by Chip Johnston
It had been a very frustrating evening. The elk simply wouldn’t cooperate, and I couldn’t get the youth hunter I was guiding close enough for a shot. We walked and stopped and listened and walked some more. Where were they? Finally we heard some cows mewing in the opposite direction we had been heading so we reversed course and headed for them. With darkness gathering we made a final stalk and got in position. Finally, in the drizzling rain a herd of one hundred and fifty or so bunched up just out of range. All we needed was a cow, but all we could do was lie there in the rain and watch them fade away in the gloom. I didn’t say much on the long walk back to the truck, but I did grind my teeth a lot.
I was almost home, within a half mile, still grumbling to myself, when I came around a corner and did a double take. There in the headlights were several deer feeding in a ditch just off the road. Among them was a great buck staring right at me. He had a frame that I quickly guessed at around 180 but what really got my attention was what was hanging off of it; double drop tines. As a taxidermist in the area, I had seen and mounted several deer over the years with drop tines, but I had never seen one with double drop tines. He was my dream come true. The problem was that I didn’t have a deer license and the season opener was just two days away.
When I walked into the house, the frustrating elk hunt long since forgotten, the first thing I did was dial Steve’s number. He was my only hope for a landowner tag at this stage. To make matters worse, the highway I had been driving separated two GMU’s and the one the buck had been standing in, the south one, was all private right there with no hunting allowed. Not to worry, though; I was sure he had come down from the north unit and crossed the highway after dark. If he had been living on the south side he would have been much further out in the field and I wouldn’t have seen him at all. The north side was nearly all public, and two weeks before I had noticed a trail coming down to the highway with lots of fresh tracks on it. Even at 70 m.p.h, it was an obvious travel corridor. I even commented to a friend that morning that several deer had obviously been using that trail to cross the highway to feed in the hay fields after dark. As well, a bit of local knowledge I had gathered over the years hiking and going for runs on the north side of the highway was that a handful of good bucks sometimes hung out right above the road. I was confident the double dropper was one of those bucks but it was the first time I had laid eyes on him. He was obviously an older deer and though we had been neighbors for years, I had never actually seen him, at least not with his drop tines. When Steve asked how much I was willing to pay, he must have thought I was a bit low because he said the owner of the tag wanted twice that much. “Well,” I said, “that’s the best I can do. I’ll pray about it and if its meant to be, I trust I’ll end up with the tag.” The next day Steve called and told me to get out my checkbook. “Seriously,” I said. “Yep,” was Steve’s reply. “He’ll sell it for what you offered.” It didn’t take me long to get the check made out and get the voucher in my hand. It was for the north unit, and once it was converted into a license I was set to hunt. Opening day was about twelve hours away.
Due to some coaching commitments I had, I wasn’t able to hunt at all the first day. I wasn’t too worried. I suspected the buck was hanging in a place that no one would think of hunting during that season. On Sunday morning, well before daylight, I was sitting on a ridge just above the travel corridor where I expected the buck to be. Sunrise came with no deer. Not even a doe. Nothing. After a couple of hours of glassing every bush and under every bush in the immediate area, I called it a morning and went to church. That afternoon I glassed several hundred acres of tall sagebrush and arroyos to no effect. Still no deer. Where had he gone? I was sure he was in the general area, but couldn’t find him. Monday morning was a repeat of the same. I was going further and further from the highway in order to search more and more country, but the buck was nowhere to be found. However, I knew there had been no pressure on him so I was confident that it was only a matter of time until he showed himself. When I got to the studio, Nolan, the friend I had mentioned the trail to, was already there at work. I had told him about the deer and he’d sworn secrecy. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He asked if he could come along the hunt. “Sure,” I said. “Given the cover he’s bedding in, I don’t mind having another set of eyes to help with the glassing. Be here tomorrow morning and we’ll go.”
Later that day a friend of ours; Cody, stopped by the studio and asked what I was doing with that deer tag. He knew me well enough to know there had to be something up. He knew I wouldn’t have bought a landowner tag without a very good reason. After the customary, “You can’t say anything,” I told him I was hunting a very special buck. “Does he have double drop tines?” Nolan and looked at each other in disbelief. “How did you know that?” I said. “Just a guess,” was Cody’s reply. I heard about him the other day. The guy that told me about said was a small buck though, only about a 160 class deer. “Well,” I said, “he’s definitely better than 160, more like 180, but if that what’s people think, its fine with me. However, I haven’t been able to find him again yet.” “I won’t say anything,” Cody said, “but if I get a little extra time I’ll try to help you find him.” “Sure,” I said. Cody knows deer and how to judge them, so I totally trusted he would be an asset and welcomed the help. A couple more eyes searching couldn’t hurt.
Monday afternoon I got caught in a mini blizzard that turned the world white and cancelled all glassing beyond five feet. The next morning Nolan was there before daylight and we took off for a distant basin, glassing everything from the highway north along the way. After about three hours of glassing and moving, glassing and moving, and finding only a small buck and some does, we turned for home. We could still get a couple of heads mounted before the afternoon hunt. As we crested a ridge near the highway, my heart jammed in my throat as I noticed a truck parked right where we had started glassing that morning. “Oh no,” I thought. “Somebody else is on to my deer.” However, as we got closer I noticed a guy standing beside the truck waving at us. Then I noticed it was Cody; to my immense relief. “I found him,” Cody said, with a grin like a cartoon character. “We just glassed that hillside this morning, first thing, and it was bare,” was Nolan’s response. “Well, its not now,” Cody said. “He’s bedded under that cedar just below the ridge.” Sure enough, I picked out a couple of does first, bedded in plain sight where there had been nothing earlier. Only with intense glassing could you pick out the buck, with a smaller buck above him. The giveaway was a drop tine that appeared once in a while when the deer turned his head. We couldn’t see both of them but I was sure the other one was there. I had been giving this buck too much credit for travelling a mile or more to bed. Today he was only a couple hundred yards above the field. Where he had been at first light I can only guess.
Nolan and I made a long loop off the hillside and left Cody with his dog, Boone and his spotting scope. We crossed the valley bottom and started up the hillside the buck was on, crawling the last fifty yards to where to cover ran out completely. It was 325 yards to the cedar the buck was behind, which was a comfortable distance for me, but the opening to the buck’s neck was no bigger than a softball. It was the only shot. I hate neck shots, especially if you want the cape; which I did, so I passed the shot. We’d wait him out. Two and half hours later were we still waiting, and shivering. Not Cody; he wasn’t waiting any more. He decided it was time to make something happen so he started walking at an oblique angle to the deer on the opposite hillside. He hoped they would notice him and Boone and stand up. Before the does ever moved, suddenly the double dropper was on his feet and walking slowly, apparently unaware of Cody. “He’s up,” Nolan said, which I had already noticed through the crosshairs. The great buck hunched up at the first shot and dropped with a quick second. We could hear Cody whopping from across the valley. When we approached the buck I had as much fun watching Cody and Nolan as I did admiring the buck. “That is a serious deer,” Cody repeated over and over. “He’s definitely better than 160.” “I told you he was,” I replied. “I’m just glad nobody else thought so.” When I lifted the bucks head, though, he only had one drop tine. I knew I had seen two when I squeezed the trigger. “Here it is,” Nolan said, holding up the tine he’d found where the buck had dropped and snapped it off.
Back at the studio, the buck seemed all the more remarkable. Cody got out the pencil and paper. It was time to settle the guessing. Sure enough, the frame scored 180 and when the drop tines and sticker were added in, he grossed 195 with only a three by four main frame. I couldn’t have been more thankful, then, that the elk hunt had been so frustrating. If we had killed early that night, I would have been home and never seen the buck of a lifetime standing in the ditch watching the traffic. It was another reminder of a lesson I’ve learned hundreds of times in life; that great blessing is often imbedded in terribly frustrating circumstances. Of course, when God is in control, everything does happen for a reason.