When you work in wildlife management, your personal hunting takes quite the hit. That is what I've found after I took my current job in August. When hunting season rolls around, and hunters from around the country are stalking bucks, climbing into tree stands and bugling for big bulls, workers in wildlife management are busier than ever. I ended up having to turn in my archery elk tag because I just wasn't going to be able to get time off to hunt. I kept my muzzleloader deer tag because I thought with only a couple evenings to hunt, that I still had a chance at putting some meat in the freezer. As stories kept rolling in of early season hunting success I was pretty disappointed that I couldn't be out in the field. But a very good surprise came when, by a miracle, things came together and I was able to get the opening weekend of Colorado's muzzleloader season off. I would be able to hunt for TWO FULL DAYS! Now for most of you, that probably doesn't even sound like enough time to scout. But to someone that was planning on only getting sporadic evening hunts here and there throughout the season, it sounded like pure gold.
My brother-in-law and I had scouted deer all summer and had them about as patterned as you can have mulies patterned. We had trail camera pictures of a couple different bucks but couldn't get pictures of the two most mature deer that we had seen while out scouting. Opening weekend would be me, my brother-in-law and two of his coworkers who had never been to the area. The evening before opening morning the two newbies really wanted to go take a look at the spot. They had found their way into the beer cooler and I was not excited about stirring up the place I planned on shooting a buck in the morning. Especially because I'd only have two days to hunt. Well, they finally convinced me to at least take them far enough in to show them where I'd be setting them when twilight rolled around. I explained to them that we had to be absolutely silent. I was not happy about the situation. Sure enough, about ten minutes after heading into the area I spotted a bruiser buck. He was a 4x4 with eyeguards and was around 25-27 inches wide. I stopped the guys and whispered that we had to back out. Luckily, we had the wind in our favor and the deer never knew we were there. It was nice seeing a good buck the night before the hunt but it made for one heck of a sleepless night.
Shooting light could not come soon enough. I chowed down a breakfast burrito and chocolate milk and was anxious to get to my spot. After seeing the big buck still in velvet, I had explained to the guys that the bucks would likely be scraping it off anytime now and that a good strategy would be to listen for them noisily tearing up saplings. This advice would prove pretty darn beneficial for myself. I was on my way down to my spot, barely creeping along when I heard it. Sure enough, there was the sound of antlers scraping not 125 yards down slope from my setup. I hunkered down and listened to it for 15 minutes. The deer was in a little stand of ponderosas surrounded by aspens and I just couldn't quite see into them; but I knew he was there. The scraping stopped and the deer didn't come out, so I figured he'd bedded down. I decided to just sit tight and wait him out. This passive plan turned out to be a mistake. There were hikers out in force, and unbeknownst to me, they were coming my way!
At around 8:30 I spotted a guy with a camo coat and what looked like a muzzleloader hiking on a bare ridge about 1.25 miles to the west. At first I thought it was a hunter that had decided to not wear his blaze orange. It wasn't until the "muzzleloader" got turned upright and used as a walking stick that I discovered his true identity. Over the next 45 minutes, I watched him disappear into ravine after ravine to only pop out on the next ridge closer to me. At one point he had stopped, pulled up a pair of binoculars, acknowledged me and continued his direct path in my direction. At first I didn't worry about it and even had hopes of him pushing something my way. But when he popped up on the ridge adjacent to my position, above the gullie that my deer was bedded in and only 200 yards from me, I knew something was wrong. I politely motioned to let him know that he should stop hiking in my direction. He didn't take this gesture lightly. He flipped me off, pulled out a cigarette and started puffing away. Luckily the wind was blowing up the gullie or else my hunt would have been over right then and there. But it gets worse! After cherishing his own version of a smokepole, he hiked down into the gullie and headed right for my deer. I knew the $@^# was about to hit the fan. I heard a rock tumble and the gentleman (intentionally incorrect nomenclature) yell out an obscenity due to our mutual misfortunes of him having just taken a tumble. I bet you can't guess what happened next.
The buck that was bedded within range of my blackpowder rifle took off like a bandit. I swung my rifle with him and let out a grunt to try and get him to stop. But he wouldn't have any of it. He barreled over the ridge I was on and was gone in a mere ten bounds. The good news was that he was heading for where my brother-in-law was set up. I clenched my fists and waited for the shot. About 15 seconds later, the low pitched BLAMMM of his smokepole thundered up the mountain. I made my way over to him but when I got there I knew from his demeanor that we wouldn't be eating backstraps that night. The deer had slowed down just enough to afford him a shot but he wasn't confident in his placement. After searching for sign of a hit for an hour and a half, and not turning up as much as a cut hair, we decided that he had flat out missed. As you can imagine, I was just a wee bit peeved. I decided that I needed to cover some ground to work off the frustration. I covered a grueling 7 miles in the early September heat and didn't see a thing; except some incredibly beautiful canyon country. Even with that kind of morning under your belt, it's amazing what some gorgeous scenery can do for a young man's soul.
The following day was uneventful; save a couple more encounters with inconveniently placed recreationists. At that point I thought my 2010 muzzleloader hunt was over. I had school and work during the week and more work and a wildlife habitat field trip the last weekend of the season. But as luck would have it, I was able to get out for one afternoon/evening hunt during the week. And although my expectations weren't high, I was excited to get one more chance at getting some steaks for the winter.
I decided to hunt an area that I had never been to but that was much closer to home. I got off work at 5PM and with all my gear already loaded up, I steered my rig west, and up into the hills. I covered 500 vertical feet in just over a quarter mile. Needless to say, it was STEEP! I got to the top of the ridge, crested a saddle and started glassing the slopes below. I'd never been in the area but I was happy to find lots of good browse species for deer in the area. The area was very open and I relied on the optics heavily. I had glassed under just about every tree and outcropping of rimrock in view when I turned around and to my amazement saw a deer. I brought the binoculars up and instantly noticed that it was a buck. He was about 400 yards away and in a bowl on the opposite side of the ridge that I had hiked up. There was only about a half hour till legal shooting light ended so my pace was brisk but stealthy.
I covered the last 50 yards to the top of the ridge like a snail; taking extreme caution in where every footstep fell. My wind was good and I knew my entire hunting season was going to come down to this. I crested the ridge top and he immediately jumped up at about 80 yards. He stotted to around 130 yards but his body was shielded by thick Cercocarpus montanus (mountain mahogany). He stepped out from behind the patch and was looking for whatever had interrupted his little cat-nap (deer-nap might be more correct). He was facing straight toward me and was going to bust at any time. I had already raised and cocked the rifle and I then lined up the iron sights. I placed the front bead on where the neck connects with the chest and added pressure to the trigger. The smoke cloud was thick. I hopped to the left to see the deer fall straight down and lay still, being held onto the steep slope by a patch of mahogany. The 295 grain slug had broken the neck, clipped the top of the heart, carried through between the lungs and stopped up against the diaphragm.
I made my way over to him and paid my respects to the beautiful buck that lay before me. The field dressing and pack out were done by headlamp. I didn't get all the meat down to my truck until around 10PM. If it wasn't for being able to call up my brother and roommate and their willingness to climb an unfamiliar, sheer cliff, I'd probably still be out there packing him out. Thanks to them it went about as smooth as it could have. For the time that I had to hunt, I am overjoyed with the outcome. By the time we got home, it was a little too late to cook up some of the backstraps. But you can bet that we will be enjoying them tonight. Even though it wasn't a long, romantic hunt, my inner drive as a predator had been flared once again. Thanks be to the beast!