Friday, October 8th, 2021
The date is Friday, October 8th, 2021, the time is just after 7:00 AM. This morning I am traveling to
central Idaho for a rifle mule deer hunt with my dad. This year marks 20 consecutive years that I’ve
made this trip with my dad, but this year is different. I’m towing a brand new Jayco travel trailer that
my wife and I purchased back in May of this year, and I’m all alone. This isn’t the first time that I’ve
made the drive by myself, but it is the first time I’ve ever towed a trailer up there without the company
of my wife. I feel like the drive will take forever, but I know deep down, in just 10 days I will be making
the trip back home, wondering why the trip passed me by so quickly.
After a long day of traveling from Northern California and through Central Nevada, I finally arrive into
Idaho. Every year when I cross the Idaho state line, I feel a certain sense of ease and comfort, as if I
have finally returned to a place I have always belonged. When I arrived, my mom and dad were waiting
for me at a local Bar and Grill, near where we camp, so we could have dinner, talk about the trip, and
ultimately drive into camp together. After dinner, we make the trip to the “Turkey Foot” camp, a place
my dad and I nicknamed over the years due to a large 4-way intersection located there. When we arrive
at camp, it’s after 9:00 PM Mountain Time, so instead of setting up and leveling out the trailer, I just pull
straight in and go to sleep with plans to set camp the next morning.
Saturday, October 9 th , 2021
After a long night of anxiety and excitement keeping me from much-needed sleep, my alarm finally goes
off at 7:00 AM. When I step out from my trailer, my mom and dad are already outside having coffee and
giving me a hard time for sleeping so late. I proceed to back the trailer into the “perfectly level” spot
that my dad had picked out, although we quickly found out it was not as level as initially thought. A
couple leveling blocks under the tires, and home for the next 10 days is set. My dad and I decide to take
a ride on our quads in order to inspect the quad trail that leads to the foot travel we plan on hunting the
next day. With the Idaho General Season opening the following day, Sunday, October 10 th , traffic on
both the road and quad trail is pretty heavy with anxious hunters. When we get to the where the quad
trail hits the “main” ridgeline, I can see the target mountain. The lookout sits at just shy of 9,700 feet,
and although we will be hunting about 2,000 feet below that, my legs and back can already feel the
fatigue. After a short time glassing from the quads, more or less just enjoying the solitude and scenery,
we head back to camp to get ready for a 3:00 AM quad ride the next day.
Sunday October 10 th , 2021
My alarm sounds and 2:00 AM, and even though my body isn’t awake, I jump out of bed with the same
excitement I did 20 years ago when this addiction started. As I load up my Eberlestock Dragonfly with all of my essential gear, I can’t help but think about a friend of mine, whom passed away in June of this
year, as he is who gave me this hunting pack. I had never used the pack, and was hoping that I would be
able to load it with meat and antlers just like he did in years passed. After quickly reminiscing, I hear my
dad’s quad fire up, so I shut off the heater and the lights, fire up my quad and it’s off we go. The quad
ride is anything but comfortable, but it definitely could be worse. We left camp a little after 3:00 AM,
and got to the trailhead at 4:15 AM.
As we park the quads, we notice that there are already 2 other quads at the trailhead, and given the frost on them, they had packed in the day before. It wasn’t discouraging to us, as where we are going, not many “Sane” people would go anyway. So it began, the 2-hour hike to a rock pile my dad had hunted several times over the years, with some very good success I might add. After a less than easy hike up, down, and side hill, we arrived to the rock pile at 6:15 AM, and still another hour until daylight. The darkness settled on us as we sat on the rock pile and watched a light show of quads, motorcycles, and headlamps from other eager hunters that had the same plan we did, although, they were late.
As daylight begins to break, I can hear the sounds of squirrels and birds waking up for the day, and all of a sudden a Bull Elk in the canyon to our north cracks off a bugle to really break the silence of the morning. I began glassing the sage brush hillside across the canyon, and immediately find a group of 10 or 12 deer feeding. Above them on the skyline, I see a hunter on a rock pile it what looks like a sneaking position. I follow the direction he appears to be looking, and find a group of 5 bucks a little ways above the first group of deer I saw. I watch the bucks, and something startles them and they all run up over the skyline near where I saw the hunter. About 2 minutes after the last buck crossed the skyline, we hear a shot. I look at my dad and said, “well I guess that’s a dead buck.”
Then we heard another shot, followed by the silence of the mountains. After the 2 nd shot, the two smallest bucks ran back into our basin and joining the first group of does. After the sun began to break the threshold of the mountain, deer began to pop out all over the sage brush, including 2 really
nice bucks. The bigger of the 2 bucks was a Forked Horn that would probably tape out around 27 or 28”
wide, while the smaller buck was a 4×3 that was not as wide, but was extremely heavy. I’ll never forget
the way his G4 and main beam palmed out. We started to plan an approach to getter a better look at
the big forked horn, and possibly take a shot. That plan was quickly altered by about a 140” class 4×4
buck that was feeding toward us in the sage brush. Being that it was opening day, and I had until
October 17 th , I decided not to take the 4×4, but instead let him walk passed at around 300 yards. After
he was out of sight, so was our target buck. So we spent the rest of the brisk morning sitting on a sunny hillside, glassing a lot of decent bucks, and taking in the sights.
As the afternoon sun began to fade, we made our way back up to the ridgeline and came up on a dome tent in a saddle that we typically see deer travel through, not today though. When we got to the dome tent, which appeared to be vacant, we heard cowbells and hooves. Up from the basin to our east, came 2 hunters leading their horse and mule, but not carrying guns. They stopped to chat with us and told us that around 9:00 AM, the horse and mule ran off and they had been tracking them since. It was now almost 5:00 PM, and they still had another 3 miles down canyon to go to get back to their camp. After they left, we made the hike back to the quads, happy with the number of animals we had seen, but disappointed we only saw 1 buck that might have been a shooter. When we got back to the quad, we made the plan to come back the next day, and setup above the last place we saw the big forked horn, with hopes of seeing him again. I called my wife to check on her and my 2 sons, then made the trip back to camp. When we got back to camp, we confirmed our plan for the next day, and off to bed we went.
Monday, October 11 th , 2021
My alarm sounds, I get up, not quite as quickly as the morning prior, and start to get dressed. My dad
came over to my trailer, I assumed to have coffee. Well, that wasn’t quite it. That night, mother nature
decided to put a damper on our plan. When we woke up, there was around 3” of snow in camp, which
isn’t a deterrent, however, if camp has 3” of snow, then that means the quad trail will likely be
impassible. After talking with my dad, we decide to take the day and tend to our camps. Later on in the
day, we decided to take a trip up the mountain to inspect the quad trail, and boy were we happy we
decided not to go at 3:00 AM. The quad trail was a wreck, only 1 other quad had been more than a mile
up the trail, and our trail head was 16 miles. Given the condition of the trail, we decided that the next
day we would hunt a ridgeline relatively close to camp that has been productive in past years.
On the way back to camp, I got a text from my cousin Mitch who lives in Idaho. He told me he was going to be heading our way around 8:00 PM that night, and expected to arrive to our camp around 10:30 that night and wondering if he could park for the night in our camp. I quickly called Mitch and told him that he was welcome to stay in my trailer with me as I was the only one staying in it.
After a short conversation,
Mitch agreed and I went back to camp to wait for him to get there. Around 10:00 PM, Mitch pulled into
camp, unloaded his gear and his quad, and then we spent the next 2 hours just catching up and talking
about work, our families and hunting because we hadn’t seen each other in almost 4 years. There was
no real plan yet, so we went to bed and decided to figure it out the next morning at 4 AM.
Tuesday, October 12 th , 2021
After only 4 hours of sleep, the alarms went off, coffee was turned on and Mitch and I got our gear ready for the day. Mitch decided he was going to work the west side of a nearby ridge that he had glassed some nice bucks on during the earlier archery season, while my dad and I decided to work the east side of the same ridge. Mitch left camp 10-15 minutes before my dad and I, and when we got to the parking area, we were the only 3 hunters there, which was surprising to say the least. We could see Mitch hiking the west side of the ridge, just about to go out of sight, so we proceeded to the east side. We didn’t see much. We saw a few does, one really little buck, a couple cow elk, and one MONSTER bull elk. While we were sitting on a finger ridge glassing, we heard a gunshot from what appeared to be the west side of the ridge. About 30 minutes after the shot, I got a text from Mitch saying “I just killed a stomper buck.” Mitch then shared a location pin on our BaseMap application with me, and I told him I was on my way.
He was 1.4 miles as the crow flies from our current location, but he was only half a mile from the end of a small spur road that stopped at the base of the ridge his buck was on. So my dad went up to grab his quad with a plan to meet us at the bottom. After a really long hike in the snow, I finally found Mitch and his buck, and he was right. It was a GREAT buck! 4×4, I guessed it around 27” wide, with great height and mass. Mitch told me the story, and it reminded me of stories I used to read in Eastman’s Hunting Journal. He found the buck tucked away under a pine tree, bedded against some rocks. His shot was 465 yards, and he truly threaded the needle and made a great shot on this magnificent animal. It wasn’t my buck, but I was so happy to get to be there helping him out. After he got the buck quartered and caped, we loaded him into my Eberlestock Dragonfly and Mitch’s Initial Ascent Pack, and started the hike down to where my dad was parked.
Although it was not a very difficult pack out, it was just as rewarding as ever to see my dad and the quad, knowing our work was done. My dad then shuttled us back and forth to get our quads from the trailhead. On a side note, on our way back down after getting my quad, my dad and I saw a hunter dragging a nice 3×3 buck back up to his quad. Naturally we stopped and gave him a hand bring the buck up the steep hill that his quad was on, and he was pretty thankful for us stopping. When we all got back to camp, it was time to reflect on the story from Mitch’s kill. We all decided to go down to town and have dinner and drinks to celebrate the day. The next day, my dad and I decided to take the same path that Mitch had taken the day before, as he had seen close to 100 deer.
Wednesday, October 13 th , 2021
With the morning came saying goodbye to Mitch as he was going back home to see his family, and share the story of his rather short, but great hunt. We headed up the quad trail to the same parking area as before, and then hiked around the west side of the ridge, and it did not disappoint. We saw a ton of deer, however, we did not see the quality of buck we were looking for. We saw 11 bucks that morning, the biggest being about a 160” 4×4, and all of the others being younger smaller bucks that were not nearly what we were looking for. As we continued to down the ridge, we kept encountering does, fawns, and small bucks, but no shooters. We continued to hike and glass every basin we came into, with the same results. No shooters. So we hunted back to the quads, and went back to camp. When we got back to camp, we had dinner and decided since we had seen so many deer that morning, we would get in there an hour before daylight the next day, and set up on the finger ridges we had glassed the better bucks on.
Thursday, October 14th, 2021
The morning alarms came early, but with high hopes for the day. Before leaving, I mentioned to my dad that I was pretty happy with how the trip had gone already. Getting to see Mitch take his biggest buck to date, getting to put that buck in the pack that was given to me from my late friend, and getting to spend time with my dad, mom, and cousin made the trip worth it. My dad agreed that it had been a great trip, but we still had tags to try and fill, so we headed up the mountain back to the same place as the day prior. Today we decided to leave a quad at the bottom end of the ridge, just in case we ended up hunting all the way down, or put a buck on the ground to make the pack out easier. We get setup on the ridges we wanted to be on, or so we thought, and waited for daybreak.
My dad and I were talking with our Garmin Rhino radios, and quickly realized my dad went down the wrong ridge, but the ridge he was on was still a good place to be. About 20 minutes after daybreak, my dad got on the radio and said, “There’s a good buck bedded on your ridgeline. He is at the lower edge of the timber just down the ridge from you.” I quickly grabbed my Vortex binoculars, but due to the topography was unable to see the buck my dad was watching. My dad got back on the radio and told me that there was 2 bucks, and one of them is a really good buck, definitely a shooter. So we formed a plan that I would go over the top of my ridge, and come down the back side while my dad eased over to the ridge he was originally supposed to be on. I gathered my gear into my pack, and hiked over the ridge, still unsure of where the bucks were exactly. When I got to the backside of the ridge, my dad told me not to go down the ridge because I was a lot closer to the bucks than originally thought.
He was pretty sure the bucks, which were both standing and feeding at this point, were going to feed over the ridge to me. So I took my pack off and waited. While I was waiting my dad was giving me the play by play of what the bucks were doing, however, he didn’t have a clear shot at the bigger buck. Then suddenly, my dad says he lost sight of both of them. I got on the radio to let him know I was going to ease down this ridge to get a better view, and then I saw them both! The bucks had started trotting down the ridge, but crossed just high enough that I could see them. I quickly let my dad know that I could see them, then without hesitation I dropped to a knee, found the bigger of the two bucks in my Nikon Buckmaster rifle scope, zoomed in, settled my crosshairs behind his shoulder, and bang. I watched the bucks body ripple with the bullet’s impact, he kicked like a bucking horse, and took off downhill towards the bottom of the drainage.
I watched the buck run with his head getting lower, and lower until his front legs gave out and he tumbled and slid another 200 feet down. I let my dad know that I had hit the buck well, and that he had slid out of my sight. So my dad quickly gathered his gear, and hiked over to where the bucks had crossed the ridgeline. When my dad got over to where my buck was standing, I hiked down to him and found a good amount of blood. We started to track my deer, which wasn’t hard as the blood in the snow was easy to find, and in a very short distance, we saw my buck laying near the bottom. Filled with excitement, we finally trekked our way down the steep, snowy hillside to my buck. He was a 3×3, 24” wide, and had good mass. He was truly a good representation of the mule deer species, and I couldn’t have been happier. After a lot of photos, my dad made his way down to my quad, which was staged at the end of this ridge, and I got to work on my deer.
About 2 hours later, my dad got back up the hill to where I was and told me he got the quad up to a dead end road, and that our pack out was only going to be about 1 mile. We got our packs loaded up, and headed down the hill. Every step of the way, I was reflecting on the events of the day which made me reflect on hunts from years past. Every hunt, every animal, every harvest and every miss, have all taught me a lesson. And even though this is by far from the hardest pack out my dad and I have had, the weight on my back and my knees reminded me to be thankful for the opportunity to hunt these magnificent animals with my dad.
Friday, October 15th, 2021
After having a successful hunt, and cutting my tag for 2021 yesterday, today we decided to rest up and get my deer taken care of and cleaned up. Some days it is nice to just be in camp and enjoy the tranquility of being in God’s country with family. My dad and I decided that the next day, which was my last day to be there, we would go to what we called “the low land” and see what the deer numbers look like. Given the early snow, and consistently cold weather we had been experiencing, we were confident that we could locate a good buck for my dad. Our confidence was not misleading, as the next day would be one of, if not the, most memorable days my dad and I had ever experienced.
Saturday, October 16th, 2021 (What a day it was!)
As usual, our alarm clocks woke us up way to early. Most would say that a 2:00 AM wake up is ridiculous, but to my dad and I, it’s what we have to do to beat the weekend hunters to where we want to be. After a cup of coffee, last minute adds to our packs, we started the ride to a new trailhead. The ride is about an hour, and this morning the temperature is quite as bitter as mornings prior. Once we arrive to the trailhead, we realize that the previously closed quad trail is open, so our ride in is a little longer than expected. When we reached the single track motorcycle trail, we parked the quads, got on our packs, and started the 3 mile hike to “the rock”. In 2016 my dad and I hunted this area near “the rock”, and we were fortunate to enough to take 4 mature bucks in that basin, 2 of which my dad actually shot from “the rock”.
With the darkness feeling extra dark, and having not been there yet this year, we actually didn’t get to the right rock, but we were close. So we sat down and waited for day break. As the darkness began to fade into daylight, deer started popping up in the sagebrush all over the place! Mostly does, but we saw did see a couple nice bucks including a really nice 150” class 4×4. As we watched the deer from the top of the basin, all the way down to where the ridge drops into the creek, we started making a plan to approach the 4×4. But, as mule deer do, he had other plans and disappeared over the top of a ridge into the next canyon. With the cold of the morning starting to hit my toes, I decided to take a look on the backside of the ridge we were on, but didn’t see anything. I returned to my dad, and he decided to take a look on the backside of the ridge, where I just was, and he located 4 deer that had just fed into the sage from a timber strip to the north. I gathered my gear, and followed behind my dad. My dad told me there were 3 does, but he couldn’t see the head of the 4th deer.
So we eased down to get a better look, and way off in the distance, we saw a huge bodied deer trotting across an open hillside. I quickly when up the hill to a rock knob to put my spotting scope on it, but was unable to identify if it was a buck or a doe before it went out of sight. It was around 9:30 AM and I decided to text my wife, I heard a gunshot so close that I heard the crack of the primer and I could hear what sounded like the bullet impact. Certain it was my dad, I quickly loaded up my pack and ran down the hill to where I left him. I found my dad sitting on the ground, and staring into a saddle with disappointment on his face. I asked him what happened, but got no response. So I asked him again, and he told me that an absolute monster buck was right below him and he could hear leaves crunching in the quakey’s about 50 yards from him. When he finally identified the sound, he saw a monster buck on the run towards the saddle. He immediately dropped down to a seated position but couldn’t get the gun tucked into the pocket of his shoulder as his backpack strap was in the way, he finally got the gun settled and took the shot right as the buck was going out of sight. With the excitement the events, my dad went to the last place he saw the buck, and I stayed where he shot from. I watched my dad hike through the quakeys into the saddle, and then out of sight into the timber.
About 20 minutes later, my dad popped up right where I had last seen him, and he waved me down to him. I’m not much of a runner, but I feel like I ran down that hill to my dad with excitement and wonder of what he had found. My dad sighed and said “I was in his tracks for about 50 yards, no blood.” With disbelief I asked him if he was sure there was no blood, to which he replied “No I’m not, because I found blood at 51 yards.” My dad is known for playing jokes like that on me, and without fail, I always fall for it. We waited for another 20 minutes then took to the trail. We found blood along the way that my dad hadn’t seen, but when we got to the blood he had found, it was encouraging. We trailed the buck for about 30 minutes, and came to a stop.
Due to the small amounts of blood we were finding, we were having to stay in his tracks, which was easy given the fact his track looked like an elk track. My dad decided to hike up to a ridge that had a better vantage point of where we thought the buck would go, and I continued to stay on the trail. After 15 or 20 minutes of back and forth, I heard a gunshot, and it was close. My dad popped up on the top of the ridge, and I asked if he shot. He didn’t. That made both of our stomachs turn. We had heard a motorcycle come up the drainage earlier that morning, and we were pretty sure he had just shot the buck we were tracking. Since there was no way of knowing, we continued to track the buck. I found blood and tracks that went straight up the ridge my dad was on, almost the same path he had taken in fact.
This blood trail was anything but easy to follow, but I was determined to stay on it. Every 5-10 yards, we would find a track, then a drop of blood, and that continued for the next hour or so. The buck went over the ridge, then straight down into a willow/quaky brush patch that was so thick, we were having to crawl over and under the brush, but we did and we stayed on the tracks and blood. As the brush patch began to open up, it appeared that the wound on the buck did too. We found a ton of blood! Big pools of blood where the buck had apparently stopped and stood. Next to the biggest pool of blood we had seen, there was an old dead head of a buck. It was pretty deteriorated, but I took it anyway because my 6-year-old son would love to have it. We continued on the trail, which was now much easier to follow. Then all of a sudden, the blood just stopped. We started going further down the game trail the buck had been on, but with no blood.
Not even a good set of tracks to follow. After another 20-25 minutes of searching, I found another small drop of blood. The buck was going back up hill, which didn’t make any sense at all but we followed it up. The blood stayed pretty light, but it was steady and trackable, for a little while anyway. The buck had done a U-Turn and was heading back to towards the drainage we had already tracked him from. He went up, down, and around, but I was able to stay in his tracks and continued to find microscopic spots of blood here and there. My dad continued going down the finger ridge we were on while I stayed on the blood trail. At times, I was standing around, certain that I wouldn’t find any more blood, and then the sun would shine just right, and I would find blood on a single piece of grass glistening in the sun. Moments like that kept me on the right track. After almost 4 hours, my dad and I met up again.
I had lost the blood. We were standing in a rather open creek bottom, and I was explaining to my dad how I found the last blood drop. I pointed at the ground telling my dad the story, and there was more blood! That gave us the right direction of travel. Following the huge tracks, we were able to find more blood. The trail led to a wide open basin. When We got to the ridgetop overlooking the wide open basin, the trail went cold. With the afternoon sun rapidly descending, my dad walked down the ridge and I sat down to glass. When I first sat down, I thought I saw a deer on the other side of the basin, maybe 150 yards from me, but when I looked through my binoculars I couldn’t find what I thought I saw. After about 10 mins, I told my dad on the Garmin Rhino that I was going back to the last definite track and blood to get a direction of traveled.
My dad acknowledged my plan, and I walked over the ridge. As soon as I got over the ridge, I heard my dad shoot. I got on the radio and asked “Did you find him!?” and immediately ran to the ridgetop. When I got to the ridgetop, I saw a deer bounding down the opposite hillside. As soon as I got my binoculars on the deer, I heard another gunshot, and watched the deer fold and tumble down the steep hillside. I couldn’t believe it. We had trailed this buck, for the better part of 5 hours, no telling how far, and we found him. I ran down to where my dad was sitting in disbelief of what just happened. What an incredible day it had been. With emotional highs and lows, this was a truly unforgettable day. My dad decided to leave his pack with me, and hike down to where we last saw the buck fall. While he was hiking down there, I decided to go back up the ridge to get a better vantage point.
From there, I could see the buck laying in his final resting place. When dad finally had eyes on his buck, I grabbed his pack and headed down to him. Until now, this buck seemed like a ghost. I had seen his tracks, followed his blood trail, but had yet to put eyes on him until now. What a magnificent animal. The buck was a 4×4, with monstrous front and back forks, with mass that was carried throughout. I told my dad that this is the biggest all around buck that I had ever seen up close. With the steepness of the hillside the buck died on, we had to tie 550# paracord to a quaky and to the buck’s antlers just to get a few photos of him.
After the photos, we knew we had to get to work quick as the afternoon sun was fading fast. We got right to work, and quartered the buck, packed what we could, and began the hike back to our quads. We decided to take the buck down to a single track motorcycle trail in the bottom and then work our way back to the quads. The motorcycle trail was a longer trip, but with dark approaching rapidly, it would be easier than trying to find our way back up the ridge with unsure footing. Our pack out began around 6:30 PM, and after 3.67 miles, a 2,856 ft elevation gain, we got back to our quads at 11:30 PM. Exhaustion doesn’t begin to describe the feeling we had when we got back to the quads. Even as tired as we were, the feeling of accomplishment superseded the fatigue.
The feeling of being face to face with failure, and coming out successful is a feeling that only hunters who have been there can relate to. There was so many moments during this hunt that we thought we would never see this buck again, and then the smallest drop of blood would show itself, keeping us on track, until ultimately my dad was able to put to perfectly placed shots on this buck and put him down. Truly an unforgettable hunt, not because of the size of the buck, but because of the experience behind him.
By: Aaron Warren | Member