Caribou Gear Tarp

How my Colorado Mule Deer dream turned into the one that got away

FromTheForestSlater

New member
Joined
Oct 30, 2016
Messages
6
Location
Oregon
Five years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to go to Colorado and hunt with some of my wife’s relatives for elk during 3rd Season. While the elk proved impossible (for me) to connect with, I saw more mule deer bucks than I’d ever seen during a deer season in Oregon, their size was mind-blowing, and they were rutting, stupidly following the sight and scent of does and paying no attention to their surroundings. This became an instant dream-list item for me: hunting mule deer bucks in the rut.

Fast forward to 2017. I decided I’m going back to Colorado, and somehow convinced my wife that it was a good idea. This time, however, I decided I’d try to have a buck tag in my pocket and hoped that even if the elk still proved elusive, the deer would present themselves to me again. Of course, this was a far-fetched hope, but if we don’t have hopes and dreams then why are we all in this lifestyle? I put in for the controlled hunt draw and successfully drew the tag covering the units I had previously hunted.

The dream-trip arrived, and the family and I drove ourselves out to beautiful Colorado. I arrived before the season, giving me time to stop in and talk to biologists and do some scouting. The biologist I talked to told me deer would be everywhere and easy to locate….but he also stated that the rut wouldn’t started until after season ended, something that disappointed me slightly. I pressed on and went scouting and was pleasantly surprised to find a buck feeding around every group of does I encountered on public land, giving me hope that even if they weren’t fully rutting, they were at least starting to hang around groups of does.

Opening day arrived and the areas I scouted and saw deer were overrun with hunters….such is public land hunting. I decided to focus my efforts on elk for a few days, as during my last hunt there the deer showed themselves in the good elk areas. For the first five days of the 6-day hunt, I saw only a handful of does (I will leave out the elk hunting part of the story as that is a story all of its own).

Finally, on my last day, I decided to work on my plan “C”….or was it “D”…. or maybe “E” ….and check around some low-lying BLM lands in the unit for deer. I immediately found myself amongst does and tracks, along with road hunters and frequent shots just over the next hill. No amount of glassing or hiking found me a buck hanging with any of the many does I was seeing. I dropped out of the BLM around lunch and hit the highway moving down to the next area.

As I was driving at highway speeds past a rifle shooting range full of people actively shooting, I looked up on the BLM ridge above the range and saw four does running along the side of the hill. I slowed and pulled over, curious what had them running, and straight out of my dreams, here came a buck, head down, chasing after them and inadvertently driving them ever onwards across the hills and ridges. As I watched, they jumped a second group of does from some hidden bedding area and now one buck was driving a dozen does along the hill as numerous unsuspecting gun enthusiasts were unloading rounds into targets only several hundred feet below them.

I took off back up the highway, up the muddy BLM road, and across the tops of the ridges at break-neck speed, me praying out loud that I somehow find a way to intercept this steam-train of deer being driven from the rear by a muley with only one thing on his mind. Upon reaching the top, I found there was a hunter sitting and glassing on almost every high point along the road, but from how bored they all appeared, it was apparent this group of deer were somehow magically side-hilling just high enough to not be concerned by or noticed by the shooting enthusiasts and just low enough to be out of sight of the guys glassing from their trucks. I found a spot away from the other trucks, parked, threw on my pack, and started across the sage hills at a ridiculous pace. I knew enough about the lay of the land to know that the deer were running right towards a very steep canyon several hundred feet deep, which would only give them two options if they continued in the same direction: drop down to the bottom, which contains the highway, the railway, and the Colorado river, or climb up to the top of the hills and run across the top of the canyon walls for a distance before they would reach the shelter of a patch of timber. I knew my only chance was to get to the top of the canyon walls about the time they had to climb up into view.

I ran and ran, worried someone else would get him first or they'd be gone before I get in position. I finally crested a small rise and could see ahead of me the rocky breaks of the top of the canyon wall. I paused to catch my breath, and as I did the first doe appeared. As someone we all know says on occasion, it was like they read the script. The first doe stepped up above the rocks and canyon, saw me, and paused in her tracks. The second one came into view and did the same. As did the third and the fourth, and probably several I could not see. Then out ran the buck. I can’t claim to understand the inner workings of the deer brain…. but the whole situation made me believe he probably was so busy running after them he didn’t even realize they’d stopped until he’d run 50 yards past them, at which point he too stopped, and turned back to look at them like “what are we doing ladies” …all the while too hormonal to realize that they’re all fixed on me, the guy in camo and orange now in a sitting position with his rifle ready, 175 yards away.

That buck stood there staring back at the does trying to figure out why they weren’t playing the same game while I calmed my breathing, flicked off the safety, and squeezed the trigger. Of all the shots I’ve taken in my life, this one was in the upper percentile of “that felt like a GOOOOOD shot” ones. The buck hunched up, stood there, staggered to the side, looked like he’s going down, staggered around, and took two steps…right in the direction of the top of the canyon.

By this point I’m standing, fully expecting to see my dream fulfilled of taking a rutting mule deer buck. Suddenly that dream starts to go in the direction of a nightmare as I picture in my head the buck staggering a few more steps and disappearing over the canyon edge. I take a free-hand shot hoping to knock him down and he instead takes two staggering steps and is out of my view.

I watch as the does all proceed along their original course, now at a much faster pace due to my attach upon their interested courter. I watch several of them turn back and look in the direction the buck had been they crested the nearest rise and vanished from my sight, actions I take as a sign that they were looking back to see if he’s coming and he’s not, so they’re moving on. I’m torn between excitement and fear as I start to make my way to where I’d shot him.

I reach the spot, and there’s blood. I start to follow the trail and find more blood. I continue to where I last saw him, and all I can see is the blood trail leading towards the several-hundred foot drop to the bottom of the canyon. I replay in my mind what I had seen and done, and decide the shot had to be at least decent the way he acted, and therefore he’s got to be injured, and therefore if he did go down the canyon, he’s not making it back up. I call in a friend to help and direct him in to where I’m at, figuring waiting for him also will keep me from rushing around and potentially jumping the wounded buck and forcing him to do something drastic….like jump into the river at the very bottom….or fall further if he’s not already at the bottom.

My help arrives, and I ask that they work along the top of the canyon double-checking for any indications the buck is not down the canyon as I suspect he is. I then start to slowly work my way down the canyon wall.

It takes me more than an hour to descend to the edge of the BLM land at the bottom, and I find no sign the whole way down. I then pick a different route back up, which takes considerably longer, and make it to the top without having any idea where my buck has gone. On top of the emotions I’m experiencing, I’m now also physically exhausted but not giving up.

I regroup with the friend, who says he hasn’t found any sign of my buck up top either. He’s got other commitments, so he takes off. I go back to my blood trail and start crawling on my hands and knees. I find a bit of bone. I find clumps of tissue. But the blood trail becomes less and less, and the pattern surprises me. The buck started down the canyon, but was able to turn and actually started back along the path the deer had come, heading exactly back the way he came. Based on this, I decide to make a huge circle back myself. I pick up the group’s tracks more than a half mile away, in the area I’d seen them first running, and I track them all the way to where I shot in the hopes of finding him dead or bedded along their trail somewhere. I then check any area of old snow, every tree and rock cropping, the tracks of the does after they moved on from their encounter with me, and everywhere else that looks promising. I then return to the blood trail to try one last time to pick it up where I lost it. I just cannot find the next drop of blood. Or the next track. Or anything.

The day came to an end as they do regardless of our wishes, and I had to call off the search. I had to head home the next morning, and no matter how much we sometimes want it, the sun will set when it decides to.

As I drove home to Oregon and thought through the situation over, I really think the only thing I could have done additionally was to drop back down into the canyon in a couple other places. The only problem with this is that, at the time I was there, I was already pushing my physical limitations and would have been doing so even more to make that trek a couple more times. I also did it once when I had someone up top who knew where I was, but to continue climbing alone without someone to get me help….probably not wise. Yet it’s easy when driving along the interstate the next day to wish I’d done more.

I try to always learn from failures, so I have thought through what I could have done better to prevent the tragedy. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait much longer for the buck to move further from the edge before taking my first shot, as his path would have taken him over a rise and out of my view in only a few more steps….and I later found out there were hunters sitting over that rise waiting for just that to happen. The only thing I’ve wondered if I should have done different was taking the second shot. By the time I took that shot, I was standing and shooting free-handed, so that shot was nowhere near as solid as my first, and I’m not entirely sure I hit him at all with the second shot. I’ve wondered if the second shot actually spooked him and encouraged him to move away as he did, and that if I hadn’t shot and had just remained still where I was, if he’d not have disappeared as fast. This is hard for me to wrap my head around as I’m always a fan of follow up shots to put an animal down, and I’m in no way suggesting anyone stops taking follow up shots. It’s just one of the only things I’ve come up with that maybe I could have done slightly differently.

In the end I’ll never know. The dream of a rutting mule deer buck turned into a nightmare. I came home to Oregon and got asked by every hunter who’s dreamed of Colorado how my hunt went. Some have expressed sympathy upon hearing the story. Many have laughed. I too might laugh someday.

As for the buck, he wasn’t huge, but he wasn’t small. No record book in the world would add him to their pages. But he was beautiful and hormonal and thick in the neck and stupid. And some day I hope to honor him by doing things over again with another buck and getting them right.
 
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efw

Active member
Joined
Dec 5, 2016
Messages
483
Location
West Coast, Michigan
Dang man I’m very sorry to hear that!

I’ve been there and it sounds to me like you County have done much more; you honored the animal with good effor my in following up.

As you said, it sounds to me like the only thing you could have done differently would be to maintain position and keep shooting but I likely would have done what you did... sounded like he was going down.

Better luck next time man!
 

Muleys32

Active member
Joined
Oct 17, 2017
Messages
112
Sorry about that one! It will only be sweeter when you get one next time.
 

Northwoods Labs

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 28, 2015
Messages
1,000
Location
Danbury, Wisconsin
Sorry to hear. I have been there. My first buck with a bow, followed a slight blood trail and then nothing. Looked for him the whole weekend and it haunted me for quite a while. Unfortunately it is a part of hunting. The good news is that regardless what ended up happening with your deer, nature puts nothing to waste
 
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