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Luck in the Breaks

By Brad Trumbo

The digital dashboard clock read 6:10am on November 2nd, day three of my four-day hunt for mule deer in the river breaks of Idaho. Time was wearing thin. This was the first morning of daylight savings time this fall. There was plenty of shooting light, yet my eyes strained to evaluate the whitetails striding across the grassy field to the north. I shouldered my rifle, reached for my shooting stick, and passed a glance across the tailgate at my hunting partner, Larry Holecek. Larry has lived in the Idaho panhandle nearly all of his life and has access to some spectacular hunting ground.

We silently advanced across the road into the bull pines traversing an old, broken down barbed wire fence. About three miles from now we will have dropped approximately 2,500 feet in elevation and trekked over a rugged piece of river canyon rarely seen by others.  

Softly entering the timbered ridge, we instantly spooked a small group of whitetails that bounded off nearly unnoticed. Although this was my big buck hunt, I was along for the ride. I didn’t know what to expect, but killing a good buck was low on the list and I didn’t really care if I did (but if I ate my tag, my wife was going to either kill me or file for divorce; maybe both). One thing I could guarantee was that I was not pulling the trigger on an average buck.

The air was crisp and the clouds were on the run, being herded out of the country by a strong high-pressure zone approaching from the west. With a gorgeous sunrise upon us, the overall scene and day blooming before us evolved into prime conditions. Carefully, we hunted down through a grassy ridge spine trying to remain concealed among the tree line for quite some time. Our steps were well placed, like a prowling cougar softly padding along on the trail of a deer.

We stalked our way through the first large meadow, stepped up on a rocky bluff, and glassed the surrounding ridges. It became clear that hunting through the adjacent draws would be most challenging. Steep, deep, rocky, and brushy were the only discernable conditions and I was not willing to tackle any of them. We spotted a small grassy knob about a mile below us, glassed it for a while, then decided to head for it.

As we descend into the middle elevation of the mountain, the browse just seemed to disappear. There was little deer sign, but fresh elk tracks and scat, possibly from animals we bumped unknowingly. “We should move a little quicker down into better deer habitat. We need to get down closer to the river where the browse thickens up again.” Larry explained.

About a half mile further we emerged from the bull pines and found ourselves on the up-ridge side of the grassy knob that we glassed previously. We picked up the remnants of an old road that dropped over the west side of the knob, then wrapped around the down-ridge slope into a draw. There were a few sparse rose bushes along the road that kept us concealed as we tip-toed along.

Suddenly, the unmistakable “blow” of a deer shattered the silence, startling us out of tranquility. We looked up to see a spike mule deer bounce out in front of us about twenty yards ahead. Larry looked back with a smile and said “You wanna take him?” Returning the joke, I adamantly declined the proposal. While perfectly legal, the effort required to get a deer off this mountain makes taking a spike inconceivable. After several moments of silently interrogating one another, the spike bounced down into the draw and out of sight.

Immediately, we advanced a few steps, peered down into the draw, and found ourselves suddenly neck deep in mule deer. Through a small opening in the rose bushes I spotted what appeared to be a buck about eighty yards below. Thinking nothing of it, I propped my stick against my stomach and raised my binoculars. As my vision focused on the dozen or so mule deer, one buck in particular grabbed my attention. I slammed into the reality of two dark, sweeping beams spanning well past the buck’s ear width.

My binoculars bounced against my chest as they fell from my grip. In a panic, I groped for the shoulder strap of my old Remington .243. I glanced at Larry and said “That’s no spike…” Larry’s eyes enlarge and he ducked out from behind the rose bush to get a look. I already had my gun on the stick and the scope cranked to nine-power. The safety clicked hard as it slid forward and I settled my face on the stock. With the butt wedged between my shoulder and pack strap, the crosshairs settled firmly behind the buck’s shoulder. My index finger tightened, and the rifle reported.

Deer exploded from the draw, scattering in all directions. I watched intently as the buck loped out of sight and failed to reappear. Turning to Larry I exclaimed “That should have been a perfect shot! That’s a damn good buck!” We never saw exactly how big the buck was, but I trusted my gut instinct that he was what I came to Idaho for.

While exchanging high-fives, I noticed the brush crashing directly below. The buck briefly appeared as he flipped head over heels backward down the ridge into timber. A few blurry seconds passed and the mountain fell quiet again.   

Larry, appearing more excited than I, started down into the draw. I called after him, reminding him that we should wait a moment and start tracking methodically from the point of impact, regardless of the fact that we knew about where the buck should be. I was cautious, examining everything. There was no trace of blood, which was unnerving. My full confidence in the shot and the fact that my rest was solid provided comfort, but mistakes have been made in what should have been a clean shot. The .243 is fast and accurate, but an eyelash can knock it off course.

With no obvious evidence of a hit, we walked to the brush line below the road where we last saw the buck. The location was unmistakable as the buck fell on a small greenbrier bush nearly chartreuse in color. Quite the contrast against the dark orange and black of the bull pine understory. As I scoured the brush for blood, Larry pointed down the ridge to a spot where the pine boughs were piled up exposing fresh soil. Guardedly, I move down to the spot and noticed a large patch of gray hair on a nearby bull pine. To our left was a boulder outcrop the size of a house and as Larry and I worked our way around the face of the boulder, something caught my eye.

Stopping Larry in his tracks, I picked up the binoculars and focused in. Concerned over the lack of blood, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make a novice mistake like jumping the buck from his bed. After heavy scrutiny, I breathed a sigh of relief.  The large, gray object was in fact a sizeable mule deer buck lying on his belly at the base of a bull pine. “Larry, it’s HIM!” I exclaimed, while working my way around the boulder face. Slowly we approached to about fifteen feet and took one last long, hard look. The buck was down and appeared lifeless, but for safety sake, I fired a second round through the boiler room.

Ejecting the spent round, we eagerly approached the large four-point beam rising from the pine boughs. Lying before us was about a 200 pound, ghost gray mule deer buck with a broad nose and white face. His neck was swollen to about thirty-six inches in circumference from the raging hormones of rut. His chest was nearly three feet deep and his dark chocolate, 4X5 rack rose impressively above his thick, roughly furred brow.

Indulging in the moment, the orange pine boughs complimented by the green of the pines and the gray granite boulders covered in bright green moss made for an awe-inspiring scene. It was at this moment I realized the scene would be forever burned into my memory, because both Larry and I forgot to pack our cameras or cell phones. Unbelievable. That’s not the worst of it. I must have forgotten my brain this morning as well, for I found I was without a knife and only had my day pack with some snacks inside. Luckily, Larry was smart enough to remember a knife at least.

The old saying that the fun is over once you pull the trigger can certainly be true, and today was one of those days. With the buck field dressed, Larry suggested we try to drag him down the mountain as far as we can. If we could get him close enough to the river we may be able to go for the camera and get a good photo before we quartered him. The distance to the river was less than a mile down ridge, but the riverside bluffs would be treacherous to negotiate.

Grabbing an antler, I began the drag. The buck slid easily across the pine boughs; his slick hide gliding across the needles. Of course, only a couple hundred yards into the drag we found trouble. The GPS only showed contours, failing to point out the cliffs and head-high serviceberry and blackberry that lay ahead. There was small game trail across the adjacent ridge side so I grabbed my bone saw and got to work clearing blackberry and greenbrier from the trail.

With me on the antlers and Larry bringing up the rear, we got in sync for the uphill haul. On the count of three, I pulled and Larry lifted the hind end forward. This worked far better than expected and we made fairly good time. We were able to shuffle the buck approximately sixty yards up the opposite ridge in about fifteen minutes.

Once on top we resumed the drag, but in the end, our endeavor led us directly into cliffs and crevasses about a half-mile above the river. The going was slow as we dragged to a safe location and then scouted ahead for potential escape routes. After about an hour, we reached an area where the ridge dropped off entirely too steep and rugged to continue with the buck intact. Some of the boulders and cliffs were over twenty feet high. I was beginning to get uneasy as there was clearly no safe direction of travel. It was time to get ourselves out and devise a plan for the buck. I took a GPS waypoint of the buck and Larry and I began picking our way down to the river.

Snaking our way warily along the canyon wall, Larry ingeniously pulled out a role of survey tape so we could flag our trail out. This seems silly since we both had GPS units, but sometimes under a closed canopy, a twenty to forty-foot error on tracks is of little utility. Finally, we found ourselves standing a couple hundred feet above the river with only about sixty feet of horizontal movement between us and safe ground.

Larry and I shared an uneasy glance as he took a few steps forward. “Hell, we are outta here, piece of cake!” Larry exclaimed. I flat didn’t believe him, so I said “Why don’t you go a little further down and scope it out before we get hasty.” Forty yards further down the ridge, Larry called up to me “We’ve got it made! We can slip around this rock face and right down through the brush here.” With that news, I trustingly followed Larry down the nearly vertical slope to the rock face, unloaded my gear, and we devised a plan. I stayed put, returned to the buck and quartered him, while Larry headed for the ATV that was about three miles east up a railroad track. Once at the ATV, He would go for his son, Dean, and some frame packs.

I saw that Larry made it safely down to the tracks and trekked back to the buck. Kneeling before him, I took one last long look to remember just how truly beautiful he was. Alas, I pulled out Larry’s knife, quartered the buck, and extracted the backstraps and tenderloins. Once all the quarters were laid out along the ridge side, I donned my pack and agreed with myself that I was an idiot for leaving my frame pack at home.  

Upon completing three trips for the skull and quarters, I stashed them at the top of the bluff above the railroad and was afforded a brief water break before the unmistakable sound of the ATV approaching bled through the roar of the river. As Dean and Larry arrived, I heaved up my pack, snagged a hind quarter and the skull, and started down the precipitous incline that will led me to flat ground. I slid the remaining twenty yards down the mountain and was thoroughly thrilled to have finally arrived at the river.

Dean offered graciously congratulations and a fresh bottle of water, while Larry hurriedly took my .243 and ran back up the tracks after a decent Muley buck he spotted on the ride back to pick me up (at least I didn’t leave my rifle at home). Dean and I grabbed the packs and headed back up to the booty. We clawed our way up the 100 vertical yards, grabbed the remaining quarters, then back to the tracks.

We touched down for the last time at the ATV, I shed my pack, and the photo shoot began. We completed a highly successful hunt for a big mule deer buck. Trophy hunting has never been my thing, but big muley bucks have captivated me since I moved to the northwest in 2011. I set my sights high and was lucky enough to actually tag out. The entire event was built around tremendous luck, but you can’t get lucky without effort.

Basking in the memories of the hunt, I am reminded that we hunters are hunting, not just for a buck or meat in the freezer, but a brief moment in time that welds a permanent patch in our memories and souls. It’s that minute flicker in our lives where the world around us fades into the background and the only beings in existence are the hunter and the prey that keeps us afield. The most any hunter can hope for is the opportunity to live long enough to experience just one more remarkable hunt.