feature By: Gary Lewis | March, 19
Lay the map out on a table and clues begin to appear, vague hints of forgotten events. There is the Delore Place near Suplee – ex-Hudson’s Bay trapper Pete Delore was the first settler in the Ochoco mountains. There is Beaver Creek. Imagine the myriad dams and the miles-long patches of willows that thrived here when old Silvailles trapped these waters with Peter Skene Ogden and whose name was given to the Silvies River. There is Buck Mountain, where 3,000 western Shoshoni camped for three days, pursued by Bernard and Howard in the 1878 war.
North of here was Murderers Creek, named in 1863 when two young women from an immigrant train found the remains of prospectors killed when the Shoshonis dropped rocks on them from the rimrock above and finished the job with bows and arrows. One of the settlers of this country was Billie Stewart, who came to Oregon in 1847 as a child of three years and carved out his own place in the wilderness in the early 1860s, building up a herd of shorthorn cattle only to have the Indians wipe out his herd in the war of 1878. That was when General Howard built the road down Swamp Creek, trying to link up with Lt. Bernard.
We found felled logs buried side by side in Swamp Creek, remnants of the old road. And everywhere we found signs of the people who went before us, flakes of obsidian left by the Shoshoni, old beams cut from ancient pine used in a settler’s cabin. But we had not laid out the map to seek the past, but instead to divine the future.
At the bottom of Swamp Creek, my 21-year-old daughter Mikayla, Justin Aamodt and I would try to find a buck or two. For nine years Mikayla had hoarded her preference points, and together we had drawn these tags. Then, while planning the trip with Diamond A Guides (firstname.lastname@example.org), Mikayla informed me she would only have two days to hunt before she had to go back to work. Two days to hunt after nine years of planning? Okay then.
“We’re looking for a specific deer,” Aamodt informed us the day before the season. “We call him Ole. We have been seeing him in the same places every year for at least three years.”
With only two days to hunt, we would put Mikayla first, but I learned a long time ago not to chase a specific deer for too long. For the next day and a half we crept to the tops of hills and peered into canyons and looked into bedding and feeding areas. We saw forked horns and big 3x3s and smaller bucks pushing each other around. And we heard about Ole and another buck. Both bucks, Aamodt guessed, were six years old. The second one was an old 4x3, not quite 28 inches wide, but it had seemed to live a charmed life. Twice during the archery hunt, bowhunters missed it. Then, on the second day of the season, one of our hunters missed three times.
We glassed him with four other bucks atop a ridge. We saw him for a moment through binoculars and made a stalk from the east side of the ridge. What we didn’t know was that our five bucks we had spotted had another deer watching the back door. When we low-crawled over the top, the buck exited stage right, and the other deer were on alert. Somehow the older buck gave us the slip.
Four bucks paused, silhouetted on the skyline, and the deer Mikayla would have taken had another buck behind it. Rather than risk killing two bucks with one shot, Mikayla held off. We watched their dust trails across a hogback and saw them circle as if they were going to bed most of a mile away. Where the big one went was anyone’s guess.
In the afternoon we left the truck in a cleft in the ridge and went up on foot. From one overlook to the next we ghosted, and then Justin spotted a buck with does and fawns. This was not the buck we had been hunting, but it was the buck the sagebrush was ready to give up. And there were only a few hours left in her hunt.
Huddled on the hilltop, Justin and I called the shot for Mikayla. The buck was in bitterbrush, and other deer moved in front of and behind it. Sometimes it was broadside and other times straight on or straight away. “Breathe,” Justin whispered. “We have all the time in the world.” His words were meant for Mikayla, but I reminded myself that I needed to breathe, too.
“There’s a fawn in front of him now,” I said, and gave her the range and the admonishment, due to the steep decline she should hold lower. Then the fawn was clear and the deer broadside. The bullet went high, and a plume of dirt kicked up behind the buck. Deer bounded in every direction, but our buck went about 90 yards and locked up broadside. This time Mikayla’s crosshairs were properly low for the 146-yard shot, and when hit, the buck dropped its head and ran headlong toward the end of a bench and out of sight. It did not come back into view. Mikayla and Justin walked down to find it while I watched from up above. The 21 year old gutted her trophy, a three-year-old forked horn with double eyeguards, and then she and her mother dragged the buck down to a spot where we could load it on a vehicle.
We hunted the big buck called Ole again in the morning, and this time did not see a single deer in the canyons Ole called home. It was as if every deer in the country had levitated to the tops of the hills.
Back in the truck, we drove for most of an hour to the tops of the mountains where we could look into large meadows and glass the edges of groves of mountain mahogany. Deer? We could not see them. But there were feral horses in a canyon, and pronghorns.
Looking down from these promontories, I knew I was standing in a spot where Western Shoshonis had built signal fires way back in ’78. Here they would have hauled armloads of grass to the top of the ridge and sparked the fire beneath it, covered with blankets, then they would have pulled the blankets off, creating the draft that would have flashed the signal from the mountain – a message to warriors that a battle was near – a signal to settlers to bring in the horses and barricade the doors and watch through the loopholes notched in every cabin and barn and schoolhouse.
We were back in the lower reaches of Swamp Creek by midmorning when we spotted sage grouse. I pulled out my camera and snapped some pictures while the anxious birds legged it across the trail. Aamodt was smart enough to look around. “There’s a doe,” he said, “By herself.” It was the first deer we had seen since the day before. I did not look up from the camera.
“A buck!” I dropped the camera. There, going up the hill was a mule deer. “That’s him!”
I knew it was not Ole, but the buck we had glimpsed atop the ridge, the one that had split from the rest of the group and had given us the slip the day before. It was the buck Aamodt himself had missed two weeks earlier, his arrow streaking under its belly.
If we had not stopped to look at the sage grouse, the buck would have stayed bedded, unseen in the sage. Nervous, it had stood up and that was when we saw it. No time for a rangefinder; no time for binoculars. Headed uphill through tall sage, the buck flickered in and out of view. Straight away and now quartering away, and it was all I was going to see of it. The three-position safety was all the way forward, and three pounds of pressure broke the trigger. Lost in recoil, the buck vanished from my view, and the bullet lanced through the bottom of its heart.
We walked up the hill and Aamodt found it where one side of that rack jutted up through the sagebrush. We guessed this one’s age at six years old and its weight at 250 pounds. Its antlers stretched the tape to 27 inches at the greatest spread. There were three points on one side and four on the other. One of the oldest deer we had seen in three days of hunting, it was not the buck we had been hunting, but it was one of two we wanted. It was the sage grouse that showed us the buck. Who am I to argue with sage grouse?
In a well-run camp, the outfitter assigns territory to the guides and their clients. With the hunting ground divided into more-or-less equal sections, everyone gets a chance to hunt without bumping into someone else. Now that the guy with the hat and his daughter were tagged out, our ground and a buck named Ole was up for grabs.
Allan Van Zant and hunter Kyle Foley climbed the tops of the hills and looked into the same canyons we had been prospecting for most of three days. Forty-five minutes before dark, Foley and Van Zant spotted three bucks together, any one of which would have been a tremendous trophy, but one of the bucks was still in full velvet with five points on one side and six on the other. Foley was behind the gun at 513 yards with a 143-grain projectile in the tube and the safety “off” when Van Zant signaled a move. The deer were feeding over the top of the ridge. The two hunters moved, closing the gap in a hurry.
From the crest of the ridge, Ole was no more than 75 yards away. Foley’s 6.5 Creedmoor cracked, but the first shot served only as a warning. The big velvet buck tore full tilt down the hill, and Foley knew he had one more chance. Stroking the bolt, swinging with the deer, he swung past it, squeezed the trigger and followed through. The buck ran headlong, but its great antlers began to droop, and the tips of those velvet forks caught in the rocks and it somersaulted to a stop. When we saw the buck, Ole was posed on the back of a truck. An inch of antler was broken from one tip.
Kyle Foley, who hails from Milwaukie, Oregon, had just taken what will probably be the biggest buck of his life. After a lot of whooping and hollering, we found a tape measure. The buck’s ears taped 24 inches from tip to tip, and its front hooves measured in at 3¼ inches, the length of a .30-06 cartridge. At the widest point, the antlers measured 28½ inches. Fully garage-green-scored, it taped to 179-1/8 inches, excluding the inch of antler broken in its headlong fall.
The fact that its antlers were still encased in velvet meant it was one of the rarest bucks a hunter could get. Kyle Foley was ready when he had his chance up on top of a butte west of the Silvies and south of Murderers Creek.
Why the Velvet?
Deer antlers, when they are growing, are soft to the touch. In the growth phase, they have blood vessels, nerves, skin, cartilage and bone. We call the outermost layer “velvet” because of its hair-like appearance. Growth of the antlers begin in the spring, and in the course of about four months they are fully developed. By late summer, when testosterone levels peak, the blood vessels shut down and the antlers harden into bone.