyotes over the snoring, I was wondering if they would steal the antlers of our bucks outside and that is when I saw the road load on my screen! Plain as day! There was a road right through the middle of that draw and it most likely led to right below the flat that those bucks had fed up over the top of. If only I had noticed that road sooner and we had taken it and waited from that side for the bucks to feed over the hill to us! Dad would have certainly been able to get a shot off! I felt horrible! Darn it, darn the coyotes and darn all the snoring in this trailer!!!! I rustled Casey from his sleep and showed him the road on my screen. That is exactly where we would be going in the morning. He agreed and fell back asleep without issue. I on the other hand, did not.
It was a tad tougher crawling out of our warm beds that next morning. We weren’t wrong about the fact that it was much colder than it had been. A thick blanket of frost glittered the ground as far as you could look. The iciness of the wind tore at our cheeks and watered our eyes as we made our way into the area we planned to hunt. As we wondered our way to the same lookout we sat and glassed from the night before, a horrible smell of skunk filled the air. It wasn’t long before we realized the stench wasn’t from a skunk, but rather from the scent of bull elk marking what’s theirs. Just as the light of day started to brighten the sky, we could see that the herd was right in front of us. We watched as they split up and made their way in all directions through that canyon. It wasn’t long after, we spotted a buck moving down the draw. The elk had startled the deer and pushed them out of sight. We decided to quickly make our way to the “elusive road” and see if we could get to a point to see down the draw from the other side. After making our way through a few frozen and hard to open stretch gates, suddenly the game changed! 250 yards from us was a nice buck! I couldn’t tell with my bare eyes exactly how big he was, but he was dark and heavy horned and that tell-tale white face of a mature mule deer buck is noticeable from miles away! Casey hopped out and signaled to Dad to follow him. He had the shooting sticks set up and Dad looking through his scope and down the barrel of his gun before I even had a chance to put my binos down. I quickly jumped out to set up the spotter with the Phone Skope attached! I wanted to film the action so badly so I could share this moment with my sisters. But, without warning, the loud boom of that .338 shook us all and then the smack of a sure hit! Dad had dropped that buck in his tracks and the cheers we all made mocked the sounds of those yipping coyotes the night before!
We all excitedly jumped into the side by side and headed down the hill to go claim Dad’s buck! I’ll never forget Dad patting my hand in the back seat of that ATV! A small gesture of thanks, or happiness, or pride, or maybe relief, whatever it was, it triggered a flash back of a million memories of me and that guy in the field together over the last 30(ish) years and the unbreakable bond that we share as a father / daughter hunting duo! I looked at him with tears in my eyes and smiled. I try never to get emotional in front of my dad, so I closed my eyes and felt the cold wind sting my face as I took a deep breath of that frosty air! I let it fill my lungs and calm me down as I said a prayer of gratitude to the man upstairs. Our prayers had been answered…tests and diagnosis’, doctors appointments, radiation treatments, transfusions and transplants, scans and surgeries, and the never ending fear of it all coming right back, all disappeared in that moment. Dad had made a tremendous recovery. He battled cancer with pride and love and toughness without equal and in that moment he had officially won!!