A place where you can kill either a big whitetail or mule deer is great; a place where you can kill both is twice as good.
The date was November 15, 2008. I was sitting in a giant cottonwood tree, hoping one of the big bucks outfitter Fred Eichler had insisted run this Colorado riverbottom would be on the prowl for does. Just the week before, a local hunter had killed a buck here that scored in the 190s. And Fred and his guides had seen several bucks in the 150 P&Y class in the fields on this property.
In the stifling heat, I had seen only smaller bucks, but maybe the coolness of this morning would bring a big one out of the woodwork. To enhance the possibility, I dragged out the heavy artillery in the form of my favorite rattling antlers, made from a mule deer rack that hung in my dad's garage 30 years ago. Big and heavy, they produce a lot of volume, and my intention was to saturate a few miles of riverbottom with racket.
For a minute I pounded the antlers while swiveling my head like a curious turkey to watch both up and down river. As I peered behind the stand tree, I heard something out front and swiveled my head to see a big buck charging across an opening, straight at my tree. At 20 yards, he slammed on the brakes, his wild eyes probing the brush beneath my stand.
This was the kind of deer that had enticed me here to hunt with Fred. If forced to estimate, I would say he was in the 150-inch P&Y class, give or take. Regardless, he had wide, heavy antlers well worth my 1,000-mile drive from Idaho to Colorado.
Somehow I managed to hang the rattling antlers, pick up my bow, and assume a shooting position. Now he just had to turn. But after a minute of tension, he swapped ends and jogged straight away. I hit the grunt call to stop him. Not a chance. He'd had enough of my silly games.
While that standoff ended in disappointment, it also demonstrated the potential for Eichler's area near Trinidad, Colorado. Not many regions offer quality hunting for both whitetails and mule deer, so when Fred insisted that he could deliver quality bucks of both species, I had to test him.
The first half of the test came in December 2004, when I drove from my Idaho home to Trinidad to hunt mule deer with Fred. Upon my arrival, he explained, "This hunt is unique in that you'll be hunting from treestands, and you can see a long way. So you'll constantly be seeing deer off in the distance. That keeps it interesting. But it's also frustrating because the deer might not be coming anywhere near you.
"The key to this hunt is the fact that they're in rut and moving around," Fred continued. "If you'll be patient and stay on stand, I guarantee you that one of those big bucks will come within bow range."
Patient? Well, patience isn't my long suit, but if that's what the boss ordered, I would try to obey. The first morning, guide Jake Kraus dropped me off in the dark, and as the rising sun cast a glow across the prairie grasses and sagebrush, I learned the truth of Fred's words. In three directions, I could see deer, including several bucks. All morning I watched these deer, hoping they would come near. Frustratingly, they did not.
Over the next two days, the scenario remained the same. In an attempt to steer a muley buck my way, I tried rattling, but the bucks paid no attention.
But they did pay attention to my Primos Can call. Because most were 500 yards or farther away, they did not hear the call when I simply tipped The Can over. So I blew through the hole to increase the volume, and that worked magically.
Watching one buck trotting a quarter mile away, I blew into the call. He made a 90-degree turn from his original route and five minutes later stood 20 yards from my stand.
Up close, I could see he had one deformed antler and was about half the size of some of the other bucks I'd seen. So I simply watched in satisfaction as he jogged on by.
The next day, two yearling bucks came from opposite directions to investigate my calling. When they saw each other, they got into a sparring match 30 yards from my stand.
While this was fun, it was not getting me any shots at the giants Fred and Jake promised me were there -- and that I was seeing in the distance. Fred was right about one thing -- seeing those deer in the distance was frustrating -- and I hoped he would be right when he said, "If you'll be patient and stay on stand, I guarantee you that one of those big bucks will come within bow range."
He was. On the fifth day, I saw a tremendous buck some 300 yards away, plodding along the edge of the cottonwoods, his head hanging low as if his heavy antlers were weighing it down.
When he stopped at 40 yards, I deliberated. Be patient. He'll come closer. Then again, he might not. With my patience wearing thin, and with a shot in the hand, I decided to shoot.
Bad decision. My arrow flew high, and the massive buck disappeared into the wild blue yonder, never to be seen again. I wanted to get sick. My one chance to fulfill Fred's prediction had just vanished.
Jake wasn't so somber. "Don't worry about it. You'll get another chance. You just have to be patient," he said cheerfully when he picked me up that evening.
Patient. Always patient! Am I here to kill a deer, or to test my patience?
Then Jake offered another option that soothed my impatience a little.
"I've seen bucks cruising along a brushy wash across the flat. When they get tired they drop down into the wash to bed in the shade.
"Why don't you hunt the treestand in the morning, and if nothing shows, get down and stalk along that wash? You might catch a buck bedded there."
By 10 a.m. the next morning, no bucks had come my way, and, frankly, after so much time on stand, my patience was wearing thin again. I was ready to do some walking. So I climbed down and met Jake.
"See any bucks cruising?" I asked eagerly.
"A couple, but I don't know exactly where they're bedded," Jake said. "But I think they're in there somewhere, so you'd better go look for them."
With the wind blowing from the west, Jake dropped me off at the eas
t end of the wash, and I started slipping along with the wind in my face, using my 8X binoculars to dissect the shadows.
After a mile or so without success, I came to a 90-degree bend in the wash where dense willows created heavy shadows in the bottom. As I had done a hundred times over the previous two hours, I peered into the shadows, but this time I saw something. What is that? For long minutes I studied it -- and finally made out the hip of a bedded deer, and above it, antlers. Big antlers.
Backing out of sight, I took off my boots and crept silently in my sock feet to the edge of the draw. Now, looking straight down into the wash, I had a clear view of the buck. He was lying 15 yards away, looking straight away from me.
At the shot, the big muley bounded from his bed, ran up the far bank, and tumbled back down into the wash. It was all over within 20 seconds. My impatience had paid off.
Four years later, on November 11, 2008, I returned to test Fred on the second half of his promised double -- a big whitetail. Unlike the mule deer, which roam randomly across a broad expanse of prairie, the whitetails travel a narrow, brushy river corridor bounded by agricultural fields.
To orient me, guide Lee Whitcraft took me to the property to show me the layout. He and Fred had placed stands at four strategic points along a mile of riverbottom -- two at the east end near a cornfield, one in the middle next to an alfalfa field, and the fourth beside a creek at the west end of the property.
"The does feed in the corn and alfalfa at night and then bed in the brush along the river during the day," Lee explained. "The bucks travel up and down the river, checking for does. They cover a lot of miles, so you have to be patient and wait for the right one to show up."
Patient? Here we go again. Whether Fred and Lee could deliver on a whitetail to go with the mule deer remained to be seen, but they certainly could test my patience.
Because I was the only whitetail hunter at the time, I had my run of the property and could pick where and when I wanted to hunt. Using Lee's guidance and suggestions, I analyzed which stands would work best under given wind conditions. At one stand I created a mock scrape, and I placed a trail camera at another. Because I was hunting a narrow strip of land, I always sprayed my boots and clothes with Scent Killer before heading to any stand to avoid contaminating the trails with my scent.
As on the mule deer hunt, I relied heavily on aggressive calling, but for different reasons:
For the mule deer, I called because I could see deer in the distance and wanted to bring them into range. Here I called because I could not see deer in the dense brush and wanted to bring them into view.
Over the first six days, I called-in a half-dozen small bucks and had several visit the mock scrape, but after seeing that wild-eyed monster described at the beginning, plus two other large bucks in the distance, I tried to remain patient and let the smaller bucks walk.
Sooner or later, a big one would make a mistake.
On November 18, with only two days left to hunt, I went to the west-end stand at 1 p.m.
The wind was perfect there, and because the afternoon was hot, I figured deer might come to the creek for water. To enhance the setup, I placed a Carry-Lite buck decoy with one antler 20 yards from the stand and hung a scent dispenser charged with estrous doe scent nearby.
This was the only stand in the riverbottom that offered a view, and I could see at least 200 yards across a flat south of the stand. Despite the heat, deer were moving, and within my first hour on stand I saw three bucks cruising in the distance -- two small ones and one real brute. I hit the brute with my best calling efforts, but he would have no part of it.
About 4 p.m., a very nice eight-pointer crossed the creek 200 yards west of my stand and headed east along the flat. I grunted and bleated, but he paid no attention.
So, again, I pulled out the heavy artillery -- the big antlers. At the first clash, he stopped and looked, but then he kept on going straight and disappeared into the brush along the creek a quarter mile beyond.
With him out of sight, I could only wonder. Did he keep going upstream? Might he double back to pull a sneaky maneuver on me? Whatever the case, I rattled for another minute and then hung the antlers, picked up my bow, and watched quietly. Five minutes went by. No deer. He must have kept going.
Then I saw antler tines slipping through the brush. Sneaky devil! Thirty yards out, he came into view. He was not the big one Fred had promised. Indeed, I'd seen several bigger. Be patient, I thought. Hold out.
Knowing the precise source of the rattling, the buck homed in on my position, deliberately weaving through the brush. As he passed 15 yards from my stand, I vacillated. Should I shoot? Should I wait?
Suddenly he spotted the decoy to his right and slammed on the brakes, ears laid back, hair bristling the length of his body. As he presented a perfect shot angle, the words of Fred, Jake, and Lee flashed through my mind. If you're patient, you will get a shot at a big one€¦
And with only one full day left to hunt, and a buck virtually in the hand, my brain shot back, Enough with patience. Shoot him!
When I released, the buck sprinted 50 yards, spun in a circle, and crashed to the ground.
With a beautiful eight-pointer on the ground, my prairie double was complete.
Clearly, Fred had passed the test with only one slight error -- my whitetail was not the monster he had promised. But, then, I couldn't really grade him down for that. The fact is, I had failed the test of patience.
Author's Notes: For the mule deer, I used a Hoyt Protec at 50 lbs., Easton A/C/C 3-49 arrows, and Rocky Mountain Ti-125 broadheads. For the whitetail, I used a Mathews Drenalin at 45 lbs., Carbon Express 250 shafts, Rage two-blade broadheads, and a Carry-Lite Deer Decoy. For both I used Summit hang-on stands; Nikon 8x42 Premier binoculars; Primos Can calls; Knight & Hale, and Jones grunt calls; and Wildlife Research Center Scent Killer products and attractor scents.
In addition to his mule deer and whitetail hunts, Fred Eichler offers exceptional bowhunts for elk, antelope, black bears, mountain lions, and turkeys. Contact: Fred Eichler, Fulldraw Outfitters, (719) 846-2545, Info@fulldrawoutfitters.net, www.fulldrawoutfitters.com.