Hunt Report: 2012 Colorado Mule Deer, Sawtooth Rifles #9

My 2012 Colorado Mule Deer hunt started out as many do, making that decision for which unit to put in. Do I use points and hunt, or do I add another point to build for that trophy hunt? I like to hunt instead of count points, so I opted to try to get a license this year. I consulted with a local friend who turned me onto the unit he and his family primarily hunt. He had killed a great buck there last year and was back in point building mode, but I had a feeling I could talk him into telling me where to go (where it wouldn't be a suffer fest).

I was happy to get notice that I did draw the license.  But then my trip got pushed to the back burner with a trip to Africa and Wyoming Pronghorn and Colorado Archery Elk hunts to plan first (along with some rifles to build and a few responsibilities with the family.)

With only a couple weeks to go I did what I always do and wonder why later: decided to build a new rifle. I had build #8 in the works which reaffirmed my appreciation for the concept of a light, mildly kicking, backpacking rifle. The #9 rifle, a 7x57 Mauser built on a Remington 700 action, came together quickly and proved to be worthy of the hunt after a second trip to the range. It shot the 140 gr Nosler Accubonds into groups just over 1/2 MOA with very little load development. Not so worried about squeezing more out of it, I proceeded to smack the steel targets at our range using the holdovers on the Vortex BDC reticle and I felt confident in a 350 to 400 yd shot with the little rifle. That was good enough, as I was out of time to do any more practice or make any changes to the load.

So the little rifle and I were off for our hunt down near Salida, Colorado. I took along #7 as well, since I didn't really know what I was getting into. I had planned to take #4, but it got a last minute chance to go hunting with Sam from Gannett Ridge in another unit. I didn't have much of a plan, but I was on my way!

I arrived at the trailhead just a little past midnight - just enough time to catch some sleep before opening morning. The Lost Creek Inn (the camper on the back of the old Dodge) makes for a pretty expedient and fairly well equipped hunting camp, and I should have been asleep in no time. It turns out I was a little excited and couldn't sleep, or maybe it was the cold that I somehow didn't notice I had caught until I was on my way south. Either way, there was lots of tossing and turning and then a lack of desire to get on the move when the 5 am alarm went off.

Riding the lag wagon in a major way, I was on the trail and didn't make it far when the hint of the rising sun started to make the surroundings apparent. I was actually right where my friend had told me to be on opening morning, but I had company in the area, and the other hunter's headlamp was way up the hill. I took a seat anyway and started glassing. It wasn't long before I had enough light to find a couple does out feeding on a hillside and some more way up the hill. I didn't see that monster buck 60 yards away like my friend had promised me.

After a few hours I decided to move on up the hill and have a look around.  In trying to gain elevation I realized how sick I was; I had little energy. An hour or two further up I found myself in a nice glassing spot and spent some time looking through the binoculars. After some time trying to look through my eyelids and at about 4 PM I woke up from my second nap. I decided to sneak over to the other side of the hill I was on.

As soon as I crested the hill I noticed deer, deer as in the plural. Suddenly I was watching 10-15 deer coming out of the shadows on the hillside. After looking around more I saw a couple still hiding pretty well, and one had antlers. Respectable antlers they were, as many of the others were small bucks. At about the same time I spotted him I realized how bad my optics must be reflecting from the low sun. The buck got up and disappeared before I could really size him up. Some of the other deer decided to do the same while some of them stayed. And then to my astonishment another buck came seemingly from nowhere and stood on the skyline looking at me.  Was he testing me? Testing to see if I could stick to my plan of not just shooting the first decent buck at which I had the chance?
Opening day buck, testing me...
Non magnified view of the above buck. See him on the ridge between the two branches on the right of the tree?
With difficulty I maintained will power, holding out for the big boy. I had waited three years for this hunt. The following morning I found myself way up the hill at first light. There were deer out feeding, several does, a few small bucks, and one sizable buck. Taking a good look at him through the spotting scope, I decided he wasn't the one either. He was a 3x4 with pretty nice dimensions but not much mass. ( I actually got a real close look at this deer the following day as that other hunter that kept beating me up the mountain was packing him out. He was a nice buck and made a sweet double for this guy that also killed a bull elk on the opening day).
3x4 Buck.
Day two finished out fairly uneventfully with passing up a couple more smaller four points and seeing a bunch of does as the sun was setting.
I always like the Eastern view during the sunset.
On the third day I decided to look at some other areas in the morning. I was nursing a blister from the previous two days of hiking. I didn't venture so far from the truck but did see a few deer. The only buck I had to decide on was a forked horn, which made the decision pretty quick. By mid-day I'd had enough of the road hunters in the same area and went back to the big hill. So much for nursing that blister; now I had half a day to cover the same ground. I made it up to the area where I had seen the most activity during the evening of the opening day and was disappointed to only see a couple does. I did catch a bull elk doing a cross-country run which was still exciting even though I didn't have an elk license in my pocket. This bull was spooked and on the move. The only thing on his mind was a new zip code. The poor boy's tongue was hanging out so far I could see it through the binoculars.
Big bull, in the center of the picture
A little better look at him through the spotting scope.
That mid afternoon lull in the action is always a good time for a photo shoot.
Right before seeing that bull I crossed paths with the other hunter who was packing the 3x4 Buck down the hill. Knowing that he had been in the area I was headed, I considered making the big hike to the other side of the draw but couldn't find the energy. I stayed on course to be in my favorite area for the evening. As I was hiking around I saw a few of those infamous airborne scavengers circling and figured it must be the kill site from that 3x4. I went to check it out, with the thought that there might be a chance of seeing a bear or some other furry monster I don't even know about. I was surprised to see a coyote trying to get in on the action while being attacked by the crows. I was also surprised I was 60 yards from a coyote that didn't have a clue I was there. That is a rare opportunity that I couldn't pass up...
First kill for #9
The evening was uneventful and it left me thinking I had seen every buck this draw had to offer. I planned to do some more hiking around in that other area the following morning.

The next morning I made it to the end of a road in some foothills and setup to watch a hillside as the sun rose.
I don't usually see the sunrise, but when I do I'm packing a rifle (or just finishing up building one...)
As the hillside started to come into vision I began to see herds of deer feeding there. Doe, doe, fawn, fawn, doe, doe, fawn, doe, fawn, doe, coyote? Then more does. The coyote seemed to be trailing the deer and he had their attention. They pretty much walked right past me and I was surprised they didn't spook from the reflection that must have been coming off my optics. The coyote went out of sight and never reappeared. Good thinking on his part...

After the does and fawns all made their was up the hill and into the brush and cedars I decided to walk around the base of the hill further. Not before long I came upon a little 4pt buck.  He didn't know I was there either. Still a couple days too early to shoot a little buck, I just let him do his thing, and soon enough he was gone. I took a couple of steps and then noticed deer legs coming up a dry creek bed to the same place the where previous buck had been. A smaller buck appeared and did the same thing. I then noticed two more coming and got excited thinking the big boy would be trailing behind. But the deer just kept getting smaller. The last two seemed to want to hang out there, and I wanted to get a move on.

I decided to use them to test my stalking skills. I had the wind in my favor and will admit they weren't very alert, but I got to 15-20 yards of them before they noticed me. That would have been fun with a bow.

After they spooked off I spent a couple more hours heading up and around the hill, but only crossed paths with a single doe. I was amazed at how many deer and elk tracks I saw on this little hillside though.

Around noon it was time to move on. I didn't have a plan. I drove up on the trailhead of the main draw where I had been the previous three days and saw no other hunters parked there. I decided to give it another go. I wasn't 100 yards up the trail before I ran into a half dozen does which just let me walk right by at 50 yards. Another couple hundred yards up the trail I saw a few more deer which included a little buck. I had a feeling that this was going to be a good trip up the mountain, as I hadn't seen deer this low before. An hour or so later I jumped a couple more does but then found nothing on the hillside where I was hoping to see that buck from the opening day sleeping. I set up and glassed everything I could see but did not see any more deer. Disappointed, I started crossing to the other side of the draw to hike back to the truck through some areas I hadn't yet been.

I was working my way down a fairly rocky slope looking at a thick timbered area at the bottom of a draw. I thought to myself, this would be the perfect place for a big buck to hang out and just let me walk all over his mountain for three days thinking he didn't exist. Then I saw him. At about 150 yards, there he was...browsing and facing me head on. One quick glance through the binoculars had me switching to the rifle. I was in the wide open and I knew as soon as he saw me he would be gone and I would never find him in that timber again.

I had the rifle up free-hand as he started to turn and walk, exposing his shoulder to me. I squeezed the trigger. I squeezed it harder. Then I tried to break it off and wondered to myself what happened to that crisp 2.5 lb trigger I had worked so hard tuning. He was gone, my rifle left unfired.

I had been packing rifles uncocked lately, closing the bolt on a pulled trigger as a safe way of carrying one with a full capacity without relying entirely on the safety. I think this is a better way to carry one strapped to a pack, and it just takes a quick up and down of the bolt handle to have it ready to fire. In this case, I had done that up and down so quietly that I failed to get the sear to engage.  My rifle was still uncocked.

Thinking I had just missed my one and only chance at the big buck I had spent days trampling over this mountain for, I felt defeated. But I wasn't ready to give up yet.  I started looking for the buck through the binoculars again.  He wasn't spooked and couldn't have gone far, but I couldn't see any part of him. I decided to move laterally a little bit to get a different angle on where he must have been browsing. As I made this move rocks slid down the hill and sticks broke. Thankfully I had enough wind to cover that noise and I made it to a little rocky point.

My timing was perfect because the buck had just come into another opening and still didn't have a clue I was there. I knelt down to rest the forend on a rock and found the buck in the scope. He was leisurely walking along, and I reminded myself that I could shoot one on the walk. The previous year I had let a bull elk walk right away thinking he would stop when he didn't. I also got some practice with this in Africa and had the confidence to make the shot. Somewhere in the midst of all this thought I must have subconsciously put the crosshairs on this buck and squeezed the trigger. I heard the rifle go off and saw him rolling down the hill. The little rifle and the 140gr Accubond had performed very well and the buck was done for.
To quote my dad, I found the buck "ass over tea kettle" after he rolled down the hill a ways.
I had just killed a really cool buck, out by myself, with very little daylight left, about a mile and a half from the truck. I was in near disbelief. I set up the camera for some pictures. Then I tried to position the buck and I almost got to watch the buck roll right over my camera. After fighting him rolling a couple more times, I decided to drag him down to some flatter ground where it would be easier to work with him.
From the top, you can start to see how unique this guy is. He apparently suffered some damage to the base of his right antler some time in his life and it was growing out of his head abnormally.
I shot him around 5:45 in the evening and had finally started processing him around 6:30 with the official sun set at 6:20. Working under the headlamp I finally had the meat all boned out and in meat baggies about an hour later. My plan was to take half the meat and my gear down and come back for the other half of the meat and the head the next morning. Somehow I convinced myself that taking it all in one trip would be easier than climbing back up there in the morning and proceeded to load it all up in my pack. It was a slow walk down the hill, but down the hill we went. Luckily it was down. I was carrying the head in one hand and using the tripod as a walking stick in the other hand. The weight of the head had me switching back and forth even more often than my knees and ankles had me stopping. In about an hour I made it down to the truck where gravity took over, and things just started dropping to the ground. I loaded it all up and drove to where I was sharing camp with my friend's family, ready to show off my buck.  But they had given up on me and gone to sleep already.

As I went to transfer the meat into the coolers I had in the truck I weighed everything with the fish scale I keep in the camper. I was very surprised at what I had just accomplished. Somehow I had just packed 120 lbs down the hill.
120 lbs of deer and gear.
After getting the meat on ice it was time to celebrate. Jack Daniels was the next thing to come to mind, and then I started cooking up some antelope fajitas for my feast.

Speaking of Antelope, I spotted this guy on the drive home. He was on private land in one of those units that typically takes a decade's worth of points to draw, but he caught my attention.
Back home and rested a bit I decided it was time to do some taxidermy work, since this boy wasn't going to fit in the freezer. With some advice and the trusty stock pot from the guys at Gannett Ridge the process began. After I got the skull fleshed out I was interested to see that right antler base and how deformed the skull was. An interesting ending to a fantastic little hunt.
The coyote, my forked horn from last year, and the big boy.
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