By Nick Simonson
“How did this happen,” my panicked brain thought as I sat speared to the ground by the deep-welled eyes staring back at me from 20 yards away, their blackness lightened only by the twinkle of the last rays of the late afternoon sun shining down from over the bluff behind me.
Seated against a backdrop of the leafless buffaloberry bushes with my heart bulging into my throat, my grip tightened around the equally black synthetic stock of my rifle as if that would somehow lift the gun to my shoulder without spooking the mule deer buck that had appeared out of nowhere in front of me. He was so close I could see the moisture around his nostrils and count the four white forked tines on his right side, and the three that ended in the single main beam on his left. It was obvious from his erect posture he knew something wasn’t right, but he didn’t tip his hand with the head-bob of his whitetailed cousins I was more familiar with, nor did he turn or lower his head to provide me a chance to move. Instead, he honed his gaze in a way that seemed to penetrate my orange vest and camo coveralls and squeeze another 20 beats per minute from my thundering chest. I was rendered motionless; not like in the way a buddy described his instances of sleep paralysis, but more in that 3 a.m., too-wide-awake analysis of: “if I move, he’s gone; but if I don’t move, I don’t get a shot; what the heck am I supposed to do” sort of way. It was exhilarating, terrifying, frustrating, and, in a strange sense in the moment before the end was known, enjoyable.
We were locked in the staring contest for what felt like five minutes, but it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds or so, which is still an eternity when adrenaline and an unpunched buck tag are involved. Unlike the more jumpy whitetails which normally raised their warning flag of a tail and bounded off, at some point in the staredown he simply turned half-nervously with one eye on me and disappeared with two quick steps back down the trail he had come up on and I was left shaking, cross-legged in the grasses with my gun half raised, asking myself if the experience was real and how it was possible that I missed the hulking gray body as it practically came to sit in my lap on the quiet hillside. As my heartrate dropped, I tried in vain to answer the questions that my brain screamed at me like a ticked off drill sergeant crossed with a hyperactive high school journalist – HOW?! WHAT?! WHY?! WHERE?! – and it took me a while to figure it out.
Able to get out for an afternoon hunt, I found my position on the hillside which had provided so much excitement for the firearms deer opener and a look at a number of animals over the previous weekend. With the season’s early sunset and the high hills behind me, the valley took on a witching hour feel in mid-afternoon and I looked forward to some early movement as the all-day northwest winds began to fade in the barren tree tops ahead of the actual sunset two hours away. Along their bases, a line of scrapes in the newly fallen snow suggested that deer would move at 60 yards or so from my vantage point, providing the possibility of a good broadside shot as the resident bucks worked their trading posts along the bottom of the hill. As I settled in and checked my shooting lanes and glanced at the rises along the valley on the private land behind me, I caught motion in the bushes near the top.
It was a whitetailed doe working her way up from the grassy middle of the funnel that had dumped dozens of deer into the area and provided a constant conduit of excitement. I watched her closely through my binoculars to gauge her activity level as she moved at a leisurely pace up and over the ridge and out of sight. Replaying the observation and its end in my mind, I recall pulling the glasses down and setting them near my hip, before resting my hand on the stock, then looking up to see the mule deer buck in front of me. How long was he there? I couldn’t say. It may have been the whole minute or two I was watching the doe, but then again it could have been just a couple of seconds. All I know is he saw me, and I saw him and I sat stuck in the throes of trying to overcome the instant endorphins which fueled the physical battle between mounting my gun and not moving a muscle, until all that was left was the backdrop of tree trunks and fading afternoon light.
Long after he had left and darkness began to set in, I retraced his steps and found them winding up the side of the hill toward my vantage point – a narrow trail following the brushline that ran much closer to me, as opposed to the obvious highway of scrapes along the base of the rise – until his footprints ended at the small cedars spreading out within spitting distance from my spot. I followed them back along his path of retreat through a small opening in the bushes until I could see them no more in the underbrush. I sighed and headed down the remainder of the hill.
On the way back to the truck, my pace slowed with the phantom fifty-pound weight of the paper deer tag tucked into the wallet in my right pantleg. With approaching holiday travel plans and other responsibilities mounting from my shirked honey-dos on opening weekend, scheduling another sit would likely be difficult. I cursed the doe on the hillside for distracting me and half-heartedly congratulated the interspecies team for their success and promised myself an antlerless tag next year, if any extras were available. I laughed out the last of my disappointment, unlocked the truck and headed up the darkened two-wheel track to the main gravel road. At the same time, I felt both content and frustrated by my explanation as to how I missed the buck without even taking a shot, and once again was reminded of how deer hunting often provides the best worst experiences…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Create a Diversion. While the author tracks some early movement from a hillside doe, something big happens. Simonson Photo.