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Keeping the Inner Mountain Man Close

By Matt Martin
CO, Mule deer, elk

The first mule deer buck I ever took was in northwest Colorado. Prior to that point, I was the poster child for hard work hunting - logging enough steps across mountainsides to make any pedometer proud, but ultimately without tag-filling success. I’ll never forget my first mule deer buck and how coming up over a ridgetop to glass at first light I noticed a number of white bottoms and gray bodies feeding away from me in the scrub oak far away on the opposite hillside. I won’t forget either how my stomach did flips when I spotted him, a nice, symmetrical 4x4 about as wide as his ears. I’m still a little embarrassed for how involuntarily I seemed to lose control of my calmer faculties. As I organized myself into a shooting position, prone on the ground, and began ranging to target and dry firing my shot, I seemed all thumbs as my heart pounded and I experienced the emotions of a thousand Christmas morning presents all at once. I made the shot that day, and the rest has since become a very fond memory.

The fond memory has kept me coming back to this corridor of Colorado. This fall, I had the benefit of holding both a drawn deer tag and an over-the-counter tag for antlered elk. I'd never taken an elk before, so I was setting out on another first-time adventure. I was there to hunt the last four days of the third rifle season. Fortunately, the weather had turned cold with snow on the ground helping act as a catalyst for winter herd migrations.

Fast forward to the third night of my hunt and I still hadn’t filled my tags. I recall that evening's phone call home to my spouse and her asking if I was going to be disappointed if I didn’t have success. I explained to her that my success when hunting isn’t just about killing an animal. I went on to relay to her all the soul-filling activities I’d experienced so far that week.

On day one, I set up early on the glass and found a distant timbered ridge where both elk and deer were actively moving about. Later that day, I strategically positioned myself on a well-located hill that afforded me a 270-degree view of the adjoining hillsides. With the western setting sun to my back, the eastern hills were starting to golden at 3 p.m. I suddenly saw a string of elk exiting the aspens and on the move downhill. I identified two shooter bulls and spent a moment determining the better of the two. This was where as a first-time elk hunter I learned to appreciate that elk do not move like deer. I quickly ranged the elk at 500 yards, moving downhill towards me to the bottom of the ravine. By the time I could get off my spotter and move five feet to where I’d placed my shooting sticks and rifle, the elk had managed to descend the hillside. The final shooter elk was vivid in my riflescope for no more than three to four seconds before he disappeared into the bottom of the ravine. My second lesson in elk hunting was to have my shooting tripod and gun set up and ready within arms-reach because migrating elk gather no moss under hoof.

On day two, I found a different hillside to sit on. Midday came, and with a brief warm spell parting its way through the clouds, the deer became active. Being in the middle of the mule deer rut, I was able to watch two different groups of does try hard to deflect and ignore the advances of heavily rutting bucks. I had a brief, relatable joke with myself as I watched both bucks repeatedly rebuffed. The bucks following each doe group were respectable but not shooters on that day.

Day three was a slow morning, but I tucked into a small hillside notch with a weather-spared, small dry ground radius for me to sit upon. (Sometimes it’s the simple things.) With spotting scope to my left, and rifle and sticks set up immediately to my right, I spent most of the day glassing. At that moment, with three days of space between me and my laptop, my short-term memory was now more filled with sage and sunrise than it was with email and PowerPoint slides. I was beginning to feel a connection to my inner mountain man, the one who feels confidence build with navigating the solitude of the outdoors. With that midday quiet, I was grateful to watch the sun move across the sky and to witness the slowly changing shadows to the west across the high plains plateaus. I realized how fortunate I was to be looking upon a vista that other mountain men had seen and hunted, but not necessarily with the comforts of wind-stopping synthetic fabrics or Gore-Tex membranes.

That night, I switched spots. I was sitting still in the snow and had three cows and three spike bulls feed to within 40 yards of my position. I felt the excitement of being close to things wild.
By the evening of day three, I explained to my spouse that I had been successful and that I’d had the time of my life driving a four-wheeler across technical trails full of mud and snow, hiking across beautiful hillsides in my hunting uniform, and stalking and living amongst wild animals in their natural strength.

The next morning was my final day of hunting. Day four came as the others had started, with blue skies, wispy clouds, and crisp, cold air. That morning, I reached a high basin edge at about 7,400 feet just after first light. I set up the scope, and with pink light spilling across the landscape, I found four cows moving from low to high across a sagebrush pasture. Following the cows were a spike bull and a shooter bull. I ranged the elk and quickly set up my shooting tripod and gun and steadied my backpack beneath my right side for added shooting support. In the time it had taken me to set up my shooting position, the elk kept moving uphill and managed to add another 125 yards of distance. (See my prior lesson on elk not moving like deer.)

I reranged, steadied the crosshairs on my bull, and with my Christmas morning heart beating, steadied myself in all the practice shooting I’d done on steel at distances to this same length and beyond. I pulled the trigger and knew I’d made a hit. The bull was wobbly and began to move laterally across the hill towards me. I made another shot, also hitting the mark, and watched as the bull tumbled into scrub oak where he would take his final rest.

I experienced a wave of emotion that is singular to that type of moment - exhilaration in the rush of having cleanly made a significant rifle shot, which I’d trained for, intense anticipation to be near the largest big game animal I’d ever taken, and at the same time, a slightly dizzy feeling at the responsibility for having taken the life of a large and magnificent animal. I’ve experienced this same cocktail of emotion on previous hunts, and I suppose it’s my way of knowing that I still honor and take the experience seriously. It was only 6:45 a.m. My inner mountain man was smiling with my accomplishments, all done before a rooster or laptop's typical crow.

Making my way across the hillside, I spent 20 minutes in awkward traverse, trying to locate my elk. Even with pictures from the opposite hillside, I had to retrace steps, rising and falling with the terrain more times than I’d like to admit. Realizing I was no Indian tracker, I made mental notes about what it would mean to pull the trigger on an animal in thick terrain at last light on a late season evening hunt. Pilgrim status aside, I eventually found my elk. He was a legal bull, and though a far cry from any trophy criteria, he was the most impressive thing I’d experienced in my hunting career to date. I field dressed him alone, tying his legs to trees and using techniques I’d researched online. I did end getting some help with moving him off the mountain, while my inner mountain man politely turned his back.

With a deer tag still in hand and a half-day left to hunt, I found a different hillside to glass for the afternoon. I was content in my morning event, watching the landscape shadows and thinking of my elk when I noticed deer starting to mingle across the canyon. Just as had happened in the prior three days, a group of does were doing their best to put a wanton buck in his place. The buck was a nice 3x4, and as last day hunting fate would have it, he was probably the best buck I’d seen during the hunt.

The deer moved to a range that I was uncomfortable with given the gusty 10 mph crosswind, so I decided to give chase. I wasn’t wearing buckskin, but I felt frontier in my veins as I trailed the deer towards the east. I followed the contour of the land, using it to disguise my approach. The deer were to the east of me, looking directly into the setting sun. My inner mountain man instructed me to stay within the casting shadows as I cut the distance. Finally, I picked out my shooting location, a small rise with a direct sightline to the deer but still contained in the late autumn shadows. I ranged the deer, and as my buck moved towards the doe for one last sniff, I took the shot. The emotional cocktail was repeated, and I had experienced a second “first” on that day - an elk and a mule deer both on the same day.

Later, I took a picture of both antler sets on a bench outside my motel room. I would’ve had plenty to reminisce about with my inner mountain man during the long drive home, even if my last day’s success hadn’t happened. However, my last day experiences reminded me of the lesson I’ve tried to remember time and time again, that there are no guarantees. The adventure lies in the unknown, and every day you put yourself out there is a day where opportunity might provide adversity or providence. That’s why we do it, I suppose. We’re all trying to keep our enterprising inner mountain man close by.

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