After watching these videos on my phone over and over again, I finally decided the night before the opener that my game plan was this: if either the tall 5x5 in velvet or the square 4-point with mass gives me a good look-the sparks would fly!
Opening morning arrived and I had my game plan set; we were up at 5:00 A.M. and in position by 6:00 A.M. awaiting the sunrise. I was happy that by then my Dad had arrived in camp and would accompany me, together we were able to sit in the Rzr and discuss what our plan was. As the sun begin to give some clarity I caught movement to our right and the adrenalin started to kick in. Once I got my glass up, the outline of a 6-point bull elk on the horizon emerged. I was happy to see this bull and have that false alarm as in the end I think that it helped prepare my nerves for the next hour of my hunt.
As the daylight began to fill the valley we soon became witness to the exact scenario that I had imagined in my mindís eye unfolding before us. From the scouting I knew that this group of bachelor bucks would feed from a draw to the east and head to an adjacent draw to the west to bed down in thick timber. I knew where we needed to be and when, only problem that I did not factor in was the added activity of other hunters on the mountain that morning as the bucks were much more skittish now than ever before.
It all happened so fast. I had the bachelor group of bucks within 50 yards but they were moving and had their noses pointed into a very steep and rugged draw with the seclusion of thick oak brush and pines to hide their vulnerability. At one moment I had my primer in, hammer cocked with the big five point in my crosshairs but even with a bipod I did not feel comfortable with the shot at 125 yards because I just knew that I wasn't steady.
Just like that, the group was out of sight and I was about 90% sure that I had blown my chance for the morning. I was depressed that everything worked out so perfectly and yet I still didnít get a clean look and that I had just likely blew the best chance of getting on these bucks. I tried to snap out of it mentally and told myself that there was an outside chance that I could still catch the bucks before they hit the thickness of the bedding area so I decided to high-tail it and make the descent down into the draw that the bucks disappeared into.
I had only made it about 100 yards down when I caught movement, it was them. The group was steeply angled downhill and moving at a slower, less alarmed pace than before. I quickly found a rock that could serve as a shooting rest and began scouring the group for the buck that I secretly had my hopes on-the velvet 5x5.
After what seemed like a long time, I finally was able to put eyes on him as he was moving through thick cover below me. I knew that at some point these bucks would have to expose themselves one last time before they were safe in the pines as they had to cross an old open burn face. I directed my attention at this opening to prepare for when they emerged. It was then, as I was trying to calculate yardage for a shot that I discovered that I had misplaced my range finder so I had to estimate the range freehand.
Over the past few years I had recently started playing a lot of golf in my free time so this came in handy as I was trying to determine the distance with the mentality of either using my driver or a fairway wood; I concluded that the buck would emerge at 200+ yards which was at the high end of my comfortable range but I was confident because of my steady rest on the rock and that I paid the price at the range all summer long and knew that I was capable.
Just as I had calculated, the buck was headed for the clearing. The only thing that I hadn't expected was that he decided to hang up right before he entered my shooting path...for a long time. This buck must have had a sixth sense that he was in danger because he stood in cover with his vitals concealed for a solid 5 minutes. With each second I grew more and more tense as the opening was only a few feet wide and my window would be short. I fully expected the buck to blow through this opening as I could clearly see he was reluctant to enter it but just as stepped forward, halfway through my shot window, he paused. I was ready. With my 10 MOA hash mark buried in his vitals, my slow exhale was met with the explosion of fire and smoke. KABOOM!
I knew that my mechanics were sound but for anyone who hasn't shot a front stuffer, the moment after the shot is always suspenseful as the black smoke clears and you await the aftermath. I caught movement through the haze, it was the buck on a dead sprint down the mountain. I got up and moved to try to get around the smoke cloud so I could see more clearly and stepped on a flat shale rock that snapped and made the loudest "CRACK" sound that pierced through the canyon. On cue, the buck jammed on the brakes and was locked on to me. I slowly raised my empty long gun and put the buck in my scope. BLOOD! and lots of it coming from the bucks mouth. I knew it was a good shot but why was he still so alert and had me pinned? Was the shot not as good as I thought? When will he go down!?!
These questions raced through my mind as we had the Mexican Stand Off at 200 yards. Finally, I decided that I needed to make a move and reload so that I at least have the option of a follow up shot. Just as I made the move to grab a speedy-loader the buck bolted out of sight further down the hill.
After I was reloaded and more composed about what had just happened, I decided to not even attempt to go after the buck just then. I have hunted archery for a long time and the number one rule after a shot is back out so I decided to hike up the hill and touch base with my Dad who I had lost in the scramble of chasing bucks. We met and discussed the shot and I told him my story of identifying the 5x5 buck with the kicker and making the shot. As we discussed it and processed it more we both concluded that he was likely piled up down there due to the amount of blood I was seeing from the bucks mouth so we grabbed our gear and slowly made our way down the mountain.
Another side note, I had a quality tag in Idaho back in 2010 that turned out to be a nightmare for me. Long story short, I scouted all summer and found a monster buck that was in the 200" category that had a crab claw cheater on his right main beam that was very distinctive. When I finally found what I thought was this buck during the hunt I shot him even though his rack was not fully exposed. When I went to retrieve this buck I was heartbroken as I discovered I had killed his younger brother with the same distinctive main beam-it was sickening. I bring this up as this experience entered my mind as I was walking down the hill to look for this buck I had just shot. Was it possible that I had another case of mistaken identity and shot the wrong buck? I kept reassuring myself that this could not be the case as I verified numerous times and right before the shot I saw the kicker off his left G3. These thoughts were cut short as I heard my Dad say "Blood!" We were right that it was a good shot as there was lots of blood. I identified where the buck had stopped that we had the standoff and from there we only trailed him another 15 yards before he piled up.
As I approached the buck his head was in a bush and I got that sickening feeling once again as I thought I had killed the wrong buck. I almost had a nervous meltdown until I moved to a slightly different angle and saw the other half of his frame-from there and especially when I got my hands on him there was no ground shrinkage!
This buck was more than I had ever hoped for with this tag and he is my biggest buck to date. He had very beautiful velvet for late September and was massive throughout his long tines. I knew what this buck was when I shot him because of the film I was able to review from scouting but having him in my hands I did not realize how the height of this buck minimalized his thickness and I also didn't realize how long the extras were. I was ecstatic and especially so since I was able to share this experience with my Dad.
We caped him out and it took two loads to get him off the hill because of the steepness and we headed back to camp. Everyone at camp was happy to see that I was able to connect on this buck that we had all ogled on film. I was razzed a bit because after all the planning and preparing I was done with my planned 9-day hunt within the first hour but with a buck like this wearing my tag I had no regrets and would pull that trigger on the Book Cliffs 10 out of 10 times. Plus on the flip side I was able to spend another 5 stress-less days on the mountain enjoying my friends hunts with them.
Two days after I was able to connect with this buck my good friend who also had the deer tag was able to share an unforgettable experience with his 6 year old boy and take this nice buck. I was able to see many families hunting together and enjoying all the animals and making great memories-that is what I feel encapsulates the Book Cliffs-a great place to hunt with your family for sure.
The next day after this my other good friend was able to fulfil his longtime dream of putting his LE tag on a quality mature bull. It was really fun to see all of his hard work pay off and experience the excitement of having such a cool animal down. I couldn't believe how much bigger his bull was than a deer-it was a stark contrast from packing out deer to trying to roll that thing over-very large animals indeed.
Here is a pic of his bull coming out once we got him loaded. Lucky for us he collapsed a few feet from a road or else that would have been a really long night of packing in the rain.
To summarize this year on the Book Cliffs, I will just reiterate that it is a special place and one that I will look to further explore in the near future. I am grateful that I could write a small chapter of my hunting experiences there and I had a blast on my hunting adventures in 2016 that will be hard to top in 2017-but of course I will try!