feature By: Trent Swanson | September, 18
Jake Keller has a knack for storytelling that must have been brewed into the coffee he drank with his grandfather around the campfire. He’s a young man in his mid-20s but has skills and knowledge beyond his years. Jake handles the primary guiding duties on Brush Creek Ranch and is also the livestock manager in charge of all the cattle and horses. When summer guests arrive, he acts as the head wrangler, leading horseback rides into the backcountry.
Growing up just down the road from Brush Creek, Jake learned early the value of respect, honesty, integrity and hard work. His family instilled in him all the principles and passions of a true cowboy and hunter. He followed his parents and grandparents into the woods as soon as they would let him. The summer Jake turned four, he and his cousins saddled up their ponies and helped their grandpa move cows for the neighbors. “We did everything cowboys do,” Jake laughed, “except we were too small to get off our own horses to go to the bathroom.” When he was not helping with the family’s guiding and cowboying chores, he chased critters with his BB gun. He started roping about that same time, a passion that led him to compete in rodeos throughout high school and college, and now professionally. He’s tall and lean, with a quick wit, and can just as easily toss a loop over a fleeing calf as find a big mule deer. For me, his mule deer instincts proved most valuable.
I met Jake with five days left in Wyoming’s early October deer season. My tag was valid for either mule deer or whitetails, but with very few whitetails around we concentrated on muleys. Brush Creek Ranch (brushcreekranch.com) sits just east of the small town of Saratoga in the foothills of southern Wyoming. The 13,000-acre ranch straddles its namesake, Brush Creek, and provides superb habitat for mule deer, from its sprawling sage flats and hay meadows down low to deep timber and aspen pockets up high. As a working ranch since the late 1800s, cattle and horses share the land with pronghorn, moose, elk, mountain lions, bears, whitetails, and of course, mule deer. The area is also known for its awesome trout fishing on the North Platte River and excellent snowmobiling in the Snowy Range.
There had already been a little snow at the ranch, but the ground was clear and the air was crisp. The smell of lodgepole pines brought back my childhood memories of camping, fly fishing and bowhunting in similar country just south across the Colorado line. It had been 30 years since some of my first mountain forays, and over that time my hunting goals too often focused on size and success. This time I just wanted to enjoy the hunt – simply absorb the experience while looking for a respectable deer, take plenty of photographs and learn as much as I could from Jake.
On the first morning of the hunt, Jake took us along a ranch road that led past the hayfields and through the sage. The overcast morning dawned with low-hanging clouds obscuring our view of the mountains and a light mist threatening to obscure the view through our binoculars. We glassed intently, moving from lookout to lookout, finding many does and six bucks throughout the morning. We thought one buck had potential, but none of the others carried the headgear we were looking for.
On our way back to the lodge for lunch, Jake picked out a spot where we looked over a large herd of does with a couple of small bucks. As I watched all the deer out front, Jake looked behind us and spotted a tall-racked buck watching us from 186 yards. At first glance, we thought it was a 3x4 and only realized our mistake when it bounded away through some large granite boulders. Luckily, we found the buck again and watched as it slowly meandered through the scattered pines, junipers and boulders.
We lost the deer in a thick draw, but Jake had an idea where it went, so we moved down a ridgeline for a different view. As we snuck to the edge, Jake spotted the bedded buck. We repositioned once more, trying to get as close as possible, but the buck remained bedded in a perfectly protected spot, 419 yards away. We glassed and glassed but could not figure any way to approach the buck without spooking it again.
The distance was just within my shooting comfort zone. Miraculously, the first bar of the ballistic reticle in my riflescope happened to be 419 yards, so after some discussion I decided to take the shot. I got comfortable with my rifle resting on a pack laid over a large boulder. After the shot, the buck, hit a little low and a little too far back, stood behind a snag for what seemed like an eternity, and then I missed it as it skedaddled.
Jake knew that part of the ranch like the back of his hand and guessed where the buck had gone. After looping around to get above the buck, we cautiously walked down the hillside. We spooked the deer from its bed again, and I could not get another shot off as it escaped through the trees. We then followed the buck’s tracks down a rocky, juniper-choked draw, across a sage flat and down to Brush Creek. Since it was holding up its left rear leg, it made the tracking job very easy. Jake found one more track on the other side of the creek, but we decided to back out for the evening in hopes of finding the deer in the morning. I was quite pessimistic to leave the deer, but Jake insisted. He assured me it was our best option for finding the buck again, so I reluctantly agreed.
“That buck is holed-up in the thick brush along the creek,” Jake reassured me, “and if we keep pushing, we’ll blow him out, but if we come back tomorrow, we’ll get him!” Little did I know that I would benefit from one of his grandfather’s lessons.
The next morning I was setup on the trail the buck had used, and Jake headed downstream to push the river bottom with Wade, one of his guides. Jake’s plan worked perfectly! I could hear both of them busting through the brush, and as I stared intently into the undergrowth, a mule deer buck slowly appeared as if out of nowhere. It kept its nose low to the ground like a Labrador retriever on the hot scent of a rooster pheasant, hiding its tall rack from the view of its pursuers, but I had a front row seat to his entire cunning show.
As the buck emerged, the rifle came to my shoulder and I frantically tried to verify that the deer was the buck from the day before. It was so close that even through the 3.5x magnification on my riflescope I could not see the buck’s chest and its rack in the same field of view. I slowly raised the rifle and looked for the primary distinguishing point – the extra-long G2 on the left antler. Once the deer cleared the vegetation, it paused and then lifted and turned its head back toward Jake and Wade. It was the right deer, and it had no idea I was there! I settled the crosshairs low on the buck’s chest and finished the job.
After hearing the shot, Jake plowed through the bushes and slipped in the creek as he came running. His soaked boots and wet jeans could not put a damper on his smile; his relief and excitement were very evident and added to my enjoyment. In awe of the buck’s size, we both stood silently and just admired it.
Jake taught me a few very important lessons on that hunt. First, when in doubt, back out and try again tomorrow. “My grandpa used to tell me to slow down and take a breath because I was an overzealous, cocky kid who often walked right by animals or spooked them by moving too fast,” Jake explained. Clearly, his grandfather’s lesson sunk in.
Second, when a hunter makes one mistake, do not compound it by making more. I should have made a good shot the day before, but when I did not, each time we pushed the buck we lowered our chance of recovering it. Jake’s dad used to tell him that wild cowboys make wild cows. Well, wild deer hunters make wild deer, too. Third, listen to your guide! I had been hunting for longer than Jake had been alive, but he has been hunting most of that time anyway. In addition, we were in his backyard, and it was his job to make the decisions. If I would not have listened to Jake, I would not be staring at that buck on the wall right now.
Jake put me in the right place at the right time so we could be successful, and I guess that’s the best measure of a guide. It’s not just the stories he tells to educate you or keep you entertained; it’s not all the places he’s been or how many animals he’s killed; it’s not how quickly he can walk or how well he can glass. For Jake, it’s a combination of all those things plus a lifetime of experiences passed down from his family that make him exceptional.
And Jake is just one thing that made Brush Creek Ranch exceptional. That large slice of paradise in southern Wyoming also provided breathtaking views, the rich smell of pine trees, the gentle sound of water cascading over rocks and a bomber buck that will always tie me, in a small way, to that ranch.