(October 16-24, 2019)
Even though we put in every year for the rifle mule deer hunt in southern Utah, it seems that we’ve gotten into a three year cycle of getting drawn…but not all together, which was a bummer this year. Paul, Brian and I were successful in the draw, but Kenny, Matt and Bob, were not. This year, our group would hunt “separately” for the most part. We arrived in the early afternoon at Red Creek Reservoir (7,800 ft), two days before opener. This year’s hunting plan was to hike up to “my meadow” (2+ miles, with nearly 2000ft of elevation gain ) and camp for at least two nights, with hopes of bagging a big buck opening day…or at least day two. This required a total of two full trips, the first being to carry up 6 gallons of water and our bear canister with 3 days worth of food (just in case). The next trip, our tent, sleeping bag and hunting gear/paraphernalia. Of course, each time up and back we saw deer (to include bucks), so we were excited.
Brian, however would not be joining us in the meadow, but would hunt in another spot. He would however, be in “earshot” and/or radio contact in the event that either of us required assistance. Ideally, to haul in a big buck! He would stay at “base camp” in his new camper, which based upon the dusting of snow we received the day before opener would be certainly warmer than the tent we would be using. After a few unforeseen delays (…namely, Brian’s Ford diesel not wanting to start in the cold), we march up the “hill” early Friday afternoon, taking frequent breaks, to keep from sweating, as we know it will not be getting any warmer.
We set up camp with enough daylight to scout around…just a bit to decide where we will sit and glass opening morning. We are set up in a small clearing, surrounded by a layer of snow and a dense stand of narrow trees. As we are at nearly 9600 ft in elevation, the temperature drops to a chilling 34 in no time, well before hiker midnight (9pm)! Paul set his alarm for an early rising, so as to be in place before the sun rises on this elevated plateau. After a fitfully cold night (24 degrees), Paul’s alarm was a welcome sound (I can’t believe I’m saying this!) We dressed quickly and headed out to our chosen spots, each with hopes (and expectations) of nailing a “monster buck”. Remarkably, we had this place all to ourselves. In the still of the morning I rest my back against a fortuitously placed log and watch the edges of the forest for a deer (any deer) to step out into the warmth of the rising sun. My nose runs and my breath clouds before me, nearly obscuring my vision, as I exhale. I smile, noting that currently the gusting wind is working in my favor. But just as “prime time” breaks (that moment when the morning sun starts to paint the edges of the meadow), the wind shifts, and propels my scent directly to where I have been watching. Shit! I hoped that Paul was better situated. Turns out he wasn’t. Opening morning turned into a bust, and after sitting for an hour longer than we really needed to, we headed back to camp for breakfast. After breakfast, we decide to explore and search for fresh definitive deer sign(s), as opposed to the plethra of elk signs we had been seeing. We followed a well used game trail in hopes of reaching an upper isolated meadow that we have been jonesing over for years. We soon realise why this meadow (via Google Earth) is still isolated. The forest closed in quickly, becoming dense and steep as we wove our way toward the clearing. The snow became more frequent and deeper. This exploration became a bit of a workout. We can not help but begin to sweat under the layers of our camo. We find that no matter how carefully we carry our rifles, the muzzles (or butts) occasionally get caught on an outstretched branch, halting our progress and generally eliciting a profane word, or two. There is nothing quiet about our approach, and we realize the futility of this endeavor. While we know we would be set up well for an evening hunt at this isolated meadow, we also realize that we are not properly prepared. As it would be an evening hunt, we would most likely have to spend the night, as it would be impossible to drag any sizeable animal (let alone our sorry asses) back to camp safely in the dark, and/or successfully through the tangle of trees we have threaded. This will have to wait for another year. Dejected, we turn back. In no time, however, we are thankful for our decision, as we discover that while making our way back from whence we came, even with daylight, it was almost more difficult than bushwacking our way up.
Once down, a nap in the dirt is in order. It’s funny to think that, absent a hunting trip or a long distance backpacking trip, we would never think to walk the places we do, let alone plop down on the ground (with no ground cover) and take a nap. Reading the wind, I set up for the evening hunt in another area.
It’s a setup that affords me, if anything, an awesome view and excellent concealment.
My perch is such that I almost feel as though I have folded myself into the backdrop of the forest. Time slows. My senses become heightened, and although I have binoculars to glass the edges of the meadow, I find it easier to catch movement with my naked eye. As the light starts to fade, I sense, and then catch movement across the meadow, to my right. The movement is horizontal, so it is not the wind. I raise my binoculars and study the area closely. Ha! Movement again. Colors and shadows blending artfully enable the deer to travel with ghost like movement. However, no color or shadow can conceal motion perpendicular to nature. With that, I spy three deer. Their movement is measured and methodical, as the gusting wind has made them rightfully nervous. I steady my rifle, and peer through my scope, dialing it in just enough to ensure a swift and lethal shot. A large bodied doe steps into and through my scope’s reticle. Try as I might, I can not make this doe grow antlers! A second doe does the same. Now for the third. As experience tells me, a trio of deer often includes a buck, and this is no different. He is at least a forked horn, and is legal, so I ready for a shot. (When Paul and hunt together, whoever sees the first shootable buck has to take it…so we have meat in the freezer. After that, only a “monster” buck can be taken) The problem is, that he is not giving me a proper shot. Meaning, if I don’t think I have a sufficiently clear shot, regardless of the size of the animal, I will not take it. If our reason for hunting is to put meat in the freezer, it does no good to miss, or worse yet, wound said animal, only to track it most likely into oblivion, making for some pretty nasty meat, and/or a “waste” of a life. I wait patiently, willing him to “step on the X”. He steps forward briefly, then turns uphill into the shadow of the trees, and for all practical purposes “moons” me as he quickly steps from the thicket of trees to behind a large juniper tree, swishing his tail. Bastard! In that moment he steps, I see he is a bit smaller bodied than the two does he is hanging with. While he is a young buck, he is no dummy, and has earned another day, for this 10 day season. I lower my rifle, shake my head and smile. I applaud his skill and instincts.
The sun sets, and I head back to our tiny Outpost. As I have heard no shot(s), it appears that everyone in the general area has been skunked as well. Paul and I share the evening’s rehydrated vittles and with the temperature dropping quickly we retreat to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, hoping the next day will find success. Up early again, we skip breakfast and coffee. Paul heads to a new spot and I go back to my first morning’s spot and hope the wind stays in my favor. Prime time comes, and BLAM! I hear a shot. I wait for a moment and then radio Paul, “please tell me that was you!”. “Affirmative”, was the reply. Where he was sitting, he saw a large, almost trophy size buck, and had moved into a position that would give him a clear window to take a shot. The buck, in fact, moved into that window as Paul suspected, but only gave him a nano seconds worth of shooting time, which, had he pulled the trigger would have hit the buck in the butt. However, whilst dejected and wondering how best to pursue the large buck, he saw a decent sized, shootable forked horn, step fully into the sunlight on a knoll no more than 50 yards away. This particular buck gave him more than plenty of time to actually wrestle with the decision of whether to take him or not. Fully aware of our “house rules”, he took the shot…namely, because he had to, as rules are rules. Confident he bagged the freezer buck, and that it would be any easy blood trail to follow, we met midway in the meadow and headed back to camp to eat breakfast and break down our camp. We considered leaving camp up, and coming back up the next morning, but for some reason Paul’s achilles was bothering him, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go back up to freeze my ass off all alone. Besides, we had freezer meat now.
All packed up, we easily found Paul’s deer. While we would have preferred a heartier buck, it was meat for the freezer all the same. In no time we had him wrapped like a burrito in our plastic deer sled, and made our way down the rugged trail to the reservoir. Holy Shit was it an arduous haul! Good thing this wasn’t a monster buck. Last time we did this there was snow on the ground, which made for easy work. This time, the sharp, square rocks ate at our sled, shredding the thick plastic as we went. The jagged opening(s) acted like dozer blades funneling dirt and rocks into the sled, adding unecessary weight to our drag.
(And by he time we got down, it looked like this…totally trashed.) Remembering that we had flattened and packed out our emptied gallon water jugs, Paul cleaverly slid them between the deer’s torso and the holes/gashes of the sled in an effort to save the hide from being “sanded” off. Eventually, we got to camp thanks to Brian, his brawn and is truck, and discovered that Paul’s ingenuity had worked. The hide was intact.
Back at camp, we hang our freezer buck to “season”, on the buck pole.
And as it was more than cold enough, we let him hang for a few days before I got to butchering him (the deer).
Once home, the final processing takes place, some of which, to include venison brats.
I continued to hunt in the lower areas for a few more days, with no success. Finally, I convinced Brian to join me on an early morning (headlamp) trek to the upper meadow, for one last try. As he had seen as much as I had, which was NOTHING, there was nothing to lose, except a few pounds or so, via the trek. Morning came, and just about went. Then, BLAM!…and BLAM again. Sadly, neither shot was mine. Brian, on the other hand was successful, and so began the long hard slog down the .001 grit trail, back to camp. The haul was no less daunting than the three days before. And as with our sled, Brian’s was no match for the trail as well. In many ways I was glad it was Brian who had been successful: (1) It wasn’t my deer that destroyed Brian’s sled; (2) I didn’t have to wrestle the deer down the trail (Actually, Brian being the consumate gentleman, and frankly stronger of the two of us, would have most likely done the lion’s share of dragging the deer, had I been the successful one); (3) We were out of cooler space to store another butchered deer…although I’m sure we would have come up with some way to solve that “problem”.
When we finally reached the reservoir, a young man who was fishing, offered the use of his ATV to haul Brian’s deer the rest of the way to truck where Paul was waiting, with cold beers, and a warm truck. And with that, we were homeward bound.