Doubling up on California blacktail bucks
I started 2016 as a lucky man. In May, I was fortunate enough to marry my best friend, Katie, and, a short time later, we were blessed to find out we are expecting our first child. Regardless of how this hunting season went, I figured that I was already the luckiest guy in the world and that was before knowing that this was going to be one of my best hunting seasons yet!
As hunting season soon approached here in California, draw results were posted and it was another year of disappointment. I drew two general season tags again in my local A-Zone and D-Zone.
California A-Zone hunt
My local A-Zone season was up first and my friends and I started hitting the hills to scout and set up trail cameras, trying to keep track of as many deer as we could knowing we only had a little time before these velvet blacktail bucks would start to harden up. Once that happens, they move into the thickest, nastiest country central California has to offer. It’s crazy where these deer live and how far from water they will travel.
We already knew that the drought in California had hit deer hard, but we also discovered that the mountain lion population has been steadily increasing over the years on the ranches we hunt. It seemed like every water source we had a trail camera on held pictures of a lion or two. Not exactly what you want to find on your camera that also has photos of your target buck. Luckily, we were able to locate several good bucks, including a buck that gave me the slip the previous year, which soon became my target buck.
As archery season opened, I hit the hills every chance I could, battling 100+ degree temperatures but without any sign of the bucks we were after. In what seemed like a short three weeks of giving it everything I had, I ended up empty-handed with a bow.
After a week break, I was back at it with a rifle for general season. Following an eventful opening weekend where my good friend, Gage, was able to connect on a buck we had been watching all summer (and he had been chasing for a couple years), I had high hopes that I would be able to find my target buck, too.
I found myself up on the hill glassing and covering country, trying to turn up my buck, every chance I could. With more 100+ degree temperatures and little sign of deer, it was tough to stay motivated, but I knew I had to stay with it. I’m a believer in putting in as much time and hard work as you can. Eventually, you will create your own luck.
Finally, two weeks into the season, I was able to lay eyes on my target buck. He appeared one afternoon in a canyon that I hadn’t previously seen him in nor thought he would ever be in. In fact, he appeared quite a ways away from where I’d seen him (even on trail camera). After a quick set up behind my gun and an easy 200 yard shot, the hunt for my buck was over! I had put a lot of time and effort into this buck and to have it all come together was a feeling of accomplishment. To make it all the better, my dad was right there with me to see it all come together. It was great to have him there to celebrate and create more amazing memories together.
My A-Zone hunt was complete!
California D-Zone hunt
Next up: my D-Zone tag. Lucky for me, it was only a short two and a half hour drive from the house and I’m in some of the most beautiful country California has to offer. My D-Zone tag had me chasing hybrid blacktails on the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This year, for archery season, my buddy, Brett, and I planned a five day pack trip into an area we had found on Google Earth that we had been staring at all summer long. While we had never been to that area, it looked like amazing country that might hold a true high country buck. We mapped out our five day trip to cover as much country as we could and picked out our plan B spot. After tracing our maps and looking at my GPS, I realized this was going to be a tough hunt with an almost 3,000’ elevation change and 11-mile trek in to just above 10,000’.
“What are we doing?” I thought.
We hit the trail head late in the afternoon on Wednesday with our bows in hand after I went with my wife to her ultrasound appointment that morning, which was one of the best things I have ever experienced. Seeing the little one for the first time with my wife brought a feeling over me like no other—I can’t compare anything to it! A couple of miles in, I remember turning to Brett, gasping for air and saying, “Dude, how can I even focus on hunting after seeing baby Stone? I’m too excited.”
Being a father already, he laughed and said, “It’s going to only get worse when it arrives and it’s going to kill you leaving him or her at home when you’re on hunting trips.”
After a grueling eight miles into the first basin we wanted to reach that night, we set up camp with our headlamps and gathered our plans for the morning hunt over some Mountain House dinners.
The next morning was spent covering country and getting the lay of the land. We soon realized that Google Earth had deceived us once again. We needed to move camp to be a little closer to our targeted hunting area, which we did. We camped at the bottom of a big snaking drainage and spent the next couple of days taking our time picking it apart, glassing and covering country, trying to get a pattern on the deer that were in there, which was fewer than we had hoped.
It was some beautiful looking country with big willow patches and rocky meadows with some thick pine draws where the deer were bedding. It was definitely “bucky” looking country, but, by the third morning, the only bucks we could find were a small 3 point and small fork; the deer just weren’t there.
Saturday rolled around and after three days of not seeing what we had hoped, Brett looked at me and said, “Let’s try somewhere new. I’m tired of seeing the same ol’ deer.”
After some persuasion, I said, “Let’s do it.”
We packed camp up and headed even higher and farther to our plan B spot. We finally reached our destination around noon after hiking during the heat of the day. I quickly realized that I was starting to feel the pain of three days of the ups and downs of high country living. Again, here I was, a week later feeling down and out, trying to keep myself motivated and dedicated to the hunt, knowing I would have to remember my motto: Put in as much time and hard work as you can, and you will create your own luck.
Once we set up camp again, we started to check out the new area. We discovered some better sign close to camp, which made both of us feel better and hopeful that we’d made the right decision.
We decided to split up for the afternoon hunt. I decided to head up the trail and break off on a bench that wrapped back around toward the main trail as it looked promising on a map. Once I reached the bench, I slowly worked my way across it, glassing and trying to position myself high enough to be able to see a lot below me and out in front me. I soon came to a little draw with a small creek running through it. I started to scale up the other side and as I reached the top, I glassed out the bench. Below me, something caught my eye.
I realized it was a glare of an antler shining in the afternoon sun and a flicker of an ear of a bedded buck. My heart started to race as I could make out that it was a good buck, but could only see the front fork of his left side because of the way the sun was hitting him. I quickly ranged the small group of spruces to the right of him: 47 yards! I was in shooting distance. My heart raced and the distinct feeling of buck fever crept in. I tried to calm myself down. I nocked an arrow and got my sight dialed in (I shoot a single pin adjustable) and started to run through my shooting sequence, telling myself, “You shoot all year long for moments like this. This is easy.”
With the buck falling in and out of sleep in his bed, I stood there hidden in the shade in a good spot and decided to wait for the buck to stand up for the shot. After about 15 to 20 minutes, the sun was starting to fall and, in turn, began to reveal his upper body and whole left side. I slowly raised my binos, as I was half in the sun now and trying not to give myself away. I could see that the way he was bedded actually presented me with a good bedded shot. Since he was only 47 yards away, (shoot-to-yardage was 45 yards) I knew I could sneak an arrow in right behind the front shoulder at that distance. I drew my bow back slowly, settled my pin, and took a good slow squeeze of my release; the arrow sailed perfect…..Thwack!
The buck jumped out of his bed and ran straight to the bottom of the draw below me and stopped. I could definitely see him now. He was a big buck! As I quickly nocked another arrow, he slowly walked off behind a group of small spruce trees between us and I lost sight of him.
Emotions running high, I told myself to calm down, stay put and give him an hour or so before looking for blood at his bed. Not even a minute later I glanced back to his bed where I had shot him and out of nowhere there’s another buck standing there — exactly in my buck’s bed! I couldn’t believe it. So there I was, heart about beating out my chest, just shot a great buck and now I’m within 40 yards of another great buck, which was a giant typical 4x4. I was definitely freaking out! He must have been bedded just below my buck where I couldn’t see.
Without any idea that I was there, the buck kept looking around, trying to figure out what had happened. I noticed that he kept looking down the hill in the direction that my buck had ran and was pegged on something. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the buck finally had enough at whatever he was looking at and ran off, disappearing to my right.
I slowly crept down the hill toward the buck’s bed, trying to look down toward where the 4x4 was looking, hoping that he had been staring at my now expired buck. As I cleared the group of spruce trees and peered down the draw, I could see the distinct reddish summer coat of a deer laying there. It was clearly the big frame of my buck. He was down! I screamed at the top my lungs knowing I had just accomplished one my life goals!
As I walked down toward the buck he kept getting bigger and bigger and my emotions kept getting bigger and bigger. He was a big 3x3 with an inline cheater on his right side! As I laid my hands on him I felt a sense of accomplishment like no other.
I had just arrowed a true high country velvet buck above 10,000’ in California — something that I had dreamed about for so long had finally came true with a beautiful buck in beautiful country.
After some celebration alone and fully appreciating the moment, daylight began to fade. I began to break the buck down, realizing that I still had to hike 1.5 miles back to camp and knowing that I had left my bag of extra batteries in my tent. I was in for a long dark walk back to camp. After I boned and caped the buck out, I loaded the whole deer in my KUIU Icon Pro 3200 and headed for camp. I came into camp around 10 p.m. where Brett was nervously waiting for my return. Once his headlamp hit me and he could make out what I had on my back, the cheers and celebration started all over again! We reminisced about the hunt, re-living what had just happened over and over again. We put tape on buck at a little over 28” wide — my biggest buck to date. You can say I had a sleepless night!
The next morning, we loaded our packs and headed for the truck. We divided the buck up between the two of us, which made it more manageable. I can’t thank Brett enough for the help. He took the heaviest bag as we made our 11-mile trek back toward the truck. The downhill was a love/hate relationship because downhill for 11 miles with packs loaded down begins to wreck your knees. Again, thanks Brett!
On the way home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I have to be thankful for this year. I married my beautiful wife, was expecting our beautiful baby, was able to fill both California tags on two great bucks and for the family and friends I was lucky enough to share it with. I truly am a lucky man!