Payoff - First Successful Deer Hunt
For the 2005 hunting season I finally had my own rifle. Long hours of caliber research and advice-seeking led me to settle on a .300 Winchester Magnum. Since 2004's experience and disappointments I also took up reloading. When the new season dawned in the nearby mountains and canyons of Northern Colorado I chose to hunt the same area to put my knowledge of the terrain to better use. This time unencumbered by the worries of caring for another novice, besides myself, I struck out further and stayed out longer despite the weather or time of day. Saturday dawned clear and cold and busy with hunters hoping for success on Opening Day. In camp that evening there was a palpable murmur of discontent. Nobody had seen anything. Day two brought me back to the area where I had lost "my first buck" in 2004. As I rounded the break in the ridge I saw that very same hunter dragging a small fork horn back to camp with his partner, one which his partner had downed. We spoke for a moment and I learned that the animal which should have been my first deer last year actually was his first deer and he was bummed that he didn't connect in what was to be a very abbreviated hunting season for him in 2005. They added that they didn't think there would be much activity because of the dry summer. I offered my congratulations to his partner and we went our separate ways.
Several more days of hunting in the same area brought me to my first shot on a coyote at 289 yds. It was a quartering-away downhill shot as the coyote was climbing up the slope on the far side of the draw. The first shot pinned him in between the hips and the second and third shots effectively cut him in two. Needless to say I was impressed with the power of my chosen cartridge and I was very glad to have spent so much time practicing at the range during the summer.
On the following day I wanted to hunt the same area, but I chose to approach from the opposite direction using the rising sun at my back and the prevailing wind in my face to mask my stalk. I gained the steep ridge and skirted the private land to a spot on the exposed southwest ridge where I would have a commanding view of the drainage where I had shot the coyote only the day before. As I raised the binoculars I immediately saw movement. On the far side of the canyon was a nice buck quietly feeding in the morning sun. I managed to fight back the initial jitters, mainly because I knew there was no way he could see me. My rangefinder told me why my fumblings would go unnoticed. The buck fed unaware of my presence 488 yds away! I practiced a lot over the summer and I carefully prepared a handload for my gun. My scope had a reticle with built-in bullet drop compensation marks to which I had calibrated to my handloads, but 488 yds is way out there. I glassed the buck again and told myself that I would take him if he had at least six points total. Further investigation among the bushes revealed he was in fact a 3x3 mule deer. I could not walk away from such a prime opportunity, but I was nervous about such a long shot. I moved around on the ridge looking for a stalking route to close the distance, but found not a single twig to conceal my approach. Any departure from the ridge would have me busted by the buck feeding out in the open. The only other strategy would have me walking two miles out and around to change my angle and hope to close the distance. By that time, I figured, he'd be gone to his bed for the day and I wouldn't be able to find him.
Fifteen long minutes passed as I watched him and tried to screw up the courage to make the shot which I had prepared for all summer long. I removed my jacket and pack to create a comfortable shooting position on a rock pile which allowed for a dead-rest for my rifle. I shifted my body position until I was sure that nothing would move and I brought the cross-hairs to rest on the buck's left shoulder. As I talked myself through the shot my confidence returned and I readied myself to squeeze the trigger. Before I could talk myself out of it the shot was on it's way. Shortly after the explosion of dirt under the buck he raised his head to look for the intruder. I was shocked, he just stood there. I carefully placed the cross-hairs on his near shoulder and again squeezed the trigger. Another dirt cloud and the buck decided to move over a few steps. Determined, I put a third shot on him and again a cloud of dust. Now the buck was getting the idea that I might get lucky and he began to move for the top of the next ridge at a slow walk. A fourth shot got me no closer and he really made up his mind to relocate. I opened the bolt and dropped in another cartridge. As I glanced at the scope I instantly knew what I had done wrong. I had ignored the bullet-drop compensation reticle and was holding on my zero! I quickly brought the correct aiming point to rest on the buck's near shoulder and calmly let one go as he made his last bound over the ridge into the next draw. As I followed him in the scope I saw the tell-tale hunch of an animal that has been squarely hit. I got him! But where did he go? I saw no movement, but I knew the shot was good. I shouldered my pack and climbed down off the ridge and crossed the canyon to the next ridge where he had been hit and I began my search. There was not one drop of blood that I could find in the waist-high scrub and sagebrush. I walked over the ridge into the next draw where I was sure I would find the buck piled up, but 45 minutes of retracing my steps revealed nothing except a growing lack of confidence. Did I really see him hunch-up from the impact of the shot? Soon I allowed those thoughts to beat any optimism out of me and I gave up the search. I was kicking myself as I turned around to start the steep walk back out of the canyon. With the first step I found my quarry. Had I looked a bit more carefully I could have prevented a lot of second-guessing, but as I was a self-taught novice hunting alone I didn't have another set of eyes to offer reassurance. By the looks of the buck my countless hours of practice had paid off. He was put down quickly with one bullet which punctured both lungs.
Once I settled down from the excitement I snapped photos then set about the task of field dressing. Having worked on a farm for a couple of years during my youth really helped with the experience. In a matter of 15 minutes I had my first buck ready for transport. I reached into my pocket to affix the carcass tag only to realize that in my rush to get out the door I had left it hanging on the refrigerator! I certainly didn't want to lose my first deer to the Game Warden because of a stupid mistake, so I dragged him well clear of the gut pile and into the shade of a large juniper. I walked up to the spot on the ridge where my bullet had made contact and took a reading with the range-finder against the rock from which I launched the shot. I was astonished to see it measure 510 yards!! I was so light on my feet from the experience that I almost ran back to the truck. I couldn't wait to tell my wife, who knew just how disappointed I was from the events of the previous year. As you might expect she was thrilled. I called on a friend to help with the chore of dragging the trophy back to the truck. It took everything we had in us to haul the deer 1 1/2 miles back to the trail head. After 2 1/2 hrs of hard work I didn't think we would be able to lift it into the pickup. Field dressed the buck weighed 210 lbs! I gladly butchered the animal and savored the joy of providing for my growing family. And I now have a true trophy, not for it's size, but for the hard-won satisfaction of having done it alone from start to finish.
A perfectly symmetrical 3x3 Northern Colorado Mule Deer shot October 2005