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Much-Needed Luck

February 2022
Story by Jeff Kimbell
State: Utah
Species: Deer - Mule

I’ll look back at 2021 as the single worst year of my life. COVID. Shingles. Divorce. Watching my young kid’s pain from the divorce. Rollover in a RZR that could have killed a close friend and me. Loss of 25 lbs. due to stress tied to the aforementioned Jerry Springer show. And a few other life items that are unprintable at this time.

When I originally drew my general deer tag and booked with Jake Bess Outfitters, life had been pretty strong. We had moved our family to Utah after 20+ years in Washington, DC, my kids had settled into school, and both my soon-to-be ex and I had drawn two of the most coveted tags in the state together. Little did I know of the unforeseen challenges in my life between that draw day and my rifle hunt booked with Jake October 13-17. Suffice it to say, she did not join me on the hunt.

I was in regular communication with Jake and his lovely wife prior to the hunt about meeting at the trailhead in Southern Utah and about an incoming snowstorm that ended up blanketing the area with 12-18" of snow the day before the hunt. As a result of the new snowpack, we were unable to depart on day one, so another hunter from San Diego and I ended up sharing his Mountain House with my leftover blackbuck antelope sausage for dinner at the trailhead before settling into our respective vehicles for the brisk overnight.

The following morning, Morgan Bess, Jake’s 17-year-old son, guided us the 12 miles on horseback through burned timber to base camp. Upon arrival in the late afternoon, we met Kim Bess, Jake’s father, and Jake and quickly sped to the top of the 9,000-foot peaks overlooking base camp to glass for Southern Utah mule deer. We started seeing mule deer as we moved between various peaks. Jake explained that he had spotted one of the biggest bucks he had ever seen in Utah the day before around 11 a.m., and if we didn’t see a shooter that evening, we would try for the big boy the following morning, which is the plan we ultimately went with.

The following morning, now day three, was blue skies, gorgeous and perfect for glassing. We split into two hunting parties, with me joining Jake hopping from peak to peak. I had brought my trusty, lightweight Christensen bolt action rifle in .280 Ackley Improved mounted with a Carl Zeiss Victory V8 scope, which allowed me to (mostly) keep up with the surefooted peak hopper, Jake. We saw a reasonable 3x4 shooter the night before and spotted him again that morning around 900 yards from one of the peaks we glassed from. Only this time, we saw that he had picked up as a companion that morning an absolutely monstrous buck trailing behind. Jake asked a key question as the pair was moving between 700-900 yards from us across a valley for an hour, “How far can you shoot that gun?”

As we were discussing long-distance drops, I realized my phone had service on that peak and I did something I’ve never done in the field in my life. I called John LaSala at Safari Arms Ltd, who has custom loaded my ammunition for a decade and posed the question to him. His answer with those 150 grain Barnes at 9,000 feet at 900 yards zeroed at 200 yards was initially “a lot” (with a New York chuckle) followed by specific drops for my needed calculations between 700-900 yards.

Over the next two hours, Jake and I ascended and descended multiple rocky and burned evergreen mountaintops to try and keep up with the pair of mule deer that were feeding their way to our right. The great question became which lower valley they would ultimately choose to drop into in their journey. Jake made the call for us to wait on a rocky ridge amongst some dead trees so we were protected from their line of sight but also couldn’t get winded. Luck was with us as they came down the cut in the mountain where we were waiting. Jake spotted the 3x4 to our left, and sure enough, that monster was behind him, slowly eating his way down the hillside in front of us. Jake advised me to turn my riflescope down and told me to prepare for a shot inside of 75 yards. (The final shot ended up being 55 yards.)

The “toad” of a mulie made his way in front of us, but any clear shot was blocked by elevation changes, snowpack, and burned trees. We waited. My heart raced. I was now calculating where to aim for a 50-yard shot vs. 900. The mulie stopped between some trees and brush and gave me a couple of seconds delay in his stride to pull the trigger. Boom! I lifted my head off the scope, and the buck was just looking at me. Had I missed? Bumped scope? Did the murk and gloom of 2021 follow me into the mountains as well? Then Jake’s calming voice came, “Put another in him.” I focused on the reticle, put the crosshairs on his shoulder, and let another 150-grain bullet fly. This time, he rolled onto the ground for good.

As we walked through the snow and got a closer look at this absolute beast of a mule deer, the personal darkness of my 2021 faded completely. I had hit him twice, and this was the biggest deer of my life, scoring 217" in a drought year! Jake is an absolute master at his craft. Thank you, Bess Family and Huntin’ Fool, for showing me some much-needed luck!