Twenty years ago, I vowed to never again use a booking agent after back-to-back seasons when two separate agents over-promised and under-delivered extraordinarily. But as in all matters of mankind, time and circumstance, like the hard springtime rains, can alter the course of life’s deepest set paths …
Morning broke in a flaming orange cloud bank over the Utah Mountains, and spread its pastel strokes of light on the boughs of sagebrush where I waited. The mule deer had already made it 2 miles uphill from their night-haunt alfalfa fields in Pete’s Canyon. They came by the dozens, moving deliberately and warily by me, up to cooler bedding areas on higher ground.It had been 18 years since I bowhunted mule deer, and it was the first morning that my 15-year-old son had ever been on a Western hunt. He knelt behind me silently, running a TV camera for an over-the-shoulder view as a massive buck moved by us. “62 yards,” I whispered after ranging the buck. “I’m on him,” my son said, letting me know he had the video locked on for the shot. The buck stopped to browse. He was perfectly broadside, and my heart slammed against the top of my throat loudly. I put a bit of backward tension on the release, contemplating the beautiful arc of my arrow slipping behind his shoulder, but then relaxed. The buck moved off uphill. He looked even more beautiful as I watched him walk off. “What the heck! Why didn’t you shoot?” my son whispered emphatically. “Too far,” I answered. “Too much can go wrong at 60 yards. I didn’t come all this way to hurt an animal. I came here to make a clean kill.”
I’ve been bowhunting for 34 years and can shoot long distances very well. My son has seen me practice out past 70 yards and drop shot after shot into the kill zone, so his question was natural. I’ve learned over the years that taking long range shots at deer, with their super-reflexes, is mostly a loser’s game. Deer can jump a string, wind can move an arrow, and a slight torque of the grip can mean a gut shot or neck hit. I am firmly convinced that “bad results” are much more common at over 40 or 50 yards than clean arrow placement. In fact, I’d always bet that shots over 40 yards, even with experienced archers, more often result in marginal hits, wounded animals and the misery of regret, than they do in success.
“I’d rather play blackjack than roulette” I said. My son looked at me quizzically. “At least at closer range, I have some chance of controlling the outcome of the shot, and don’t leave my winning completely up to chance.”
Ethics in bowhunting is a difficult subject, and the results of err in judgment in bloodsport are seldom kind. It sickens me to watch high-arcing shots on TV shows—60, 80, even 100 yards—knowing that for every miss or kill on film there are likely dozens of rump, gut, neck or leg shots that didn’t make the silver screen. I have never believed this is what our sport is about, but rather, it’s about respecting the game, shooting in high-probability situations and executing a clean kill.
Back at camp we swapped stories with the other hunters, including Nathan Mrnak, a hunting consultant from Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures. I had met Nathan by chance when he called with feedback on our website, and after speaking with him several times, somehow I ended up booking a hunt through his service. Nathan spoke so highly of this particular ranch that I thought sure it couldn’t be true, but my doubts were lessened when he e-mailed me to say he’d bought his own tag and was joining me in camp.
Daniel Richins, our outfitter and an accomplished bowhunter, listened intently to my account of the morning hunt. He looked at me approvingly as I described my reasoning to pass up the 68-yard shot at that 180-inch buck. Getting close to a mature mule deer is one of the toughest games in bowhunting. Despite knowing I had made the right decision, I knew in the back of my mind that perhaps it would be the closest I would get.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
The first morning, I saw 11 different bucks that I would’ve shot. Both Nathan and I had set our expectations at a 160-inch threshold for what we’d love to harvest, and I figured that if I returned to Pete’s Canyon the next day, I’d get in better position for a shot inside of 40 yards.
Numerous bucks started working up the hill past our setup shortly after sunrise. The closest one—an absolute monster 4×4 with at least 190 inches of antlers—passed at 65 yards and presented three different broadside or quartering-away shot opportunities. Again, the temptation begged me to release but I held off, and we returned to camp for the mid-day hours. It was a great morning, and rewinding the footage, looking at that buck’s amazing rack and huge body, I again entertained the notion that perhaps I should have launched. Just then, the rumble of an engine filled the circle drive in front of the lodge.By the time I got to the window, Nathan, Daniel and one of the guides had huddled beside a large 3×3 set of velvet antlers that hung off the back of the Ranger. “I got it done this morning, bud!” Nathan said, as the screen door banged behind me. There, in the bed of the Ranger, was a beautiful big 6-pointer (smaller than Nathan’s goal of a 160-inch buck) with a perfect 4-inch wide gash from a Rage Hypodermic broadhead in the center of its chest. “Beautiful, Nathan, congratulations!” I said. “You couldn’t have hit him any better. How far was the shot?” “Sixty-eight yards,” he replied. I was somewhat stunned. First of all, the hit would have been perfect even if it had been made from 12 yards. So much for my theory on long shots, I thought. Secondly, I had come to know Nathan from numerous phone conversations while booking the hunt and a couple of days in camp, and he seemed to be a really sensible and ethical fellow. Why would he be launching 68 yards on the second day of the hunt? And, why at a buck that seemed smaller than what he wanted to tag?
As we stood by the buck, my mind raced backwards to the long shot I had passed up a few hours before. “Wow,” I uttered. “Maybe I should have launched at that huge buck I passed on this morning, and the other one yesterday.” Nathan looked at me blankly. I could sense that he knew what I was thinking. The fact was that he had taken a great animal and made a great shot and a clean kill. I began to feel badly for even wondering why he launched, but couldn’t help myself.
“I know where your mind is right now, Cy”, he said. “You won’t believe what happened, and I have it all on film.” Nathan then recanted an amazing story that was, ironically, all about making the right decisions.
“We were spotting on the top of Elkhorn Peak, and had seen some great bucks that were not in positions for a stalk,” Nathan recalled. “Daniel was looking through the spotting scope and said, ‘Hey, there’s a big 3-point down below those quakies with an arrow sticking out of his neck. I looked through the scope and there he was, with 2 feet of the fletch-end of an arrow mid-neck. He’d been hit by a hunter on neighboring property, and was clearly in discomfort. ‘Let’s go get him,” I said immediately. Daniel said, ‘Nate, you don’t have to use your tag on that buck, and I won’t blame you at all if you just want to let him be. He’s not your responsibility … really.’ I replied: ‘No way, we’re going to put a stalk on that buck and try to end his misery!’Nathan dropped off a steep mountainside 800 yards very quickly, into a stand of aspen, and worked his way to within a hundred yards of the bedded buck. The next 40 yards he crept as quietly as possible to a point they had marked as the edge of shooting range. The buck had heard him, and as Nathan rose up to see a clearer view of the scene, the buck was already on his feet looking. Nathan ranged him at 67 yards, drew his 72-pound Regulator bow and released. The arrow, despite all odds, nerves, lack of breath and pounding heart, flew as true as could be. The picture (right) captured from a screenshot of Daniel’s video, shows the impact of Nathan’s arrow, along with the other arrow protruding from the opposite side of the buck’s neck.
The buck bolted 100 yards and crumpled in seconds. Nathan raised his arms exuberantly, and then collapsed onto his knees as the emotions of what he had done came over him. “It was the absolute pinnacle of my archery career, Cy,” he said. “I just can’t express how tremendous of a feeling it was to have made that shot, in a critical moment, when I knew I had to do it and help that buck from suffering. I would never take that shot under normal circumstances, but in this case I was obligated to try it. It was just scripted that way, and I am so happy to have had this experience.”
“I would have done the same thing,” I agreed. “What an amazing story to go along with that mount on your wall. I think the memory of this buck will be more powerful than any other buck you could have ever taken!”
TO THOSE WHO WAIT
Four days blew by like the mid-day gusts in the valley, and the last morning of the hunt had arrived too soon. I had five or six bucks in range throughout the week, and I had seen more mule deer than I could have ever imagined. The ranch, the outfitter, the guides, the lodge, the food and the numbers of game were the best I had ever experienced on any hunt. It was better than Nathan had ever billed it. As I walked into the sagebrush in the morning darkness, I knew I’d be happy even if I left with my tag still in my pack.
I set up in a draw known as Fish Creek, where we’d seen several large bucks cross the morning before. By 7:15 a.m. I had already been in the wrong spot to intercept two massive bucks, so I scurried uphill quickly a hundred yards to where they had passed. No sooner had I gotten to the spot, sweating from the rising sun and breathing hard through a dry mouth, a rush came over me. A tall velvet rack was coming straight at me through the sage. The buck was moving quickly and I clipped the release to my string. My heart began pounding heavily and I breathed harder trying to catch my wind. At 30 yards out, the buck halted, cupped his ears forward, and burned his eyes into the bush behind which I crouched. I was sure he could hear me breathing.
Minutes passed, both of us frozen, my back muscles burning now. Finally, the buck stepped left and moved into the open. He was beautiful and shook his tall rack at the flies that pestered him. He was 30 yards out, passing broadside. I drew my bow, holding it flat to the ground, and in one motion raised it vertically and centered the pin on his chest. I grunted. The buck froze and looked at me. His chest was perfectly framed between two sage bushes and my arrow was gone in a blur, dead center towards his ribs. Just as I released the arrow, he whirled away, jumping the string, bringing his belly into the sage-bush picture frame. I watched my Rage Extreme and knock disappear into his mid-section, hitting much farther back than I would have liked, perhaps in the paunch. I was stunned.
I stood up and looked down at my feet, then at the sky, then back to where he had stood. Reality calmed me into the shadows of doubt and hope that every bowhunter knows. I had waited all week for that shot, but now, even at that close range, I stood in hapless disbelief at the speed of his reflexes, and at the way my game was ending. The opportunity was perfect, yet the margin of my recovery was very much in question.
Six hours passed slowly back at camp. My arrow had passed through the buck and fell to the ground, covered in blood and the distinct stench of stomach bile. I marked the bloodtrail and pulled out to wait.
The mid-day Utah sun had baked his blood into dried flat shades of browns and blacks on the ground and brush, making it nearly impossible to follow. Four of us scoured the hillside for hours and exhausted our search at a large bed he’d made that was full of blood. With no more blood to follow, I had recoiled into the doubt and disgust of assuming we’d not recover him and that his instinct to live and jump my string had now given his life to the scavengers.
After we lost the trail, Daniel called his partner, Justin, with one last hope. Justin owns a viscous little wirehaired Dachshund tracking dog named “Remy,” and they arrived on the scene an hour later.
Bowhunting is a game of inches, sometimes millimeters, and there’s a reason why I believe Rage Extreme broadheads are the greatest head ever made. The buck lay in an oak thicket just 50 yards from where we last stood.Remy ran straight upwind to my buck in a matter of minutes, and God’s grand plan for man and dog was complete! My broadhead hit just where I’d thought—behind the rib cage, in the belly—but the massive cutting diameter of the Rage Extreme had clipped the liver. The buck went 250 yards and expired.
Patience fills more tags than any other virtue or skill. It’s learned only from the costly mistakes we’ve all made, and the unethical shots we’ve all taken at times when our desire triumphs over the truth of reality. Decisions fall often on the wrong side of the line when the pressure is on, or when our greed overwhelms sensibility, but as bowhunters we must constantly check ourselves against the reality of what will usually go wrong at these moments. The tentacles of chance and err reach into every hunt, every shot. Even in waiting for the perfect shot, I had nearly lost my buck.
A triumphant sunset fell onto the mountains in dark purple hues behind us as we packed out my buck. Nathan had my buck’s cape on his back and a front quarter in his hand. He smiled widely at me. “I’d say things played out very nicely for us here, Cy,” he said, and then turned toward the truck. I walked along behind him for a while thinking about the sacrifice of his tag for that wounded buck. There are many hunters I’ve met who wouldn’t have done what he did. “Couldn’t be a better hunt in the world than this place, Nathan”, I said. “And your shot on that buck is the best shot ever made.”
Little did he know, I’ll never book another hunt without a booking agent again.