Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You should have seen it in color; A Wyoming Mule Deer Hunting Adventure

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the memory is priceless 

With Photographs by Johnny Ringo


A light dusting of snow on the Big Horns
Recently I just got back from one of my favorite places on earth, Gods country, Wyoming and I was fortunate enough to share it with two good friends.  The 11th of October could not have come soon enough as this trip has essentially been in the planning stage since September 2012.  Paraphrasing my new friend; This trip is destine to be epic and the forecast is impeccable for mule deer action.  

The 1500 mile drive from Middle TN to the North-Central WY was quick, all things considered for a non-stop commute. A Cabelas pit-stop in Nebraska was a welcomed break, but it didn't stall us too long as we had plans to have camp set-up on the mountain by dusk.  

A Shroud over the Eastern slope of the Big Horn
As we crossed the border into WY, antelope appeared everywhere, giving the sense that an invisible fence prohibited them from crossing the state line.  Though a few stranglers do make their way into NE, for the most part the majority of these prairie rat's stake claim in the Cowboy state, in fact some estimates claim that more antelope inhabit WY than do people!

WY is a checkerboard landscape of high plains deserts, mountains, and basins. Driving through the least populated state gives you plenty of time and focus to notice these landscape features.

 The clear skies allow you to see changes in the distance, most notably are the mountains. The transition from prairie to mountain is certain, yet only the hand of a creator could be so ingenious to strategically place shrub covered foothills to perfectly blend the two together. Relying on this perfection the ranchers raise alfalfa and small grains in these foothills where water is available to irrigate.  Not only is food provided for our nation here but the wildlife have adapted to these modern feeds.  Driving up to our mountain camping spot we gazed at the countless wild animals that pastured in these meadows (deer, elk and antelope fed heavily) whether their internal barometer was rising or not it seemed logical as a front was moving in, predicted to dump up to 12" in the higher elevations. 


And I found out a long time ago
What a woman can do to your soul
                  - The Eagles

Camp set-up and a roaring fire fighting the frigid cold was the perfect recipe to crack open a couple local brews (and the infamous Budlight for a certain hunting partner who seems to stay close to his roots).  We discussed plans for the opener, which was two days away, and keeping the early winter weather forecast in mind.  
Though sleep was not true slumber it was much needed.  After a quick breakfast next to the fire, another check of the forecast and a discussion with some elk hunters we decided to pack up camp and head off the mountain.
Building a fire on the mountain
  Glad we did as we would later find out the area received at least 12" of snow and the road was impassable for a few days.  We confirmed this by trying to get to the top 11 days later, only to find out four-wheel drive was still needed and the snow was still too deep to hike very far in. 
After camp was packed we headed down to some BLM land around 5K feet elevation.  We had now reverted to plan B and hunt the foot hills.  The next day and a half we spent scouting the areas from the roads and looking for access points. We finally decided on hunting near camp, mainly due to its proximity and the abundance of sign.  The eve of the opener was based on my personal ritual; Moose Drool Brown Ale and mule deer steaks.  It started out outside over the fire, but more moisture decided to fall and pushed us inside the tent. 

Opening morning was a treat, the road we camped near sounded like a interstate with all the vehicles traveling on it. 
example of the canyon and rim rock country we hunted
Lukas and I sat up on a high point over looking some draws and canyons and Johnny sat up on the edge of a high ridge over a funnel.  Once day light broke the infantry sounded off, deer  literally were running everywhere, except in our direction of course. We ended up seeing a good number of deer and one nice 3x3 muley that Lukas thought really hard about shooting but he never presented a ethical shot.  Later that morning we spotted him at the top of a canyon and tried to put a stalk on him via another canyon.  By the time we scaled the steep red rock walls the deer had made their way to their afternoon beds. Johnny had seen a good number of deer as well, but the only decent bucks were whitetails. 
That afternoon we hunted in the same locations, fewer deer but optimistic for the next day. 

This would be my first trip to Wyoming without my best friend and wife.  I was nervous to say the least, not to leave her at home, but because I was afraid I would not enjoy this beautiful country as much without her.  But the bitter sweet beauty of it is is that she was at home pregnant with our first baby.  The beauty of it is is that she is pregnant, however it made me more nervous that I left her alone.  But being the independent people we are and she basically pushing me out the door to go, it quickly became an adventure I was ready to undertake.  They may not have been there physically with me but mentally they never left.  To be honest I spent more time thinking about the future years of hunting WY with my new baby girl than I did worrying about them.  

As the Eagles did I too found out what a woman can do to your soul, but luckily for me I will soon enough have two to give me that peaceful easy feeling.  
"Cause I get a peaceful easy feeling
And I know you won't let me down
'Cause I'm already standing on the ground"
                                                                                    -The Eagles

Our pictures are black and white while our senses are manifested in a smile
Your minds sensation will perceive it in color no matter the amount of gray

The second morning was the dawn of success.  Lukas and I had moved about 1/8 of a mile further in to the drainage we had hunted the day before.  The wind was bitterly cold and the morning activity was less than the day prior.  Around 8:30 we had began talking about heading back to camp to eat some breakfast and hike in to some other canyons. 
lower elevation camp
Suddenly deer began to appear out of the draws in front of us, luckily a few made their way to us.  There were a couple young bucks and doe that all appeared to be healthy.  One of the better bucks caught wind of a doe that appeared to be close to coming into heat and she was headed right in our direction.  With him in tow they passed within 100 yards and started up the canyon behind us.  We glassed for 15 more minutes and nothing else seemed to be heading our direction.  I decided to look at the deer that passed us one more time when I noticed there were three this time!  Through my binoculars I could tell the third deer was a buck and bigger than anything we had seen so far.  Lukas quickly got turned around and had his sights on the deer.  The deer was in tow of the doe as well and was headed up the canyon, luckily in the typical mule deer fashion he stopped one last time and looked back at his trail.  Lukas was able to put a good shot him and as the deer bounded toward a draw he put another shot in him.  He disappeared in the draw and we kept an eye on it for the next few minutes when Lukas decided to head that way and I stayed back to watch in case the deer was still alive and exited the draw.  

processing the first deer in camp
Within a few minutes I could see Lukas through my binoculars indicating the deer was dead.  The excitement was astounding, we had just killed our first public land muley in a 2nd choice unit of WY!  The hunt was already a success; great company, beautiful scenery, snow, and now a kill!  

I will not mislead you, I was excited that we were able to kill our first public land muley and I was also a bit nervous that we wouldn't kill anything at all, its human nature to set a goal for yourself and strive to meet that goal.  If we didn't strive for a goal then we would likely not be nervous, we would also likely be failures as well.  But the kill was only one part of my overall goal and that main goal was to have a memorable experience.  After 5 days of leaving TN we I had already achieved my goal and I was thanking God for every moment!  


Embodied in the spirit of wildness while concealed in our own fears of freedom
Conversion to a wild heart is instinctive then the fear is suffocated 

The next day and a half was spent hunting new territory and burning about 10 more miles of boot leather, with very little luck.  One spot was littered with deer sign ( we even found a few sheds) but we later discovered that theses deer were traveling around 2 miles to a non hunted hay meadow off the plateau.  Johnny actually had his sights on a younger muley but opted not to shoot due to its close proximity to private land and the fast approaching night.  

"Good things come to those who wait"

Since Lukas had already filled his deer tag and another wave of snow had come in during the night he opted to sleep in, so Johnny and I decided to hunt together in a canyon where we had previously seen deer.  

Once again the WY wind was howling, that combined with the fresh snow fall and cold temps made for a bitter morning.
"pit stop" at Cabelas in NE
  Deer movement was slow and minimal but by 8 am or so we started to see a few deer make their way up a draw towards a canyon in front of us.  Out of shooting range but within range of the spotting scope we studied the deer.  After assuring they were all doe I began to brainstorm other areas to hike into and glass, just as my guard was letting down three deer appeared out of a draw that we had been previously glassing...it is amazing how these deer just appear and disappear.  After a few seconds of looking at them through the spotting scope it was evident one of the deer was older and his antlers were bigger than most we had seen on the public land, a shooter by our standards for sure.  

The group of three deer consisted of a doe and two bucks, the first buck (also the smallest) was leading the way and luckily for us they were headed in our direction.  The lead buck was on a mission and within a short time frame was passing our side within 80 yards.  Nervous, we patiently waited and watched the other two deer.  The larger buck was focused on the doe, like the other doe that lead the buck Lukas killed, and they were slowly making their way on the same trail as the lead buck.  The wind picked up and carried our scent directly into the lead buck, fortunately he was down in a ravine and out of sight of the other deer when he winded us.  

By this time the buck and doe were within a few hundred yards and gave us a beautiful display of rubbing sage brush with his dark rack and checking the doe for that faint whiff of estrus.  Leading the buck on a string right toward us that closed in to just under 200 yards, Johnny had a steady rest and when the buck presented the quartering shot he dropped the hammer.  The deer ran through a ravine and mid way up a knob then seemed to disappear, after finding him in the spotting scope we discovered he had laid down behind some sage.  Confident he was hit hard Johnny decided to wait it out, we spent the next half hour watching and waiting.  At one time the deer laid his head down, but as soon as we thought he had died he raised it back up.
Three people make packing a deer out a breeze
  A few minutes later he did the same thing again but this time when he raised his head back up he also raised up on all fours, Johnny quickly put another shot in him which finished him off.  

Three days into season and we already had two deer tags filled, cloud nine was nestled above us for sure.  We hiked back to camp to get Lukas so he could help us pack the deer out.  Hiking back to the kill site we told Lukas Johnny had shot a doe, I am surprised he didn't turn back around at that point (what would deer camp be without a practical joke) but as good hunting buddies do he marched on.  When we arrived at the site Lukas said, "that ain't no doe!"...Johnny had taken a nice 4x4 with brow's.  


Euphoric in freedom now we roam
My "Walking Home" has circulated another episode  

Two tags punched, one to go and plenty of time left...this was our situation and a good one to be in.  The afternoon after Johnny killed we decided to hike up to a large ridge just South of where Johnny had hunted the first couple days of season.
heavy horse trail on a foot hills ridge line
  We spotted a few doe and couple decent bucks and as luck would have it they never left the private property.

Later that night we had a welcomed surprised, a ranchers wife stopped by the tent with a fresh mule deer lasagna!  Yes, this sounds weird and somewhat unbelievable, however it really did happen and the lasagna was delicious.  I will leave the details for another post.  

The next morning after we hunted, we packed camp and made our way north.  We had been hunting the southern portion of the mountains with good success, I just wanted to try a new area we had studied on the map and hopefully see some bigger deer.  

We arrived at our access spot sometime after lunch, the truck was packed full of our gear so Johnny and Lukas opted out of taking their packs with them.  Johnny stated that if I kill one he would tote the head out and eat snow for water, in all honesty I thought this was just going to be more of a scouting hike with hopes of putting some deer to bed and getting back after them in the morning...ever heard of the old saying, "prepare for the unexpected"?  Lets just say seeing is believing.  

Johnny and his muley
We had hiked in about 3.5 miles when we arrived at some major rock outcroppings, these things were basically cliffs in the middle of foothills.  Some of the draws leading up to the cliffs had a good stand of mature pines, so we glassed these areas.

  We spotted a few deer but we where to far off to see if any were bucks, so we hiked another 3/4 of a mile to get above them.  Once there the only deer we could spot were doe so we decided to head over another rise to glass some more before we headed back.  
Lukas and his muley

When we got to a high point we were able to glass down into a large meadow and it held a number of deer.  It was the time of day that the deer were getting out of their bed to feed before night fall and we had hit it at the right time.  

With no way to put on a stalk we decided to head around the ridge and try to get closer.  As we were skirting the wood line we bumped a deer out of its bed, this caused a few more deer hidden from our view to make their way out into another meadow.  We stopped and glassed again, this time we saw a couple really good deer and one 4x4 that was worthy of shooting (I think this was the deer we bumped because he was last in line and kept checking his back trail like something was after him).  A decision was made to make our way around the next ridge and try to cut the deer off where we thought they might go.  We didn't want to bump them, but we still had at least a good 1.5 hour of shooting light left, so worse case scenario we would put them to bed and get back after them at first light.  

Once we fell in behind the ridge for cover we started hiking fast, Johnny was about 50 yards or more behind us when Lukas and I came to a ridge top.  We slowed down to make sure we would not be sky lined by other hidden deer, as we topped the ridge we noticed two hunters glassing a draw opposite of where we were headed.  We looked North to where they were glassing and seen a group of 7 or more deer.  We backtracked a little and started to tell Johnny about the hunters and deer when he cut us off and said "I see deer in that draw".  
The 3 of us with the first 2013 WY buck

We went back to a saddle we had originally used to cross a ridge, once we arrived we could see the deer (one looked to be a shooter).  We were so focused on getting to the other deer we had seen that we completely missed these.  We came up with a game plan, Johnny and Lukas were to stay back and watch the other hunters and the deer.  I was going to put a long stalk on them to get a better look.  In case the other hunters went after these deer I would be out of their way and hopefully in the escape route of the deer in case they got spooked by the other hunters.  

I slowly made my way down a drain, keeping the wind in my face.  Once about mid way down the drain I looked back up and I could see the other hunters walking the ridge I just came off, I glassed them through my binoc's and could tell they were likely elk hunters (sheds strapped to their packs and only one appeared to have a gun) and they motioned to me that one of the deer was a 4x4, only sense I could make out of it is either they already filled there deer tags or didn't have any to begin with (we were hunting in a trophy elk unit).  

As the hunters hiked their way other the ridge, I decided it was safe to continue the stalk.  I made my way another few hundreds yards until I was closing in on the ridge above the draw the deer were bedded in.  Once I was threatened by being sky lined I began the crawl, after a 100 yard crawl I could see a group of 6 deer, all bucks!  The largest was a 3 point but was no older than 2.5, where was the larger 4x4?  The deer must have noticed me as a few stood up and the ones already standing became alert.  I decided it was now or never, so I crawled a little more over the ridge.  This time I could see down in the draw better and noticed the larger buck was about 200 yards further up the draw than the other deer. 
our version of a meat pole
At this point the smaller bucks were about to make a break for it and the larger buck was looking around trying to find what had spooked the others, after a quick look through the scope I decided he was bigger than anything I had been able to shoot yet on this trip so I squeezed a shot off.  Dead!  He did not move a inch, a perfectly quartering to me shot through the front shoulder stopped his heart instantly.  

We had all three just filled our WY mule deer tags in just 5 days of hunting, way more than we realistically expected. 

I made my way over to the deer while Johnny and Lukas began the hike down.  It was nice to have several moments alone with this deer, I was able to bask in the hunt and say a long winded prayer to the man who made it all possible.  I ended the prayer with a request to him to see we made it out safely, because the sun was setting behind the mountain and we had to get this old deer off the mountain and back to the truck, which was well over 4 miles away!
field caping

Lukas and Johnny joined me and seemed just as excited as me.  They were able to watch the whole thing unfold, except they never did see me.  Lukas was lucky enough to be looking through the spotter when I pulled the trigger, he said the deers head hit the ground before he heard the shot go off...I can only imagine how cool that was to see.  Knowing that they got to share the hunt with me made the feeling that much better, I was with each of them when they killed so it was only fitting that they were both with me.  

After a few cell phone pics and the fastest skinning and boning process ever, we began our trek back.  Johnny of course got to "tote the head out" and ate plenty of snow.  With the meat in game sacks, I put half the meat in  my pack and Lukas carried the other half, we alternated to give each other a break. Just less than a 1/2 mile after making our way back to the truck it was dark, there is no ambient light in the West, so when it's dark it is dark! 

My 4x3 plus brow's
We finally arrived back at the road close to 10 p.m., we had decided shortly into the trip we would head to town and get a hotel.  It would be our celebration and much needed, as this was day 8 with no shower!

A gift I got for Sheridan
To simply put this Johnny's way, this hunt was "EPIC", spending time in the wild doing something you love and sharing it with like company is a glorious gift.  The only way to make it any more magical would be if my wife and future baby girl were there with me.  Soon they will be though, and I must confess something...I wanted to hunt near a town I would like to one day live near, this town also helped to inspire the naming our little girl, Sheridan.  Maybe it was fate maybe not but that night we got a hotel room in Sheridan, WY and the sleep was as peaceful as any I have had.   The time Angela and I have spent together in Wyoming was strengthening and though we didn't know it at the time, it was also preparation for our future child. We cannot wait to teach her the love of the wild, we are already planning a trip to Yellowstone for her before she turns two!   

A couple days later we dropped Johnny off at the airport, Lukas and I had planned months ago to hunt a few more days longer and bought some antelope doe tags in case we killed our deer early.  Lucky for us you could say, we ended up with three antelope doe and spent a couple days driving through the mountains and soaking up some minerals in Thermopolis Hot Springs.  


The Wild side of Color
By T.C. Loughery
"Walking Home" 

Our pictures are black and white while our senses are manifested in a smile
Your minds sensation will perceive it in color no matter the amount of gray,
Embodied in the spirit of wildness while concealed in our own fears of freedom
Conversion to a wild heart is instinctive then the fear is suffocated,
Euphoric in freedom now we roam
My "Walking Home" has circulated another episode 

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