My 2014 hunting season turned out to be a major milestone in my life. Not in the sense that I bagged a big buck or a record breaking elk, but rather in the sense that I learned a lot about myself. When all is said and done, isn't that why we hunt? To experience or learn something we can't typically find in our daily lives? Yes, we technically hunt for meat, but I think a lot of us would agree that there is much more to it. If all we get out of hunting is meat in the freezer then we're missing out on the bigger picture. Pursuing wild game has so much more to offer than the taste of a back strap.
I'll admit that more often than not, my fall hunting plans have a tendency to fall through because I either didn't plan it out well enough or because I don't have that hunting partner there to push me when I need to be pushed. Sure, I have friends I hunt with from time to time, but for the most part I'm really on my own and oddly enough, that's how it's always been. I didn't grow up in a big hunting family where there was this built in tribal knowledge passed down from generation to generation. I had to do it the hard way and as such, I've spent many years of my life learning as much as I can about the animals I hunt by soaking up what other hunters experience or from general research. To say the least, my hunting career has been mediocre at best and that's perfectly fine by me. When I finally kick the bucket at the end of my life, I'll do so knowing that every bit of knowledge I have about hunting was gained from first hand experience, a lot of research, and more trial and error than I care to admit.
I go into each hunting season with an unofficial goal. Of course I want fill my tags, but more so than that, I want to come out of the woods having learned something. The 2014 season was nothing short of a huge lesson in determination, patience, and flat out joy.
During rifle elk season in Washington State, I happened to run into an older gentleman who, as we glassed a clear-cut together, gladly told me about the many elk he had harvested on the very mountain we were standing on. As the sun went down over the hill, we discussed the current season's efforts and though he may not have intended, he offered me a piece of advice that I'll never forget. We were in the middle of discussing how hunters often give up too early on the hunt or even the season because they think it's a bust and they may as well pack it in. He told me of how many times his friends would drive off the mountain just minutes before he'd shoot an elk from where they had just been standing. I laughed at the thought and when I looked back at him he stared me right in the eye and said, " You never know what is going to happen, so just keep hunting."
I'll never forget those words for as long as I live - "Just keep hunting." They played over and over in my head on the drive home that night and I couldn't help but think of how many years it took this old crusty elk hunter to finally learn this lesson. By no means is "just keep hunting" some ground breaking catchphrase, but if you really think about it, it's exactly the key to success in the field. You never know what will happen in the next minute, what might be hiding behind the next tree, or in the next drainage - the wilderness is a wild place for that exact reason. I had no idea at the time, but this old elk hunter's inadvertent advice was going to help me out big time during the late buck season in November.
A day or so before Late Buck opened up, my region was hit with a nice snow storm. I was excited because it meant I could possibly track my way to success or at least feel confident seeing fresh tracks in my area. The second to last morning of the season, I woke up early with a friend and headed up out to see what I could find. It was cold. I mean cold. The truck thermometer read 19 degrees and to be honest, I wasn't exactly ready for it. The ridge I hunt on gets hammered pretty hard with strong winds so I have no doubt the wind chill dropped the temps to single digits. By 9 AM, I couldn't sit there shivering any longer and decided I needed to walk around to get the blood flowing again. While tossing on my pack, something moved out of the corner of my eye and when I looked up, the buck of my dreams was walking right into my lap. I froze, waited for him to clear the brush, and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. No BANG! No POW! Just a single click was heard coming from my bolt. I immediately thought I must have forgotten to rack a round but as I went to do so, a bullet came flying out into the snow. I looked up to see my buck was still there and attempted another shot. Again it was silent. At this point, the buck of my dreams was now just 30 yards away and staring right at me with what I swear was a smirk on this face. I racked another round, and another, and another, before pulling the mag out, inspecting the rifle, and attempting again. My buck continued to stand there as I fumbled around with my rifle trying to figure out what the heck was going on. After many more unsuccessful attempts, I decided the gig was up. This deer had officially caught me with my pants down so I laid my rifle on my lap and just soaked up the view of this gorgeous buck against the snow covered mountains. After a minute or two, he sauntered off and my heart sank. While I cringed at the thought of such a great buck slipping through my grip, I love that I was forced to enjoy the moment. It's not always about the harvest. It's about slowing down and reveling in the experience of it all. All that said, I still had one more day to get it done.
It was just as cold the following morning and I was rolling solo this time. I'd been hunting alone handful of times, but never harvested an animal without a friend there to help out. I walked back into the same spot I had been the previous morning and hunkered down for the long haul. Bring the cold, the snow, and the wind - I wasn't budging until I was a popsicle. The chances were slim that I'd see my buck again, but I knew I had to try. To my surprise, not 20 minutes after I sat down, I saw movement to my right. It wasn't the same buck as before but this was my last day the season and he was coming right at me.
After the shot, I sat there stunned at what had just transpired. The sun was now casting an incredible sunrise behind me, the wind was whipping hard and cold, my beard had icicles hanging from it. All I could do was smile at the adventure of it all. It was my first successful solo hunt where I'd be coming home with an animal and not a single person on the planet could take that away from me. No one else could lay claim to any part of my hunt and though I wasn't able to share that moment with anyone, no hug or high five in the world would have outdone the feeling I was experiencing.
As I approached my buck, I knew the work had just begun. I didn't care if it took me all day to get him home - this was my adventure and my experience and I'd do whatever it required of me. When I did finally get him to the truck, I sat there in the cab for a minute thinking over the events of the last two days. My inadvertent run-in with an old elk hunter earlier in the month had helped me focus on the task at hand and had it not been for him, I don’t think I would have headed out that morning after such a heartbreak the day previous. As luck would have it, his simple words of advice gave me just enough motivation to wake up early, face the wind and the cold, and walk off that mountain with a prize.
My 2014 Blacktail didn't set any records but it is without a doubt a trophy. It symbolizes my first successful solo hunt, the struggles of self motivation, the disappointment of having a firearm misfire on the buck of my dreams, and a renewed confidence in my abilities. Last but not least, I learned to hang in there to the very end. For as long as I live, I will never forget 2014 and the lessons it provided me. If I pass along anything to those reading this, it's this; continue to push yourself, take faith in your abilities, enjoy each moment in the field, and just keep hunting.
Stay safe out there.