Sunlight flares across the tops of Utah’s foothills and descends along sagebrush slopes. Aspen groves are so far below they’re still deep in dark purple pools of shadow. We sit on hard, dusty ground in burned-out, knee-high grass and prop our elbows on our knees. We pull our hat brims to the tops of our binoculars to block the sunlight and glass into the shadows for mule deer climbing from green alfalfa fields beyond sharp escarpments of weathered rock the color of rusty knives.
“Four bucks,” whispers Justin Richins on this late-August morning that’s so breathless his voice startles me. “About 800 yards away and coming.”
I find them in the sage and cedar moving too deep in shadows to count points. Still, their antler frames are big enough to make any whitetail hunter gulp.
Justin pulls off his pack, digs inside and tosses two pairs of heavy wool socks at my feet.
“Take your boots off,” he says. “Pull on those stalking socks.”Stalking socks?
“Hurry, we have to cut off those bucks.”
I yank off my boots and pull on the wool socks. I stow my boots in my pack and pick up my bow as Justin advises, “Just watch for cactus.” With my boots off and wool socks on I feel like I’m 10 years old again, as that’s when I read The Last of the Mohicans and decided I wanted to be like Hawkeye so I made moccasins out of an old leather seat cover. Those moccasins didn’t last long—I wasn’t much of a craftsman. So back then I donned three pairs of cotton socks and went into the woods with my longbow. My mother never knew why my socks always needed bleaching.
But I’d left that boyhood adventure behind and had forgotten the lesson. Our hushed footfalls make me doubly realize how quiet the landscape can be in the Utah foothills and just how much noise hard-rubber soles make on stone—yet another reminder that even as all our modern conveniences help us they also diminish us, take the wildness out of us.
We slink to a lookout and squat in the shade of a cedar. The bucks should pass near this spot. Justin says that on a five-day hunt he gets his bowhunters onto about 10 stalks. The hunters’ skill, the whimsy of the winds, the eyes and ears of the bucks and more determine if hunters fail or succeed. He likes to remind them that even tigers fail nine out of 10 times.
Justin also explains, “There are a lot of great public areas where people can hunt this way in Wyoming, Utah, Montana and more, but too few understand how to hunt this way anymore.”
He sits Indian-style with his elbows on his knees and his 8x binocular scanning. He is with the R&K Hunting Co. They outfit for elk and mule deer in Utah, Montana and Wyoming. I’d met Justin through Greg Ray of NRA Outdoors, an outfitting service that gives NRA members expert advice and deals on trips. I’d called Justin after Greg said, “Justin has this uncanny ability to slip right up on big elk and mule deer. If a hunter can stay quiet, he always gets a shot.”
We spot the bucks’ antlers first. They rise out of a draw turning side to side as they browse on aspen leaves. After 30 minutes they turn and drop into a wash.
Justin stays behind and I use a cedar patch to stalk closer. I go with my back bent, on my toes, finding spots between dried grass tufts. I peek through a cedar to a sun-washed opening and freeze, one foot dangling. A buck, a large 5x5, is bedded deep in a shadow beneath a cedar. I can see the silhouette of the buck’s face and antlers. The other bucks are out of sight. I don’t have a shot. I use my rangefinder: 49 yards. I’m comfortable to 60 yards on a target that’s not moving, but I don’t have a clear shot.
We wait on that buck for hours and finally we decide to force the situation. Justin throws a stone over and past the buck. The buck leaps from the shadows but angles away and stops at 75 yards before bouncing off as mule deer do.
I’m delighted. Who wants it to end on a first stalk?
On the way out, we spot another buck, this one a giant, bedded a mile away under a cedar hanging over a ledge. As we make a plan, two pickups pull up beside us. There are two outdoor TV shows filming on other parts of the ranch—Spook Span and Rick and Julie Kreuter—and they want to film my stalk. They ask if it’ll bother me and I say it won’t, but the privacy of a personal stalk on a huge deer—in my socks—has become an exhibition. Apaches probably once watched and snickered as youngsters made their stalks.
So with two TV cameras on a ridge watching our every move we creep down a draw, change into our stalking socks and I go a silent step at a time up the hill toward that buck. Halfway up I feel the thermals shifting, the wind rising. But there is no time to back out and try another route. Odds are what they are when you’re in a game. So I avoid leaves from oak brush and take every step as serious as death. But the buck isn’t there. When we make it back they tell us the buck skedaddled before I even started the stalk. The shifting thermals had turned uphill minutes too soon.
Later that evening and the next two days go like that. We have close calls with big deer, but never spook them. We’re getting close and almost getting a shot and the bucks don’t know it. This is Justin’s method. Stay after them, pattern them, learn them, but don’t let them know you’re trying to kill them.
On some stalks the terrain or the wind stops us or the bucks, on a whim, stay just out of range. Sometimes does come between us. Another time small bucks in a group are in range but the larger bucks are too far. We go back for meals and beds for midday siestas and I wonder about the Utes who once hunted mule deer with bow and arrow here. Would a desperation to eat sharpen my stalking skills? I decide to imagine I need to kill meat to survive.
When dawn comes this idea is primal. We start high again, as a hunter on such a quest should start high, preferably above a food source. You have maybe three hours to intercept a buck or see where it beds. After that they’ll be tucked away in some shady spot until a few hours before sunset.
This is where patience and good optics are mandatory, before stalking skills and shooting ability become everything. You begin by grid-searching the landscape. When you spot some deer, you use a spotting scope to make certain there’s a buck you want. You learn not to waste precious hours stalking a buck you don’t want to shoot. When you spot a buck, you don’t just go. You look for other deer, as they’ll be obstacles. You look at the terrain and imagine where the buck is going and how he’ll get there. You plan your stalk and pick memorable landmarks you’ll recognize when you get down into the terrain.
Getting close is about making a plan and executing it well. You have to use what the terrain gives you and you have to respect a deer’s eyes and nose. Be aware of the wind and the thermals that’ll switch from downhill to uphill mid-morning as the sun heats the slopes.
Justin advises me to put on my stalking socks early, as in 200 or more yards from the deer. You can’t wait until the last hundred yards. Sound travels, especially on a quiet morning in thin Rocky Mountain air.
You need to feed the three-dimensional situational awareness that is deep within you. You need to see where you’re stepping while letting your mind wander outside yourself to view the terrain and you in it—and especially the deer and what they can see and hear. This bigger imagination projected from yourself to the landscape and your prey is part of what makes us human and is a fundamental reason why humans survived as hunters for eons despite not being so fleet of foot or having wings or canines the size of Bowie knives.Most hunters move too fast over the last few yards. Many more lose it on the shot. You have to slow down your body and speed up your awareness.
Before you go, lay all your gear out on a floor. Then put it all on as you will in the field. Feel the weight of it and see if anything makes a sound. Next shoot your bow this way. Become used to where everything is and to shooting from kneeling, standing and sitting positions especially at long range. You need to know your shooting limits.
As you move in all your gear, read the buck’s body language. If the buck is alert, wait him out. Judge his tension. Watch his ears. They move independently, like a horse’s. They’ll find sounds seemingly on their own. A quick movement of one ear forecasts where the buck will look in a moment.
Try to see the shot coming and anchor yourself for longer shots. Use your bone structure, not your muscles, or you won’t last. Practice the kneeling shot with your elbow on your front knee. And practice using your rangefinder. Become so skilled at taking ranges that you won’t need to look as you pull out your rangefinder, check the yardage and put it back.
Justin keeps quietly preaching all this. He’s a good teacher. While I’ve killed whitetails and a lot of other game on foot with my bow, his perspective and hunting style show me new variations of the theme.
My hunt ends when we spot a huge buck 1,000 yards away in mid-afternoon and decide to wait for that deer to come downhill. We use a gully to cross a sagebrush-covered flat and climb through oak-brush thickets and stop a few hundred yards from the buck. As a hunter used to picking a stand site I choose a spot on a gas-line break deer are obviously using to go to the alfalfa far below me. But the wind is pesky; I’ll have to stand downhill of approaching deer alongside a thicket. I won’t be able to see the deer until they’re right above me and close. The closer trail is 15-25 yards, the farther is 45-55. Justin moves a half-mile away to another ridge where he can watch.
The first deer to come down in the evening are does. They choose the closer trail. One head bobs when it passes me, not sure what I am. Then two small bucks give me a perfect shot, but they’re young. Next, three more bucks pop into view on the farther trail. The third is huge. I draw. He stops. He saw something move. It was the top of my bow. There is a bush in front of his vitals. A full minute passes. Finally he steps forward at 45 yards. I’m shaking. I tighten my stance by pulling my shoulders together and let the bow go off as my hand is pulled back by my shoulders coming together. The arrow arcs and I hear a loud thump. Bone.
Now here comes the nightmare all deer hunters dread. I watch him cross a sage bottom for 800 yards and then disappear into aspen. As I recheck the range, I realize the buck had angled away and I’d shot him at 53 yards, not 45. The arrow went too low.
I track him the next day on hands and knees for another half-mile on a few drops of blood. From the blood we saw on his side, we surmise I’d only cut the skin on his brisket. The next day I glass for magpies to see if they’re on a dead animal in the open landscape. Nothing.
Justin is certain the buck lived. “We’d have found it while elk hunting that open country a few weeks later. We covered every inch of that terrain then,” he says later.
Nevertheless, the nightmare creep of failure and possible suffering inflicted haunt me. I live with this and can’t let it go. That’s how it becomes when you get close, when you sweat every detail from your wool socks to your searching eyes as you try to be the hunter you want to be and don’t quite make it. That’s what’s drawing me back again—for more close encounters and tests of hunting skills.