August 18, 2021
By Jaden Bales
Setting the Right Goals
It took me five long seasons of eating tag soup before I took my first elk with a bow. And although fewer folks follow along on my social media than attend some family reunions, making public my 2019 Cinderella story felt good. The likes, comments, and messages acted as short-term validation for my success, and I craved more. So as I headed into the 2020 hunting season, I changed my focus from archery elk to mule deer hunting and set the goal to take two mature mule deer bucks with the two tags I held in my pocket.
Halfway through the long Wyoming general deer season, I still had those same two tags in my pocket. So I spent nine September days chasing high country bucks, living out of my backpack and bow hunting from sunrise to sunset. At the end of my backcountry journey, I had still had those same two tags. My determination to accomplish the season's goal was burning hotter than ever, so once back home I continued to pursue deer every chance that I got. Many of these weekends came at the expense of losing time with those who matter most.
In mid-October my girlfriend, Jess, and I had finally spotted a nice buck out on one of her favorite archery spots - one that the average newcomer to the area, like me, would have never thought would hold any deer. This spot did not just hold one deer, it held multiple mature bucks.
When we arrived to the location and were strapping on our bino harnesses I told Jess, “If we see an antelope bedded, you can put the stalk on, but If there's a mule deer up and moving with a more difficult shot, I’ll take it.”
Shortly after starting a stalk on some antelope in the sage, everything changed. “Big buck!” I said to Jess, as we crawled in the sagebrush two hundred yards from the herd of antelope. I tried to play it cool, but she knew my buck fever had set in.
I spent the entire season obsessed about tagging a mule deer buck and there he was. Like a hound dog in a truck bed who had just caught the whiff of a mountain lion crossing the road, I had was ready to run. Jess opened the proverbial kennel door, despite being within striking distance of her antelope and selflessly followed me in pursuit of the pot-bellied old mule deer as he vanished from our sight.
It did not take long for us to relocate the buck in the junipers and sage where he had bedded. That's when my ego kicked in. I deserved that buck. I craved success. I wanted to notch my tag.
Letting Ego Get the Best of You
In that moment, I had a major bias against the most logical answer. Junipers and steep finger ridges made for a very possible approach. But after nineteen days chasing mule deer that fall, I felt that I deserved that deer, not anyone else. That's when my ego got the best of me.
I laid prone and shot the mule deer buck at a further distance than I am normally comfortable shooting. Foregoing the standard ethical practice of shooting a deer broadside, I touched off my shot while the deer was bedded quartered toward me, sending my shot through the brisket and into the offside leg – a nonlethal but gruesome ordeal. I sent the three other .30 caliber bullets down range to finally dispatch the buck. It was not the way you want any kill to go down, especially if it was avoidable like my experience.
I looked back at Jess expecting a smile of approval, but what I saw was pure disappointment. Her face was red and lips pursed. I could not tell if she was going to start throwing the jagged limestone shale under our feet at me, or just walk back to the truck and leave me to pack the buck home by myself.
It wasn't until I looked at her face that I realized what I had done. I had just shot the mule deer out from under my significant other with a stupid shot choice. But that was not quite enough for me to realize the issue at hand. That night I posted up a photo of me smiling with my best buck yet on Instagram and the praise and virtual backslapping from buddies ensued.
That was when it sank in.
I shot a nice buck, but there was no cause for celebration. The little red hearts on social media accentuated how I had achieved a goal at the expense of my integrity. I shot that buck, but I had ruined everything. I took that monarch of a mule deer at the price of being the hunter, and human, I want to be.
I talked about this experience with a great friend, Cody Rich, and we hashed out the pressures of feeling like you “have” to shoot something. He agreed, making a bonehead move just to punch a tag was wrong. Cody, in contrast, had just spent a month and a half on his own pursuit of a giant elk and felt the pressure to kill one for “the Gram” but instead knew that in his heart of hearts he just wanted to keep hunting. He enjoyed the how; I was focused on how many people would see me.
I spent the rest of last season humbled by the lesson I had learned from my Wyoming buck. I refocused on spending quality time hunting and trying to help out those who matter the most. When I went to hunt Colorado’s third season, I realized I finally relaxed and enjoyed the process of looking for a big buck. Though I elected not to notch a tag on that hunt, I was okay with it. The pursuit, not the Insta pic, is truly the fun part. I hope to never lose sight of that from here on out.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.