It was fitting, then, that we first spotted the big buck by sheer accident about 9:00 am, while drinking coffee over the hood of his pickup truck, wondering aloud what our Plan B might entail for the day.
Even at a distance of several hundred yards, there was no mistaking the size of this muley. Big bodied, dark in color, walking with that swaying, bobbing gait characteristic of huge bucks, the mass of its antlers was visible to the naked eye. A quick check through binoculars confirmed it. “That is a nice buck,” Doyle said. He looked again. “That’s a real nice buck.”
The deer had lingered longer than usual that morning, perhaps feeling secure in the mist that hung over the farmlands at first light. Now, the war sun had scoured the valley of fog, and the buck was moving rapidly to the safety of higher ground. Its goal seemed to be one of the highest of the hillsides that surrounded the valley, a rocky, almost impenetrable tangle of scrub oak, juniper and cedar. It was a classic survival technique, one that allows a smart young buck to grow into a massive old buck, the kind that makes the most jaded and experienced deer hunter weak in the knees. From that vantage point, the buck could see for miles. Nothing could approach it from below without being seen. Nothing could approach it from above without being heard. Its gray body vanished into the dry foliage, its antlers indistinguishable from the acres of twisted, gnarled branches. It was the perfect camouflage, the perfect spot to while away a day in complete safety.
Doyle and I watched the buck until it disappeared, and marked the spot where we last saw it. Would it stay there, or keep moving out of sight? “He will probably bed down right there,” Doyle concluded. Doyle had spent years observing the behavior of trophy animals, which helped make him one of Colorado’s most experienced and successful outfitters. “All we can do is get as close as we can, try not to spook it, and make a plan.”
We drove to a spot on the edge of the river that watered this western valley, producing greenery and crops that made it a mecca for trophy quality mule deer. We were close to the buck’s hiding spot, but it didn’t matter too much. One thing in our favor was that resident deer were used to pickup trucks and farming activity; as long as we did not attempt to enter the buck’s hillside sanctuary, it should remain put. Or so we hoped.
We set up shop in the shade of a cottonwood, “shop” being Doyle’s spotting scope, my rifle, and the remaining coffee in our Thermos. “Assuming he is still there,” Doyle said as he adjusted the spotter’s tripod, “he is watching everything we do. It shouldn’t bother him, though, since he is used to seeing activity down here. We just have to find him.”
Trying to find an ear, an eye, the flick of a tail, the turn of a deer’s head in jumbled jungle of tall brush covering several acres is, to put it mildly, a challenge. The sun rose and the day became hot while we strained our eyes and our optics to their max. Any other deer, we would most likely have given the search up as futile. But, as Doyle had said, this was no ordinary buck.
Then, there it was. Doyle and I just happened to be looking at the same area, the last spot we had seen the deer. “Did you see that?” I asked. “Yeah, wait,” Doyle replied, “let me get the scope on it…yep, that’s him.” The buck had turned its head ever so slightly, and the movement was just enough to give him away.
The deer was lying down, head up, completely in shade, not a care in the world. He had a full belly from a long night feeding on farmer’s crops, and was obviously perfectly content in its hiding spot.
We, however, were not as content. Doyle and I had intended to go “to town” after the morning’s hunt for lunch, so we had brought no sustenance other than coffee. We couldn’t leave our riverside spot, for fear that the buck might move without our seeing it. We were hot and we were hungry. “You like fried chicken?” Doyle asked me. “Sure,” I said. At that moment I would have settled for a raw chicken. “Let me call a friend,” Doyle said, retrieving his cell phone from the truck.
A half hour later, a cloud of dust announced an approaching pickup, and one of Doyle’s local associates greeted us with a huge bucket of chicken and several ice-cold sodas. So there we sat, making short work of legs, breasts and wings, under the warm Colorado sun, in one of the more unusual hunts I’ve experienced. The deer knew we were there, we knew the deer was there, thus what we had was a complete standoff. Who would blink first?
“All I know to do,” Doyle said, “is to wait until the buck gets up and moves. He will get up sometime.”
But the buck never did get up and move. The hours ticked by, the sun continued its travel west, and the deer showed no inclination of moving.
“That is a smart old buck,” Doyle observed. “It appears he will not move from that spot until after dark. There is nothing we can do except try to wait him out.”
We were rapidly running out of options. All day long we had sat on that riverbank, and now there was at most an hour of daylight remaining. To make matters worse, the sun was setting directly behind the hill we were watching, causing blinding glare. We had to make a decision.
The only part of the buck that was plainly visible to me was its lower jaw and part of its chest. It was facing us almost straight on. There was at most a six-inch opening in the scrub that would afford any kind of shot.
“Doyle,” I said, “I don’t think we have a choice other than to take a shot.” Doyle was not convinced. “Do you think you can make it?” he asked skeptically.
I had one advantage in the standoff with the buck, that being my Nightforce NXS 2.5-10 x 32 Compact riflescope that I had ordered with a Velocity 600 reticle. I am not a fan of complicated reticles for hunting, nor am I interested in making difficult calculations, consulting drop charts, making elevation adjustments or trying to recall what reticle markings mean when I have a trophy in the crosshairs.
At the same time, I had become increasingly interested in longer-range accuracy, something more precise than a mere holdover estimation, and of course, no riflescope company enjoys a better or more deserved reputation for long-range precision than Nightforce. The Velocity 600 reticle is actually tailored to the ballistic characteristics of the shooter’s rifle. In this case, I mounted the 2.5-10 x 32 on my ancient .30-06, the first rifle I ever owned, well worn and showing the bruises of many hunts in many places, but still one of the most accurate rifles I have.
The Velocity 600 has horizontal lines at the 0, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600 yard positions, with smaller hash marks at 50-yard intervals between each of those. I had spent a lot of time practicing and confirming that the distance markings were right on. If I want to make a 550-yard shot, for example, all I need to do is confirm the distance to the target, place the appropriate mark directly on the target, be cognizant of any potential wind drift, and pull the trigger. Simple and virtually foolproof, two essential characteristics for this hunter.
According to our rangefinders, it was exactly 286 yards to the buck. Now, I realize that this is laughably close in this day and age when accomplished 1000-yard shooters using Nightforce products can generate three- and four-inch groups all day long…and when 1500, even 2000 yards is starting to define “long” range.
Let’s review the situation, however. I had a six-inch opening through which to place an ethical, fatal shot on our hillside deer. I had to approach it with the same techniques that would be required if the distance were three times greater. There was simply no room for error.
The sun was lowering quickly. For over nine hours, we had watched that deer. It was either make the shot, or call it quits, with a good probability of not seeing the big buck again. It was now or never.
“Doyle, I think I can do this,” I said with more confidence than I really felt. “I will either kill the deer with a neck shot, or miss it entirely.” Over the course of my hunting career I have made my share of good shots, and yes, have made some bad shots. Having a professional outfitter watching intently does not contribute to the former.
I adjusted the bipod affixed to my rifle (second only to a quality riflescope in being conducive to accurate shot placement, in my opinion), placed the crosshairs of the reticle equivalent to 275 yards on the bottom of the deer’s jaw, and took a deep breath. The setting sun streamed directly into the objective lens; fortunately, NIghtforce lens coatings help reduce glare substantially. I slowly, slowly squeezed the trigger.
“Whoooeeee, what a shot!” Doyle jumped to his feet shouting, having seen what I didn’t because of the rifle’s recoil. The big deer never stood up, never moved, never even twitched. My bullet had struck exactly where I had intended, halfway down its neck, penetrating deep into the chest cavity. The deer simply rolled over, dead instantly.
“That’s one of the best shots I’ve seen,” Doyle exclaimed, which, considering how many he has witnessed, made me one proud and happy hunter. “Let’s go get him”
We made our way through the hillside jungle, clothes being ripped and torn, and finally found the buck. It was a magnificent old muley that would score 185 B&C points, making every moment of a very long and often tense day very sweet indeed.
I have made longer shots, as measured in sheer distance. I’ve never made a more satisfying shot, though. Can 286 yards be considered “long range?” It certainly can, when there is zero margin for error. I don’t consider myself an accomplished rifleman. I had two things going for me, though. One was the wisdom to use the best possible riflescope; otherwise, there would have been no chance. The second was the willingness to practice enough to learn how to use those optics properly before going afield.
Together, they gave me the confidence to make a difficult shot, and to make the right decision.
And to go home with an exceptional trophy.