An avid rifle hunter switches teams, flinging arrows in the late season. Read about his steep learning curve and follow him on this adventure!
You’ve been following along for two months now, learning with me what the best archery setup is and what to pack for the late December deer hunt in Idaho. If you’ve missed either of the last two articles, check out part 1 HERE and/or part 2 HERE. Now it’s finally time to share how the hunt went!
Days Before the Hunt
I’m currently a student in a grad program in Nebraska, so home (Idaho) is hard for me to return to. Because of this, I was late for the party. I arrived to hunt on the 26th of December, with the hunt closing on the 31st. On top of it all, a blizzard was in the forecast for the next few days. At this point in the season, the area had seen some of the least snow for the time of the year that I can recall in my 24 years of living there… which is also a challenge. With little snow in the high country, the big bucks have not been pushed down into the lower country where they would be accessible. On my first night home, my hunting partner, Justin and I spent the evening discussing how we would address these hardships in the morning.
After discussing, we basically decided that we could do nothing to improve the circumstances and we’d simply give it our all in the snowy morning, chasing whatever deer were in reach on the lowlands.
On the Hunt
In the morning we woke up at 5 AM, ate some breakfast, and headed out the door before 6. With about an hour’s drive, we’d arrive at our hunting grounds about a half-hour before sunrise. To our pleasant surprise, we opened the door and found a starry sky with no snow falling. The inches of fresh powder on the truck were proof that some precipitation had dropped through the night and had recently ceased.
A slick drive through narrow canyons on an unplowed road added 20 minutes to our journey, but we still arrived about 15 minutes before first light. Driving past tents with hunters stirring out front, huddled over single gas burner stoves cooking their morning oatmeal, I was very happy to have slept in a warm bed that night and to be ahead of them going up the hill.
First Deer Glassed
Pushing 4 or 5 inches of fresh powder, I drove my Toyota pickup up the mountain on the slick, cliffside trail. Below us was a frozen-over river and beside us was sign in the snow of several drivers overshooting corners, narrowly avoiding a long fall. The other thing that we noticed in the snow was the relative lack of deer tracks when compared to years past. (This is Justin’s 6th year on this hunt, and my 2nd. I went last year but didn’t have a tag.) After engaging 4WD and Diff. lock, we had pushed our way further up the mountain and found ourselves on a good vantage point. From here, we pulled out our binoculars and began combing the sagebrush for deer.
Within seconds of glassing, we found a massive group of game on a hillside where we regularly see deer. With the sun still making its way over the mountains on the east side of the valley, we had to throw the Meopta Meostar S2 spotting scope up and take a closer look. Unfortunately, it turned out to be about 100 elk… wrong species.
Justin interrupted my gazing with another call out for deer that he had seen through his binoculars. I swiveled the spotting scope to where he pointed and found 3 does cruising the ridgeline a few miles off. Because I had not killed an archery deer before, my standards were admittedly low, but I was determined to attempt a few bucks before lowering my standards further. We kept looking, continuing the pattern of Justin pointing them out, interrupting my gaze on the last group to investigate the new find. By mid-morning, we had seen around 50-70 deer in small groups, none of them being bucks. This was quickly becoming a source of frustration. Typically, bucks are everywhere and we waste all of our time chasing them back and forth in the sage.
As we began packing up to change vantage points, we ran into a local guy who had spent every day of the month out here, looking for big bucks. According to him, the big bucks were not forced off the high country by the snow yet and they simply had not made it into the low hills yet. We agreed with this, as we had suspected it to be so before investigating.
Naturally, the next step was to head into the higher country to find where the big bucks were currently hanging out. We didn’t make it much further up the ridgeline before we were forced to chain up the tires on the pickup due to the stacked up snowdrifts in our path. We quickly found out that my Toyota Tacoma didn’t have enough clearance in the front end for chains on the front tires, so we moved them to the back end.
Slowly and steadily, we pushed drifts up past the bumper on our way up the ridge. Eventually, we reached a saddle that dropped down on a shady side of the mountain and rose sharply to a point. Too committed to quit, I pushed ahead. It took several attempts to make it up the other side of the saddle, but we figured it was a steady climb to the tree line after we got there. Unfortunately, we were wrong. As we topped out, we discovered another, longer, steep drop on the shaded side of the ridge proceeded by a sharp incline to the trees. Having barely made it to where we were, we made the best choice to not get stuck where help couldn’t reach us as we backtracked to lower country.
Bummed by this setback, we stopped at another good vantage point and spotted a small fork horned buck with a couple of does moving toward a protected hollow. Still frustrated, I decided to attempt a stalk on this deer.
The First Stalk
We repositioned on a road that dead-ended at the beginning of the ridgeline that would take me above the hollow that we last saw the buck heading toward. Since the walk would be relatively short, I elected to go light without my pack, only carrying my bow. If something happened, I could easily return and get my gear. As I made my way to the ridge to peek over and spot the fork-horned buck, I found a group of about a dozen deer that contained a small spike. As I walked up the hill, the ridge had exposed them less than 200 yards away. I quickly changed plans because my stalk to the fork-horned buck would bust this group out, potentially also scaring my targeted deer.
Backtracking, I made my way down the snow-covered finger that they were on. The wind was blowing up toward me, hitting me in the face and making my nose numb. With no chance of them smelling me, I covered about 120 yards on the backside of the finger and popped over slowly. The deer had fed away from where they were when I saw them, pushing further onto the open face. I slowly crept across the sparse sage, down as low as I could until a doe stood up from her bed and stared me down. I froze where I was and made slow and steady movements to range her. 66 yards. Not the deer I was after, I waited for her to go back to feeding or lie back down. After a while, she put her head down to feed and I inched forward slowly to try and get more deer into my sight. As soon as the snow squeaked against my rubber boot, her head shot up again to stare me down. We played this game of “red light, green light” for about 30 minutes with me only covering an extra 10 yards.
I found myself looking through the grass and sage with my binoculars, trying to put horns on any of the 8 new deer that I could see, but I could not. The buck was not in sight and my heart was beating in my throat. Having enough of our game, the closest doe finally busted, running past the other deer, taking them with her. On the opposite hill, the group of deer stopped and I finally spotted the buck. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I saw again how small my target was. This would be the smallest deer that I killed to date… hint, hint.
Justin and I spent another few minutes on the ridge after my first failed stalk, looking for another deer to chase. My spirits continued to dive as we struggled to place more deer in the area. This was just not normal for a late hunt like this.
As we worked our way down the ridge, finally, around mid-day we spotted a decent 2×3 feeding with a small spike and a doe just a few hundred yards down the draw. At this point, it may have been wise to watch the bucks until they bedded to then plan a stalk. However, the deer were standing just below a ridgeline and I felt that I could come over it and be within 30 or so yards of them, getting a shot off. I began heading down the finger at the fastest pace I could handle in the slick, frozen hillside. When I got to where I thought the deer were, I came over the ridge to find with great disappointment that they had moved into the bottom of the draw. 110 yards away, all three deer fed in ignorant bliss, moving further away from me. With the doe in the lead, the bucks began to follow her up the opposite hillside and I changed my game plan.
Backtracking up the finger that I was on, I used the curve of the draw to keep them out of sight as I crossed over to the finger that they were on. I quickly circled around the backside of this small ridge and placed myself in front of their feeding path. I sat in wait in the cold, snowy hillside in total composure, like a Buddhist monk. Minutes later, I saw ears bobbing above the sagebrush below. My heartbeat picked up and my inexperience with a bow showed here as I sat on my haunches to range the deer instead of waiting for my target to feed into the opening about 20 yards in front of where they were currently. As I sat up, a rock dislodged from the shale hillside and it clattered down the hill in snow-muffled silence around me. I got a range on the doe, 53 yards. However, the doe stopped as the rock rolled, looking around in shock with the bucks not yet visible. Over as soon as it began, the deer turned around and ran away from me. I reached the top of the small ridge I was on just in time to watch the three deer crest the main ridge right next to Justin as he looked on in defeat. Of course, Justin did not have a tag because he had killed his deer earlier in the rifle season, and the deer walked away unscathed.
Switching into Killing Mode
I made the steep trek back up the mountain to the pickup, meeting Justin. At this point, we were well on our way into the afternoon and the winter nights begin around 5 PM this time of year. In dismay from the utter lack of decent bucks in the area this year, accompanied by the fact that I have but a few days left in the season, I made the decision to shoot the next deer that I was able to get within range of. At this point, I could have easily arrowed a few different does but had held off.
There was a road in the bottom of the canyon that paralleled the ridge we had been hunting on, so we drove down to it, spotting up each draw for hidden deer. We got about a mile below where my last failed stalk had occurred and found a decent 2×3 buck with a spike and a doe about halfway up the hillside. Yes, it was the very same group as before! Determined to exact my revenge, I grabbed my bow again and headed up the hill without a plan.
As I covered the ground, I realized my lack of a plan was a mistake. The three deer were bedded below a steep peak with several shallow shelves on it. In front of them was nothing but flat, open sage. I had no chance of approaching from this side. I turned and headed around to the backside of the peak that the deer were beneath. Once there, I headed to the top. Again, the breeze was blowing into my face and I headed slowly and carefully down the rocky face toward the deer bedded below. While covering ground, I intermittently ranged them. 150 yards, 130 yards, 100 yards, 90 yards… I knocked an arrow knowing I was about to enter shooting range. As I crept into 80 yards of the doe (closest one to me), she must have heard me because she jumped up from her bed and turned to look up the hill at me. Fortunately, I was low to the ground and the brush was between my eyes and hers. I sat still for a moment, hoping that she would settle down without any proof to be alarmed.
After about 5 minutes of her searching unsuccessfully for me in the brush, she decided she was too concerned and bounced toward the bedded bucks 20 yards left of her. As she arrived, the two bucks stood up in confusion. At this point, I was determined to reach the shelf about 15 yards below me to then pop up in range and hopefully get a shot before they spooked out of there. I scooted on my butt down the hill, keeping low enough to be below the brush and out of sight of the deer.
This maneuver took me about 1 minute to do and I had closed the distance successfully. However, I looked to my right and could see the doe feeding away from me, obviously in range. I assumed the bucks would be right behind her as I stood up to range the distance and spot the bucks. A bit of movement caught my attention to the left and I pivoted slowly, rangefinder raised to my eye and heart about to pound out of my chest. It was the bucks! For whatever reason, they had laid back down and allowed the doe to feed up the hill away from them!
At this moment, we were staring into each other’s eyes. I completed the slow pivoting motion that I was committed to and ranged the 2×3 at 58 yards. Lowering my right hand to drop the rangefinder at my side and attach my release to my bow string, I knew that I had a dead buck if they would allow me to draw my bow without them moving. A slight click of my release engaging my string was all it took and the bucks bolted down the hill away from the doe without looking back. I turned to find the doe still feeding to my right.
Again, I grabbed my rangefinder and placed her at 69.8 yards. I dialed my sight to 70, and in total calmness, drew my bow back. I don’t know if it was the disappointment of busting the bucks but my heart was beating calmly, breathing was controlled, and my bow was steady as a rock. I put my pin right behind her shoulder and smoothly released the arrow. As soon as the shot broke, I knew it was good. The doe jumped, sprinted 10 yards up the hill, and then turned to look back toward me. Within a matter of seconds, she was too weak to stand and lay dying in the snow.
An Ending to a Long Day
Justin had watched all the events transpire through his binoculars and was already on his way up the hill to lend me a hand. I walked to the position that the doe was in when I shot to recover my arrow. The arrow had penetrated all the way through and was lying half buried in the snow, covered in a thin layer of already frozen, bubbly blood. I placed it in my quiver and continued to my deer. Already expired, I grabbed her by the ear and pulled her quite easily down the steep, snow-covered hill toward the bottom of the draw. On my way, the realization of my accomplishment hit me. I had killed my first archery deer and I have plenty of room to top it next year! Halfway, I met with Justin and he carried my gear while I continued to drag. Once in the canyon bottom, we snapped some photos, got her gutted out, and then loaded the carcass into the pickup.
As we drove home in the dark, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the opportunity to get out and enjoy the outdoors, interact with wildlife, and fill my freezer for the upcoming year of a grad school student’s budget.
Getting the Deer in the Freezer
A matter of days later, I was able to employ the family in cutting up this deer. I had hung her in the shop and was tasked with quartering the meat and bringing it in. Once inside, we had an assembly line going where the meat was cut from the bone, cut into steaks, roast, or hamburger, and then packaged. Not only was it highly efficient, but it was also gratifying to include the family in this hands-on process of attaining our own meat. Now I will be packing it into a cooler and bringing it to my temporary home in Nebraska at the end of my Christmas break.