So I'm sure some of you have seen a couple of the pics up on IG. I figured it was time to type up the story. I've been really busy with work so I apologize for the delay..
2016 was a very interesting year for hunting, as we were coming off of one of the best mule deer hunting seasons in arguably a decade in Central Washington. In addition, the winter of 2015 was a particularly bad one for winterkill. My expectations were not super high that my party would have the most successful of seasons, but I figured we still had a chance at least to put some meat in the freezer if we played our cards right.
My scouting began in the middle of the summer. I intended to set up a couple trail cameras on a ridge near the spot I had killed my 2015 buck. I had seen an incredible buck the summer before that I figured may still be around if he had lived to see another year, not to mention there was consistently a lot of sign on this ridge in previous hunting seasons. I figured I'd at least give the cameras a good soak before determining if I needed to look elsewhere.
After a few weeks of letting the cameras sit, I returned, optimistic they would have yielded some pictures. Unfortunately, all I was getting was bears, and the occasional doe with fawns. I was disappointed but knew of another spot that would be good to try. With that said, my girlfriend's dad and I crossed the creek valley below our spot and climbed up to the top of the opposite ridge, which had significantly more elevation and a burn that had just crested the top from the south side a few years prior. During the previous hunting seasons, the burn had been too young, with little to no vegetation for feeding animals. I was still concerned it would be too young, but to my surprise, some young grass and shrubs had started sprouting throughout the burn. There were also a fair amount of tracks through the area despite how dry it was. This was encouraging but I needed to see more before I was convinced. Down towards the end of the ridge, I knew of a spring fed creek that came out of the ground in a flat bench just at the edge of the burn. Even better, we knew of an old dug out 4x4 trail that could get us pretty close to this spot, so we headed out there to see what sort of vantage points we might have.
It was midday at this point, and the late August sun was really beginning to bear down on us. I didn't expect to see much, but was encouraged by the amount of water and food in the area. Better yet, there were tracks and lots of them. This was starting to look like a good spot to leave the cameras for the last month before the season. Just as we were about to head on out of the area, the father of my girlfriend's dad, who had tagged along with us for the day, looked out across the draw in front of us and saw a big buck trotting up the other side. At first glance, he didn't think it was a deer based on how big he was. I never did get a good look at him, but both of my partners agreed he was one of the biggest bucks they had ever seen. Now I was convinced this was the spot. The following week I returned to set the cameras back up, and I planned on leaving them for a majority of September before returning.
The amazing part of our scouting trips was that we hadn’t really seen a whole lot other than the big buck and a smaller 3pt that I would’ve been happy to shoot on any given season. Even the does were giving us fits. When I returned in late September to check the cameras, I was encouraged to find one legal 4pt was hanging out, but he was not the King of the Mountain like we had seen earlier that summer. I left the cameras out for one final soak and would retrieve them on Opening Day of the modern season, hoping the big guy hadn’t been scared into the next county.
Opening Day arrived, and I was extremely excited to get out in the hills with my rifle in hand. The first day of the hunt was a little hairy as it rained extremely hard. Over the last decade we had been fortunate to stay relatively dry during the modern season, but that was not to be the case this year. We were in for a pretty wet week. Though I wasn’t thrilled to get soaked, I knew this type of weather generally yielded more favorable results as far as seeing deer.
Even with the best conditions, we still weren’t seeing much other than the occasional group of does. There were some giant tracks in the area that were obviously recent based on the amount of rain we were getting, but with the amount of thick cover in this country, it was going to be difficult to catch them out in the open.
At the end of the first day, we backtracked to an old spot we had hunted for many years. I wasn’t sure we’d see much of anything as most of the area is overgrown, but we did run into a couple of does with a small 2pt before losing enough daylight to call it quits. On our way out, I ended up jumping a legal buck out of his bed. He was only 20 yards in front of me, but with a couple of bounds, he got behind some buckbrush and I never saw him again.
Sunday through Wednesday marked some of the slowest hunting I’ve ever witnessed in my 12 years of hunting the Cascades. My uncle and I climbed over hill and dale and frequented all of our favorite spots to no avail. We were having a hard time seeing does at this point. We did end up getting up into the snowline Wednesday afternoon and got on a set of really nice tracks that we followed for quite a ways before they headed into the thick timber and down a rock chute we weren’t too thrilled to pursue him through. The views on top of the ridge were very rewarding, however, and we were reminded that hunting is not all about killing an animal, but the scenery and camaraderie as well. With that said, we hiked out, hoping we would find success in the last half of the season.
Thursday morning brought more rain to the area. In fact, it was a deluge that took me back to my days of hunting out in Forks. Surprisingly, the deer were out and moving. My party ended up taking a little 3pt that morning. Things were starting to look up. We had left our end of the ridge spot for a couple days just to let it settle down from all of the pressure. I figured it was now as good of a day as any to return. We slopped through the pouring rain out towards the end of the skitter trail. As we neared the end to where we might split up, my dad whispered in a hurried tone that a big deer had just moved through the alpine trees off to our right. Guessing he was a buck, I decided to follow him, while my Dad and Uncle would work their way up to a vantage point that would allow them to watch the edge of the burn where the buck might be headed.
Almost immediately, I got on some really big tracks and figured it was game on. The rain continued to pour, and visibility was somewhat questionable as patches of high mountain fog were moving through the area. Eventually, I reached a spot where the 5-10 year old trees opened up and I could look up towards the edge of the burn. There on the hillside was a beautiful buck looking back at me. This was by no means the biggest buck in the woods, but he was still a really nice deer with chocolate brown antlers. He easily would’ve been my biggest buck. The problem was the difficulty of the shot. With the open space I was in, I was busted. To make matters worse, there were a couple of trees in the way, obscuring a perfect shot, not to mention I had left my shooting sticks back at the truck on accident. I dropped to one knee and brought up my rifle. Great, my scope cover had come off during my hike in, allowing the rain to completely bead up my lens. I frantically tried to wipe off the lens, and had a heck of a time trying to find the buck in my scope. Eventually, I found him, but it was a much longer shot than originally anticipated, upwards of 400-450 yards. Shooting from one knee has never been easy for me either, and was once again the case as my reticle bounced up and down the grey figure in the mist. Eventually I got about as good of a look as I was going to get and squeezed off a shot. Miss. Now he was on to me and began scrambling to the timberline, with another smaller buck in tow. I never really did get another good look at him for a shot and that was that. I was devastated. Everything had been perfect except for the shot. We followed the deer’s tracks a ways into the burn, but clearly he had escaped us. We retreated back to our cabin to help hang up our party’s buck from earlier in the morning and swapped out our soaking wet clothes for some new dry ones. The rest of the day was much slower, and disappointment was really starting to set in.
Friday, we planned to approach the end of the ridge from above. This time, we wanted to be in the burn as well, as the deer were clearly using it as a crossing zone to get from the younger reprod and water on the north side of the ridge, to the security blanket of the pockets of big timber on the south side. This ended up being the best move we had made all week. All along the crest of the ridge were big buck tracks of varying sizes. Eventually we reached the bench where the spring fed creek started. Here was where we found a set of tracks unlike any I’ve seen save for some of the migratory sets I witnessed in my very first mule deer hunting trip back in 2004. They were enormous. Although we hadn’t really seen anything moving around, we knew if we kept at it, they’d eventually come to us. With that said, we knew we’d be coming back on Saturday.
With the final Saturday morning hunt upon us, we knew we’d have extra hunters in the woods with us, so we had to be smart and one step ahead of everyone else. We figured we had the advantage of no one else knowing where we were headed. Just our luck though, a pair of really friendly hunters intended to crest the ridge and drop into the valley on the backside, and happened to be in front of us on that day. We started our hunt up high in a bowl we had discovered the day before. As we began glassing, a shot rang out below us. Of course, it ended up being those guys. Eventually, we ran into them and helped them pack their buck out. We were happy to lend a hand, but of course a little disappointed in the back of our minds because we had hunted hard all week and only had a small buck to show for it. Oh well, perhaps it was karma.
The rest of our Saturday morning hunt was spent looking for my Dad, who had disappeared after jumping a couple of big deer (possibly the same two I had shot at on Thursday). Eventually he returned but unfortunately hadn’t filled a tag. It was possible this was it; the end of our hunting trip. The sun was shining bright once again, and it was already closing in on midday. I talked to my Dad and told him I figured we had about as good of chance as any to just head back to where we had seen all the tracks the day before and sit and wait for the rest of the afternoon. He agreed and we decided we would head up to where we had helped the other hunters earlier that morning and begin our push down the ridge towards the old 4x4 skitter trail. Meanwhile, my girlfriend’s dad and my grandpa planned to wait down on the trail in the event we pushed anything towards them.
The wind was blowing hard as we began our descent into the burn. This provided some pretty hair-raising moments when strong gusts came through and bent the giant dead firs and pine trees above us. Once we reached the creek, we were a little apprehensive to sit down in the blowing wind, so we proceeded over to the other side, where we could look down on a large, flat bench on the backside of the ridge. We sat up against a rock outcropping and got our bearings. Because many of the trees were still standing in the burn, there were only so many peekaboo holes to glass, but we took advantage of it. Within a minute or two of sitting down, my Dad spotted a doe bedded down roughly 175-200 yards away. Behind her was another bedded deer; this one a monstrosity of a buck. The size of my Dad’s eyes was indescribable. We both agreed this was the biggest buck either of us had ever seen in Washington. After several minutes of trying to get into a good enough position, my rifle rang true at about 200 yards. We waited several minutes before climbing down the bank and onto the bench. Finally we reached his bed and started following his tracks. There was blood and plenty of it.
We worked our way around the bench and down into another draw on the backside of the bench. Suddenly, multiple does were bounding away on the other side of the draw. I looked down into the bottom of the draw to see the big buck limping away. Quickly, I got into position to shoot him again, this time knocking him over. He quickly got back up but I noticed his back legs were blown out, likely from the first shot in which he had been bedded down. Eventually he got to where he had no other choice but to attempt to climb back up the hill. This didn’t go well, as he finally bedded down. I rested my .280 against a tree and placed a bullet in his neck, putting him to rest once and for all.
We immediately began our celebration, taking pulls off the whiskey flask as we setup for our photo opportunities. After placing calls with our party, we soon had a good group of guys with pack frames on-site to help us pack out the buck in one trip. As we started cutting meat and packing bags, my dad’s knife suddenly struck something odd in the buck’s pelvis. As he cut around a fairly large pocket of pus, a broad head emerged, fully stuck into the bone. It had clearly been from a prior hunting season. Somehow, this old buck had managed to fully heal and survive an entire winter. What a warrior! We also pulled his lips back to discover his teeth were completely worn down to nothing. Unbelievable!
That night, we returned to the cabin and took some measurements. His width comes out to 30 3/8” while his green score is somewhere around 173. We will have an official score at a later date.
What a truly awesome hunting season. Was this the buck we had seen earlier in the summer? It’s hard to say, but regardless, we struck gold. I am very thankful to have the awesome team that I have in the woods, and I was very privileged to have experienced this moment with my Dad. We look forward to getting back up there this season for another chance at a big buck, but really, I don’t expect anything like this to happen ever again in Washington. The experience, the scenery, the time spent with family and friends. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
I will post pictures in my next post.