When you're stalking big prairie mule deer, you learn a lot about your quarry -- and yourself.
A knot was forming in the pit of my stomach, a lump clung to the back of my throat, and the shakes were welling up from deep within me. This was my own version of buck fever, and I hadn't even laid eyes on my target yet. The fickle winds tortured my nerves, and the tinder-dry vegetation crackled under foot. The conditions were testing my composure. But I was getting close. The velvet tips of one of the big buck's compadre's antlers had betrayed their discreet hideout.
It was opening week of the archery season in southern Alberta. Although my driver's license now said I was a British Columbia resident, I couldn't give up the muley hunting I grew up loving so much. My brother-in-law, Jamie Smith, was gracious enough to hunter-host me as a nonresident, and it felt great to be back on my old prairie stomping grounds.
During the first two days of the season, I'd assisted my father-in-law, Bob Larsen, in tagging a buck. By keeping my focus on getting him within comfortable bow range undetected, I had maintained my composure quite well. No nerves.
Now, on the third day, I was making my first attempt at filling my own tag, and my mind was eating me with anxiety. Early in the morning, our hunting buddy Ryan Krampl was glassing one area as Jamie and I watched another, when Ryan called on the cell phone.
"You'd better get over here!" he said. "I've got three bucks bedded in a great spot. And one of them is big!"
The excitement in his voice made me lean just a little harder on the gas pedal, and I could feel my nerves starting to quiver long before we even met up with Ryan.
Before long, Ryan, Jamie, and I were closing the distance across a hayfield toward the grassy draw where the deer had disappeared. After years of hunting together, we didn't have to speak. Ryan simply pointed to the last place he had seen the bucks, and we all knew what to do -- I would go the last 100 yards by myself.
Slowly I advanced, focusing on every crackling step. As the terrain in front of me slowly unfolded, I meticulously glassed the grass for protruding antlers. A rush of anxiety started to overwhelm me. Panic was setting in, a feeling I had dreaded. Why now?
In the previous two days, Bob and I had made four stalks that brought us 25 yards or less from bucks, and these nerves had not haunted me. I'm sure Bob had his own emotional rollercoaster ride, but I had remained eerily calm during the last 100 yards of his stalks. Maybe my focus was on making his first bowhunting experience a good one.
Now, things were different. The bow was in my hand, and success or failure rested solely on me. I tried to remind myself that excitement was the reason I was still so passionate about stalking muleys, but that thought did little to calm my nerves.
In this re-creation of the stalk, I show where I spotted the three bucks bedded in the tall grass just off a dry, crackly hayfield.
Between hunting and guiding, I've stalked literally hundreds of big bucks over the years, and now my body was on autopilot as I constantly scanned ahead, monitored the wind, and placed every step carefully. However, my mind was running rampant, telling me that during the stalks with Bob, the conditions always seemed better. The wind was just a little stronger and more consistent. We knew exactly where the bucks had bedded. The bucks lay in better stalking positions. It just didn't seem fair that my stalk had to be so gut-wrenching and full of uncertainty. Was I just jealous? I shook my head, refocused on the stalk, and mentally slapped myself for the self-pity.
Scanning again, I spotted a second buck, barely 20 yards away. Only his hardened antler tips protruded from the grass. He wasn't the big buck.
Again I peered back toward the velvet buck. His head was dangerously in view. He could see me any time. I prayed the sweltering heat would keep him drowsy and unaware.
Glancing back over my shoulder at the guys 90 yards behind me, I sensed they were getting impatient. They'd sat behind a hay bale for 45 minutes as I inched forward. Well, they would have to stay patient because I wasn't going to rush this one.
In calculated microsteps, I continued forward. Small and slow movements would be my only hope. I ranged the grass in front of the velvet buck at exactly 40 yards. I had a feeling that the big, hard-horned typical would be bedded somewhere below that. If he were still there. If I could make it close enough to see him before the velvet buck saw me.
As the big buck showed signs of standing, I drew my bow and instinct took over, even as my emotions waged war in my mind.
If the third buck lying only 16 yards away didn't hear me. IF the wind didn't betray me.
Again I thought of my father-in-law's last stalk. Over the last 50 yards a tractor tire path made for silent stalking. The wind was consistently in our faces and strong enough to mask our sounds. And, unbelievably, the buck was bedded where we could sneak to 12 yards completely undetected. And when the other guys circled in the distance, the buck stood, looking directly away. Now, even if I were to get a shot, it would likely be at the outer edge of my comfortable shooting range. Easy just doesn't seem to be in my destiny.
The last 100 yards were getting to me. Again, I mentally slapped myself. Focus!
Over the next five minutes I shifted about four yards closer. And then, miraculously, I spotted the big boy, exactly where I thought he would be.
The last 100 yards of a stalk are always stressful, but now I'm enjoyin
g the purest form of stress relief.
Just then a fickle swirl of wind hit the back of my neck. I froze as depression started to well up in me. I waited for the inevitable snap-to-attention from antler tips.
Nothing happened. I was amazed. Next time I would not be so lucky.
At this point I was at a loss for ideas. I couldn't see the vitals of the big buck in the tall grass. It would take an hour for one of the guys to circle around to distract the buck and get him to stand up. The wind would betray me long before that. Glancing around my feet, I could not see any rocks to throw past him. It was wrenching to think that I'd have to wait for him to stand. Experience told me he would wind me before that ever happened.
My mind continued to go rampant. I was excited at sneaking so close to three mature bucks, but I was frustrated with pessimism at knowing I would never get a shot. Too many variables were working against me. At least it was no small consolation that Bob had come away from our bowhunting trip with not only a great first buck but also the experiences. He was hooked, and that had been my one real goal for the hunt.
My mind flashed back to the tines swiveling in the grass in front of me. As if God had decided to bless me with one wish, the big buck lifted his head and casually rose from his bed, quartering away from me.
Instantly I was at full draw, and instinct took over. I vaguely recall floating the 40-yard pin behind his last rib and then seeing a flash cut the air. Chaos and commotion erupted around me, as well as in my head. In three short bounds the big buck burst out of sight, followed by the other two.
A couple of seconds later, two deer emerged from the coulee on the opposite side, but not the third. I spun around and threw my arms in the air to signal the guys. In short order we walked over the hill to see my buck waiting for my tag. After the usual high fives and handshakes, my companions left me alone to gut the buck as they went to get the truck.
From left, our team of Ryan Krampl, Jamie Smith, Bob Larsen, Shawn Stanvick, and me helped Bob complete his first successful stalk on a mule deer.
As I sat in silence beside the buck, I thought about the meaning of those last 100 yards.
For my father-in-law, they proved to be an excellent classroom for learning the basics of stalking prairie muleys. But for me, as always, they taught me about myself. I suffer from skepticism, from indecision, and even jealousy.
I also know that those last 100 yards can wash me of the negativity that floats through my mind; they make me think of the real and positive reasons I crave to close that distance, whether for myself, or for someone I'm privileged to hunt with. Not only do I live for the anxiety, the moments of indecision, and the occasional grace of God, I live to help others experience those last 100 yards I love so much.
When the author isn't closing the distance on Alberta mule deer, he'll be chasing elk and other big game near his home in Elkford, British Columbia.