By Brian Thompson
I guess I am a little naïve. I know animals can swim. When you grow up in the arid southwest like New Mexico your just not around water much. Sure, we have a few reservoirs, small lakes, rivers, and mountain streams. I fished a lot of them, but when I am out hunting it’s normally small streams, ponds, and cattle tanks that I encounter; or no water at all.
This year, a couple of my hunting buddies and I would apply for a high demand deer unit that none of us have hunted before.As luck would have we drew this hard to draw area our first time. This was all we needed to start our investigation of exactly where and how we would hunt and camp. Little did I know, this would be an adventure of a lifetime.
As I started looking at maps, and having some knowledge of the area mountains and conditions we could run into that time of year, we had a lot of discussions on the roads that turn to grease with rain; the areas that would get us away from other hunters and the hopes of finding big deer. As summer passed, I had studied maps of the unit carefully and discussed with the other guys about a specific area where the roads were closed on the west side of the main county road that runs south to north through the mountains of the hunting unit, which was bordered by a big reservoir on the west side of the unit.
Doug and I live here in New Mexico. Tom, who lives in Minnesota, land of lakes, was on the phone with us when we were discussing our options. Tom said, “why don’t we use one of Doug’s boats to access that area that was off limits to motor vehicles,” and that was where the adventure began.
Now, it was early October. Doug and I were driving back from our annual Wyoming Antelope hunt and as any hunting fanatics were still planning our deer hunt in NM. I had researched the lake a little more and from Google maps and the info on the lake, I found out indeed we could access the shore and learned that on the opposite side of the lake there were cabins for rent, so we secured one for our upcoming five-day hunt at the end of the month.
We would arrive a day and a half early so we could take the pontoon boat out to cruise the far shore to mark a couple of spots where we could beach the boat safely and where we could hike up into the mountains to hunt. Of course, being sportsmen, we had our fishing poles out while we trolled the shore line. Picking a spot, we came to shore to do a little scouting. As we reeled our lines in, I thought I had a snag but as my line rolled in hard and pulling it next to the boat as it hit shore I had caught a nice Northern Pike, which became part of our dinner that night back at the cabin. Smiling with my catch, while standing on shore, I realized I was also seeing deer tracks in the sand. We decided this would be the spot for the first day hunt, even though we went on and selected other spots to access.
That next morning, after coffee and breakfast, we loaded the boat in the dark and bundled up for a cold ride for the two mile ride down and across the lake. Little did we know, we were about to run into a few un-planned hazards. As it turns out, it’s dangerous to cross a lake in the dark with a couple of flash lights. We had never run the boat in the dark, nor did we plan our route out of the marina and through all the buoys. That first morning, we started out, Doug at the wheel with a flashlight and me kneeling at the front of the pontoon with a flashlight. We were off, going slowly, looking intensely for buoys, as we drove through the middle of the marina area, with the early morning fog, in total darkness, trying not to hit any buoys on a very wavy lake. I realized we were crazy. This was intense, but hey, we were on a deer hunt. Once we passed the last buoy, we sped up a lot. We stayed alert, as there were other hazards along out route. We watched the GPS and tried to keep our lights shining on the water in front of us, all while scanning for unknown hazards in the water, and the lighted buoys that marked the channel of the lake, and keeping an eye out for the shore. Tom just sat back while Doug and I navigated the lake to the spot we had marked the day before.
We reached our destination, beached the pontoon, and tied her off to some large boulders that littered the beach. The light would start to open the darkness soon. I agreed to walk the beach south a little and then start my climb into the hills. Doug would go north a little and Tom would cut straight up. We all had radios to keep in contact.
As I started to hunt with first light, I had hiked about a quarter mile up and glassing the hills, I started seeing deer; a few does here and there. I went slowly, so as not to miss a buck that may be with or near them. As I climbed toward the ridge top, I now was about a mile from the lake, hiking the high spot of the big draws that were vertical to the ridge from the lake below. I now could glass across several draws, and two draws over, I saw a buck climbing up parallel to me. I immediately took off down into the first draw and up the other side. He was now directly across a deep draw from me, feeding up hill. I snuck up behind a huge boulder that was chest high and rested my rifle on top, realizing I had seconds for a shot before the buck would disappear in the brush and junipers. I squeezed the trigger and watched as he stumbled backwards and disappeared behind another big boulder. After ten minutes or so with no sign of him, I dropped off the narrow edge to slide down the deep draw and climb up to the other side.With my rifle ready, I crept around the boulder only to find a bubbly blood puddle. That’s when I heard the rocks under his feet behind me. I quickly moved and looked down the other side of the narrow draw. That’s when I realized I made a bad shot. He was dragging his back leg and some of his guts were hanging out. I lifted my rifle for a rushed shot and missed, as he disappeared heading down hill. I sat back to collect my composure, after spooking him and not wanting to do that again.
After a while, I started to track him, with a very faint blood trail. I was worried I would lose him. Half way down toward the lake, I had trouble finding the trail. Pausing, I radioed Doug and told him I had wounded a deer and was tracking him, and would call him back if I needed help. Taking a snack break, I figured his leg was busted so he must be going downhill still. I decided to go down and sure enough, I picked up the blood trail and followed it all the way to the lake. Before I popped out of the trees and onto the shore, that had weeds and bushes as high as my shoulders, I glassed up and down with no sign but I did see where he dragged his leg in the sand and the marks disappeared into the weeds and bushes. I readied my rifle to my shoulder and was slowly looking left and right as I knew he was bedded on one of my sides. I was now about twenty yards from the water, when I looked to my right. I heard a noise and by the time I turned to my left I heard a huge splash and my deer was swimming off. By the time I ran to the water’s edge, he was already out about 30 ft. I started to raise my rifle and try and shoot him, but with only his head out of the water and shooting in the lake or towards the unknown, even though it was a mile across, I thought otherwise. It may be illegal. I stood there bewildered and watched as within a couple of minutes he was now out about 150 yards, swimming away. I didn’t know mule deer could swim, but as I watched he started to struggle and soon he slowed and then rolled on his side. My deer was now dead in the freezing lake, about a good 200 yards from shore.
At first I didn’t know what to do. All I could think is he was going to sink and I would lose him. Several times I considered stripping my clothes off and swimming out to him, testing the water a couple of times with my hands and realizing that was a death wish if I swam out there. The boat was about a third of mile up the shore from where I was. The adrenaline was rushing through me as I realized I had to get to the boat and back out there before he sank. I radioed Doug, yelling, all I could say in my excitement, “my deer; he’s dead in the middle of the lake!” His response was, “what the…?” I said it again, “my deer; he’s dead and in the lake!” I don’t think Doug believed what he was hearing.
“I am going for the boat and need help!”
I started running up the beach to the boat. I did not know that by then, Doug had hiked up on top of the ridge and was already back a ways.
I reached the pontoon, untied the ropes, started the motor, and put it in reverse with a little throttle. It was having a hard time backing off the beach, so I walked to the very back to get some weight off the front, and it slowly started to creep off the sand. Soon, I was running full speed down the lake. As I approached the area parallel to the beach where I was standing when I watched the buck swim away, I started scanning the waters around me. Nothing. I started to panic, thinking the buck had sunk. I saw something that looked like a rock sticking barely out of the water, just like others we had seen along the shore, but I realized none of them would be that far off shore. I pulled up my binos just as a small wave went over what looked like a rock, and an antler came up then and down. It was my deer. I motored over to him and as I turned the motor off and was slowly approaching, steering the boat to slide next to him, I grabbed the fishing net with the long pole and netted his antlers and pulled him to the side of the boat. Admiring my nice chocolate antlered 4×4 buck, I soon had him tied to the side of the boat with his head high out of the water, and with a smile on my face, I was proudly cursing back up the lake with my water buck. I came ashore at the same spot and tied the boat off, but the water soaked deer was too heavy for me to get him on shore. I looked up and here came Doug. With awe, he helped me pull my deer up on the beach. Still excited, I told him all about how my deer ended up in the lake. While waiting on Tom, I field dressed my deer and Doug helped me drag him up on the pontoon. After a while, Tom showed up. Doug drove us back to the marina dock where I hopped off to retrieve the truck to take my deer up to the cabin. There, I deboned him. That evening, I processed him myself into a bunch of freezer bags; steaks, roasts, stew meat, and hamburger, and put him into the freezer we brought with us for just this occasion.
Doug and Tom hunted hard that last four days at different areas around the lake, with me tagging along. We also figured out how to go around all the buoys at the marina in the dark without having to look out for them. On the third day, we were about three miles down the lake when we pulled ashore on a big island for me to take care of nature’s business. I climbed up the shore to go behind a juniper and spooked up a huge buck. I shouted to the other guys, but he was gone before they got out of the boat. The next day, we were cruising to another spot, passing that same island. Glancing toward shore, we saw that buck again with another one.We pulled to shore to go after them, but we never did find them. We decided for the last morning hunt we would go to the island where we saw the big bucks. We arrived in the dark, beaching the boat, Tom decided he would do a big circle while Doug and I would just cut straight across. As Doug and I slowly walked along glassing and talking softly, we walked around a big juniper, and Doug stopped. I looked over his shoulder and the huge buck was standing, staring straight at us at 50 yards. At that very same moment, Doug calmly raised his rifle and fired, as I watched his buck go straight down. We walked up to it with amazement. Realizing he had just harvested a buck of a lifetime, a mature 30-inch wide 4×4. After pictures and field dressing him, we drug him the quarter-mile back to the pontoon. Soon, Tom showed up with no success, but content with all the deer he had seen the past five days. We were off to the marina to load up and go home. Two years later, we would return for another whole new adventure. No deer swam that trip, but never hold a catfish for your buddy! That’s another story with two big deer and lots of fish.