When One Door Opens

Pursuing a game species for the first time is an exciting endeavor, but it's also a time to pocket the core hunting skills you've learned and throw the rest out the window.

Sometimes, either when I don't get to bed as early as I’d like or laziness simply gets the best of me, I sleep with my contacts in. It always seems like a good idea at the time—a harmless streamlined route to an opportunity to sleep away the cares of the day and start anew.

But this night was different. I hustled to bed with contacts installed, all the while knowing sleep wasn’t likely to come. The only path that leads to tomorrow meanders through the night, and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come.

“OK, Luke,” Gary said, doing his best to swallow the mild frustration that was growing in the back of his throat. It’s always a neat experience when the camp cook doubles as a guide, and I’ve learned quite quickly that if there’s one person in camp I need to schmooze more than all others, it’s the cook.

“You see that dead tree hanging from that cliff face?” Gary continued. “Look straight down below that tree into the valley, just to the left of that thickest clump of trees.”

I clawed at the dry, cloudy contacts that were keeping me from seeing my first muley buck of the trip. With dirty fingers, I wiped at my screaming eyes and stuffed them back into the bino for another go at this “elusive” buck.

“I still don’t see him, boss.”

“He’s already moved into those trees to bed for the day,” Gary reported. “Lucky for you he wasn’t a shooter.”

I looked at Gary and smiled.

“If you were a guide worth even half his salt, you’d get me a bit closer than three-quarters of a mile.”

Seeing The Light
And so began my first mule deer expedition in the rolling mountains of eastern Oregon. But even with a temporary self-inflicted visual impediment, I felt like I could see clearly for the first time in my hunting career.

With the aid of good glass—a topnotch bino backed-up occasionally with a solid spotting scope, and eventually, hopefully, my riflescope—we were spotting deer from hundreds of yards away and planning accordingly. Even with more than 700 yards between my trigger finger and a potential shooter buck, having the ability to almost always be seeing deer because of the open terrain kept my focus and drive in high-gear.

There was no sitting and waiting for deer unseen like I’d grown up doing in the Midwestern whitetail woods. It was aggressive, action-filled big game hunting with a “go get ’em” twist, and I was immediately hooked.

But I also quickly learned that being immediately hooked was something I needed to be wary of. If you live out West or have hunted out West, then you’re likely already laughing at me. But if you have yet to hunt where the vistas are huge and the sky is even bigger, I discovered it’s way too easy to be consumed by the little camo-covered devil sitting on my shoulder who constantly whispers in my ear, “I wonder what’s over that next ridge? Let’s go look!” Problem is, there are way too many “next ridges,” and I wanted to touch ’em all.

Hunting, Redefined
My guide for the day, Holt Morris, hunting partner, Trent Keller, and I had just finished getting some dirt from the steep embankments of Willow Creek Butte in our boot treads and were settling in for a long glassing session when Holt gave us the hit list lineup.

According to Holt, there were three mature bucks that had inhabited this butte all summer. Two of the muleys were respectable 4x4s, but the clear leader of the bachelor group was an impressive 3x4—he was one of the biggest deer on the property, in fact.

This was my first muley hunt, and setting the bar high right out of the gate sounded like an excellent plan to me. In my book, bigger is always better.

Trent and I were in the middle of an intense MMA (mixed-martial arts) discussion when movement caught my eye. I put down my bino, slipped into the prone position across my daypack and centered the lead animal in my crosshairs.

He was beautiful—unquestionably a mature animal—with broad shoulders and a freakishly red-tinted coat that seemingly made him sparkle as he trotted slightly below us at 150 yards. He was the leader with two buddies behind, and I wanted him badly.

“Don’t you dare shoot, Hartle,” whispered Holt. There wasn’t a bit of sarcasm in his voice.

“But I’ve never seen such a beautiful critter with such a …”

“If you shoot that coyote, you’ll spend the rest of the week back in camp cleaning your rifle.”

I silently re-engaged the safety and grumbled an unkind word or two to Holt under my breath. We watched the coyotes slink past us with an almost boastful gait and work around the point of the butte.

About the time Trent and I dove back into our conversation, Holt caught movement from where we last saw the coyotes.

“Shooter, shooter, SHOOTER!” If the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for being able to scream the loudest without ever breaking a whisper, Holt would hold the title. Three bucks broke from cover, apparently spooked by my red-haired ’yote, and were headed out into the flats at the base of the butte.

I barrel-rolled back into my rifle and followed the lead 3x4 without a word as Holt bark-whispered the quickly ex- tending rages. One fi fty-three. One seventy- six. Two fourteen. Two forty-four.

It wasn’t until the three bucks approached a low-riding cattle fence that the stotting ceased and the trio came to a halt. Two seventy-eight.

I took a rushed deep breath, released half of it, held a bit high—and broke the morning’s silence.

Everything was perfect … except I held a bit too high. I sat in bewildered embarrassment as the bucks trotted to the middle of the fl at and bedded down.

And this is where the true torture of “out West” began for me. It’s pure magic to be able to clearly see and watch deer from more than a half-mile, but it’s pure hell to have to watch deer from a half-mile and not be able to do anything about it. There they were, in the wide open, and there was no way to get to them. Sigh.

We sat, with binos to our faces, and let our eyes do the walking for another hour before heading back to camp for lunch. I was the first to shoot—and the first to miss—and from past experience I knew camp camaraderie was rarely kind to someone with those current credentials.

From Torture Comes Vindication
I had to endure nightly harassment during table talk as my campmates came back, one by one, with their tags affixed to beautiful muleys antlers. Entering the final day of the hunt, the group had tallied several muleys that green-scored in the low 150s, which I consider a very solid mule deer. One of those bucks bore the tag of Outdoor Life’s Frank Miniter, who had previously shot at and missed a buck that head guide, David Morris, fi gured would score close to 170 Boone and Crockett Club points.

Heck, when comparing muley antlers to the whitetail-grown antlers I was used to hunting back home, they all look “very solid.” And I wanted one. David and I headed back to Willow Creek Butte for one last look. It had been 4 days since I’d shot at that bachelor group of bucks, and, according to

David, the likelihood of their return to their home on the butte was superbly in my favor. David manages this property, and I was praying he was right. All we needed was to spot them.

It’s interesting, however, how difficult it can be to spot a mule deer that isn’t trying to hide. I sat on the roof of David’s 3/4 -ton Ford with my eyes pinned to a spotting scope, dissecting the butte from a half-mile.

But being a near-sighted Midwesterner has definite disadvantages in a situation like this. I’d become so infatuated with locating the Willow Creek bucks that I’d inadvertently put on blinders and forgotten we had access in all directions nearly as far as the eye could see—and I could see a long way.

“Spin that spotting scope around and look at the side hill on the Patterson Ranch, Luke,” David instructed. Because I had no idea where the Patterson Ranch was, I followed David’s bino-enhanced gaze to a far away ridge. Sure enough—nearly a mile distant—there was a bachelor group of bucks feeding on the west-facing slope.

“We can get to those, deer, Luke,” David said. “And it looks like one of those is ‘Frank’s buck.’”

The next few minutes are still fuzzy in my mind. I remember rolling off the cab roof and into the bed of the truck as David whipped a U-turn and drove as fast as the nasty, rocky two-track would allow—the bed of that truck wasn’t my first choice of seats in that type of terrain. We soon ditched the truck for two quads and were off to the races again.

I nearly put my quad into the back of David’s as he slowed to watch a big bull elk chase a herd of cows up a steep draw and out of sight. It was neat to watch, but I had only one thing on my mind.

We closed the final few hundred yards on foot, hoping the bucks were still feeding in the same location where we’d last seen them. Problem was, we wouldn’t know until we popped our heads over the ridge, and at that point they’d likely be in shooting range.

With my nose at David’s heels, we slithered into what we hoped was a viable position and wriggled to our knees.

“One fifty-four,” David said as he snapped the range finding button on his binos. “You want the big one—second from left.”

Through the scope, the scene was like a dream. With the setting sun hammering down on the bucks, it “haloed” the muley’s creamy antlers against the golden grasses upon which he fed.

Honestly, I hadn’t expected to be looking down my gun barrel at a muley this big—my first muley, to boot—so I took my time. The buck was relaxed. I was as relaxed as I was going to be. God, make me fast and accurate.

The recoil jumped my sights off the buck momentarily, but there was nothing to see other than the buck’s right antler rising up through the grass.

“Nice shot, little buddy,” smiled David as he slapped me on my back. “There will be no ground shrinkage with this buck, I promise you that. And to top it all, you killed Frank’s buck.”

The truck ride back to camp didn’t seem so bumpy, and this time I sat in the bed by choice—right next to my buck.

As I watched the mountains roll by in the fading daylight, I practiced my, “Ha, Ha! I shot your buck,” speech for Frank. Friends don’t let friends let this type of rare situation go by unnoticed— especially when that guy works for a competing magazine, and doubly so when that guy has been razzing you all week for missing.

Vindication—and diesel-fuel exhaust— never smelled so good.

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