Sometimes we can learn a lot from the quarry we chase. The following story is about the lessons I learned while chasing an old mountain muley.
There are no words for some hunts. This was such a day. The weather and terrain were both unforgiving and harsh. The big muley I would be blessed with was as tough and smart as they come. Tracking him through the snow, the thick cover, and the vertical terrain, he added to our knowledge of how an old mountain muley moves and thinks. Class was in session and this mountain warrior was the instructor, and we are all the wiser for it.
It all began auspiciously. Spending hours glassing the high ridges around us looking for movement. It was one of those perfect mornings you dream of as a deer hunter. The socked in low visibility conditions of the winter storm that worked through the high country blanketing the ground with half a foot of snow the day before had given way to crystal clear conditions. The bright sun and bitterly cold air temperatures combined for impeccable glassing conditions.
Animals were moving, their limited activity the day before during the brutal storm was made up for this day.
My hunting partners on this day were the usual suspects – my two sons and a family friend. All young hunters that had spent countless hours, days, and miles glassing, learning, listening and growing their own skill sets as hunters. Having them along, being a part of this hunt made the inevitable end result exponentially more fulfilling.
Class Was In Session
When we first spotted the old, wise mountain warrior that would consume our day, he was aggressively chasing a doe. His maturity was quickly evident, his body dwarfed the doe that had his undivided attention, from the side profile his well-established Roman nose was evident. He defiantly fit the description of a “mountain muley.”
I have to admit, initially, I thought this would be an easier stalk. My thought process based on years of experience was that a buck in rut, a buck on the trail of a hot doe has a tendency to let down some of the natural instincts that make them superior beings in the high country. I had thought wrong.
It didn’t take me long to realize my initial gross miscalculation. To get to the ridge we spotted him on, there was a patch of wide-open country. We were immediately spotted by the buck as we walked through the open. Understanding who we were and that we were not friendly, he quickly left his doe, resuming the natural instincts responsible for the number of years he had avoided and escaped hunters.
Had there not been fresh snow, admittedly so, this would have been the end of our pursuit. It would be several hours until we would see him again, he was a maestro of cover, the only saving grace we had were the fresh tracks that betrayed his exceptional travel passage.
The Chase Was On
His trail would take us vertically, from ridge to ridge, always using the cover of the thick timber, never exposing himself for a shot. Our pursuit would be slow and deliberate, pausing repetitively to glass ahead of us.
Walking through thick snow with heavy packs, pursuing a ghost who never shows himself, takes a resilient mental endurance. As the miles pass under your feet and each ascends to a different ridge consumes valuable energy resources, a battle ensues within your own mind. The motivation to push on has its moments of succumbing to the doubt that nags at your mind as you negotiate each new obstacle and challenge without visual proof of the prey you’re pursuing.
“This is his house, you’re an outsider in his back yard, and he is a master of concealment and cover. He has superior endurance. He can travel further and far quicker than you.”
A Race Against The Clock
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments in which we brushed the threshold of admitting defeat. Each time we would top a ridge, only to find the tracks moving down a challenging cut into a bottom we knew we’d have to climb out of to scale the adjoining ridge – our confidence levels would be abruptly shaken.
With each mile traveled, valuable hours of daylight were expended. The sun would be setting soon, it would be a tough pack out in the dark – even if we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him. Hope was indeed a fleeting thought at different stages of the quest.
The mental battle was admittedly ongoing the entire journey, but hard-headed stubborn pride wouldn’t allow us to stop. We decided the only thing that would keep us from the pursuit was shooting light, we were determined to finish the game – our resolve was solid.
Chasing a Ghost?
Although a massive specimen of a muley, I couldn’t help but appreciate and admire his movement patterns. The thick cover he was gracefully moving through gave me a new level of respect for these royal mountain muleys. He would squeeze through minimal passages of some of the thickest cover. I found myself wondering how he was able to negotiate the terrain with little disturbance, he was gliding, his athletic ability was
The sun was beginning to set, and we knew we were nearing the end of our opportunity to locate him. We had dipped into a large cut, looking to the next ridge, the largest yet, to our front. I looked at my eager partners and let them know this was the end of the line. If he wasn’t in here, we’d have to pull out and hope to find him another day.
Midway up the last ridge, I heard a noise that caused my heart to stop and massive amounts of adrenaline to shoot through my body. Looking through the thick cover to my front, I started to make out the features that were of the buck we were pursuing. First, I saw his eyes, ears, finally his outline and the antlers atop his head. This muley was like a specter in the darkening shadows.
Face To Face With The Buck
My breath stopped as I stared at him, eye-to-eye, not 10 yards apart. When this old boy and I locked eyes, there was a moment that I understood who he was, and why this stalk was so tough. He was an impressive, awesome adversary. He would forever be a part of me, from that day forward.
I raised my rifle, but the effort was futile. The cover was just too thick for me to get a shot. We stood there, together, for what seemed an eternity. Eyes locked. Finally, his internal alarm alerted him to the danger I presented, and he bolted.
He headed to the top of the ridge, using the cover in a way that made a shot impossible even if he hesitated or stopped. Barry Sanders would have admired the grace in which he maneuvered.
Dread started to enter my mind as I watched glimpses of muley flesh make its ascent. All this time, all these miles, the roller coaster journey of emotion was about to culminate with a fleeting glimpse of the white rump patch disappearing over the ridge. My mind was racing.
That is when this old man made his one and only mistake – one that would prove fatal. When he topped out on the ridge, for whatever reason, he paused momentarily.
I had one shot, his massive swollen neck was 100 percent exposed. I took in a breath and slowly started to exhale as I squeezed the trigger. The 165-grain bullet from my trusty .300 WSM Browning X-Bolt hit his exposed neck, and the wise old muley dropped in his tracks.
The Hunt Ends And The Work Begins
It was an indescribable moment. It’s never lost upon me when I squeeze a trigger ending the life of an animal. The feeling was exponentially greater on this day, knowing the stature of the animal I had just harvested. The youngsters in my party that day began to hoot and holler, as they should have, this buck was equally theirs as he was mine. It was a bittersweet moment I’ll remember for the rest of my days. Knowing all-too-well the life I ended mixed with the euphoria of a successful stalk and harvest.
After pausing to take inventory of the miles, the hours, the emotions, the moments of doubt, the mental struggle, and physical challenges I knew unequivocally it would be one of the most cherished moments of my hunting career. When you live in the Rocky Mountains and you find the only things higher than you are the sky, the sun, the stars, angels, and God. It had been an amazing day. It was a special time with three of my
Pictures were taken, high fives and hugs around, the animal field dressed, and hunting tag filled out, it was time for the long haul back to the truck.
There was nothing easy about bringing him out in the dark – only in our return with our trophy did we completely understand the challenges of the terrain we had negotiated to stand toe-to-toe with our proverbial trophy.
Reflecting On The Hunt
When you go through an event such as this, you find your mind racing with thoughts when given the chance to think and take the event in. We had plenty of time for our thoughts on this night.
I found that the pride I had in harvesting this awesome animal was topped by the pride I had in the youngsters in this hunting party. We’re not very good at doing things the easy way. We have a tendency to find ourselves in some pretty tough country, some unforgiving weather in heavily populated grizzly country with fading daylight.
Yet, the mental and physical toughness each of them demonstrates without fail always has my buttons bursting with pride. They are tough, dependable, and they have an unwavering mental and physical toughness way beyond their years and experience. I could not have done it without them. It is my hope that each of them knows how gifted they are at this sport.
Values Found In Hunting
I also couldn’t help but think about the skill sets and schema this sport will give them as they make their way through their own lives. How rudimentary many challenges they encounter will feel as they negotiate their own lives because of the experiences they had this day, the countless others they have in the high country.
In a world of Xbox, iPhones, and Social Media. A culture of instant gratification and easiness to quit anything and everything when the going gets tough. Hunting is one tool I’ve been blessed with to help teach them old school conservative mentalities. I’ll forever be indebted to the sport for days like this, and the lifelong impact they will have on my children.
The headgear of the old muley we harvested wasn’t massive. Bad genetics or a decline due to age had taken its toll. He certainly wasn’t the biggest we’ve harvested. But that didn’t matter. Of all the trophies I’ve been blessed with in my hunting career – this was one was the most special. Special because of the age, experience, and challenge of such a wary old mountain traveler. Mostly because of who I was surrounded by during the experience. Special because of the impact the day would forever have on each of them, and me.
But, to me, hunting is never measured in trophies or antler length. Instead, the experiences and the stories, the obstacles and the challenges, and most importantly the people you collectively experience it all with.