feature By: Kaid Panek | November, 19
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.