It could have been a short deer hunt. The first morning, Dave Gourley and I each spotted small whitetail bucks, but neither offered a shot.
That was fine, its usually not a good idea to pull the trigger on the first small buck I see. After the initial relief that the freezer is filled, I realize I still have days left, and who knows if a bigger one was lurking out there?
Im not an antler hunter. Hunting is a way of getting a supply of lean, 100 percent organic red meat without trip to stores that reek of patchouli.
Theres a difference in body weight between a young buck and a mature one, so mature means more meat.
Its a goal, and on the final day of the season, my standards tend to slide. But when Gourley hissed, theres a three-point over that next ridge, it was game on.
I didnt see the buck. Gourley jumped it out of its bed and thought I had a better angle on it. By the tone of his voice, it sounded like the buck wasnt going to stick around.
I hustled across the hillside and peeked over a rise. I was greeted by four sets of very nervous eyes about 150 yards away, including the buck.
My chest pounded from the sprint, and I looked for a rest. I rarely take off-hand shots, and I sure wasnt going to when I was breathing hard.
The only thing available was a pyramid-shaped rock barely sticking out of the grass. It would have to do.
I laid my rifle across the rock and looked through the scope, the shot was makeable, but I hurried and missed.
The deer bounded away. I double checked for any sign of injury, and I had missed.
I blew that one, and I wasnt happy about it. I hate missing, but its part of hunting, and I have to accept it, no matter how much it annoys me.
I also broke my cardinal rule of mule deer hunting: let the buck make the mistakes. If Im patient, I will usually get a good shot. If I force the issue, well, I got to watch the south end of a northbound buck escape over the ridge.
Fortunately, I still had a week to hunt, and the Central Idaho unit we were hunting looked promising. We were seeing lots of deer and several bucks.
DANCES WITH DOES
I see many times more does than I do bucks during a hunt. While a buck can quickly end my season, the does keep those lulls between bucks interesting.
Later, I snuck up a trail as dawn was breaking so I could scope out a big, open basin. I was solo hunting, and spot-and-stalk is my favorite way to hunt.
Mule deer are comfortable in open country when theyre not bothered by something. But they get skittish for obvious reasons: there are lots of two-legged creatures running around who want to substantially shorten their life spans.
As I neared the spot where the forest opened up into the basin, I spotted the tell-tale ears of a mule deer. I froze. One set turned into several. There was a hump in the trail that obscured my view, and theirs.
The dim light was in my favor, as was the wind. I carefully raised my rifle and did a head count. Three does and three fawns. So now what? Spook them and they would trot or bounce right through the area I wanted to hunt, and they would likely take other deer with them.
I waited. They stared. They knew I was there, but couldnt quite make out what I was. You can tell when a mule deer gets nervous by the way their ears move. They go from twin radar dishes locked on target to nervous twitching. Then they usually move off, either walking, trotting, or if theyre spooked, that unique pogo hop.
They started milling around and pointed downhill away from my basin, so I took a slow, steady step closer and showed more of myself. They walked into the brush.
I crept to the edge of the basin, and there was nothing. I hiked around to cover it from every angle. The funny thing about steep, open country is it seems like you can see it all from one vantage point, but you cant. There are lots of depressions, benches, bluffs and other features that can obscure your view just enough for a deer to bed down and remain undetected. Theyre masters at using those features to their advantage.
Nothing was there. I looked up a long, deep canyon and a solid bank of gray clouds were rolling in. I knew the weather was changing, but I didnt know if it was a passing squall or a major storm arriving.
While I wondered, I heard a wheeze. I spun around and a deers butt disappeared over a rise not more than 50 yards away directly behind me. I followed, and as I topped the rise there were six bald deer: three does and three fawns. Was it the same herd? Probably.
I guess they decided to turn the tables on me and do a little stalking of their own. The wheeze was a tag, youre it.
NO SNOW DAYS IN HUNTING
The next day revealed it wasnt a short squall passing through. There was an ankle-deep layer of snow on the ground, and it was still falling. With low visibility, it seemed better to still hunt in the forest.
Still hunting is kind of a misnomer. Youre not still, but moving at a snails pace and stopping frequently. The goal is to spot a deer before it spots you, because if you dont, its gone in an instant.
Id switched from mule deer mode to whitetail mode, and being a novice whitetail hunter, I knew it would be tough. Most whitetail hunters dont get serious until November when bucks go into the rut and become more active and less nocturnal, but I like hunting both species at the same time.
Whitetails live up to their cagey reputation. Theyre skittish and quick to bolt, and they usually dont look back. But they seem to be really curious at times. On several occasions Ive had them spot me and stop, stare, then stomp, snort, and even walk toward me.
I sneaked up a trail (or thought I was) and a doe and fawn were coming in the opposite direction. She let a snort that sounded like it should have come from an animal twice her size. It made the mule deer wheeze I heard the day before sound dainty.
The doe bound into the brush, and she should have been nothing more than a brief memory of another deer that eluded me. But she stopped within a 100 yards and kept loudly snorting.
The big snowflakes falling and dim light under the forest canopy made it impossible to see her, but there was no question she was still there, and she was not happy. Ive startled many does, and many have startled me, but this was the first time Ive ever been cursed out by one.
TAKING A STAND
Later that evening, I was hiking through snow and following several sets of fresh tracks. Snow is supposed to be quiet, but it sounded like I was walking across Styrofoam.
To make matters worse, the wind was shifting between a quartering cross wind and blowing across the back of my neck.
Thats the olfactory equivalent of blowing a coachs whistle while walking through the forest.
I hoped to sneak up on deer bedded down, or better yet, catch them out feeding, but that wasnt likely with crunchy snow and a tailwind.
It was about two hours before dark when I decided to change tactics.
I found a spot to sit down on a sidehill next to a large ponderosa pine with a small bush behind me to break up my outline.
Sitting on a stand is a standard tactic for whitetail hunters, often up in a tree. For me, its punishment for my early sins: missing a buck. It was like a self-inflicted time out. You will sit here and think about what you did wrong.
I got into a position where I could swing my rifle nearly 180 degrees and cover a large swath of territory where tracks showed deer had recently passed through. I sat with one leg extended and the other tucked under. It felt comfortable enough.
I watched for deer and occasionally glanced behind me in case something came from the opposite direction.
I had forgotten my watch, and I wondered how long it was until dark. I remembered my GPS has a clock. I dug it out of my pack. It was 5:36 p.m. Sunset was at 6:38, and shooting hours ended a half hour after that, so I had about an hour and a half to wait.
I wasnt cold, and I wasnt uncomfortable, I was just bored. I thought about the things you think about when youre trying to kill time. I tried to name all eight of Santas reindeer. Kind of twisted, I know.
I could only remember five, including Rudolph. Was he one of the original eight, or a made-for-TV addition? I couldnt remember.
I looked at my GPS; it was 5:45. I had been sitting less than 15 minutes since I checked the time. Seriously? Thats all? It seemed so much longer.
I dug three bite-sized candy bars out of my pack. I would reward myself with one every 15 minutes.
I watched my swath of territory. I started second guessing myself. Those tracks mean the deer already passed. You should have been here this morning.
Theres more, just be patient, I replied to myself.
My leg felt like it was falling asleep.
Be tough, be focused, just ignore it.
I could hear a jay squawking, otherwise, there were no signs of life.
At 6 p.m. I rewarded myself with another candy bar. Nothing stirred. I wished for early darkness.
The leg I had tucked under felt numb. Probably best since its the one lying in the snow. Then it started to cramp. I twitched it, and it felt strangely heavy. I tried to stand to relieve the cramping, but as soon as I put weight on the leg, it collapsed. I fell on my butt in the snow.
It was like my knee and ankle were no longer on speaking terms. Both felt rubbery and throbbed in a weird way, and I was laying in the snow like an idiot pretending to hunt deer that didnt even have the decency to walk into my ambush.
I stood like a stork and wiggled my leg until the circulation returned, then gingerly walked in place until I could stand on two legs.
I didnt make it to 6:15, but I ate the candy bar anyway.
I decided to take a short walk to warm up. When I returned, my GPS said it was sunset. I had enough. I hiked back to my truck and called it a night.
HUNTING IN THE SNOW
Its supposed to be the hunters friend, and in some ways, it is. I was surprisingly comfortable despite temperatures in the high 20s and howling wind.
The snow conceals the give-away white butt of a mule deer, but their brown bodies are easy to spot against a white background, but you rarely have one. There are always trees, brush, rocks, logs and other things that break up the white back drop, so deer still blend into the terrain.
The tracks in the snow let me know if I was hunting the right areas, and the reverse was also true. Several places I expected to see deer, but didnt. Its a mystery why a place that looks so similar to another will have lots of game, and the other will have none.
Where I found tracks, it was like another piece of the puzzle fit into place, but the picture was still incomplete.
Yes, deer were there. Where did they go? Deer arent dumb. They have to elude predators year round, not just a few weeks during hunting season, so they make themselves difficult to find and approach.
Snow can make the woods quieter, but not silent. It crunches, it falls off branches and makes a commotion, and the brush doesnt become silent, just less noisy.
The woods also take on a different feel, and some places I hunted just a day or two before were almost unrecognizable.
SHOT AT THE BUZZER
Toward the end of the week, I switched hunting areas and joined another hunting buddy, Dave Heimer, in Southwest Idaho. We were below the snow in open country where lots of mule deer hang out.
If Heimer and I hunt there, you can bet its steep. We always gravitate to those areas because game likes them and other hunters dont.
We left the truck before daylight and started our assault on a ridge. We were about a mile up before we paused and waited for sunrise to light up the territory.
Heimer spotted three does skylighted on a ridge. They spotted us, too, and disappeared back from where they came.
A few minutes later, a deer emerged from the brush in the bottom of a draw. I got the scope on it, and it looked like another doe. I looked closer. It sported a pair of spindly spikes.
Its a spike, I said as the deer climbed higher on the opposite hill.
Heimer knows my feeling about small bucks.
Theres a lot of jerky there, he said.
I cant do it, I replied, and lowered my rifle.
I glanced over my shoulder, and there were two sets of ears and eyes pointed our way.
Dave, weve got company, I said.
The terrain and sagebrush blocked his view, but they were close to me. They were close enough that it was obvious they were both does. But I could only see their heads and necks, and I couldnt tell if anything was behind them.
We had a stare down. I caught a glimpse of something. I could tell it was another deer. I spotted an ear, and the curve of an antler beside it.
They doubled back over the ridge. I could tell they werent badly spooked, and I had a good chance to see them again.
I hiked slowly, but deliberately. I didnt want my heart racing like last time.
I topped the rise and saw nothing, but I knew they were nearby. It was open country. They couldnt escape without me seeing them.
They came out of the sagebrush beneath me and headed toward the next ridge in tight formation. The buck was in the middle. I sat down and rested my elbows on my knees. The first doe cleared the ridge and disappeared, which left an open shot at the buck.
I put the crosshairs on it, and squeezed the trigger. As the recoil subsided, it also disappeared over the ridge.
I mentally marked the last spot I saw it, then took out my range finder and checked the distance: 174 yards.
I headed over to the ridge. No dead deer, and no sign of a hit. Its tracks were easy to follow, and I tracked it for about a quarter mile.
No blood. Nothing. Just clean tracks heading across the open country.
Something wasnt right. I double checked my rifle a few weeks before the season. It was shooting on target. I also practice shots just like this at 200 yards.
I have confidence in my rifle, and I take responsibility for misses. This was clearly a miss, but it just didnt feel right.
There was a rectangular rock about 8 inches across on the opposite side of a draw. I scoped it with my range finder: 90 yards.
I sat down rested my rifle across my knees, took careful aim and fired.
I pulled off my backpack, used it for a steadier rest and squeezed off another shot.
A few weeks earlier, I had consistently hit a similar-sized target at 200 yards using the same shooting positions.
I hiked over to the rock. There was a fresh divot in the dirt above the rock. I couldnt tell exactly how far above because the bullets kicked up dirt and there were no clean holes, but it was clearly shooting high.
How the hell did that happen? And was I just making an excuse and blaming the rifle?
Until I get to the shooting range, I wont know for sure, but based on what I saw, I could have aimed behind the shoulder (which I was), and shot over the deer.
In all my years of hunting, Ive never had a problem with my rifle or scope during a hunt. I have been meticulous about keeping it sighted in, and this year was no different. But rifles and scopes are fallible, so maybe it happened. The evidence pointed in that direction, but Im fallible, too.
Ironically, my confidence in my rifle may have cost me a buck. Had I rechecked it after the first miss, I might have discovered my rifle was no longer zeroed in.
We continued our hunt and saw no more bucks. I found a small antler that had been shed last spring. I put it in my pack.
Its going to serve as a reminder to always check the rifle if I miss a shot. If nothing else, it will remove that shadow of doubt.
NOT THE YEAR OF THE DEER
One of the frustrations of big game hunting is the season is so short and the opportunities so few.
If the weather doesnt cooperate for duck hunting, there are many weekends ahead. A bad day shooting pheasants? Head out the next day and you can redeem yourself.
Now Im facing 11-long months before I can chase deer again, not to mention an empty freezer, which hurts way worse than my bruised ego. But like every sports fan knows, theres always next year.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, email@example.comTwitter: @rogeroutdoors
A week in the woods brings a lot of unexpected twists