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August 2018
Story by Lance Johnson
State: Utah
Species: Deer - Mule

I’m probably no different than most of the other members of the Huntin’ Fool License Application Service. I got calls and messages from the staff at least once, sometimes twice a month starting in January. It was usually about my preferences for a certain state or to change credit cards for another state. I had gotten in the habit of taking those calls for granted, never expecting significant news. I had been a member of Huntin’ Fool for a while and had never drawn a tag. However, early one summer day in 2017, that all changed. I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Cedar City, Utah and a voicemail to go along with it. I didn’t check it for a day or two and almost deleted it. When I finally got around to listening to it, all it said was I needed to call back. Unaware of anything going on, I called back and it was Huntin’ Fool. They were very matter of fact and told me I had drawn an archery tag for the Oak Creek unit in Utah for mule deer.

It wasn’t until later in the week that I began to process that conversation. I knew I needed to ask a few more questions, so I called them back. I asked about the unit, and they told me it was one of the toughest units in Utah, had good mule deer, and was one of the most physically demanding units. Huntin’ Fool considered this one of the top units in Utah. I had drawn one of the best tags for mule deer. They have six archery tags, and only one goes to a non-resident. It finally sank in. As a Mississippi native, I was shocked that after so many years I had drawn one of the best mule deer tags Utah has to offer.

I found out where the unit was and knew Wade Lemon lived close by. I’d met Wade several years back and kept in touch over the years. I called him, and he couldn’t believe I’d drawn the tag.

Fast forward to the middle of August and the evening prior to opening day when I met my guide, Russ Nielson. Before I knew it, it was the first morning and I was walking up a steep, rocky mountain. Russ and I made it to a spot where he had been seeing a wide 4x4 with a few other decent bucks.

As the sun came up, I noticed the incredible view. The rocky landscape came alive in the early mornings with colors of the rainbow shattering off rocks. I was awestruck as Russ said, “I got him.” A few seconds later, I was looking at one of the most impressive mule deer bucks I had ever seen. Over the next two days, we stalked him with no luck. He moved to places we couldn’t get to or the wind was wrong as we started to close in.

On the third day, we finally got him bedded in a spot that looked promising. It took us several hours to get on the same side of the mountain as the buck. After getting oriented to this side of the mountain, Russ spotted the buck’s antler tips behind the same boulder he was bedded by earlier. I slowly and carefully stalked to within 40 yards of him. I needed him to stand up and clear the boulder that expertly had every part of him hidden except his antler tips. I saw his tips move and was certain he’d either gotten wind of me or had heard me move. He stood up, and I immediately drew my bow. He took two steps and his head and neck cleared the boulder, but he turned and looked straight at me. I settled my pin on his throat and released the arrow. I watched it slide right by him without touching a hair. He bounced down the mountain, getting further and further away. As a bowhunter, this was not the first time a big one had gotten away, but the disappointment stung as much as the very first time.

The next few days were tough. Glassing and walking consumed almost every waking moment. We saw at least one really good deer everyday, but sometimes you make a stalk and blow it and sometimes you just can’t get there. The Oak Creek unit was tougher than I had imagined. I only had one more day on this hunt before I had to get back to work.

On the last morning, Russ and I glassed several parts of the mountains but turned up nothing worth a stalk. By midmorning, we were on a different part of the unit and decided to stay there until midafternoon. It was about 1:30 when Russ said he had one spotted, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was excited. He told me the deer was a good bit away. When I spotted him through the binos, I knew I was about to go after this buck for one last stalk.

The problem was, he was on the furthest mountain away in this valley. Three and a half hours later, we thought we were getting close. As we moved through the next canyon, we bumped a few does and hoped they didn’t spook the deer we were after. Climbing up to the top of the next ridge, I noticed a huge rock face coming off the side of the mountain that we couldn’t see from where we had first spotted the buck. With no way to get over this part, we had to skirt it. We crawled and inched our way toward the edge of the face and looked on the other side. Unbelievably, the buck was still in the same spot and 110 yards away.

The first thing I noticed now that I was closer was that this deer had a huge frame and a lot of points. He was a giant. We surveyed the terrain, and I thought I could get a little closer. As we started inching forward, I felt the wind shift and hit the back of my neck. We froze, waiting for the deer to bolt. He didn’t move, so we continued creeping closer. I was at 67 yards and could go no further. This was a little far, but I’d practiced enough to know that if he showed me his broadside I may be able to get an arrow in him.

He stood up, and I drew my bow. He took three steps, and I saw his vitals through a gap in the oak brush and trees. I squeezed the trigger of my release, and the arrow center punched the deer. He bolted out of his lair and headed right at us. He got below the rock face, stopped, took a few more steps, and lay down. His head was still up after several minutes, but we knew he was hit and the shot looked good.

Forty-five minutes later, his head was still up. I had to get down and at least try to get another arrow in him. I climbed down and got 30 yards from him and succeeded in getting another arrow in him. He got up and bounded off, and I lost sight of him. Russ had a better point of view and said he could see where the deer had stopped. With Russ directing me, I started down to where the deer was last seen.

Within 30-40 minutes, I was close to where Russ had last seen the buck. I found blood and started tracking. On the other side of a large oak brush lay the buck of my dreams. It was a full velvet giant mule deer like none I had ever seen before.

Once Russ got to me, we celebrated. We had cell phone service, so we called Wade and Russ’ brothers for help. The cavalry got to us right before dark, and we got the deer caped and off the mountain around midnight. The deer scored over 211" and was 15.5" wide.

This was an unbelievable hunt with experiences like none I’d ever had in my hunting career, which includes over 35 years of experience. I guess a good moral of this story would be persistence. Stay persistent in your dream of hunting the best places in the West. I took for granted all the years I’d applied and not drawn, but I didn’t give up. It started with the Huntin’ Fool crew being persistent in their job and ended with me not giving up on one more stalk.