The area that I hunt mule deer during muzzleloader season has a unique strain of antler genetics. Bucks with these genes tend to have VERY narrow antlers, with crabs claw front forks and tuning back forks. They normally have a distinctive curve to the main beam as well. The younger deer with these genetics are not exactly what I would call "highly sought after". But the mature bucks that I have seen with these genetics are pretty darn impressive. They are the tallest bucks I have ever witnessed in person. We call deer with these genetics "basket bucks."
Last year was my first time hunting anything, except squirrels, with a muzzleloader. And I ended up taking a nice, wide mulie that definitely did not have "basket" genetics. Hunting the same area last year, were my brother and one of my brother-in-laws. Try as he might, my brother didn't end up getting a deer with his bow. But my brother-in-law, who has hunted the area for a long time, finally got a deer with his muzzleloader. And go figure... it was a basket buck!
I got my deer on opening morning and decided that I would try to film for the other guys. The next morning found us in a meadow on an adjacent ridge to where I got my buck. I was fairly new to filming hunts so I was having a lot of fun with it... getting all kinds of establishing shots and pull-ins and pull-outs. I was distracted by the electronic memory maker that I was wielding and therefore was pretty darn surprised when all of a sudden, there was a doe feeding broadside at 80 yards. This put me back in my place and I started paying attention again. After a couple minutes I heard something moving in the ravine below the doe. I slowly got the camera ready, hoping that I was about to film a crazy-tall, basket buck appear and then get smoked by my brother-in-law. After 5 minutes of listening to the sound get closer and closer, IT finally appeared... it was an endlessly energized fawn. This little button buck was going bizzerk! He must have ran around non-stop for ten minutes. I still don't know exactly what he was doing but it made for some good footage. The doe and fawn eventually left and the morning carried into the afternoon and we headed back to camp to talk things over.
Spot and stalk was decided on as the strategy for that evening's hunt. We dropped into a gully, heading towards a big open bowl where we could glass a pretty big chunk of land. Before we made it down though, we ended up jumping a WHOPPER. But not a deer; it was a bobcat. He was huge. But it always amazes me how quiet they can be. He got up out of his bed in a small aspen grove and crept over the ridge and out of sight without making a noise. It was pretty neat.
We made our way out to the bowl and started glassing. We glassed for a solid hour and a half and couldn't turn one rock or log into a buck. We only had about 45 minutes of shooting light left and decided to wrap around a ridge and head up the next drainage back towards the truck. Just when the next drainage came into view, I spotted something out of the ordinary. Without taking my eyes off the object, I brought my binoculars up and was treated to the sight of one of the giant basket bucks feeding on top of a ridge about a quarter of a mile away. The stalk was on! But light was dwindling fast. As we made the grueling climb up the ridge I knew we were cutting it close. I kept looking down at my watch and seeing the end of shooting light keep getting closer and closer. Ten minutes till we are out of time... 9 minutes... 7 minutes. By the time we got into the opening where I thought we would be in range of him, shooting light had expired. We made the hike back to the truck without getting a shot and it was a let down. I had to be at school the next day and my brother-in-law had to get back to work. He asked if I would want to come back up the following weekend and film and of course, I agreed.
Well, I made it up the next weekend; but the camera didn't. I would be along only as a witness and packmule on this hunt. We got to our spot before sunrise and waited for the sun to make it's steady assault on the eastern sky. As soon as it was light enough to just barely see... I could make out two deer on the neighboring ridge. They were about 200 yards away and it wasn't until the sun had come up a little more that I could identify them as bucks. They were feeding in our direction when I lost sight of them behind a stand of ponderosas on our ridge.
Now I don't get buck fever... that is unless I have a bow in my hands. But for some strange reason, just being there as a witness, without a muzzleloader in my hands and with no control over the outcome of the hunt, I LOST IT. I started shaking. I couldn't see the deer but knew they were coming in our direction. I feel incredibly sorry for anyone that gets buck fever while they are hunting because this condition rendered me about as effective as if you stuck a rifle in Charlie Chaplin's hands and plopped him in the woods and told him to kill something.
Finally, and out-of-the-blue, the deer showed themselves. But not from a distance. They crested the ridge above us at only 50 yards and it felt like they were right on top of us. They were traveling along a game trail that my brother-in-law was practically sitting on. They had no idea we were there and when the lead buck angled upslope slightly, a cloud of smoke filled the air. When the 245 grain powerbelt struck him, he reared up like an unbroke mustang and headed right for my brother-in-law. I thought it was about to get nasty and started to draw my Springfield XD in .40 S&W. The deer veered off of the collision course and made it over the ridge.
As we made our way to where the deer went out of sight, my heart felt like it was going to implode. I couldn't tell if I was tracking a mortally hit mule deer or going into thick alders after a 12' wounded brown bear. Within 100 yards of where he was hit, we found him. As I approached I knew what to expect. He was a basket buck! He was young and thus didn't have the towering height or the lengthy waving main beam of the big boys but he was a good representative of this unique lineage. It was my brother-in-law's first mule deer and none of us could have been happier. But after getting my first bout of buck fever, I keep my fingers crossed that it never infects me when the gun is in MY hands.