Troy, Joe and Big Mike Went Hunting

This is not just another "Me and Joe" went hunting story – THIS is a Troy, Joe and BIG MIKE went huntin' story . . . Wyoming 2005:

Following a four year hiatus, during which he pursued American Wapiti, long-time huntin' pal, Troy Petersen, decided to join Joe and me in applying for our 2005 Wyoming deer licenses; permission to hunt THE RANCH had been obtained, the applications were sent and the wait was on. As expected, we were rewarded with Region B tags for the 2005 season. Though the 2004 season had been the worst conditions (extreme drought) and the deer population was the lowest we'd encountered since we began hunting there in 1989, we opted for another get together, if only for the camaraderie and sharing tales of the past – AND the experience of THE RANCH and the PEOPLE who run it! Our expectations for the actual hunting were none too high. Between January 2004 and Oct. 2004, the total rainfall at THE RANCH headquarters had totaled a mere 1.0"! During the same interval for this year, the count was factored by 8; though only about half of the "normal" precipitation, 8 inches is a LOT more than 1 inch . . . and the prairie showed it! Surely, the hunting couldn't be worse than it was the previous fall.

Prior to my first short-grass prairie mule deer hunt, in 1990, my mule deer hunting had all taken place in either timbered mountain or, foothill & sage brush habitat – while these Western habitat types offer considerable viewing opportunities for the hunter, they also provide more than ample concealment for the prey. At first glance, an initiate to the savana believes the "flat expanse" [of a short-grass prairie] cannot conceal a creature larger than a rabbit: nothing is further from reality.  Prairie critters are masters at utilizing the seemingly scant cover; making the most of their natural camouflage and patience: statue stillness is a virtue! The notion that "nothing can escape my eyes" may soon lead to disappointment prompting one to jump to the [incorrect] conclusion that, "there aren't any deer here"! During our initiation to prairie mule deer hunting, the principal message was clear: use your eyes – then, use them some more! Since that maiden prairie hunt, we have enjoyed the privilege of having access to some prime savanna – and so have our friendly "competitors"; that is, others who have shared our good fortune in having access to THE RANCH. Our advantage: we now have a decade and one-half of experience, while most of our rivals have one year of experience twenty times: we consistently find BIG mule deer bucks, while most simply DREAM of them!

In this stark environment, a pre-rut muley buck (one worth viewing through a scope) will likely be bedded well before legal shooting light, which in Wyoming, is one hour BEFORE  sunrise – in practical terms, this equates to "if you can see it, us can shoot it". Day-time highs during the early October season can be brutally hot – not infrequently, we've faced several days of 80 degree PLUS temperatures! But even during typical 55-75 degree days, sun shine dominates the weather . . . and BIG mule deer bucks live in the shade. Nothing earth shaking there . . .one must just learn what type of shady locations the survivors prefer; THAT equates to locations where they are rarely, if ever bothered – smaller, often overlooked "chicken tracks" or pockets , as opposed to the better looking breaks and major draws, which receive relentless pressure.

Our experience has taught that, during clear weather, decent mule deer bucks are seldom observed during the early mornings – before first light, the BIG BOYS will have already located a bedding site which will provide deep shade throughout the day (they're lazy and don't like to move) AND a good view of the down wind terrain! The successful hunter has only to fit the puzzle pieces together. Finding a BIG buck can become a head-game; however, continuing to knocking on doors, while avoiding the temptation to tag a lesser deer, provides an education and thrills to last a life-time – well, that's my take; Joe and Troy may disagree slightly! In the last ten seasons, while looking for Mr. BIG, I have passed up many 160 plus class deer – often several during a nine day hunt – only to "eat" my tag: for me, this is not a negative experience. Rather, the harsh environment and difficult hunting has instilled in me a sense of humility and recharged my batteries: a few "walk abouts" let the prairie set its tendrils into my boot soles and eventually into my blood: never pass up an opportunity to hunt mule deer on the true short-grass prairie!   (Note: Even when there are "a lot of deer", compared to the deer factory foothills, there aren't all that many deer!)

Regardless of the weekday, the Wyoming deer season (at least where we've hunted) always opens on Oct.1 – this year, the 1st fell on Saturday. Troy and I drove out together from central Iowa and met Joe at RANCH headquarters on the evening of opening day – this would be the earliest we'd ever begun hunting. We paid our trespass fees, did some visiting, and then headed to the "south unit", which is located 45 miles from proverbial NOWHERE! The plan was to camp at the old homestead, as opposed to traveling the 45 miles back to town, a motel and shower every evening, then, every morning, back over the same 45 miles of gravel! And so we spent the next six days sans luxury, "camped" at the original homestead – the cell phones, which Troy and Joe had toted along displayed "NO SERVICE" – it was GREAT! Well, except for the uncomfortable sleeping quarters, the constant WIND and having to cook and clean twice a day . . . but that'll just add to the patina as the memories age!

We were up before daylight on October 2nd, well fed and headed for, as we call it, THE GATE, just as the Eastern skyline revealed a splinter of dawn. We parked the four wheelers at the open gate, concealed behind the knob – a HIGH point which provides a panoramic view to the South & SW, into several sets of draws and from which we have glassed a few decent bucks in years past . . . as the light gathered, I was dumbfounded by the generosity and thrilled by the quality of the Swarovoski EL binocular which Joe had presented to me [as a gift] earlier that morning – they seemed better than my reliable Swarovoski SLC poro prism binocular! The spectacular viewing lacked only one attribute – deer . . . following about ten minutes of glassing, none of us had sighted a single deer. Then, the "new" ELs earned their keep; they made two deer materialize at the head of a feeder draw about a mile and a quarter to our SW – too far for even the Swarovoski 10×40 binos to tell for sure, but I thought I caught a glint of antler . . . so, out came the BIG glass! Joe uncased his Swarovoski spotting scope, mounted it to the tripod and got into my paws just in time to locate and identify the suspects as two BUCKS before they dropped into the next set of headers. One looked high and wide enough to warrant a better view – half an hour into the hunt, a preliminary stalk was on!

As we approached our "drop off" point, it dawned on me that I had promised both Troy and Joe that my alter ego, BIG MIKE would be doing the rifle toting, stalking and shooting this year – HE isn't as fussy about antlers as I am! When we got off the four wheelers again, having halved the distance to the last known location of the two bucks, and before I could get organized, BIG MIKE was saddled up under the daypack and loading the .257 Ackley Improved, which was Smithed by Stan Ware and stocked by Al Nyhus. (Note: I learned long ago – never carry a loaded rifle while stalking mule deer – a loaded rifle contributes to hasty decisions . . . and THAT leads to "ground shrinkage", which, in turn, promotes anguish.) This could be a short hunt . . . both Joe and Troy were thinking that they truly were seeing another facet of their ol' huntin' buddy; I had advised them that BIG MIKE would probably tag  "anything with an inside spread at least ear-tip wide". (Remember Jack O'Connor's rule? Ear-tips equal 22-23")! We hashed out a solid plan for the stalk; one which could place BIG MIKE right on top of the bucks or, should the deer be alerted and take off, would likely provide either Joe or Troy and escape route possibility . . .

As soon as we hit the bottom of the first draw, it became apparent that there were going to be a few deer – we got busted by two sets of does and fawns as we hustled to our respective positions – the critters were hanging pretty close to the bottoms of the deep cuts; out of sight and out of the WIND. The initial stalk was a bust – the two good bucks had eluded us. When BIG MIKE crawled to the crest of the final ridge, all that remained in the feeder draw were a doe with twin fawns and an interesting 3×3 (short tined and narrow, but heavy beamed) – amazingly, the scope caps stayed on and "MIKE" decided to pull back, traverse the hill via the East slope and then slip around the header and mosey down the west rim of the cut . . . just in case a BIG BOY was, "layin' aboutz outta sight".

The plan was executed flawlessly: BIG MIKE was able to approach to within ten yards of the heavy antlered 3×3 – the two bucks observed earlier had vanished. We regrouped and established a new plan – it was evident that the deer were staying tight in the bottoms and that our two bucks had probably gotten into the bottom of the feeder draw and, safely out of sight, traveled down it, to the main cut, then, turned up THAT corridor, headed for the security of the nasty cuts to the SW. Troy and Joe, taking opposite sides of the main draw, would set up on vantage points offering good coverage of the "mid-zone", while BIG MIKE would go all the way to the head of the main draw and bird dog toward the "hub" area, where, in a relatively small area, several cuts offer shaded mid-day seclusion.

An hour later, not ten minutes off the ranch trail, while hugging the rim of the main draw, and peeking over every sharp edged cul-de-sac, BIG MIKE heard the distinct THUMP, THUMP of a pogo-hopping mule deer – headed our way! Instantly, "Mike" went belly down, deployed the Harris bipod, and removed the scope caps! A TALL and WIDE 4×4 bounded into view and stopped dead in the bottom – a mere 80 yards separated the buck from BIG MIKE and the .275's muzzle: the tapered cross hairs of the old Leopold 6X settled into position . . .  but the safety never went off – BIG Mike abandoned the rifle and took up the Swarovoski binos . . . no brow tines, no mass, only a "crab-claw" on the left side . . . "thet damned RG's got us spoilt"! The buck posed, as if for a photo session, and kept an eye on his back track for several minutes, then moseyed up a steep cut and headed for the horizon and the SOUTHWEST PASTURE. BIG Mike had opted to let the 24" plus (inside spread) and long tined buck walk – nice, but not on "opening day" (well, our first day of hunting)! I was elated! Both Joe and Troy had seen the travel mate- a tall 3×3, but not the tall/wide4x4, or someone's tag would have been filled.  During the remainder of the day, we glassed and did some minor "walk-abouts", seeing several more smallish to medium bucks and more does/fawns; nobody filled a tag.

Back at camp, under a perfectly clear sky, while dining on steak and spuds, and between, chastisings, from Joe and Troy, for my being a BAD influence on BIG MIKE ("anybody in their right mind would be happy with a 24" plus 4×4!), we decided to hunt the "Francis Place" on day two; in the past, every single "walk about" on this parcel had provided opportunities at decent bucks. We decided to let Joe do his usual perusal of the East Draw, while Troy and BM would negotiate the two primary headers of the West Draw. It was there, where three years previous, I had shot my first true "gummer" buck – a huge "forked-horn" (3×2) with a 25.5 inch INSIDE spread and 26" long main beams; an over-the-hill buck which had seen better days – a trophy which has become a cherished memory. And, where just last fall, I had called-in three bobcats: one to within handshaking distance, while Joe had tagged a very nice 3×3! Since becoming part of The Ranch, the "Francis Place" had been kind to us.

Though, as we fired up the four wheelers, the wind had become brisk and from an "unfavorable" direction, we opted to stick to our plan to work the coulees "as usual": we have found that once the wind "gets up" enough to annoy us, so it is for the deer! Under strong winds, the bucks will frequently bed tight up against the cut edge of the rougher ravines, comfortably sheltered from the pestering wind and sun . . . but, vulnerable to approach from the "wrong side"  – DIRECTLY DOWN WIND! Though this approach is backwards from most teachings and experience, for us, it has worked well: it appears that scent born by the high wind simply blows right over these lees, while the noise muffles the foot falls of a stealthy approach! On such days, it pays to hunt from the headers down, hugging the coulee edge, where known or suspected sharp drop-offs may provide respite to daydreaming mule deer, and cutting across the prairie aprons to the next header or feeder draw as opposed to walking the entire finger – it doesn't hurt to "know the territory".

The down-side to this method: you probably will not have a lot of time/opportunity to evaluate a rack – often, deer will be "jumped" at distances measured in mere feet! The judicious use of a good binocular may provide advance warning: often, the antler tips of a GOOD buck will be visible above a break! In those instances, a circuitous stalk, which provides a view of the suspect buck, may be in order – more often than not, where there is one buck, there too, are his pals! More often, one slips up to an edge and up jumps a bunch of bucks! Less frequently, they still may not be aware of your presence – that was the case when I tagged the gummer 3×2 three years previous . . .  the "problem" then was that he was scarcely 15 yards removed and all of his head and antlers were obscured by deep sage brush – all except the left ear and corresponding main beam, which was clearly well outside that ear-tip; he had to be BIG! And so, in much less time that it takes to read this, that old buck was venison! He was/is BIG . . .  just not BIG the way I'd have liked! ;)

The problem he presented was that in one jump, he'd be headed down the BOTTOM of the coulee and I'd never have an opportunity to evaluate or shoot!

This exciting method is well suited to BIG MIKE's personality – but, again, "ground shrinkage" is a common outcome! Since we approached from the SE, Troy needed a 10-15 minute head-start so that we could both begin stalking our respective cuts while keeping in occasional visual contact with one another – for the most part, we'd be working to the North, down the two primary headers; we'd meet at the confluence of these two draws and the main East draw. Until then, we'd usually be separated by 200 to four hundred yards of deep breaks and prairie aprons. I hung back, giving Big Mike all sorts of last minute advice . . . still, when he set off, BIG MIKE inserted a hand-loaded 115 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, propelled by a healthy charge of H-4831, chronographed at a respectable 3040 FPS, into the .257's Ackley Improved chamber, locked the bolt, and headed straight to a lip where I'd jumped two semi-respectable bucks last fall . . .  "stuff" was about to happen"!

Amazingly, except for the loaded rifle, BM had paid attention! Following a stealthy approach to the first cul-de-sac, HE peered into the 30 foot deep by 15 foot wide honey-hole, not even a rabbit. But the old beds got his attention – clearly, every ledge had, at one time or another, over who knows haw long a span of time, provided a resting place for Mr. Mule Deer – BIG MIKE was wired! About then, Troy was observed traversing the upper reaches of the NASTY West feeder – better keep the eyes peeled! Once Troy vanished, BM headed for a better vantage point from which to just watch for a while – quickly, that proved too boring, so, it was back to slinking about.

We hot-footed it across an unsavory piece of real-estate – a gumbo dome, with a typical wash board face, which tailed off into the deep ravine, thus, wouldn't provide enough cover for any respectable deer – then slowed back to glassing and watching; the first cut North of the dome had always "looked good", but had yet to produce a respectable mule deer buck – today, it WAS good! As BIG MIKE stepped up to the edge, a pair of bucks bounded up from about 30 feet below and disappeared into the bottom – atypically, they reappeared trotting (always a GOOD sign) UP the cut to the East: the lead buck was a 3×3 and of little interest; the trailer was pretty decent – well, that's what BM was thinking!

By the time the larger buck set foot on the prairie, about forty yards distant and at a quartering angle, the cross-hairs of the old reliable Leupold M8 -6X were properly centered, but the safety remained ON – BM was looking for something  . . . " heez high, eez wide enough: BROW TINES!" The safety flipped off, the buck decided to veer even further East . . .  BM was wondering if I'd approve . . .  "ta hell with that prissy RG"!   BOOM! BIG MIKE was so certain of the 50 yard shot that he didn't even bother to cycle the bolt! At the shot, the buck had veered back to a Northerly course as a stunned BM watched the deer disappear over the rise, a hundred yards distant, and headed for the main East ravine: possibly THE HOLE!

Confident of the shot execution and having seen a fair number of critters take a bullet, BIG MIKE was certain that the buck had displayed a labored gait; HE had expected to see the deer collapse at every stride – right up until the deer went over the top  . . .  "ee'll be layin on the prairie sruz anuff . . ." But, upon reaching the slight divide crest, the prairie remaining between BIG MIKE and THE HOLE revealed bare grass – INCONCEIVABLE!  BM felt sick, he'd watched as the buck dashed across nearly100 yards of prairie, angling N/NE, to the divide – now, there was another two hundred yards of short grass apron separating him from THE HOLE, or, the heads of any number of smaller feeders – now what?!?

BIG MIKE was back at the place where he believed the larger buck was when the shot went off – looking for blood or hair – when Troy arrived: "what'd you get"? Following an explanation, Troy, an experienced bow hunter and excellent tracker, was helping a hapless BIG MIKE scour the sparsely covered upper apron for "sign"; only the tracks were detectable – and those were traceable only to about the point at which the buck had disappeared from BM's view, where the grass, covering the North Slope, became almost lush! There were few bare patches, where a foot print might be detectable; there was NO blood. Hope of recovering the deer appeared unlikely. Each time Troy asked, "are you sure he was hit"? BIG MIKE insisted that the buck was "hurt bad", "I spekted eed drop evary step – I tell ya ee wuz hurt"! Following a frustrating and futile hour search for sign, it was decided that Troy should continue hunting, while I'd help BM attempt to locate the deer. There was no point in both of us giving up valuable hunting time!

I decided to skirt the edges of THE HOLE, find the first safe way to get into the bottom, and check it out all the way back to the 50 foot deep walls at the closed end of the deepest dead-end draw on the Francis Place. A "gut feel" drew me to the probability that the buck had turned toward THE HOLE, as opposed to one of the more accessible, but  lesser feeders. As BIG MIKE and I worked along the break, searching for a safe way down, we saw the 3×3 which had been with the larger buck earlier; he was down toward the mouth of the coulee! This was indeed a GOOD sign – the 3×3 was obviously distressed by our presence, but reluctant to flee; his obvious confusion was interpreted as indicating that Mr. BIG was close by! The area close around the 3×3 was thoroughly glassed – nothing visible, so we headed DOWN the steep but manageable slope to the bottom, where WE started off toward the 3×3's last know location. But THAT wasn't the original plan; I forced BIG MIKE to turn right and head UP the coulee, toward THE HOLE – a little more time wouldn't ruin the day at this point.

Traveling up the bottom was a cinch – initially, it was several yards wide, but quickly narrowed to being a foot and one half wide and two feet deep! Around a couple of crooks and just short of the collapsed arched bridge, there, in the very bottom, lay BIG MIKE's first MULE DEER – and a good one! A closer approach revealed a broken right G2; the buck was a keeper – no ground shrinkage – still, MB was disappointed at the broken antler. We spent quite a while looking for the missing part – to no avail – it could be anywhere! In attempting to find sanctuary, the buck had apparently fallen off the 40-50 foot high ledge! A dejected BIG MIKE finally accepted the fact that the impact force could have, "thrown the missing part, fifteen feet in any direction"!  I decided to unsaddle the backpack, take some pics and begin the job of field-dressing the large bodied deer. Behind the buck, the bottom opened to a nice five to six foot wide and relatively flat space, strewn with artifacts from the old arch; a good place to drop the pack and other gear. Upon removing the camera from the pack and standing up, I saw what appeared to be a piece of antler lying on one of the rocks – UNBELIEVEABLY, it WAS  . . . and it WAS the missing piece! BIG MIKE, it turns out, is a lucky fellow!

The 115 Gr. Nosler Ballistic tip, proved to have been a poor choice for the .257 Ackley Improved – it probably would have worked well and a perfectly broad-side angle or, on a smaller bodied animal, however, it was too fragile for a mature, large bodied mule deer buck. Big Mike had seen the situation regarding the shot clearly; the buck was angled about 7/8ths away, about 20 to 30 feet above, and 50-55 yards distant from our location when the shot broke. The well placed bullet had entered just behind the last rib on the left side (the entrance wound may be visible in one of the pics) destroying the liver, where, for practical purposes, the bullet disintegrated, leaving only the boat-tail base and a few shards of lead core to penetrate the scarcely damaged right-side lung! Not a single piece penetrated far enough to even bruise the inside of the chest-cavity at the neck/shoulder vicinity of the "off-side", where a suitable bullet would have produced a point of the shoulder height exit-hole – AND a BLOOD-TRAIL! Past experience with .257 Ackley Improved rigs had proved BAD MEDICINE for mule deer; but in those days, I had employed the original "HOT CORE" SPEER 120 Gr. SP bullet with spectacular results: the 120 Gr. SPEER SP had dropped EVERY buck in his tracks AND completely penetrated – even on quartering angles – regardless of range. So, via our .257s the Nosler BT has been on its last mule deer adventure!

Tuesday morning, BIG MIKE remained in camp, to cape HIS buck and tend to the much needed reorganization of gear  . . . and dish washing! Day didn't really break, rather, it turned less dark; it would prove a perfect DARK, cloudy day for deer hunting; albeit, punctuated by the 20MPH South wind! Troy had decided to return to the WINDMILL Draw, where we'd seen the decent bucks on the first day. He arrived before light and set up a vigil on the brow of a strategically situated ridge, where he would have a good view of several coulees and headers – an area that had consistently produced deer, including Troy's 1996 MONSTER buck which grossed 190+ points via the B&C scoring method! It was a short vigil!

The arrival of sufficient light set the game afoot: Troy's Zeiss 10×42 binos revealed four mule deer bucks feeding, cross wind, headed generally west and up the gradual East slope of the main divide ridge, which separates the two primary South to North feeders to the WINMILL Draw. This presented a dilemma: the deer would likely feed up over the top and into oblivion – it's nearly impossible to keep pace with feeding deer! But the bachelor band was in no particular rush, so Troy opted to wait it out – perhaps, with the dark sky, they'd decide to bed in one of the east facing headers . . .  the watching and waiting went on for roughly an hour – the bucks moved ever further away; now they were over 5/8ths of a mile distant and about to top out! A sudden and unexpected stampede erupted! A group of cattle, which had been grazing to the SW of the foraging mule deer, were panicked by the sight or scent of something unseen by Troy – they headed straight for the location of the four bucks: GAME BACK ON!

The startled bucks bounded straight toward Troy's location and disappeared into the header of a coulee about 400 yards to his west/south west; the wind remained in his favor. Following an interval of patient and hopeful watching, Troy was rewarded with the reappearance of several of the bachelor bucks – they began feeding around the abrupt face of the coulee, foraging among the deep sage in the creek bottom. Following a bout of apprehensive anticipation, Troy observed the largest buck cross the mouth of a smaller confluence and paused to check out the scenery. Troy had already determined that, should an opportunity afford itself,  he'd tag this particular buck – a nice 4×4 with a 23" inside spread and a base "sticker" point to help offset the crab-claw G-3 point on that side; a very respectable 155+ type buck!

Troy had deployed his Harris bi-pod and was ready when, at a distance of just over 200 yards, the buck again stopped at what appeared to be a nearly perfect broadside angle. Troy allowed a few inches for the 20+ MPH cross wind and launched a 180 Gr. Speer Grand Slam from his Don Feltman smithed .300 Canadian (precursor to the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag.)! Though, as is typical of field conditions, the deer was more quartering than broadside, Troy had used good judgment and perfect execution: the 180 Gr. bullet entered just at the point of the left shoulder and exited through the right shoulder – the deer never twitched – time to punch the tag!

When Troy first showed up with the BIG BOOMER rigs, his first a .300 Weatherby Mag., I must admit that I was skeptical. However, PERFORMANCE has demonstrated that, when equipped with a muzzle brake, there is no such thing a too much gun; recoil is similar to a .243 shooting a 100 gr. bullet. When Troy and I began hunting together, in 1989, and until 1994, he used a .243 Winchester – in my opinion, at the lowest margin for reliably on mature and large bodied mule deer – virtually every deer he shot with the .243 RAN at least 100 yards before deciding that it had become venison.   Even with the best of premium bullets, those bucks would all have been difficult to find in dense cover. The .243 produced not a single exit hole!

The kicker came, when during the 1993 season, Troy had to let a BIG buck walk off – I offered the .270, but Troy declined . . . and we watched a 170+ buck stroll across several hundred yards of prairie, never presenting a "good angle". Rightfully, at 300 yards plus, knowing that the .243 just wasn't "enough gun" for the steep angle, requiring a good deal of penetration, Troy, always a good sportsman, opted to pass. The following summer, when Troy called and asked when would be a good time to do some load development for his new rifle, I was shocked to learn that he'd purchased a .300 Weatherby! When asked why he'd opted to go from the .243 all the way to the .300 magnum class cartridges, Troy's response was, "half way sucks!" I will not disagree. But to this day, I'm surprised that he considered a .30/06, .270 Win. Or, .280 Rem. to be half way!

About 10:00 am, BIG MIKE and I had just completed caping HIS buck, when we heard a four-wheeler putting over the prairie toward camp. As soon as we saw that it was Troy, we knew that he needed help retrieving a carcass; unless his tag is filled, Troy never returns to camp early! We returned to the scene, where Troy recounted the details, and got the field dressing taken care of.  While we drove back to camp, the rain began. About noon, Joe pulled back into camp – the rain had become intolerable. It rained nonstop for the next twelve hours, whereupon, it turned to snow: the following morning, the world was white! We didn't do a lot of carping – the country needed the moisture.

Wednesday proved breezy and cool, with mostly cloudy skies; it proved the most uneventful day of the hunt. We saw a few small bucks (forked-horns and 3x3s), but nothing of interest. Thursday, we decided to hunt the Southwest Pasture; we saw a few antlerless deer, but not a single buck. During a couple of walkabouts, we noted that all of the sign was new; the does and fawns had just recently taken up residence. About noon, we decided to head for the NW pasture – when we pulled onto the county road, Rick (One of THE RANCH folks) came around the bend, stopping in a cloud of dust! He'd just seen a band of bachelor bucks headed for the "Bull Pasture"! Joe climbed aboard with Rick and headed for the Bull Pasture, while Troy and I rode our four-wheelers down to a high knoll in hopes that we could spy on the hunt from about 3/4 of a mile distant. We weren't disappointed!

Rick, intimately familiar with the terrain, pulled into the NE corner of the pasture and hid the rig behind a rise, whereupon he and Joe exited the vehicle and proceeded toward the Bull pasture windmill; they didn't make it quite that far! From our vantage point, we saw both Joe and Rick go belly down and begin glassing to the W/SW; up the creek . . . we could not locate the game, which, by their actions, Joe and Rick had obviously seen! As we watched, Joe belly crawled about twenty to thirty yards SW, as Rick inched over to the windmill – about 50 yards to Joe's left. I could tell that Joe was alternately ranging and glassing, but an intervening ridge prevented Troy and I from seeing the bucks, which were bedded, as we would soon learn, 409 yards from Joe's location! I saw Joe getting his custom .270 WSM ready, fooling with the bi-pod and chambering a round – he was going to shoot!

The rifle bucked, followed by a delayed and distant Booooom! Troy and I observed several bucks bounding across the prairie, headed for the Francis Place and the neighbors!  Joe remained on his belly for several seconds, then, arose and shouldered the 270WSM. Rick gave him a thumbs-up and they headed back to the ranch truck. Troy and I fired up the four-wheelers and raced across the 3/4 mile of prairie, shot through the gate and fell in behind Rick and Joe as they made their way through the creek bottom sage toward the fallen buck. The action wasn't quite over!

As Joe and Rick got out of the truck, I nabbed my camera from the backpack and followed behind Joe, hoping to get some good pics of his buck. As we covered the remaining 100 yards to where Joe thought the deer lay dead; Joe told me that the Leica range finder had indicated 409 yards. Prior to the shot, the buck was lying with his head to Joe's right, so Joe had held off just inside the hip, for the wind, and fired. The deer had jumped to his feet, staggered about fifty yards and fell  . . .

About then, Rick and I began to lag behind, so as not to interfere with a possible second shot . . . with Joe about fifty yards ahead of us and slightly to our right ( North), Rick saw the buck, which was not yet dead, and directed Joe toward it – that's when things got crazy! As Joe neared the buck, the deer jumped up and bounded back toward where he had been bedded, prior to the shot – at the mouth of a small draw. As the deer was just about to round the corner, Joe fired and the buck collapsed: this time, down for good. But things were not all rosy – the last shot had been placed squarely through the pedicle of the right antler, which was shot completely off! The initial shot, from a text book perspective, very well placed , had passed completely through the lower chest cavity and exited just behind the off-side (left) foreleg, but had failed to hit the heart! Although the deer wouldn't have lived much longer, this oddity was a little disappointing. One could not fault the performance of Joe's favored 130 Gr. Swift Scirocco, which had missed the heart by only an inch or so! The pictures of Joe pretty well spell out the range of emotion at the situation. So concluded another GREAT mule deer hunt at THE RANCH: we had tagged three respectable bucks.

Friday dawned clear and relatively calm; we rustled up breakfast, packed most of the gear, boned our deer and packed the meat in the coolers: it was time to shoot some "dogs" – prairie digs, that is! I had spoken with Joe often throughout the spring and summer regarding every aspect of his first season with the .204 Ruger chambering: he'd purchased a Kimber 84 over the winter, with which he had done a good deal of rock chuck hunting. By mid-season, Joe had decided that the .204 was/is, "the real deal" – it shoots a flat as a .220 Swift and proved to have sufficient energy for chucks all the way out to about 400 yards. For Joe, this means reliably anchoring the critters with a single shot; his experiences were unexpected; he'd jumped to the conclusion that the 20 caliber would perform more like a .17 than a .22.  He was pleasantly surprised; especially with the 39/40 Gr. bullet weights! After watching Troy and Joe take turns exterminating dogs out to just short of 400 yards, I was impressed. While the wind stayed reasonable, the dogs were in BIG trouble! About 2:30 PM, we decided to head for town, check into a motel, get cleaned up and head to the PIZZA BARN for Prime Rib – the huntin' was officially over . . . time to begin planning for 2006!

My sole regret: due to time constraints, Troy and I needed to head home, thus I missed the cattle "round-up" (the REAL Ranch folks call it GATHERING) – something I don't plan on missing out on should there be a "next time"!

Keep 'em ON the X! R.G.

Here are the PICS!

RG BMsBIGBuck2ndview.jpg
RGsFirst look BIGMIKE sBuck.jpg
RGwithBIGMIKE sBIGBuck2005.jpg
TheGoodBad UglyO BrienCamp2005.jpg

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