The Broken Heart Buck
by Robby Denning
There is a low brushy ridge on the east side of one of the ranches I manage in Southeast Idaho. It’s nothing remarkable, just a ridge. It runs less than a mile separating some hayfields to the east from a sea of aspen and sage to the west. When the September rut starts, it’s a magnet for bull elk that gather cows from the fields below and push them into the ridge’s thick cover. Once in a while I’ve even seen a nice buck there, but nothing too special. That all changed early one August morning.
Out on a sagebrush knob rising from the ridge stood a great buck. He saw me first and like a good running back, bounded over and around the sagebrush before making the cover. Even with my naked eye, I could see he had great height, good mass, and some extra points. He was nearly 30-inches wide. Excited, I made plans to hunt him when archery season opened.
As summer gave way to fall, I found myself hunting the buck almost daily but by late September, I’d put in 20 days without even a glimpse of him. The aspen jungles seemed to have swallowed him up. My archery elk hunters were due in a few days and I hoped to find him before they stirred the place up.
The next morning arrived clear and cold. Walking under a canvas of stars, my thoughts wandered back over the days since our first encounter and I had to remind myself that I really had seen a giant buck. I set up a half-mile from the brushy ridge in the early dawn, and waited for light. Stars disappeared one by one and a cold breeze picked up, stinging my face and hands.
I could now see so I pulled my old seven power binoculars from my fleece jacket and began glassing the emerging landscape. Just before sunrise, a lone buck stood from his bed in the open sage. There was no question it was him. He had 6-inch bases and at least 20-inch G-2’s. I was a little disappointed to see he was missing his right G-4, but on a deer like this, score is not everything. With an enormous body, and pushing 30-inches wide, he was certainly a sight to behold.
He worked his way out of the sagebrush into the cover without a ray of sunshine touching him. The bow lying at my feet now seemed like a child’s toy. In weeks of searching the aspen jungles, I’d managed to see him a measly two times. How would I ever get an arrow in a buck that is rarely out of the cover?
The aspen and sage country the buck called home. Some of those quakie pockets are thick enough to hide a bulldozer.
After spending a few days with my elk hunters, I started after him at dawn the following morning. I studied every deer track I could find, but none seemed to be from a big-bodied buck. I hunted him daily until archery closed without another sighting.
The October rifle hunt opened five days before the elk hunt and I glassed and stalked the cover for those five days, too. He seemed to have evaporated. Once elk season opened, I was busy for a week helping my hunters. Several had deer tags and hunted the brush-choked area but by the time elk season closed, no one had spotted hide-nor-hair of him. I resumed hunting him the next morning but over the next six days, saw only a few bucks.
As the night turned to day on October 28th, I glassed a knob west of the brushy ridge. The leaves had fallen and the ranch took on a gray hue. It reminded me of hunting other Southeast Idaho brush country with my father nearly 30 years ago. Within minutes, I spotted a group of does about 1,000 yards out at the edge of an aspen thicket. A big-bodied deer stood amongst them. I ripped my pack from my shoulder and set up my 30x Swarovski in haste. It was him!
He was in full rut, following each doe until she’d stop and let him check her. The morning sun illuminated his rack in a way I hadn’t seen it before. Again, he was a sight to behold. This was likely the only chance I’d have. I headed into the cover straight for him, ducking under branches as I tried to keep my Weatherby slung over my shoulder.
I emerged slowly from the aspen and spotted the does across a 200-yard sagebrush flat. I dropped to my rear and steadied my rifle. The does were alert, but he wasn’t visible. After a few minutes, they nervously made their way into the aspen. I made a circle to the north and spotted him walking at 250 yards just at the brush’s edge. I hit the ground and brought the rifle up, but he made the cover before I could shoot. A dreadful feeling crept over me. Over the next hour of watching and waiting, it became clear that he’d given me the slip. My heart felt like it was breaking.
I hunted every day until the last evening, when in the fading light of Halloween, I shot a narrow 7×7 buck for the freezer. I called dad for help and sat down by the dead deer to watch the stars come out. I’d put over 40 days in one buck yet managed to see him only three times. I felt crushed to have lost the only opportunity I had, but thanked God for a great season.
Soon I could see the headlights of dad’s truck bouncing up the dirt road below. I stood and shined my flashlight his way. Upon arriving, he was excited about the nice buck lying at my feet, and my spirits lifted a little.
The Halloween buck. Dad’s ATV made for short work on this deer.
It was a long winter hoping and praying the big buck would make it back to the ranch.
Come July, I started scouting but found only elk and average bucks. Then one early August morning, I was walking an old two-track at first light when I spotted some deer on the same sagebrush knob where I’d first seen him. I set up my 500mm Canon lens and hunkered down.
One buck looked very tall with a huge body. I studied his velvet-donned antlers carefully in the spawning light. He was heavy but didn’t have cheaters like the buck from the previous season, nor did he seem as wide. He did, however, have an inline point on his right G-3 exactly like the year before. I snapped a few pictures as he moved away.
Back at home, I enlarged the photos and could see it was indeed him, but he’d regressed some. His former cheaters were now just bumps and his G-4 had only grown several inches off the beam. He was still a great deer; he just didn’t have as much bone as the year before. I was thankful for another chance at him and prepared for the archery hunt.
I hunted the first week without seeing him. Although tired, I faithfully walked the dirt road toward his brushy hideout in the predawn darkness as a cold breeze nipped at my exposed skin. I arrived at my glassing point by first light and sat down. Pulling the collar of my wool shirt close to my neck, I glassed the same knob where I’d seen him the previous October. It wasn’t long before I spotted three bucks feeding a few yards out of the cover. The huge body gave him away. His velvet-tan rack bobbed several feet over his head as he fed along, making the other nice bucks look like youngsters.
I called my wife and she got the kids together by the phone to pray for daddy. They all wanted me to finally close the deal, but I prayed with my eyes open, afraid he’d disappear if I looked away. The bucks soon fed back into the brush without bedding. My only chance was to creep through the cover with the wind in my face like a good Indian would. I might not get a shot, but this buck was so elusive, I took a gamble and went for it.
Once in the cover, I nocked an arrow and slowed way down, moving about 100 yards over the next 30 minutes. I carefully and quietly placed each step as I picked the brush apart with my eyes. The hillside was covered with some kind of volcanic cinder making it hard to be silent. My focus wandered between being quite and trying to see through the tangle. There was no margin for error.
Suddenly, I heard deer get up in front of me. Straining to see through a big serviceberry bush, I spotted two deer sneaking away. I slowly sank to my knees and peered around the bush as they stopped and looked nervously back. He was the lead buck.
I pulled my Martin Phantom. Through my peep, he looked to be quartering away a fair angle, so I put my 60-yard pin high on his last rib and released. He bunched up and leaped 15 feet, then bolted around the knob. A bewildered three point followed suit.
I thought I’d missed, but couldn’t find the arrow after an hour search. Getting down on hands and knees, I crawled along the buck’s escape route looking for any sign of a hit. I was surprised to find that he did not have a large track. He was like the 250-pound guy with a size 7 boot. That explained why I was never able to identify his track the last two years.
One hundred yards later, I found blood. I became excited and worried all at once. Spattered at first, it then picked up to a palm-sized puddle every 50 yards or so. My gut tied itself in a knot as I carefully picked the buck’s tracks from the other deer, cattle, and elk tracks strewn about. It would take 10 minutes to find the next track, then 10 more to confirm it was his. I badly wanted to see him piled up in the sage and end the tension. My knees were getting sore and my light wool gloves hung in tatters.
Seven hours and 400 yards later, I lost all sign in the tall grass of an aspen stand.
I sat on the ground and pulled my sore knees to my chest. My heart felt heavy and broken. I couldn’t comprehend losing this deer after working so hard. With tears in my eyes, I cursed myself for taking a risky shot. I prayed for God’s help.
Walking back to the truck as evening approached, thoughts crashed through my head,
“Maybe he wasn’t quartering away as much as I’d thought and I held too far back?”
“Maybe I just nicked him and he’d be fine to hunt another day?”
These thoughts haunted me for three weeks as I searched for him almost daily. In that time, I’d found the bucks he’d been with, but never saw him. He was such an elusive deer, I held hope he was alive and well.
The last few days of the season I found the fallen giant in a thick aspen patch. The birds and coyotes had done their job, even stripping the velvet from his antlers. It was sad to see him in such a condition. A few feet from his barren ribcage lie the arrow. He died within a few hours of my shot and only made it about 700 yards. In that brushy country, that isn’t much different than 20 miles.
While he’d broken my heart many times, in the end, I’d broken his. I twisted his skull from his bleached spine and started back for the truck. The feeling was one of relief but mixed with regret.
I’ve had a few seasons to think and pray about it and as memories often do, they’ve grown sweeter with time. While it didn’t end the way I’d hoped, I had finally connected with the one buck that captured my heart and mind for so long.
For that, Dear God, I am thankful.
I had finally connected on the buck that held my attention for two long seasons.
I’ll never forget the days and weeks I spent looking for him. In two years I only saw him a few times, but he will be forever etched in my mind.
This story first appeared in Christensen’s Hunting Illustrated, summer 2010.