The year Twenty-twenty has claimed plenty of fame both in good things and bad, the year prior having been less than plentiful when it came to deer hunting, I was cautiously optimistic about 2020. It was in that mindset that my Son and I headed up into the cold and cloudy Rocky Mountains well before sunrise. It was six or so days into a ten day deer hunt, and neither of us had fired a shot. We shared many things that morning, we both had a buck tag in our pocket, and we’d only brought one gun, the 257 Blackjack that I call Pitboss. But even the tainted doom of 2020 couldn’t keep us from sharing the adventure that awaited us at nine-thousand feet.
As the days of the deer hunt waned, I felt a familiar feeling that things were going to work out. Everything that morning had come together as though it was meant to be, so my optimism was at overdrive as the cold wind blew over our backs, and the first slivers of orange light began to peak over the horizon.
Junior and I were looking over a steep alpine valley high at the top of the Wasatch Mountains, its a place we are very familiar with, having spent countless hours hunting Marmots, squirrels and other varmints during the brief summer there. The last bits of snow from the previous winter had only just melted a month or two prior. We watched over this well known to us valley, looking for the faint signs of movement in the early pre-dawn light. The ice-cold wind was making my fingers stiff, and biting at my nose and ears while I peered furiously through my binoculars hoping to see motion. We had seen several deer in this valley in days prior to this, so I was working on a hunch that a good buck or two had moved in with them.
I wish I had the power to stop time, that magical ten to twenty minutes immediately following first light, seems to be the most productive time of day where we hunt. As I watched my son hunker over trying to keep warm, it reminded me of the other reason I wished I could control time. The time we spend together has never been enough for me, and as he has grown into a young man, that time seems even more fleeting and precious.
As we both resisted the wind, the sunlight advanced, and in just a few moments I had picked out a couple white rumps of a few mule deer does on a rise down in our little valley. I had my spotting scope setup, prepared to investigate any potential prey, so I switched over to it and began to pick them out one by one. In almost no time at all, I had found just what I was looking for, a handsome little buck casually feeding alongside a few does. I say little, but he was actually the best buck we had seen since the hunt began.
I pointed him out to my son, who quickly got into position behind the Blackjack. We waited as the buck calmly moved along, the sunlight brightening almost by the second it seemed. The range to the buck was just shy of five hundred yards, a chip-shot for the rifle, and Junior had been well trained for a shot like that. Everything was lining up just as I had felt it would that morning, Junior lay still behind the rifle, slowly following the buck as we waited for a perfect broadside shot. I had dialed the elevation into the US Optics Foundation 25X, and it was just a matter of time now.
As the buck noticed the orange light growing around him, I’d like to think that he too was admiring the beauty that lay all around us. He stood there motionless, looking into the sunlight with his stocky body in clear view. I told Junior to drop him, and in a sudden rush of excitement it was all over. It may have been the excitement, buck fever, or maybe his fingers were numb from the biting cold wind, but Junior just plain missed. And for an excruciating thirty-seconds, I had to sit there and watch this buck look around, wondering what had happened. Junior couldn’t get the buck back in the scope, and I watched as he casually trotted off into the forest below.
All my positive expectations and hope seemed to trot off into the trees as well. I was a bit distrustful of what had just happened, how could it all come together like that, and fall apart in a matter of seconds? All I had wanted was to pull off a bit of success with my son. We walked back out the way we had come in, all the deer had moved into the trees, spooked by our shot. I did my best to stay positive, and we moved on to another one of my hides. I’m sure that I was more upset about the miss than my son was, his excitement for hunting isn’t what it used to be. We stopped to look into another deep canyon, one we had also seen deer in the past.
I peered into the wind swept canyon, spotting a few does feeding away from us. I was determined that we weren’t leaving empty-handed. I looked harder and harder trying to make out either antlers or additional deer, and after a few minutes I spotted three more working uphill from below the others. As soon as I laid eyes on the very last deer, I knew that we were going home heavy. He wasn’t a big buck, but he was exactly what we needed that day, a chance to be successful. It was my turn to take a shot, so I scrambled into a good shooting position, and began my procedure. First I hit him with the rangefinder, to cross reference with my drop. The 257 Blackjack is extremely flat-shooting, and with the slight down angle of the slope, my corrected elevation was 2.1 MRAD for the 715 yard shot. The distant buck had no idea we were there, but he was still making his way towards the ridge-line that would allow him to slip away forever. Junior spotted for me through the spotting scope as I prepped for the shot, the deer made his way through the brush until he stopped hard, giving me a good broadside shot. The Blackjack had never let me down, and today wasn’t going to be that day.
As the buck stood there taking his last look, I watched through the scope having already broke the trigger. As the intensity of the moment seemed to slow time, I watched the 131 grain Ace fly downrange, boiling the air around it. The trace continued down the canyon, and disappeared into the left side of the deer, breaking through one of his ribs low in the brisket. The buck reared back, and turned back downhill the way he had come. After just a few strides he disappeared into the brush, as we both watched through our scopes. It was time to pack up. We left everything that we didn’t need, and started down the canyon into the prickly and noisy brush. At times it was shoulder deep.
Following his blood trail
My wind call wasn’t perfect, and I’d hit him a little further back than I would have liked to. But in the end it worked just fine, the buck left a vivid trail into some deep brush, leaving bits and pieces of himself along the way. I made it to the buck first, and Junior followed me. We sat down next to him, and appreciated the moment. My despair about the mornings events had been in vain, our doubt swallowed up by the excitement and satisfaction. As I laid hands on this beautiful little buck I was again as always overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation.
Above: Junior and I / Below: The 257 Blackjack
As luck would have it, a good friend and his sons were hunting that day as well, and after a quick call, they headed our way. Junior and I began working on the meat, the trophy we’d take home. We carefully broke him down, keeping the pieces clean, and hanging them in a nearby tree so it could cool in the icy mountain breeze. After a couple hours, with help from our friends, we strapped all the pieces of the buck to our packs and began making our way back up the canyon.
Meat cooling in the breeze, and Junior going full carnivore
I love whatever it is that drives me to this autumn challenge every year, is it the carnivore deep inside me? Is it instinct? The challenge that we embrace every time we go after these and other animals seems to be programmed into my soul, I often wonder if its possible to get enough. If it is, I hope I never get there, but if I do, I hope its not by myself.