Mountain bucks – the old knobby-horned, sway-backed, grey-faced bruisers – make their way into the dreams of hunters with regularity. Here they stand on jagged alpine ridges, holding their antlers to the sky while squinting into oncoming mountain storms, they fill their bellies with tender floral shoots all through the day, and they lay about under white-bark pine trees with their heavy-antlered heads bobbing in mid-day slumber. This is exactly how I dream of them. And this is exactly what I witness every year in Oregon’s pristine high-country.
By the third week of archery season, when most hunters were racing for the good elk hunting areas, I was climbing a mountain with my friend Nick Best. We were headed into one of my sweetest mule deer honey-holes. It is not an easy place to access – let alone hunt. But with a good set of legs and a mind for decoding buck behavior, it’s a hunt that can produce big deer every year.
On our backs we carried food, water, shelter, and tools for the killing; all this in quantity to last 4 or more days. It would be Nick’s first time on this sort of hunt, and while walking behind him I could see his pack nearly splitting at the seams. What luxuries he had in there I will never know.
Our glassing post was only 1.9 miles within the wilderness boundary but over 3,100 ft above what I call “ground level”. You always know where ground level is – even at night – for this is where the roar of fresh water rises, where campfires burn, and where I stare during the cold, restless nights.
The sun rose the first morning to find us crouched behind spotting scopes tediously scanning the basin below. It was a slow morning. Our fingers stung as we pressed them against the cold metal of our tripods. By 10 am we began to wear down, and wondered if we shouldn’t just crawl back into our mummy bags to warm up. Doing so would surely eliminate any hope of finding a buck though, so we held our posts. Getting desperate I started looking in the real nasty stuff- the cliffy, crumbly, hoof busting stuff no animal with any common sense would go. Mid-scan an impulse ripped through my body and my hands locked up the scope. I must have seen something – now where is it? Half way behind a tree stood a dream buck. Only half his face and one massive, knobby antler stuck out. The krumholtz trees were thick though, and after only a few minutes he disappeared.
After repositioning a couple hundred yards up the ridge, I glanced at a new area: two 3×4 bucks were feeding right up the ridge we were on. Nick picked them up in the scope quickly while I tried to relocate the dreamer buck across the basin. I couldn’t find him. Shortly after, the two bucks bedded down and we decided Nick would stalk in on them. He made his way along the ridge very quickly and came up behind them to 12 yards. It was then he realized they were not what he was after. Shooting one of these may have hindered our efforts to get the really big one on the other side of the basin. Both deer walked.
The next two mornings I relocated that monster buck feeding out in the open. I could see now that he had 12 points on one side and 13 on the other. He fed late into the morning then walked clear across the basin to his “secret” bedding spot – the same one I spotted him at that first morning. He did this each morning, but he never presented a good opportunity to stalk. Then on the third day he gave me a chance. He fed uphill, amongst alpine huckleberry and small fir trees, with two other bucks. I circled above to ambush him on a brushy bench. I got to only 80 yards away when one of the other bucks busted out of the brush next to me. They all went for the pass, I went back to ground level.
I returned three nights later – looking for nothing but the same dream buck. I made the climb by moonlight and snatched two quick hours of sleep before it was time to start glassing for the morning. Not 20 minutes after the sun breached the horizon I spotted him feeding in out in the knotweed with the same leisure as before. He fed until almost 10 am, then, while I was looking away, he disappeared. Talk about anxiety. I glassed for three more hours and didn’t spot him once. I knew his weakness, though: he nearly always bedded in the same spot after he was done feeding for the morning.
I hauled my pack across the basin and up the back side of the ridge he was sure to be on. I eased over the top of the ridge and crept down to his favorite patch of trees. Sitting at the upper edge of these trees I could glass the whole basin. No buck to be seen. Even after cranking up the magnification on my scope and gridding out the whole basin I didn’t find him. Then, well after an hour had passed a doe stood up 60 yards away. Please don’t judge me. She stretched her legs and gazed off to the right where a massive set of horns were weaving through the twisted trees. His antlers forked out in all directions but he was walking in only one; to the left, passing directly below me. I knocked an arrow while lifting my bow from the dirt, drew back, squared up my scratched-up 50 yard pin and released. The arrow crunched down through his ribcage and opened his heart to the rest of his organs. He ran and jumped over a bent tree, and when his feet hit the ground on the other side his legs gave out sending him into a mess of somersaults down the shale slide.
The crashing of hooves and stones eventually settled, leaving only the sound of my heavy heartbeat and rushed breathing. The hunt had climaxed and my dream buck lay below – the white of his belly pointed towards the sky.
Walking up to this old buck was something I will never forget. His body was enormous and overburdened with fat and his antlers were littered with trashy points. He was top-dog on this mountain, and I had just taken him down. As I caped him out at 7,700’ elevation, dark thunder clouds followed by a gnarly hailstorm overcame the alpine basin – and a deep primal feeling of accomplishment overtook me.