Lessons from a rookie.
A few years back, after heavy encouragement from several close friends, I bought my first compound bow. I was immediately amazed by the power and accuracy of my new “toy”. I fell in love with the deep relaxation I felt by focusing on the sole task of delivering an arrow on target. Good shooting requires a clear mind that is hard to come by in a world where we are bombarded by phone calls, text messages, work issues and other real life disturbances. A cold beverage after work and my trusty Bowtech seemed to wash all that away.
At this point, my big game experience consisted of couple of cow elk with a rifle.
I wanted to try a more difficult and personal experience. I enjoyed rifle hunting, but I didn’t feel the connection to the game I was pursuing by shooting it at 150-plus yards.
I spent my first year getting comfortable and proficient, with my bow. I didn’t want to rush right into hunting and run the risk of a missing and killing my confidence or worse yet, wounding an animal making my first experience a negative one.
A year later I would find myself in a tree stand in my local San Diego mountains, waiting for a deer to cross my path. Finally after a few sits I had my first close encounter.
That deer never presented me with a shot, but it did give me an adrenal blast that I will never forgot. From that moment on, I was a junkie.
The next season, I would kill deer in both South Dakota and Texas, but I remained shut out in my home state despite countless attempts (actually 27, but who’s counting?).
A good friend and bow hunting mentor, Nate Treadwell had told me about a great hunt in California’s Eastern Sierra that was nearly a sure draw with just two preference points. Nate’s family has owned a cabin in area since he was a kid and he has the area truly wired. After talking the wife into a camping/hunting trip (an easy sale as we both love the area), I put my two points in the hat and got my tag.
The two months after the draw moved liked molasses as I dreamed of a harvesting a nice CA buck in velvet. After several phone calls to friends familiar with the area, borrowing some key gear and a bunch more intel from Nate, I felt ready.
Since no one else I knew put in for the tag, I had enlisted my brother to tag along and help me scout and spot for me. Unfortunately he had to bow out at the last minute, which made me really doubt my chances but I was determined to press on and give it my best. I figured if nothing else, I’d learn a ton and that I did.
Mid August arrived and we were on our way to the Twin Lakes area just east of Bridgeport, California with our travel-trailer and dog in tow. I allowed myself two days to scout and get familiar with the area. As soon as we pulled in, we began to see does and fawns all over the road and even in our campsite.
After a couple days of scouting, mostly close to camp, I had seen many does and one really nice 3×3. While I was scouting I came across tons of sign, but not that many bucks.
As I worked from ridge to ridge, I kept probably the best advice I had received in the front of my mind, “glass more and walk less”.
Scouting had also reinforced the fact that these deer were nearly impossible to see once they bedded down in the sagebrush after about 9 am.
The 3×3 I had spotted was at 11 am when he stood up to stretch and feed a bit. I glassed that area for 20 minutes and never saw him. Once he lay down again, he practically vaporized. Trying to pick out 12-18” of velvet antler in this country is nearly impossible. This confirmed that I would need to be out early and late when the animals would be moving. I spent mid-day trout fishing and touring around with the wife and dog, which made for a great vacation.
Opening day came and the areas near camp that I had scouted were suddenly covered in hunters. I worked the areas I thought were promising and found nothing but does. I worked deeper and deeper into the hills and found some great looking spots and more sign, but no bucks.
Around 10 am that day I headed back to the truck to try and cover more ground and glass some new areas. Within fifteen minutes I was glassing from a turn out on the main road and I spotted nine bucks including two giants just a half-mile off the road. Game on I thought to myself! I quickly surveyed the area from the truck and plotted my attack.
I stopped at the original spotting location and confirmed they were still there. As I was getting ready to make my move, I notice two heads appear over the horizon. Two other hunters had spotted them as well and were nearly in position. After a few expletives, I sat back to watch the show and even flagged down the other hunters to let them know I would guide them in. Using hand signals, I guided them right on top of the deer. Somehow they couldn’t see the deer and they spooked the entire heard. Suddenly nine velvet bucks and four does blasted out of the area like a heard of wild horses. Absolutely dejected, I headed back to camp to lick my wounds.
After an afternoon of trout fishing, I set out to get away from the crowd and find some new ground to work. I moved several miles down the road and found an area near Green Creek that was loaded with plenty of north facing slopes that these deer prefer. Reenergized, I formulated a plan for the next morning.
Up extra early and on my way, I drove to the vantage point I located the day before. I found myself a rock to glass from and began looking. Almost immediately, I found several does headed uphill about a mile away. I moved in for a closer look to see if there were any bucks hanging around by chance. After getting closer, I could clearly see that these weren’t all does. I was all by myself with no other hunters in sight and I was stoked!
This was a group of four bucks and a couple does. There was a small 4×3, 3×3 and two forkies in the group. One of the forkies was HUGE with long tines and a wide spread. What he lacked in points he made up for in mass and width. This was the deer I wanted and kept a close eye on.
The animals were in a small valley between two ridges, uphill from my position and bedded down early. I planned my stalk and started to move in. As I closed in to 150-yards, the wind had shifted and I wasn’t sure if I could get close enough for a shot before getting winded. I slowly backed out all the way to my truck, crossed the small valley and came in from the other ridge above them.
At 200-yards, I took off my boots and put on a second set of heavy socks to make the stalk as quite as possible.
I had a large boulder as a landmark to sneak to, and I was just 40-yards from it and 100-yards from the deer. As I began to work towards the bolder, the deer got up and walked to the other side of the valley to feed. Suddenly I found myself hiding in the brush on the hillside. I was pinned down and unable to move without being spotted. I made peace with the situation and settled in for a two-hour deer watching/napping session.
After a couple of hours the deer moved back into the valley and bedded down out of sight. Afraid of blowing the opportunity, I carefully backed out to my original spotting point and to verify they were still there and they were.
I had hatched a third plan to take my truck back to the main road, park below the top of the ridge and sneak up on them from above. As I inched my way to the top of the ridge I couldn’t see a thing. I changed positions a few times and still couldn’t see any sign of the deer. I caught a flash of movement on the other ridge and I was sure I had been busted and my deer had run off. I stood up a bit for a better vantage and I was suddenly staring at the big forkie, he had gotten up to stretch and was looking right at me. He quickly jumped and ran up the other ridge and stared at me trying to figure out what he was looking at. The 3×3 had joined him and they were broadside standing still.
Slowly, I raised my range finder and they didn’t budge. I wouldn’t normally take a shot this long but I had been practicing at long distance and they were perfectly broadside. I slowly drew my bow and put my pin on the big forkie. I steadied myself, took a deep breath and let an arrow fly. It took what felt like two minutes for the arrow to get across the valley and it fell just inches short and right on track striking a rock and exploding as loud as a high power rifle sending the two deer over the ridge and out of site.
Just as I was cursing myself, I catch a big patch of brown with antlers rising out of the bushes I had ranged earlier at 40-yards. In a split second I had another arrow knocked, drawn and on it’s way. The arrow met it’s target with the tell tale THWACK! The buck ran down the valley like a bolt of lightening and jumped off the other ridge out of sight.
As I replayed the shot in my mind, the animal was quartering away and it’s vitals were obscured by a bush. I was confident I was able to get the arrow into the “engine room”. After searching for my arrow I came up empty and began to make circles looking for blood. I quickly located a few drops on some white rock and began to follow it. I found a solid trail and began to follow it. After 30-yards the trail went dry and I noticed that as the blood dried I was unable to see it. I’m colorblind and the blood drying brown made it disappear on anything but the lightest surfaces.
After a call to Nate for some advice, I searched a little more and backed out to get some help and not bump a possibly gut shot animal. I raced back to camp to get my wife to help me with the blood trailing and I noticed our new camp neighbors, also hunters were around. I asked them if they wouldn’t mind helping me track the deer and I couldn’t have been luckier.
Larry and Terry were hard-core SoCal bow hunters with over 30 years of experience. I drug these poor guys back to the scene of the crime and up the big, steep ridge. Larry and Terry quickly went to work picking up blood spots that I could never see. It turns out the animal was bleeding heavily and I just couldn’t see it. Within 15 minutes they lead me right to my deer on the side backside of the far ridge. I had shot the smallest deer in the bunch and I couldn’t have been more stoked! The scream I let out could have awakened the dead.
I had sent a several texts to my boys back home with the play by play after the shot. The kudos I received from guys with way more skill and experience than me was overwhelming. A spot and stalk CA mule deer is no easy feat and they only reinforced the fact. I could not have been more proud and stoked.
I had worked my ass off and finally got the sweet payoff.
I can’t begin to describe the gratitude I felt for my camping neighbors. These guys were absolute lifesavers and helped me recover my prize. I’m not sure I could have done it without them. To top it off, a few days later I received an email from Terry with pictures of the two deer they had shot including an awesome 3×3 for Larry. Karma at work!
The main purpose for sharing this long-winded story was I learned a ton and I wanted to share with others who might want to take on this awesome hunt or another like it. These lessons include:
1. Glass more, walk less – I really found this to be the golden rule. I had borrowed a set of Minox 15x binos, tripod and inflatable butt pad. I quickly learned these were much more effective than any spotting scope in the terrain and left the two scopes I brought in the truck. Bring them, learn to use them and “chop” up the terrain with your eyeballs in an organized search pattern.
2. Get in early and make sure you are there late – I saw nearly all my deer before 9 am and after 4 pm. With more than three hours of prime daylight on either side, spend the mid-day scouting new spots, napping or trout fishing.
3. Don’t skimp on the important gear – You’re going to use your boots, binos and pack as your primary tools. I bought Soloman 4d GTX boots, a Sitka Flash 20 pack and borrowed those Minox 15x binos with bivee and tripod. The boots are the best I have ever owned (5 stars on Amazon). The pack fit me perfect and held all my gear and bow in check. The Minox binos had a great field of view, lots of power and could be used off hand while hiking when steadied with a tree or rock.
4. Find north facing slopes – with temps in the high 70’s and low 80’s these deer want shade and they won’t go in the trees with soft antlers. The north facing slopes, thick brush and shady ledges offered this.
5. Scout early and often – I think the two days of scouting combined with intel from buddies really did make a difference. I had several spots lined up in case I got stepped on and they paid off in spades.
6. Bring a buddy – I was VERY fortunate to kill my deer. I would estimate your odds to be two or three times better with a second set of binos and a spotter to guide you in to your target. These deer disappear in the sage and when you get close the terrain will look very different. A buddy to guide you in with hand signals or radios will make the task infinitely easier.
7. Make sure you train – I try to hike a local mountain at least three times a week and I get up in our higher mountains on the weekends to help acclimate to the thinner air. You’re going to hike a lot in some very steep terrain, so be prepared.
8. Being colorblind sucks – Bring a buddy who isn’t.
This really is an awesome hunt in some of the most amazing country in the state. By bow hunting, you can easily pull a tag that would take a rifle hunter years to draw. The area does hold a lot of California trophy deer and you get first crack at them while they are out in the open and before the gun hunters apply pressure.
The hunt isn’t easy but with the right preparation and help it is possible to connect with an awesome California buck.
I just need two more points and I’ll be back and looking for one of those big boys I saw. In the meantime, I have an archery elk hunt to prepare for. I think I might have a problem…