As a hunter we have the unique opportunity to experience a connection with nature that very few can relate too. Moments of gratitude, respect, despair, defeat, and raw unfiltered emotions that 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 awaited to see what the future might hold it looked like it might be a tough year for public land hunters.
As always 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 the year before leading 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 10 days. Shortly after we submitted our tags Brent McGirr and Quinn Kline (my hunting buddies) received a call from an up a coming hunting TV show “Hunt Warz” their application was selected, and they would be hunting the Gila for giant New Mexico bulls come September on the first season of the show. As ecstatic 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. Staring at my ONX app reviewing the left-over list looking for a diamond in the rough. Scrolling through I happened upon a unit that was close to home and offered a remote high alpine setting, but it meant I would be hunting during 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 Muzzle loader season. I quickly checked my gear once I got home and reviewed the hunting regulations for the unit, remember when I said you can 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. At this point 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 you tube videos on how to load, unload, shoot, not panic and clean this useless weapon in my opinion. The next day I spent at the range practicing and watching you tube in the process, 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 real I was holding a gun that technically I have shot my bow further than, all I could think was this is fitting for the way 2020 had progressed so far.
At this point all of my scouting days were spent trying to learn how to shoot this thing I rolled into the last 4 miles of road before my destination for the night with less than 4 hours before dark the day before the season opener knowing that my time was going to have to be well spent to make this happen. Hauling a** up the two track I slammed on my breaks as I looked up less than 200yards and spotted a giant bull elk with a goofy looking G1 (this bull was going to change my life but that is a story for another time) 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 fashion boots on the ground scouting let alone prepare you for the reality of the landscape. As I stepped out of my truck at the trail head, I stared up at the vast peaks surrounding me; some of which exceeding 13,000 feet I could not help but get lost in the beauty all around me. With little time to scout prior to the hunt my plan was 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 next morning. The deer were staying around the 12,500 feet elevation
band which was roughly 3 miles from my camp and about a 2,500-foot elevation 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 daylight 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 mountain side searching anywhere they might be hiding. Much to my dismay the deer from the day before were no where to be found. The next five days found me scratching my head trying to re-locate the target bucks with little to no idea 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 specific valley. As I laid in my Mountain Mafia sleeping bag that Tuesday night, I was going to 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 single fact sealed my decision to move my hunting area the following morning. In a last-ditch effort 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 trail head 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 just so happened to spot 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 shooter bucks I had been searching for. As I spilt hot coffee all over 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 resulting in a nasty fall down the mountain leaving me battered and bruised but otherwise not severely injured. With that out of the way 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 of where I last saw the big typical buck, as I peeked over the last rock and there, he was fast asleep sunning himself. I slowly 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 the left side of his antlers. Realizing what had happened I quickly reloaded and settled in for another shot, with a thud the shot when wide left. At that point I noticed my front sight what kicked 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 checking my gear and now all I could do is sit and watch this giant; well now half giant muley grab his buddies and stroll off into the distance.
Absolutely defeated Thursday night found me back home drinking a beer deciding on what to do as 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 the trail head. Saturday morning found me right back at my glassing spot with the inevitable pressure of the season closure lurking in the near future. 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 there it was the silhouette I was so desperately looking for. 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 Muley.
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 vigorously looking for the deer I had seen earlier in the morning hoping that by some miracle it was still in the area. Coming over the 3rd finger I was rewarded lazily grazing on the opposite hill side less than 80 yards from me was the bright white butt of a Muley!
Within seconds of spotting the deer I dropped back and dropped my pack and prepared my muzzleloader. cresting the finger again, I was dumbfounded when I realized it was the heavy non-typical buck on my hit list still in full velvet. With the buck in my sights and clueless to my presence I hesitated for a moment and peaked my head up further exposing a second deer that I had no idea was there; and holy s*** it was the giant typical framed buck feeding less than 6o yards from me. with a quick adjustment I was pinned on his shoulder, as if 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 backwards and tumble down the finger, I quickly reloaded and prepared for a second shot just in case. The buck recovered his footing and hastily made his way to the valley floor, watching him scale the rock slides I could see the distinct pink bubbles oozing out his side indicating the bullet hit its mark. I watched the buck make it to timberline and disappear in a patch of trees but never came out. Picking my way through the rock slide to the last spot I saw him I couldn't contain my excitement at what had just happened, but the excitement was short lived.
When I finally reached the last spot I had seen the buck disappear all of a sudden, I locked eyes with him less than 20 yards away. There he was head up taking his last breaths the slow and steady rise and fall of his chest emanating the faintest of sounds as he took in the mountain air for the last time. All the emotions hit me like a tidal wave as I dropped to my knees burying my face in my hands reliving the past 10 days as they 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 washed over me. As we stared at each other in that brief moment that felt like eternity we shared a mutual respect for one another and understanding of what lead to this point, I whispered thank you for the life you have given me as if he would be able to understand me and at that moment his chest stopped moving, his eyes closed, and the story of this mountain monarch ended but will never be forgotten!