Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

"Triangle Buck"

Movement in the heavy cover above the saddle caught my eye and the adrenaline rush was instantaneous. Picking apart the undergrowth with my binoculars, my heart rate began to drop just as quickly though when I decided the movement in the shadows appeared to be only a turkey.

Not totally convinced, however, I continued to study the vague form and suddenly what I was watching made a transformation into the legs of a deer. As the animal slowly moved along the rim of the saddle, I could see it was a mule deer and, although its head was not in view, body size convinced me this was the deer that had eluded me several times earlier in the season.

Reaching the point of the small ridge, the deer stopped in deep cover to survey the saddle and the ravines that ran off in several directions. Although I could see the animal's head, no hint of antler was yet visible. I knew I had to wait to be sure, but I was convinced this was the mature buck I had been looking for, not only because of his overall body mass but now I could see the oversized head I had come to recognize.

After a full ten minutes, the deer was again on the move. Finally, there it was a reflection of sunshine from antler. Several more steps and I knew this was the rack I had been seeing in my dreams since the opening day of Arizona's archery deer season. So far, my plan had worked perfectly and I could only hope that this exceptional deer would not escape me as it had done on previous occasions.

Arizona's archery deer season opens in late August and, when we are lucky, in the middle of the southwest's annual monsoon season. Daily showers and thunderstorms result when the warm, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico is forced to rise over the 7000 foot elevations of the escarpment known as the Mogollon Rim. Although temperatures are much warmer than those traditionally associated with deer hunting, conditions otherwise can become ideal. The forest floor is wet and silent, making early morning and late afternoon still hunting a prime option for deer not as easily patterned as whitetail deer of the eastern states.

As dawn broke on opening morning, I was on my stand in a well traveled saddle and spent the first hour or so in that set-up. Not spotting any deer movement (although there were elk within ten yards), I decided to stalk my way through the area, using the rolling terrain to minimize the possibility of being spotted in advance of my approach.

I had not gone far when I crossed an old logging road and sneaked around a small point in the ridge. I was jolted as if struck by lightning when I peered down on the most handsome mule deer buck I had yet seen during any of my deer hunting seasons. The deer was approximately thirty-five yards below me, unaware of my presence, and grazing slowly along a well worn trail.

This was not a record book animal but he certainly had impressive mass and very good height in his 4 x 4 tines. Also, I was immediately impressed by his overall body size and the unusually large head of the deer. All of this registered in a matter of seconds as the confidence that comes with long hours of practice on 3D targets automatically kicked in. The only thought running through my mind was, "How am I going to get this big thing out of here after I kill it?"

Placing a large Ponderosa pine between myself and the deer, I sneaked forward to a range of not more than twenty yards. I dropped to one knee and drew, ready for the shot that would come as I eased myself from in back of the trunk. The deer had traveled several paces by now and was behind a thin wall of undergrowth. I held off on the shot for fear of a deflection and "duck walked" several steps parallel to his route of travel. The buck remained unaware of his immanent demise but he continued to be protected by the small branches of the saplings that stood between us.

Glancing ahead, I picked a shooting lane through which I knew he would cross and swung in that direction. I could see this was not a perfectly clear alley but one through which, with luck, my arrow would converge with the point behind his near shoulder at about twenty-five yards.

As the big buck stepped into the opening, I let out half a breath, laid a steady pin on my mark and released. What happened next created a total surprise for both the deer and me. Faster than I could follow, my arrow ticked a small branch and dipped under the buck's belly, just behind his front leg. Although the deer did not react to the sound of the release, he did jump straight into the air at the sound of the arrow striking a small tree just slightly beyond where he was standing. He hit the ground running and there was no time for a second shot.

I stood momentarily in disbelief. Never had it entered my mind that this deer would walk away from the encounter. Discouraged, I quietly retrieved the arrow and followed along his trail for some distance. When I was unable to relocate the big fella, disappointment set in and I decided to tuck my tail between my legs and call it a morning.

I spent two more days hunting that opening weekend but decided not to go back into the area of my close encounter. Early archery season runs for about four weeks in Arizona and I had the added insurance of having been drawn for a rifle tag in this same area. Although the big buck haunted my every waking thought, I was confident that, with patience, we would meet again. At the time, I had no inkling of just how correct that feeling was to turn out.

On Friday of the following weekend, dawn found me creeping along the edge of a deep ravine near the spot where I had previously seen the buck. I quickly learned that I had not taken enough care in my approach when I heard the crashing flight of a large animal about fifty yards ahead. The deer had been browsing much nearer to my entry point than I had anticipated. Perhaps he had caught my scent or maybe seen my movement. In either case, he was gone but not before I was able to determine for certain it was the same buck from opening day.

Disheartened by my mistake, I realized I had given an already wise old animal one more lesson in how to avoid humans, schooling in which I was certain he had no need. Although I hunted through the area for the balance of the morning hunt, the old guy was not to be spotted again.

It was at this point that my bow hunting season was cut short. In a terrible reminder of that which is really important in life, I received a call indicating my father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. My wife, Arleen, and I rushed to my native Pennsylvania to be by his side. No miracle was to be granted and I would not have another opportunity to nock an arrow for the remainder of the archery season.

As the late October rifle hunt approached, the big buck was again on my mind. In addition to my own tag, Arleen had also been lucky in the draw. I couldn't help but get excited about the possibility of helping her tag this impressive specimen that had bettered me on two previous occasions. I knew an opportunity half as good as my archery approaches would allow us to score and I was confident in the prospects.

Once again, the first hint of new dawn on opening morning found us slipping quietly along the ravine toward the point where I had first encountered the buck. As we approached a saddle just on the near side of that point, a motionless form caught my eye. Standing about seventy-five yards ahead was a deer, a large deer. Its body language told me it was aware of our presence and I can only surmise it had detected our odor. I pointed out the animal to Arleen and we put our binoculars to it, trying to spot antlers.

It is amazing how an opportunity can dissolve in the blink of an eye. Yes, it was the big buck, but we could only determine that as he spun on his heels and headed back into the opposite ravine. He was gone before my favorite hunting partner could even lay crosshairs on his old hide.

Arleen and I are fortunate to own a cabin northeast of Payson, Arizona and just below the Mogollon Rim, an area with bountiful numbers of deer and elk. Because hunting pressure is light in this particular spot, I decided to let the deer rest for the balance of the weekend and try for him later in the week. We hunted throughout the weekend without additional success, but my confidence was high.

I was able to break into my normal routine to return the following Thursday and planned my strategy for the next morning. I had seen this buck on three previous occasions now. I realized that by drawing lines to connect the points where he had been spotted I could create an imaginary triangle with no side longer than one hundred yards. Also, on each occasion he had been located, the time had been between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. So much for not being able to pattern western mule deer!

I decided to change the routine just a bit in hope of better results. Instead of still hunting into the area, I determined to walk in and set up a ground stand about an hour before daylight. The saddle the deer was using to cross from one area to another was the perfect spot and from there I could see the entrance to each of the ravines he used for daily travel.

Long before first light I was on the stand. I cleared the ground in front of a giant juniper and took a comfortable seat. I was fully camouflaged from head to toe (legal in Arizona). I took the precaution of laying out several cottonballs soaked with doe-in-heat lure and sprayed myself liberally with Non-Stink. By the time I could make out the first squirrel feeding along the forest floor, I knew I was ready. But would the big old buck, which I now looked upon with a measure of respect and affection, give me one more opportunity?

I glanced at my watch to find it was 8:15. When I looked up, I spotted the movement in the shadows.

When the deer stopped again, it appeared he was giving the saddle area a last once-over before deciding what he was going to do. His position left his shoulders and neck hidden by branches, but I had clear view for a shot just behind the near front leg. At about seventy-five yards, I was confident that I could hit the mark, but memories of an arrow nipping a tiny branch caused me to ease off the trigger.

As he studied the lay of the land, so did I. I could see that if he continued along the top of the saddle, he might not present any better opportunity than I had before me. I could also see that a turn to his left, taking him slightly higher on the ridge, would eliminate any possibility of a clear shot. Although the saddle area itself was fairly clear, I didn't believe for one moment that this wisened old boy would expose himself to that degree.

Weighing my options in a matter of seconds, I opted for the shot presently available to me. Laying the vertical crosshair just on the edge of the leafy branch blocking his shoulder, I gently squeezed until I felt the report of my .270. The big buck took off flying and showed no sign of injury. Swinging on him as he dashed through the trees, I could begin to feel the sinking sensation of the possibility of having let him escape once more. Fortunately for me, instead of moving higher into the thicket or bounding over the ridge and out of sight, the big buck finally made a mistake. He was headed downhill and was running around the rim of the saddle. I looked ahead, found an opening and steadied myself for his appearance in the scope. When he was there, I squeezed off another round and, before I could take another breath, the deer was gone.

I could hear what I thought were the noises of the big buck running up the far ravine and on to safety as I leaned back against the tree in disbelief. Was this deer living a charmed life or what?

Quickly, I gathered my gear, shouldered my pack and rifle, and headed off to where I had last seen my quarry. When I reached the bank over which he had disappeared, I could see where the freshly made hoof marks had torn the dark forest soil. Another step and I saw hair; a step farther and there were drops of blood. As I hit the top of the little ridge, I looked down the bank and twenty yards beyond lay the magnificent buck.

To say the least, my heart was pounding. I have killed my share of deer, but never had one presented such a unique challenge. I cautiously approached the animal to assure it had expired and then took in the full measure of my trophy. I quickly knew he would be the one to represent all others in a mount on my family room wall.

I managed to drag the big deer to the top of the bank and then proceeded to dress him. There was no doubt this was a large deer and I pondered the struggle I'd have getting him out of the woods (I weigh about 135 lbs. - at the processor, the dressed deer weighed 132 lbs.) While catching my breath, I decided to back track to the point of aim of my first shot to see if there was any indication of what had occurred. Following his tracks, I could find no sign of blood, nor was there any cut hair at the location. Clearly, my first shot had been a miss. Now I fully realized how close I had been to coming out on the losing end of a fourth encounter, too! Finally, when I walked back toward the carcass, I noticed the buck was lying very nearly in the centerpoint of the imaginary triangle.

Now, each time I drive through the area, I look toward the ridge where the "triangle buck" had spent his life and can't help but feel a sense of regret in knowing that my friend and worthy adversary is no longer there.

Then too, Arizona's archery season opens again in late August and twice I've seen this nice buck up a ridge by the old ...

Written by Michael Schenck

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Click-a-Pic ... Details & Bigger Photos

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