I’m still wondering where I fall on the spectrum after tagging my biggest-antlered buck yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful to have harvested the deer, a gift from the wild that I’m thankful for. I vowed to it I would always protect and expand its herd and habitat. But prone to overthinking things like I am, this question has vexed me.
I killed the four-by-five muley (five-by-six counting eyeguards) in midafternoon on Washington’s opening day of rifle deer season after sitting in one spot for five hours.
Five … very … long … hours.
It was only my second stop of the day on that steep forested slope too.
I sat in the first one for about two and a half hours before slowly moving a couple hundred yards over and sitting. And sitting.
And sitting some more.
In past seasons I would have hiked 8 miles all the hell over by that time of day; or checked on a half-dozen favorite spots and seen a dozen or more deer; or been up the mountain for the morning, back to camp for a sandwich and coffee at lunch, and back at it again for the late shift.
Yes, there were stops along the way to getting to my spots, but I essentially planted my butt cheeks in all of two places this year – a rocky perch in the trees and a spot in the dirt underneath the bushy lower branches of a Doug fir.
Lemme tell you, seven and a half hours is a long damn time to do not much of much. Should have brought the book I was reading, Duck Season, which it turns out is more about the food of Gascony than hunting quackers.
Instead I sat there in the woods and texted Amy; watched as two does and a fawn all but galloped off the mountain; took some fruity nature pics; texted a long morning update to a good friend who used to be part of our Deer Camp; checked soccer scores; watched geese honk their way past, high overhead; moved several hundred feet; watched a doe and two fawns glide past above me right to left; had some snacks; took a piss; drank some coffee to stay awake; watched another doe go the other way; ate my lunch; took some more fruity nature pics; drank the rest of the coffee to stay awake; considered going for a midday walk to glass a basin; decided against it; drank a full water bottle; clipped the limbs of a dead tree to make a better shooting rest; thought again about going for that walk; and wondered if I had totally and utterly blown my opener on two sits, wasting the best day of the entire season.
What the hell sort of deer hunter had I become?!?!
Apparently a couch potato. No wonder I hadn’t tagged any bucks since 2015.
After getting a nice four-point that year I thought I’d turned the corner. I’d seen a ridiculous number of bucks, at least for me, and killed what I believe to be the same one I’d taken a shot at seven days earlier on opening weekend. I was a Big Hunter now, three in seven years, putting me above average for general season Washington riflemen.
Then I whiffed four years in a row and sunk back to where I was before.
A below-average Washington deer hunter.
And somehow sitting on my bum all of opening day was supposed to change my luck?!?
I AM MY OWN HARSHEST CRITIC, which ensures that my head never gets too bloated.
My 2020 buck also represents the culmination of those I’ve now taken on that mountain, lessons learned over that time and a refining of my hunting tactics.
Despite the care I take to hunt as scent-free as possible and watching where I walk in the woods so I don’t set off too many noise-making “land mines,” I have figured out that I’m really bad at reading the wind and only so-so at sneaking around, not a good combination, so I really haven’t gotten into spotting and stalking muleys.
My .308 may be known for its accuracy, but I also have less than zero interest in taking long-range shots and possibly losing an animal or just failing to find it, so instead I’ve learned to wait for bucks to come to me.
This will come as no surprise to fellow hunters, but I’ve found deer typically and predictably move several times a day – it may vary where you hunt, but where I do it’s right before shooting hours begin; around 9 a.m.; sometimes around 11 or 12; and again at 3 p.m. or so.
I have far, far more deer encounters by getting to a spot before those movement times, sitting down, shutting up and letting the woods settle down again than I do bumbling around.
One of my aforementioned bucks was a 9 a.m. deer, and the one I believe I had two run-ins with in 2015 was both a 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. muley. A third also moved in midafternoon, as did the fourth.
So it went with this latest buck.
One of the sheer joys of deer hunting for me is immersing myself in Mother Nature at the peak of her glory. Fall really is the best season of all. I love it.
As I take in the beauty of clouds passing over peaks and valleys, relax to the sighing of the pines and the clattering of leaves as summer yields to winter, and all the unique smells trigger memories of hunts past, I’m also listening for clues of what else might be in the woods. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard deer before I’ve seen them. For how I hunt, I actually think my ears are more important than my eyes.
The sheer volume of signals can be tough to sort out, though, and it seems like 99 percent can be attributed to the busywork of squirrels and chipmunks, the pecking of woodpeckers, flickers and nuthatches and the fussings of grouse.
Grouse are the absolute worst.
Several years ago now, as daylight dwindled and I was a bit further back than I wanted to be so late, a blue had me absolutely frozen for half an hour or more in anticipation that a buck was about to come up the mountain to me. Eventually I realized the rustling was coming from partway up a tree below my position and not ground level, where I’ve discovered deer are more commonly found.
After about five hours in that one spot last month I’d heard enough non-bird and non-bushytail sounds – a noise I can only describe as a “brushing,” occasional loud crack and an odd knock – to convince myself something big and not a fellow hunter might be just below me and screened by trees …
… And it was just as easy to convince myself I’d been a fool to expect a deer to be today where I’d seen them pass in the distant past.
So I gave it a little more time because the sun angle and my phone showed me it was one of those deer movement periods I target.
There came the sound of something large slowly moving through dry bushes. My first thought was grouse feeding back upslope, but after what felt like forever I finally saw antlers, then the body of a buck within 60 to 80 yards.
It was browsing its way up the slope, giving me time to count antler points several times over to make sure it had the requisite three tines on at least one side. I didn’t want to have to call Sgt. Christensen and self-report a too-small buck, but with forks front and back there was no denying this one had enough points.
The question was, would I get a clear shot? Even as the part of the slope the deer was climbing was open, there was enough branches between us that I needed to wait for the right moment.
When that came, I fired.
Ahem, the best thing that can be said about my shooting that afternoon was that at least I’d had the foresight several years ago to switch to all-copper Barnes TTSXs because otherwise there would have been lead fragments all over the gut cavity.
I’d used lead bullets since I began hunting deer, but my wife Amy asked me to change. When Buzz Ramsey, the noted Northwest angler who spends his falls chasing bucks and bulls across Oregon, Washington and Idaho, mentioned to me that he used Barnes, it was all the easier.
I’ll admit my 2020 buck wasn’t my biggest bodied one, but I was grateful for all the help I got from the boys back at camp who helped me pull it out of the woods. We hung and skinned the deer, and had its heart as hors d’oeuvres the next day.
With a quick turn around from Bellevue’s Golden Steer Meats – full disclosure: they’re one of our advertisers; I paid full price in cash – the family and I have been gnawing on delicious venison while I eagerly await the Euro mount one of my hunting partners is doing for me.
THINKING BACK ON THE HUNT and my original quandary above – lazy, lucky or learned? –in terms of ground covered I was definitely lazy, and I feel guilty about that on multiple levels. Getting a buck shouldn’t be easy. It’s hunting, not cozying up to a vending machine.
I didn’t get to check on my favorite spots on the mountain – The Pinecone Pile, The Aspen, The Corner, The Saddle, The Bowl, The Slope That Has No @$%@$ Reason To Be So $%@$# Steep, The Old Twins – places I have longterm relationships with. Seeing those each fall is important to me.
By tagging out early I missed out on hunting the coveted final four days of a season that all but knocked on Halloween’s door because it started so late. I really, really had been looking forward to that. Salivating, in fact.
I didn’t have to shoot, but being more of a meat hunter I’m not passing up a chance to fill the freezer either. As much as I love fall, the drive, Deer Camp and getting together with the guys, I’ve got a job to do for my family.
And that the wind was in my favor and a buck just happened to walk through my overall 100-yard-wide shooting window were both pretty damn lucky.
But the ground I chose to put myself in for an extended sitting session was where I’d taken bucks in the past, and this year’s makes three midafternoon tagouts in a row. I may be a slow learner but I think I’m on to something.
I’ll take that and luck any day, but the lazy thing does bother me.