Dusk had struck an eerie quietness upon the craggy landscape which sprawled out before me.
The steep, winding canyon, once alive with the gentle glow of the afternoon sun, was now gray and lifeless. A persistent breeze, which carried the faintest odor of wood smoke curling up from the trapper’s cabin in the valley below, once a nuisance, was now downright uncomfortable. I was reminded that, although the sun’s rays had been calm and soothing, old man winter would be visiting soon enough. I shifted restlessly on my rock which served as a perch and ruffled my insulated coat. It was time to call it an evening. A good warm fire would be a welcome as well as some rest for a pair of eyes weary from a day’s glassing of every bench and rock outcropping for mule deer.
Fortunately, as camp wasn’t far and soon I had the fire crackling and popping, aided considerably by a few live embers that were left from this afternoon’s blaze. It was a relief to lean back against the piece of tamarack that served a makeshift headrest. Before long I found my gaze lost in the flames, remembering the many times I had come to this spot. When I was younger, the object of my desire was always a sway-backed old buck with massive, gnarly antlers. A goal I fell short of more times than not. Now, with some years under my belt, I found my purpose changing. I’d come here to see if the little groups of does still frequented the same draws they used to and I wanted to walk the same trails I had when my legs felt like steel. In a world where nothing, it seems, is ever guaranteed, I had come to these Idaho mountains to find something familiar and reliable. Time may have changed me, but not this place.
Eventually the fire’s light began to wane so I quickly downed a dry supper and curled up in my sleeping bag for the evening. Like most nights in hunting camp, I busied myself contemplating strategy for the morning hunt. The rut, by no means, was in full swing, as was evident by the number of does I had seen without a buck vying for their attention over the last week. I wasn’t disheartened though, the sun was setting sooner every evening and I knew it was merely days, if not hours, from heating up.
The next morning a fitful slumber outlasted my natural alarm clock. Beams of light had already found their way through my wrinkled tent flap when I finally awoke. I dressed as quickly as possible, gathered gear and trusty rifle and headed down the ridge. At this point I must elaborate on my choice of weaponry. For this hunt I had chosen my Remington #1 Sporting Rifle chambered in the venerable 45-70 caliber. It has sleek lines, is inherently accurate and is as reliable as any rifle a man can carry. The only thing out of the ordinary is that it’s 140 years old, weighs 12 pounds and has iron sights. I’ve raised a few eyebrows carrying this old smoke pole through the woods, appearing more like a character in a western than a modern day hunter. I assure you, however, she can still get the job done and has served me well in many faraway places including Alaska.
Once I’d acquired my position overlooking the canyon it didn’t take me long to find my first subjects. Down a steep grassy slope, some three hundred yards distant, a group of six does filed uniformly out of a brush choked gully and began to feed. Soon followed three gangly fork-horned bucks, most likely last season’s fawns. Mule deer are even more of a herd animal than the whitetail. Most of these herds are comprised of two if not three generations of mothers and their offspring. These groups maintain their genetic diversity when a mature buck leaves his secluded autumn nest in search of female companionship. Some bucks spend most of the year within a mile or two of their preferred mating haunts and some travel great distances every fall to satisfy nature’s most basic urge.
I surmised there wasn’t a dominant buck with this group as he would never allow these three amateurs to run his herd. So I turned my attention from the small band and proceeded to methodically scan the other open ridges at my disposal for distant deer outlines or telltale mule deer butts. I always make it a habit, first thing in the morning, to concentrate on open areas deer like to feed and if that turns up nothing, then I’ll begin dissecting draws and other spots with heavy cover where deer prefer to bed. As the hours passed, I turned up several other herds, a handful of singles and even for a moment thought I’d found a shooter. After closer inspection however, I discerned that it was only a fairly wide and tall three point. He was handsome for a youngster but at this point in the hunt I wasn’t overly tempted. A good buck would be coming for the does I’d seen this morning soon enough.
That evening was more of the same. A lot of small bucks and does lounging around on their fat rumps and flicking their ears inattentively. Apparently they had no inclination that the seasons were changing. Soon utter chaos would break loose on this mountain with the impending rut and then winter shortly thereafter. A summer of lethargy and calorie accumulation would all be but a distant memory. The harsh months for the mule deer were coming. Most of this year’s fawns would not see the next spring, as wouldn’t the older members of the herd. It was good to see them enjoying one of their last carefree moments.
Well before the crack of dawn I found myself awakened that next morning and instantly knew something had changed. I clicked my flashlight on and saw the steam rising from my breath; the temperature was dropping drastically! After dawning my attire, I found some dry kindling and brought the fire to life. This was just what I was waiting so anxiously for. After so many years of traipsing these woods I knew exactly what I would see today before the day even revealed it.
The minutes creaked by. An eternity would have passed before sunrise if not for the arrival of my brother, owner of Miles High Outfitters, whom I’d enlisted to help glass today. He pulled up in his battle-scarred pickup right on time. A large grin greeted me, masked only slightly by the scraggly red beard that adorned his face. At first glance he looked more like a candidate to raise a barn, but his eagle eyes were what would come in handy this morning.
Once we’d reached my favorite perch we knew instantly things had changed. Directly across the canyon, some eight hundred yards distant stood three bewildered looking fork horns, no doubt the three amigos from yesterday morning. The absence of their companions could spell only one thing, a larger buck had moved in overnight and taken control of the herd. We began scouring the canyon for the missing does and it didn’t take long to find them. On a bench to our left, overlooking the creek, lay all six. Thirty feet uphill by a rock outcropping was their guardian, a handsome four by four.
Miles and I briefly discussed our options. With the prevailing wind squarely in our faces and reasonable cover between us and our quarry, it was an easy decision to make a play on this buck. We left the nonessentials on the rock, bringing only one pair of binoculars and my tried and true rolling block rifle. Although extremely accurate, I still like to gain a position of at least one hundred fifty yards or less from any potential target. A four hundred grain ball carries a lot of knockdown power, but, cruising at only fourteen hundred feet per second out of the barrel, it tends to fall off the table past two hundred yards.
The first seventy-five yards of the stalk were the most difficult. Cover was sparse and progress was painstakingly slow. After moving cautiously though, we were able to enter a small draw that afforded complete cover. Here we were able to make up a large amount of ground quickly until, finally, all that stood between us and a clear shot was one small finger ridge. We side-hilled quietly to our left, making sure to check the wind frequently. I hoped to come out slightly uphill and within range of the entire herd. The last twenty-five yards of the stalk was accomplished on our hands and knees, which is always tricky when carrying a valuable, antique weapon. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. We eased our heads up over the rise, careful to keep a few sprigs of dried grass in front of us to break up our outline. There have been many failed stalks in my life, but this wasn’t to be one of them. Although I couldn’t see all of his does, the buck hadn’t moved an inch. I eased the weathered, steel warrior into position and peered down the sights, making sure nothing was obstructing my shooting lane. Once satisfied, I eased the hammer back into ready position and depressed the set trigger so only a breath would be necessary to fire. Now standing, the buck’s sixth sense had told him something was awry. He could neither hear us nor smell us, but still he stared intently in our direction. Unfortunately, it was too little too late on his part. When my front sight blade found the crease behind his front shoulder I cut loose with everything the century and half old rifle could muster.
It was over in seconds. A cloud of smoke erupted from the barrel and the accompanying thunder clap sent every doe instantly to her feet. The buck’s initial lunge, meant for escape, ended in a methodical tumble down the mountain. His final resting place, a stoic ponderosa pine that may have been just as old as the rifle that had taken him down. Not every day do we find ourselves so fortunate, so we eased our way over to our fallen foe with no particular haste. We wanted to make the moment last. As we admired a job well done I couldn’t help but reflect. Time may pass and the names may change, but these mountains will always be here and the cycle of life for the mule deer will continue long after we’re gone. I had found what I had come for.