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Six weekends, each bracketed by a fifty-hour workweek in a machine shop, a job I was new to in a new career field. Thousands of kilometres driven to my parent’s farm and back, all on the tail end of a very mentally stressing hike on the West Coast Trail. Every muscle in my legs hurt. I had what felt like a permanent dehydration headache compounded by exhaustion.

My usual routine was that I would drive straight from work on Friday to my parent’s farm and hunt until Sunday afternoon. I always wanted to stay for the Sunday evening hunt but I knew it would make me too tired to drive home safely. I was especially motivated this season because I was awarded a draw tag for an antlered mule deer. I intended to fill that tag or die trying. By the time bow season ended and rifle season started, it was starting to feel like it would be the latter.

On the first weekend of rifle season, I walked to a far corner of the property to see if there were mule deer where I had seen so many the previous hunting season. I had avoided the area during archery season, as it’s very open making a stalk or an ambush nearly impossible. If there were deer, they would likely be sunning themselves high on the hill and watching the field.

I elected to take a long way around. This allowed me to stay hidden in the trees. As I broke out of the bush along a narrow game trail, I spotted a small group of mule does up on the side of a hill, where I hoped they would be.

They spotted me immediately from nearly 400 yards out. They didn’t run, and I did not move. It was a silent stalemate, both parties quite interested in the other. Eventually, my mannequin training paid off and they lost interest. I took a few steps closer with my goal being to get behind cover and get comfortable. My theory was that if there are does here, there will eventually be bucks.

The sound of my footsteps in the snow perked their ears, so I slowed. When I crouched, the water bottle in my pocket betrayed me. They got up and ran down the hill, somewhat parallel to my spot into a separate patch of bush. Seemed to me their goal was to get around me and see what they could smell. As soon as they fell out of sight, I laid flat on my back and watched for them. Sure enough, they stuck their heads out of the tree 20 yards away from me and searched around. Eventually, they must have caught a sniff because they made that sound every hunter hates; they blew their noses and ran off.

I stood up and dusted the snow off. I congratulated myself on the small victory; now I knew where they spent their time. Mule deer tend to be predictable so I decided my best bet was to make my way up the hill and hide in a small patch of shrubs up where the view was better.

I slowly worked my way up and had a seat. After a few hours of sitting and watching an empty field, it was starting to get into the afternoon. I decided it would be best to head back to the house to have some lunch and prepare for an evening hunt. I had a good sitting spot in mind for whitetail, another tag I was hoping to fill. As soon as I stood up and turned around, there was a mule doe 15 yards from me, and then, in a flash, it was gone. I quietly cussed, felt a little silly, and started walking home. Before the field behind me disappeared from sight, I turned for one last look. There it was... as if a painting. It was a perfect mule deer scene. A doe delicately trotting across the thin snow on the rolling hills with an amazing buck following close behind with his nose outstretched. His antlers made a tall rectangle; they were thick and had four even points per side. My estimate was they were 250 yards out. I was standing and had an open-sight lever gun; my great-grandfathers model 99 savage. It was not a shot I wanted to take, nor was it one I COULD take. Lesson learned; sit longer.

I arrived home and told my parents about the excitement. I then headed out for a cold and unsuccessful sit for whitetail elsewhere.

The next morning, Sunday, I was back on mule deer hill. By the time afternoon had arrived, I had nothing to show for it and was starting to nod off. I decided I best get a move on and get home, it was still over a mile walk to the house and a three-hour drive home.

On Tuesday I received a most upsetting text from my stepdad. The neighbour had given someone permission to hunt on his property next to ours and the hunter had taken that deer. My stepdad had spotted it in the box of the truck pulling out of the neighbour’s field.

I was back out hunting again the next Saturday. I thought, since nature supposedly abhors a vacuum, maybe those does would bring in other bucks. The previous year I had seen three or four nice deer in that area so it also stands to reason one or two of them might still be there. I got high on the hill and made myself comfortable. This time I was ready and brought a modern bolt-action rifle, a Savage in 300 Winchester magnum with a Vortex scope.

I sat and glassed in classic hunting fashion long enough to doubt my plan. Just when I started to convince myself all the mule deer had run to Saskatchewan, I spotted a doe and a small spiker buck come over a hill. They then looped around to a patch of trees and started grazing. I watched them with my binoculars and noticed there was a large set of antlers sticking out of the trees near them. Upon a closer look, a large buck was watching from just behind some shrubs; I could barely make out his silhouette. He was very comparable to the buck I had seen the week before but he seemed to have less character. His antlers were smooth as if they had been sanded and he had four points on one side and only three on the other.

I ranged him at 350 yards. A distance I am capable of, but those are far beyond perfect conditions, so I watched and waited. While the minutes dragged on, I took a moment to range a few of the nearby hills and patches of brush in case I needed to make a shot without time to range.

After sitting and watching long enough for my backside to go numb in the snow, it started to become obvious the big old boy just wasn’t going to come out. Suddenly, a deer ran out on my left, over a hill, and into the middle of the field below. He stopped and turned broadside. His antlers were nice, but he wasn’t in the same league as the deer I was watching. He stood there for a moment and it gave me time to think. I realized I had my entire life to chase a monster mule, but this was my chance to get my first mule deer on my first antlered draw. If ever there was a gift from above, this was it. A respectable mule deer standing perfectly broadside. I made the decision to shoot. I did my best to steady my elbows on my knees, took careful aim, and drew a deep breath. As I exhaled, I could see he was starting to step so I touched off on the trigger. He went down.

I like to wait 10 or so minutes before approaching an animal to ensure it has bled out. After I checked the time, I noticed I was shaking really hard. I had officially been hit with buck fever.

After about five minutes, I pulled out my range finder and checked the actual distance; it read 160 yards. Immediately, I questioned the integrity of my shot. I pulled off my binocular harness and toque and started toward the deer. Suddenly it put its head up and looked around. I loaded another round into my rifle and shot it in the chest. A rookie mistake. I had never wounded a deer before. I didn’t want to damage the neck meat, but it seems the neck is the appropriate shot placement on a down and wounded deer.

I phoned the house and my stepdad came with the truck. We loaded the deer up after I asked him to take a picture of me with it. We got the deer home, skinned it, and hung it up. To my everlasting shame, my initial shot had hit far back and high. I have no excuse for the poor shot; on a normal day, I can hit a “kill zone” sized target at 500 yards. All I can say is... buck fever.

I am glad to have taken my first mule deer and I am glad it is such a great example of one. But I am quite saddened that things didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. Everyone who has hunted for any length of time talks about how eventually you wound one or lose one outright. I guess it was just my time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. ■

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