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The Wide Range of Emotions Buck

December 2018
Story by Mike Miller
State: Arizona
Species: Deer - Mule

While my brother and I were nervously waiting at the hospital for the results of our mom’s cancer test, I happened to check the Arizona Game & Fish website for deer and sheep draw results. My mom’s results came back positive for stage 4 lung cancer, so the Game and Fish draw results that said I had finally drawn an Arizona Strip deer tag left me feeling emotionally wrecked.


I didn’t tell the first part of the story to get sympathy, only to set the stage for the emotional roller coaster that my family and I would be on for the four months leading up to and during one of the most rewarding hunting trips of my life. My mom’s cancer diagnosis put a damper on the original news of my deer tag. However, mom’s cancer diagnosis and my Strip deer hunt would both have what I have to believe is a miracle ending.


Fast forward four months to November 13, 2017, three days before I would leave on my deer hunt. My mom had been on a non-injectable chemo pill for the last three and a half months and her first set of test results came back on November 13th. Cancer cells had been reduced by more than 50%! Finally, my family and I could breathe a sense of relief, and for the first time real excitement about my upcoming hunt energized me.


As I made the nine-hour drive from our home in central Arizona to meet up with longtime friends and Strip guides extraordinaire, Alvy, Derek, and Dillon Johnson of Johnson Brother’s Guide Service, I had a lot of time to reflect on all of the blessing’s in my life. To say it was emotional would be an understatement.


I finally pulled up to camp at around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 17th (one day late) to be greeted by Alvy and his enthusiastic crew. We stayed up too late telling stories from the past and reliving old times. I knew that this hunt was going to be one for the books regardless of the outcome and it was going to start the next morning. Alvy and his boys had a particular deer that we would be hunting for, but as is always the case on the Strip, we wouldn’t be the only ones trying to outsmart him. The plan was for Alvy and me to head to where we knew the buck was while his boys would head to a different area to look. After the morning hunt, we would meet up and make another plan. Alvy and I made it to the spot we wanted to be before light, got out, and hiked and glassed all morning until around 11:30. We saw a few does and just about every other outfitter in the unit that morning. As we headed down the road to where we would meet up with Alvy’s boys, I just kept having this feeling that something special was going to happen. Alvy and I have been friends for over 20 years, and we have had more adventures than I can remember running around on the Strip. There is no other way to describe this unique part of Arizona other than magical.


As we pulled up to the meeting spot, Dillon started to rush up to our truck before it even came to a stop. Something exciting was happening. Derek and Dillon had found a giant non-typical buck with everything a hunter could want - a wide main frame, cheaters and J-hooks off both sides, and great mass! Dillon quickly showed us the video of the buck, and we both knew this was the buck we would hunt. Dillon jumped in our rig, and we cruised down to where Derek was when the buck was last seen. Unfortunately, the buck was in a perfect spot for him but not for us to relocate him. We could only see a small part of the hillside he was on, so we spilt up and headed up to try and glass from different angles. This was a big buck, and he knew what he was doing. After trying to find different angles to look from, we realized that this was not going to be easy. There was a small road at the bottom of the mountain where we could glass up the bank about 50-75 yards and there was one hill across from him that we could glass a small portion of the bank that he lived on. This was not good news, and now it was dark.


We discussed a plan that night and watched the video clip about 500 times. We enjoyed great food and great company, and I decided that night that this was the buck I wanted and that I would hold out until we got him or I went home with memories and a tag in my pocket. I went to bed with the picture of that buck burned into my memory, feeling happy and content.


For the next two days, we would split up and glass every inch of the areas we could see. A lot of things start to run through your mind as minutes turn into hours and hours into days with no sign of what you are after. Alvy, Derek, Dillon, and I discussed the possibility that he was just moving through and that we might be wasting time hunting for a deer that might not be within 10 miles, and even if he was, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. It was definitely discouraging, but something kept telling us that he was there somewhere and if we gave up now we would never find out.


On Monday, the fourth day of the hunt, after glassing the same area most of the morning, it happened. Alvy picked up a doe on the only open spot on the hillside, one that we had looked at for two hours that morning and countless hours the previous days. Following behind the doe was our buck. Adrenaline is a crazy thing, and we were both pumped full of it. There was no way to try and move on the deer, and we had about a 100-yard window before the deer would be out of sight. My rifle was out and set up the best I could get it on my pack at a sharp angle up. Alvy ranged the buck, and it was going to be a long shot with a crosswind. I adjusted my scope, got as comfortable as I could, and squeezed the trigger. The buck didn’t even react to the shot but kept on following the doe that was now even closer to the edge of the opening. I tried to calm myself down as much as possible, lined up, and squeezed the trigger again. This time, Alvy saw the bullet hit about a foot over his back. In the rush and excitement, I hadn’t considered the steep angle that I was shooting at. I quickly made an adjustment on my scope, looked down at the ground, closed my eyes, and took a deep breathe. I knew I could make this shot. When I found the buck in my scope again, he was moving and getting closer to being out of sight. I followed, waiting for his doe to stop, and when she did, I was ready. I took a breath, and as I exhaled, I squeezed the trigger. The reaction was a little delayed because of the distance, but as I watched through my scope, the buck dropped in his tracks. Alvy and I both came unglued and emotions took over. After high fives, hugs, and a lot of jumping around, we realized that something special had just happened.


This is where the story should end, but it doesn’t. It was a moment almost like when we had gotten my mom’s test results four months earlier as we looked back through our binoculars only to find the buck trying to get up and stumbling down the bank and out of sight. Absolute shock came over us as we realized after several lifeless minutes that the buck was not dead. We made our way up the steep hillside and above the opening where we had last seen the deer. We approached quietly, hoping that he would be bedded just out of the clearing but where we might be able to see him. He wasn’t there. There was very little blood in the spot where he had originally gone down and because he had been chasing does all over the bank and down into the jungle of Manzanita, we could not follow a good track. He was gone, and it didn’t look good. We had just experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in less than an hour. One thing we are not is quitters. We spent the rest of the day until dark combing what we thought was every inch of that bank and the benches below it.


We spent the next two days searching for any sign of the buck. Nothing. Alvy had clients coming in the day after Thanksgiving and my son who is at the Air Force Academy was coming home for the holiday, so we parted ways on Wednesday night. Alvy headed for Fredonia, and I headed home for Thanksgiving. My plan was to spend Thanksgiving day with my family and after dinner grab my brother, Mark, and head back up to look for my buck. The drive home was different. It was still a very emotional drive and no one ever likes to hit an animal and not retrieve it, but I was at peace, feeling blessed and determined that it’s not over until it’s over.


Mark and I got back to camp Friday morning about 2 a.m. We tried to sleep for a couple hours but couldn’t, so we headed down to look for my buck way before light. It gave us time to visit and talk, fantasizing about how we might find him. Chasing does again and lying down by water, maybe we’d glass him up under a tree or maybe coyotes or buzzards would be on him. When it was light enough to see, we put on our packs and headed out in different directions. We were going to cover every inch of this place until we knew where he was. We kept in contact by radio and looked all day with the same results. Nothing. Even after so many days of defeat, I just kept getting this feeling that we were going to find him. I’ve always told my kids to be persistent, and I had made up my mind on opening day that it was this buck or no buck.


Saturday morning, it was a little hard to get up with a positive attitude, but my brother and I have always been an incredible team when hunting and I felt like his positive attitude was helping to carry me. We headed back down and looked again all day Saturday. Nothing.


Sunday was the last day of my hunt, and Mark and I had made a deal that we would look again on Sunday morning and if we couldn’t find any sign of my deer we would head down to a different area where we knew there was a big typical buck on Sunday afternoon.


On Sunday morning, we headed down to look one last time. We were both feeling optimistic, but the reality was that this was going to be our last shot and it wasn’t looking good. We looked for about three hours, and finally, I called Mark and said I was calling it quits and to meet me back at the truck. We were both disappointed but knew that we gave it our best shot and that everything happens how it’s supposed to. Mark needed to head back to camp and it was the middle of the day, so we drove back up, made a few phone calls, and ate some lunch. We decided to follow through with our plans, so at about 1:30, we started back down to where the big typical buck was. The drive was pretty quiet, and we were both reflecting on the past four months and how blessed and lucky we felt that our mom was getting better, our families were healthy, and that we had the opportunity to spend time together out in the field again. If I was ever going to be a poor sport or have a bad attitude, it would have been right then, but I just had this feeling of joy and peace that can only come from a Savior. I asked Mark if he thought we should take the long way around and drive the little “L” road that ran around the border of where we had been looking for the deer. He said why not, so we turned off and started down the hill on the two-track road that we had been down at least 50 times in the last nine days. I was just thinking to myself that for the first time since we found this buck on opening day that we were not going to get him.


Thirty seconds later, I looked out my window and my buck was standing under a tree about 50 yards off the road. Mark said I jumped out before he got the truck stopped. The next minute is kind of a blur as the buck was standing with only his neck and one front leg sticking out from behind the tree. I got down on one knee, found the widest spot in his neck, and jerked the trigger. Yes, I jerked the trigger! The bullet whacked the buck and broke his front leg, but he turned and started to run away. It was thick, and I was running along behind him. I finally got another crack at him as he ran between some trees at about 75 yards, and this time, he went down for good. As I walked up to this buck, a rush of emotion that had been building up for months came over me. Mark came running up, and we both kind of broke down and celebrated for the second time. We were not only celebrating the harvesting of a great animal but also friendships, family, freedom, and health.


My original shot had hit the buck dead center in the neck, right in front of his shoulder. He was in poor condition and would not have survived the original shot with my .300 RUM. I could touch his spine through the hole in his neck. It amazes me how truly tough these animals are.


I texted Alvy on my way back in to Fredonia. He had guessed my buck would score 215-220” and would be 37-40” wide. He under guessed the score but was right on with the width - 38 1/2”. My text read, “He’s only 38 1/2 wide.”


Special thanks to my brother Mark and Johnson Brothers Guide Service.


Also, as I write this, my mom is 100% in remission from her cancer. Life is short. Live, love and laugh often. Miracles do happen.