My First Mule Deer
A little background information about me for effect.
After several years in the Navy, drinking and partying seemed to be the only way I had found to occupy my spare time. My buddies and I would get off work, shower and eat dinner and then head straight to the nearest watering hole until closing time. At the time, Bremerton Washington seemed to be the perfect place for that life style. If I remember correctly, there were more than 60 bars in this tiny shipyard town. Deep down inside I knew that there was no way I could live that way forever if I wanted to have an enjoyable life. During that time in my life, the only chance at hunting I ever had was when I went home on leave to Florida. And then, that usually ended up being more of a high school get together, which inevitably turned into a drunk-fest. I was quickly turning into an alcoholic!
In 1991, I received orders to a new duty station in San Diego and was actually excited for the opportunity for a change in lifestyle. I decided to fly home to Florida before reporting to my duty station, and it was during that 2-week period, after having an inspiring talk with my parents, which I made a life-changing decision that it was time for me to grow up and settle down while I still could lay claim to never having been behind bars. I made it my mission to meet a good girl and settle down. After reporting to my new duty station, I set out on my mission and no more than a year later, I met my soul mate. She was the daughter of a local doctor, was a recent graduate of a very well-respected private college, and we hit it off like we had known each other forever. Oh yeah, although she had been raised in a much wealthier lifestyle than I had, she was more down to earth than you could imagine. She liked to camp and fish, she had a horse that occupied most of her free time, and she and I had multiple common interests. After a couple of dates, she told me it was time for me to meet her parents. As a background visual, I was the typical Florida redneck boy, I always sported my Wrangler jeans with the Copenhagen ring, t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, cowboy boots, had a baseball cap with the brim properly curled and had it appropriately positioned as far back on my head as I could keep it. Yep, it was official, I was a redneck. Now here I was, going to a California doctor’s house to introduce myself as his daughter’s new boyfriend. I was a little nervous! My nerves quickly settled when I parked my Ford truck in his driveway and found him standing in the garage beside a huge 6X6 elk mount! He was a hunter!!! After the formalities of introductions, our conversation quickly turned to hunting. He told me the story of how he got his trophy elk on a pack-in hunt in Idaho and that story was followed by several more detailed descriptions of his hunting adventures.
Beth and I married in August of the following year. Shortly after we had settled down in our new home, one evening we were having dinner at her parent’s house. Cole and I started talking about hunting and he asked if I would be interested in going on a mule deer hunt to Colorado. His friend (Jim) had three parcels of land that had produced multiple respectable deer and elk in the past. He didn’t have to ask me twice! Although I had spent a good deal of time in the woods with my Grandpa chasing rabbits and squirrels, I had never harvested a big game animal. If I remember correctly, it was around September 1993 when he invited me along. I was switching duty stations from my current fun-filled assignment at a special warfare team to the grueling job of being a Navy recruiter. Between my required schooling, indoctrinating to my new duty station, and starting my new job, the hunting season seemed to arrive in no time. I had spent a good deal of time at the shooting range and was eventually very comfortable with the old Remington .270 that I was to use for the hunt.
Cole and I partnered up with Jim and his son Dan and made the 14-hour drive to the hunting grounds just outside of Durango Colorado. Although the drive seemed to take forever, I enjoyed the company and passed the time looking at the beautiful country and frequent sightings of elk, deer, and antelope along the way. We stopped in Farmington New Mexico and bought our tags (they were available for both states here) at a processor and made sure they would be able to accommodate us in the event that we were successful. Not long after, we had reached Jim’s 160-acre parcel where we would setup camp. Jim had an old camper that he left there and the first order of business was to clean it out. Between conducting the cleaning duties, I took multiple opportunities to sneak a peek at the surrounding land. As the sun started to set, the neighboring fields started to come to life. It those couple of hours, I saw more deer that I had ever seen in my life! This was going to be a good hunt! Throughout the next day, Friday, the rest of the hunting parties arrived and our camp more than doubled in size. As more people arrived, we made introductions and then quickly helped them unpack and set up their tents. Around sunset, everyone was settled in and we were finally all sitting around the campfire enjoying each other’s company. Jim passed a hat around that had numbers corresponding to the blinds that occupied his three parcels of land. As mentioned before, we were on his 160-acre plot, but he also had a 240-acre and 80-acre parcel (herein referred to “the 160”, “the 240”, and “the 80”). I drew a blind on the 160. During our chats around the campfire, I learned that the 160 was known for its quantity of deer and often provided a view of migrating elk. I don’t imagine I slept a single minute that night and was up and ready to go to my stand well before I heard anyone else start to stir.
There was another gentleman (Neal) that had come along on the hunt but he was just there for the comradery. He asked if it was OK to join me in my stand as he just enjoyed seeing the animals and taking pictures. Of course I had no issues with that and welcomed the company. In fact, he had been on the property in the past and therefore served as my guide as well as someone that could better confirm the property lines. The area that I was to be hunting was close to a neighbor’s property and although he and Jim knew each other well, he didn’t allow non-paying hunters to shoot on his property. We arrived at the stand well before first light and after situating my gear, we chatted about his other visits to this stand. Soon the blackness of night turned into gray and we were able to start making out terrain features. Neal pointed out the fence line and then started telling me the different trails that I should expect to see deer. This stand was down towards the lower half of a pretty good hill and just on the edge of the timber that filled the ravine below (property line). On the other side of the ravine, the timber reached about halfway up and then transitioned into cut hay fields. I couldn’t help but take notice of a few silhouettes of deer that started to appear on the horizon in this field. I started counting the deer in amazement. First ten, then twenty, thirty, one hundred, and I finally stopped counting when I reached 240 deer! I stopped counting because Neal had nudged me with his elbow in order to bring my attention to an approaching deer. It turned out to be a couple of does that were sneaking through the more secluded shelter of the timber. We saw several more deer during that morning but none of the bigger bucks were on Jim’s property so I didn’t get a shot off. The evening hunt found me back in the same blind, by choice, and had similar results.
That evening I was talking to Jim’s son Dan and he invited me to sit with him in his favorite stand on the 240 the next morning. He had seen several good bucks that morning and a few elk.
(View of the stand that I killed my buck from)
So, day two came around and found Dan and I sitting in a blind that was situated with views of open fields and two lines of timber. We had breathtaking views of the distant snow-capped mountains and it just looked like a good spot! Soon after gray light, Dan spotted a few cow elk (he had a cow tag), and we watched as they made their way in our direction. At about 250 yards, for some reason, they made a left turn and were then headed towards a neighboring fence line.
Dan decided that it was then or never so he leveled his rifle on the biggest cow and fired. I was watching through the binoculars and at the sound of the round going off, I saw the dirt kick up behind his cow. “You missed!” I said. “What, you sure?” He replied as he reloaded and tried to get back on the cow. By then, the elk had made their way to the fence line and one by one exited to the safety of the neighboring field. Just to be sure, we climbed down and made our way over to the point of the shot. We could see the fresh tracks and followed then all to the fence. There wasn’t a single drop of blood and I confirmed that I had indeed seen the impact of the round hit the dirt.
Dejected, Dan and I made our way back to the blind. We started glassing the direction that the elk had gone just to see if one miraculously fell over. Although I knew for a fact that he missed, I played along with his hopes nonetheless. Within minutes of concentrating on this area, two bucks jumped out of the same spot. One was a nice big 3X3 and the other was a smaller forked horn. They were headed on the same trail that the elk had taken but were coming our way! Dan immediately asked if I wanted to shoot one and my answer was indicated with me raising my rifle up and placing it on the edge of the blind window. I picked a few open spots in the brush that I thought they would travel through and just waited. Within minutes they had reached the fence and, after cautiously looking around, jumped over and onto Jim’s property. I already had my gun trained on a small opening when the first and smaller buck appeared in my sights.
As the second buck entered my scope, I took a deep breath, put the crosshair on his vitals and slowly squeezed the trigger. Click!!! “What the…?”
My first reaction was to chamber another round but Dan immediately handed his rifle to me. I picked the next open spot and waited for the deer to make their way into the scope. Same thing, first the smaller buck and then the larger one. When the big boy reached the clearing, I again took a deep breath and fired. Booooom!!!
Dan was watching through the binoculars and immediately yelled “you got him!!!”
I was instantaneously filled with the emotions you would expect of someone who had just downed his first buck. I was so excited that I don’t think I touched a single rung on the ladder on my way down to go claim my trophy. We made our way towards him and as we got closer, I could see that he was still alive. I had hit him a little high and had actually split his spine. S
o, as a seasoned hunter would do, I circled around him and quickly put another round in his neck to put him out of his misery. Dan was as happy as I was. Except, he admitted that he felt bad because he was hoping that he had missed the elk due to his scope being off. I had just blown that excuse out of the water or off of its hooves as it may be. Jim and Cole had been hunting in a nearby blind and had made their way over to us to see what we were hooting about. They congratulated me; we took a few pictures, and then loaded my deer in the truck and took it back to camp.
Man, I was on cloud nine!!! After hanging the deer on the meat pole, Cole gave me a lesson in processing a deer. He told me that it was a three-step process. See one, do one, and then teach one. I mostly watched and learned but couldn’t help but to get my knife in there to help. I have since carried that tradition on and always try to remember to tell the person that I am helping about the 3 steps. I’ll teach you, you do one, and then it’s your responsibility to teach someone else.
And that’s my story. That morning in Southern Colorado, I killed my first big game animal and haven’t stopped my pursuit since!