My hunting career began a long time ago in a small stretch of woods along the Scioto River. When I say small, I mean small. My pappaw and I drove down a farming lane through what seemed like an endless supply of field corn. We parked at the end of the lane and were looking directly into the area we would hunt. It was around 100 yards long and maybe 20 yards wide. Looking back, I think we hunted here partly because it was such an easy walk. There was one other reason we liked hunting here. Fox squirrels were our absolute favorite animal to hunt and they were bountiful in this narrow strip of the river bottoms. The easy walk coupled with lots of bushy tails meant we had a barrel of easy fun and filled bag limits quickly.
Me and pappaw used this same formula every year up until he passed away in 2019. He was the man that taught me how to hunt but we never really focused on anything other than squirrel. We were hunters of opportunity and if a rabbit was unfortunate enough to hop in front of us, it was toast. We never went deer hunting, only occasionally tried our hand at turkey but never seriously pursued other game animals. We were Appalachian squirrel hunters through and through.
Southern Ohio is full of deer hunters and I am not really sure how I never picked up the passion. There were deer everywhere and most of my friends hunted them. Heck, our school allowed us two excused absences to go hunting. I knew plenty of people that would let me on their private land so that wasn't an issue. I enjoy eating deer and what hunter doesn't dream of having a big buck mount hanging on their wall. The passion and desire just wasn't there.
That all changed the moment I moved to Colorado. In my mind, this was my chance to make up time and throw my hunting passions into chasing big game in the Rocky Mountains. This was my first year archery hunting for mule deer and here are some of the things I think I learned in my first ever Rocky Mountain Solo big game hunt.
Number one: Passion can only get you so far.
Passion is great. It motivates you and gets you in your camo and to your hunting grounds. It is the motivation you need to get your bow out and practice every evening. Once you step foot on the mountains though, passion quickly turns into pain and anguish. I quickly learned that I was in no way, shape or form physically ready to tackle big game hunting here. The terrain is tough. Compared to that flat river bottom stretch of woods, the places I was hunting were the same as Mt. Everest.
My first morning out, I decided to wander off of the designated hiking trail and blaze around the mountain. It was getting warm and I thought, "I'll just walk through some of the shaded timber areas and rustle up a deer. I found shade, but I also found extreme hills and valleys. The deadfall was atrociously hard to walk through. It was laid across the ground like matchsticks that were thrown into the wind. Then, once you navigated your way down the hill through that, you had to go back up the other side through the same thing. On the other extreme, I had to navigate around this wild rock outcropping through a small slit in the rock that went straight downhill. I did this only because I could see my exit trail across another ridge from where I was standing. At that point, The pain was worth it just to get the hell out of there.
By the time I got to my last hill, looking up to the trail, I was literally in tears. I was exhausted, dejected and on the verge of throwing up. Taking small steps and frequent breaks, I finally made it to the trail and slumped my way back down the mountain and to my car. I was so exhausted I could only manage a meager hand wave and "hi" to passing hikers. My passion kept me in the game and back on the mountain the next weekend, but looking toward next year I will definitely be in better physical shape.
Number Two: It isn't just physical shape you need to be in
There are no guarantees in hunting. You can do everything exactly right and still come out empty handed. You can be in a good situation but start to doubt yourself and take your finger off the trigger. Back to my first hunt, I was in the woods a little too early and bumped a few deer. I had a good idea about where they would be heading and took off. I was lucky enough to intercept the three does almost exactly where I thought they would be. I snuck in as close as I could, about 45-50 yards, and nocked an arrow. I drew back and had a perfect broadside shot on the biggest of the does. As I stood there, my insecurity crept in and I let my bow down. A moment later, the group bounded off into the unknown.
I can't explain exactly what happened. There were a few branches in the way, so I was worried about that. I had only practiced marginally at 40+ yards so I was worried about a bad shot. Then I thought about the prospect of breaking the deer down and packing it out of the mountains by myself. All these things led to the decision not to shoot. I never thought about this until I interviewed Kurt Belding from "Western Obsessions TV". He brought up the fact that people exercise their bodies but not their minds and when it comes down to that split second moment of pulling the trigger, they falter.
On my second outing, I decided to do an evening hunt in a much easier area that was recommended to me by a fellow hunter. I set up in an area that had a heavily used game trail and waited. With the light dying and nothing in sight, I decided to pack it up and head to the car. I glanced to my left walking down the trail and there she was. 80 yards away a large doe had me dead in her sights. Instead of walking through the area I knew she was going to use, she passed below me and passed out of sight. I couldn't control where she went, I just had to hope I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. It happens. It's part of hunting. You just have to look past it and focus on the next hunt.
Number Three: Gear, Gear, Gear
As a hunter, you owe it to yourself to do a couple of things when it comes to your gear. Make sure you can get the best gear that is within your budget. Having Sitka, First Lite or any other big name hunting apparel is nice. They are top notch and make your experience better. If you can't afford that yet, it's ok. Just take baby steps. Remember, your ancestors hunted in flannel and did just fine. What I decided to focus on this year was, in hindsight, kind of obscure. I upgraded my socks and underwear. Make sure you have moisture wicking base layers. I cannot tell you enough about how having better underwear improved my experience. After a full day of hunting, I did not get the typical, and dreaded, chapped ass that comes with hiking and sweating all day.
Practice with your gear. Test it and see what the limits are for what you have. I did not do this properly with my bow and led to me not taking a shot that I assume almost any other hunter would have successfully made. Break in your boots so your feet won't get blistered. Load up your pack and make sure you can comfortably pack it all day. These little things add up and exponentially increase the pleasure of hunting big game in the Rockies.
Number Four: Take Time to Enjoy Your Surroundings
I enjoyed every second that I was hunting. I got to see amazing scenery and wildlife like moose, Albertson squirrels (if you've never seen one, look them up). Most importantly, I got to get some perspective on my life. Alone time in the wilderness does wonders for your mind. Life can get hectic and you lose sight of the things that are most important. That all came into clear focus on my last hunt. In the last hour of daylight I looked down the ridge and saw a group of 5 deer. Two of them were obviously the matriarchs and were watching the their offspring bound around without a care in the world. The young deer paid my little attention. The mothers however, simply would not take their eyes off of me. They didn't know exactly what I was, but knew I was a threat. Like any protective mother, they would not allow me to get close enough to endanger their babies. I tried to take some slow and careful steps forward but it was no use. The mothers rounded up their babies and slipped into the timber below. It was a beautiful moment in time. I was a silent observer watching nature play out in front of me. Offspring that were oblivious to the obvious danger they were in and the maternal instincts of their parents kicking in. Deer may not speak English, but if they could I'm sure they would be getting some life advice because of that moment.
As quickly as it began, it all ended. I my passion didn't diminish due to my lack of success this archery season
. I was simply satiated in that last moment. I was perfectly content to end my season after that encounter. I saw more deer in the month of September than I have in my entire life hunting. I didn't release an arrow, but it wasn't from lack of trying. I will take the lessons I learned from this year and carry them into next season. That is what hunting is. A lifetime of learning and adapting then applying those tough earned lessons in the next season. We spend a lifetime acquiring the necessary skills to be successful in that one moment, that one instant, that an animal is in front of us. A lifetime of work for an instant where everything happens.