The Curse of Poncho: Colorado Mule Deer Hunt
The boys are back in town, the boys are back in town, you remember the lyrics to that old 80's song. Ok, maybe my age is starting to show. Just like every previous Fall, a bachelor group of bucks would show up in the hay fields around the first week of August. They would number anywhere from twelve to twenty-six bucks and range from dink spikers to mature 180+ class big daddy rabbits. We would start patterning them and setting our blinds and stands in anticipation of the archery opener in late August.
This year my wife Stephanie had a 2nd season rifle voucher in hand and had to anxiously await the October 20th opener. We were, however, able to embark on a hunting trip up to Craig, CO and she punched her archery antelope tag with a well placed arrow in the engine room on a big, black-faced speed goat. So now, with only camera in hand, we began to photograph the bucks in earnest. We set two tree-stands and two ground blinds for hunting and photography.
Well before the Archery season opened we had named several of the larger "shooter" bucks. The three top dogs being Poncho, Ringo and Charlie. These bucks would score roughly in the mid to upper 170's, definitely archery bucks to be proud of. At this point the bucks had become accustomed to my truck and we were gathering quite a collection of impressive pictures. Steph made the comment she would like to see Poncho make it through to gun season and laughingly placed a curse on him for protection.
Opening day of archery season saw two of the four stands occupied by family friends in anticipation of a close encounter with this bachelor group of bucks. As it goes without saying, the bucks on consecutive evenings and throughout the season would inevitably enter the hay fields where no one was sitting in stand or blind. It became comical as they would feed out under an unoccupied stand and then watch as we drove in and picked up friends from their stands. Several times the bucks would feed, lay down or stare from a mere 30 yards as we drove out in the dim light of dusk.
As the archery season drew to a close, the "Curse of Poncho" continued. Now, it was not that Steph did not want one of the guys to arrow one of the bucks but it was more of the way they seemed to know which stand or blind the guys were in. They would frolic, feed, bed and what we like to say, "Give us the Hoof." To this point they had survived a couple of misses with a hurried arrow or twisted peep, an encounter with some over-zealous trespassers, witnessed the demise of a great 6x6 bull during the muzzle-loader season and without fail managed to out-wit the stick and string boys on consecutive nights of the season.
By the time the 1st week of October rolled around, the deer began their annual migration. The hayfields we hunt just happen to be smack dab in the middle a transition area where they stop to fatten up and begin the first phases of the rut. By the 10th of October, we had nearly 500 photos of deer and were watching, glassing and photographing 300+ deer each morning and evening. At one point we counted sixty-seven 2-point or better bucks. Poncho and Ringo were in the mix along with Rico Sauve, Lefty, Righty, The Cheater Buck, the Cactus Buck, Fats, Mac, Casper, the Juniper Buck, the Albino Buck and ultimately - Charlie, named so for the character in the old Tuna Fish ad on TV. Charlie carried a HEAVY main-frame 5x5 rack with two cheaters on his right and one cheater on his left. After much scrutiny, I felt he would gross 186 and some change. A bunch of friends and family got in the game and guesses ranged from 173 to 195.
October 20th drew closer and closer and we patiently and diligently glassed these bucks til dark every day. The area we planned to hunt these deer on is bordered on the West by BLM and a State Wildlife Area. Numerous trucks would stop along the frontage and county roads to glass these deer in the evenings, creating doubt and leaving us apprehensive. Often the bucks would leave the hayfields for the sanctuary of the junipers during the day and if they ventured far enough into the thick pinions, they would be fair game for the hunters on the BLM and state ground..
Friday evening prior to the opener, I camped on Charlie until it was too dark to see. Steph and I knew the morning hunt would happen fast as the deer are skittish and totally occupied with getting off the hayfields before the morning sun drew it's rays across them. In the afternoons the deer are more at ease and tolerate activity almost to a degree of domestic livestock. Saturday morning couldn't come fast enough. We gulped down coffee and Steph, myself, Joanne (who has a tag as well) and TJ loaded up in the truck and drove to our designated glassing spot. With the extra eyes and TJ there to video, we hoped to spot Charlie before he made his way up into the pinions. As darkness gave way to the first hint of dawn we realized we were completely surrounded by deer, some as close as twenty yards. It was obvious something had the deer on edge, and they were making their way to their bedding area earlier than usual. Sudden like I made out Charlie on the far side of the hay field almost in the pinions. Jumping back in the truck, we zipped around to the far side and attempted to set up on Charlie before he got to the safety of the cedars. But the gig was up and Steph could not get a clear shot before he entered the thick cover of the pinions. Rather than spook and bust him out of the area, I opted to wait for the evening hunt and prayed no one would slip in and bump him or for that matter, harvest him.
To say that was one of the longest days of hunting I have ever experienced is an understatement. One of my luxuries is that I have my spotting scope set up in my dining room focused on the bedding and feeding areas Charlie and all these deer had been frequenting. So, between College Football and my eye glued to the spotting scope, I made the best of it. About 1:30 that afternoon, I caught a flash of orange moving through the bedding area and my heart sank. I could see deer moving ahead of him, behind him, around him; my one consolation was that through the whole ordeal I never saw him lift his rifle, in fact, I'm not sure he even saw a deer as thick as it is on that particular hillside.
At 2:30 I could not stand it any longer, we piled once again into my truck with the added eyes of Cassie, our daughter, and Justin a close friend, as well as Joanne and TJ. We pulled into our glassing spot and Steph and I eased our way out into a comfortable shooting position. Justin set up about twenty yards behind us with the video camera and the others took up spots with their glasses. Steph pulled down the legs on her bi-pod and we settled in for the wait.
There were already close to 50 deer in the hay field and they continued falling out of the junipers. They came in singles, pairs, fours and fives, does, fawns, little bucks, nice bucks, tempting bucks... but no Charlie. I being the pessimist, whispered to Steph, he's dead, somebody got him. She simply said shut-up, no he's not. The deer continued to filter into the hayfields when suddenly I caught movement directly to our right in the thick of the junipers. Putting my glasses up, I studied hard to make out antlers on the motionless deer studying the hayfields. The whole demeanor of the deer told me it was Charlie, but I needed for him to take another step for positive ID. Slowly, he moved through an opening in the heavy pinions and right away I saw the mass. I whispered to Steph and she followed my line of sight. I looked back at Justin and he was already rolling film. Things were coming together fast. I told Steph to wait until he cleared the junipers and high grass and offered her nothing but daylight and opportunity for a shot. He swaggered stiff-legged with his ears pinned toward a giant three-point and backed him down. I zapped him with my range-finder and read it 237 yards. I leaned forward and whispered to Steph if she had the shot to ta..... BOOOMMM! I never even finished the sentence. Charlie sagged as the bullet broke both shoulders and emptied the life from his lungs. He staggered sideways twenty yards and came to rest on the edge of the hayfield.
Excitedly, we gathered up our gear and hurriedly made our way to where Charlie had fallen. As we closed the distance, Steph made the comment that there was no ground shrinkage because the closer we got, the bigger Charlie got. Three long months we had watched these bucks. We savored the moment, drank in his musty, sagey odor. We hefted his head and traced the mass and curve and bone of each point on his incredible rack. After much back-slapping and a long photo session, we loaded Charlie up and headed into the adjacent unit to try and find a buck for Joanne.
Darkness was closing fast. A heavy, low pressure front was beginning to move in as well. I suggested we not get hasty in choosing a buck as the weather might push some new bruiser into the area.
Sunday morning we awoke to 8" of snow and heavy cloud cover. Perfect! Now, I believe it important to mention that just six months prior to this hunt, Joanne and Cassie had taken and passed together their Hunter Safety Class. Joanne was WAY new to the game of hunting but was persistent in her practice and was always asking questions and soaking up as much information as possible.
Shortly after daylight we watched several good bucks leave their feeding grounds and head for their bedding areas. I told Steph to get Joanne set up and I would circle around upwind several hundred yards of the bucks allowing my scent to drift down through the thick cover where they were bedding. That should allow ample time for Joanne to get a solid rest on one of the bucks as they slipped out of their bedding area.
I knew Joanne was nervous but was very confident in Steph's ability to walk her through the scenario and then be her confident when the shot presented itself. As I got in position upwind of the bucks, I could see them moving off in the direction of the girls. I caught a glimpse of what looked to be a great buck in the group and then they disappeared from sight. About the time I wondered if the bucks had ghosted by the girls unseen, I heard the thunder from her rifle and the re-sounding "thunk" of a solid hit. I began moving toward the spot where I believed the bucks would have presented a shot and I could see the girls making their way in my direction as well. As I rounded a thick patch of brush, I immediately noticed a very large antler protruding out of the snow. Wow, Joanne had just pounded a toad! She and Steph started hugging and laughing and crying and well, ya know, things chicks do....
What a hunt! Two beautiful monster mulies for two beautiful lady hunters. Charlie ended up grossing 188-3/8" and Joanne's Buck (Sammy, I know, I know) grossed 172-7/8.
On a lighter note, we observed Poncho as darkness descended on the last day of deer season. He was with a gaggle of does passing on his genetics. Cassie smiled and said he better "git er done" because come October next Fall she will have a tag in hand and Mom promises to lift the "Curse of Poncho."