The sun was sinking behind the sandhills and even though it was only my second day in this scenery I knew that our time was limited. I cupped a handful of sand in my left hand, letting it slip through my fingers like the hourglass in the sky that would soon leave us with nothing left to do but hike back to the truck by the light of our headlamps. Our vantage point allowed us to keep watch of the hillside where the velvet bucks had been spotted the previous day, and we hadn’t been there for all of an hour before two young bucks arose from their beds and began to feed on warm season grasses. These youngsters had been with the older deer the day before so it was less of a surprise when their more mature brothers appeared and imposed their seniority for the best forage. The bucks position would allow an opportunity for a stalk but we had a lot of ground to cover and had to act fast. I grabbed one last handful of sand, hoping that I could add it to the hour glass.
Jorden and I folded up our tripods and started down the hillside towards the ravine that would keep us hidden as we closed the distance between us and the unsuspecting bachelor group. We made quick work of the valley floor and started up a ravine that had been identified from the glassing point. At the top of the ravine our pace slowed to a crawl. If my judgement was correct the bucks should be within 200 yards and should be visible from the top of the sandhill. The early September sky was a electrifying red, the finale before the sun would leave Jorden and I stranded in the dark. Time was of the essence if we were to make this happen.
The thrashing was heard before we made visual contact. He was close. We crawled to the top of the ridge and immediately my focus was drawn to the violent movement. The buck that had been introduced to me as “Dan” was thrashing a yucca plant on the hillside across from us. Within the 15 minutes it had taken us to get into position he had already exposed his entire left side of hard horn! “We need to make this happen tonight, he won’t have a trace of velvet left by tomorrow morning” Jorden whispered. “He’s distracted, we can get closer” I replied. I stretched my bow out in front of me as if to start my stalk. I froze. 20 yards in front of me stood one of the young bucks. He was unaware of our presence but was directly between me and my target. I slowed my heart rate and controlled my breathing, it wouldn’t take much for him to realize he wasn’t alone on this hillside and one false move would blow our cover for the evening and quite possibly the entire hunt. It was clear that our opportunity was diminishing with the hourglass in the sky. Minutes passed as I watch Dan polish his headgear. With the young buck keeping vigil I knew I couldn’t get any closer and it would be best if we left the bachelor group finish their evening uninterrupted. Once it was dark enough that I felt it was safe to move I slowly began to back out of the area. I found Jorden right where I had last seen him and we silently retraced our footsteps. The smile on his face confirmed what I already knew, this had been an extraordinary night with an amazing encounter and the best part was that we would be able to do it all again tomorrow.
A lot had led to the buildup of this moment. I first started planning this hunt two years prior to our hunt dates and immediately fell in love with mule deer and the diverse environments that they inhabit. Growing up in the whitetail woods, this was an entirely new environment for me. Studying sign and waiting for cruising bucks from a treestand was my forte and I was hesitant to step outside my comfort zone and attempt a hunt that I have been anticipating for a long time.
My first conversation with Cody Kuck of Heartland Pride Outfitters confirmed the excitement that had been building within me since I first had the ambition to hunt mule deer with my bow. In the months prior to the hunt I frequented my local pro shop testing arrows, tuning my bow, and dialing in my arrow flight charts for extended yardages. I practiced my shot routine religiously- I had every intention of making the most of my opportunity. All the preparation in the world cannot replace experience, of which I had none but Cody assured me that I would be ready and that this would be an amazing hunt. My father-in-law was set to make the trip as he had whitetail and antelope tags and would be hunting out of the same camp. It was a two day drive to reach western Nebraska but eventually we made it onto the Bridges to Buttes Byway and started across the Husker state. I continuously scanned the horizon for deer and antelope until we reached our destination where we settled in and met up with Cody and my guide Jorden Schwarz. We checked our equipment and went over a game plan for the hunt. They had been following a couple of mature bucks including one that they were particularly excited about that Cody had nicknamed “Dan”. Dan was short for Dugout Dan, the name that this buck had earned for his knack in finding the perfect hideouts in the sandhills like the smartest of bucks do. If you didn’t spot him while he was on his feet at first or last light he could easily slip back into his “dugout” and disappear from sight.
Still riding the high from the encounter with Dan the evening before, I was awake before my alarm and anticipating another exciting day in the Sandhills. The day was forecast to be the hottest of the trip. We knew that the deer we had been watching the previous evening may very well be back in their beds before daylight so we arrived at our glassing spot well before daylight to give ourselves the best chance. Luckily the deer hadn’t abandoned their late summer routine and were only a few hundred yards from where we had the night before.“Yep, his velvet is gone” I could see the Dan had been busy over night. It was hard to feel disappointed after having a front row seat to the show the evening before, I was just thankful for the experience and felt fortunate to develop a brief history with this deer.
As expected, it wasn’t long until the bachelor group retreated to the shade of their beds. We could take the same route and be in position before the sun warmed their spots and they would be forced to move to an more favorable position. I gathered my day-pack and grabbed one more handful of sand, this time just out of habit. “Hold on, that’s not good” Jorden said as he adjusted his binos. Here come the coyotes, right on cue. Three days of hunting and three days of watching them harass the landscape. “Keep eyes on them.” by this time the bachelors were moving up the hillside and towards the property line. “This just became way more interesting”. We took a moment to figure out a new game plan. It was no longer an option to use the same ravine as the night before. Now we needed to swing wide of their location to remain hidden and with hopes that it would be possible to get within range of the bucks new safe house. We set off for an adjacent bluff and an hour later we were within 200 hundred yards of the bedded bucks. The distance shortened to a football field before we felt uncomfortable pushing the issue further. “I don’t recognize that deer” Jorden said as we laid there scouting the position. The sun was high in the sky now and today was clearly going to be the hottest day of the week. “He must have re-bedded while we were covering ground”. My heart sank at the thought that Dan had jumped the barbwire fence and was no longer part of our chase. The other bucks were in a nearly impossible position for a stalk, so the plan was to back out and return to the familiar glassing point for the afternoon. As I was pulling cactus thorns out of my pack I could hear the muffled hum of farm equipment across the property line. I paid no mind to it as this is cattle country and ranchers routinely checked their herds. Still rattled from the previous incident, the bucks were not convinced that they were out of danger. They stood at attention as the rancher worked his way across his property. As we watched the scene unfold the deer became increasingly uneasy and decided they needed to move. As they left their beds I saw a flash of antlers directly below us. I knew right away that the rest of the bachelor group, including Dan, was in the shallow ravine in front of us. Before I knew it the bucks had bounded off and crested the opposite ridge. “Now is our chance”. Without the worry of blowing our cover Jordan and I ran straight to the ridge where we had last seen Dan. Somehow I was able to nock an arrow and readied my hinge release as we powered up the sandy hillside.I caught sight of the group and drew back my bow as Jorden confirmed the distance through my rangefinder. The bright sun illuminated my pin as it crossed over his vitals. The hourglass finally stopped, if only briefly while my arrow took flight. On impact of the arrow Dan spun and lead the rest of the group away from us and out of sight once again. We sprinted to the spot where he had stood and scanned the area with our binoculars. “There he is, nice shot!” I was immediately overwhelmed with emotion. The emotional roller coaster of highs and lows that is bowhunting had all come down to this. As we worked our way down to where Dan lay my eyes were fixed on what I had just done and a mixture of feelings took over my senses. As I touched the deer’s rack I knelt down and paused to take in the moment and give thanks to God for this opportunity and the sacrifice that this deer had made. The releasing of an arrow is such a small part of the experience and always leaves me with a feeling of gratitude. While I was thrilled to have harvested this animal I was equally as sad to have the experience come to an end. As we quartered and packed out my buck we re-lived the mornings hunt and Jorden and I agreed that this was an extraordinary experience that we would always share together and could not wait to tell the story back at camp. As we loaded the last bit of meat into the truck I took a drink from a windmill waterhole and tried to wash the smile from my face but was unsuccessful. I picked up a handful of sand, letting it run through my fingers knowing that the hot sun wouldn’t allow me to freeze time but I was fortunate to keep a small piece of it for myself.
Author - Max Beitzel
Built2Hunt Content Contributor