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    DIY Trophy buck

    Climbing into High Country

    Overweight: The word I called myself as I climbed to the top of the ridge. Gasping for air at 8,500 feet with a heavy pack isn’t what most people would call a good time with friends, but I had luckily convinced two of my friends to join me. Jayden, a successful hunter in his own right, had a tag as well; we had hunted together off and on in years prior. There was also Tyler, a rookie to the sport, an avid waterfowler who had never been on a big-game hunt. All three of us created a group very comparable to the Three Stooges, full of inexperienced decision-makers, yet it always seemed as if we stumbled into luck just at the right moment. This was an adventure that I had conned both friends into, but I also ended up second-guessing it at times.

    I had always dreamed of a mountain muley, one that had endured the mid-September blizzards, a ghost of the pines and a grazer among the bare alpine faces. I wanted one. Conquering a feat like this has always eluded me; I always pursued deer in the agriculture fields around my hometown or even in the Pinion-Juniper jungle of the foothills. Frankly, I didn’t know how to do such a thing, only dreaming of such after hearing stories of my grandfather or neighbors who hunted the horse trails that cut across the high country like a highway system. They are ridden during the months of hunting season but are kept up by the elk and deer that call the area home. Our knowledge of hunting the back country was a compilation of hear-say from old men, a few articles read and a couple hours of listening to podcasts. We were ready to be tested with our green mindsets that were about to be baptized by blisters, sweat rings and sore muscles.

    Our mountain was crafted by the hands of God himself, a beauty that has risen from the valley floor to be admired across three counties, but in the act of climbing it a hunter earns every step. There is never a flat spot without wind, it is not a place for the faint of heart. We found this out the night before the season opener as we inched toward a preplanned spot on the ridge as the sun was starting to disappear from the sky.  The decision on tent placement was rushed because legs were burning and packs were extremely heavy.

    Jayden and Kaid with the trophy buck. Smiles are easy to come by when there is high-country success.
    Jayden and Kaid with the trophy buck. Smiles are easy to come by when there is high-country success.
    Finding a comfortable spot just off of the main ridge we wanted to hunt wasn’t the problem, as it seemed as if a lone elk bed nearly fit the four-man tent we had just purchased on our way to the trail head. Looked about as good as we were going to find, given the circumstances. All three of us decided to try to make it work and nestled in for the night after a can of generic brand soup had hit our bellies.

    A night on the mountain is very romantic, the smell of oak and sagebrush greet the senses of a worn out hunter, knowing he is among the woods. It’s almost therapeutic to the mind.  All romance aside, our tent stakes had come loose, allowing the tent to become a real life hamster wheel as we went down the mountain for 20 feet before catching ourselves on gigantic sagebrush.

    Tyler and Kaid work feverishly to break the buck down and get it back to camp.
    Tyler and Kaid work feverishly to break the buck down and get it back to camp.
    Barefoot and blind is not how we planned on starting off opening morning as we gathered boots and headlamps that were scattered across the slope. We opted to start our final climb to the top since it was nearly 3:00 a.m. and not worth trying to settle in again.  We were sore and tired but anxious as we finally were able to load the magazines of our rifles and throw on our blaze orange vests. It was opening morning in the high country.

    The sun crested the horizon filled with optimism, excitement and most importantly, warmth. The timing was perfect. The plan was to hunt a string of pocket canyons that shared the same backbone ridge. We would glass each canyon before moving along and gaining elevation. Deer glowed in the morning light as they too were awaiting the sun to signify another night survived. White rumps and grey faces kept our mind on the task at hand as we sifted through deer herds with our optics. But buck after buck and doe after doe, the monarch of the mountain was still in hiding and yet to be found. While the frost quickly vanished across the landscape, our optimism stayed true even though a barrage of gunfire erupted below us and the army of orange vests were spotted working their way toward us. Some could call it discouraging, but in fact it’s the reality of public land.

    After working through the fifth pocket canyon, the three of us decided on a 9:00 a.m. lunch break on a south facing slope where we had found a decent bull elk that was tending a herd of second-cycle cows. A spotting scope was set up and we panned across the bull and were taking wagers on what the bull would score. Even though we didn’t have an elk tag, it was just neat watching the bull gather its cows and scream to the world, letting it be known that it was the king.  This was another reminder that even though humans are seen as the dominant predator, the high country has its own hierarchy – we are guests in this truly remarkable domain.

    Jayden only had time to hunt opening morning, leaving two of us to come up with a game plan for the afternoon. Opening morning pressure was nonexistent at our current elevation, but it is common for most hunters to start low and work their way higher as the hunt goes on. We knew there would be company. The day began to heat up and the elk started feeding toward the timber, leaving us to think the majority of the animals were bedded up for the day, giving us a chance to make a break to higher ground and prepare to pick up a deer coming out for evening feed. Our lonesome prayer was to capitalize on the lower elevation deer drives and catch a smart, old buck in the middle of his escape from other hunters. In my studying and prior knowledge of general season hunting, there are two types of hunters; one that creates the pressure and another that capitalizes on that pressure. We were hoping to be the latter.

    Luck follows when preparation meets opportunity. In this case luck revealed an old, regressed buck. With their quick reaction, the smart buck wasn’t able to slip away from the hunters.
    Luck follows when preparation meets opportunity. In this case luck revealed an old, regressed buck. With their quick reaction, the smart buck wasn’t able to slip away from the hunters.
    With only wrinkled empty granola wrappers and a few gulps of water, plans changed drastically. Tyler had jumped up to address a charley horse before we parted ways with Jayden. Still admiring the elk feeding below us, our study was interrupted by “BUCK! HEY! COME HERE!” Jayden and I looked at Tyler in confusion as he was pointing at a hidden fold in the draw a mere 200 yards away. Scrambling to get eyes on what the commotion was about, we realized that the rookie’s buck fever was justified. A nice buck that was funneling past our location revealed itself.  One word, busted. Grabbing rifles, we both zeroed in on a mature deer with dark antlers. Deep breaths and dead rests, like we were taught growing up, were thrown out the window as the buck tried to leave after figuring out something wasn’t right, but made the mistake of looking back at us. Yardage guestimation was off, as our rangefinders were zipped away in our backpack pockets for safe keeping. The calming silence of the high country abruptly ended with the echoing gunfire of Jayden’s rifle. “HIGH!” Tyler barked, as the bullet zipped over the buck’s back. I laid my crosshairs on the buck’s chest and touched off my rifle, just to witness the dirt fly under the brisket of the mountain muley. “LOW!” Tyler coached.

    The buck bounded off and stopped again, as if it had been caught in a surprise and was still confused. At that moment the sound of impact echoed against the canyon walls. Jayden connected, even though it was a low and forward shot placement. The 4x4 stayed there, unfazed at what had happened. I touched off the final round, after which the deer staggered and bedded down within sight.

     Even as the dust settled, neither of us knew how big the buck was, but we knew due to body size and tall back forks, either one of us would love to tag it. Regardless who tagged the buck, we were both beyond words with emotion. Tyler was in awe as well, as it was his first time watching a big-game animal harvest. High-fives and hugs were given, as we knew that we had just proved the statement “Rather be lucky than good” true.

    As we gathered packs and started across the draw, we decided to figure out who would notch their tag. There are so many ways hunters could decide this, was it first blood? Last shot? Jayden and I figured that we would determine the fatal shot, and since we were shooting different calibers, it would be easy to tell who had the fatal hit, the deciding factor. Some hunter might get greedy about a situation like this, but we both knew that regardless whose hunt was over that it was success for each of us.

    We discovered the buck down the hill and excitement flowed through our veins as the buck didn’t suffer from ground shrinkage, but it capitalized on growth as we got closer and closer. Jayden and I congratulated each other, as we knew that this was a “tag team” effort. The buck was heavy, had awesome back forks and a perfectly symmetrical frame. The dark coloration among the antlers that were covered in pine sap from a fresh scape amazed us. The aroma of fresh pine and rutting mule deer would forever be engrained in my mind as we stood in disbelief at what had just transpired a mere 20 minutes earlier.  

    We took a few pictures and then began to process the buck. We discovered my bullet behind the opposing shoulder and agreed that was indeed the shot that anchored the deer. As I notched my tag I was overcome with gratitude, as I had realized the magic of harvesting a “buck off the top.” Stories of past hunting seasons I had listened to as a child had just come to fruition before my eyes.  After examining the big buck, with teeth worn to its gumline, it sank in that we were in the presence of true monarch of the mountain.

    Big bucks sometimes mess up, and luckily for us, this one had been cruising for hot does. Being the end of October, this made sense; the rut was right around the corner. Its body had incredible size due to a swollen neck and great feed over the summer, which made field judging in the heat of the moment difficult.

    Jayden had to leave due to other commitments, so we quickly caped and quartered the monarch. Packs were heavy headed out of the high country, but the pain was well earned and was taken with pleasure knowing what our “Three Stooges” team had accomplished.  Blisters formed on our feet and our shoulders grew tired as the rocky downhill trail seemed to get longer with every stride. Heavy packs build stronger friendships, and friendships turn into a brotherhood in the mountains. Dreams are dampened with tough conditions but are fueled by the success of conquering what lies ahead. I feel that with every DIY adventure comes luck, whether it is good or bad, a memory to last a lifetime and a story to tell for years to come

    Now we have found ourselves addicted to the unpredictability of the high country. Most hunters dream of harvesting a buck on a general season tag, as many consider it a meat hunt to be shared with family, and where I am from most old-timers say, “You can’t eat the horns.” But it means something to be able to put miles on your boots and push past the pain, not settling for another meat buck, but taking an animal in the prime of its life. In the end, our buck sored 171 inches, a sweet icing on our back-country cake.


    Wolfe Publishing Group