With "plan A" foiled by a fallen log, we beat up my truck for a few miles down a rancher's boulder strewn road. I tell my buddy not to worry about it until the sickening crunch of undercarriage on Modoc Counties infamous "rubber-grating lava rock" forces us into another U turn. Plan C?
Your vehicle can be a great tool when hunting, allowing the prospecting hunter access to mountaintops and providing a tool for covering lots of ground. At that moment though, it felt like a jail cell. I'd spent months studying topos to get me AWAY from the roads and I wanted to start burning leather pronto.
Suddenly I spotted movement to my right and called out "buck"! Then, "Bucks"! A bachelor herd was hightailing it across the low rise to our right, obviously spooked by something. I spotted two or three large shooters and told my partner, Kelly, to slow way down. We hatched a plan to try and intercept them and then have me slip out of the truck behind a tree or other suitable cover and then stalk them from there. As we closed in on our targets though, we noticed two hunters walking towards each other across the road. One had just left his treestand and the other left vacant a groundblind next to a cattle trough. The oldest was visibly agitated. I figured we had blown his setup and felt a little guilty pursuing the herd right under their noses so we conspired to play dumb.
"Was that guy with you?" he asked us.
Kelly and I gave each other a stupified look and I said, "It's just the two of us. We've been in the truck this whole time." We are literally watching our quarry galloping off in the distance behind us but stay the course. "All we've seen are does and fawns. Do you mind if we head on up that way?"
"Shoot go ahead. I don't own it." he replies. We deduce that they are father and son as the younger one asks who or what it was that his Father saw. Kelly and I decide to give them the slip as they argue and it's game on. I can't figure who it was they saw unless they just heard the deer running behind their stands or bigfoot is protecting his stock of venison. They were the only other hunters we had seen that morning and we were returning from where we had come. In either case it was game on and we motored ahead, anxiously scanning the landscape for the escaping prey. Just around the bend, we spotted one of the smaller forks running across the road and then another three higher up the hill, still moving but with less urgency. I decided to leave my pack in the truck and slipped out the door as we passed a boulder and skinny juniper. I shut the door gingerly as I stepped off the floorboard and ducked behind my cover, hoping they would focus on the passing truck.
I waited for a few minutes until the trucks' exhaust echoes and faded into the distance. My goal was to locate them before they spotted me if I was to have a snowball's chance in the desert, but nothing going. Shedding my boots, I crept at a millipede's pace, alternating between scanning each bush with my binoculars and then creeping along silently. The terrain is littered with dry skunk cabbage of which the leaves rattle like crepe paper and the stalks snap like an alarm so each step has to be precisely placed. I slack my jaw, trying to stay relaxed and focused. I scan the willows where I'd last seen the bucks and try to stay patient. I know they were hear just minutes ago so I keep telling myself not to give up on the situation. They must be here but my gut tells me they're not. Somehow they gave me the slip I'm thinking. I start to glance up the hill and suddenly spot antler tips in the mahogany brush above me! I recognize the rack as the biggest of the three bucks, a nice three pointer with eye guards. I remember where my heart is at this moment.
Thankfully he can't see me but the wind is all wrong. I figure if they haven't spooked on my scent yet I might as well give it a go. I'm not wearing any expensive scent control garments but I do take care to keep my camo as uncontaminated as possible and the fact that this buck is casually browsing 50 yards upwind from me proves that all of my crazy (to my wife at least) "scent free products" are paying off. Changing direction from a crouch, I ease up the rise towards the thick mahogany maze. I spot a grouse perched atop a snag, surveying the surroundings and then two more not 15 feet away. Careful not to spook them, I keep on creeping at a painstaking pace. The turtle would be smoking me right now in a race. I know the key is to become a stump. Just become part of the landscape and let the bucks go about their normal routine. Flushing a covey of grouse right now would send the bucks into another mad dash. I don't make eye contact with the grouse and they must wonder what this camo giant is doing on their turf but they go about their business and I go about mine.
As I crest the ridge, I spot them feeding out in the open now and my enthusiasm dwindles. Nothing between me and them but a field of crunchy skunk cabbage and an old burned out yellow pine, bleached white as a skeleton. The bucks keep glancing in my direction. They know something isn't quite right but they're not sure what exactly.
I contemplate backing out and changing tactics when the spirit gives me a sign. Rain drops begin pelting the cabbage leaves and the silence is broken with a symphony of drumming skunk cabbage. Oh blessed raindrops! As soon as the bucks go back to feeding, I position myself to use the tree to block their vision. As soon as I have all of their heads behind the trunk, I make up ground quickly. When I peek around the tree with my rangefinder, they are still a good 80 yards but they seem to be frolicking now in the rain. I ease around the tree to try and keep my back dry when the three point locks on me. I slowly shift my gaze to my now sodden socks and play the waiting game. After what seems like eons, the bucks finally bed down next to an old snag and I go back to work. One foot goes in front of the other, feeling first with my toes and then along the outside edge of my foot to my heel, testing for any give that might betray my presence and then slowly shifting my weight. Unbelievably I'm within range and I try and get a read on the big buck. He shakes his head from side to side and I put the cross-hairs on his head through the fallen bare branches. 39 yards. I practice a lot at 35 and so I try and get closer, focused intently on the three pointers position, I notice that there are other sets of ears and slightly to the right, the small fork suddenly turns and gives me the look like, "Hey. What are you doing here? You weren't there before!" I come to full draw as the forky stands at attention, poised for me to make the next move and itching to go first. I know the others will be right behind him so I put my 40 yard pin on the big buck as he levitates from his bed. There is a curved branch in my shooting lane but it's arching perfectly over the bucks shoulder. I can see a clear path to the vitals so I lower the pin just below this arch and aim 35 yards at his heart. I wait for the circles to steady and remind myself to squeeze smoothly. It feels good on the release but then I see the arrow jump and hit the buck square in the neck! He stands there like nothing happened so I grab for another arrow. Then he spins away and to my right, directly behind the forky who is still trying to figure out who I am and what I'm selling. My instincts tell me that my hit wasn't solid and I see that my first target is covered. I instantly think of taking the fork instead but thankfully talked myself out of it. By the time I have a clear lane at the big buck, he's 60 yards and all I see is his white rump bouncing away with the fork in tow.
I let down and fall to my knees in dismay, cursing myself for not aiming at 30. In hindsight, the buck was 31 yards. If my arrow was two inches lower, I would be eating venison tonight but instead, I have to chalk it up as a learning experience. I shouldn't have taken the shot with that branch in the way. Upon closer inspection, the "arching branch" was missing a chunk of bark. And I recalled the "tink" sound my arrow made just before it glanced up into the bucks neck. Also, not wanting to spook a wounded animal, I didn't pursue the bucks over the rise to get a look at where they were headed; A fact that kicked my ass for the next hour as Kelly and I, and then Kelly and I and his Father Roy and his dog Mack, hiked all over the hillside trying to find tracks. To make matters worse, when I got back to the truck after the shot, rain started to fall and fall heavy for about half an hour. When the average rainfall there is under 10 inches, a 30 minute downpour makes for some tough tracking.
In the end, we never saw a drop of blood and the bucks left behind few traces to follow. Judging by his reaction to the hit, that buck has probably shaken out the arrow and will have to let someone or something else taste his delicious meat. Bittersweet defeat I call it though. I had made a perfect stalk on three beautiful bucks on public ground, right under the noses of unsuspecting rivals and though the final outcome was tainted by my horn envy, I'm a wiser man from the experience.