Hunter photographs four separate muley bucks prior to taking them.
I felt like I was dreaming. One peek over the cut bank confirmed he was a shooter, at least for a Midwestern whitetail hunter like me. There, 23 yards below me lay a plump-bodied buck with tall, chocolatey antlers. Best of all, he was clueless I existed. So, I carefully set my bow in the quivering prairie grass, trading it for my Nikon digital camera.
I'm a firm believer in taking the first high-percentage shot opportunity that presents itself, but this encounter was entirely different. I felt compelled to capture a few images of the bedded buck rather than end the encounter abruptly.
After the shutter clicked three times, I traded camera for weapon and transitioned from photographer back to hunter. At full draw, the buck soon appeared in my sight housing as I bent at the waist to account for the steep declined angle, a stiff crosswind pushing my sight pins back and forth over the kill zone. When all felt right, I released as my top pin floated right of his spine.
The buck sprung from his bed, bolted up the cut bank 70 yards away, ran across the flat prairie, and then dropped over the bank behind me. I ran 80 yards to the edge to regain my visual. As I scanned back and forth, I spotted the buck already down 25 yards away, but with his head erect. I sent a finishing arrow through the grass and into his lungs. He sprung, then bolted into a creek bed.
My guide, Rick Richards of Western Ranch Outfitters, and I soon peeked over the edge and spotted the lifeless buck floating in the creek. I'd done it. I'd stalked in close, photographed the buck, and then took him with my bow. It was the beginning of a trend.
South Dakota 2015
Two falls later I was back in South Dakota and hunting a friend's cattle ranch. While scouting during my first morning, I spotted an old warrior — obviously the dominant buck — guarding a doe harem. All other bucks, even ones with higher-scoring antlers, submitted to him. I scored a few pictures of him during my first morning hunt.
While he postured and nudged other bucks away from his does, I photographed him from a few hundred yards away. He was in the middle of a wheat field with no opportunity for an approach.
For several days, he remained in that field. Finally, after five days, a wicked snowstorm brought punishing winds that drove most of the deer off the field and into surrounding canyons. I worked as much ground as possible and saw lots of deer, but I just couldn't locate the big old buck.
While slipping through some trees later that morning, I spotted a young buck near some does a few hundred yards away. I was sure I'd witnessed him trying to sneak into my target buck's doe harem the previous day. So, I decided to approach.
Temperatures were warming, and the snow was becoming squeaky, so I inched along at a snail's pace to cut noise. Grunting in the cedars ahead was obviously being emitted from a mature buck. I hoped it was him.
Minutes later, I caught glimpses of his unmistakable double-forked tines. I intuitively made an aggressive move, walking straight into the group of deer with only one cedar blocking me from their view. The buck was now only 25 yards away and still grunting, so I knelt and prepared to shoot.
The buck stepped out from behind the cedar, and when he paused, I shot. My hit was marginal, and to this day, I don't know why; it was a chip shot, and my pin was right where it needed to be.
Long story short, I caught up with that buck the following day and put the finishing touches on the business I'd started. Obviously, that sage old buck earned my respect.
An arduous 2016 hunting season boiled down to my final hunt of the year. I had a Nebraska muzzleloader deer tag, which was valid for mule deer or whitetails.
After securing permission to hunt some private ground, I studied a group of muleys from afar via spotting scope. The deer appeared to be bedding in a pine forest by day and visiting an adjacent standing cornfield by evening. Of the 17 deer in the group, only one buck was worth shooting. I shot some images of the buck one evening when he was beyond shooting range.
A few evenings later when the wind direction permitted, I moved in and popped up a portable blind along the field edge.
On cue, the deer began filling the field during the last 20 minutes of shooting light. With 16 deer in the field, I wondered if my buck had chosen to dine elsewhere.
Then, like a ghost, he appeared and trotted toward the field on the same trail the other deer had traveled, which was 183 yards away. I grunt-stopped him. Before I could shoot, he started trotting. I grunt-stopped him again, settled the crosshairs and let my muzzleloader bark. When the smoke cleared, he was lying in a heap.
South Dakota 2017
After hunting diligently for seven consecutive days on both private and public lands in South Dakota last fall, time was ticking when I encountered a solid buck courting a doe as I drove my pickup between vantage points. I didn't think he made the cut, so I contentedly watched and photographed as he nudged her about. They eventually disappeared, and I moved on.
The following day, I was within half a mile of the location where I'd seen the buck and doe the previous day, and I spotted a bristled-up buck that looked to be a shooter from 600-plus yards away.
I cut the distance in half with my truck, parked, and then hustled to get my decoy and bow ready. I started walking away from the truck when a doe and the buck crested a hill less than 100 yards away. I deemed him a shooter and nocked an arrow.
They paid me and my truck little attention. When he stopped broadside at 61 yards, I sent an arrow downrange. It connected tight on the shoulder crease. He ran 60-some yards, stopped and paused with stiff legs that quickly collapsed from underneath him. When I approached, I realized it was the same buck I'd photographed the previous day.
Since I'm an outdoor writer, I try to capture as many details with my camera as possible to help illustrate my stories. And while I've captured thousands of neat photos, mule deer continue to be one of my favorite subjects. So, it's not coincidental that I've photographed my last four muley bucks before and after taking them.