One wrong turn in early July brought me face to face with a buck that would haunt me the rest of the summer and into the early fall. His body was enormous as he stood feeding, dwarfing the buck next to him. Even with the deer in their full red summer coats, his face was nearly all white. The sway of his back and massive potbelly were all signs this relic didn’t have too many more miles left on his old body. His antler bases were considerably large and he carried his mass really well. The big mystery that drove me crazy was trying to guess what kind of antlers he would produce? This early in the summer you can tell which deer are mature, but there’s no way of knowing exactly what their headgear will develop in to.
Living almost 5 hours away I didn’t have time to scout my hunting unit. Consequently I wasn’t able to return to the area until a couple days before the season opener. I burned up the miles on my truck covering the unit from east to west, top to bottom, frantically trying to locate a buck I’d be proud to hang my tag on. The days were long and deer densities low making for a very frustrating hunt. The season opener finally arrived and with no real plan of attack I reached out to a couple of long time hunting buddies, the father son duo of Tim and Ethan Mueller. We covered a lot of ground searching all over the unit, looking for a trophy buck. By late morning, not knowing if old gray face was even still alive, we decided to walk the area I last saw him in early July. We slowly stalked along the sage covered hills glassing does and small bucks, but gray face was nowhere to be seen.
Due to family obligations the Mueller’s had to leave by early afternoon and were quickly replaced by longtime friend Rick Larkin. Rick took me to an area on the western portion of the unit he thought could produce a buck of the caliber I was after. Sure enough we were seeing deer everywhere. Eureka! Probably no more than five minutes on a 4×4 road I spotted a good buck bedded on the ridge above us. We broke out the spotting scope and quickly sized him up. He was a solid low 180 class deer most hunters would have been thrilled to tag. He just didn’t get me too excited and I really didn’t want to settle. It was gut check time. Would I be okay passing this buck to possibly go home empty handed, even if it meant eating tag soup? It was a REALLY difficult decision, one I’ll never forget, but I decided to pass him!
Fast-forward 6 days, of which the last 4 days I was hunting by myself and had not seen another decent buck. I earnestly began to wonder if I made a huge mistake passing that low 180 class buck the first evening. Two boxes of cereal later, countless hours of driving dirt roads with lots of time to think about what else I should be doing instead of hunting, glassing the sage covered hills over and over, and I was mentally weakening! I almost broke down and tagged out on a smaller buck out of frustration. One quick mental slap to the face and I finally regained my composure. I honestly had to repeat to myself…”This isn’t the buck I came here for”!
In a last ditch effort to fill my tag I decided to return to where old gray face resided during the summer months. I heard a rumor from a local that my buck may in fact still be alive. I remember reading the thermometer in my truck and thinking 6 degrees…this is going to be a great morning! I broke out the spotting scope and glassed the area for about an hour but never saw a mature deer. Half frozen and slightly discouraged I decided to leave my pack and shooting sticks in the truck while I halfheartedly hiked over to a small bowl to glass for old gray face.
Not more than 400 yds from the truck I located a small buck feeding in front of me. As I watched him move left to right you could image my surprise when old gray face came into my field of view! He was bedded down looking back my direction, but not directly at me. I slowly dropped down and took a knee to realize I had no shot opportunity. The contour of the land slopped too far down and I needed my shooting sticks to take a standing shot which I left back in the truck! In plain sight with very little cover I slowly sneaked forward trying to make it to an old dead aspen tree I could use as a shooting rest. As I closed the distance I noticed old gray face’s antlers moving. He was up feeding! If he moved another 5 yards to his right he would disappear into a ravine and with the changing thermals who knows if I’d get another crack at him! It was go time! I slowly rose up and ranged the buck at 187 yards. Shouldering my rifle I tried to steady for the freehand shot. Boom! One bullet later and he was dead in his tracks!
Old gray face was a wary buck that got almost got the better of me. I spent over a decade waiting for the opportunity to hunt this old buck. At last, to place my tag on a truly mature buck that certainly had more miles on him than me and my vehicle combined is a special feeling that is difficult to express, let alone write down in words. This is what trophy hunting is all about to me. It’s not necessarily the size of the animals harvested, but about the miles in between, planning, physically conditioning your body to push yourself and mentally staying tough, not giving up on your goals. It goes without saying, spending time hunting with my boys and wife as well as the hunts I’ve shared with my father hold a dear place in my heart. But as far as the hunts I do on my own, the most challenging adventures tend to be the most memorable ones.