September 02, 2022
By Justin Gordon
It seems to me, that hunting is a constant search for greater perspective. Greater perspective of the terrain, the quarry, the world, and myself.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to talk to fellow hunters packing out early and empty-handed, only a couple days after their arrival in the backcountry. Often, as we chat, they share their excitement in planning and preparing for the seven to 10-day hunt, and then they share their disappointment as they head home when their hunt has only just begun. Everyone’s situation is unique, but I find that focusing on results or a specific outcome tends to diminish perspective of, and gratitude for, the opportunity we have to pursue big game. Finding gratitude for the daily adventures and appreciating all that surrounds us in the backcountry leads to success, no matter how you define it.
The adventure of the next hunt begins as soon as the last hunt ends. Reflecting on lessons learned, scouring maps and other resources, applying for hunts, repairing and upgrading gear, etc. It seems as if I blink and I’m on the trail again at midnight, two days before opening morning.
If I’m comfortable with the terrain, I prefer to be sleep-deprived and hike into my hunting camp via headlamp in the cool of the night, rather than get beat-down by the heat of the sun. For the past several years, I have elected to rent llamas. I think the cool nighttime temps are also easier on the animals, while helping us all make it up the mountain a little quicker. Leaving the trailhead at midnight means I’ll be setting up camp around 10 a.m., get a nap, and still catch the prime evening glassing hours.
I believe it is worth taking extra time in hunt preparation to ensure that your camp does not interfere with the movement patterns of deer and elk. That often means it probably won’t be the most convenient spot to camp, but when in doubt, camp farther out. Most of my camping spots require up to an hour-long predawn hike each morning just to get to my glassing spots.
Arriving in the backcountry a couple of days before the opener gives me an opportunity to get up to speed on current animal locations in the pockets I hope to hunt. Prior to arrival, I use Google Earth to plan glassing locations that will enable me to efficiently scour as much terrain as possible during the hours of animal movement. Below, I recount a recent mule deer hunt that characterizes some of my hunting strategies…
The night before the archery opener, I find that a worst-case scenario has played out in one of my target areas. A group on horseback has dropped a hunting camp 50 yards from where a small bachelor group of muley bucks spent their summer. The wide 4x4 I’m interested in has disappeared, and based on who has moved into the neighborhood, I won’t see that buck again during this hunt.
I run 45 minutes to another glassing spot before the sun goes down. I am now in search of a deer that I caught a glimpse of about a month earlier during a scouting trip. My glassing perch provides the only perspective from which to view the pocket of earth this deer finds comfortable. It is impossible to see or hunt this deer from the same side of the canyon that he dwells on. I am 1½ miles away from the deer as the crow flies, glassing across a large drainage. The terrain around him blocks any view of the buck from anywhere else on my side of the canyon, and anywhere nearer his location.
The last hour of glassing before opening morning becomes increasingly tense as the light fades. With minutes left to glass, a “rock” on the edge of my binocular’s field of view lifts its head and shows off an impressive antler frame. Now, watching it walk away from a stand of timber, I believe the buck has got to be big, given the distance and low-light conditions. By the time I pull my 12x50 binoculars off the tripod and get my spotting scope on the buck, I can’t make out details until he turns his head just enough that I think I see an inline cheater on his back left side. Was that him? I wonder. That cheater was the distinguishing feature I‘d picked out on the buck a month earlier.
No matter how old I get, sleep is still scarce the night before opening morning of an archery hunt. I check my watch — it’s 1 a.m. Hours later, I’ve made the hike to my glassing perch, but the gray light of predawn is unproductive behind the binoculars. As light slowly increases, I have a short window of time before the sun peeks over the ridge. Still nothing. I am soon blinded by the sun shining directly into my binoculars. I have some hope that the morning is not lost, because the buck I seek inhabits a spot that stays in the shadows until late in the morning. By the time I can make out deer in the distance, the search is frantic.
After what feels like a full day of intense glassing, a miracle takes place at around 9 a.m., and I locate the buck with the inline cheater. He is on the move, traveling longer distances between brief moments of browsing. He acts like he has an appointment somewhere and isn’t waiting around for the other bucks in his small group. If I take my eyes off of him, even for a moment, he may drop into a fold in the terrain or bed down in such a way that I won’t be able to relocate him.
After about 40 minutes of my muscles cramping due to lack of movement, the deer walks into a stand of timber. Several minutes pass without seeing him emerge. Has he moved out through cover or a depression in the terrain that I can’t see? A small buck walks into the same stand of timber and abruptly backs out, which likely means the inline buck didn’t want to share the space. After the three other bucks bed down, I am more comfortable with the idea that my target buck is bedded in the timber. After I take a moment to relax, I realize that I am looking at the same stand of timber that the buck walked out of the night before. Will he stay put until evening?
I spend roughly 20 minutes taking photos and putting together a game plan. I review my notes of the weather and wind forecast. The wind forecasts today are amazingly accurate, so before I leave cell service on each hunt, I take screenshots of the hourly wind forecast for the drainages and mountainsides I plan to hunt.
It’s a little after 10 a.m. when I drop from my glassing perch. In my trek to the buck’s bedding area, I cross a fairly deep drainage. There is a quick elevation loss of nearly 1,000 feet before crossing the drainage and heading up the other side into position. To take advantage of the wind coming up the drainage, I need to circle well above the animal and descend into position. Using the photos as a guide, and taking the long way around, I finally arrive in position at around 3 p.m. There were no lunch breaks along the way. I’ve been on the move for the last five hours. When I arrive, I have no idea if the deer has long since gone. I can only hope that his pattern today is similar to what I witnessed the prior evening.
The hillside is much steeper than it looks from across the basin. I position myself on a small shelf completely out of sight from the buck, but I can range the top of the trees that surround his bed at 35 yards. Along with the cover in front of me, my outline is completely muted by the broken rock wall at my back, which allows me just enough room to come to full draw. Due to the rocks and the shelf in front of me, the deer will need to move several yards away from his bed before I can see him, but that is better than pressing my luck by peering over or around these features. It is enough to know that I am 35 yards from where I last saw the buck, and if he comes out the same way he did the night before, I should have a shot. I have a strong wind in my favor, and I set up with the intent to stay until dark and walk out via headlamp if necessary.
The sun is beating down. A cloud would be nice. That thought no sooner crosses my mind when a few clouds suddenly move over the sun to provide some relief.
It’s past 4 p.m., and the bit of cloud cover has held for 15 minutes. Suddenly, there is movement below me. The tips of velvet-covered antlers dance out from behind the rock shelf that hides the buck’s bed from my view. I range the antlers and freeze as the buck’s head emerges from behind cover. He is 12 yards away, and I can’t move. The sun pops out from behind the clouds and the buck turns back to where he came from, while I remain frozen with the rangefinder to my eye.
With the buck out of sight, I begin moving to my left, keeping my back against the cliff. By the time I have moved far enough from cover that I can see him, he’s 34 yards away — the steep cut calling for a 27-yard shot.
A quartering-away shot presents itself, and at the shot the buck spins to run back in my direction. He passes 15 yards below me and drops. Unfortunately, the terrain is so steep that he rolls until he goes off a 20-foot cliff. Below the cliff, thick vegetation halts his tumble.
Shortly after dark, the animal is quartered and in game bags. I move the game bags from the steep terrain and hang them in trees for the night. I arrive back at my tent sometime around 1 a.m. and enjoyed some intensely deep sleep. By 8:30 a.m., I leave camp with empty llamas en route to the meat stash, which takes me farther away from my truck at the trailhead. Sometime around 10 p.m. that evening, I make it to the trailhead and unload the meat from tired llamas and load my truck.
There is something satisfying that comes with the perspective gained through great exertion. Every hunt is unique; every hunt is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience that will never be duplicated. May we all do what is within our power to defend and protect the freedoms that allow us to enjoy such pursuits on the public lands of this great country. God Bless America.
The author lives in Kamas, Utah, and he holds the current World Record for nontypical velvet mule deer.
On this hunt, my gear included a Hoyt RX-5 bow, Easton 4MM Long Range arrows, Grim Reaper broadheads, Hamskea Trinity rest, CBE Engage 5-pin sight, Swarovski 12x50 EL binos, Zeiss Diascope 65 spotting scope, Sitka clothing, and Crispi Attiva boots.