I used to think that I had a favorite time of year, fall definitely is at the top of that list. And yet I still find myself thinking “this is my favorite time of year” during almost every conceivable part of our annual orbit.
Season change is in the air again, the cold of winter slowly yields its grasp on the mountains and valleys.The sun reaches further and further into the deep wooded canyons where I love to spend these spring weekends. Many people pass by these places, completely unaware of the fun and challenging hunting opportunity that lies within. I myself did the same for a long time, until one day a flash of movement revealed it to me.
It was many years ago now, but during a hike through the high rockies, I caught a glimpse of an animal I was unfamiliar with. The Yellow Bellied Marmot ,also known as a woodchuck,rockchuck, groundhog, or whistle pig, it is basically a giant squirrel. I’ve been known to put the hurt on squirrels, sod poodles, potguts, and any other variation of rodents and other little critters. You might say Im a bit of a varmint enthusiast. So when I first laid eyes on a Marmot, it was like the surfacing blow-hole of the mighty white whale.
Much time would pass before I became more familiar with these hansome and playfull little rodents. But I came to know their habitat, and where to look for them. And as fast as you can whistle, I was hooked on what has lovingly come to be known as Chuckin’.
Every spring since that first chuck took a dirt nap in the cool shade at 9000 feet, we go back into the high country looking for beautiful brown pelts. That first chuck, got named Rusty, due to the color of his coat.
This spring, we again make our preparations to go after Rusty’s kin. I say preparations because unlike the lesser squirrel species, the marmot is a keen eyed and wary little animal. Part of the reason I went so long without seeing them was because they are so easily hidden in the landscape where they live. And they are also quick to hide as well. One of my favoite reasons to hunt these cunning little creatures, is because they are the ideal practice for big game hunting. They live in the same canyons and hills where we hunt deer and elk, they are just as hard to sneak up on, and a good sized marmot is about the same size as a deer’s vital zone.
The Yellow Bellied Marmot is as tough as the country they live in, even though they usually weigh in at under ten pounds, a poor shot from even a deer sized caliber might not shut Rusty down. I have seen it many times, where a massive imapact from something like a 308 Winchester didn’t stop a chuck from getting back to his burrow before dying. One year, I specifically remember we hit a chuck off of a rock where we frequently hunted. He was hit, but he disappeared in the rocks leaving one of his legs behind. He managed to get down a burrow before we could finish him (something I dont enjoy). Well, the following year, we made it back to that same rock. By happenstance, it was the first trip of that spring, and my good friend was on deck when that first chuck was spotted from nearly three hundred yards away. He wasted no time getting a 140 grain Barnes Match Burner right between his ears. About a half hour later, we hiked up onto the rock where fresh blood still ran in a glistening puddle. It turns out that ol’ stumpy had survived his last encounter with our rifles, his leg had healed leaving a bald little knee. Had I known stumpy was such a survivor, I would have given him a pass.
These rugged and towering Rocky Mountains offer some beautiful vistas, and adding this challenging little hunt into such a beautiful landscape is the highlight of my spring. Long hikes through beautiful canyons, crossing noisy little creeks, sharing a sack lunch on soft green grass, its definitively my idea of a good time.
With small family groups scattered across the peaks of our mountains, it wouldn’t be hard to exterminate the little guys. So we try not to wear out any particular place, never more than one per den. Not only does this keep the clans going, but it also gives us more country to hunt and survey.
Some of my best stalks have been on marmots. Crawling through waist deep grass, hiding behind rocks and trees, waiting for the perfect moment when Rusty either has his back turned, or perhaps wrestling with one of his burrow-mates. In the early spring, Ive even found myself on the edge of a massive snow cornice, freezing in my t-shirt and shorts, but with a perfect rest to shoot my distant prey.
The day that junior shot his very first chuck, we had snuck into a high alpine bowl, with a glacial pond in the middle. There we positioned ourselves on a high point with a perfect view of the many rock formations situated around us. Junior had just setup his little Crickett EX17HMR rifle looking at a rockpile with known inhabitants. But as we waited for one to appear, we heard a noise from just a few yards in front of us. As luck would have it, two young marmots popped up on a rock barely fifteen feet away from us. Whispering under our breath, junior slowly brought his rifle onto the target, and thumped one of the two.
Whether it is silently stalking through thorny shrubs, climbing through waist deep snow, or hanging precariously over a stone precipice, there is always a great challenge and fun to be had in the pursuit of these cunning little animals.
Sharpening your stalking and shooting skills, enjoying the beauty of alpine forests, and just the camraderie of the hunt with friends will make chucking another hunting delight to add to your spring.
Hunting is nothing if not exciting, some of my most exhilarating experiences have come from the thrill of the hunt and the frenzy of the chase. None of my previous hunting experiences would have prepared me for the rough and tumble harvest that would entwine me last fall.
I think it was a Tuesday, four days into the general deer season here in Utah’s Wasatch Range. I had spent all morning and the better part of the afternoon getting the deer my father had shot off the mountain. I carried four quarters, the head, and my rifle out. A simple feat, if you arent a fat, out of shape kinda fella like me.
The afternoon hunt was still ours to have, and Coldboremiracle Junior had just gotten out of school. So we gathered up our things, and headed to meet my cousin who wanted to come along. We tossed our gear into the back of his side by side, and in a swirl of dust we went sailing up into the mountains.
At that pace it didnt take long to get up to our usual haunts. We ran into some friends, who hadn’t seen much, but evening was coming. That magical hour just between the red light of dinner time, and that dark twilight where the cold sneaks into every little canyon cove. For me that magic hour holds some of the greatest memories, it seems as though an entire day’s worth of action can happen in mere moments.
Today however, it seemed awfully quiet. We weren’t seeing many deer at all, but I had my best good luck charm sitting next to me gnawing on granola bars. The evening would come, and almost like clockwork, the deer began to appear. Having spent many years scouting these mountains, we kinda know where to look.
Off in the distant peaks from our perch, there was a hill top. Perfectly iluminated by the steeply angled rays of the sun. And as we watched it, several deer made their way into the open, feeding without a care. To my surprise the base of that hill is right where we had come in on a trail, a trail with significant traffic. The deer seemed not to care about the sound of passing atv’s, a phenomenon I would come to understand later that evening.
It took a few minutes to devise a plan, my cousin would stay back at the observation point (1300+) and watch the deer while Jr. and I tried to sneak into the opposite end of the clearing from the deer. It would have given us a shot inside 200yards, and it was a plan I was comfortable with. Junior and I made our way back down the trail, past and below the clearing where the deer continude to feed. After confirming our party reservation with my spotter, Junior and I began our sneak up the steep hill.
I mentioned I had already packed one deer out that day, well my legs wasted no time in telling me that they were done. But like most of us often do, I summoned fresh energy from the depths of my being, probably took a good 15 minutes of my life away😜. Quietly, and slowly Junior and I made our way up the hill, to a point we had determined would give us the tactical advantage. Trying to get a thirteen year old to understand absolute silence is like pulling teeth, but none the less we made it up to the spot I had aimed for without spooking them. But to my dismay, it gave us no joy. The lay of the hill, and the grossly thick vegetation made getting any closer impossible. Surely they would hear us before we ever got over the slope of the hillside into line of sight. We tried several different angles, and though my cousin did his best to give perspective, we had to abandon our stalk. I didn’t want to bust em, so we decided it would be best to retreat and regroup.
As I made my way down the hill, I figured out why the deer were there. Despite the close proximity to the trail, and human avtivity, the hillside gave the deer a bonafide shelter. The only place you could see them from was the distant point thirteen hundred yards away, if you got any closer, the curvature of the slope, the trees and thickets blocked them from view. Any effort to get closer would result in quite a racket as one crunched through the thorn infested dry brush.
When we got to the bottom, I looked back up. The broad hillside that from a distance looked like an open pasture, was almost completely blocked by trees. There was but a single small patch of the top of the open area that could be seen from our closest position. We looked around, and glassed many other drainages, but by the time the sun was near set, we had run out of options. Regrouped with my cousin, the three of us decided it was time to start heading down. Maybe we’d get lucky and spot something on the way.
The three of us fit snuggly acrossed the bench seat of the UTV, but a complete die hard, refuses to shut down his deer eyes. Just before we started rolling down the trail, my cousin stomped the brake, and dug for his binoculars. He looked back up that very steep hill, to that one little visible patch, and pronounced those joyous words; “That’s a buck!!”.
Never had three dudes dismounted a vehicle faster, it literally seemed like thirty seconds from the time buck was called, till Junior had his eye on his little Minox scope.
The uphill angle of the shot was so steep that Junior had to use my pack as a support, his little rifle rest at a near seventy degree angle. I looked him close in the eyes and gave him a Father/Son speech, it probably went something like this: WE-GOT-LIKE-THIRTY-SECONDS-TO-MAKE-THIS-SHOT!YOU-GOTTA-BRING-YOUR-A-GAME-BUDDY-NOW-LOOK-THROUGH-THAT -SCOPE-AND-FIND-THAT-DEER-AN-MEK-DA-BULLETZ-HITTEM!!!!
He nodded his approval of this paternal praise, and ran the bolt on his little Remington. I never would have guessed how this would play out. I looked up the steep ridge through my rangefinder, and hit the buck with the laser. It came back just over three hundred yards, well within Junior’s realm of killin’. But this setup was new, off a pack, up a steep hill, rushed as possible, fading light, and a wound up spotter yelling commands at him left and right. Luckily Coldboremiracle Junior is a smooth character, he must have gotten that from his mother. I quickly did some range maths, knocked off a few tenths for the angle, and cranked in some elevation on his scope. As I resettled my eye through my rangefinder, I asked him if he was ready. “Ya Dad” was all I got, so off went the fire command.
Three hundred yards away, this little buck stood there, perhaps listening to the strange sounds coming from down the hill. He stood there all majestic, brightened by the last bits of sunlight, facing into the west. I’d like to think he was happy, calm and collected. Because it was right then that Junior put the kettle on. The two sixty Remington had proved very capapble at pounding deer, and that night was no exception. The 120 grain bullet that I had loaded days before, was now deep into battery.
The report of the rifle was a welcome sound, as I mentioned it seamed only seconds ago that we were sitting in the UTV ready for defeat. Even more welcome was the sound of the impact, nothing sounds quite like a bullet hitting flesh. I watched the deer buckle, and heard the wack of the impact come back to us. The deer stumbled a few steps forward, and went down. Junior was quick to celebrate, but seconds into his fist-pumping, my cousin announced that he was back up. Junior quickly jumped back on the scope, and reloaded his rifle. Sure enough, the young buck stood there, staggering amongst the bushes. Not wasting any time he sent round two from the top of my pack. And again, that solid thump of an impact came back through the advancing darkness. This time, the deer flopped over, and fell down the steep hill into a bush.
What an awesome shot it was, both times, to see a kid hunker down and steady his homeade rifle for a great connection like that would make any Dad proud.
Sadly, I didn’t have much time to congratulate him, a quick hug would have to do. I am never one to trust a deer that I cant clearly see, so I wanted to get him recovered, and now. I wasn’t about to let my son trod off into the dark mountains, so I had my cousin center his spotting scope on the deer’s last known position, and I lauched into another uphill battle. My body wanted to kill me by this point, my heart was pounding like I had never felt before, my legs burned from exhaustion, and I couldn’t breathe fast enough in the thin air at almost nine thousand feet. To add more pain to my suffering, I had to wade through thorns in the darkness. I rushed as fast as my body would allow, but at that altitude, and steep angle, three hundred yards is a long ways. When I finally felt like I was getting close, I yelled to my cousin below, who continued to guide my flashlight closer and closer to the center of his spotting scope. By this time it was completely dark, only the light diffusing from the distant city below and our flashlights provided any help.
As I neared the bush my cousin believed to be our quarry, I began to sense a strange kind of feeling. The darkness and my alone-ness was enough to have me on edge, but when the deer was not behind the bush as I had hoped, panic began to set in.
I kept moving around looking for sign, and I picked up on some stumbling tracks in the soft black dirt. It was at this moment when I really appreciated my fanatical commitment to always carry a gun with me, I had shouldered Junior’s little 16” Remington, because it was both compact, and light. At least moreso than any other gun we had along that night. As I continued along in a direction almost completely guided by this erie sense of foreign presence, I heard a noise in the bushes above me.
I may have neglected to describe just how steep this hill was, to give you an idea, I could put my arm straight out perpandicular to my body, and fall forward into the hillside, and only fall forward a foot or so. So when I say I heard something in the bush above me, it was just above my head, almost in reach.
I slowly un-slung the rifle from my shoulder, and chambered one of the three rounds I had brought in the magazine. And just as I had fit the butt of the rifle to my shoulder, the rustling in the bushes above me stirred again. But this time he was serious, the noise I had heard was this deer’s last ditch effort at defense. Both his front legs were broken, and he was nearly dead, but this tough little buck with rage in his eyes jumped up on his back legs, and like a charging ram he turned his ivory forks against me and dove down ontop of me. With literally nowhere to go but down, I aimed point blank as all this deer came down on me, I fell to the rear, away from the oncoming charge, and fired a shot into him as I fell.
This was combat effective hunting here, I believe it was the first shot Ive ever taken while falling.
As I regained my footing some ten to fifteen feet downhill, I could hear the buck slowly expire. I called down to my cousin to let him know I was ok, and more importantly that the cat was in the bag. Then I grabbed him by the antlers, and we went downhill, fast!
The steep hill did have one redeeming factor, and that was to help me get the deer down without killing myself.
When we got back to the road, Junior was excited to get hands on his buck, only his second ever. We took a bunch of pictures, hugged, painted faces, and cleaned up the deer for the ride home.
Very few times have I had such harrowing experiences, it truly makes you appreciate everything just a little bit more. That little set of antlers will be on the wall soon, Junior takes great pride in displaying whats his. My greatest hope is that he remembers the hard work we put in for those memories he displays in his room. As well as the love of the hunt, gratitude, sacrifice, and those who share the same blood.
I love to see the first signs of spring, the early dawn and the warming rays of the sun. The songs of birds and smell of grass racing out from under the grip of winter. But it also brings with it a touch of sadness, a sense of loss, of a season gone. The coming of spring is the official end of the normal hunting season for us, an end for old opportunities, and the start of fresh ones. This past season was one of change, challenge, and a mule deer buck that I fondly called Chance.
If you’ve followed me for long, you may be familiar with my adventures with my Father. As years go by, I treasure every adventure we share knowing any one of them could be the last. None of us will make it out of here alive, so make those memories, and make them hard.
Dad had come to stay at my house for the deer hunt, we had the week to spend chasing mulies in the familiar Rocky Mountains that are enticingly close to my home. It was late October, and despite an early touchdown of snow, our mountains were uncommonly dry. My focus this year, as it usually is, was to get both my Father and Son to fill their tag. The sooner they do, the sooner I get to focus on the huge monster bucks that I never, ever, see.
Opening day had come and gone, our high mountain canyons were much quieter than normal. Barely a shot was heard all day, and at 9,000 feet ASL the clouds had packed in. Visibility was terribly short, and the cold bit so hard that after a short time we figured the deer were smarter than us, so we moved out.
Two days had passed since the opener, and we were getting anxious for success.
As it often does, our plan changed last minute on a Wednesday morning. We decided to go high, instead of going low as planned. In the darkness we drove up the steep and winding road, rattling the whole way. The sun was just peaking through the distant clouds as we settled at the spot I had hoped would bring us luck.
The always present breeze was waiting for us there, it brought tears to the eye, and shudders to the legs. But I like to tell people Im a tough guy, so I stood out there in the icy breeze, glassing the ever brightening ridges.
I knew that for Dad to get a shot, we would have to find something moderately close to the trail. I didn’t like the idea of packing out two bodies by myself, one is bad enough. I scoured the brushy hillsides as the suns rays brought out their details, looking for the tell-tail sign of deer. And almost as if on cue, I spotted a patch of white in a small open pasture below us. I checked it out… squinted through my wet eyes… then I checked again.
This had to be it, a lone deer, casually strolling through an open pasture only a few hundred yards or so from our glassing point. I quickly signaled Dad to grab his gear, and make his way over to me.
Nobody gets as wound up as I do upon spotting a buck, and the only thing that will wind me up even more is for people to casually saunter around while shootable deer stand there, unawares and vulnerable. My Dad seems to take great pride in maintaining the opposite composure in these tense and exciting situations. By the time he put down his hot chocolate, picked up his rifle, and sauntered over, I had the spotting scope setup on the buck, and was in the process of explaining to Dad the ‘ol “see that tree? And the one behind it? And follow that line to the green bush…” Dad’s calm demeanor didn’t seem to help my tension, all the bushes are green, and there is hundreds of damn trees it’s a forest.
As Dad got into position on the edge of a steep drop-off, he aimed his rifle down into the pasture below. I often think that deer have a sixth or even seventh sense, to them it must feel like a hot ray of sunshine as a rifle comes to bear on them. This buck surely was blessed with that sense, no sooner had Dad aimed his rifle, than this buck began a hasty quickstep towards the edge of the treeline. If only he had the same saunter that Dad brought with him this morning, we might have been able to get a shot. But unfortunately, I watched him work his way into the trees, and into thin air.
My excitement soured a little, as I wiped the cold tears welling in my eyes from that icy breeze. Dad lay there, still behind his rifle, rolled on his side he gave me the “oh well” look. I kept looking into the trees, frustrated by our increasingly shorter time.
When your looking for deer, everything looks like a deer. But when you actually see a deer, there is no doubt that it is. As I stood there, over my Dad, ravaging the hillside with my eager eyes, a flash of movement caught my attention. A doe jumped from behind one of the hundred trees, but I quickly identified her as a non-combatant. Then out of nowhere, there was Chance.
He followed the doe downhill for a dozen or so yards, and stood there, with his twitchy tail pointed our direction. Using my brilliant landscape identification techniques, I again pointed out the buck to my Dad. Who quickly had a bead drawn on the handsome little buck. Chance continued to follow the doe, making his way a few more yards downhill. Our position on the ridge seemed perfect, there was no way for him to get away without us getting a shot off. But almost as though he had a hoof on my pulse, when my stress level was peaked, he decides to step behind one of the few little trees.
We both took a deep breath, and I knew that as soon as he cleared that small tree, Dad would light the fire that would strike him down.
Seconds seemed like minutes, and he finally came out of the tree, his young face looked on into the west. That is when Chance had run out, the hot breath of Dad’s .264 Magnum was already on its way. The shriek of the report was muffled by the Silencerco Harvester, the 140 grain Barnes Match Burner ripped through his left shoulder, he stumbled a few steps, then went down.
Dad slowly got up from his shooting position, and I told him what I had seen through the spotting scope. His excitement was hard to hide now.
I made my way down the steep hill, and Dad guided me into the Buck. He was a very handsome little four point, just the right kind of deer. After a few minutes of relaxing Dad slowly made his way down, and we set to work.
By the time Dad had made it to the deer, the sun was almost on us, and the morning had come alive with the sound of birds and the rustling of the breeze. The thin cold air that had enveloped the mountain all night long was finally carried away. Dad, and I sat there on the hillside, enjoying the beauty, cutting away the tender and savory flesh of this dapper little deer.
We took our time, finally warm in the sunshine. I watched my Dad as he sat on the hillside, snacking on a granola bar, sipping his water, it was hard for me to imagine him in a more happy place. I knew how much he loved being up here in these mountains, I knew he relished the time. He has been coming up in these mountains for sixty years now, and today was as good a trip as ever. His hands were crusted with the blood of another fine buck that would feed our family, shot with Grandpa’s old model 70. Im sure I was smiling too, but inside I was ecstatic about the great luck we had, and grateful again for another cherished adventure with my Father.
We finished cutting up the deer, and let him cool in the still drifting breeze in the shade of the pine trees. Then we slowly made our way back up the ridge, resting as needed, until we got back to the top. As we drove home, tired and satisfied with our hunt, I realized that momentous Chance had made all the difference.
I am not a fan of Safe queens, I don’t have many collectibles, and if I can’t use it in the most applicable fashion, then I don’t want it. This applies to most things in my life, but to my hunting equipment there is a special reason.
It’s not that I like to be hard on things, I just take pride and security knowing me and my gear can take it. For those that know me well, I’m not much for organizing, or cleanliness. Yet oddly enough I am a bit of a cleanie, and a germaphobe, it’s a weird combination to behold I must admit.
There is a strange phenomenon that happens when I retreat into the wilderness though. Cleanliness seems to fall by the wayside, and almost like a savage from centuries passed, I find myself elbow deep in blood and other less desirables. It’s certainly not the joy in having taken a life, but something much deeper. There is a profound connection with success and the palpable sign that goes with it. I have long enjoyed the images of success, that most often for me are filthy. Dirty guns, bloody hands, worn gear showing signs of hard use, it all reminds me of the amazing adventures that brought them to this condition. The header photograph of this piece, is one of my most favorite pictures of all time. It doesn’t have anything particularly special, but the memory it draws from my mind takes me back to that sub zero sunset.
The fading light seemed to suck both the heat and the sound from around me, almost as if it had opened a hole into the vacuum of space. The bite of the ice crusted around my fingers, was so contrasted by the soothing warmth of blood. I felt an incredible feeling of loneliness, and exhaustion, but I had also never felt so alive.
The filth and grit that accompany success often take time to wash out, but so do the marvelous memories that come with them. I am very grateful for that, memories are sometimes all we have. And were it not for a stained picture, or heavily worn pack, that beautiful memory might slip away into the chasm of the forgotten.
“Freedom to roam, and explore are the currency of boyhood, and we took every opportunity to spend it”
I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, way back when hair was longer, and shorts were shorter. My father bow-hunted every year, and my young mind was fascinated by the deer he would bring home. It was one of these trips into the wild mountains of Utah that forever cemented several of the many obsessions in my heart. A young coldboremiracle, circa 1984
It was a scouting trip into the high Uinta Mountains in the late summer, that destined me to be a junkie of sorts. Dad and a couple of friends were on a scouting mission, checking out the deer population and general conditions on the mountain. I was lucky enough to be towed along. I cant say for sure, but I believe I was the only kid that received the honor. Junior enjoying the beauty of the Uinta Mountains
Times were different then, simpler and less apprehensive. As a kid, I was happy just being there. All it took was a slice of Mom’s applesauce cake, and a Shasta to keep me happy. Surrounded by the beauty of those mountains, carpeted with forest trees, and never more than a short walk from a stream or river, how could I not be in heaven?
My Father and his friends would leave at times, hiking off into the hills to find the best spots, and leave salt rocks pulled from the Great Salt Lake. I’d like to think that my Dad knew what made me tick, I think after all, that we were cut from the same fabric. He’d hand me a fishing rod, and a box of flies, and leave me to it. It could have been hours or days, I couldn’t tell. The time I spent drifting flies and wetting my sneakers passed without my recognition. Even then, my little eyes squinted and focused on the prize, unconcerned with anything beyond my casting radius. Grandpa, and grandson
Dad had given me some modest direction as how to catch these vigilant little fish, but it was trial and error none the less. What Dad had made look so easy seemed so hard to me. I kept after it until I had become proficient, and one after another, the little trout found their way into my hands. Satisfaction was my prize, the feeling that I was part of this wilderness. I would sit there, on a large rock to the side of a noisy little brook. My damp hands holding the fly-rod as the evening drew nearer, even in the summer cold air is never far away.
These deep rooted memories, based on senses, became the building blocks of my passion. The profound colors of a native mountain trout, glistening in the sunlight with an almost three dimensional glow, so beautiful that a camera can only scarcely do it credit. The smell of mountain blossoms drifting on a cool breeze, or that of the soft soil broken underfoot, black and damp with fresh vegetation thriving throughout. The quiet soundtrack of the forest with chirps of bird and squirrels echoing through pine trees, with a gently running creek mixed in. These and many other effects forever cemented the alpine forests at the top of my home element. And there is no better way to enjoy these beautiful wilderness’ than floating a line. six degrees can make fishing more an obsession than a sport
This fall, I was able to return again to one of these beloved places with not only my father, but my young son as well. Sharing these beautiful experiences with my son, has made them so much more cherished. Much the same way my father did for me, I tried my best to let Junior feel the freedom of this beautiful landscape on his own. Wandering along a grassy creek, drifting a fly through crystal clear fishing holes, learning to watch his shadow and rod tip. Freedom to roam, and explore are the currency of boyhood, and we took every opportunity to spend it.
When nothing else can, I know what will light a fire in his smile, as both he and I are definitely cut from that very same fabric. We come from a long line of great men who also enjoyed being part of nature’s dynasty. I can only hope that his memories like mine, only grow brighter with the passage of time. And maybe if I’m lucky, someday share these same majesties with him, and his son. What memories could mean more?