By Robyn of Modern Hunters
"Robyn, I've got eyes on a buck and a doe".
Nick had caught sight of them at 1,000 yards, meandering down a shrubby slope into a deep desert basin. As they dropped out of view, we scrambled down to a lower ridge that would allow us to see down. Way down. Within minutes we had our binoculars on them again as they frolicked near the rare natural palm groves shooting straight out of the arid rock and sand. It was the last weekend of rifle season and I had a buck in my sight. If only I could find a way to get to him.
Just that morning I had been feeling dejected. Hordes of raindrops were smashing into our tent walls in the pre-dawn, creating a ruckus that I couldn't sleep through. As I lay there bundled tightly in my sleeping bag I couldn't stop thinking: in the last eight weeks of hunting desert mule deer I had seen only one buck. The odds of seeing one this weekend didn't seem good.
But here was one -- a young looking forkie, oblivious to my presence on the ridge above. I grabbed my rifle and pack and snuck away over the hilltop to survey the seemingly impossible options for closing the six hundred yard gap between us. To the north, an exceptionally steep slope strewn with giant boulders and thick chaparral -- impenetrable. Same story to the west. The southern slope was unattractive too, but for different reasons. Think of a massive 600 foot tall sand dune with the grade of a black diamond ski slope. Now sprinkle it with cacti and other evil prickly plants. But I had never had the opportunity to put a stalk on a mule deer before and now was the time. Sandy, prickly slope be damned -- I was going down.
I made it to the bottom unscathed and realized that more hard work lay ahead. Two small ravines lay between the deer and me and there was no clear path forward through the bushes and boulders. Time was of the essence. I had to move quickly. Despite choosing the paths of least resistance, I had a number of noisy encounters with the local plant life. The next thing I knew Nick was calling me on the walkie-talkies that we use to communicate in our open-country hunts. The deer were stotting away. I spooked them, hard. Disappointed but unsurprised, I trudged my way back up the sand dune ski slope as the sun set. I was used to failure at this point. In fact, failure was all I knew.
A calm night gave way to a calm morning -- the last morning of my 2014 rifle season. This was it, my final chance to fill my tag this year. I wanted to head back to that same basin. "Maybe the deer would come back", I thought. And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't blow it this time.
Well before sunrise we carefully made our way down from camp to the nearest ridge overlooking the basin. I slowly and quietly set up my necessary gear. Rifle to the right, food and water near my feet, binoculars to the left, pack behind me, and spotting scope just in front. Often we will glass for hours at a time without moving, so I wanted to be ready.
It's either a testament to my sloth or Nick's speed, but I was still fiddling with the adjustments on my tripod when Nick urgently whispered that he had found the deer again through his binoculars. They were back near the big palm grove, not far from where they were the previous afternoon. I got my spotter on them. Yes, it was the forked horn buck again with a doe and a fawn.
In the quietest of whispers, Nick and I discussed the plan. How I could drop into the basin without being noticed? With no wind the noise of my movements would travel unabated, right into the giant ears of those mulies. I had learned my lesson yesterday. Could I loop around and approach from the southwest? Maybe. Should I leave now? "No", I decided. "Let's wait to see them bed". All of my experience up to this point told me that I should resist the temptation to try to stalk a deer on the move.
And wait we did. We watched the trio with intense interest and admiration as they fed and wandered in the shadows. As the hours ticked by, the deer slowly moved across the basin in our direction. We held tight. We watched. They wandered closer, and closer.
In slow motion I moved my spotter to the side and placed my rifle in front of me, resting on tall bipod legs. I wanted to be ready just in case. Given the trajectory of the deer's movement I started to realize that this shot might actually happen. All of my hard work, all of my preparation, was descending on this moment. This was not a drill.
I flipped the safety off on my rifle and slowly, painfully, slid the bolt backwards toward me. I gently moved it forward again. Click. The bolt contacted the round. Click. The round popped out of the magazine. Every tiny sound felt unacceptably loud. The round was in the chamber. This was not a drill.
I don't remember how much time passed, but the next thing I remember is Nick telling me that the buck was broadside behind a bush, just southwest of the small yucca. He could step into the open at any moment. The doe and fawn were to the north, well clear of him. "If you feel confident, take the shot".
I felt confident.
I also felt like my heart was trying desperately to escape from my chest.
He stepped out and I looked at him through my rifle scope. The crosshairs were jumping up and down in perfect rhythm. My heart was in a frenzy. I looked away from the gun and tried to breathe. In his fantastic mule deer way, the buck continued to stand there in perfect position. I returned my cheek to the rifle stock, placed my finger on the trigger, and slowly moved it backwards.
The silent basin exploded with sound. The buck looked confused. It was a clear miss. To my shock, he ran a little bit and stopped again. He was now even closer to me than before and again, perfectly broadside. I reloaded and refocused. My body had calmed, as if that first shot had taken some of my nerves with it. I fired again and connected with my target. The deer was now hobbling. I could see that he was injured and I watched desperately for him to keel over. But he went into a maze of bushes impenetrable to our eyes.
My head was spinning. I had just shot a deer, but I didn't know how well.
We watched for another few minutes to see if the buck would rejoin the doe and fawn that seemed to be waiting for him on a far hillside. Nothing. He seemed to have stopped somewhere in those bushes. I did not want to wait around in hopes that the deer would slowly die from his injuries. If he was still alive, I wanted to find him and finish the job as quickly as possible. I knew that he couldn't run particularly well, so I didn't expect he would be able to get up and over the very steep basin walls before I could down him.
I quickly gathered my pack, water, and rifle and began the same sandy descent that I had done the day before. Halfway down I let my body sink into the hillside. Physiologically, I was in a panic. Breathe. "You can do this", I coached myself. I tried to tune out the siren of worries blaring from within and focus. "Down the slope, one foot in front of the other, and don't lose track of the small yucca -- that's your landmark."
I was thankful for my practice descent the day before. I knew where I was going. As I moved swiftly westward toward the yucca, Nick's voice came over the radio.
"I think I see him. He's bedded under a bush."
My heart picked up speed again. Nick came back on and confirmed that he had located the buck. I was in the maze of bushes now, relying mostly on Nick's directions via walkie-talkie.
"Keep going southwest 100 yards."
"Even more south."
"He's directly up the hill from you. 40 yards. Now 30. Do you see him?"
30 yards! And no, I couldn't see him! Tall bushes stood between us. I needed to get him into a clearing.
Suddenly, the urgency and intensity of the moment skyrocketed further. Nick said, "He's up, he's moving, headed downhill!"
I spun around, looking, looking. He was so close and yet I still couldn't see him.
"Go north! North! Quickly!"
I was trotting, weaving in and out of bushes. I looked down and noticed prominent gashes in the still damp dirt. The prints were large and messy. I was looking at the sign of a creature bigger than me running for its life. I was literally on his trail, perhaps just 20 seconds behind him. My adrenaline surged. I felt as though I was chasing an invisible beast. I was chasing the gray ghost.
"I'm on his trail, I'm following, I'm following", I panted over the radio.
"He's in the ravine!" Nick exclaimed in return. "Coming up the other side! Coming up the other side! You should be able to see him!"
I looked up to see the buck starting to ascend the hill just in front of me. My memory of what happens next is somewhat fuzzy. All I know is that somehow I dropped to the ground, whipped open my bipod legs, and got my scope on him. This must have happened in seconds. To my relief, the buck stopped on the hillside about 100 yards from me and froze broadside. Perhaps he was looking to see what was chasing him. Perhaps he couldn't run much further.
I aimed and fired. The shot looked very good, but I couldn't be sure. The buck immediately flew behind a boulder out of view. I bolted across the ravine and up the hillside just as the buck had done a minute earlier. I looked north in the direction that the buck had disappeared behind the rock. Nothing. Nick, with his bird’s eye view, should have seen something. But he quickly reported to me that he hadn't seen the buck run anywhere after that last shot.
My eyes darted around in silence for a few seconds. Then suddenly -- "Wait, is that him, just to the west?" Nick radioed.
I spun around and a small buck lying between two rocks came into focus. There he was, not ten feet from me, the life drained from his body. This was my first deer. My memory of this moment is mostly in images and thoughts. I spoke to Nick on the radio, but I hardly remember it. According to him, I said "Holy crap, holy crap, he's so big. Holy crap. Oh my god. Holy crap. I did it." I laugh every time he does this impression of me, particularly because I shot a fairly small mule deer all things considered. But in that moment I was truly overwhelmed, suspended in partial disbelief that this creature that always looked like a tiny speck far away on the landscape was now here with me, up close and personal.
I was so grateful that his suffering had ended. The whole ordeal, from first shot to last, took perhaps only twenty minutes. He was beautiful. I cried briefly, then went over to examine my first deer more closely. His hair was coarse to the touch and his antlers small and pointy. His head was heavy, and he smelled faintly like I remember horses smelling. For months I had been dreaming of harvesting a tasty forkie -- a younger buck with more tender meat than the big monsters that many hunters love to chase -- and here I had one in my hands. I could hardly process all that had just happened.
After snapping a few photos, the real work began. I started skinning while Nick hurried to pack up camp and hike down to join me in the basin. I, in true first-timer fashion, did a pretty amateur job of breaking down the deer in the field. I was thankful for the jackrabbits I had cleaned previously that provided at least some training. As I worked, I was able to see why this buck didn't go down right away. My first hit on him penetrated just behind the front leg, exactly where I wanted it to. However, it exited slightly back and low in his abdomen on the other side (thankfully missing his stomach). It was a single lung shot, which was undoubtedly the result of me being at much higher elevation than the deer when I first shot him. I didn't fully account for the angular travel of my bullet -- a mistake that I truly regret. The last shot, the one that downed him within ten feet, was a deadly neck shot.
We harvested the meat and organs as quickly as we could go. After the initial stages of deconstruction, I transitioned to deboning the quarters while Nick worked on removing the skull plate. The midday sun was rising along with the temperatures. I wanted to honor and respect this wonderful young buck by preserving his flesh at the highest possible quality. There was no time to rest.
Semi-frantically, we stuffed our backpacks to the brim with deer and gear and embarked on what would turn out to be the most grueling hike of my life. There was only one way to go: up. Three and a half miles of straight elevation gain stood between the trailhead and us. We navigated back through the maze of bushes and began the journey with an exceptionally steep climb back out of the basin. Two steps forward, one step back -- sliding -- losing footing on the sandy terrain. Note to self: next year do more squats.
I pushed my body hard to press on with a pack that weighed a little more than half as much as I do. We tried to motivate each other to keep moving and keep breaks short. As we neared the final stretch of our hike, we began to sing silly songs to take our mind off of the burning pain in our legs and hips.
"Wind and rain and sun and heat -- we don't care we just want meat! Sound off, 1, 2! Sound off, 3, 4!"
When I finally spotted the thick, rusty gate marking the end of the trail I let out a tired shout of joy. Just beyond was the car and the coolers that we'd been pushing to get to.
I ended up staying awake for almost 24 hours straight that day. By the time we drove home and set up our kitchen for do-it-yourself butchering it was already 8pm. I didn't want to sleep until I had all of my precious meat was cleaned, trimmed, vacuum sealed, and resting safely in my freezer. After finishing the task and cleaning up I finally dragged myself to bed at 5am, the emotions and images of the day still churning in my head. I was worn ragged. But two days later when I cooked up my first ever venison burger, killed, butchered, and prepared 100% by me, there was no doubt in my mind that every minute of exhaustion and every moment of soreness was worth it.
Even after the last bite of meat has been eaten, this hunt will continue to nourish me for years to come. I am what you could call an "adult-onset hunter". I'm in my late 20's and had never touched a firearm or bow until about five years ago. I didn't go on my first hunt (jackrabbit) until about three years ago. This first deer is a milestone I will never forget. I am so grateful for this animal and for the public land from which I harvested him. I am so grateful for the skills I am learning and the perspective I am gaining. I am continually excited by the challenge of becoming a hunter. My only wish is that I hadn't waited so long.
Robyn is a BHA member, Ph.D student, and co-founder of modern-hunters.com. She lives in Southern California.