Back in the winter, I was discussing with a friend (a legendary mule deer killer) where to start hunting mulies in the high country. He suggested Utah, and from there he helped me pick a unit and a spot. I applied for the tag, thrilled to be able to start big game hunting in mid-August. Here in Ohio it’s late September before you can climb a tree and shoot a whitetail. With excitement and anticipation running wild, I waited. This was my second mule deer hunt. After taking a nice buck with a rifle in Wyoming last year- I was ready for the challenge of a Solo Back Country hunt….or so I thought. Just a few days after applying I was involved in a scuffle at work. This happens as a cop, but this time I came away with a pretty bad herniated disc. I tried to power through it, but instead, was forced to go through months of therapy, shots, and chiropractors. I opted not to have the surgery because I would miss a couple months of hunting and work- I can’t afford to miss either!
As the beginning of August rolled around, I was feeling bad but good enough to hunt. I packed my gear and left Ohio on opening day of Utah’s archery season. I was a tad worried I would miss the action. Here at home, if you miss opening day you are pretty much going to have to wait until late October to see good hunting. A short 25 hours of driving later I pulled into Salt Lake City. I needed some last minute items and googled “walmart”. I was directed to a part of town I am fairly certain I had no business being in, nevertheless, I survived and headed to the trailhead. I got to my predetermined trailhead around 1 am and camped there for the night.
The sun rose and I was stoked to get going. I opened my doors, re-organized everything and was loading up when I heard a weird scratching noise inside my 4Runner. I look in only to see a grouse perched atop my cooler. I figured it was good luck. She watched me gear up for a while before I shooed her off and began my trek.
I expected to have an issue with the thin air, I’ve never lived above 800ft elevation. The trailhead started in the low 7,000’s and continued upwards. I did alright with the haul. My pack was too heavy and I had way too much gear but that’s all part of learning. I made it to my campsite in 3.5 hours. I plopped down my pack and pitched my tent. About this time, the dizzy-nausea-headache altitude sickness hit me. It was similar to having the flu. I didn’t want to eat, drink, move – nothing. I then realized I told my wife I’d check in with her when I got to camp. I pulled out my phone and had no service. I hiked down until I got a bar. This only took 75 minutes. I called her and headed back to camp. I also filled my water jugs during the hike back up. All told, another 3 hours of hiking. During this time I passed 8 bow hunters who all had stayed the weekend and were leaving with empty packs. Not the most encouraging sight.
(Camp Exhaustion, as I so dubbed it, and, the Badlands Mirage Tent- A Backcountry must have!)
I got back to camp and decided to watch the mountain tops, tree lines, and bog in front of me for the night. I saw a moose and a doe. I hardly slept that night. Every time I closed my eyes and drifted off I would wake up short of breath and gasping. The sunrise finally came, and I made my way up another 200 feet to glass a basin I saw on google earth. I watched 15 different bucks ranging from 750 yards to a mile off. Nothing was huge but I did see a large framed 3×3 head down off the mountain toward my camp with 2 smaller bucks. I decided I’d head back down and try to find them later. I was contemplating my next move when – “BZZZZZZZZZZ” my phone and went off and I had a text from my landlord saying I had a busted pipe and my wife would be without water for a few days. I hiked back down to get service, made a few phone calls, and solved the world’s problems. Back to camp and another 3 hours was gone.
(I’m pretty sure the buck I killed is the easiest one to see in this picture)
I had a little spurt of energy, so I hiked above camp to look around. Only 100 yards into my journey, I saw a sun struck velvet rack glowing barely 50 yards away. It was very tall, but that’s all I could tell- frankly, that’s all I needed to see. I went back to camp, camo’d up and grabbed my bow. I went for a stalk on the bedded buck but he was gone. The wind was perfects and the breezy afternoon meant he didn’t hear me. So I opted to stalk through the timber. After 70 yards of light-footing, I saw a stud 3×3 with 3′ inch eye guards. He was feeding away and had no idea I was there. I stalked to 35 yards but had no shot. I waited. I took one tiny step to get a better view and jumped a small 3×3. He busted out and spooked the big guy, who ran 50 yards and went right back to munching. I again stalked him and got to 35 yards. He was feeding left to right behind some dead evergreens. I knelt down and waited. 20 minutes trickled by and I never saw him. Of course, in my altitude stupor I didn’t bring my bino’s on this stalk so I couldn’t pick apart the woods. Then I saw the small 3×3 and another buck feeding away at 100yds. I should’ve known at this time there were 3 bucks. After all, I watched them come down of the mountain. I began to stalk the 2 bucks, looked up, and was nearly 20 yards from the big 3×3. He bounded off and stopped. I guessed him at 50. I drew, aimed, and let fly. He bolted out of there like he’d been hit, only to stop a few feet later. He looked back but never gave me a second shot. He ran another 50 yards and put the wind in his favor. I stalked lower on him and saw a hiker who decided now was a good time to take a leak. I motioned him to stay back, looked back at the buck and he was gone. I checked the places he stopped- no blood. Then I saw him just ahead, already gone back to feeding. There was no way to get to him. I stepped off my shot and it was 56 yards. I had aimed for the heart and I knew I’d shot low. He was a 140-145″ buck, that’s what my goal was going in.
I wasn’t depressed at this point. It isn’t like I had climbed 4 miles to find that buck, he was barely above camp. But the sickness was setting in harder and I began to feel very bad. The sky was spinning and keeping my cookies down was my biggest goal. I crawled into my tent and curled up. I knew I wouldn’t be hunting that evening. I laid there for hours listening to hikers chattering and moose clunking through the forest. Then, I heard the familiar “Crunch, Crunch, Crunch” of a walking deer. I looked out my tent and saw the small 3×3 from earlier within 20 yards of my tent. He saw me too and bounded up above me. I decided it was time to fill a tag and get off the mountain. He was a pretty buck and I’d never killed one in velvet. I grabbed my bow and after a very short stalk had him at 20 yards broadside. He watched me knock an arrow, he watched me draw, and I watched the arrow pass right behind his shoulder halfway up. He whirled about 20 steps and fell dead 5 yards from where I arrowed him.
I was pretty excited and decided I’d get off the mountain that night. I took some pictures and was boning the buck out when a family saw me and stopped to check the deer out. It was a dad, mom, and 2 boys who were headed up the ridge to hang a stand. They offered to help me pack the buck out. The man could tell I was in pretty rough shape at this point. I told them thanks, but I could handle it. They congratulated me and carried on. I boned the deer, bagged him up and packed up camp. I was double checking to make sure I got all my trash when the family came back through and again offered to help. I was smart enough not to say no twice! I donned my Badlands Summit pack and a meat sack, the man grabbed the other sack, we strapped the deer head to the older boy’s pack (about 7 years old) and momma bear carried my bow. By the time we loaded up it was already dark. We hiked out, taking nearly 3.5 hours in the pitch black. It was very difficult for me but I was grateful to have some company to talk to. Turns out, they are all Bengals fans! Who Dey! We had some great conversation about charging moose, planned hunts, family and work. We exchanged info and parted ways at the trucks. I loaded my cooler and collapsed in my front seat. I slept there all night trying to catch my breath.
I spent the next day seeing the lake and finding some goodies for the wife and baby. It was beautiful there, but a thick haze reminded me of the fires burning a few states away.
I had a great trip to Utah and learned a lot. I learned never to leave bino’s behind on a stalk. I researched and learned how to cope with and avoid altitude sickness. I learned young mule deer taste way better than old mule deer. I was also reminded of the bond we as hunters share, and what a huge difference a kind gesture to help a fellow hunter out can make. I made some new friends and killed a buck with my bow in 2 half-abled days of hunting. It was a successful trip, albeit not what I had expected!
Lastly, I have a new found respect for those of you who hunt these mountains day after day. In all honesty, I held you guys in pretty high regard before this hunt…but now, geesh. I’m already excited to go back next year both smarter and better prepared.
Want to plan your own High Country Mule deer hunt but don’t know where to start? Email me at Jake@chasinwhitetails.com!