by Mike Skelly
Among my earliest memories are a longing to see far away places and to write about them. God has blessed me by allowing me to travel from my childhood home in New York to hunt as far apart as interior Alaska and southern Africa, and to return safely home again. And to return safely home again from each. The second part of the dream was helped to fruition by Jon Hedin of www.UltimateSportsmen.com when he selected a couple of my adventures for inclusion in his second anthology of hunting and fishing stories ‘More Tales of the Ultimate Sportsmen’.
One of the other authors in the book was John deWeber. After reading John’s stories I sent him an email and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He wrote back thanking me and asking about my hunting season. We quickly became pen pals swapping emails several times each week. I eventually began to swap emails with another friend of John’s who he emailed frequently named Gale Palmer. John and Gale hunt mule deer together each year and invited me to join them for several years running. I finally decided to take them up on the offer in 2007 and headed west to Washington State to see my first mule deer. Despite having hunted for a couple of decades including a few guided hunts, I had never hunted in the western continental United States.
The whole experience was amazing. Everything was different from what I was used to while chasing whitetail in the thick woods of upstate NY. Stepping out of Gale’s house the first predawn morning of the mule deer season brought the scent of sagebrush in the dew to me. It is a scent unlike anything in the north east. You can compare it to the experience of walking through juniper brush in that the scent of the fragrant bushes fills the air, but the scent is completely different. The high desert air simply feels different and once the sun came up I could see that the landscape was unlike anywhere I had ever hunted. The volcanic basalt and sage resembled the acacia thorn of Namibia at a glance. But in Namibia, the thorn brush is eight feet high and your view is limited when walking through it. In eastern Washington, the sagebrush is never above eye level. As a result, your view can extend for thousands of acres.
At home we watch deer trails and hope to see an animal appear somewhere between ten to a hundred yards away. There could be a dozen deer within 500 yards that you never see. In Washington, we were glassing deer at over a mile away and saw plenty of them. By sunset of the first day I had seen nearly 100 deer, but none that met the three tines on a side requirement to be legal game.
We hunted HARD. We set out before sunrise and returned after dark each day. We ate all we could hold twice a day of John’s excellent cooking and had candy and soda to keep us going in the middle of the day, and I still lost 10 lbs in a week from all the walking we did. On day three, I missed an easy shot at a muley buck. I was so keyed up at the idea of my first muley with John at my side that my hands shook and I couldn’t keep the crosshairs on the buck at 40 yards. It was pathetic. No excuse, I just plain missed and badly. I beat myself up for that mentally, but all you can do is go on and try to do better the next time. I swapped rifles for a heavier one similar to what I use at home on the theory that it would wobble less. But there was nothing wrong with Gale’s beautiful rifles; it was buck fever plain and simple.
I had seven days to hunt with a flight scheduled early on the eighth. By the evening of day seven I was frustrated and disappointed in myself. We had a WONDERFUL visit. I am very glad that we met face to face. I am proud to call these men friends and glad to meet new acquaintances but I was disappointed in myself for letting them and myself down.
With an hour or so to go before sunset on the last day of the hunt, I was in the field with a friend I met during that visit named Stan Wills. Stan is a neighbor of Gale’s who spends his free time spotting and photographing the local deer. John insisted that Stan is the best guide paid or unpaid in the state of Washington and Stan graciously agreed to help out the out-of-state hunter when I seemed incapable of bagging game on my own. Stan and I split up to work parallel draws on opposite sides of a ridge. When Stan came out he was carrying a skull from a big-racked 9 point (4x5) whitetail buck. I was envious of his finding that coyote-chewed skeleton because he’d be bringing antlers home to add to his impressive collection and I had not so much as found a shed antler, let alone shot my buck. That realization brought me to the point of total surrender where I mentally threw my hands up to God and submitted. I had already made lip service to the idea that God was in control of my hunting success, but I was really still trying to do it myself. With less than an hour of my hunt remaining I realized that it didn’t matter how hard I had hunted; that it was God’s will alone that determined whether I would even so much as see a deer let alone bring one home and that I was completely helpless before His sovereign power. I finally accepted that for some unknown reason, God had decided that I was not going to get a deer this trip. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. Stan and I walked to the top of the hill we had been climbing and sat down at the edge of a recently planted wheat field. My mindset was to just sit and enjoy this last western sunset in gratitude for the hunt I had been blessed with whether it had been successful or not.
Just ten minutes later, with the sun literally going down on my hunt, Stan spotted a big deer coming toward us in the tall grass and sagebrush. Do you think this is coincidence? I don’t.
At 400 yards the deer was headed right toward us. Stan got glasses on him and said that it was a legal buck. By this point we had FLATTENED ourselves in the 18 inch high grass.
With 350 yards between us and the deer, Stan said that he thought we could crawl 100 yards closer for a shot, but the buck was still walking toward us and I decided that we should let him just keep coming closer. If another hunter or a coyote had come into view, or if the wind had shifted, this buck would have been gone in seconds. But nothing spooked him.
At 300 yards from us the buck stepped out of the grass into the winter wheat to nibble the green wheat shoots. There was no cover between us and he continued to walk slowly toward us. Coincidence?
At 250 yards, Stan got out his shooting sticks and set them up for me to use. I got on them but decided that it was too risky to stay that exposed above the grass and went prone again. The buck began to angle to our left across the wheat field while still working toward us.
At 200 yards, I decided that if he went much farther he would see us laying right on the edge of the plowed ground. I took Stan’s 4x5 whitetail skull and turned it sideways to use the forked antlers as a rifle rest. I took steady aim through the Leupold 4X scope and waited for the buck to stop.
At 175 yards, I squeezed the trigger of Gale’s 1969 Browning FN Safari Grade 375 H&H, worked the bolt and looked for the buck. “I can’t see him!” I said, and tore my eye away from the scope trying to find the buck bounding away over the wheat or through the sage.
“I see him!” said Stan “He’s on the ground!”
I thanked God. I thanked Stan. We shook hands. We hugged. I had my first muley buck.
him at 250 lbs on the hoof. That’s DOUBLE the size of a decent
whitetail at home.
Alone in the dark with my buck and the song dogs, I thanked God again for His grace and generosity. It seems that He had been waiting for me to surrender in order to give me the gift of this ultimate sportsmen experience.
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