Tales From A First Time Hunter
Note From Upland CEO James Petzke: Tomas joined our team five months ago fresh out of college, and right away he committed to the idea of learning how to hunt. It was a great joy for me to help him get started down the path towards becoming a hunter and conservationist, and his story from this season is a great one mixing the many powerful emotions of a first hunt. Enjoy!
Before hunting season opens, James has to test whether I can withstand the long treks and backpacks filled to the brim with gear and potential game. I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon. I assure myself that I’ll be able to trek anything below Mount Everest.
We head out beyond Idaho City to a spot among the mountains. The trek gets progressively steeper over time but luckily it's not straight up.
It’s dead silent, which is astonishing to me. There isn’t even any wind blowing. I suppose we should be thankful for that however, so animals don’t pick up our scent.
It takes us a little over an hour to get to the top of the summit. James hunted turkeys in this area before, so now we’re testing the area for deer and elk. We see nothing on the way up except for blue grouse, who surprise us with their powerful wing beats.
We naturally want to be the quietest thing out there, though it's not always possible. Trekking miles and going up a couple thousand feet in elevation means you’re inevitably going to sweat and pant.
We set up the spotting scope and glass the area for a little bit. The silence is deafening. I can hear my heart pumping in my ears.
I hope I haven’t involuntarily spooked anything away. There’s fresh sign of animals, but they refuse to show.
An hour passes and there’s still no movement. We decided that it’s best to just head home. We take a couple shortcuts down the summit which may or may not have involved occasional slipping and branches to the face.
Suddenly, James stops and motions for me to stay. He goes off the trail to the left for a couple minutes. He then brings me around a bend and points.
A patch of ground looks heavily dug into, like a couple of people were trying to dig a bunch of small holes. James explains that these are elk tracks, and very fresh. There are a lot of them and they are dug deep into the ground, meaning the elk were probably running when they came through here.
It’s highly likely that on the way up or even on the way down, they caught on to us and were spooked. Beating a hasty retreat in the opposite direction.
It’s discouraging to say the least, but at least it’s only a scouting day and we know there are elk here. We don’t know if we’ll come back here considering we didn’t actually see any animals, but the excitement has definitely lit a fire in me.
I said I would go out hunting, but I never said I would get anything the first day. Friday the 13th is the first day James and I go up into the hills. Funny, I should have known this jinxed day would try and hamper our efforts.
While it was raining down in the city, mother nature decided to open the gates of snow onto us. I'd forgotten my raincoat and the water bladder I'd literally bought less than 12 hours earlier had a hairline crack and was leaking.
We wait in the car for a while, trying to decide if it's worth going outside. Finally, when it clears up just a little bit, I decide we should go for it.
The snow lets up a little bit as the sun rises but when we reached our ideal spot, the fog is so intense we can’t see more than thirty or forty yards. On top of that, it begins to dump snow again, this time with more wind.
On a final note, James forgot to turn on the new action camera he'd bought specifically for this purpose. As I told him later that day—someone really didn't want us to hunt.
There could have been a state record buck maybe seventy to a hundred yards in front of me and I never would have noticed. I suppose it's an experience for the record books. Compared to that bust of that day, it can always get worse.
Day 2 (one week later)
The second day we go further up into the mountains. We are accompanied by two other Upland team members as well.
The snow has all melted and for all intents and purposes, it's a wonderful day. The wind is blowing sharply and at first, I wonder if we are unintentionally scaring off the game with our scent.
We move down and glass the foothills for about two hours. Nothing.
We're about ready to pack up and head back when James decides to go over the next ridge with his rifle. This ridge dips down sharply where the sun doesn't shine and tall brush emerges in the creases between hills.
A couple of minutes later, he emerges from the ridgeline, motioning for us to follow him. Each one of us carries Upland Optics binos or a long-range camera. He points downward.
There he is, a spike bull elk between 300-350 yards down below us. He doesn't see us, and luckily the wind is blowing in a different direction.
I've seen elk around national parks and they're pretty used to human proximity, not really caring if you're closer than fifty or so yards. On a similar note, I could almost walk up to the deer at my grandma's house in Northern California when they were eating her plants.
This is far different.
We're still in between 300-400 yards away from this bull when I see him turn his head and look directly at me. I wasn't even stepping on dead brush. The wind was blowing in a different direction almost every couple of minutes, so it's possible he got a whiff of us. He stared up at us for a couple of minutes before he went back to grazing.
This would have been an excellent opportunity if I had gotten an elk tag and then advanced the date by about 15 or 16 days when this unit opens. There's still a week left in deer season, but the Fish and Game Department says the winter wasn't good for them. The hunters I know have barely seen any and the ones they have seen are does or fawns.
About ten minutes later, a cow and her calf emerge from another ridge in front of the bull. Every so often, they look in our direction. Our photographer, Scott, is trying to get a closer shot of them without spooking them. The bull soon disappears into the tall brush and the cow and calf run off in the opposite direction.
Once again, there is little movement in the foothills beside us.
I don’t think I’d seen an elk in the wild up until that point, let alone one that is staring me down, deciding if I’m a threat or not. The wind is blowing softly, so there is some sound. However the sounds of songbirds and forests that I’m used to in Northern California simply aren’t present. It goes without saying, but Idaho is just a different place.
Suddenly, James points toward the horizon.
A herd of about twenty elk come running down a trail of a foothill, almost coming directly at us from more than a thousand yards away. With my naked eye, I can see their brown necks as specks under the horizon and the dust they kick up from their run. For the whole herd to move that quickly, James suspects something spooked them. Probably another hunter.
We watch them come over the same ridge that the cow and calf did not fifteen or twenty minutes earlier. I saw at least one very young bull among them, but the cows and calfs come over the ridge almost in a train.
In all honesty, I'm awestruck. I'm so used to these animals being nonchalant for the most part about human presence. Now, at about 400-500 yards, they're all standing still. Heads swiveling and some of them looking directly at us. The hunters and the hunted.
At the end of the day, I'm strongly considering buying an elk tag for this unit when it opens.
Here's praying for Day 3.
Day 3 (6 days later)
We decide to head out around 5:45am for a spot with hills three times as tall as the ones we were climbing before. It's still dark out so James and I use headlamps as we make our way up a steep face.
It looked smaller when it was dark.
We hike straight upward. At the top of the peak we were hiking, we were above a cloud layer. Something like 5500 feet I think my phone registered. In the distance, we heard the echo of other hunters taking shots at game unseen. I counted no less than seven or eight shots from the left and right that morning.
The mule deer are incredibly hard to spot, even in broad daylight. They move like specs of dust along a road. You could be looking straight at them and never know they're there, hence the need for quality optics.
We are joined by another hunter, who turned out to be a Fish and Game employee and was planning on doing the same hunt we were doing. In order to minimize the risk of scaring off large amounts of game, we decide to stick together over the course of the hunt.
After we pass the largest summit, we take cover in a small patch of trees and a sheep pops its head out from the undergrowth. I expected to see wildlife, but a sheep is definitely not on my expectant list.
This isn’t a big horned sheep that you can hunt, but a woolly guy or girl that stares at us as any animal would. When we approach, he runs off.
Near mid-day we turn back, sitting and spooking a couple of does and fawns, but the bucks are all missing. It’s all but certain that there would be no deer for me in my first season ever, but I certainly wouldn't be the only one.
The Snowpocalypse that swept over the Treasure Valley for nearly three and half months last year devastated the deer population. It's no one's fault, but I can't help but feel an ounce of discouragement.
However, it's become likely that I’ll buy an elk tag in my unit. Judging by the presence of elk in the hills, I might actually have an easier time nabbing one closer to home. In the event I do get one, the hike and pack out is probably going to be one of the more grueling exercises I've done since backpacking the Grand Canyon.
Day 4 (5 days later)
It's the last day for my deer tag in this unit and many units around Idaho. I don't imagine that I'll get anything this season and I'm content with that. It was just a bad year for mule deer in general and I wouldn't be the only one going home without one.
However, James called me up the night before saying that he'd bagged his buck and packed most of it out. He also saw a monster 4x4 right after he'd shot his. There are plenty of deer near where we had last hiked. The chances of me encountering a buck are pretty good.
Oh what the hell, what have I got to lose besides the couple of bucks I spent on the license and tag? We hike in the adjacent canyon to where we hunted a couple of days earlier.
The good thing is that it is mostly trail with a couple of upward and downward slopes. It makes the journey faster and easier. The rest of James' buck sits 3.5 miles in. We go in with the plan that I'll help him pack the rest of it out.
Along the way we spot some does and even an elk wandering the slopes high above us. As I'm sure you're all well aware, mule deer are almost completely camouflaged in sagebrush and willows. That factor increases tenfold where there is shade or lack of light.
James has been hunting far longer than I have. At a certain point, I feel most hunters just gain a knack for spotting what's directly in front of them but not always visible.
About a quarter of a mile to his kill, James spots a deer wandering the side of a peak directly above and to our right. It takes me a moment to find it, but I do. It becomes increasingly clear that it's a buck. While James is pretty sure, I have to be 100% sure that I know it's a buck. A Fish and Game employee could be watching this whole ordeal take place. Just waiting for me to misjudge and accidentally shoot a doe.
After watching him for a couple of minutes, I see his antlers poking out behind his ears.
The rangefinder says 254 yards. The longest shot I've taken with the Remington 700 with .270 WSM ammo is 100 yards.
It gets worse.
He's above me between 60 and 70 degrees. The sun is almost directly above us, casting a massive glare into the rifle scope. I still haven't gotten the hang of rifle scopes yet. I can't freehand this shot. James recommends shooting off his back with the rifle's bipod, which I am vehemently opposed to.
I need a taller stabilizer. Eventually, I put James' taller backpack in between my legs and place the bipod on top. It's not perfect, but it will have to do.
The buck sits there, watching us. He walks off towards some sagebrush. I continuously flip the safety on and off. I need a better broadside shot. I continuously lose him in the sun's glare and the need to relieve my aching neck as I look away.
He walks back from the sagebrush across where we first saw him. He cranes his neck and looks at us. The broadside shot is what I want and neither James or I will settle for anything less. We want to be sure we make an ethical kill.
Then, he stops.
My finger hovers over the trigger. He remains perfectly still. The reticle inches this way and that over his shoulders. Now my heart is pounding so hard in my chest I'm freaking myself out. I feel a little chilly. The thumping in my chest is faster than anything I've experienced running on a grass field or lifting in a gym. I start to shake a little bit. I'm sure I'm pressing on the trigger but nothing's happening.
I know that I am fine with killing an animal, but this feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever felt. There’s a pit in my stomach.
I realize that I'm still very afraid of the 700's kick with the .270 WSM ammo. I almost don't want to take the shot because of my intense fear of sharp noises on top of the scope coming back and hitting me in the eye, which is what happened the first time on the shooting range.
But the buck doesn't move.
Damn it. Why isn’t the trigger pulling?
There's a thunderous crack from the rifle and two other does spring up out of the brush, previously unseen. They don't immediately bolt but remain somewhat close to where I shot. James has lost sight of the buck, and we watch one of the does for a couple more minutes before she trots off.
I think I missed. That second deer must have been him running off and hiding again. The rifle is pointed a couple of degrees to the right on top of the backpack, the tell-tale sign that I was spooked while firing.
I really surprised myself with that shot.
I remember at the shooting range that I jerked the rifle a couple of times because I was so nervous about the sound and getting hit in the eye. Even then, I was wearing ear and eye protection.
We don't see any more movement on the peak face. It's silent once again, but James and I have already begun to speak louder as if we already know I killed the buck. We cross the creek and begin our trek up the opposite summit. We near the spot where I shot him.
James spots him just below me. I actually passed him on my way up. Once again, perfectly camouflaged.
I got him.
He lies motionless against a patch of sagebrush which prevents him from rolling any further down the face. There is a single bloody hole where I pierced him right behind his front legs. In the way he's positioned, it looks like he's got a big gut.
I shake James' hand and stare at the deer's eyes. I have every intention of making sure he does not go to waste.
When I grab him by the legs to maneuver him, I feel his fur. It’s very real. I can feel all of his weight. This surprises me. This is the first living, breathing animal I’ve ever killed.
The experience is unnerving to say the least. A couple of months ago I may never have thought about hunting in my lifetime and here I am, with my first kill ever. I’m careful not to let my pride get the best of me. A good hunter is also a conservationist. That fact is going to be very hard to prove to people.
Not twenty minutes ago, this animal was living, breathing, and looking right at me. It was the staredown of my life.
It takes me a couple of minutes to take in the gravity of the situation.
- First hunting season ever
- Last day of the tag
- Makeshift gear
- Not my rifle
- I'm still shaking
We drag him above the sagebrush. James uses a smaller knife to open him up. This small knife I think is actually a sword considering it cut my left hand twice. I watched videos and read on how to correctly gut a deer, but we’re not exactly doing it on level ground.
James shows where to cut the guts loose and prevent them from washing over the loins. Once we’re done, he leaves me to drag my deer down the face while he goes to pack out the rest of his.
My trek down the face with the animal was interesting to say the least. I’m tired, it’s hot, and every time I try and drag him in the direction I want, his dead weight forces him another way. His antlers get caught in twigs and branches and I slide just as much as he tumbles.
Finally, I get to a clearer spot to drag him, but only after 45 minutes or so because I seem to have misplaced my pack and the rifle on the mountain. By that time, James has already returned. With one last heave, I throw him and he tumbles almost all of the way down to the creek.
The muley continued to be a bother even in death, and we haven’t even gotten halfway through the day yet. We were lucky that we were able to tumble him to the creek. Cutting him up on the mountain exposed in the sun would have been a nightmare.
James pulled out a small, specialized knife that is unbelievably sharp. He shows me how to skin the legs and detach them from the body while avoiding the tarsal glands. All this is done using the knife that could have doubled as a sword. Believe me, I cut my left hand twice with it when I was careless. We flip the deer over and remove his backstraps, some of the tastiest bits of meat.
Finally comes his head. I don’t really mind not taking the neck and head meat this time. It’s my first hunt and although I’ve successfully accomplished this feat, I’m still really tired and eager to get home. After cutting most of the way with the small sword, I use a small hatchet to get through the last pieces of bone.
With the most important pieces packed up in garbage bags, we load up and begin our long trek back to the car. Once back at the car, I use a saw to remove the antlers. Only when I’m so delirious that I put the antlers on my head do I know that the day is finally over.
I hope you enjoyed my chronicle of my first hunting season ever. If this season's adventures give any indication of the future, I'll likely stick with it.