Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2013 Rifle Deer Hunt: One for the Kids

This post has been on the back-burner for a few months now, one I have intended to share but I keep forgetting about!

2013 was an epic year for hunting for me.  Not only did I draw the elk tag I had waited 12 years to obtain, as well as participate in another elk hunt with a good friend; but I was also able to see my family all draw rifle deer tags as well.  I was probably most excited for my wife, who had not hunted in a couple of years.

A 2013 trail cam buck, the best buck I had seen all year.  He only showed twice.
Dayna has always had pretty good success at hunting muleys, although she has yet to harvest a large buck.  We've seen a down trend in populations and the quality of deer in recent years due to hard winters and increased predation, as well as loss of winter habitat.  It's hard to stomach the changes to the deer herds on my favorite mountain in the west.  While elk herds and quality bulls abound, deer have struggled.  Sure, during my wanderings throughout the elk hunt, as well the archery and muzzleloader hunts I saw a couple of decent bucks (nothing huge).  Typically I run on to a couple of giants during that time but this year I saw nothing that really got me excited.

Our local mountain is very hard to hunt, as are a few of the local ranges in the area.  We live in the Colorado Plateau country of southeastern Utah, which means that even in the high country the mountains are made up of slopes of pinyon pine and juniper that ascend upward to ponderosa pine slopes, which continues to rise to a "bench" of aspen that forms a belt below the rim of the top of the mountain.  From this aspen belt, the upper most reaches of the slope is comprised of thick Engleman spruce and Douglas fir/white fir that butts up against the "rim".  This rim is a line of basaltic ledges and lava rock boulders that rises nearly 500 feet (or more) upward to the top of the mountain.  The top, again in plateau country, is a giant area of  spruce.fir/aspen covered flat to rolling ground that offers little in the way of vantage points and visibility.  There are very large grass and mountain sage flats, but during hunting season one rarely sees the deer in those areas.  Elk and pronghorn, but not deer.

Hunting this country is a great challenge.  The top offers little elevation for a vantage point, the slopes are difficult as well with the thick timber and pinyon-juniper country.  To top it off, the deer prefer the thick spruce/aspen timber during the early hunts, and quickly move off to the thick pinyon-juniper country as the weather changes.  Most opportunity to see the big bucks comes back in the thick stuff, which means a lot of stealth and slow movement, and also that once a deer is located you typically have just a few seconds to glass it up and to get a shot off.

So going into the hunt I told my wife that I was very concerned that we would probably not see much for large deer this year, as my scouting had been depressing.  To top it off, the weather had the deer traveling.  This wasn't entirely bad as we knew some spots that were good for travel corridors.  These would be our focus.

Light snow in the high country
The start of the hunt seemed to prove my pessimism wrong.  Opening morning I hit a 160-170" 4x4 buck, not a monster, but a good 24-25" wide and tall deer.  I hit the buck well (I thought), but we ended up tracking him for the next 5 hours, over 3 miles easily.  The blood looked good, surely we were getting close, then the tracks turned up hill, mingled with several more, and we lost the blood entirely.  I was dejected, this only having happened to me twice in my life.  Another challenge of hunting the timber with tight shooting lanes.  It's a tough lesson to swallow.  Now I was focused on my wife as I tried to piece my confidence back together.

The next 2 days we did happen to jump a couple of smaller (20-24") 4 points in the thick spruce and pine under the rim.  Both opportunities gave my wife just seconds to shoot before the bucks bolted, not enough time for her to even shoulder her gun to get them in the scope.  Still, she stayed positive by what we were seeing, saying, "really, I'll be happy with anything but a 2-point".  Turns out later that morning she had a chance at a 25-26" 2x2, a rare find for sure, and she was going to take it but again was not afforded enough time.  As well, my wife really just wanted one of us to get a buck with the kids there, as did I.  We have had a lot of success, but the little ones had rarely been there.  They had always wanted to see this happen!

As the hunt progressed we started seeing fewer and fewer deer altogether.  Also, she had to return to work, which meant only evening hunting, and road hunting at that as we had 2 little ones that just couldn't do the hiking with the rest of us.  I knew we still had plenty of time to get her a buck!

With just 3 days left to hunt, we loaded up one evening after school and headed to a favorite late season spot.  The road in was long, and we seldom saw many deer, but we had always seemed to find bucks there in 2 different locations.  The spot the furthest back, in the head of a very deer, steep canyon had always seemed the best.

As me made our way in,  we were let down to find 2 other trucks making their way out, doing the same thing we were doing.  Because of limited time to get anywhere else, we opted to continue the drive the next 2 miles or so in to see if maybe we could just see if there was something someone had missed.  We made it all the way to the end of the road without seeing a thing, and darkness was only about 20 minutes away. 

As we made our way down the head of the canyon, just before the road wrapped around a point and back to the south, I found myself looking in an opening down below the truck on the steep side hill when right there in a big shooting lane stood 2 decent looking bucks.  As I stopped, I pulled up my glasses to see that they were both 3 points.  I told Danya, "get out slowly and shoot one of those bucks right there!".  As she did, she asked which one was better, I answered that the one on the left was a bit bigger.  As she stepped to the rim where she could look down the slope, the buck on the left bolted for thick cover.  I whispered to her, "there's only one buck there now, and you had better hurry because he's getting nervous".  As her eyes locked on him she quickly shouldered her .243 for an off-hand 60-yard shot shooting nearly straight downhill.  She fired, and i could see the buck hunch up, knowing he was hit very well.  He bolted for the same thick pocket of young Douglas fir and disappeared. 

I helped Dayna and the kids down the nearly vertical slope and my boys and I picked up a very visible blood trail.  Not 30 yards from the spot he had been standing he had went down right as he had entered the thick patch of trees.  With darkness nearly on us, the kids celebrated their mom's "awesome" accomplishment, and we took advantage of our first photo opportunity as an entire family with Dayna's nice 3-point.  The body on this buck was truly impressive, such a huge body that did not match the frame of the antlers.  Granted the slope was very steep and covered with thick bitterbrush that made it more difficult, but the size of this buck's body proved to be one of the most difficult I've had to pull out, and only 100 yards or so from the truck!  Luckily we were able to have him loaded just before dark and we were on our way home with a truck full of laughter and happiness as the kids (and I) were still letting Dayna know how great of a job she had done.

Some would laugh that this buck should have been let go, and that it's nothing special.  It will always be remembered as one of my favorite hunts as it was a big lesson builder for my kids, and it filled a need in our freezer as well.  Hunting has never been entirely about the trophy for me.  Yeah, there's some years I could care less about the meat (although it has or never will go to waste).  Some years the freezer is near full and it's not a big deal.  This time we needed one for the winter for sure.  It was a great opportunity to teach my kids why we hunt, and for them to see the composure and methodical practices that Dayna used to be successful that day.

And as for an update, I have seen a new found excitement in my 10-year-old boy towards hunting since then.  Braden made a strong effort to complete his Hunter's Education course on-line, by himself, and just a couple of weeks ago nearly aced his written test, passed his shooting test, and earned his own Hunter's Safety card!  He has high goals of taking his first buck with a bow, and he's practicing up a storm with the boy he got for his birthday.  We also look forward to applying for Arizona hunts together, where he is old enough to hunt already, as well as Utah spring turkey this year.

If I've accomplished anything as a father, I find great joy in knowing I have passed on our strong family tradition of hunting to my first born.