High Country Bucks

I had never hunted for deer in the very tip tops of the mountains at high altitude until this past Wyoming deer hunt. It was surprising to see that deer trails ran right along the razorback ridges of the peaks we hunted. Not only that, there were a significant number of deer beds nestled into the scrub pines where little clusters of pine trees managed to spring up at the 10,000 ft. level.

It all began 12 years ago when I began putting in for deer in Wyoming. Not having any idea where to hunt deer, I decided to begin to build points for me and my son knowing that one day we’d get a chance to go chase mule deer somewhere within that state. In early May of this year my son Dallas suggested that this was the year that we ought to get out and hunt Wyoming, so we applied and both drew tags. We had the best of intentions to go scout a particular area multiple times during the summer months, but work/life got in the way. Instead we relied upon Google maps to be the guide that ultimately led us into the backcountry where we’d spend 11 days hunting.

 Wyoming deer hunt backpacking river 

                Lots of water to start the hike

Mid-September found us loaded down and burdened with heavy backpacks as we prepared our journey into the high country. As we set off on our hike along the river, we never would have imagined that what seemed to be an over abundance of water in the area could dry up so quickly the higher we climbed.

 pitched tent sloping mountainside  ridgeline of sharp rocks

                Slope of tent felt worse than it looks                                 Area was loaded with sharp rocks 

After hiking for a while we discovered that we had missed the branch in the trail and now were a mile into the wrong canyon. But after referring to our maps we concluded that hiking up and over an upcoming pass would be quicker, shorter and easier than turning back so onward we trudged. Soon darkness was upon us. We were near the top of the pass but still a couple of miles from our planned destination. At this point we were forced to stop due to the fact that it was dark, we were completely exhausted and out of water. Our plan to filter drinking water along the way as opposed to packing it with us was a miscalculation on our part, there was not a drip of water within a 1 ½ miles. Furthermore, the steep grade of the mountain slope where we stood was not an ideal spot to pitch a tent, but the only other non-option would have been to set up on the ridgeline, right on top of the sharp lava-type rocks. Needless to say, our slick nylon sleeping bags caused us to spend the next couple of nights crumpled down at the bottom of our tent.

Parched, we awoke the next morning, stuffed our water bladders into our backpacks and began our quest to reach the glacier lake. After a rugged hike we finally caught a glimpse of the lake below, what a relief to see that it held water. After descending 1000 feet in elevation and completing the 1 ½ mile hike, we arrived at the lake and began filtering the cool crystal-clear water, which was not effortless. That awful thirst that had amassed over the past 24-hours was now quenched and all of our containers were full, so we departed. Somehow we hoped to ration our water supply in order to last a couple of days at our current high-altitude campsite before having to make the demanding camp relocation nearer to the lake.

 Wyoming glacier lake  filtering glacier lake drinking water

                  A little hard to see, but glacier lake down below                         Filtering was difficult but so worth it

That first day we spotted several bucks, most were small 3 and 4 points but still very promising. Then as evening approached it started to sprinkle and that’s when we got the idea to use our rain tarp as a catch basin for drinking water. Long story short, it was mostly a success – I say mostly because on day two it rained so hard that the entire contraption collapsed. But within days we had a new setup that stored water so well that we never did have to relocate to a lower elevation. That fact afforded us the luxury of waking up each morning high on the mountain slope in an already ideal glassing location without first having to hike 2 hours to get up here.

 rain water catch basin 

                    New rain water catch basin worked perfectly

As the days went by we saw and passed on lots of mature bucks. One buck in particular was a nice 5x4 that caused us pause, but again we passed. One hunter described this buck, a buck he spotted weeks earlier while scouting, as the “trident” buck due to the 3 point crown projection of antler tines on its right side.

 5 point mule deer  4 point mule deer

  The one referred to as the "trident" buck             Passed on nice 4x4 that was eventually taken

But still not quite knowing what to expect, we held out hoping to find a giant; that next level buck. Day after day we watched as hunters bagged buck after mature buck, some of the exact ones we passed on earlier. Over the course of the week we met up with several hunters and were now aware of 8 decent sized bucks that had been taken nearby. But the chatter was that the biggest buck around, which had been seen by several, was still alive and lurking in the very area where we were hunting. So optimistically we continued to hunt for it.

On the morning of day 8 it happened, Dallas spotted the giant feeding on the hillside. Even though Dallas had graciously agreed to let me have first shot, his excitement rose to the level of asking to relieve me of first shot duties. That fleeting thought was short lived as my son quickly helped me get situated for a shot. Once steady, I fired and the buck dropped! Our excitement was at a level that is hard to describe, but that feeling would soon turn to utter shock and disbelief.

 long range shot on deer  rugged cliff

           Buck dropped -- but excitement short lived                  Not easy getting off the cliff -- tracking underway

This very unfortunate part of the story, something that is bound to happen to a hunter during their lifetime, isn’t something I prefer to highlight except to reemphasize the lesson learned -- here’s what happened next: Perched on the edge of a rocky cliff we devised a plan. We’d need to go back to our tent and grab everything needed to quarter and pack out the deer. But before that, we figured we’d continue glassing in hopes of finding a deer for Dallas since it was still very early in the morning. Occasionally we’d glance over at our downed deer out of curiosity and smile. About 35 minutes into our search for another shooter buck, Dallas peeked over at my deer and noticed it had gotten up and was walking. Unbelievably the buck that appeared to have dropped dead in its tracks was getting away. Before we knew it the buck had disappeared into a thicket of pines. Our thought was that the deer had mustered just enough strength to go find a secluded spot as its final resting spot, so we waited. Within a few hours we were headed to where we had last seen the buck. There we found blood, but soon the clouds released a deluge of rain followed by a layer of hail that completely covered the ground.

 tracking deer blood trail 

So much blood, hard to believe we lost the buck

After an hour and a half the storm finally let up, but by that time every trace (blood and footprints) of the deer had been obliterated. We spent the entire day crisscrossing the mountain, looking into about every clump of pines we could hoping to find the buck but never did. Dejected we headed back to camp conceding defeat. The takeaway from this situation is to make sure the animal in question has in fact expired. In hindsight we realized that we could have been more diligent in scrutinizing the animal after it dropped to ensure it had succumbed -- such a difficult lesson to experience.

On our final morning we spotted a particular 4 point that we had seen twice previously within the past week. We knew it was the same buck because of the sticker projection on its left antler, but just as before we again passed on the smaller buck. Finally around 11:00 a.m., after not having seen any deer for a couple of hours, I told Dallas that if we were able to spot “sticker” again that I would attempt a shot since this would be our last day to hunt. As luck would have it, Dallas spotted the buck sneaking along the timberline in the late afternoon. I quickly laid my gun across my backpack and steadied for the shot as Dallas watched through the spotting scope. One shot from the 6.5 Creedmoor and the buck dropped! And this time the buck would not get away.

 Wy deer hunt sunset 

              Last evening as the hunt comes to a close

It was dark before we got to the deer and began the long haul of packing it back to the truck. We finally arrived at the truck at mid-night, unloaded the deer and headed back to camp. By the time we arrived at our tent it was 4:30 a.m., we were exhausted. We slept for 2 ½ hours, woke up, packed up camp and finally made it back out of the high country and to our truck just after 2:00 p.m. What an experience and what a journey, one that was filled with both highs and lows, but all-in-all a fantastic time! Not sure if we’ll be able come back before the season ends, but I hope we can somehow arrange schedules such that Dallas can have a chance to fill his Wyoming deer tag.

 long range shot on deer  rugged cliff

        Couldn't get closer, dropped buck at 927 yards!            Update: Weekend run, Dallas' buck Sunday morning

Update: Made a quick trip over the weekend, started hiking into our spot at dark on Saturday night and got to our camp spot at mid-night. We were up 30 minutes before first light, positioned ourselves on a knob and spotted a couple of nice bucks sparring. It took a couple of hours to get within range, but we found the bucks and Dallas scored!