Posted on June 26, 2012
This bowhunter found himself in spot-and-stalk heaven among the sprawling alpine country of the Silver State.
By Ed Fanchin
The journey up to this point was long and hard, but I was just a moment’s away from closing the deal. It was opening day, and I was a mere 35 yards away from a bedded 170-inch 4×4 buck. The buck was completely relaxed, lying in the shade underneath his willow hideout. I had been in this situation before and knew exactly what I had to do: wait patiently for him to stand up.
I didn’t have to wait long; the buck rose from his bed a few minutes later, stretched and then turned broadside. I drew my bow and took the shot. Everything seemed perfect—until the arrow sliced through thin air, just over his back. I missed the buck completely. I couldn’t believe I had just missed when everything was in my favor. What about all the preparation I had done? I had practiced for months with confidence. Was this the end of my hunt? No sir… it was just the beginning.
Playing the Drawing Game
I had been accumulating bonus points in Nevada for a number of years and figured that 2010 would be the year I’d cash in and draw one of Nevada’s coveted mule deer tags. I was fortunate that my buddy, Brent Miller, had drawn the same tag. We started making plans right away.
The day came before we knew it, and we were riding in the middle of a string of pack horses up a steep mountain drainage. Our destination was a 10,000-foot remote basin that mule deer hunters dream of. Because we used a packer to get us deep into the backcountry, we dismounted the horses, our legs well rested. This was a good thing, because it was quite clear we’d need all our muscle prowess to navigate this terrain. It was the steepest I’d ever seen.
Climb to Spike Camp
Brent and I quickly set up a comfortable base camp and loaded our packs with enough essentials for a four-day spike camp. Our plan was to leave the trail and hike up over a saddle into a trail-less wilderness basin. The 1,000-foot climb to the saddle with full packs was strenuous, but our anticipation of the buck-filled basin on the other side made the climb seem effortless.
When we reached the top, we peeked over the other side and immediately saw that our hard work was paying off. There were 12 velvet bucks feeding in the open, treeless bowl below us. It was the day before the opener, so we watched them feed until the sun set. The image of one of the bucks would wreak havoc on my sleep that night. He was a 30-inch-wide buck with 4- and 5-inch non-typical cheaters sticking out of both sides of his heavy velvet rack. All in all, he was a dream buck.
Because those bucks were so close, we decided to make our spike camp on the opposite side of the ridge. We had a problem though—there wasn’t a flat spot big enough for our bivy setups. We ended up making a couple of small level spots by carving into the hill (just as a Rocky Mountain goat would have done if faced with the same situation). This proved to be a perfect spot, because we only had a short hike to several different glassing spots.
The Hunt Begins
Opening morning arrived. We were sitting on our rocky perch, glassing up deer in almost every direction we looked. We picked out the biggest bucks and kept our eyes on them. Soon after the sun rose high in the clear blue sky, the bucks sought out their cool bedding areas. In open high country, mule deer bucks usually bed in the shade of the rocks or willow patches, since there are very few trees at this altitude. We decided to watch the bucks change their beds a few times before the afternoon uphill thermals would take over, giving us a consistent wind for a stalk.
When I realized I had missed that opening-day buck, my first thought was, “How am I going to face Brent?” He had to have seen the whole thing and most likely videotaped it. As a good friend would do, Brent had deferred the first stalk to me, and I just blew it.
It was a long hike back up the hill. Every step got easier, though, as I realized that this hunt was not over; it was just beginning. Missing is part of bowhunting, plain and simple. The challenges, highs and lows, and hard-earned success are why we do it. Brent understood, and we got back to business right away. As fate would have it, Brent missed a shot at a beautiful buck that evening.
On day two, we spotted a few bucks and then moved to a different observation spot. I glassed up a bedded buck a long way off. He was bedded on a snow bank during the blazing hot afternoon. We put the spotting scopes on the buck and could tell that he was a good 4×4, but we couldn’t size him up at that distance. It was my turn to bat, and I decided, even at that distance, he was good enough to put a stalk on.
The snow bank was right below a rocky bluff. I figured I could sneak over there and approach the buck from the top of the bluff and shoot down at him. I noted some landmarks and took off down the ridge. The wind was swirling on the ridge. At about 150 yards, I dropped my pack and boots. Brent signaled me that the buck was still bedded.
I made the final stalk on the shale rock ridge in my socks. Slow and easy, I kept telling myself. I had to make an adjustment on my stalk because of the wind, so I came in a little higher than the snow bank—which proved to be a blessing.
Moment of Truth
Right before I could see the edge of the snow bank, I saw the buck’s antlers jump up. The buck had winded me, so he began looking downhill. I could see that he was searching for an escape route. Luckily, he chose to side hill right below me. I thought I could get a shot if he stopped—and that is just what he did. He stopped directly downhill from where I was standing, ready at full draw. I estimated the distance to be about 45 yards and shot him for 30 because of the steep downhill angle.
The Muzzy-tipped arrow blew through both lungs, exactly where I was aiming, and the buck went down within sight. He was a beautiful 4×5 velvet buck. I was elated. It was only day two and I had a good buck down.
Brent made his way down to where I was. We celebrated our success and took a bunch of photos. It was late in the day, and we made a quick chore of boning out the buck. We were a long way from our spike camp and an even longer way from base camp. Brent is had the gung-ho notion that we should try to make it all the way back to base camp, in the dark, no less! That’s exactly what we did, one step at a time.
The following day, we did a quick morning hunt, took care of the meat and headed back up the mountain. For the next five days, we worked really hard to close the deal for Brent.
However, it wasn’t to be. Brent had a couple of close encounters on some good bucks, including a non-typical with stickers. We were both humbled by how all the stars have to be lined up before you can punch your tag on one of these majestic high-country bucks.
On the last night, we lit a campfire at base camp. We reflected on our hunt, and both of us decided to return as soon as we could. The wilderness was already calling out to us. We knew there was no other place we’d rather be next fall than right here, searching the crags for the ever-challenging wilderness mule deer. We smiled and wondered what the next trip would be like. We just couldn’t wait.
The adage, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” is something to keep in your hip pocket but not relied upon during a high-country mule deer stalk. The truth is, good bowhunters create their own luck. Being successful during an open-country stalk on a big mule deer buck is all about putting the odds in your favor. Here are 10 suggestions for doing just that:
*Equipment: You’re not going to find an archery pro shop in the high country. You are often deep in the back country, so leaving to go fix failed equipment is not an option. Go over your bow and equipment routinely. Make sure it’s in perfect working order before you leave for the hunt. You can’t afford to rely on a frayed bow string or marginal equipment. Have extra parts with you and know how to install them. You never know when something can go wrong. Be prepared. It could save your hunt.
*Patience: If any one thing is going to ruin a stalk on a big buck, it’s the lack of patience. After you watch a buck bed for the first time in the morning, you are going to have the urge to go after him right away. Be patient. The buck is probably going to change beds several times before he settles in for a long afternoon nap. Early in the day, the high country wind is inconsistent. Be patient and wait for the consistent afternoon thermals to start before you begin your stalk.
Keep a Positive Attitude: Always maintain a positive attitude. You’ll never hear a successful high-country mule deer hunter tell you it’s easy. It’s a difficult and challenging endeavor. Maintaining a positive attitude is imperative for success. Understand that you are going to have some lows, and you need to know how to turn things around mentally. This includes having a partner who can lift you up and motivate you when you are down—and vice versa.
Choose a Good Partner: Having a good partner sitting on a high perch watching the buck you are stalking will definitely swing the odds in your favor. Most of the time, you are going to lose sight of the buck during your stalk. A lot of things can change during the stalk. The buck can move, get up to feed or change its bed. Other deer can come into the area. A good partner can communicate these changes through hand signals. Make sure your partner is someone in whom you have confidence and will work as hard or harder than you do. A duo that pushes each other is best.
Learn to Communicate: Develop a system of hand signals with your partner so that from a distance you can communicate silently and effectively. It doesn’t matter what the signals are. What matters is that both of you know and understand them. The signals should be easy to understand and able to be seen from a long distance through a binocular. There is no set system when developing the signals. Use a mirror, white handkerchief, long stick, etc. Be creative and practice them. During the stalk, check back with your partner often to see if things have changed or stayed the same.
Locate Landmarks: It’s imperative to locate some good landmarks before you leave your partner and begin your stalk. Also, pick out a destination landmark that will mark where you want to end up for the shot. The landmarks never look the same when you get to the area where you think the buck should be. Pick out several different landmarks and memorize them. Several times during your stalk, relocate the landmarks and pick out new ones. This will enable you to close in on where the buck is and where you need to be.
Spot Him First: If it’s possible for you to spot the unsuspecting buck and keep his location pinpointed during the final stalk, the odds of taking a big buck really swing in your favor. Keep your eyes open for any other deer you may or may not know about. At some point during the stalk, you will probably lose sight of the buck, so you will have to relocate him without him or any other deer seeing you. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 yards or 100 yards; you have to be undetected when you relocate him. Once you do this, it will set you up for the final stalk or shot.
Stalk Silently: Foot coverings (Bear’s Feet, thick socks, etc.) are crucial and serve two purposes. They decrease the noises you make during the stalk and also slow down your stalk. About 100 yards from your destination, stop and remove your boots, pack and everything else you are not going to need for the final stalk. Mark the spot so you can find your equipment later. I prefer slipping on an extra pair of socks, but there are several other foot coverings that increase your ability to be stealthy and quiet.
Slow Down: Mule deer senses are very keen, and if he sees or hears you, he’s not going to stick around. You can beat feet to cover ground, but during the final 100 yards or so, slow way down. Plan every step you take. Clear out noisy obstacles before you set your foot down. Move the brush out of your path to keep it from scraping on your clothes. Stop often and look. It should take several minutes to move just a few feet. Again, get reassurance signals from your partner.
Be Flexible: It’s not unusual for things to change during your stalk. If your partner signals to you that things have changed, make sure you understand what he is trying to tell you before you proceed. Carefully plan your next move. Pay strict attention to the wind. If the wind is wrong, either adjust your stalk to get it right or back out and stalk the buck another day. Plan ahead and try to visualize your options while you are on your stalk.