It’s an annual event for deer hunting lovers. A special time. And for many of us a special place. Even if it’s a brand new place. A place we’ve never been before but seem to have known all our lives. Like the bitterbrush shrub on the end of Elk Knob.
I was up there last evening, nestled against that shrub, hoping to find a mule deer buck for my son-in-law. It was his first deer hunt. Already a father, he’s come late to his inheritance. But genetics will out. If he shelters a spark of the romantic this will not be his last hunt. Not after what we saw.
Deer Hunting Lovers Fumbling in the Dark
We’d started up the mountains in the dark, stumbling over sage limbs hidden in the grass. By dawn we were sneaking over the Knob to a commanding view of Sedge Basin and Muley Saddle. The big mountain loomed on the western horizon, hardwood ridges russet and orange fanning up to black firs standing like exclamation points. We knew elk and mountain lions lived up there, but gravity and distance argued for staying right where we were.
“Moose,” I whispered, and when Brandon looked toward me I aimed my binocular at the big cow and her calf browsing below. Four mule deer foraged over the skyline just above them. The morning show was proving a blockbuster, but mere preview of coming attractions.
The moose left at a long-legged trot, the cow sagging into each step like an old Cadillac on worn springs. “More deer coming over the top,” Brandon said. Six popped over and snapped to attention, watching the moose depart. Seeing nothing to get excited about, they resumed feeding.
A Buck for Deer Hunting Lovers
“There’s a buck,” I said a quarter hour later. “Way out on the neighbor’s pasture. Just above that rocky hump with the maples under it. Where that big sage flat meets the yellow grass.”
“See the antlers?”
“I think so. Yeah.”
“Just a forkhorn. He’s looking back at something behind High Top ridge. Maybe a hunter back there spooked him. Or a cougar.”
“These does are staring that way, too,” Brandon said. “Something’s got their attention.”
The buck wheeled round and bounced toward the high country but suddenly dropped into a canyon that bled off the range to the south. Our does soon relaxed and resumed nipping the summer’s new growth of bitterbrush leaves.
Still-Hunting By Mid-Morning
By mid-morning we’d counted 18 deer on Dancing Springs Ranch, three of them small bucks. But we were getting antsy, new horizons weakening our resolve for patience. “We could still-hunt the maple woods around Hidden Springs,” I suggested. “It’s risky. We could blow them out. We have to go excruciatingly slow, glassing every hole and gap in the trees. One or two steps and glass, another step or two and glass again. But I”ll bet they’re in there.”
They were. But by the time we reached them we were motion-hunting more than still-hunting, more focused on lunch than deer. A flight of rumps, legs, and ears erupted, horizontal lines flashing amid vertical trunks. A glint of antlers. Thump thump thumping that quickly faded up the yellow slope.
I showed Brandon gouges in the leaves, four spurts of moist soil in a bunch, ten feet to the next four. We followed until we broke out of the golden woods into gray sage at the ridge crest. “I bet they ran into Barn Draw. Or maybe they went through the saddle and clear over to the neighbor’s. They’re alert now. No sense in riling them further. How about that sandwich?”
A “Chainge” of Hunts
During mid-day I took my chainsaw on a hunt for firewood while Brandon carried my old 28 gauge through the sage, hoping for his first sharp-tailed grouse. I had nearly filled the bed of the Ranger with my log limit when he returned, beaming, inaugural grouse in hand.
“Thanks. But now I’ve got the fever. Going to be hard sitting still for deer.”
“Hunter’s conundrum. Too many options crammed into the same short fall. But if we stomp around too much we’ll spook the deer. Best to finish that hunt. Sharptails will be open for three more weeks and pheasant season starts next weekend, so we can wade into a smorgasbord.”
Deer Hunt Lovers Back in Action
We were back atop Elk Knob for twilight. Brandon stepped into a little band of huns, elevating his fever again. Then he sat and watched Sedge Basin and Muley Saddle while I backed against that bitterbrush commanding a view of Spring Draw and the main valley clear across to the next mountain range. I scoured the valley with a spotting scope and discovered why we weren’t seeing as many deer as we might have. An alfalfa field two miles away. Lush. Green. And swarming with 98 mule deer. Ninety-eight! Roughly half appeared to be fawns. It had been a wet summer and coyote numbers were low. Eight bucks mingled through the herd, two of them laboring under 4×4 racks of heavy bone sticking beyond their jackass ears. Brandon and I would have been happy to relieve them of their loads.
We were just falling under the shadow of the western mountain when six sharptails rose from the sage and flew our way. I watched them at 10X until I realized they were coming right for me. I dropped the binocular in time to see all of them back pedal and flutter into the grass and sage in front of me. The nearest was just 30 feet away.
Elk Knob was their ridge, a lek site during spring festivities. In fall the older cocks lead the young males to these traditional leks. They even do a bit of dance training. This prepares the youngsters for spring. Just in case the old timers celebrate winter by feeding hawks.
The closest bird detected me within seconds of landing and flushed, but landed again when it realized the others weren’t panicking. Heads popped above the grass, ducked, and re-emerged in new locations. I mimicked the calls they use on their leks, something like “chuckle-uckle” said back in the throat. They seemed to calm. Stayed. Just long enough for a mule deer fawn to walk out of Spring Draw and “dum tee dum tee dee” right into the middle of the covey. It erupted, six beautiful, white-and-gray prairie grouse flaring like a star burst all around and over that little gray deer. The fawn didn’t even flinch. I’d have jumped half out of my camouflage.
Soaking Up the Remains of the Day
Brandon crawled over from his post behind me. I described what he missed. Then we watched two forkhorns and a doe feed up from Spring Draw and cross over into Barn Draw. A rooster pheasant cackled far down slope and I found him in the binocular, gliding off Windy Ridge into the neighbor’s wooded draw for the night. During the last fifteen minutes of shooting light three forkhorn bucks minced from the upper end of the Spring Draw woods. They paralleled the fence, an easy 200 yard shot. Brandon was on them, his rifle in the sticks. But before he could shoot, they hopped the fence. Instantly Dancing Spring Ranch deer became the neighbor’s deer.
“Ready to go?” Brandon asked once they’d walked out of view. He sounded only mildly disappointed.
“Sure, but if you don’t mind waiting a minute or two, the moon should rise over that mountain. Just right of the peak.” A minute later a sliver of silver crested the snowcapped mountain. We could see the turn of the Earth then, its crenated crust sliding under the orb of its satellite, which gave the illusion of the moon sliding up into the deep purple twilight. Far away a coyote howled. Wood smoke curled from our chimney in the valley below, the promise of warmth against the chill of nightfall.
It was a glorious setting, all this. The remains of the day. A perfect scene for lovers wasted on Brandon and his old father-in-law. Or maybe not. For we were lovers. Brandon was falling in love with this annual undertaking we call deer hunting. And I, after 50 years, in love with it still.
Ron Spomer sometimes thinks his hunting world is too beautiful.