90% of the bow hunting I do is spot and stalk style hunting. I absolutely love the challenge in spotting a buck 500 to 1000 yards away and methodically putting a game plan together to cut that utterly long distance and get myself within a comfortable shooting range; a range that I have jokingly coined “my wheelhouse”. Even so, I am not opposed to hunting from ground blinds or tree stands, or behind decoys. I have hunted several other species this way, but I have never hunted mule deer in this sit and wait fashion. Most might say that they just don’t have the patience to sit (my husband for sure) and I admit that although these types of sedentary hunts are less physically draining, the mental game is quite the opposite and even my patience can be tried. Nevertheless, the idea of hunting any other way than spot and stalk never crossed my mind while planning and prepping for our September Idaho Archery Hunt and so begins the story of my first sit and wait mule deer…
This story can’t be told without giving some background to our hunting buddy Tom! Casey and I actually met Tom 4 years ago on a hillside in this exact unit. After a couple days of passing by and seeing this guy coming and going from the same areas we were hunting, I lovingly encouraged Casey to stop and talk to him by threatening to jump out of the jeep if he didn’t stop and say hello the next time we passed him. I was curious to find out what he had been seeing and how his hunting was going. I’ll admit the conversation was awkward at first and a slight case of male hunter, closed lip pride was very present, but eventually the two were speaking the same language and before long we were putting a game plan together for an evening hunt as a trio. Needless to say, Tom and Casey are like long lost brothers and over the last few years have bonded pretty well and I’ll even admit that I am sort of fond of Utah Tom myself.
Timing of Opening Day for this particular hunt always conflicts with the Opening Day Dove Shoot that we host through our guide service each year. The dove opener is a highly anticipated event for many of our clients and it is something we just can’t avoid hosting, no matter how badly we long to be in Idaho for the archery opener! To make matters even worse, is when Tom gets settled into hunting camp days before us and begins sending photos of the bucks that he is finding morning and evening, each day we are not there! It is somewhat tortuous, I swear!!! By the time we hit the road we are chomping at the bit to get settled into camp and hit the mountain ourselves! By the time we pulled into camp this year, Tom already had a week’s worth of hunting under his belt and he had been patterning plenty of good bucks. Although he was holding out for a particular trophy himself, I was more than willing to put a hunt together on any of the bucks he had been tracking.
Now comes the part where I have to tell you that hunting a buck is a very different action than killing a buck. Three days of hunting resulted in several remarkable stalks. A few of those were even bootless, and one was the closest encounters I have ever had with a majestic mule deer buck (that is a whole other blog post in itself), but none of them resulted in a decent shot opportunity. On the third evening of the hunt Casey and I got into one of our silent squabbles after a failed stalk caused by a slight miscommunication between us and I had made a mental note that an evening hunting apart would probably do us good. After meeting back up that night, Tom let us know that he had watched a few smaller bucks and a pretty decent four point feed into one of several nearby waterholes and after hearing that, my plan for the following evening was set.
By the fourth day of the hunt I was pretty sore and tired. My legs were killing me and I had a few throbbing cactus needles in the soles of my feet from a couple earlier bootless sneaks. Hot dry weather set in early each day of the hunt and it didn’t ever present us with much opportunity during the morning hours as many of the deer would bed-down within the first hour and a half of day light. Nonetheless, we would spend a few hours each morning observing the few bucks we may have watched bed each morning. This morning was no different and being as hot as it was we made our way back to camp fairly early. Once back at camp, I let the guys know that I planned to set myself up at the waterhole Tom had mentioned the night before. No one seemed to think it was a horrible idea, but no one seemed to think it was an exceptional idea either. But my gut was telling me to sit my butt there, if nothing else but for the respite from hiking another 3 or 4 miles. After lunch, afternoon naps and a game of shooting dots on the block target, we headed back up the hill and the guys let me out about a ½ mile from the waterhole. It was just about 5 o’clock when I made it to the pond’s edge and I suddenly realized that every bit of how I set myself up at this water was on me and me alone!
First I checked for tracks around the muddy edge and realized that tracks were all around coming and going all over the place. So next I checked the wind direction and determined that the most open shooting lane with the wind in my face, would be on the west side of the pond. So I found a decent size sage bush to sit myself down into and tried not to let the fact that the setting sun was directly on my back worry me. What if they approached the pond from the west and I had my back to them? They would either wind me or see me, long before I knew they were there. Plus, if I did happen to hear them coming, I would have to turn and shoot into the direct glaring sun and that would be almost impossible. I looked around one last time and made my final decision that the sun was just going to be something that I had to deal with. My instincts were telling me to set up in this bush so I plopped my pack on the ground, pulled out my ear buds and sat down cross legged on top of my pack. I ranged each big bush down the side of the mountain leading to the pond. Memorizing the 100 yard mark, 80 yard mark, and the 50 yard mark and of course the water’s edge was 20 or so yards away. I slipped my ear buds in, turned on a Tom Sullivan Pod Cast, knocked an arrow and drew back from that seated position. It wasn’t as graceful as one would hope, but smooth enough and I did it fairly quickly, so feeling content with my set up, I let down and commenced my long wait.
Three podcasts into the wait, my phone buzzed with a text message. Cell service was few and far between in this particular part of Idaho and the vibration of the phone sitting in my lap somewhat startled me. I looked down to see that it was my Dad texting. He and Mom were on kid duty back home and he was checking in with his daily report of school news and soccer practice updates and of course he wanted any hunt details he could get. We text back and forth a few times, I took a pic of my shadow for him and sent it. By this time I had been sitting for close to 2 hours and was bored with my podcasts. I pulled my ear buds out and set them down on my phone in the dirt beside my pack and as soon as I looked up from the where I had sat my phone, I caught a deer, out of the corner of my eye, crossing the saddle above the trail I was sitting on roughly 120-130 yards away. I knew instantly that it was a doe, so I wasn’t too concerned. I reached for my binos and quickly glassed the area that I saw her cross. She had dipped down into the saddle out of sight and I wasn’t to certain of where she was headed but then, suddenly I saw another deer cross on the exact same trail. I could not see right away that it was a buck, but it was definitely a much bigger deer than the doe that just crossed. Keeping my binos locked on that trail, I watched intently, heart starting to flutter a bit. First the doe emerged from the cover at the 80 yard mark I had previously memorized. She was moving fairly quick making a bee line for the water and soon I realized that she was being followed by a big buck. My first peek at him, I guessed him to be a really tall three point. His head never came up, his nose was always close to the ground and all I knew was that he was a shooter by a long shot in my book! Within seconds both deer made their way to the 50 yard bush and I was starting to hear my heart beat in my ears. Both deer slowed their pace just after passing the 50 yard mark and this is when the 5 million questions went through my mind. That buck was well within my wheelhouse and I knew each move I made from here on out in this game would be critical. In the seconds that they both paused and sniffed the ground, I quickly pulled up and ranged him. 38 yards. The only problem was that he was coming directly at me, with his nose to the ground. He offered me nothing at this point, but I was beyond worried that he would walk right up on me and try to skirt around the pond, rather than go straight to the edge like I had guessed. He was sure to see me if he did that!!! What I felt at this point in all of this could probably never be described in words, verbally or written. I wanted to scream with excitement and nerves, but I also knew to sit as still as I possibly could. I am not sure I was even breathing at this point. As the pair slowly creeped closer, I realized that I had guessed right. They were both about to turn toward the water and I made the choice to latch my release to my loop with as little movement as possible as soon as they did. The doe made it to the water first and immediately began to drink. The buck was hanging back behind, positioning himself on the opposite side of her. He would have to take at least three more steps forward for a shot to present itself. Waiting for that to happen honestly seemed like an eternity. I remember counting his steps, maybe as a form of calming meditation, but as close as I was to them, I could see the details of his hooves and I watched as they sank into the muddy bank. As soon as his head lowered to the water to drink, I drew back as quickly as I possibly could and like second nature began to line up peep, pin and target. Doing so alerted the doe and she locked on me instantaneously. Buck continued to sip and this is when I realized that a small sage brush was directly in my line of fire. I knew I only had milliseconds before Miss Doe bolted and spooked him as well. I slowly raised myself up from that seated cross-legged position, trying to balance as best I could in a half way down, half way up air sit. I found my anchor, then peep, pin and target, adjusted for my bubble as best I could in that highly unstable wobble of a position and slowly pulled the trigger. Thwack!!!!!!!!!!!! My arrow hit him with a force and a sound that I can only compare to what I would guess the sound of a waterbed exploding would make. I knew at once, that my shot was not in the perfect pocket and I had hit him a little too far back. I quickly tugged another arrow from my quiver and watched the beast I had just shot bound up the side of the hill behind me suddenly stop and turn to see what had just attacked him. I grabbed for my range finder, was barely able to range him at 46 yards, and just as I drew back he bounded off into the blinding sun. I hurriedly made my way up to the knob that he bound over and desperately tried to look through the glare to see any sort of movement. Nothing! I couldn’t see anything! My head was spinning and I squinted my eyes shut seeing nothing but bright spots and suddenly I was nauseous. Like can’t talk yourself out of it nauseous. Like drop down to your knees and lose your lunch nauseous. “Ugh! Get yourself together! You have to see this through! You can do it. Get your head on straight and find this buck!” – Sometimes a pep talk to yourself is all you need. I made my way back to the pond and found the point of impact. I grabbed my radio from my pack and made a call out to the guys with no luck. Frustrated I picked up my phone, shoved it in my pocket and I grabbed my flagging tape and started the tedious task of blood trailing. I wanted to mark as much of the blood trail as I could before that sun set. I was tracking good blood, but didn’t want to overestimate it. I knew I wasn’t going to leave that mountain without my buck! The guys would have to carry me off kicking and clawing if they thought differently. I continued marking blood for almost 200 yards from the pond, when I remembered my cell phone worked. I pulled it out and tried to call Casey. Voicemail. So I tried again. Voicemail. Agh!!!!!! One more time, and finally he answered. I told him that I had hit a buck, made a solid hit but not a perfect shot and I was afraid that he wasn’t going to die as quickly as I hope all the game animals that I shoot do! I was also afraid that we wouldn’t find him before dark settled in! Casey knows this is my biggest freak out, so he assured me that he and Tom would leave Josh on the mountain and get to me as soon as they could.
Knowing they were on their way to help, I calmed down and really gained some ground on the trailing. About 600 yards from the pond, I found my arrow with lots of good blood. At this point I could see the guys coming and I called Casey and told him to be sure and look into the pocket he was about to pass by really good. I thought my buck was in there, I just couldn’t see him because of the sun. About half way down, I noticed Casey stop and his voice came across the radio asking me if I was sure that the buck I shot was a three point. I told him that I was pretty sure he was. He came back on saying he could see a three point on the ridgeline above the pocket and that he had to put the spotting scope on him to see if he could see blood. He and Tom both stared at the buck for awhile and were pretty sure there was no visible blood and the buck was acting completely unhurt so they continued up the road to meet up with me. We all worked to find blood spots in the dimming light. A couple times we even came across large pools of blood where he had obviously stopped and laid down for awhile. Finding these made me nervous to think that we were pushing him and some bow hunters would argue that we should have backed off and let him bleed out. Maybe we should have, but my mind doesn’t think that way. All I can focus on is the fact that he is not dead, he is only hurt, and I need to finish what I started. After a very long and grueling tracking process, we began to notice more than just blood on the trail. Sage brush was broken and flattened and we realized that he must be falling down and crawling through the brush. I knew we were close and that his end was soon. By this point Josh had walked off the ridge above and met up with us to help search. Coyotes were closing in on us as well, yipping back and forth to each other only a couple hundred yards from us. The sky was grey and only a few rays of sunlight lightened our path. Roughly 1500 yards from the pond now, we caught the slightest movement ahead of us. My buck was laying with his head down, but not yet dead only 50 feet from us. I quickly moved to the front of our line. The buck slowly lifted his head, and I could tell by his movement and the look in his eye that we was done. He wasn’t going any further. At that very second, every bit of me accepted the task at hand. Every bit of me was confident, as I knocked an arrow, drew back and finished him off with a certain death head shot.
I was drained, emotionally and physically. I approached the buck cautiously, and then kneeled to the ground beside him. I was awestruck at how amazing this animal was. My gratitude for the adventure, the food source and the sense of pure accomplishment this animal gave to me will never be forgotten. It was Josh who snapped me out of my daze by saying, “some three point, that’s a four point with eye guards!” All I knew was that he was a big beautiful buck, and I had done it all on my own! And that my friends, is one of the coolest feelings you could ever imagine!
***Casey, Tom, and Josh, thank you for letting the girl invade your camp each and every year. Thank you for knowing that my emotions make the hunt a tad bit different from an all guys hunt and even still you all are willing to deal with me anyway! Most importantly thank you for treating me equally! I appreciate you all, I admire you all, and I am beyond blessed to have you all in my life and I guess a sit and wait type hunt isn’t all that bad after all!