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July 2023
Story by Andrew Burton
State: Utah
Species: Deer - Mule

Like many of my fellow hunters, I dream of giant bucks. They keep me awake at night. Each year, I gather all the resources I can to chase them in my home state and surrounding states Some of these resources include time, money, time away from work or family, but most importantly, my wife’s patience. As my obsession with big mule deer grows each year, seemingly so does her patience with me in my pursuit of them.

In 2022, I drew a general deer tag in my home state. Summer was busy with fewer scouting trips than I would have liked. It was a very wet year in much of the high country in the West, so I was optimistic about antler growth. Towards the end of July, my gut was correct. Antler growth would indeed be special this year, and I had found a special buck. I had seen several bucks I thought would excite most bowhunters, but this one was a buck dreams are made of with multiple eyeguards, extra main beams, and an outside spread that must be close to 30".

Opening day came, and I thought I was ready. I found myself in my tree stand that morning, hoping to get a glimpse of the big buck sneaking away from hunting pressure. I saw a few deer in the morning grey light and witnessed a spectacular sunrise from the high country. The mountain began to stir as hunters and deer moved about. I saw a few nice bucks and had several hunters walk directly under my tree stand, oblivious to my existence. No sign of the giant buck, though. In fact, I had not seen him for a couple of weeks.

That afternoon, after a torrential rainstorm, a herd of about 100 sheep came waltzing in under my tree stand. Frustrated, I climbed down and tried to salvage the evening by slowly looking for tracks or some indication of where he had gone.

I am a religious fellow, and Sunday morning after glassing and bedding several bucks, we headed to town for church. I spent the evening in a couple other canyons where I had seen very nice bucks I wanted a closer look at. I passed on a nice 4x4 at 50 yards.

Monday morning, the mountain seemed to have become quieter. Many of the hunters had left, and the sheep had moved. Now was the time to look for him. Could he still be close? The buck had spent his summer on a long, narrow, steep, and rugged ridge full of avalanche chutes and rocky slides and ledges. Surely all the commotion and human scent had alerted and displaced him. I removed my boots and replaced them with soft moccasins. I began my search slowly and methodically, patiently taking a few steps and glassing every shadow. After a couple hours, I wanted to quit and return to camp. “Patience!” I told myself. He had found a way to hide, but where?

As I took more steps and glassed more shadows, a buck stood at 20 feet. He had heard me but could not figure out what I was. He decided I was probably danger and slowly walked away. As I walked further, the mountain felt different. This portion felt isolated, somehow elevated from the surrounding world. I thought he would choose sanctuary here. I saw more deer moving beds and lazily feeding in the shadows. I reached huge cliffs with much vegetation and shade below them. Maybe he was here? After sitting and glassing for 10 minutes, I moved 10 yards and repeated the process. Nothing. Patiently, I continued to search.

I spotted a bedded deer in some shady pines far below the cliffs, much of him obscured by trees. I could see four large, deep-forked points on his right side. He looked massive. I tried to sort out if this was the one I had been searching for. He moved his head entirely into my view, and I saw it all – the extra beam, the extra eyeguards, and points. The adrenaline smacked me so hard that I immediately sat down to compose myself. It seemed impossible, but here I was looking at him. He was completely unaware of danger so near. With an extreme angle of 43 degrees, the shot distance was 52 yards. I took several minutes to be sure of the distance and not accidentally range a branch or brush. I had visually picked my spot, staring at the tree my arrow must barely fly over in order to find its way home for a quick death. The shot window seemed too tiny, and it felt almost impossible. Maybe I would wait for him to stand; however, I realized he would be covered by trees if he did. At the same time, I felt a whiff of whirly wind. I came to terms with this being the shot. I must take it now. This was the moment every bowhunter trains so hard to prepare for, to be within range of a relaxed buck with a shooting lane, undetected. I had hunted right and found myself here and now in this moment.

The rain was coming, and I felt panic rising up. I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm down. I could make this shot. If the arrow flew just right, it would glide above the closest bush and drop in below the second, striking the buck right in the spine and it would be over. I took a breath and brought the bow to life, slowly settling into full draw. The pin was settled, and the bubble was level. I watched the arrow fly and heard the impact, but there was no loud crack or whack of an arrow hitting bone. My gut immediately told me I had missed and just blown my chance. The deer blew out of his bed, covering 10-15 feet per jump, and after 15 seconds, all was silent. The deer was behind thick pines, and I could not see him. I was confused as the arrow was stuck into the ground at the same angle I had shot at. Surely it could not have hit the deer. There was no way I got a pass through and sunk it that deep into the earth in his bed.

I waited for some indication of what had happened. The mountain was silent, and I was sure he was standing there watching his back trail. When I lifted my binos, I saw a sliver of him through the trees. He was not moving. I scooted over for a better view and saw him more fully. There in the white boulder field were huge splashes of bright red blood all over the white rocks. He had expired. My arrow had taken him exactly where I had aimed, going between the spine and the ribs and through the lungs and liver without ever touching a bone. He expired in seconds, making it only 60 yards from his bed. I was overwhelmed by years of emotions and effort. I simply sat down to breathe. When I checked my phone, it was 19 minutes from when I texted my dad that I had found the big buck until I texted him I had shot. Those 19 minutes felt like an eternity. The intensity of being close to large bucks is what draws me to bowhunting. The intensity is indescribable to someone who has not experienced it.
I looked around at the mountains and valleys around me. I was a small and insignificant thing in this vast, wild land – a single man with a bow and arrow. Yet, I had done something significant. I had outsmarted and outmaneuvered a true mountain monarch in his home on his terms, with the quick flight and bite of the arrow sending the buck drifting off to sleep to forever roam the great mountains above. That for me is the magic of the bow and arrow, that a man so insignificant can perform an act that is so violently significant simply by sending an arrow to flight through the thin air.

For years, I have pursued mule deer, and for the past decade, it has primarily been trophy bucks with a bow. I have made many mistakes and even had my come aparts on stalks ending at 7 yards from huge bedded bucks, letting them get away unharmed in the backcountry of Wyoming. I have taken a few really nice bucks along the way, but nothing of truly giant legendary status. However, this day was different. My mistakes over the decades had taught me, and today, for a short, fleeting moment, I got to feel what it was like to be the king of the mountain.
I am thankful for my hunting heritage from my father and grandfather. I am thankful for this buck and for all the bucks and the things they have taught me. They have taken me places I never knew I could go and helped me become things I never thought I could be.

I am thankful for this moment.