The final seconds of a mule deer hunt in Colorado

LET’S RIDE the horses across the valley and up the mountain until they were too tired to go any further. Then we tied them up, strapped them on and started walking. Our guide, Spencer Strike, led my friend David Herman and I past the tree line, up the rocks and up a barbed slope where we planned to ambush a mule deer.

We had the dollar glass earlier that day from the opposite slope. He was in bed when we started riding, and when we climbed a rock 300 yards from him, he was still down—showing only the tip of an antler. We waited for hours on the cold rocks, covered in sweat, teeth chattering, watching the sun set, but the sphere never moved.

I had just met Herman, but we were becoming fast friends in the way that can only happen on a hard hunt. We were paired up by our hosts at Savage to test the new Impulse rifle, shooting from Shoshone Lodge near Cody, Wyoming. After being tagged the day before, Herman had helped me pack the meat over the dead and rocks until we were safely off the mountain. He had insisted that I take the first shot of our hunt – no coins or straws, no paper scissors. He was that kind of guy. So no matter how beat up and tired I was, I would keep shooting with him until he hit his tag or went home.

Blood, sweat and tears

In the desert, it can sometimes seem like your hard work will pay off, like you’re playing a fair game, but the mountains always have a way of reminding you otherwise. With half an hour left in the day, the dollar rose to its feet. At the same time, a strange figure rolled down the hill from above her at full speed. It was a grizzly bear – it didn’t hunt or chase, it just ran.

Strike selected the bear in his spotting area and muttered the only two misleading words I heard him say the entire trip. I couldn’t agree with him more. We were running on fumes, had broken our backs to hit Herman and lost it all at once. The boy disappeared into the forest and shortly after, the bear turned and ran away in the same direction it had come. We sat there, cold and stiff, looking up at the trees and rocks through the falling snow, knowing our chances of killing this buck were gone.

hunters walk down the ridge
The author and Strike go to the horses after watching a buck along the valley. David Herman

With 20 minutes to go, Strike spotted the buck again. He was standing in the wood 300 meters away from where he had been laid before. The three of us scrambled over the loose rock to get close for a shot. With five minutes of daylight left, we settled under a small pine tree, Strike set his pack down for Herman to put his rifle on, and Herman zoomed in on his scope. “Whenever you’re ready,” Strike said. I covered my ears – but Herman didn’t shoot.

With one step, the dollar ran away again, into the shadows of the pines. The three of us didn’t say a word, but we all understood what this meant: Going down the mountain would be just as difficult as going up. We knew we had to find the horses and get out in the dark. We knew we had to do it all, keeping an eye out for the grizzly. We knew we had to wake up tomorrow and do it again.

But with a minute to go until last light, just as we were getting ready to stand and shoulder our packs, the buck emerged from the tree line and began walking away from us on a trail toward the crest of a rise. Strike saw it first, then I, but Herman was still looking beyond the scope.

“Where is?” Herman asked.

“Look with unaided eyes,” said Strike. “He’s going over that hill.”

Herman took the buck and followed it with his hoops, but all he could see was the deer’s tail and antlers waving on either side.

“You don’t have a shot,” said Strike. “Wait until you see his shoulder.”

With seconds to go, and just before the buck walked over the hill, he turned to take one last look at what had been following him all day.

Moments of Truth

For me, fall is less of a time of year and more of a patchwork of moments—past and present—that I’ve experienced in the woods. You spend so much time waiting, planning, and working for those moments that they almost seem like they’ll never come. But when they do, it’s hard to believe they’re actually happening.

It’s moments like Herman’s perfect shot, or finding the dead mule deer leaning against a log in the dark, on a near-vertical incline—or the second that bucked to give us one more chance.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.

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