When it comes to mule deer, the finest trophies are not always the biggest.
He was not the biggest buck in the woods -- or even within bow range -- but he fulfilled a big promise, which was reason enough for me to smile.
As the two Colorado muleys, one a big 5x5, the other a forkhorn, approached my hideout and froze at 20 yards, I raised my bow and came to full draw.
Which one should I shoot? I asked myself.
Now, that seems like a really stupid question. After all, the 5x5 would make a beautiful trophy. His massive, dark antlers rose high over his age-whitened face, and his new winter coat was in prime condition. His cape and mighty antlers were flawless. What a great trophy!
The forkhorn, like his larger companion, wore his winter pelage, but his antlers were still covered in velvet. Compared to his companion, he was not much of a buck. Why would any self-respecting outdoorsman even consider shooting the smaller deer? To answer that question, we have to flash back a few months.
It was a crazy promise. Sure, I knew better. But I made it anyway, even though I've learned from many years of bowhunting never to guarantee the outcome of a hunt. The uncertainties of bowhunting are just too great to make predictions.
But when it comes to my kids, I can be a real bozo. If I'm in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, I'll promise them just about anything.
Of course, coming through on those promises is another story altogether. Someday, when they're grown up, they will probably reminisce sadly on how often Dad let them down.
But for now, I usually just shrug and say "Sorry, I tried," and that seems to pacify them.
So this past season, when my 10-year-old daughter, Hailey, said, "Dad, can you get me a fuzzy one?" I said without hesitation, "You betcha." What had I done? I'd just promised to get her a mule deer buck in velvet.
I wondered if the earlier-than-usual autumn colors were somehow related to the bucks' early shedding of their velvet.
In my defense, that response did have a history. I had also promised to bring her a buck in velvet the previous season. When I told her she could have the antlers to hang on her bedroom wall, she had smiled from ear to ear. But when I brought home a hard-antlered deer, Hailey's disappointment was palpable.
So what could I do? A velvet buck it was. And I had to deliver this time.
To completely understand my situation, you have to understand Hailey's opinions about deer antlers. She cares very little about the size of the rack. Her focus is on its symmetry and form.
A few years back, we were watching a hunting video together, when I found myself mumbling, "Wow, what a beautiful buck!" as a 160-inch whitetail stepped into the frame, along with a much smaller deer.
"Which one are you raving about?" Hailey asked.
"The big sucker," I said, somewhat peeved at the question. Wasn't it obvious?
"I'd shoot the other deer," Hailey said. "He's more even, and he doesn't have those weird points sticking out all over the place."
Even more notably, Hailey is fascinated by antlers in velvet and will even pet the fuzzy headgear as if it were a hamster. Thus, her request for a "fuzzy one" was understandable, if somewhat unrealistic.
Anyway, she was adamant. She really wanted me to bag a "fuzzy one." And I had promised. I would do my best to deliver.
This is the ambush spot where I fulfilled my crazy promise. Moments after I'd settled in, nine bucks paraded by.
For the most part, with most species and on most occasions, I'm not really interested in trophy hunting. If I lean in that direction at all, it's with mule deer. A huge muley mount, with its white face and massive antlers, is quite an impressive display. And this year, I had drawn a tag for a terrific area known to hold some big deer. So as opening day approached, I had my hopes set on a big, older deer. A trophy. In velvet.
While scouting, I located two groups of bucks, both of which held some great trophies.
At that time, in late August, all of the deer were in full velvet, and with the season to open in a couple of days, things were looking good. This would be my year to tag a wallhanger -- and to fulfill my promise.
Of all the nice bucks I had scouted, one really stood out. He was a 5x6, with unique webbing and an extra tine on the left side of his rack. His velvet was a darker shade of brown than that of the other bucks. What a beauty! He might not go quite 30 inches wide, but he was close.
A week into the season, after some close encounters, I set off early one morning on a grueling but invigorating hike to a high vantage point, where I spotted several bucks in velvet feeding 500 yards away across a field of wildflowers. The deer were heading toward a copse of spruce trees, and I figured that if I hurried I might be able to set up an ambush in the heavy cover. The big 5x6 was in this group.
After circling around and settling into the trees, I waited patiently for the deer to arrive.
Although they continued in my direction, they stayed in the middle of the field and never entered the heavy cover. Since they were not coming any closer, I decided to crawl through some high grass to get within bow range. Despite my best efforts, I could never get closer than 70 yards, too far to shoot, and the bucks finally vacated the area.
After several unproductive hunts in other locations, I decided to return to the spot where I had last seen the unusual 5x6. Heading straight to the spruce grove, I settled in for the parade that was sure to come, and within 30 minutes, deer began moving through the field of wildflowers.
This time, though, they were traveling the edge, where they would come within bow range. Fir
st, a little 4x4 and a doe strolled by, and 10 minutes later, a big 3x3 showed.
Then it struck me -- even though it was only September 10, both of these bucks had hard, polished antlers. The velvet was gone. Having hunted this area for many years, I knew that the bucks normally kept their velvet until late September. What is going on here? I wondered. Maybe these two were just a little anxious, a little ahead of the crowd.
Five minutes later, I heard a branch crack loudly, and then the real show got underway.
But even with eight bucks now walking single file toward my position, I was more perplexed than excited. All of their racks were free of velvet. The 5x6 was almost unrecognizable now, with his shiny new headgear. There were no "fuzzy" bucks in the crowd.
Would I let my daughter down again?
When my daughter, Hailey, smiles like this, I'm a goner. Trophy bucks are great, but my kids have far more power over me, and I'll do some crazy things to please them.
In the distance, a grove of aspen trees glowed with vibrant shades of orange and yellow.
It seemed to me the leaves had turned color early. Could the earlier-than-usual colors be related to the bucks losing their velvet so soon? I wondered. Maybe everything is in an accelerated mode this year?
Slowly the bucks strutted past my ambush spot. I was tempted to drop the string on that beautiful 5x6. But plenty of daylight remained, and I was determined not to disappoint my daughter again. Maybe a nice velvet buck would appear soon.
However, no more deer showed over the next two hours, and with sunset only minutes away I headed back to camp. The sunset that evening was spectacular, but the tranquility of the moment made me contemplate my predicament. I was getting a little nervous now that I might have to tell Hailey once again, "Sorry, I tried."
Maybe tomorrow would be better.
Well, tomorrow came, and after a restless night, I decided to try another spot where I had seen several bucks in velvet a few days earlier. It was an area of heavy cover, where the deer seemed relaxed while traveling to their bedding grounds.
Only minutes after I'd settled in, deer began to appear, led by a forkhorn -- in velvet.
Things were looking up. But not one of the eight bigger bucks that followed was still in velvet. One of them was a perfect 5x5, a real beauty. As he separated from the other seven deer and paralleled the forkhorn, I could see that his antlers were polished clean.
Together the pair of bucks closed in on me, turning broadside at 20 yards. Here was my opportunity. And here was my dilemma.
What should I do?
As a hunter, the answer was obvious. As a dad, the answer was even more obvious.
Without hesitation, I settled the sight pin on the young buck in velvet and squeezed off the release. He ran 40 yards and dropped. As I sat down and gathered my thoughts, my heart was racing wildly, and my bow arm was trembling. I was shaken, and in a haze I asked myself, What on earth have you done?
At that moment, I could not make sense of anything. Reality was still settling in. I had passed up the bigger buck, and that was the right decision. But the scene was surreal, like a dream. The small buck lay there motionless as the old monarch bounded away into the distance. My eyes seemed to be fogging up. Again I wondered, What have you done?
The answer would come later at home, when Hailey, thrilled to no end, would rub her hands along the beams of those fuzzy antlers and smile widely.
"Thanks, Dad," she would say.
And I would know I could not have shot a finer trophy mule deer.
The author, a resident of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has had several feature stories published in the pages of Bowhunter.
Author's Notes: For this hunt, I used a Hoyt VTEC at 68 lbs. draw weight, Easton Axis 400 arrows, Fuse sight and quiver, Kumasi mechanical broadheads, Bausch and Lomb 10x42 binoculars, and a Bushnell spotting scope.