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The Lucky Charm

rtraverdavis

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Like a lot of things that came to fruition in my life this year, my hunt was the result of a lot of years of planning and focused on a sort of single-minded purpose—to hunt mule deer in a specific patch of Wilderness in a far-off corner of the unit my family and I now live in. Though we only moved this part of the state this year, my parents have lived out here a long time, and so we’ve spent a fair bit of time poking around this country and have fallen in love with it. In the winter months I’ve seen a lot of big mule deer, including the biggest buck I’ve ever seen on the hoof—a truly giant non-typical skulking through the junipers a couple miles from my parents’ house.

This unit takes a while to draw, and so my hunting partner, who also lives in the unit, and I have been talking about a backpack hunt in the high country in search of one of these large bucks for the past seven years. This year we both drew.
 
I think about mule deer more than any other animal. In my opinion a big muley buck is the pinnacle of the natural world’s assemblage. So through all the planning and scouting that went into this hunt, I had it in my head that I was going to kill a big one or nothing.

This summer was hot, and scouting turned up very little. I was assured by the unit biologist that they were in there, but would be timbered-up and nocturnal with much heat. So there was still a lot of optimism.

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Time for the hunt came fast within the whirlwind of moving this summer, starting new jobs, and family time. My new employer only allows for three personal days to be taken within a year, so it would be a quick five days, five nights when tacked onto a weekend. Another good friend of mine was able to join us for the hunt, which made the thought of potentially hauling two deer plus camp the more-than 12 miles that would need to be covered from where we’d be hunting to the trailhead more bearable. I have crap knees, so I’d need all the help I could get.

We left after work on Thursday, made it to the trailhead right at dark, and then eight miles and about 3000 feet of elevation gain later were at our first camp by about 11:30 that night. Then up at 4:30 to be at our glassing knob well before first light.

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Total deer seen that morning? Two does.
 
We decided to break camp and go deeper, trying to get a look at some basins we couldn’t see from our first glassing point. And that would be the story of this trip. Go deeper, be glassing at first and last light, and not see a single buck. It was unseasonably warm every day of the hunt except the last, and I can only assume that the deer were holding tight to the timber. I was reminded of @neffa3’s deer desert. It just seemed wild to be in such good deer country and not see any bucks. I definitely questioned my abilities as a hunter and wondered what the hell we were doing wrong. Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. Maybe it was just bad luck to have warmish nights and days in the 70s.

The latest in hot weather fashion:
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We moved camps five times and covered just over 50 miles over the course of the hunt, and didn’t see a buck the entire time. We saw more mountain goats than deer.

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I have a lot of nice landscape photos that I wish I could share, but they give away too much about the unit.

One of our camps:
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Ready to descend:
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Fun walking:
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It was a hell of an adventure—we pushed ourselves (I nearly tumbled backwards off of a cliffy spot bushwhacking to a camp several miles off trail that we named Death Camp), had some weird experiences (at one point a guy with no pack, no water, no shirt, and wearing a yellow boonie hat came wandering up through the timber and out into this open saddle we were perched above—which is about three miles and 1000 feet in elevation from the nearest trail—he doesn’t notice that we’re watching him from 50 yards away, whips out his dingle and pees facing towards us, then wanders back into the timber), spent some great time in spectacular country, and had a lot of laughs and good conversation.

But where were all the deer?

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Last morning, pre-walk-of-shame out. Some busted ass old men:
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After our crushing defeat up in the mountains and a few days back in the grind of work, there’s still another week left of season on my tag. I want to try and hunt near the house, and I want my daughter to come with me. She’s excited to go. My wife gives us the hall pass for Friday evening, so we set out.



We get to a spot I have in mind about eight miles from our house, park the truck, climb a little ridge, and set up in this little clearing in the junipers and scattered ponderosa to glass. We’re about a third of a mile from the truck. I have zero expectations of seeing deer. We quietly goof around, drink hot cocoa, and eat Puffy Cheetos. We talk about weird stuff, play “what if,” and look through our binoculars. This is all I could hope for—a great time with my daughter.

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The deer herd here is mostly migratory—summer range in the high country, winter range down low. We live down low. Most of the deer don’t show up down here until November, long after rifle season has ended. There are some deer that spend all year on winter range, but not a ton.



So as daylight starts to fade I’m surprised and delighted to see two does start to feed out of the thick string of junipers to our right, out into the clearing below us. I signal to my daughter, and we watch the does feed up toward us. They’re close, only about 70 yards. We can hear the deer move through the brush in the stillness of the evening. Then I see another deer slowly come out of that thick copse of junipers, and it’s a buck.



My guts give a little leap and I whisper to my daughter that I see a buck. I tell her to put on her hearing protection and to be quiet and be still. I slowly put my rifle up on my tripod and ease a round in the chamber, and begin the watch the buck through the scope. He’s about 80 yards out, working through thick brush and burnt junipers. Like the two does, which are only about 25 yards away from us at this point, he feeds in our direction.



I begin to realize I’ve made an error in setting us up where I did, in that there was a strip of woody brush that formed a nice barrier that we could see through and that slightly obscured us from view, but that I couldn’t shoot through. The buck continues to feed right toward us, and because of the brush, I can’t take the shot. The last thing I want to have happen on my kid’s first hunt with just me is to wound an animal and lose it in the rapidly approaching darkness.



Soon, this buck is 20 feet in front of us, feeding just behind this strip of brush. He nibbles on brush, stands there, looks right at us. For five minutes. Chews his food and stares holes through us. He’s alert but not agitated. I have no shot. Throughout this whole time my daughter sits perfectly still, perfectly silent. I look at her once while the buck has his head down and she gives me the most spectacular, “Dad, wtf are you doing?! Shoot the damn thing!” look.



After what feels like years, the buck moves to our right and jams his head in a clump of bitter brush, giving me the opportunity to reposition and swing my rifle toward him. I still have no shot, but will if he continues working toward our right. The does have now moved behind us and after a minute or so of attacking the bitter brush, he turns to follow them. He’s 15 yards away from us when he clears the brush, giving me a clear broadside shot.
 
Through the scope I can see down to the exact hair I am aiming at. I shoot. He bucks and runs downhill, and we hear him crash just past a couple burnt junipers about 40 yards away.
I turn to my daughter, who has this awestruck look on her face. We’re both shaking. I certainly didn’t think anything like that would happen that evening. She asks why the heck I took so long to shoot and I explain how brush and branches can really throw off the trajectory of a bullet, and that it’s our obligation as hunters to do everything we can to avoid wounding animals, even if it means not taking a shot. I tell her how proud I am of her, how she kept still and quiet for so long—not an easy thing to do when you’re seven and your nickname is Magpie for a reason.

We pack our stuff up and walk to the deer. It doesn’t take long to find him. It was a ridiculously happy moment. Sharing it with her made it one of the best of my life—something I’ll carry with me and hold onto forever.

My new favorite picture, despite the horrible composition:
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After celebrating and admiring the animal, we get to work. She is right in there with me, holding legs, carrying meat, and of course, giving me advice. Ha. The packout back to the truck is a grueling 1/2 mile of mostly gentle downhill.

This deer is small and young—far from what I intended for this hunt. But it’s hard to explain—the way it all went down and getting to share that prolonged, up-close experience with my daughter the way we did, it just felt perfect. Natural. Like a better gift to starting this new life my family and I are building out here than a big buck from the mountains would have been. Because now it wasn’t just about me accomplishing something. It was about this shared thing.

When texting about the whole experience with a fellow Hunt Talker, who is a first-class highcountry big buck killer, I feel like he summed it up perfectly:

I think you can usually know when it’s the right time. Sharing a hunt with kids is a special time, big antlers are great but you can’t take them with you when you go.”

Yeah, that.
 
Hell. Yes.

From a hellbent mission to locate big bucks in a backcountry alpine paradise to hunting your low country stomping grounds with your daughter by your side. How cool to be able to do both in the same hunt, and to end it all with a formative memory that will last for both of your lifetimes. One could pay $100k for a sheep hunt and not replicate that acheivement. Truly priceless.

Congratulations and beautifully done.
 
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After celebrating and admiring the animal, we get to work. She is right in there with me, holding legs, carrying meat, and of course, giving me advice. Ha. The packout back to the truck is a grueling 1/2 mile of mostly gentle downhill.

This deer is small and young—far from what I intended for this hunt. But it’s hard to explain—the way it all went down and getting to share that prolonged, up-close experience with my daughter the way we did, it just felt perfect. Natural. Like a better gift to starting this new life my family and I are building out here than a big buck from the mountains would have been. Because now it wasn’t just about me accomplishing something. It was about this shared thing.

When texting about the whole experience with a fellow Hunt Talker, who is a first-class highcountry big buck killer, I feel like he summed it up perfectly:

I think you can usually know when it’s the right time. Sharing a hunt with kids is a special time, big antlers are great but you can’t take them with you when you go.”

Yeah, that.
Trophy hunt because of what you shared with your daughter. Congrats to you both!! Memories for a lifetime.
 
So yeah, I’m not superstitious or anything, but I’ve noticed that good things happen when I’m wearing a certain pair of underwear or if I absentmindedly check the time and see that it ends in :05. Could be 8:05 or 5:05, doesn’t matter. Good things happen at :05s. But you can’t force these things, they need to just happen. Otherwise the magic floats away.

My daughter has only ever been on one other big game hunt—just another day-trip this past winter for cow elk with my dad. That day we got exceptionally lucky and my dad was able to kill a cow that stood there watching us for 10 minutes at 300 yards while Dad struggled to find a solid shooting rest. I was excited and proud of how she handled herself that day, and how into the whole hunt she was—especially when helping me break the elk down. I told her things don’t usually happen that way, animals don’t stand around waiting to get shot and that we got extremely lucky. She just shrugged and said it was cool.

So after last Friday evening’s hunt, she’s now two for two. I’ve got a feeling she’s my lucky charm, and want her to like hunting as much as I do. But I can’t force the issue. Got to just let it happen, if it happens. Hopefully experiences like we had last Friday will kindle that fire. We’ll see.


Saturday’s dinner—nachos (the kid’s favorite) using one of the tenderloins:
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Your backcountry trip looks like a blast. It’s also awesome when things fall together so ideally with a new hunter/partner in tow. Those hunts always seem to be more memorable than the big trips that have lots of preparation involved.
 

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