Started With a Vision
At the beginning of 2023 one of the goals at the top of my list was to shoot a 200” mule deer buck. Now I know what you are thinking, everyone has that goal every year! But this year was different, I was willing to sacrifice and work for it like I never have before!
I’ve been hunting mule deer my whole life and while I have shot some very respectable bucks in the past, I had never crested what I deemed to be the “giant mark”. To me, hunting has always been more about the experience, adventure, and the field-to-plate aspect. With that being said, mule deer had a historic rough go in the Winter of 2022/2023, and for the most part my freezer was full due to a family member giving me a large amount of his Shiras Moose meat - so I decided to be picky this year and only shoot a buck that I deemed to be a giant.
At the beginning of the 2023 hunting season I spent nearly 25 days chasing bucks at 10,000 feet in austere high-country terrain. I was lucky enough to draw a 3 season tag in my home state so that gave me the ability to be as picky as I wanted to be. Between scouting, archery season, muzzleloader season, and then to rifle season - I probably passed over 40 different mule deer bucks. While that is awesome in itself, I still didn’t find that giant that I was looking for. For the record, I found some pretty dang cool bucks too, and it wasn’t easy passing on them!
One Last Crack
With my home-state hunt turning into the dreaded “tag soup”, it was time to take off for my second and last mule deer tag of the year which took place near the beginning of November. I didn’t know what to expect of this hunt other than I wanted a big mature buck. I had never hunted this unit before in my life and the weather called for record high temps - not a great combo for trying to dig up a giant buck. One of my favorite quotes states, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, so it was worth the try!
Day 1 and 2 lived up to the expectations I had in my head which was, 1) it would take some time to find the deer, and 2) movement would be slow because of the weather. I did find a very handsome 4 point buck at the very end of Day 1 which tempted me, so much so that I laid down prone and put the crosshairs on his shoulder. I ultimately talked myself out of shooting him after remembering my goal of a giant buck.
Day 3 started out a little better as we were able to glass up a few bucks that were cruising the sagebrush flats in search of hot does. The morning had a much colder bite to it than the prior two mornings which was a very welcomed feeling. That night we decided to visit a part of the unit that we had been to briefly before but were a little turned off by it due to the thick forage which made glassing difficult. This evening had been our slowest one yet, very few deer and not even an elk, which is crazy because we had been seeing 200-300 elk per night.
We decided to take off a half hour before sunset so that we could hunt our way back to the truck. I immediately picked up a string of does working their way through a small clearing. We watched them for 10-15 minutes in hopes that a big buck would trail behind them, but nothing showed. With only a few minutes before dark, and being almost back to the truck, I thought the night was over.
Just as we dropped over the top of the knoll on the final descent back to the truck my brother Erik whispered, “buck, get your gun”. After a quick explanation of where he was (only 80-100 yards away), I looked at him in my scope while free handing my rifle and saw mass and a good frame. It only took me half a second of looking at him to whisper, “shooter”. Just as I had made my decision to put the crosshairs on his shoulder and shoot, he simultaneously started to take off. I squeezed a round off and as the dust settled and our adrenaline subsided, our camera man said, “hit”. My brother expressed that he wasn’t sure if it hit or not but that he thought he had seen the buck get wobbly as he went over the hill. I wasn’t 100% certain either due to me having to make a quick free-handed shot - I was left wondering.
Under usual circumstances I would have known where I hit this buck because we always record our shots, but in the chaos of the moment our cameraman accidentally hit record twice thus turning the camera off - so we had no idea, just guesses. We immediately picked up blood and for 75-100 yards it was just small little droplets. Soon after we started picking up good blood for another 100-150 yards. The last blood we found was a series of decent sized pools, but he had made it to a large sagebrush opening and we didn’t want to push him in case he wasn’t dead. We made the difficult decision to back out making it a very sleepless night.
The next morning before the sun had even crested above the horizon we went to the last blood, took 10 steps, and immediately found the buck. It was a very bitter-sweet moment. Sweet because we found him and I had made a lethal shot, bitter because we didn’t track quite far enough the night before and coyotes found him first. We literally just needed to take a few more steps to look over the lip of the sagebrush bowl and we would have found him there dead. This was the first time I had ever had a predator get to one of my animals before I did.
What made it even more bitter sweet was the fact that I had just shot a true giant. I was floored when I picked up his head and saw inline after inline lining his right side. My 2023 goal had been fulfilled - and while it didn’t unfold exactly how I wanted it to, I was grateful nonetheless. In the moment while feeling sorry for myself my brother Erik gave me great advice. He mentioned that we couldn't change the outcome of this moment so just be happy that we found the buck, salvaged some of the meat, and be grateful that it was such a beautiful buck.
He was right, it doesn’t do any good to wallow in your misery just because something doesn’t go exactly your way. That’s life. While I was devastated to lose some of the meat, and mad that I hadn't made a better shot, there were still many positives in this situation.
We salvaged what meat was left (2 shoulders, neck meat, & 1 back-strap), got some awesome photos, and headed back to the truck with a great appreciation for what the great blessings of that day.
The Harder I work, The Luckier I Get
After I posted the first photo of this buck I had a dozen or so people ask me questions like, “how long have you been watching this buck for?”, and “how many years have you hunted this unit for?”. My answer has been the same to all of them - I didn’t know the buck existed and this was my first time hunting the unit. Was it lucky? Heck yeah it was! But, I attribute this luck to all the work I had invested in the high country earlier on in the year and all the young bucks I had passed throughout the hunting season. In my mind, the universe had rewarded me because of those things.
A special thanks to our friends over at the Double Heart Ranch for having us out!
Watch The Full Hunt Unfold
You can watch the full hunt at the link below.
Aaron's Equipment List:
- Game Changer Bino Harness Bundle
- Pack-Konnect Rifle Cover
- Muley Freak Game Bags
- Schnee's Kestrel Boots
- Black Ovis Granite Peak Pants (get 10% off using code MULEYFREAK10)
- Kryptek Tops
- TriFold Glassing Pad
- Goat Knives Ibex Mini
About the Author
I grew up on a dairy farm in Farr West, Utah milking jersey cows with my grandpa. I’m married to the love of my life and have two amazing kids, one boy (2 years old) and one girl (1 years old). After returning home from a church mission where I served in Iowa and Illinois for two years, I started working at Muley Freak with my brother (2014) and have been there ever since. High country mule deer hunting is my passion.