By Mickey Bellman
Crunch. Step. Skitter. Crunch. In the silent Idaho atmosphere, each step made me cringe. The rocks covering the mountainside ranged from crunchy gravel to crunchy boulders. It was nigh impossible to stalk mule deer without making a sound, and the sound carried far across the canyons at the 8500-foot level.
Six days of stalking had not brought me within rifle-range of a buck. The few trophy muleys I saw were all over ¼-mile away. My 7 Mag could reach out that far but the distance exceeded my marksmanship. And so, I stalked the crunchy mountainsides.
The weather was cooperating. Once inside our sleeping bags in the tent, the 20-degree night temperatures didn’t bother us a bit. The pre-dawn transition from warm sleeping bag to frozen boots was stimulating and the mid day temperatures were tolerable. No rain, no snow, high overcast with sunbreaks—good weather for November wilderness.
We had hiked four miles from a back country airstrip to a campsite on Lonesome Creek. We had just a week to find four big mule deer before our air taxi would return. My hunting partners had already connected with two 4-points and a gnarly, old 5-point, but I was still buckless after six days.
I had flicked off one shot at a buck two days before while hiking though a snag patch. Without a good rest, it resulted in a clean miss and now I was down to my last few hours of hunting.
A herd of seven does was teasing me as they meandered along a ridge over 500 yards away. Perhaps there was an amorous buck following them, so I began the long stalk. When I finally crested the ridge, I was disappointed to discover the does had disappeared. Only steep slopes, rocks, snags, ridges and gullies were to be seen. Just as I turned downhill, however, there was movement in a shallow draw.
Two does trotted across the slope while a 4X4 buck trailed behind. He was obviously infatuated with the does. I squatted down to a semi-shooting position while the buck paused to stare at me. When he grew tired of my antics, he started to trot through the snag patch. There was just one clearing ahead and I settled the crosshairs of my 2X7 Redfield on the spot.
My rifle shot was still echoing across the canyon as the buck began tumbling down the slope. Fifty feet later he came to a stop and there was not another twitch. My 175-grain slug had hit him below the left antler. The bullet had smashed the skull so there would be no trophy mount this year. All I needed to do was get the 250-pound buck to camp—2000 feet of vertical and 5,000 feet of horizontal. At least the ground sloped in the right direction.
With the buck in tow, I started down the grassy slope. All was slipping along pretty good until I reached the rocky draw below. I was forced into the narrow chute and the real drag work began. Rocks of every size and shape carpeted the ground, and every rock wanted to hold the buck on the mountain. The footing was treacherous and loose rocks congratulated my shins while I struggled to drag the buck down slope to the trail far below.
And then a stroke of genius occurred. I would fire off a three-shot volley to summon my companions from camp! I aimed at a far-off rock, pulled the trigger three times and then resumed dragging my buck. Help would soon arrive.
Another hour of sweating, grunting and dragging brought me closer to the trail, but my partners had not yet appeared. Ah, they must be close and I fired another volley to alert them.
The next hour also passed with no help, but the trail was in sight down the slope. I fired another round to let them know I had reached the trail just a half mile below camp. So far, there had been only the three of us—me, myself and I—dragging the buck down the mountainside.
At the trail I began peeling the hide from the deer, quartering, bagging and hanging the meat. It was a task my buddies had always supervised and helped with, but this time there was just me, myself and I. Still, no one appeared on the trail.
It was mid-afternoon when I shouldered the horns and set off for camp. I knew I would soon meet my friends coming to help. Instead, I stumbled into a deserted camp; they had packed camp gear out to the airstrip. I hastily scribbled a note of my whereabouts, gulped down some water and headed back to my buck.
A second time I returned to camp, this time with two quarters of meat, but the camp was still deserted. OK, one more time down the trail. My gel-like legs were protesting with every step. My shoulders ached and my hands had cramped up, but I had to get my buck to camp before nightfall.
Done! With that I collapsed on a bench near the campfire. It had been six hours since my crosshairs had centered on the buck far up on the mountain. While I recuperated sitting near the fire, dusk descended on the ridges and my three partners returned from the airstrip. They smiled broadly when they realized I had bagged, tagged and packed the deer to camp. There would be no need for them to climb the mountain and help retrieve my trophy.
Bob finally asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: so what was all that shooting about if you killed the buck with the first shot? They had heard my 3-shot volleys and assumed I was chasing a buck clear back to Boise. When I told them those were my come-help-me signal shots, they roared with laughter. That thought had never occurred to anyone!
Sitting on the bench in the warmth of the campfire, I had to chuckle, too. Me, myself and I had brought my muley buck into camp—just how much more help did I really need?