Written by Nick Berreth
It all started in late June when the Washington state draw results come in. I had heard results were out, and like a child on Christmas morning I eagerly punched my login and password into the computer, hoping this would be the year.
As I went down the long list of my applications, there were a lot of “Not selected,” except one that caught my eye. “Selected,” 10 points used! Yes, this was it! Ten years putting in for this particular unit and still I couldn’t believe it!
I instantly went to Google Maps and started looking at terrain for water, trails, cover, possible food sources, etc. I also started pestering all the people I knew who had spent time in the unit because I had never set foot there.
One friend suggested I call a guy he knows who frequently photographs the area. Calling a guy I’d never met and knowing he was a hunter I didn’t know if I could trust the info he would give me, but after talking to him I knew that this would not be the case. He was extremely helpful. He soon sent me photos of some of the bucks he had seen out there and map dots on where to start looking.
THAT LATE JUNE WEEKEND, I COULDN’T WAIT to get my boots on the ground in the areas Cortney had given me coordinates to. On Friday I went out and in the first 100 yards from the truck I saw a good buck with lots of trash! I couldn’t believe it, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a picture of him because I was not prepared to see a deer so soon. Hiking over a relatively large hill for the area I caught movement and instantly knew it was a buck, the second deer I had come across!
Both were freaks of nature, and by September, one I would later name Freight Train had put on several inches and was a definite target buck. In the meanwhile, I put out several cameras in the area I kept seeing him in and by mid-July I was set on shooting him.
However, two weeks went by without seeing him, so I started searching a wider area. One day I’d hiked all morning and into the afternoon. It was 3 o’clock and well over 100 degrees and I was looking for shade and running out of water, so I sat on the hot sand, ate my last snack bar and sipped what little water I had left and started glassing a water line in the distance. I spotted a buck and thought it had to be Freight Train.
I snuck in closer to try to get a better look and possibly some pictures to record his growth, but couldn’t find him. Desperate to spot him, I hoped to catch a glimpse of a horn in the thick willow cover I knew he would be bedded in. After checking several areas I slowly made my way over a small hill when suddenly a huge rain cloud came over and dumped huge raindrops, which felt amazing in the 100-degree heat. After enjoying the two or three minutes of rain I took a few steps more and crash! Two big bucks jumped out from right below me.
That’s not Freight Train, I thought. It was another giant. This can’t be real, I thought! This buck was a true swamp donkey and instantly made me change my focus to him.
In the coming weeks I would spot this super swamper several times. I’d been sharing my pics with Cortney and he wanted to get some pics of him, so we went out looking for the buck I had named Mickey. We ended up jumping him and the three-point I had first seen him with, and Cortney was able to get a couple great pics of him with what sounded like a fully automatic camera. I could hear pics being taken faster than I had ever heard.
WITH JUST THREE MORE WEEKS UNTIL opening day, I decided to give Mickey some space. But just one week out I couldn’t stay away, so back to the swamp I went, back to where I had seen him.
I snuck in, peeked over a small hill and spotted the three-point Mickey had been with weeks before. As I got my camera out to snap a couple pics, a spike that was also with the three-point stood up and acted as if he had heard something. I looked around and right below me was a giant rack. It was Mickey.
As soon as I tried to get pictures of him, the spike started to run right at me! I instantly turned to get out of there as quickly as I could, but it was no use. As I was scrambling I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but antlers coming at me. The only thing I could do was hide in the biggest sagebrush I could and it became a waiting game.
For almost an hour the bucks knew something wasn’t right, so they investigated all around me. Pinned down, I just had to wait it out, and eventually they wandered off. But with the season only a week away I was worried; had I just spooked this buck for the last time? Would he be back? All I could do was wait through what seemed like the longest week of my life.
FINALLY IT WAS OPENING DAY! I was quick to go right to the spot I had seen Mickey the week before and was met with a pleasant surprise. Across the swamp in some willows I saw a giant frame buck for just a split second. It had to be him, I thought.
I sat there all day in the 102-degree heat, waiting for the buck to reveal himself again, but he never did, leaving me disappointed. I went out the next day and didn’t see a buck, so I was even more disappointed. I thought I had pressured them too much. The next day, angry with myself, I made the 3-mile hike to the swamp Mickey had called home, and to my surprise he was there. I was so happy!
Immediately I formed a plan. As he disappeared into a thick willow patch that had sagebrush behind it, I began to make a large loop around the swamp, keeping the wind in my favor, and sneaking within 100 yards of where I had last saw him. I waited to see if the wind had changed, as the closer I got, it seemed less and less consistent. Sure of the wind I slipped off my pack and slipped on my Sneak Tec slippers and closed the distance.
Now I was right where he’d gone into the willows. I started looking around, wondering, do I just sit here all day again? Surely he would come right back out where he went in. But with my food and water supply dwindling and discouraged by the first day’s unproductive sit, I decided to be more aggressive. I looked around and saw a plastic water bottle partially buried under some sand. I thought I could put some sand in the bottle and throw it in hopes of spooking the buck out into the open, so that’s what I did.
Afterwards, I heard footsteps behind the wall of willows and knew it was a deer. It started blowing at me. At that point, we couldn’t see each other, so I decided to sneak around the other side and check it out. As I got around I found the culprit: a lone doe, confused and running back and forth, not knowing where she should go.
As I snuck past her (or so I thought) she came from behind me, ran at and then right past me! At that point I let my guard down, thinking my buck had slipped away yet again. There’s no way he’s still in here, I thought, with all that noise the doe had just made.
As I slowly made my way down to the backside of the willows where he had gone in I stepped on a small stick – crack! As I looked over my right shoulder, a huge velvet-covered rack rose up 50 yards from me. I dropped below cover, drew my bow, and just as I came back up, shaking intensely, the buck showed me nothing but mass and throat patch and in an instant took off. That was the closest I had ever been to a giant buck and I thought I’d blown it.
THE NEXT WEEK I TALKED A BUDDY I work with and have known for over 30 years into giving me another set of eyes. The following week we made the 3-mile hike in and got to our glassing point. As the sun came up, we started seeing several bucks in the swamp, and then we spotted Mickey!
The plan was to separate, so I went over to where I had seen him the week before opening day. I watched as five nice bucks went off into the willows and bedded, but not Mickey; he bedded right in the middle of his food source.
I called Jason and said, “I’ve never seen him do that!” There was no cover around him, so how would I ever put a stalk on him? As we were discussing a plan of attack, something happened and the five bucks came running from 600 yards. I asked Jason if he saw them and he said he did, “Yup! They’re coming right at me!”
I told him to hold on, and as I set the phone down, Mickey stood up. He was about 400 yards away and the other bucks were closing on me fast. As I took my arrow from my quiver, the deer started running right past me. They stopped and I ranged a nice four-point, probably 170-inch buck, at 23 yards.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Mickey coming the same way these deer had, so I intentionally scared off the buck within range. Crazy, but my eye was on Mickey.
As I waited for my 23-yard shot at Mickey, he decided to go a different route. Frantically I called Jason, and he said “He’s just over the hill from you!”
The buck was right between us, so I hurried over the hill and spotted a deer feeding my way. It was a spike and was 35 yards away. Then Mickey came over the hill feeding right towards me. As I watched him make his way closer, his huge velvet-covered horns kept drawing my eye. As he lifted and lowered his head my heart rate skyrocketed. I couldn’t even keep my breath, as I was having a meltdown.
I tried ranging him several times, and as I did that I finally got a range on a bush near him. But as I did so, the spike saw me move. Like all curious spikes seem to do, he came right over to investigate. I froze; he winded me and ran right to Mickey, who jumped right behind the bush I had ranged at 55 yards.
It was now a stand-off like before. The wise buck only showed me his neck and head. And like that, they ran off straight to my buddy. Jason took a couple pictures for me and that was the last we saw of Mickey that day.
THE NEXT DAY WE WENT OUT AND GLASSED the area. As Jason spotted Mickey, I spotted another buck that we hadn’t seen in the swamp – a huge-framed buck! As I took the spotting scope and got it on him I realized it was Freight Train. I hadn’t seen him in over a month and he’d grown over 6 inches on most all of his tines.
As we watched Mickey bed in an impossible willow patch, Jason suggested I go after Freight Train, so I did. As I was looking for him, I ran into another hunter. I was surprised because I hadn’t seen anyone out here in the three months I’d been scouting or hunting. What’s more, he was within 100 yards of Freight Train and had to have seen him.
As I thought of ways to divert the guy from my honey hole, Jason texted me to say Mickey was on the move. So I gave up on Freight Train and told the guy well I was going back the same way I’d come in, and he said he’d go another way. OK, I thought, he won’t see anything over there.
I called Jason to get directions where to go and slip in on Mickey, but as I was heading that direction I saw the guy again and he was trying to cut me off. He had to have seen Mickey, as he was heading right for him! So I gave him a few recognizable hand gestures and so did Jason, and he actually turned around. With our focus on him and with me trying to close the distance, crash! the willows exploded. Mickey had been 15 yards deep in the trees and had seen me.
I cussed my spotter but soon realized he couldn’t have known where I was and the deer was, so I would have to wait another week.
THE THIRD WEEK I WAS SOLO AND discouraged. I’d seen Mickey three of four hunting days but with little success. The last day I had to hunt that week was a Monday and I was going to head back to reality and work on Tuesday. But something was different that day: It was raining for the first time in months, since the first time I’d seen Mickey, in fact. And the wind was strong; it was steady and not like before, when it would go one way in the morning then change as the day got warmer.
Watching Mickey that morning he did something different: He bedded much earlier than normal, well over an hour before usual.
And he was by himself!
As I waited for other deer to bed, two really nice bucks walked right in front of me at 70 yards. Although tempting I had my mind set on one buck. As they all bedded I hurried across the swamp. Several does remained in it, but as I held up my Heads Up Decoy, they just looked at me and continued feeding, so I was able to get close to where I had last seen Mickey.
I then waited all day, trying to talk myself into staying. After hours of debating I realized time was flying. It was 3 o’clock, so I found a nice spot to sit. My wife called and talked me into staying. I was already committed, so I waited. An hour and a half went by with many thoughts going through my mind. I was very close to him; I could smell him. I thought about sneaking into the willows, hoping for a shot or throwing sticks in to spook him out, but that hadn’t worked in the past.
It was around 5 o’clock when I stood up to stretch and that’s when I saw him. Mickey was feeding 100 yards from me. The wind was still constant and blowing in my face at 20 mph. I took my binoculars and pack off, and grabbed my range finder and bow. He was in a small depression and between us there was a small hill, maybe just a foot taller than the rest of the ground, so I belly crawled to that.
The buck was now 60 yards broadside feeding towards me. My heart rate was going good, but mainly from the stalk. Otherwise, I was pretty calm compared to my prior encounters.
As I debated whether to let him get closer or not, he lifted his head and pinned his ears in the other direction. I worried that that spike or some other deer was coming. So at that moment I decided I wasn’t going to let my nerves catch up. I took all the arrows off my quiver, nocked my favorite, drew my bow, and put my pin on his back rib, as I knew the wind was going to blow my arrow at least a foot.
With the 60-yard pin on him, I let it go. I watched my arrow get half way and start jumping right. Just as I planned it, I connected: I saw my arrow pass through him.
He took three jumps, stopped and looked back at me, then fell over dead.
I was in disbelief! I had just made the best shot of my life, on the best buck of my life!