A Delightfuly Miserable Hunt: My 2012 Forked Horn
I’ve mentioned before that I’m an unapologetic meat hunter. I’ve also mentioned that I would someday like to shoot a buck that is legal fermented apple eating age – if not here, I’ve mentioned that somewhere. You’ll have to take my word for it. But, my goal every year is to shoot a deer and the size of the deer is really a secondary concern.
I set out this year like every year before – telling everyone that this was going to be the year I’d break my string of forked horn kills. I sometimes wonder how it is even possible that someone such as myself that has hunted for 16 years could not accidentally run into a larger buck at least once. But, prior to this season, I had only seen a buck larger than a forked horn while simultaneously holding a rifle and an unfilled deer tag twice. That’s two times I had an opportunity to shoot something other than a forked horn – granted, a few of those years I didn’t give myself much of a chance while shooting a forked horn on opening morning, but 16 years is a long time. Two non-forked horns is borderline ridiculous. This year, like every year before it, was going to be different – I just knew it. But, again, I went to the hills knowing that if a forked horn presented a shot, that forked horn was in trouble.
Idaho sets their rifle season up around here so that it begins on the 10th of October and runs for two weeks. This year, as has been the case for the past few years, that meant only two Saturdays. That doesn’t give the weekend warrior with a palate that demands venison a lot of opportunity to be selective. Complicating matters this year, was the fact that I was taking the first of those Saturdays to try and help my wife fill her tag in a limited entry unit. My season was shaping up to be a few evening hunts and one Saturday pressure cooker.
With the sun dipping below the horizon at about 7:00 each night, shooting light was ending about two-and-a-half hours after work was ending. There is a spot about a 30 minute drive from my work that I figured would suffice for my evening hunts, but obviously, these would be rushed hunts with only about two hours of shooting light to work with. I did two of those evening hunts before my one Saturday opportunity, and each one covered three miles in which I climbed two thousand feet of elevation in two hours. Neither one produced so much as a buck sighting, and I wasn’t sure my body could take any more of those rushed hunts in that terrain, so I was content to wait for Saturday.
Saturday was a full 12 hours of foot pounding, complete with lots of deer and elk. But of the 39 deer I saw, only three of them were bucks. Opportunity never presented itself, and I hung my head thinking that this would be the first year I failed to shoot a deer since moving back to Idaho. Saturday’s hunt, according to Google Earth, covered 9 miles in which I climbed 4000 feet and dropped 4200 feet.
But, Lady Luck – that sweet, sweet woman – smiled on me Monday.
It worked out that I would be able to take a day off from work on Tuesday and give my season one last push. I was thankful of the opportunity, and I was confident that I couldn’t possibly hunt two days in that great deer habitat without coming home with a buck.
Lady Luck was being downright flirtatious when she ordered some stormy weather on Tuesday. As I headed towards the mountains the driving rain soon turned to a wintry mix of snow and rain. Finally, as I pulled to a stop in the dark there was about an inch of fresh snow on the ground. It was slightly more than an hour till shooting light, and under the mysterious cover of darkness, I began my ascent up the mountain. At 8:15, I reached my vantage point where I wanted to glass the morning away – but the snow and fog were making it a difficult task. I spotted a herd of elk feeding below me – a small bull among the cows and calves periodically checked on the cows to see if there was any chance one had come in heat. The poor fella was turned down so much I began to pity him.
I was becoming impatient with the weather when suddenly the fog began to break and visibility was noticeably improved. I began to hike out a long ridge, finally achieving a saddle overlooking a gorgeous looking draw. I watched some does feed up the opposite hillside, and then, as I began hiking again, I spotted a dark shape a couple hundred yards to my right. My binoculars identified the buck. I laid my pack on the ground, rested my rifle across the back and waited for the buck to turn broadside. In just a few moments, though, the buck fed under a ridge and out of my sight. I threw my pack on, and began hustling towards the buck, but I had only gone a few steps when I noticed a doe and two fawns pop up in the draw between us. Not wanting to risk spooking them into the buck, I stopped and watched them. Two minutes later the fog rolled in, obscuring the ridge where I’d last seen the buck. The fog would remain for 3 hours.
As I sat waiting on the fog, the snow began to blow sideways as it fell in a relentless, methodical manner. I thought I was dressed for cold weather, but the wind was cutting right through me. I broke out my JetBoil and whipped up a warm drink. As I sipped at the contents and snuggled with the mug I suddenly noticed there was something walking across the hill opposite of me. A buck! A rather nice looking buck at that. He stopped about 125 yards away and stood broadside. I looked through my scope at nothing. Ice and fog on the scope prevented me from seeing anything. I frantically began rubbing the scope down with my shirt – didn’t work. Rubbed it with my neck warmer – didn’t work. Rubbed it with my jacket – didn’t work. In a panic, I ripped my soaking wet gloves off and rubbed it with my bare finger – nothing. The buck, after standing still for what seemed an eternity, finally wandered on and left me wondering if he’d been part of a dream. I was heartbroken. And still very cold.
Eventually I realized I had to keep moving if I wanted to keep from freezing. I tried following the buck’s tracks, but the wind and steady snowfall had wiped them out. I wandered. Facing into the wind and the snow pelting my face, I felt like laughing into the fog as I pictured what non-hunters would think of my effort. They certainly would not understand. Snow began to form into ice on my hat. My fingers began to burn – then I worried when they no longer felt anything. I circled and finally headed further down the ridge I’d been been on when I first saw the phantom buck. The wind on the ridge top was horrifying. I cocked my head to the side to offer some protection from the blistering side wind that was trying to rip my enthusiasm from my insides. Its icy fingers clawed at every part of me – I was constantly on the brink of quitting and heading for the suburban. The snow that had been one inch deep just three hours earlier was now 8-10 inches deep on the level, with bare patches on the ridges where the wind had removed it and deposited it in drifts that were knee deep. The snow and fog were such that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see through my scope even if I did run into a deer, but I stayed on the ridge for one reason: I knew this storm couldn’t possibly last all day, and I wanted to be on the ridge when the weather cleared, because I was certain the deer would be waiting.
Finally, the fog began to lift. The snow continued to fall steady, but the lifting of the fog was a boost to my confidence. I lifted my rifle to test the visibility – I could see about 150 yards, I guessed. Satisfied, I continued down the ridge and started to work through some brush that had lost all its leaves. Deer tracks appeared – any tracks would be very fresh because the snow and wind was making short work at covering them. Suddenly, I looked up to find a forked horn staring at me from just 40 yards. I lifted my rifle and noticed the flash of a grey body as a second deer bolted away. Directly in front of me was a large bush, so I stepped to my left to gain a shooting lane as the forked horn began to run. Instinctively, I squeezed off the shot. The forked horn dropped!
Normally, I’m a pretty reserved guy – especially when hunting by myself – but I was overcome with excitement from the conditions of this hunt. The weather was unlike any I’d ever experienced before on a hunt. I’d been on hunts that were colder, hunts with more snow, hunts that were foggier – never had a combination of all those elements, by myself, at the end of a long hike come together to offer such a climatic experience. The feeling I had at that moment I could never possibly describe. At that moment I had the answer to the silent question that had dogged me all morning: “What am I doing out here on a day like this?”
This is what I’m doing. This. Right here. This is what I came up here for: A hunt more rewarding than any other.