It’s Pete Fochesato’s name that will be forever linked with killing the 9×10 out of Winthrop last weekend, but his son deserves a place in the story, and for more reasons than one.
“Conner is a good spotter. I think I’m a good spotter, but Conner spots animals before I do,” the Mount Vernon chiropractor says of his budding 13-year-old deer hunting partner. “We would have never gotten the buck if he hadn’t spotted it.”
All involved — from the biologists at the game check to Fochesato’s butcher and his taxidermist and others — are calling their trophy one of if not the biggest Washington mule deer buck they’ve ever seen harvested.
“This is likely the largest set of antlers seen at the check station in at least the last 17 years,” notes the Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Scott Fitkin.
Comparable to the biggest muleys taken in the Rockies, it’s an animal that should make Evergreen State hunters proud of the state they hunt.
THE STORY OF THE KILL HAS TWO BEGINNINGS: a lightning strike six Julys ago and a hunter who was growing restless with the Twisp area. Pete had been hunting private ground there and doing all right, going two for five over the last half decade or so, but as he put it, he’s been itching “to drag Conner up to the real woods.”
He and two friends, Andy Moe and Jeff Morgan, from Christ the King Church in his hometown of Arlington also wanted to get together and hunt with their 13-year-old sons, Josh and Kolt.
The previous year Andy had found a new area high up in 2006′s gigantic Tripod Burn. It stretches from Tripod Peak in the west to the hills above Conconully in the east and north along the crest between the Chewuch River basin and the Salmon and Sinlahekin Creek drainages to within a mile of Canada, 175,000-plus acres of ponderosa, Douglas firs and lodgepole pine burned to varying degrees.
Just as mid-1990s wildfires boosted the deer hunting in Chelan County, over the past few summers the Tripod has really begun to produce a lot of good summer forage for western Okanogan County’s migratory herd. That plus a mild winter made for “excellent” hunting prospects this fall, according to WDFW’s preseason forecast.
Pete, Andy and Jeff and their boys arrived for the second weekend on Thursday and planned to hunt till midday Sunday. Over those days, as the weather shifted from warmer and showery to colder with a chance of flurries, they would spend a couple hours in the morning posted up and then wander around till noon. As some other hunters experienced, the deer tended to move around 10 a.m. this season. After a midday break at camp, the fathers and sons would head back out to hunt till shooting hours were up.
Though unfamiliar with the area, Pete, a transplant from northern Michigan who indeed speaks with a Yooper accent, had located a spot he wanted to hunt on Saturday afternoon, but coming in from a different angle that day it took him and Conner a little bit longer than anticipated to get there.
“It was about 10 more minutes’ walk to where I wanted to get to,” Pete recalls.
Around 5:20 p.m., as he was looking down at his GPS for direction to a waymark, Conner’s eyes were on the woods.
“All of a sudden, ‘Buck, Dad!’”
Just 80 yards away the monster was raking its incredible rack in the brush, making so much noise that perhaps it hadn’t heard the Fochesatos come up.
The pair instantly crouched down and put up their rifles, but the buck’s position only offered them a shot at its head and throat.
“Conner, do you think you can get him in the neck?” Pete whispered.
He looked over at his son. Conner’s killed a pair of spikes and a two-points but at that moment he appeared to have a touch of buck fever.
“I don’t think so” was Conner’s reply, Pete says.
An honest answer — a tree also partially blocked his view.
(Days later, as they talked about the moment, Pete told Conner he thought he’d been shaking.
“No, Dad, I couldn’t find him in my scope!” his son replied, Pete says — earlier in the day looking at far-off deer, Conner had cranked it up to nine power.)
Then, as the wind often does in these hills in the afternoon, it switched directions — out of the hunters’ favor and faces and instead blew their scent to the buck.
“That buck instantly looked up at us,” Pete says.
He quickly pulled the trigger of his Interarms .30-06, and the buck died 30 yards away.
It all transpired in just 10 to 15 seconds, he estimates.
At the deer, they were flabbergasted by its size.
“Holy crap, Dad, that’s an Outdoor Life cover!” said Conner.
“Yeah, Bubba — that’s what I call Conner — that’s probably an Outdoor Life cover,” Pete said.
They took some pictures, and then, finding themselves deep in the woods a mile and a quarter from the road and with daylight rapidly diminishing, the Fochesatos decided to leave the animal in the mountains overnight.
The skies cleared out that night and Pete says there was a hard freeze with the temperature dipping to 13 at their camp Sunday morning. When they got to work at 9, one crew cleared a path through crisscrossed timber from the road while the other cleared from the buck.
By 2 p.m. that afternoon they’d pulled the buck out of the woods. Striking camp, they made it to the game check at Winthrop’s Red Barn during the last hour it was open. Opening the doors of his pickup’s canopy, they jaw-dropped Fitkin and Jeff Heinlen, the state wildlife biologists, who in turn provided a stunning age estimate on the animal.
Rather than being some old mosshorn that had eluded hunters for years, Fitkin figures the buck was only 4 1/2, a testament to the herd’s genetics and the quality forage now in the Tripod.
At its widest the rack measures an incredible 33-plus inches.
Paul Olson of 10 Point Taxidermy in Marysville, which is mounting Pete’s buck, says it’s the biggest Washington muley he’s ever seen. While the tines aren’t overly long, he says the thick, heavy bases give it exceptional mass.
His rough, unofficial measurement put it at a green score of something like 231 gross, 227 net, Pete says.
“I’ve been told it may be a record,” he says.
“Man, that’s the biggest I’ve hung,” Pete says his butcher, John Tuss of TNT Custom Wild Game on central Camano Island, said.
“It’s all true,” confirmed his wife, Mary Tuss, yesterday. “We were shocked.”
She says the buck weighed 281 pounds with the head and hide on, 201 rolling into the cooler.
That’s a whole lot of backstrap, summer sausage and burger for the Fochesatos and their hunting partners to share out this winter.
SHARING’S WHAT THEY SEEM to like to do.
After they killed it, Pete says Conner said, “I’m glad you shot it. You deserved it.”
Pete says that having grown up in the whitetail-rich Upper Peninsula he’s killed a lot of deer over the years, though none anywhere near this size.
But he credits this one all to Conner’s sharp eyes.
“I know if we’d taken two or three more steps he’d have been gone. I don’t shoot at running deer. This is a combo deer.”
Then he adds: “I really wanted (Conner) to pull the trigger.”
Don’t worry, Dad. With those eyes and what he learned his first season here, we suspect Conner stands an excellent chance of doing just that in the Tripod in the years to come.