By Nick, co-founder of Modern Hunters.
My girlfriend Robyn and I had gone nine long weekends in a row without seeing deer. That included all of our pre-season scouting and all of bow season. Talk about disheartening. Not seeing any animal of the species we were after significantly reduced our motivation to hunt. While it was our first attempt at hunting deer, we expected that we'd at least see something. Perhaps we just weren't cut out for this, or perhaps the desert surrounding where we live just didn't have any real deer. Maybe someone just came along with a deer hoof imprinting tool and a bag of fresh scat, sprinkling both around in healthy doses for us to follow around aimlessly. Yeah... we just weren't cutting it. Quitting was on the mind.
Then, one weekend shortly after upgrading our optics and spotting strategy, we started to see deer. First we saw a lone doe, then we realized that she was being followed by a group of three others. We were elated! Finally, some deer. And, where there are does, there must certainly be bucks, right? We didn't have a doe tag, so while finding them produced excitement and watching them produced awe at their grace, does alone wouldn't cut it. So we waited for the bucks. And we waited.
That weekend we never did see any bucks, but our doe sighting allowed us to prepare for the next weekend with renewed vigor. We might just get a deer our first year out after all!
The next week found us in the same spot, glassing again for a legal buck. This time I headed out in the middle of the week with my friend David. It was his first time ever out hunting and I was determined to find a deer to prove myself a moderately capable hunter to him. Even if I hadn't gotten a deer yet, at least I could find one to show him and partially redeem my many weekends of effort. As we got up at the crack of dawn -- to David's mild chagrin as he hadn't slept well the previous night -- we settled in for a few hours of glassing on our favorite ridge. The hours passed. Six in the morning became seven, which in turn gave way to eight. "Damn," I thought, "this is not looking very promising." Another hour passed.
Then, at nine in the morning, it happened. I slowly slid my binocular view down into a gully around a mile and a half away that I had glassed multiple times already that morning and I caught a glint of light. It was a pair of antlers bobbing into and out of the sun. Attached to those antlers was the first buck I spotted all season, and boy was he big. I keyed David into his location, and he agreed: this deer was a dandy. While we were a bit surprised that the animal was just ambling along at such a late hour, we didn't really care too much about the oddity... all that was important was following the deer into his bedding spot, and then plotting my attack. Since this was rifle season, all I would need to do would be to get within 200 yards, which should have been a piece of cake.
And then we lost him.
He had gone into a drainage, still ambling slowly along, and had never come out along the path we expected him to take. Yet, we couldn't be sure that he had bedded in that drainage, as there were a number of other paths he could have taken that we didn't have any vantage into. He could have been anywhere. So, not wanting to blow him out of the territory -- and against David's initial wishes -- I decided that we had to stay put and keep glassing. Scrambling down to where we thought the buck was would have had a low-probability of success. So we sat, and we sat. The rest of the day passed and we never did see that buck again, nor any other deer for that matter. It was time for David to go home and for Robyn to take his spot, so we packed up and hiked out to the road, where we were supposed to drive down the dirt track to meet Robyn.
A tidbit of advice as an aside: if the little buzzer in your car that is supposed to go on when you leave your lights on is broken, fix it. David and I got back to the car, only to find it fully dead, I having left the lights on. It was going nowhere and neither were we; Robyn would have to drive David's little Miata convertible up some rugged dirt track to come give us a jump and give David a way home. Being the adventurous spirit she is, she took it in stride, tackled the ruts and potholes adroitly, and soon arrived with the Miata, top down and tunes blaring.
Long story short, we were able to jump our car successfully and Robyn and I were able to rapid-march out to our camping spot before night fell. Morning was only hours away at this point, and I felt certain that my first deer was similarly close at hand.
Upon awakening just before dawn, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I felt so confident that the morning held my long-planned-for deer hunting success. Meat would soon be in the freezer, and I could soon consider myself successful -- no longer the failure that I had been just a few weeks before.
As the stars faded into the brilliant orange of sunrise, I had my eyes fixed on the same areas that we saw the buck before. I looked, and I looked. Again the hours passed. I became antsy. "Where the hell is that buck?" I wondered. I shifted seating positions: my left foot was falling asleep. This was taking forever... it was again nine in the morning and still no buck. As is very common when one spends hours upon hours doing something that may turn out to be fruitless, I began to let my mind wander. “Was this hunting thing really worth it?” It was so full of effort, of hope, of excitement, and of failure. I was beginning to get the first inkling of dread. This was the last weekend of the season and my mind raced. "If I don't get a buck today, I'm going a whole year without venison. That would really suck."
Finally, joyously, at 9:30AM Robyn saw him. This time she caught him as he was again ambling along, sniffing wildly into the air. I soon found out why. The buck was on the trail of a doe. It seemed that the rut might be beginning. Soon he connected with the doe that had caught his attention, and followed her along. Robyn and I traced this pair for a few hundred meters before they met up with another trio of does. Then four more does joined. It was a veritable deer party! We spied on the party for the next half an hour, watching them until they finally bedded. And absurdly enough, they bedded in nearly the wide open, in the shade provided by some thigh-high bushes. Though we thought it weird, we didn't give the oddity much extra thought.
All that mattered: we saw a buck and we saw where he was bedded. Game on!
We already had a plan in place for the stalk. Robyn would stay in our spotting location and keep an eye on the deer. I would descend the five hundred vertical feet and travel the mile and a half or so to get close to where the deer were bedded, glancing at Robyn with my binoculars to pick out any hand-signals she might want to send me. Should I be careful because the deer got up? She would be waiving her orange hat over her head. Did the deer go north? She would flash her hat to the north. Was everything still OK? She'd have both arms out to the side. We were set.
Or so we thought.
My adrenaline was high and I was raring to go. I quickly put on my pack, strapped Robyn's 6.5x binoculars to my chest (as I was using 15x binos that I couldn't hand hold), grabbed the rifle, and started off. And bam, I met the first problem. We hadn't really looked for a good path down from our spotting location in the direction of the deer. It turned out that to descend most quickly, I had to play a game of hop scotch. That is, hop scotch across giant boulders with yawning gaps in between that could swallow me whole. Here my adrenaline probably got the best of me. The deer was just sitting there and I wanted to get to him, quickly. So hop scotch I did, sometimes doing some hopping, sometimes some butt-sliding, some times some four-limb gap-spanning. I dropped five hundred vertical feet in certainly less than five hundred linear ones. Looking back on it, it was pretty exciting... and pretty dumb. First lesson: pre-plan a safe way to get to your quarry that involves minimal risk. Your adrenaline addled
brain won't be capable of making the best decisions once the hunt is truly on.
After a bit of butt-rash and a few scrapes on my plastic rifle stock, I made it down into the general area the deer were bedded, and only had one ridge to crest before I could have a view of them. I worked slowly and methodically, looking towards Robyn every ten minutes or so to make sure that the game was on. Unfortunately, communicating with her was much more difficult than I anticipated. I couldn't see Robyn at all during my death-defying drop (and vice-a-versa, a fact which instilled no small amount of worry in her) and when I finally was able to spot her again, one thing was clear. She was way too far away. With her 6.5x zoom binoculars, it was hard to even pick out her bright orange hat, much less her body motions. I could *just* make them out if I strained my eyes enough, but I still had half a mile to go.
So, with nothing I could really do to increase my ability to see her communication, I plodded along, quietly creeping towards my destination. At this point I noticed the heat: we were in the desert and I had dropped in elevation, exerting quite an amount of energy in the process. It was warmer down here, and I was sweating. A lot.
I slurped on my water bladder straw from my backpack and as I did so, my stomach lurched: there was probably only half of a liter left in it. I had forgotten to top it off that morning. Usually at three liters, it was sitting at one sixth capacity. That meant trouble. But again, nothing I could do about it now... and the deer were waiting.
I painstakingly walked up the ridge that would offer me vantage of the deer, crouching down as much as I could once I approached the top to prevent skylining myself. Inching my way over the top, I looked for the deer where I remembered them bedded.
"Where the hell are they?" I wondered. Maybe I had gotten disoriented and was looking in the wrong spot. Certainly things looked different down here than they had looked up top... but I had made mental markers of obvious terrain features. I was in the right spot, and the deer weren't. "Crap, they must have moved. Maybe Robyn can signal where they moved to." So I scanned up to our glassing spot, waving my arms wildly with the hope of getting Robyn's attention. "Please. Please. Please! Robyn, show me where they are!" She didn't seem to see me at first. Then she started moving, gesticulating in some way that I couldn't make out. "Why can't she just move more clearly?! Doesn't she know that I need to find the deer?" I was exasperated, exhausted, and unnerved: the deer could be right by me, but I couldn't understand Robyn's communications.
I looked around for a little bit, but couldn't see any sign of anything. And I still couldn't make out Robyn's signals... she was just too small, a dot on the horizon at that point. Robyn was doing exactly what we had discussed, I just couldn't see her clearly. Though she had seen the deer move out of position only half an hour after I had left, there was no way for her to adequately communicate this to me from her distance. Those little bushes they had bedded under hadn't provided shade for very long, and she had been frantically trying to signal this, to no avail.
And then there was the thirst; I didn't have much water left and I had to climb all the way back up to our camp spot. And it was getting hotter. And hotter.
Knowing that turning back would mean the end of the season and a year without venison in the freezer, I did the only thing I could do: I turned back. Finding an easier -- though still grueling -- way back up the cliff, I trudged along. All the while, my mind raced with frustrated thoughts. I had blown the season because I couldn't communicate with Robyn. Why did the deer just up and move, aren't they supposed to stay bedded all day? That is what I had read. Why did I suck at this so much? Then with one mile and the nearly five hundred vertical feet to go, I ran out of water. "One step in front of the other," I told myself. "Take it slow and easy, don't over-exert yourself." I didn't want to risk heat-exhaustion. I had been hiking and backpacking in extreme heat long enough to know the very real danger of my situation.
With one foot in front of the other, and no small degree of suffering, I made it back up to Robyn, our camp, and water, thoroughly exhausted and noticeably dehydrated. Fortunately, my frustration and dejection had drained alongside my energy. I had made mistakes, I had ultimately blown my one chance at success the whole season. But, on the bright side, I had moved in on a big buck! I had seen deer! The whole season wasn't a failure, as we had both learned a massive amount. The suffering on the hike back to camp was curative; it helped change my outlook. Sure I wouldn't have venison that year, but look at all we had accomplished. We were hooked.
From that experience I took away some important lessons. First, don't jeopardize your safety. There is a lot of rugged terrain in the backcountry, and no deer is worth significant injury or death. Plot your stalk appropriately. Secondly, always be sure you have enough water to last the duration of your stalk. I have no idea what I would have done if the deer had actually still been there and I had connected with a good shot. I might have been looking at a handful of hours before Robyn could get down to me with more water. Dehydration would have certainly loomed. Third, I learned that sometimes mule deer break all the rules. These deer were moving happily about all through the heat of the day. Finally, though hand-signals might suffice when your spotter is close by, they won't cut it over long distances unless the stalker is carrying high-powered optics. To rectify this problem, we purchased a set of walkie-talkies that will enable much more clear communication should we find ourselves in a similar situation.
Most importantly, I took away the lesson that we could find deer and that we could move in on them. We could be deer hunters after all. And we set off with renewed vigor to plan for our second season.