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Sagebrush Smokepole Solo

September 2023
Story by Nathan Robertson
State: Nevada
Species: Deer - Mule

 Frustration comes in many shapes and sizes. This time, it was an obnoxiously huge, lifted pickup truck. The rumbling white mammoth crested the hill on the other side of the small drainage, and I wasn’t the only one to notice it. The small herd of mule deer bedded 200 yards away from me perked up. My heart sank. Since spotting the deer at first light from miles away, I’d been stalking in, working the shifty wind, enduring bursts of snow from the angry sky, and waiting for the deer to move into a vulnerable position. It was mid-afternoon, and I was in the final stretch of what had been a very slow and complicated stalk through the sage breaks. The truck lurched across a dry creek bed. They were obviously driving off-road through the BLM land. I knew they were headed right into a different group of deer up a side canyon. An hour earlier, I had slithered past those deer. There were about 20 in that group, including a very respectable 3x4. I’d passed him up in hopes of getting within range of the long-tined 4x5 who was now bedded in a hidden bowl in front of me.

What happened next was as predictable as it was frustrating. The truck rumbled out of view, a door slammed, and a muzzleloader shot rocked the air. The deer in front of me went from alert to agitated. The 4x5 stood up and looked toward the shot but was unwilling to leave his hot doe. He was old enough to know about the dangerous noises just one ridge over, but his better judgement was on the back burner. I looked back toward the basin where the shot had come from. Predictably, those deer started cresting the ridge at speed. I was afraid some of them would run through the hidden bowl containing the 4x5 and his small group, pushing them out in the chaos. By some miracle, none of them came into the hidden bowl, and as I waited, things settled. The group in front of me started grazing again, a very good sign. The 3x4 from the other group crested the ridge, perturbed but uninjured. He bounced up the hill, paused to look back at the scene of the would-be crime, and trotted off after his fractured harem. They’d missed him, but did they know that?

No, no they didn’t. My heart sank again as blue jeans and beer guts crested the ridge. Huffing and puffing, they were headed where they thought the 3x4 exited. Trouble was, they were walking straight toward the hidden bowl. They noticed me before reaching the bowl, and I tried to wave them off, but I didn’t know the sign language for “You’re about to bust my six-hour hunt. Go away!” As I gestured frantically, the three comrades talked amongst themselves and then traipsed onward, undeterred by the waving maniac down-canyon. Apparently, they hadn’t bothered to reload, and when they crested the bowl, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The explosion of activity started as the deer noticed the three amigos and bolted up the opposite ridge. Much yelling and pointing followed. Gun was unslung from shoulder, and they got about the reloading, but it was a lost cause. The deer paused for only a minute before diving into the huge, craggy drainage beyond. The hunters followed to the ridgeline. I was sure the deer had vanished into the next canyon, and it was unlikely any of us would find them again that day. The road warriors noticed me gathering my pack and gear. Motivated by frustration and a dying hope that I might somehow spot the buck again, I quickly climbed the hill toward the hunters. They were gawking at me now. I narrowed the distance with speed as they talked nervously, then all three of them suddenly realized they needed to get back to the truck in a big hurry and shuffled off. I can only guess that one of them remembered he’d left the stove on at home.

I spent the next half hour glassing the big canyon breaks, seeing only a few deer tucked in rocks. None of them were the group containing the 4x5. The big, white monster truck rumbled back toward the nearest road behind me. As I thought about the joys and frustrations of hunting and sharing public land, my animosity toward the road hunters dwindled, but so did my heavy buck again. I started moving up the ridge, checking all the side canyons as I went, thinking maybe the deer had looped around in the canyon bottom and were coming full circle as they sometimes will do. Like a miracle, 20 minutes later, I found them tucked into a gully, relaxed and grazing their way right back toward their original hidden bowl. Who says mule deer aren’t sneaky?

He was the biggest buck I’d seen since getting to Northeastern Nevada over a week earlier. I’d unexpectedly drawn a late rut muzzleloader tag for the unit and spent several pre-season days scouting the best-looking habitat I could find. Most of the unit was heavily grazed by cattle, except for a pocket of high, sage- covered hills with patchy junipers and beautiful stands of twisted old mountain mahogany. Like miniature acacia trees on an African savannah, old mahogany stands seem weirdly out of place in the mountain west, but they’re magnets for deer and elk, especially when the snow starts piling up. Winter started early, and the snow was already piling up. I’d been knee deep in it, first light to dark, day after day. It’s pretty easy to find hunting buddies who want to chase bugling elk in aspens in September or sit a field edge for whitetails in November, but fewer people are interested in tagging along for a week of freezing and blowing snow in sage- covered Nevada. I can’t blame them, and there is an advantage to hunting solo. Less noise, less odor, more focus, but it does take an added level of determination and self control to stay motivated day after day.

My eyes were sore from many days behind glass, but I was seeing plenty of deer and numerous bucks. A few had good age but nothing with the caliber of headgear the unit was known for. Several times, my heart started thumping when I spotted nice solo cruising bucks only to second guess them on closer inspection. A lot of 130- 150" boys were in the area. Tempting. Finding a big boy was proving more challenging, and that was only the first obstacle. This was my first muzzleloader experience, and Nevada regs prohibit scopes, so my range was limited. I was comfortable under 80 yards but lost confidence past 120. Not much of a reach in the open sage hills. I was mentally approaching this like a bow hunt, not a rifle hunt. The human traffic in the area was irritatingly high also. That’s the game on public land sometimes, especially where good habitat congregates animals. Camping within the unit cut down the long drive times, but days and miles in boots were adding up. I was starting to see the same bucks on repeat, and the rut was winding down. I knew I would need to act soon. I’d only glimpsed the big 4x5 once a few days earlier in the truck headlights long after dark on the drive back to camp. He was the best buck I’d seen in the unit so far, so I’d noted the location and decided to see if I could find him again in daylight.

I had found him again. Not once but twice by the grace of God! A prayer of gratitude went up as I realized the wind and stalking conditions were much better than before the buck was bumped. Ten minutes later, I shucked my pack and crept into a rock pile on the ridgeline with my muzzleloader and reloading gear. The deer grazed up toward me, oblivious. A smaller buck appeared and moved to challenge for the hot doe. The 4x5 bristled and walked stiff-legged toward the intruder. He never made it to the fight, and at 80 yards, broadside, a slug thumped him in the boiler room. He hunched, jumped twice, and then slumped to the ground. When I finally put my hands on him, thanking him and God for the blessing of life, I realized the sun was already sinking into the west. I’d been hunting this buck hard all day, and the satisfaction was so sweet. In retrospect, the frustrations I’d experienced earlier had helped create the outcome I was looking for, just not in the way I’d expected. I suppose that’s true of so many things in life. I know someone was looking out for me. We’re never truly alone, even solo in the high sage.