Book Cliffs Utah Buck
By Nick Muckerman
UT, Mule Deer
The deer was exactly what I was looking for. He was old with a droopy back and a faded out face. He had a nice spread and good, deep forks. He was only 60 yards away, and I thought very hard about what to do. I was sitting in my truck. I looked down and could see the hastily loosened tie and untucked button-down dress shirt I was wearing. I had taken half a day of work off to travel the five hours to my destination in the Book Cliffs of Utah. My muzzleloader sat next to me in my truck in a soft case, and my speed loaders had been filled the evening prior and were within easy reach. In short, I could have been loaded and out of the truck in a few seconds and killed the biggest mule deer I’d had an opportunity at in my 10 years of living in the West.
I admired the deer a few more minutes, and then, against my better judgement, I left. I kept driving to where I was planning to camp, arguing with my thoughts the rest of the drive. By the time I found a place to set up my tent, I felt good about my decision. I could have gotten a nice animal, but I would not have actually hunted to get it. What’s the point of waiting 10 years for a tag to kill out on the way in wearing a dress shirt and necktie?
My time in the Book Cliffs was marked with rain and fog. Fog was not ideal for glassing, and rain and black powder are a bad mix. At certain times of the day, the sun would break through the clouds and highlight the rugged beauty of the place. I hunted at the top of the unit where I had been told the greatest concentrations of deer would be at that time of the year. As I traveled from place to place to glass, I noticed campers with hunters tucked in dry inside, their ATVs and OHVs parked in their camps. Some camps had a spotting scope on a tripod just outside the door, presumably for the times in the day when the rain would break.
As for me, I was out hunting and doing so in a way that I generally do not like but have found to be effective anywhere tags are not over-the-counter and hunting pressure is not heavy. I was moving from place to place on my ATV, looking for places to glass from. With the scattered, torrential rains, I had resigned myself to being soaked for the hunt. Most of the glassing was fairly close, picking apart brush for deer as the fog was in and out. I made a few walks in places where there was no road and dealt with the slip-and-slide that was the wet mud of the steep slopes.
The number of deer, for an Idaho over-the-counter tag hunter, was unbelievable. I saw 150 or more deer a day. As a hunter who takes all season to find a mature 4x4, if I’m fortunate enough to do so, passing multiple mature bucks was something I was not used to. There were several times on marginal bucks that I contemplated shooting, but in the end decided to hold out. I wanted something old and past his prime.
At one point, I spotted a set of antlers head on, shooting up from the sage with an unimaginable spread and mass. My heart began to pound as I eyed the terrain and quickly planned a way to get into range. Then, the giant rack turned and revealed itself to be a bull elk instead of a deer. For the one time of the trip, I was glad I was hunting alone. That would have been embarrassing to have planned a stalk on the wrong species.
One evening, when I could tell the fog was rolling in thick and heavy at the top of the unit, I decided to travel to lower ground, hoping to find an area where the fog was at least thin enough to possibly see my feet. The fog was thin in the lower ground and offered me a plausible chance at finding deer. I drove to the area where I had seen the good buck when driving in, easily the biggest I had seen on the trip, and began to hike around in the undulating fog. It was not long until I saw some does and then a herd of elk with a bull like none I had ever seen. I was enjoying my time when I spotted the shine of a pond in the distance between the layers of fog. Considering that there were puddles big enough for a deer to drink out of every few yards from the past few days of rain, I did not think the water in the pond would be much of a draw to the game. When I put my binoculars up, however, I saw a doe and caught a glimpse of the profile of a big buck against the shine of the water with deep forks with his head down, drinking. Just as the image was becoming clear, the fog rolled in.
I quickly spanned the gap between myself and the deer and made sure the wind was in my favor. Darkness was falling fast as I moved toward the deer. Eventually, when I felt the pond had to be pretty close, I began slowing down. I could only see 20-30 yards in the fog, and, after a few minutes, I felt like I had missed the pond. I figured I had veered just enough to the left or right and had gone by it. Or, had I slowed down too quickly and thought the pond was closer than it was? Was the deer even still there?
I took a few more steps, and the back of a deer materialized just ahead of me, almost within bayonet range. The buck, sensing something, turned to face me, offering a quartering away shot and a view of his rack that solidified my decision to kill him. My gun had somehow found my face, and as soon as the crosshairs settled on the offside shoulder, the shot sent sparks and smoke into the air. When the smoke cleared, the deer had disappeared.
I found him in the sage about 80 yards from where I had shot him. He was an old buck with nice, deep forks and some character. He was exactly what I was after, and I had hunted to get him. At some point in his life, he had broken his nose and it had healed completely twisted and off-center, which I knew would make for an interesting European mount.
I knelt beside the fallen beast and admired him for a while as the grays of dusk turned to black. The land was lonely and desolate, but I had a deep sense of satisfaction with the old deer and the hunt that had taken so long to get the opportunity to do. I silently hoped I would be able to visit the area again in pursuit of game, but I knew the Book Cliffs was not an easy place to draw. The most I could do was keep applying, which I knew I would.