Written By: Mason Payer
“I can’t be the first one to give up, but what are we doing?” This was the thought that ran through my head as I pushed my bike and trailer up the steep dirt grade. Myself, my brother Graham and our hunting partner Derrek “Butters” Butterfield were only half a mile into an eight mile journey and we were quickly beginning to question the logic of using mountain bikes with trailers to haul our selves and our gear into camp. We were hunting a limited access area where only foot, bike and horse traffic is allowed. It was the first of October and the temperature was in the low eighties. Within moments of beginning the hike, we were drenched with sweat.
Planning for this hunt, we chose to ride our bikes about eight miles on a dirt road and set up spike camp near a spring. We hoped this would allow us to hunt relatively undisturbed country free from the pressure of other hunters. As a contingency, we also brought along a large tent and extra sleeping bags to leave in the truck at the trailhead in case we needed to come out for a night, or if we chose to change our plans. Thinking that riding our bikes would be easier than hiking, we took way too much gear and food which turned out to be our biggest mistake as well as the source of our misery. Riding the bikes was not easier than hiking. In fact, we could hardly ride them except for the places where the road was relatively flat or downhill. Pushing the bikes with trailers attached while carrying a pack turned out to be a serious study in endurance and pain tolerance. Eventually, we developed a system where we rotated and the guy without a trailer would assist the other two by leapfrogging back and forth pushing the trailers from the rear. The toughest part of the whole journey was the fact that we had to gain elevation almost the entire time. There were three main grades that we had to climb up separated by sections of broken, undulating terrain. While the elevation gain made it tough going in, it made it extremely easy yet hair-raising on the way out.
The first morning, I set up with spotting scope and binoculars atop the highest point near camp while Graham and Butters hunted two separate ridges below me. I spotted one group of does after about thirty minutes, but couldn’t find any bucks. Occasionally, I would spot the other two guys as they worked there way out the ridges. About one hour into the hunt, Graham came on the radio, “I see a buck.” This statement set off a bunch of question-filled radio chatter from Butters and I, which Graham quickly quelled with “Shut up! He is getting nervous; I’m just going to go shoot him.” So, we obliged and listened in anticipation for the report of Graham’s rifle. A few tense moments later, I heard the rolling echo of the shot and knew that my brother had harvested the first deer of the hunt!
By the time Butters and I had hiked out to the end of the ridge where Graham shot his buck, the day had already begun to heat up. We quickly realized that we were going to need to get this deer back to the truck and into the cooler. We had brought a large cooler half full of frozen milk jugs to keep in the truck back at the trailhead just for this very purpose. So, we completely boned out Graham’s buck and hauled it back up the ridge to the road above camp. We hung the meat in a tree along the road to so that we could pick it up on the way out to the trailhead. Knowing we had to come all the way back up the wretched climb we had made just the day before, we chose to take the absolute minimum amount of gear out with us. Initially, we thought we would haul the meat out and then ride back in that day, but quickly realized that we didn’t have the time or energy to do so. We knew we had the extra tent and sleeping bags back at the truck, so we only carried my Jetboil stove and one Mt. House dinner each. Graham also took his rifle to leave in the truck as he wouldn’t need it anymore. Thinking ahead to the next morning, we realized that we would be covering a lot of country at first light and that we had a good chance of seeing more bucks. While we didn’t want to carry any extra weight out and then back in, we knew it would be silly to not take a rifle, so I brought my rifle along just in case we spotted a buck on the ride in the next morning….
That night, we got Graham’s buck safely stowed in the cooler, and then enjoyed the pleasant surprise of taking showers with Butters’ Insta-shower. Rinsing off the sweat and dust of the day before felt truly indulgent and we didn’t stay awake very long after the sun went down. It was with some concern that we awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain on the tent. We had made a serious error in leaving the rain flies off of our tents in spike camp, so we knew that our sleeping bags and extra clothes were getting wet while we slept at the trailhead.
When the alarm woke us up the next morning, none of us was in a hurry to get out of bed, but we had come to hunt, not sleep, so we got up and started heading back up the hill. The morning was overcast and a light drizzle fell, keeping us cool as we hiked up the road pushing our bikes. The cool morning air and light rain actually felt good compared to the heat and dust of the trip in two days before. Empty packs and no bike trailers also made our steps easier as we climbed our way up by the light of our headlamps. As we made our way along, it gradually began to get light, and we would stop to glass often. When we topped out at the end of the first grade, we could see lots of country including a huge open meadow that the road ran through ahead of us. We decided to rest for a few minutes and glass before pushing on. I took the opportunity to answer the call of nature with the thought in the back of my head that the other guys were sure to spot something as soon as I was otherwise occupied. Sure enough, a few moments later, I heard Graham whistle. I quickly made my way back to the road where they were glassing and Graham said “I see a deer; I think it is a buck.” We could see the deer feeding in the meadow over one half of a mile away, but it was still too dark to see if it had antlers. Since it was out feeding by itself, we had a feeling it was a buck, and as the light improved slightly we were able to see that indeed it was. Since I had my rifle, it was my turn, so I quickly traded clothes with Graham as I was wearing dark green workout shorts and shirt for the hike in while Graham was wearing his camo. Once we had traded clothes, I borrowed Butters’ shooting sticks and quickly began my stalk. With a smile I noticed that the wind was blowing in my face and the drizzle began to pick up slightly, perfect conditions for sneaking up on the buck. To stay out of sight, I climbed up into the juniper trees and little washes above the meadow and began making my way towards where the buck was still feeding. I knew he wouldn’t want to stay out in the open for long as it got light, so I hurried as best I could while still trying to be quiet. As I made my way closer, I topped out on a little ridge and could see the buck standing broadside with his head down feeding. I quickly ranged him at 280 yards and got my rifle set up on the shooting sticks. Looking through the scope, I realized I wasn’t very steady, so I decided to try to get closer rather than risk a shot. As I continued my stalk, I got into some thick junipers and couldn’t see the buck, so I just kept going, getting closer, and closer. Finally, when I emerged from the thick patch of trees, I could see where the buck had been, but couldn’t spot him. Suddenly, he emerged from behind a tree heading towards me! He had no idea I was there, but had decided it was time to get out of the open, so he was headed uphill towards the cover of the trees. At this point I was about 80 yards away and I got on the sticks again. Through the scope, I could see that he was going to cross an opening between two trees and that would be my only shot opportunity. As he crossed the opening, I lined up my crosshairs on his shoulder and fired. I heard the bullet hit and the buck only ran about twenty yards before he succumbed to the high lung shot. With joy, I walked out to the road where the other guys could see me and gave out a whoop of success.
After we took pictures of my buck, we realized that is was still lightly raining on our sleeping bags and gear we had left uncovered at camp. We also realized with much relief that my buck was right above the road, and we only had about three miles downhill to haul him back to the truck. After deliberating for a few minutes, we decided that Butters would continue on to camp so that he could hang our stuff up to dry while he hunted for the rest of the day. Graham and I would quarter my buck and haul it back to the truck to put it in the cooler. The ride out to the truck took about twenty minutes as it was almost entirely downhill. When we put my buck in the cooler, we decided we needed more ice to keep the meat cool for several days, so we headed to a little town about fifteen minutes away to pick up more ice. After picking up some blocks of ice, and fortifying ourselves with cheeseburgers from the local café, we headed back up the road to go meet up with Butters for the evening hunt. It felt good heading in with only full CamelBaks in our packs and two bucks in the cooler. As my brother and I made our way back up the dirt road, we took our time, discussing how we would all work together to locate a buck for Butters. So far, we had taken two bucks in as many days and still had three full days and an evening to go.
It was mid afternoon and the day was still overcast as Graham and I made our way up the last long grade before crossing a saddle above camp. As we paused to catch our breath, I looked up and noticed a herd of deer feeding beneath some rimrock on the hillside opposite us. We quickly got down and pulled out our binoculars to check out the deer. Looking through our glass, we realized that it was a bachelor herd of seven bucks! At this point, we had no idea where Buttersmight be, but we weren’t too far from camp, so we figured he must be nearby. When we called him on the radio, we were surprised to hear him call right back and tell us that he was on the ridge directly above us. Due to the terrain, he hadn’t yet seen the bucks, but he quickly made his way down to the road above us. Even though they were only 300 yards away, and we were in the open, the bucks weren’t alarmed by our presence and continued to feed. Butters got down to the road where he could see the deer, but couldn’t make it down to where we were as he would have had to cross a long open stretch of road. His position was closer to the deer anyway, so he decided to get set up for a shot. There was one buck in the group that was larger than the rest, so when he was broadside and clear of the other bucks, Butters took a shot. At the shot, there was a loud crack as the bullet hit the rimrock just above the back of the largest buck. Surprisingly, the bucks’ only reaction was to all bunch up for a few seconds and then go back to feeding. The largest buck stayed bunched up with several others, but another buck was standing out in the open, so Butters lined up on him and dropped his buck. With that we were tagged out, three for three in the first two days of our hunt. What had started out with shear misery and grueling work had turned out to be our most successful hunt ever.
After we quartered Butters’ buck and got it hung in a tree to cool overnight, we returned to camp where all of our rain-soaked gear was now dry thanks to Butters having hung it all up that morning. We feasted that night and the next morning on the remaining three days worth of food in an effort to reduce our load as much as possible for the trip out. The ride wasn’t too treacherous except for a few sections where the brakes on our bikes got so hot that we had to stop to let them cool off. Our packs were made lighter by the pride we felt knowing that we had all tagged out and were headed home. Leaving was bittersweet as we were happy to have harvested our deer, but were sorry to see our trip end so soon.
Note: All of our hard work getting the bucks packed out and cooled down right away paid off as all three of the bucks yielded the best tasting venison any of us has ever ate.