At the edge of a high mountain cliff, I rest against my pack-frame and glass a familiar basin for Mule deer. Glaciated valleys capped by lead colored clouds are visible in all directions. A young bull whistles at his cows as he steers them up to a bedding area near the saddle. My quads are warm from the morning’s hike up 1,500 feet of steep alpine slopes, along one very long, jagged ridge, and further away from the pressures of civilization.
Sitting here, alone among the mountains, I am free to do as I please. I can go chase after the bugling bull 300 yards below me, I can continue to scan the timber and cliffs for a Mule deer, or heck I can just take a break and pick some alpine huckleberries for breakfast. No one will know if I take a nap or tie my tag to a button buck this morning. This is the true test of a trophy hunter. When no one else is around, what do you want? There is no lying to yourself in the mountains – if you do, your actions will show you differently anyway.
I sit tight and continue scanning for that knobby horned, trophy mule deer I came here for. Whether I find one this morning or several days from now, that is what I want, and I won’t ruin my chances of getting one by going after a bull elk or some small buck. See, I am a challenge seeker, and a stubborn one at that. Stalking and killing a mature mule deer on his home turf is one of the most difficult things to do. And I am reminded of this every morning when I’m faced with another mountain to climb, basin to glass, or buck to stalk; all the while my belly grumbling for a home-cooked meal. But it is the raw exhilaration of standing here alone in the mountains, stripped of the pressures of society, facing a challenge that I have chosen, that drives my appetite for alpine bucks.
A bachelor group of bucks feeds up and across the scree slope directly below me. Three hundred feet of vertical rock elevates me from where these bucks will likely bed down. There are three bucks; all in velvet – and only one that I want to share my arrow with. I skirt the rim of the cliff until I find a safe trail around. I sweat under the weight of my pack now that the sun has burned off the morning clouds. The scree at the base of the cliff is noisy and threatens to collapse when I try to walk along it. My only option is to rock climb sideways from here on for the next 500 yards.
The stone is hot and gritty on my fingertips as I make my way along, staying 15 to 30 feet above the broken scree. My toes strain against the side of my leather boots as I press them into any crack and ledge that will support me. As I round a curve of the rock wall I immediately spot a huge set of antlers sticking out from behind a notch in the base of the cliff. I could feel my blood heat up. Unable to see the buck’s eyes, I continue to inch forward. By the time I reach 55 yards I am fully exposed against the solid rock. The buck has no clue what is happening. He chews his cud and even lays his head down for a quick snooze during the next forty-five minutes. Then something caught his attention, my scent had drifted down, he hops to his feet, tense and alert, ready to bolt. I pull back on my bowstring and rest my 50 yard pin on his vitals. Perfect release, the arrow sails true, but the buck would have none of it. He spins and lunges downhill leaving my arrow to splinter on the rocks behind where his vitals once were.
This is how the rest of this week-long hunt would go. I found two more monster bucks but didn’t get a shot at either. Through many long seasons in the mountains I have learned well the difference between the things that can and cannot be controlled, and not to beat myself up over those things which are out of my hands. But that isn’t easy to accept when things really aren’t going well. My frustration grew to the point that I could not justify continuing. I had faced my challenge head-on and pushed as hard as I could for success, and although that was not enough to kill a buck this year, that was what I would have to be content with.
Back at home I got pretty comfortable taking hot showers, eating full meals, and spending time with my family. I wasn’t sure if I would go back to the mountains this year, and if I did I figured I would take it easy. Then I started thinking, what if I brought someone along to razz me when I mess up, to share the experience, to celebrate a victory with. Maybe all I needed was to raise the stakes. I had recently hiked 40 miles along the Rouge River with Karli Clark, and she was one of the best trail partners I’ve ever had, so I instantly thought of her. She would be helping me on a stream survey in eastern Idaho soon so the possibility of stopping for a hunt on the way back to Oregon would be my chance. When I hinted to her that I wanted her to come she was elated, and so was I since I had just found the motivation I needed to push it hard for another hunt in the high-country.
With five days of archery season left Karli and I make our way up into one of my favorite alpine basins. The tail end of the season is actually my favorite time to hunt. By now the vegetation in the cliffs is bone dry so the bucks are forced down off the sidewalls and into the bottom of the basins where the feed is still lush and where they are easier to spot. The big old bucks are as fat now as they will be any other time of the year, and this I think makes them a bit less edgy and easier to stalk. On top of this the daytime temperature has mellowed out in anticipation of fall, which makes the climb to our vantage point much more enjoyable.
Just before reaching the saddle where we would camp for the night, I spot a big old 3×4 buck feeding out in a patch of Alpine Knotweed. He has knobby mountain horns and a thick body.
“Let’s get up to the saddle and set up camp, then we can plan a stalk,” I tell Karli.
“We’re so close, won’t he hear us?” She asks.
“Oh no, don’t worry about noise, rocks fall all the time up here,” I explain as I toss a rock down the hill. “Did he look?”
“Nooo,” Karli mumbles.
After dropping our heavy packs at camp, we continue up to the peak. I can’t see the buck from here but I am sure of where he had bedded down. After glassing around for other bucks we decide that I would come over the back side of the saddle and Karli would glass from here or head back to camp to watch. As I creep through the knotweed 90 yards away, the buck busts me and tears off the side of the mountain on his way out. Meeting Karli back at camp I am a bit embarrassed for rushing the stalk. If she hadn’t gotten a bit lost on the way back I’m sure she would be giving me a hard time about it.
The next morning we head up to the peak to glass. It is warm this morning and there is a steady headwind. After an hour of glassing I spot another big 3×4 buck. He swoops his wide antlers through the weeds aggressively as he walks uphill. He walks behind a boulder and immediately a big 4 point buck, followed closely by the 3×4, some flying out in a panic. The 3×4 chases him for just a bit and then they settle down and go back to feeding. I always get fired up at things like this. To know not only that a buck has big antlers, but that he can kick the tail of any other buck in the valley, makes me want him that much more.
Eventually they bed down in some short alpine fir trees, so Karli and I hike back to our packs to plan out the stalk and fill our bellies for what could possibly be a long day. The plan is for karli to stay up at the peak and keep an eye on the bucks while I circle the basin and sneak in on the bucks from a spot with good cover and a crosswind. By the time I hike all the way around the basin where I can drop down, the bucks got up to feed. Ahh! They had only been bedded down for 3 hours. I watch them as they fed over to and bed down in another patch of trees. The wind was is wrong and there are no shooting lanes this time though.
I move to a cliff edge about 200 yards above them to watch and strategize. There is absolutely no way to get close. They lay there napping and chewing their cud. Perhaps if I were to get to that point there the bucks would feed towards me when they get up. I dash around the rim of the basin before beginning my move down, and then the bucks start feeding again! By now it is 5 pm and my lungs are dry. I decide to sit at the saddle a few hundred yards above them and see if they feed up that direction. Sitting in this saddle I can see them feeding, but not coming my direction. I start to think I will not get a chance at them today and I better head back before I get stuck out here in the cliffs after dark.
Crouched among some sprawling alpine junipers, I peak over the edge. The big old 3×4 lies only 72 yards below in his bed. Stepping back I think about the shot. Sixty yards is normally my limit in the mountains. Then I look back at Karli through my binoculars, I wave in confidence. I knock an arrow, pull it back and step forward. I release the arrow and it sails high, diving into the dirt directly in front of the buck. The buck rises to his feet and stars at the ground while I reload. “That wasn’t enough slope compensation, shave another 10 yards,” I tell myself. Settling my 50 yard pin behind his shoulder I release. My arrow rips through his chest with a crunch and he tries to run off. Tossing another arrow while he walks at 80 yards I hit him a little far back and he stops. He stares at the ground, motionless. The light is fading fast and I don’t want to get stuck out here in these cliffs, but I stay just long enough to see him take another step – blood flooded from his armpit.
When I reach Karli I ask her, “what did you see though the spotting scope?”
“I could see them feed all day but then it got dark and they disappeared,” she replied.
“Are you sure you didn’t see anything. I was hoping you saw them run off and maybe the one bed back down.”
“Because I got two arrows in that big buck that’s why!”
We both lit up in excitement and, between gulping down bottles of water, began sharing all that had happened throughout the day. The moon had risen well into to sky by the time we sorted everything out and settled down. I couldn’t get over how good it felt to be here at 8000’, on an alpine saddle, a buck on the ground, and in good company. We would wait until morning to find my buck; he had walked 120 yards before taking a tumble down the hillside.