I’ve heard it said no working stiff actually cares about trophies but I don’t believe it, not for a minute. It’s true most of us hunt simply because we must; it’s what we do. But that doesn’t mean any of us can convince himself he doesn’t care about shooting a big buck.
We know most days when we head out at the crack of dawn we won’t return with a super-sized rack. Unless we’re fortunate to live in and actually hunt a state that produces records, we simply don’t have the opportunity. But we go anyway, certain in such knowledge but also certain in our faith that any day just may be the day we’re blessed to run smack-dab into the buck of our dreams.
Some hunters become consumed once that happens. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen guys go from “I don’t care; they’re all trophies” to “Heck, if you’da held off, he mighta grown into something respectable next year” within the span of a week.
The fact is every head of game is a trophy—every squirrel, every forkhorn, everything. Every one of us is blessed to hunt this fabulous land. But every once in a while, it’s nice to realize the hunting gods have taken a shine to you. Take my hunt for mule deer in Utah last September, for instance.
I’m fortunate to hunt some spectacular country via my close connection to the gun/hunting industry, through friendships formed and via my own machinations to engineer adventure. In any case, I enjoy the ride, whether I tag out opening morning or bust my hump all week then shoot game at last light.
But hope as I might, I’ve never shot a truly giant deer of any kind. Until last September, the biggest deer I ever saw with a gun in my hand was a whitetail that sifted through dawn fog outside Wichita, Kan., then vanished, never giving me a chance to raise my rifle. So I’ve learned to keep expectations at low boil: I hope, sure, but never too much.
Then last year I hunted a unique operation in northeast Utah, where personnel keep close tabs on every head of game on the ranch they prowl. Guides there are dedicated to growing and hunting only big bucks and bulls.
“We’ve been hunting this buck for weeks now, Scott,” said my guide, Colton Heward, as we drove into the inky blackness opening morning. “We’ve been watching him for years, actually. This season, one of my hunters had him at 30 yards but his arrow flew wild. Another guy had him at 18 yards but sagebrush blocked a shot. But today, you’ve got a rifle; 30 yards, 18 yards … longer—I don’t care. I want this buck. You can shoot, right?”
Indeed, I had in hand my Kimber 84M Longmaster Classic in .308 Win. with a Leupold Mark 4 scope. I’ve trained and hunted nationwide with the rig, so we go together like “peas and carrots.” This morning, it was stoked with a 178-grain Hornady ELD-X, a bullet designed for long range. I was good to 500 yards if conditions were right.
I didn’t actually expect to find the buck that morning, mind you. I figured we’d hunt hard all week, get a glimpse of the mule deer they called Newton, maybe get a shot. I’ve learned over the years to go with the flow, have fun and take what I can get, which is plenty. If “it” happens, great. But we can hope in one hand and … well, you get the picture.
Then “it” happened. About two hours after sunrise, we’d motored to another rim to glass another drainage. But before we could park and hike to a vantage Colton slammed on the brakes and hissed, “That’s him!”
I tried to remain calm amid the excitement of my three companions. I promised myself I wouldn’t dwell on the rack of this deer, lest I induce buck fever.
We duck-walked into position then Colton fussed to set up the sticks. I laid the rifle in them as he read the range: “320 yards, Scott.” I settled in, made sure we were talking about the same buck then focused, breathed and squeezed …“OK, you hit him,” blurted Colton, “you hit him in the a&$. He’s moved. Get on him!”
Oh, hell, I thought. The shot felt good; not perfect, but good. I reloaded, found the animal again and reminded myself, Focus, breathe, squeeze. Before I could recover from recoil again the buck dropped out of sight.
“He’s down,” said Colton. “I don’t see him, but he’s down.” Or was he? … We spent an hour trying to find that buck. Sagebrush covered the far hillside; the uniformity of the ground cover made it difficult to determine exactly where it stood when I fired. Four of us witnessed the shots, and thus a back-and-forth ensued. “He was there,” said one, pointing. “No, he was lower than that,” said another. “I think he was just below that scrubby tree.”
While my companions climbed down and up then combed the hillside, I stayed put, rifle at the ready in case the buck popped up unexpectedly. I dropped the buck—I knew it. But as the minutes ticked away, my conviction began to ebb.
Then Colton boomed, “Yeeeeehawww!” The second shot had center-punched the boiler room. When you return to camp with a 195-inch buck, everyone wants to lay hands on it.
So that’s my big buck story; nothing fancy. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right outfit; simple as that. The truth is I’ve made certain decisions throughout life. I’m an outdoorsman, an Eagle Scout, a Marine, a trained journalist; it’s a combination of experience that makes me uniquely qualified for the career I have chosen.
I can’t pretend to be an expert, not for a minute. But I am a trophy hunter. Every hunter who enters the field is, I believe. Be honest: Would you rather return with another mule deer like the five you’ve shot before, or a rack for the ages? The thought of trophies may not consume us; in fact it shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean we all can’t hope.