December 13, 2023
Mike Harshman shouldered his pack and disappeared into the darkness. In his early 20s and only a few weeks removed from his seasonal job as a wildland firefighter, Harshman lowered his head, put one foot in front of the other—just as he’d been doing all summer on the fireline—and marched across the dark landscape. I am many years removed from my 20s, and my year-round career keeps me at a desk more than I’d like. I’m not too proud to admit Harshman had to stop a time or two (or three or four) to give me time to catch up.
When we finally made it to a high, rocky point, the warm glow of the arriving sun revealed miles and miles of sandy, scrub-covered dunes rolling away from the backside of this isolated mountain range in central Wyoming. Within minutes of setting up our optics, Harshman and I spotted deer among the sagebrush—a lot of deer. No matter where we pointed our binoculars—near or far or somewhere in between—there seemed to be at least one mule deer in the lens. Most were does, accompanied by fawns and yearlings, with smaller bucks not too far away. It was late October, and the bigger bucks weren’t yet interested in the upcoming breeding season. Most bucks worth a second look still had two or three companions of similar size nearby, and the bachelor groups were a sure sign the rut was still weeks away.
One buck caught my eye. He was tall with a sweeping rack. Though his left side carried just three points, the tines were long. On his right, the two front tines bladed out before splitting into two crab claws. I’m a sucker for anything out of the ordinary and directed Harshman to take a closer look. “I’ve seen him there all fall,” said Harshman. “He’s definitely a mature deer. But there are bigger out here.” Ignoring the hunter’s mantra to never pass up a deer on the first day that you’d shoot on the last, I followed Harshman’s advice, but not without warning him first: “You better not put that deer in front of me again, or I will kill him.”
Harshman, who’d spent several days scouting deer from this very spot, finally found the bigger bucks he was looking for. After the standard back and forth between guide and client trying to describe one particular sagebrush in a sea of them and glassing over this sandy blowout and not that other, similar-looking sandy blowout, I finally spotted the buck. Though it was more than 800 yards distant, the buck’s high, wide rack stood out. He carried four on each side, with deep forks that would measure well, if you’re into measuring antler inches. I’m not, but I had drawn a hard-to-get license in a premium unit, and this buck was definitely worth punching the tag on. However, there was still a lot of open country between us and the now-bedded deer before I’d be in range of an ethical shot.
This piece of public land was a BLM inholding nearly surrounded by private land. To access it, we had to hike the perimeter, frequently consulting our mapping apps to stay within the bounds of public land. It made the hike in longer, but also kept us legal. It was likely also the reason this area held so many deer, including this group of mature trophy bucks. Not many hunters want to hike in that far to hunt and, if successful, are willing to haul a deer out across shifting, sandy soil.
There were a few two-tracks crisscrossing the landscape, only accessible by the neighboring landowners, who used them to check on the cattle grazing the scrublands. When a red truck bounced into view, we reasoned it was likely the rancher, but soon enough a blaze orange hat worn by the passenger gave them away as fellow hunters.
We tried to ignore the distraction, keeping our eye on the big buck as he wound his way through the lowlands before bedding down on a distant sidehill. As Harshman and I discussed the best possible way to get into range, I noticed the truck had parked on a ridge above us. And, when I turned my binos their way, the hunters were watching us. Soon enough, they turned their attention to where our focus had been. We’d unwittingly showed our hand and could only sit back and spectate as the truck headed directly toward the bedded buck.
Though they had ruined our hunt, these Keystone Kops turned out to be more funny than frustrating. We watched from above as the truck passed by the deer at a distance that looked closer to 10 yards than 100. Apparently, the buck was well hidden. For the next hour we watched the truck circle the area, the hunters making several failed stalks. Anytime they got close, the wise, old buck would simply lower his head into the surrounding sagebrush. Finally, the buck and his buddies, along with a few does, had enough of the shenanigans and slipped into a wide, sandy bowl. The truck sped down the trail to cut off the small herd, sliding to a stop in a cloud of sand. Three hunters jumped out. Two ducked low to the ground and snuck toward the lip of the bowl. Inexplicably, the third person ran back down the trail and upwind of the herd. I’m sure all three people were too far away to hear me laughing loudly as each deer ran, one by one, in front of the truck, which still had three of its four doors flung wide open. The last we saw of that buck, it was running for the horizon as the hunters scratched their heads.
BY BOAT OR BY BOOTS?
It was obvious this spot was now blown out—at least for the time being. Lucky for us, the unit encompassed more than 1,200 square miles, nearly 70 percent open to public hunting. Unlucky for us, not all of it could be considered prime deer habitat, and there were miles and miles between the country worth looking over. We made a long hike back to the truck across some fresh ground, including an expanse of choppy sand dunes that reminded me more of the Sahara and less of central Wyoming. We bumped a few deer along the way. One particular buck carried a rack big enough for me to raise the rifle but, after a closer look, not big enough for me to pull the trigger.
Later, Harshman and I caught up with Justin Dykes, co-owner of Backcountry Hunting Logistics, who had found a buck worth taking a second look at. We started the day glassing sand dunes and ended it looking across a wide expanse of water at a small spit of land not 200 yards long and 50 yards across. A graveled beach surrounded higher ground covered in brush that perfectly camouflaged the antlers of three mule deer that had decided to call the island home. While one was big enough for a closer look, we ultimately decided the odds, not to mention the ethics, of a successful hunt weren’t worth launching a drift boat.
The next morning we gave the island another look, just to confirm our earlier decision, then put on the miles, crossing the unit to find high ground to glass from. We saw two bulls still battling, weeks after the elk rut; a small band of bighorn sheep; and lots of deer and antelope. However, the quality of bucks this unit was known to produce eluded us. Finally, Dykes caught a buck sneaking into a bed that was perched high on the side of a remote cliff. And while the distance was too far to see just what kind of headgear it carried, the fact this buck was alone and bedding in such an inaccessible location, gave us the idea it was likely an old, mature deer. The only way to be certain was to close the distance over a couple miles of broken ground. There was one ridge between us and the deer. We hoped it would be enough both to conceal our approach and to provide a spot to shoot from should the deer be worthy of the premium tag. We made time at a quick trot, using whatever terrain we could until we stood at the base of the craggy ridge. Dykes scrambled up first, then waved Harshman and me up.
The buck was still in its bed, enjoying a midday snooze in the shade of a few scraggly pines that clung to the vertical face of the ridge just opposite our sniper’s hide. My range-finding binos put the distance at a little more than 400 yards. That’s a shot I can make, though a stiff crosswind racing down canyon would make the wind call challenging with my 6mm Creedmoor pushing a small 103-grain bullet.
The mottled shadows, along with a pretty harsh mirage, made it difficult to judge the buck’s rack. One thing was sure: It was an older deer, with a grizzled cape and a forehead that had gone from the usual dark brown to an aged gray. The horns were wrist-thick, carrying good mass through to the tips. But the forks themselves were short—just a few inches in length on the right side and not much longer on the left. From our best guess, the deer was on his way down. All totaled, he looked to be an old 3x3 that had seen better days. Normally, this is exactly the type of deer I prefer to hunt, but we left the old man to enjoy his noon nap. Even now, as I write this, I still have a tinge of regret.
BATTLING THE ELEMENTS
If there’s one guarantee when it comes to hunting in Wyoming, it’s that the wind is going to blow, and on the third day of the hunt, that promise came true. Harshman and I had relocated to the opposite end of the unit, acting on a tip from another member of the BHL team that had spent the previous day scouting the area. Following a couple of warm days, the temperature had plummeted and we hunkered out of the wind to watch a long series of ridges opposite our position. After glassing up yet another nice ram, I double-checked my tag, but it was still only valid for deer and not bighorn sheep. No elk on license, either, despite the fact we spent at least an hour within range of a nice bull. The mule deer didn’t like the wind any more than we did and stayed hidden throughout the long day.
In three days of hunting, we’d hiked sand dunes, climbed mountains, covered miles and miles of sagebrush, and even glassed an island for hours—all in the hopes of finding the caliber of deer the area was known for. Hunting pressure, hot days, and high winds made the hunt a challenge, and with our time together dwindling, Harshman and I decided a return to the first spot was the best course of action. The dunes held the highest density of deer we’d seen, including at least one good buck that we hoped had made his way back to the area.
BLOOD AND SAND
Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t done throwing obstacles in our way. The next morning we awoke to a heavy fog covering the landscape. With the visibility cut to just a few yards, glassing from our previous perch was out of the question. Instead, we’d have to hunt the dunes by topping each rolling ridge carefully in hopes of bumping into a buck. In that way, the low visibility would give us an advantage as we stalked through the sage, but it also made finding a deer in the scope a challenge—as I would soon find out.
It wasn’t long until we were in the deer, and when I say “in,” I mean in the middle of them. Like that first day, the dunes were full of deer. There was just enough breeze to cover the sound of our approach, and though the deer were nervous, they never quite knew just what we were. They’d trot a short distance, look back, and then go back to grazing.
After topping the third or fourth hill, Harshman dropped into the deep sage and pointed into the fog. I could just make out three bucks grazing along the far side of a wide, shallow bowl. At least one was mature, with a wide, sweeping rack with a lopsided frame that looked familiar.“I told you not to put that buck in front of me again,” I whispered to Harshman. His ever-present smile grew even wider when I followed up with, “I suppose we better try to kill him.”
As if on cue, the fog got thicker, and the bucks became faint shadows in the mist. When they went over the ridge, we hustled through the brush. I can’t say we were very quiet, and each time we topped a hill the bucks would be cresting the next, not spooked by our presence but nervous enough that they never stopped long enough for a shot. Once, just as I found the three bucks in my scope, a curtain of fog fell across the landscape so thick that I couldn’t make out which buck carried the biggest rack.
Finally, the fog parted just enough. Harshman whispered, “The left one.” I swung the rifle until the wide rack appeared, moved the crosshairs onto the buck’s shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger. Before the bolt threw the empty case over my shoulder, I watched the buck collapse in the scope. Seconds later, the fog lifted completely, revealing miles and miles of open country, with the buck’s antlers rising from the sagebrush where he lay bleeding in the sand.