The combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and mental fatigue forced my body into a deep and uninterrupted sleep. A bear could have unzipped my tent and drug me away from camp and I would have never lost a second of sleep. A few hours after laying my head down, I was awaken by a quick rapping at my tent door. I awoke to find the hints of sunrise peeking through my tent walls. AJ called to me from outside, â€œHey, it’s sun-up. Time to go hunting.â€
My mental clarity slowly returned as I realized that hunting season was now upon me. I pulled on my First Lite camo and unzipped the tent door to find AJ standing outside, ready to hunt. I grabbed my rifle and we slowly moved towards a nearby meadow in a land that neither of us had ever hunted or even laid eyes upon in the daylight. Opportunity seemed to be behind every bush. When we reached the edge of the meadow a doe and fawn jumped up and quickly bounced away. We chose a ridge above the meadow to perch and glass the area. Our spirits were high and we anticipated seeing wildlife soon.
Within the first hour, four doe and a fawn appeared at the far side of the field and began to frolic about. It was quite odd, but entertaining at the same moment. All of the deer seemed to disappear as soon as the sun rose above the mountains and cast its light over the valley. We retreated back to our campsite as the land began to grow with the life of another day. For us, the middle of this day would be about rest and recuperation from our travels the day before. As we walked back towards camp, we could see the outline of the Hogsback down below us in the valley. We could also see the jagged pass which we crossed with only headlamps in the dark, each one of us amazed at the terrain we covered the night before.
After several hours of rest, we returned to the same meadow with the high hopes of spotting a buck or black bear where we had previously seen the doe. To no avail, the valley stayed empty in the evening hours which caused us to question our current tactics. As we walked back to camp in the fading light, I was stumped when I looked up from the trail to see what I first believed to be two dogs standing on a ridge not 30 yards from me. My mind was playing tricks on me, and as I gained focus, I could tell that those dogs were actually two doe who were just standing, unafraid staring at AJ and myself as we passed. This was another milestone in our trip because we quickly learned that the deer were not afraid of us, but rather curious and that they would stand and stare at very short distances for several minutes.
The next milestone came as we walked closer to camp. There was a ravine directly to the East of our encampment where we noticed two doe and a 3 point buck. Unfortunately, this buck was not legal by California standards, where you must take a 4 point or better. This milestone helped us establish a common route used by the deer. They would travel up the ravine and move about the area during all times of the day.
The next couple of days we would spend surveying the area, hunting as we went. We spotted a total of thirty deer in those 3 days, but would never lay eyes on a legal buck. The pressure was beginning to build as we awoke for our last morning of hunting. We followed the same path toward the meadow, but we would not stop there. Instead we would sweep a large circle back towards camp. No more than a Â¼ of a mile from camp we spotted our first deer. It was two doe and a fawn grazing in the very same ravine where we has seen countless others.
We moved slowly as to not spook them. Then we stopped and watched them graze. There was something odd about the fawn. She continuously looked down into the ravine as she watched us. It seemed that AJ and I had the same belief that something else was in the lower part of the ravine.
Something was there and had caught the fawnâ€™s attention. AJ moved up the trail and I watched him as he noticed what I could not see. He looked through the scope of his rifle, lowered it, then raised again, took aim, and fired. In this instance, I could not see the buck fall, but I did see it rise and turn. I saw the large wound from the bullet on his side. I was excited and ever focused as I watched the deer stumble across the stream and up the side of the opposite mountain into the thick foliage. A pair of pines blocked my view so I widened my gaze to see if he traveled in another direction. I heard nothing and saw nothing more. I mentally marked to location where I believed he would have fallen. It was time to claim this buck.
We transcended the ravine and began our climb. Several oddities were quickly noticed. There was no blood trail and there were many, many tracks from other deer. This little setback did not bother either of us because we felt the confident as we climbed up that slope. But, to our disappointment the deer was not there. As a matter of fact, he was not anywhere. We widened our search and spent two hours scrambling over rocks and fallen trees searching for the buck on the side of the mountain. We each followed several sets of tracks, but could not locate the deer. It was as if the mountain opened up and swallowed the buck, teasing us that we should not have what we worked so hard to find.
The feeling of a lost animal is something that every hunter dreads. Despite what many believe, as a hunter your main wish is for a swift and steady shot on the animal. A shot so there is no suffering or pain experienced. Losing an animal is a terrible feeling for many reasons and is something that can haunt a hunter forever. Although I did not take the shot that day, I still felt the sadness which I imagined AJ felt. It was such an odd result to a hunt. All the hard work, the determination, the lessons learned each boiled down to that one shot. In the end, the buck was simply Claimed by the Wilderness.