The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman:
By Nancy Rodriguez
Thump, thump, thump!
With every adrenaline-filled heartbeat my crosshairs float over my target – a beautiful three-point mule deer buck. Instead of pulling the trigger, I ask myself, “Is this the buck you want to take off this mountain?” I slowly lower my rifle and let the buck walk. It’s opening morning, after all, and I have plenty of hunting days ahead.
I am high in the backcountry of California. I have drawn a mule deer buck tag in a great unit for mature animals. This can be a grueling hunt. My husband Joe, father-in-law Ray and I have backpacked in 8 miles with all of our gear on our backs. We don’t have any other means of getting into the area we prefer to hunt, so it’s good old-fashioned leg power for us. It’s also a high-elevation hunt and we have to purify and transport all of our water to our dry camp.
On top of that, winter’s first storms can set in at any time during the season, so we always have to be prepared for the worst. These challenges make pulling any buck out of these mountains very rewarding.
Through preseason scouting, we know there are a few nice bucks in the area. I know the only way to successfully harvest a big buck is to pass on the smaller ones. Passing on an animal is not in my nature, because the meat is one of the main reasons I hunt. But I have also dreamt about harvesting a nice four-point mule deer in these rugged mountains for many years. So this year I’m on a quest, and I’m up for the challenge.
AS OPENING DAY COMMENCES, we hear numerous shots and see plenty of hunters. This much hunting pressure is unusual for this area. With the extra pressure, my quest will certainly be a bit more challenging. The decision to pass on that three-pointer begins to haunt me, and I ask myself if I made the right choice. Then I remember the rule: You can’t tag a big buck if you shoot a smaller one first. But, still I wonder … Is one more point on the buck’s antlers that important to me?
The first day of the season comes to an end and I find myself staring at the ceiling of the tent replaying the day’s encounters. I had passed on two more three-pointers, leaving me unsure about my decision. I wonder if I am being greedy for wanting a bigger buck. Hopefully, Mother Nature will see that I have paid my dues in these mountains and bless me with the buck I am after.
AS DUSK APPROACHES ON the second day, we are creeping ever so slowly when Joe whispers, “Huge buck through the trees!” Suddenly, my regret turns into determination and I am looking at one of the biggest four-point muley bucks I have ever seen – and he’s only 150 yards away!
While Joe can see the buck clearly, I have a tree in my way. I slowly move over as quietly as I can to get set up for the shot. I place my gun on the tripod and slowly move the tripod over to clear a shooting lane. As I do this, I make a costly mistake. The resulting squeak of the tripod leg on rock alerts the buck to our presence. The buck’s head spins instantly and he has us pegged. I try to get lined up as quickly as possible, but it’s too late. Poof! The grey ghost disappears into thin air. My head drops as I realize I will probably never see that giant again.
That night I feel sick as I replay the tripod squeak over and over. I think of all the things I could have done differently. All the what if’s swirling inside keep me up most of the night. Maybe Mother Nature is not happy with my early decisions and she is reminding me of my place. I tell myself this is hunting, and the ups and downs are what keep me coming back for more.
THE EVENING OF THE third day finds us set up on a huge rock glassing the pine-filled draw that the giant calls home. As the sun starts to set Joe whispers, “I’ve got him!” He ranges him and he’s at the edge of my shooting range. My crosshairs are steady on the buck of my dreams, my scope turrets are adjusted for the distance and I slowly put tension on the trigger.
Before the trigger breaks, I decide the risk is too great. With the distance, I couldn’t ethically take the shot. The thought of wounding this mountain monarch is more than I can bear. The giant feeds back into the trees as darkness falls. Mother Nature has humbled us again.
ON THE FOURTH DAY, I find myself feeling much differently. At sunrise we are glassing a beautiful basin that glows with golden aspens and orange and green foliage sprinkled about. I lay back and realize this has already been an amazing hunt. I have had the opportunity at multiple deer, including one of the biggest bucks I’ve ever seen, and I’m enjoying the awe-inspiring beauty of the backcountry.
As this unfolds, we come up with our evening plan. We decide to head back to the giant’s draw and see what happens. I tell Joe, “If I see a buck on the way down, I’m going to try and take him.” He asks, “Even if it’s a three-pointer?” “Yep! I’ll be happy with any buck.”
It’s early afternoon and the three of us slowly start to head down through the scattered trees to the giant’s lair. After two hours of creeping through the trees glassing every shade patch in search of a bedded buck, Joe whispers, “I think I see an antler through that screen of trees.” I glass and confirm it’s a buck – and it’s a good one. It’s not the giant, but a four-pointer is a four-pointer! All we can see is his head and antlers through the trees, so we wait.
We are on a little rise about 80 yards away from him and we see the rear end of another buck move through the trees, but we can’t confirm its size. The four-point finally rises and starts to feed. My rifle follows his every step as he walks in and out of the trees. As he steps behind a large pine, I glance in the direction he’s feeding and see a small opening. He enters the clearing with his head down as he continues to feed. He turns uphill toward me.
At this steep angle, I can see the tip of an antler, the base of his neck, shoulders and along the top of his back. I place my crosshairs between his shoulder blades and slowly squeeze the trigger.
He drops in his tracks and out of my line of sight. The other buck runs off, but I don’t see him clearly. Yet I am smiling from ear to ear. We finally have the mature four-point buck we have been after. We have paid our dues and Mother Nature has rewarded us – with a bit of a twist.
I make my way down to the buck and I am bewildered. I realize the buck I have just shot is a two-point. I look back at Joe and Ray and say, “He’s a forkie!” I think to myself, How is this possible? I followed that four-point through my scope from the time he stood until I shot. Then I think back to the moment he stepped behind the pine and I glanced to the opening he would eventually enter. In those seconds behind the tree and out of my sight, something changed. As the four-point walked behind the pine, the buck we had seen earlier must have already been feeding behind it only to be pushed out into my line of sight. At that moment I was sure Mother Nature was smiling!
I MUST ADMIT, A split second of disappointment courses through me. But it vanishes instantly as I kneel down, put my hand on the buck’s neck and look into his eyes. He has died instantly and I am thankful for that. My eyes well up with grateful admiration, and I am completely humbled by the experience. A life is a life, whether his antlers have two points or four points. His wonderful, organic meat will feed my family.
It’s very hard to explain the feeling of taking a life, but if you are an ethical hunter I hope you can relate. It’s not the kill that captivates us; it’s the hunt itself. I say my prayer of thanks – like I always do with every animal I harvest – and place a blade of grass in his mouth.
The following day we get an early start and pack out our camp and quarry. We cover these 8 grueling miles with 70-pound packs on our backs, and the entire time we have smiles on our faces!
This buck becomes one of my most memorable. I learn a lot of valuable lessons on this hunt. I can still have hunting goals, but no matter what, I will be grateful for every animal I take. It will be a few years before we can hunt these mountains again and we know Mother Nature will be looking forward to our visit. Maybe that will be the year she decides we have paid our dues! CS
Editor’s note: Nancy Rodriguez lives in Cool (El Dorado County), with her husband Joe. She is an outdoor enthusiast who loves to fish, hunt and backpack. Nancy is on the hunt staff for Prois Hunting & Field Apparel for Women and enjoys inspiring women to get outdoors.