"There he is," D'Arcy whispered as we caught a glimpse of the buck across the rolling sage.
We squatted in unison behind a clump of brush, and I readied my rifle while he broke out the spotting scope to get a detailed look at what looked to be a massive antelope. The lifelong pronghorn hunter declared the buck a shooter and we eased forward until our cover ran out.
The range was 381 yards and the shot would have to be taken either seated or kneeling due to the high underbrush. As I settled into the sticks and pulled my pack underneath my armpit for support, I tried my best to push out the past and focus on the shot presented to me — it wasn't easy.
I've been shooting for close to thirty years and have always been pretty good at it. When I started hunting in my college years, success came readily thanks to hundreds of hours spent at the range with my father as a kid. Scores of one-shot kills across the U.S. and Africa gave me confidence bordering on cockiness and I began to treat rifles as if they were magic wands that I could command without focus.
Then the wheels came off.
Three years ago, I wounded and lost a 6x6 bull elk in the Wyoming timber. The next season, after having a 200" mule deer purposely chased-off by another hunter during a stalk, I wounded and lost a buck on the last evening of the hunt and came within inches of sliding off a cliff trying to finish the job.
Last year I had a mystery miss on an Alabama whitetail that I'd been after for months and closed out the season with a cow elk hunt that turned into successful but ugly running gun battle. I can offer you a litany of excuses and possible exculpatory theories for each circumstance but the fact is that, in every case, I pulled the trigger and didn't get the job done.
As a father of a young family, I'd spent precious vacation days and thousands of dollars off chasing game with neither tenderloin in the freezer or horns on the wall to show for it. I either needed to get it together or take up golf.
Though I'd always shot a great deal and practiced religiously before every hunt, I took things to a new level with an intense focus on the types of shots I was being forced to make in the field. Another turn of events made my practice sessions even more important: this year the tag gods threw a challenge down before me with hunting opportunities for antelope in Utah, elk in Colorado, and even an elk tag in Arizona.
These tags forced me to reevaluate everything, including the equipment I was carrying. A fling with ultra-lightweight rifles helped contribute to my Wyoming disasters and pushed me back to the sporter-weight guns that had given me so much success and confidence in the past.
It was time for a new rifle to help me turn the page.
A visit to gunmaker D'Arcy Echols' Utah shop a couple of years back turned into much more than a one-off interview for an article. D'Arcy has become a friend and mentor whose vast knowledge I tap into on an almost constant basis.
Echols in one of the few gunmakers who designs his own components and his latest creation is a synthetic stock that he developed to work with Remington 700 and similar custom actions that he calls the Shrike.
Shrikes are small predatory birds: light, fast, ruthless, and deadly.
The Shrike's design is the culmination of Echols' three decades of experience as a custom stockmaker and hunting guide and its trim, efficient lines are an appropriate match for its namesake. It is an American Classic style stock with a straight comb and .550" drop at the comb and heel.
Unlike most synthetics, it incorporates cast off at the toe and heel so it actually feels like it was made to fit a human being. There's enough forend to be practical in the field but not enough to make it ungainly and it can accept any barrel contour up to a #5. I'd used the prototype Shrike, the gun still in the white, against the cow elk the previous year and came away impressed with the design despite my struggle to put the elk into the salt. I have not used a more confortable stock for the kinds of practical shooting positions one often incorporates in the field.
When I told D'Arcy about the season that lay ahead for me, he generously offered to convert the prototype rifle into the cartridge of my choosing if I could come up with a barrel. Krieger delivered a .284" blank in record time and soon I had a 7mm Remington Magnum that handled perfectly and would repeatedly put 3 bullets into a 1/3" group at 100 yards.
The final step in my preparation was a quick trip to Texas for FTW Ranch's two-day SAAM Hunter Prep Course. The course brushed me up on the fundamentals, made some tweaks where I was falling short, and taught me volumes about shooting in wind — a factor that's largely absent back home but is a near constant in the game-rich western U.S.
Most importantly, the folks at FTW helped me rebuild my confidence, which had been eroded to the point of near absence over the past few seasons. A few hundred more rounds at the range back home and I was ready for whatever the west was going to throw at me.
The first hunt in my sweep across the west was a northern Utah antelope hunt that D'Arcy and I had been planning for a couple of years. I'd be heading straight from Utah to Colorado so we hit the range to check the zero on my 7mm Mag along with a new custom 300 H&H that I was dying to try out on elk.
The Shrike and its bombproof Nightforce scope performed perfectly but the 300 H&H, that I'd waited almost 5 years for another gunmaker to deliver, began to misbehave. The gun wouldn't feed reliably, the safety quit working, and we diagnosed a host of other issues. The 7mm would have to do double-duty as an elk rifle, which was fine, but we'd now be asking deer bullets to take on their much larger and tougher cousins.
We had a solid lead on a good buck and daybreak on opening day found us on a hilltop overlooking the area that he was known to frequent — the sky was still gray when D'Arcy found him in the spotting scope. He was down in an irrigated field among a patchwork of private and public land and with no great means of approach.
We made a plan to stalk closer by using an irrigation ditch when we spotted four guys bail out of a pickup near the small herd of antelope. No one was wearing the requisite blaze orange but the unmistakable form of a rifle barrel was visible through our binos.
Fortunately for us, these truck "hunters" had taken the easy route and the old buck was quickly onto them.
The buck quickly left his does to fend for themselves and fled for the high ground above where he was rumored to spend his days. We parked the truck and hiked a circuitous route to put us above the buck with the sun into his eyes. As we reached the area where we assumed he'd be, we started side hilling to as not to silhouette ourselves on the hilltop.
I eased to the left to clear myself in case a fast shot opportunity presented itself and I handed-over my Zeiss rangefinding binoculars so D'Arcy could range the buck when we found him.
To see how this journey ended, check out Rocky Mountain Redemption: Part 2.