Washington Mule Deer Hunt
Slowly lowering myself out of sight behind the large snow covered boulder we’d been using as cover for the previous four hours since sneaking our way into position well before daylight. Poking my head around the corner just enough to come into view of my hunting partner and best friend Eric Foyle. He was using the north facing side of the rock to conceal him as he looked over a group of seven deer moving southwest of us into a location a lot of deer in the area used for bedding during daytime. Whistling as soft as possible, just loud enough to catch his attention, he turned, I pointed with my eyes and lipped to him, “He’s right here, he’s BIG, and you are going to make this shot, TAKE HIM!”
As he inched up the east side of the boulder to get into a position to shoot, some snow broke loose under his left foot, causing the slightest of noises. However, enough to draw the attention of a doe that was bedded just above and to the left of the buck causing it to rise from its bed to see what had caused the clanking of the loose rocks below, with the wind blowing straight into our faces it gave us the additional time we needed. However, when the doe decided to stand, it forced the buck to make the same decision. Right as Eric got set up the buck rose from his bed, he too was uncertain exactly where the noise had come from and stood still a moment too long. A few seconds of uncertainty about the shot cleared with the cloud of smoke from his Traditions muzzleloader as we saw the buck, obviously hit very hard, cut off to the right and struggle thirty more yards across the hill, expiring just before he crested the hill on the skyline. Dropping out of sight with his head behind some sagebrush, he was only visible from his front shoulders back. Still we were unable to get a clear look at this magnificent mule deer buck who had outsmarted us for each of the previous six days.
For our age, we have truly been blessed to be a part of some amazing hunts, both together and individually. We started to realize at a young age that even a great hunt, is still better when you get to share that experience with a good friend or family member. However, for both of us this hunt stands alone as our all time favorite hunt, and though we may take bigger animals at some point in our lifetimes it is going to take something extraordinary to top this hunt. It all started with a phone call late one night from my Eric, he is an extremely accomplished hunter, having already harvested three bucks in his teens and early twenties, that most hunters would be proud to have one buck of their caliber in a lifetime. I could tell from the enthusiasm in his voice that the deer he described over the phone was larger than the 26 inches wide he claimed. Throughout his life, Eric has done the opposite of most hunters and underestimated the size of a deer, not wanting to be made fun of for exaggerating the quality, like many of our other friends seem to do. He explained how it never stood still long enough to give him a great look, but the couple glimpses he did get. He was convinced it was a quality buck. We agreed that he would go look for the buck again the next morning. If it were as big as he believed it to be, I’d take the rest of the week off from work and head straight over.
I’ve never been so happy to have my phone ring at 5 A.M., when the only words he said were, “HE’S BIG,” I gathered all the stuff I had already packed the previous night with the expectation of receiving that call and was on the road making plans for an afternoon hunt before we ever hung up our phones.
That evening he took me to one of our favorite hunting spots, a place we have hunted together since junior high, and the last place in the world I’d ever expect to find a thirty inch wide mule deer. Just as Eric expected, the deer showed up right before dark, and again never really stopping in the open or keeping his horns up in the air long enough to get a clear look. It was remarkable to watch him as he’d use the smallest cut in the hill, sage brush bushes, rocks, trees and every piece of the terrain possible to never allow himself to be exposed, especially his vitals and he also was very conscious of his horns making sure to hold his head down as low as possible at all times. From the few quick looks I did get, I really wanted to hint to Eric that he might be thirty inches wide. However, to play it safe, I opted to go with twenty-eight instead. Knowing full well Eric believed he was at least that big as well. We made plans for the morning hunt, every bit as excited as we used to get for opening morning when we were thirteen years old. We fully expected a quick and successful hunt as we knew every nook and cranny on the hill.
Well, as it turns out we didn’t know the land quite as well as we thought, definitely not as well as the big buck that filled our dreams the previous night anyway. For the next four days we hunted hard for this particular buck, at the same time making sure that we didn’t push him out of the area. There are two canyons running north to south the deer were using to travel from where they were feeding to their bedding areas. When we went up one, the buck decided to use the other. When we went extra early to ensure we were above him, he decided to head up the hill even earlier that day, and when we decided to come from the top to make sure there was no way he could beat us to the top, he decided to bed right near the bottom. We saw the buck every single day, both morning and night, for five straight days. A couple times we were within a few hundred yards, but for one reason or another we were never able to get within muzzleloader range. Still, we had never been able to get a solid look at the deer to know what exactly we were after. From the way he had been outclassed on a daily basis, we assumed he was an older deer we’d want to take if the opportunity arose, especially for an over the counter general season mule deer in Washington. Not that there aren’t trophy deer around, just not near as many as many of the other western states. With each passing day our frustration grew, but at the same time so did our respect for this awesome animal. I recently read that 80% of mule deer bucks that live to five years old, die of old age. After watching this deer, there is no doubt in my mind that that statement is extremely accurate.
On the sixth and final day we were able to hunt, we knew we had to get a little more aggressive if we were going to have a chance. We agreed on a game plan, as well as to get all the way up to the hill an hour before daylight to make ensure we were in front of him. We tried to stay confident, but we were both beginning to question whether it was meant to be. As well as our own ability as hunters, which had dropped to an all time low after the schooling we had received for the five previous days. As I looked outside that morning, I was pleasantly surprised to discover we had been given a gift from god in form of four inches of extremely soft and powdery snow. It came very early in the year for our area but there were definitely no complaints from us. This instantaneously brought the confidence back to both of us and I declared to Eric, “Today is the day.”
We made it up the hill undetected before light to a small secluded bowl that lay between the two canyons. It was the one place we had seen the buck cross on each of the previous days hunting. Even though being in this spot largely restricted our field of view, with the wind exactly how we needed it, we decided to wait him out. We figured he’d have to walk by us at some point to get to where ever it was he went to bed everyday prior. Seeing deer funneling through the small draw as soon as it was light enough to see, we were confident our hard work was finally going to pay off. Continuing to glass for four hours, we’d seen 23 deer walk right past us, four being legal bucks and one being a decent four point with nice mass that will definitely be a deer we take a closer look at this coming season, as he had a lot of potential to be a good buck in 2010 or 2011. We discussed whether or not to call it a day, as we both knew that every deer in the area had already moved through and there was no way a buck as smart as this one would still be up and moving.
With neither of us willing to accept defeat we decided to give it fifteen more minutes. I was going to stay put on the left side of the boulder we’d be using for cover and Eric was going to walk around the right side to look into the bigger canyon where there were seven deer working there way south to their beds. As I climbed back to the rock that I had been glassing from with the spotting scope, I bumped it on the way up making it point down. As I looked through it trying to get it back into place, I came across the buck bedded in the sage right in front of us, looking directly away from us. It only took a glance to realize it was him, and I didn’t want to waste anytime getting Eric before he took another two or three steps out in front of the rocks and got busted, a quick shot, a cloud of smoke that seemed to take an eternity to clear out of the way and we began high fiving, hugging and celebrating as we knew we’d just accomplished a goal that we’d first talked about fifteen years earlier on a school bus trip to a junior high basketball game. Back then we talked about going to Colorado, Wyoming or Montana as we’d never even heard of a thirty inch buck being taking in Washington, Let alone in our favorite piece of public land.
We discussed waiting for fifteen minutes to a half hour, like we knew we should, but about five minutes of being able to see the buck from his front shoulder back and being certain he wasn’t getting up, my pleading with Eric finally worked and we hustled over to FINALLY get a close up look at the buck we had come to respect more than any other we’ve been blessed to cross paths with in all our days of hunting. As we approached him, we were both pleasantly surprised to see how great of a buck he truly was. As well as shocked that a deer like that could live in a spot like this on public land and go unnoticed by anyone. As soon as we got to the animal I couldn’t help but pull out the measuring tape I threw in my pack six days early in hopes of solving this debate for good. Neither of had yet to say the “Thirty” word out loud but it was obvious that it had crossed both our minds as we approached him. We were both hoping for it, and were ecstatic when we measured the distance from G4 to G4 at 30 and 1/8th inch wide.
Harvesting a buck that passed the magical thirty inch mark would be special to Eric and me anywhere. Having done it together, in our favorite hunting spot, in our home state, and in an area that we have put a great deal of our own time into improving deer habitat makes it all the more enjoyable. As much as we hoped for a quick one day hunt, the fact that this buck pushed us to our physical and mental limits on a daily basis is what makes it sweetest of all. We worked so hard for this buck and came to respect him so much, as he truly is the smartest buck we’ve ever been privileged to watch in the field. The best part of everything though is only months prior I was standing in Eric’s wedding as his best man, over a friendship formed largely in part from our equal passion for chasing mule deer. I could not think of a better wedding present for Eric to have than this magnificent buck hanging on his wall, representing the greatest year of his life.