It's been seven long years for me. Seven years of hunting hard for Southern California mule deer and I finally put my tag on one. My legs have walked many miles and my friends and I have driven many miles in search of Southern California mule deer. Plenty of scouting, scouring maps, and making phones calls to find the right spots holding deer. I am proud to say it has been an adventure-filled journey.
Before I go into the story of my hunt, I must say thank you to my buddy Steve. We haven't seen each other in a few years, but Steve was the only guy willing to help a new-to-California bowhunter seven years ago. He helped show me the ropes, review licenses and tags, and took me out hunting out here. I learned a great deal from him and I owe him a great deal. Thank you for helping me out, Steve. I greatly appreciate it!
Now for the story! Solo hunting is something I have learned to appreciate. While hunting with someone is ideal, as I love to share the experience, solo hunting offers solitude and a self-reliance that cannot be matched. My hunt on Sunday was a solo effort and a cold one at that! When I arrived at the trailhead, the temps were around 30 degrees prior to factoring in the wind chill. I figure that the temps were ranging from 19-30 degrees all morning. It was so cold that as I was I hiking in, my water bladder had ice crystals coming out and then the ends froze. I wasn't able to get any water out until I warmed up the end. Crazy!
A few weeks ago, Brett and I were in this spot and we had set up on opposite sides of a valley in hopes of glassing up a deer. On our way in, we noticed fresh tracks and that we had just missed a few deer moving across the ridges to where Brett was setting up. With that knowledge, I decided to set up where Brett had been sitting. The wind direction was perfect for hunting that spot, but it was blowing right in my face and incredibly cold!
No sooner had I set my backpack on the sand when I noticed a dark shape out of the corner of my eye. A hundred yards below me was a doe feeding away from my location. She was heading into the wind, but walking very slowly. I was amazed that my planning was working out the way I had hoped. So for the next ten minutes I watched her slowly feed through the draw. She kept whipping her head back and forth as if to try and shake something off her ears. The wind was biting cold and it was blowing right in her face. As she continued to feed, she neared the bottom of the draw and had to make a choice. The draw meets the main canyon floor and could either go left, toward some seriously thick brush, or right and come up by two other draws. Every time I had seen deer in this area, they always went left and deeper into the canyon. As I mentally prepared to start hiking around the hill and into the vast brush, she surprised me and took a right turn and walked right up over the ridge need to me. It was game on!
As she fed into the brush in the next draw, I couldn't help but notice how slow she was moving. She wasn't injured as far as I could tell, but she seemed different than the other deer I had seen all season. As soon as the doe wandered into some thick brush I made my move. I skirted the hillside, keeping her in sight, and dropped over the backside. My plan was to circle the backside of the hill, come around the base and set up in ambush by the second draw I figured she would cross. The wind was gusting in my face and I knew I could do it. I also knew that while she was moving slow and I had a good chance at this coming to fruition, I should not delay. The draws were not very large and I would need to be in place before she got there.
Off I went down the backside of the hill and down a well-worn deer trail. As I found solid footing, the draws came into view. I stopped and scanned the perimeter and did not see the doe. I still had time to get into position, but I needed to be patient. (This will come into play later.) My mind went into tactical mode as I saw the top of the brush where the deer was and viewed my potential ambush spots. With the wind still gusting in my face, I slipped in behind an old scrub brush. I scanned the area and figured she would have to cross over the ridge and I estimated it would be the one 30 yards in front of me. Then I waited.
I didn't wait long, maybe a minute (seemed like 10 seconds) and she crested the ridge. I was standing upright and she paid me no attention. 'Odd,' I thought. Most of the deer I had located here would spot me and try to stare me down. Again, she was moving slow, shaking her head, and I could tell she was cold. Heck, I was cold! My core was warm as my Icebreaker base layers did their part, but also my Badlands apparel had me feeling protected from the wind. The wind was biting though and my neck, although I had a warm balaclava on, was getting chilled and it ran right down my spine. The worst part was that my hands were starting to turn hurt pretty bad from the cold, but I knew this was my chance and I had to tough it out.
Then it got interesting. As if on cue, the doe wandered in and stopped at 30 yards, broadside, right behind a dead bush. As soon as she took two more steps I had a perfect broadside shot. Then my patience was tested as the doe pawed the ground and bedded right down in front of me! She was a mere 30 yards away and I had no shot! I had no protection from the wind and my hands were turning to ice. I found it humorous though. Here I was with a perfectly planned ambush (at least in my mind) and I was being tested again. Could I be patient long enough to get a good shot on this deer and fill my tag?
The doe curled into a ball, her head on the opposite side of my location and rested. During the next twenty minutes, I slowly worked my way into a shooting lane. Each time the wind gusted, I slowly took a step. On my third step I was getting a bit too confident and my foot brushed a small weed. It's amazing how darn loud the leaves on a single weed are when the wind stops blowing. The wind had stopped at that moment and my goof sounded like frozen, brittle piece of plastic being crumbled under my boots. I felt that my hunt could be over as I looked up to see the doe come to full alert, but she stayed bedded. I stood there for nearly a minute, left leg bent and the quads on my right leg were burning from holding my weight up. The doe then curled back up. I knew I would need to be more careful and I kept telling myself to be patient.
Twenty minutes later I was in an open shooting area. I ranged the deer at 25 yards and felt very confident, perhaps a bit too confident. I could make this shot. Now I would just have to wait her out. That would prove to be easier in mind than body as my hands began feeling the stinging needle jabs of being too cold as I held my bow. For nearly a half hour I stayed perched on the hillside patiently waiting. I tried warming my hands in my pockets, but them temps were in the mid 20's and I will be honest, I was cold.
Just as my release hand was warming to where I could feel my fingers, I conjured up a plan. I searched the ground for a rock. I was going to throw it over the does head in the hope that she would get up and I'd have a broadside shot. The plan sounded great in my head, but this is where I failed the deer. I picked up a rock and as I stood up, the doe turn and sat upright. I was slightly uphill and had a view of her side and knew I could make the shot. At this point, my hands couldn't wait too much longer. She looked away. I placed the rock in my pocket and drew my bow. As I settled in, anchored and focused, the doe did exactly what I didn't need her to do. She lay back down just as I released my arrow. I watched in horror as my arrow hit much further back than I wanted. The doe got up and walked to the opposite side of the canyon and stopped. I ranged her at 44 yards, nocked another arrow, and just as I was going to draw for a second shot, she slowly walked down deeper into the canyon.
My heart felt heavy. Incredibly heavy. I prayed and asked God to give her a swift death. I was not in good spirits as I did not want an animal to be suffering at my hand. Knowing that I did not want to bump the doe, I slowly crept up and found my arrow. Then I wandered to where she had been standing and found a pool of blood. Not the large pool I hoped for, but it was blood and I knew I needed to back out. I took a quick glance down the canyon and saw no movement, so I backtracked and headed up to my pack.
I decided that I would grab my pack and hike high on the hill to glass the canyon floor and the brush in hopes of locating the bedded doe. After glassing for an hour with no luck I made another plan. It was still very cold and I wanted to give the deer more time. I knew I needed to wait. So, I packed up and hiked the mile back to my car. It was a very long mile. I am sure you other hunters know the feeling and have had the thoughts I did as I took step after step. I should have been overjoyed, but I was not.
At the car, I emptied a few things from my pack in the hope that I would find the deer and need room to pack her out. I also decided to make myself a warm meal and have some coffee. The wind kept blowing out the flame on my JetBoil, so I had to light it inside my car. It was so cold that after boiling water and making oatmeal and coffee, I set them down for 20-30 seconds to move some things around. In that time, my coffee went from hot to lukewarm. Another few seconds and it was the coldest cup of hot coffee I had ever had. The oatmeal was warm and that gave me some satisfaction. Then I felt something in my pocket. I reached in and there was the rock I was going to use to get the doe to stand up. A subtle reminder to what could have been had I followed my instincts.
As I hiked back to the spot where I found blood, I checked my watch. I had waited three hours and the temperature had only risen to 34 degrees. It was time to start tracking. One of the things I take great pride in is being able to track. My dad taught me to look at everything and watch your step. Always look ahead of you before making that step. I cannot tell you how many times I heard my dads voice telling me to slow down, look at all the foliage for blood and look ahead. Then I saw it. One small drop of blood on the smallest leaf around. I looked ahead and saw another. I glanced up the canyon and saw nothing. I took a step and found another and another until one deer trail became two and I lost the blood trail. Which way had she gone? As I contemplated and searched for fresh tracks I saw her. She was dead not ten feet in front of me behind a dead bush. I thanked God and then looked back up the trail. She had died not 30 yards from where I found first blood. She only went 75 yards after the shot.
Instead of being elated, I was somber. Sure I was happy at finally arrowed a deer in Southern California, but I was also sad for the deer. I had taken a life in order to feed myself. I think part of it was hunting alone and I am thankful I was able to experience that. I live for the hunt and it had taken me seven very long years to punch a tag. Again, I prayed and thanked God for her. I thanked the deer for her sacrifice and said I was sorry. Not sure if I have ever done that quite like that, but I indeed felt sorry for any anguish I put her through. As I began to move her, I noticed something about this deer that made me think I was meant to take her. She was old, thin, and looked somewhat sickly. To give you a mental picture, I was almost able to move her by grabbing her spine. Yes, she was THAT thin. Her ribs were showing and her muzzle was worn. As I checked her head, I found the culprit of her constant head shaking. She was covered in deer lice. Her neck hair was very thin from scratching and the lice had taken over. I felt bad for this old girl and was thankful I was able to take her out of the herd. I filled out my tag, attached it to her ear and then took some photos.
I deboned her in the field and took all of the meat. She was so thin that her loins were concave. I was saddened, but thankful to have fresh venison. The crows were circling and squawking at me as I packed the meat and head onto my Badlands 2200. The weight of the pack felt good as I made my way out of the canyon. Hiking back to my vehicle was better this time around, but my glutes were feeling it. I put the meat in the cooler and sat down. I was tired. I rested for a bit and then made the drive to get my tag countersigned.
As I reflect on the past seven years, I am super thankful, and increasingly grateful to those who have supported me and continue to do so. We have been through much together. To me, each of those six tag-soup years was a success because I was out there hunting hard and enjoying it. This year I was blessed to fill my deer tag and right now I am going to let that sink in for a bit.