As hunters, we have the unique opportunity to experience moments that very few can relate to. Moments of gratitude, respect, despair, defeat, and raw, unfiltered emotions can only be tapped into while pushing yourself to the limits in the pursuit of wild game. This is a story about just that.
2020 was turning out to be a doozy of a year. The world as we knew it was undergoing a major paradigm shift in a time of peril from COVID-19. As we all adjusted our lifestyles, canceled plans, and waited to see what the future might hold, it looked like it might be a tough year for public land hunters.
During the long nights of March, my hunting buddies and I stared at our OnX apps, planning our hunts for the year. Coming off an incredible season that led to our first video submission to the Full Draw Film Tour ("Made for Mooney"), and eventually leading to the viewers choice award for the entire Film Tour, it seemed like we had a lot riding on our shoulders to keep the momentum going. The long nights paid off, and with a solid plan for the tag applications, our hopes were high for the draw results.
That lasted all of about ten days.
Shortly after we submitted our tags, Brent McGirr and Quinn Kline (my hunting buddies) received a call from an up-and-coming TV show "Hunt Warz" - their application had been selected and they would be hunting the Gila for giant New Mexico bulls come September on the first season of the show. As ecstatic as I was for them, I couldn't help but think, "I'm going to have to come up with a new plan."
Fast forward a few months. After months of preparation and patiently awaiting the left-over lists to be published, I was back to square one. I was staring at my ONX app and reviewing the left-over list looking for a diamond in the rough. Scrolling through, I happened upon a unit close to home that offered a remote high alpine setting, but it meant I would be hunting during the muzzleloader season. I didn't think anything of it as I assumed my bow was a lesser weapon (in Colorado you can hunt with a lesser weapon during rifle seasons). With that in mind, I snatched the tag as a smile stretched across my face.
When that little ray of sunshine from the Colorado Department of Wildlife found its way into my mailbox, I quickly started my final preparations for the hunt. After a quick archery trip with the boys, we hugged and parted ways as they were headed out to New Mexico with three days until the start of my Muzzleloader season. I quickly checked my gear once I got home and reviewed the hunting regulations for the unit. Remember when I said you could hunt with a lesser weapon during rifle seasons? Well, that's not the case when you hold a muzzleloader tag. My jaw dropped as I frantically scanned the regulations over and over. Finally, with a sigh, I let out a, "Well S***! Now what?"
I was committed to the tag with no way to get another Mule Deer license for the year, so I did what any logical person would. I drove straight to Scheels, and with a little help from a sales associate, I walked out with everything I needed to use a muzzleloader. I spent that night watching YouTube videos on how to load, unload, shoot, not panic and clean this, in my opinion, useless weapon. The next day I spent at the range practicing and watching YouTube. Needless to say, I received a lot of weird looks as I fumbled between the videos and shots.
With the boom stick shooting accurate groups up to 125 yards, my confidence in the weapon was through the roof. Hahaha, no it wasn't. Let's be honest, I was holding a gun that technically I have shot my bow further than. All I could think was this fit the way 2020 had progressed so far.
With my scouting days spent trying to learn how to shoot this thing, I rolled down the last 4 miles of road with fewer than 4 hours before dark the day before the season opener. Hauling a** up the two-track, I slammed on my breaks as I looked up less than 200 yards and spotted a giant bull elk with a goofy-looking G1. I couldn't help but think that I might get lucky and find a muley buck to chase for the next 12 days.
E-scouting is essential when hunting new units and even ones you've hunted your whole life, but there isn't an app in the world yet that can truly substitute for good, old-fashioned boots on the ground scouting, let alone prepare you for the reality of the landscape. As I stepped out of my truck at the trailhead, I stared up at the vast peaks surrounding me, some of which exceeded 13,000 feet, I could not help but get lost in the beauty around me. With little time to scout before the hunt, I planned to spend the first few days getting a lay of the land and taking inventory of the mule deer calling the mountain cliffs home. With less than 45 minutes before dark, the brief alpine storm that soaked the valley parted ways just enough for some quick glassing. Scanning the valley walls, I spotted two bucks that immediately went to the top of my hit list.
As I watched the deer for the night, taking in where they were bedded, I made my game plan for the following day. The deer were staying around the 12,500 feet elevation band, roughly 3 miles from my camp and about a 2,500-foot gain from my base. With the landscapes, plans, and deer wandering in my thoughts, sleep was hard to find. Hours before daylight, with a heavy pack and bitter cold nipping at my face, I trudged on through the darkness until I reached my first checkpoint. As dawn came over the mountain top, sunlight light danced off the ripples from the creek in the valley below, and the birds came alive; but nothing stirred. There wasn't a Mule Deer anywhere. Scanning my OnX and making sure I was right where I needed to be, I slowly made my way through the mountainside, searching where they might be hiding. Much to my dismay, the deer from the day before were nowhere to be found. The following five days, I scratched my head, trying to re-locate the target bucks with little idea of where they may have gone. After five days of waking up, Glassing – Hiking – Glassing – Hiking – Eating – Glassing, and Hiking, I was exhausted with a little over 60 miles logged in this valley. As I lay in my sleeping bag that Tuesday night, I would give it until Thursday morning before I moved to a different valley. With that thought, I prepared myself for the next day's hike back to the trail head.
As I hiked out, still searching the hills, today marked six days since I had last spotted my target bucks. That fact sealed my decision to move my hunting area the following morning. Knowing it would take me about 4 hours to get to my new area, I spent Thursday morning lazily drinking coffee and watching the valley sides from the trailhead, trying to turn up a shooter buck before I bailed to a new area for the last few days of the season. As I combed the area, I spotted movement on the ridgeline just shy of 13,000 feet, roughly 2 miles from my camp. It did not take long for me to recognize the big, typical frame and heavy non-typical frame of the two bucks I searched for. As I spilled hot coffee on myself in shock, one thing crossed my mind, GAME ON!
It took me most of the morning to cut the distance to less than 200 yards from where I last saw the bucks. Just when I thought luck was on my side, the shale slide below my feet gave out, and I went with it. The nasty fall down the mountain left me battered and bruised but not otherwise severely injured. I glassed the hillside, knowing I'd see fuzzy mule deer butts bouncing off into another zip code, but nothing moved. So, I pushed forward, closing the distance to 30 yards from where I last saw the big typical buck. As I peeked over the last rock, he was fast asleep, sunning himself. I set myself up to take a shot as soon as he would stand. Only five minutes later, he was on his feet, and with a pull of the trigger, a cloud of smoke blurred my vision. But to my surprise, he was running and stopped broadside at 80 yards, missing his antlers' left side. Realizing what had happened, I quickly reloaded and settled in for another shot. With a thud, the shot missed left. At that point, I noticed my front sight was off sideways, and half the sight fiber was missing. I hit my knees and winced as it all came back to me. In the aftermath of my fall, I was more focused on not dying than on checking my gear, and now all I could do was sit and watch this giant muley grab his buddies and stroll off into the distance.
Feeling defeated, I was back home drinking a beer on Thursday night, deciding on what to do as I looked over the left half of that giant typical buck's antler. Friday morning, I awoke and decided my hunt wasn't over! I called every gun shop I could to locate a new front sight, and by Friday night, I was sighted back in and sleeping at the trailhead. Saturday morning found me back at my glassing spot, feeling the inevitable pressure of the season closure lurking soon. Drinking my morning coffee, I was on the glass as soon as the light would allow looking for that unmistakable outline of a mule deer roaming the valley cliffs.
For a second time on this hunt, luck was on my side. I caught movement through my spotting scope at the far end of the valley leading to the highest peak in the area. It was hard to make out, but the silhouette I was so desperately looking for was there. After a quick map check, I was off in a flurry. It took 5 hours to cover the distance and terrain to put myself within several hundred yards of the last spot I had seen the deer.
I slowly worked my way through the shallow fingers that ran off the ridge line, carefully cresting near rock piles to hide my outline. I scanned frantically, looking for the deer I had seen earlier in the morning, hoping that it was still in the area. Coming over the 3rd finger, my hope was rewarded. Less than 80 yards from me was the bright white butt of a Muley lazily grazing on the opposite hillside! Within seconds of spotting the deer, I fell back and dropped my pack, prepared my muzzleloader and crested the finger again. I was dumbfounded when I realized the heavy non-typical buck on my hit list was still in full velvet. With the buck in my sights and clueless to my presence, I hesitated for a moment and peeked my head up, exposing a second deer that I had no idea was there. It was the giant typical framed buck feeding less than 6o yards from me. With a quick adjustment, I was pinned on his shoulder. Sensing danger, he casually looked in my direction, but it was too late. Click, Boom, and a cloud of smoke surrounded me. I saw the buck fall over backward and tumble down the finger. I quickly reloaded and prepared for a second shot just in case. The buck recovered his footing and made his way to the valley floor. I could see the distinct pink bubbles oozing out his side, indicating the bullet had hit its mark. The buck made it to the timberline and disappeared in a patch of trees but never came out. I picked my way to the last spot I saw him. Traversing the rocky hillside, I could not contain my excitement at what had just happened.
But the excitement was short lived.
I slowly worked my way to the spot I had seen the buck disappear when suddenly, I locked eyes with him less than 20 yards away. He was head up, taking his last breaths. His chest's slow and steady rise and fall emanated the faintest of sounds as he took in the mountain air for the last time.
All the excitement left my face, and I immediately hit my knees. In a flood of emotions, the past ten days rushed into view, the countless miles, the rockslide, broken gear, late sleepless nights, gratitude and hours of glassing and doubt of ever finding this buck after that first sighting so many days ago hit me like a ton of bricks. As we stared at each other in that brief moment that felt like an eternity, we shared a mutual respect for one another and understood what led to this point. I whispered thank you for the life you have given me as if he would be able to understand. At that moment, his chest stopped moving, his eyes closed, and the story of this mountain monarch ended but will never be forgotten!