Advancing age is not a handicap. It only makes tough western bowhunts so much the sweeter.
Some people dread turning 60, but I took the positive route by going bowhunting and celebrated with my biggest mule deer ever.
THIS WAS TOO GOOD to be true! It was late September 2007, the first morning of my mule deer hunt in eastern Wyoming, and I had one of the biggest bucks known to live on this ranch focused in the lenses of my binoculars. Better yet, he was bedded in the shade of a small pine with a rock knoll only 30 yards behind him.
A light wind perfectly favored an approach from the knoll. It was almost 10 a.m., and the sun insistently blanched the white sandstone canyon where the buck looked comfortable and alone. How often does this happen? I thought. Almost never!
IN A SENSE, IT was a birthday present. In July I had turned 60, and feeling no worse for wear, I had booked two hunts -- a moose and mule deer hunt in Utah for early September, and this Wyoming mule deer and antelope hunt for later that same month.
On the Utah hunt, temperatures had reached 90 degrees, making the hunting a bust. But the experience had many redeeming qualities. When I first met my guide Josh Smith, a 24-year-old, college-educated young man full of great humor and tons of energy, I thought, He's too young to have much guiding or hunting experience, and I won't be able to keep up with this grasshopper.
Fortunately, I was wrong on both counts. Each morning, Josh and I rode a Honda quad almost 10 miles to reach mountains on far corners of the ranch. If not for the well-cushioned passenger seat, I'd have quickly felt my age on that rig.
After parking the quad, we proceeded on foot, and climbing to one of several mountain lookouts became routine on this two-week hunt. At 60, I'm active and carry no extra weight, and I found it relatively easy to stay on Josh's heels. As we were climbing one day, Josh stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and offered one of the best compliments of my later life, "I told my boss that if animals were high, there is no way a 60-year-old man could climb the mountains on this ranch. I was wrong. I'm not so sure you're not in better shape than me."
WITH AN AFFIRMATION like that, this Grandpa four times over was feeling eager and confident upon reaching the coulees and canyons in the rolling topography of eastern Wyoming. And this year's Wyoming hunt would be extra special because my wife, Connie, had agreed to go along to try her first rifle hunt for antelope and mule deer. Thus, I allowed myself only three days of archery hunting before she and other ranch hunters pulled out the rifles. The pressure was on!
Although I'd always hoped Connie would take an interest in archery hunting, bows somewhat intimidate her. She had taken many trophy animals on four continents with rifle and muzzleloader, but she had never showed more than reluctant curiosity about bows. Maybe this would be the trip that would change her mind.
This was a self-guided hunt, but to acquaint me with the land, ranch manager Tom Bruegger met me at daybreak on the first day. The prior evening, his son, Thompson, had showed us a photo of a buck they called Granddad. This tremendous buck carried a 5x4 rack with brow tines and a cheater point off each G2 fork. As we drove to the far border of the ranch, I asked Tom where Granddad had been seen of late.
This fine pronghorn was a bonus during my allotted three days of bowhunting in Wyoming.
"I'll show you where he hangs out," Tom said. "He usually comes across this wheatfield about daybreak and heads into the big chalk-rock canyon." We had no more than started glassing when Tom blurted, "There he is headed for the canyon with another big 4x4."
There is no more stately sight than two huge mule deer bucks crossing a newly sprouted winter wheatfield. None! Granddad appeared to have at least 180 inches of antler. My biggest muley to date grossed 1695„8 inches, so Granddad would be a career-topper for me. However, with only three days to bowhunt, I had to keep my goals realistic. Granddad would earn a full-day's effort from me before I would settle for a lesser buck. Tom described the lay of the land and bedding areas of this huge chalk-rock canyon and then took me back to our camper.
"GOOD LUCK!" CONNIE WISHED ME as I drove our Polaris Ranger from camp with my backpack and bow. Motoring within a mile of the canyon wall, I parked the Ranger and headed out on foot. Plan A was to climb down into the canyon and cross its mile width. My starting point for the stalk would be two miles from where the buck had entered. Mature bucks go out of their way to seek secluded bedding, so this was the only way I could be sure he'd be somewhere in the shadows between me and the wheatfield.
A creek flowed through the bottom of the canyon. As I approached a rise overlooking the tiny stream, several does and small bucks busted out. They had not spotted or winded me, but obviously heard rocks "tick" under my boots. Only after they moved across a ridge and into another coulee did I parallel the creek and start glassing ahead for antlers in the crannies of the canyon.
Over the next hour, I spotted several bedded bucks. Under normal circumstances, two would have suited me fine, but today I was after Granddad. When I was about a mile from where we'd last seen the big buck, the wind shifted 90 degrees. Within seconds, numerous does and four bucks bounced out of their beds and stopped just 30 yards away. Two of the bucks had headgear of 160 inches or more. My body was only half exposed to them. They winded the air, trying to detect the source of human odor. Will they stay put if I draw on the biggest buck? I wondered. Incredibly, they did.
Had it been day two or three, the 4x4 in my sights would have been in trouble. But letting off the bow, I slowly dropped to my knees and crawled back the way I'd come. My biggest fear was that these deer would bust into the next coulee and alert my intended target.
Thankfully, they stayed put. Adjusting my stalk according to the new wind direction, I forged ahead.
BINGO! GLASSING DIRECTLY below a rock shelf in the mouth of a wide coulee, I saw the bedded buck. My 10x40 Leupolds were enough to identify his brow tines and small cheaters. He looked alone and content in the shadow of a pine. A rocky knoll 30 yards downwind of the buck set up the perfect stalk -- I thought.
Figuring the simplest plan of attack w
ould be to hike past the buck and drop into the coulee downwind of him, I climbed out of the canyon and back into the wheatfield. Refusing to allow over-optimism to make me rush, I kept low to the ground until well onto the flat. Granddad wasn't going anywhere soon, so I paused for a drink of water and a snack bar.
Moving ahead again, I noticed something out of place in the wheatfield about 300 yards away. Wouldn't you know it! The sagebrush-looking projection was a young 4x4 buck standing in a slight swale. Upon noticing me, he got nervous and bee-lined for the canyon. The only chance of salvaging things was to cut him off and turn his stalk-busting hide back into the field. The harder I ran, the faster he trotted toward the canyon.
Peeking over the canyon wall from behind a boulder, I watched the young buck heading straight at my prize, as does and bucks busted out from behind almost every large rock. Granddad soon appeared on a ridgetop, and other deer gathered around him, all looking in the direction of the wheatfield.
Eventually, they calmed down and crested the ridge out of sight. What now? I deliberated. There are too many deer around him. Dogging Granddad might push him to the next ranch.
Since his general direction was toward where Tom had spotted him at daybreak, Plan B was to sit a ground blind that afternoon and hope he'd show before dark. Funny, I reflected. As a younger hunter, I'd have tailed him until sundown, trying to get the shot. As a Grandpa, I know that's the wrong thing to do.
AS WE ATE LUNCH together, Connie intently listened to every word about the morning's events. It must have sounded like any of a hundred stories she had heard before. Maybe she was simply reciprocating with patience for all those times I've tolerated hearing about her shopping trips?
Whatever the case, we headed out after lunch to try for an antelope. With Connie in a ground blind and me in a lock-on strapped 12 feet up a windmill, it took me all of an hour to drop a nice buck antelope. Noting how my 60-pound PSE had driven the arrow through both shoulders, centering the heart, I commented to Connie that 40-pounds draw weight would be plenty for her to achieve the same deadly results.
BY 4 O'CLOCK, WE were in another ground blind by a cattle tank where Granddad had watered at daybreak that morning. A group of four bucks soon jumped a fence from behind and began feeding in the wheat. An hour before sundown, two dozen does and six bucks poured out of the canyon about 300 yards away. Granddad was last in the group to show. The animals nipped off blades of new wheat like slow-moving lawnmowers but showed no interest in coming to water.
Then the four bucks behind us, joined by another two, slowly started closing in. A mature 4x3 and a 4x4 were definitely shooters.
"Will you shoot one of those bucks if Granddad doesn't come in?" Connie whispered.
"We'll see what happens," I answered. "Two of those would be tough to turn down. Hope I don't have to make that choice."
With only 20 minutes of shooting light left, the area became almost zoo-like as does began pouring into the waterhole like dominos in a row. The exceptionally hot September day had taken its toll. The does were like a checkered flag for the bucks, and two 160-inch bucks intimidated their way past the does and sucked-up water.
What now? Fill my tag -- or wait?
Intent on the deer in front of us, we had lost track of Granddad, and now, even with binoculars, neither of us could spot his towering antlers. Surely he had headed to the other waterhole closer to where his bachelor group had fed. Agonizing over the decision at hand, I slowly nocked an arrow and considered the bucks before me.
"Here comes a big buck behind a doe," Connie whispered. Slowly, I moved to-ward her to get the same view out the shooting window. It was Granddad.
The slight movement from inside the blind caused a doe to snort and jump back from the waterhole. Every deer within eyeshot froze in its tracks. This isn't happening, I begged.
The doe in front of Granddad was the first to continue our way, and the big buck soon followed. Deer began drinking again. I eased down and out of view and locked my release to the string. Bucks and does alike moved to the side to allow Granddad full access to water. Within seconds, he was broadside and in the open. I drew and held on the 18-yard target. Just as the arrow took flight, a doe bumped him from behind, and the arrow hit him behind the shoulder and traveled the full length of his body and out the left ham. At full gallop, he flew back into the canyon.
There was little doubt that this was a dead deer; he could not have gone far, so we split up and started the search. Before long, Connie spotted the buck expired in a rock pile and called my name. While standing over him, admiring his antlers freshly shed of velvet, we hugged each other in joy.
Later that evening, I thanked Tom Bruegger for allowing me to take this fine trophy. You see, Tom is a skilled archer and hunter himself, and he undoubtedly could have harvested the buck before my arrival. Instead, he set up an encounter between Grandpa and Granddad. Happy 60th birthday, Grandpa!
To take this exceptional buck, I used a PSE FireStorm Lite bow set at 60 pounds, 300 CX arrows, and 100-grain Steel Force Phathead broadheads.
This Wyoming hunt only got better when Connie tagged a beautiful mule deer buck at daybreak two days later. After dragging the dandy 5x4 with three-inch brow tines behind the blind for photos, we noticed a lone antelope buck heading our direction. We jumped back into the ground blind and flickered a hankie to arouse his curiosity, and Connie dropped the antelope at 100 yards. Connie bought a bow in November and has become proficient enough to use it next year in Wyoming. I'm pleased that Grandma and Grandpa will be bowhunting together, and I can see one huge additional benefit -- fewer shopping-trip stories to endure.
Two of our four grandkids, Daniel, 7, and Madison, 10, took their hunter safety courses and were patiently waiting back in Illinois for Grandpa to take them on their first youth firearms deer hunt. Daniel scored a fawn doe and Madison a young buck. I'm proud to say they both have been shooting bows for two years. "Grandpa, thank you for taking me hunting," are words I hope to hear for many more years.
The author is a regular Contributor from Clayton, Illinois.