Family Hunting Camp
2016 Wyoming Mule Deer Hunt
There is just something special about the sound of a fire in the wall tent. I am often up past the time my wife and kiddos all fall asleep – it’s just something I like to do and allows for some quite time for me to enjoy the memories made by the family each day and a time collect my thoughts, set goals, and get ready for the next new day. This evening the warm glow from the wood stove, wood popping in the stove, the sound of the baby and kids happily asleep, a snoozing wife and mom, a well-earned Pendleton and 7-Up, and the thoughts of the day’s hunting ventures was cause for an extra pause and to count my blessings. I still love the thrill of the hunt, believe me, and I may be getting a bit older but when I see a good buck I can still get with it! But now, the family time is most cherished. It’s hard to explain how good I feel seeing the kids come running from camp when I get back from the hunt and how happy they are to hear the stories and hold the horns. I decided to write this sorry sitting in camp after an epic day hunting with my friend Matt. We set out at 1 AM and came walking back into camp at dark after a successful day of hunting high mountain mule deer in western Wyoming. Pretty sure I about killed Matt with our 20-mile day on foot and thousands of feet of elevation gain, but he sure got himself a damn good buck!
My wife Tylee has never been one to shy away from the extra effort to bring our kids along on an adventure and she is always up for going on whatever outing I have planned. I absolutely love this about her! (Her parents raised her right.) Our wall tent had been setup in our usual location for the archery elk hunt. It has become our family tradition as its as far up the end of the road as you can go and not many will venture there with campers or horse trailers so we have a bit of Wyoming heaven on earth all to ourselves. We primarily hunt on foot from the tent and focus on elk. Tylee and I will take turns going on morning and evening hunts while the other watches the kids and often we will take all three (3) with us, which is an adventure in itself as they love to try bugling and try to talk with the elk. We’ve heard stories from other hunters that they have heard herds of elk all talking and many coyotes howling; and we laugh knowing it was just our little family doing what we do best…..
Matt and I came up a day early as the season opened on Friday and the kids had school. We got the camp setup for our families, did some afternoon and evening spotting, and tried to get to bed early, as our alarms were set for midnight. Tylee and I had been watching a monster buck for weeks and Matt and I were stoked to see him again in his usual bowl. “Biggy Smalls or Biggy” as he became known in our camp has different habits then the other deer in the area as we never see him early in the morning. He comes out to eat promptly between 10:30 and 11 every day. (My kinda buck!) We had watched him on five (5) different occasions and had been spending countless hours planning a hunt on Google Earth and from our memory of the terrain from years past. I had talked to some old timers that had hunted the area for years and felt like we had a good plan for “Operation Biggy.” Normally we would ride in on horses, but the terrain was so rocky and cliffy that we planned to hike in and try getting to some cover above Biggy’s favorite mid-morning feeding location before light and hope no other hunters are in the area to change his patterns. Since he wasn’t visible from any roads or known spotting locations, I was hopeful that we would get an opportunity. It’s probably fair to point out that we had to get up at midnight because I forgot to pack our pup tent, as we had planned to camp on the mountain the night before the opener.
Figure 1. Camp Setup and Ready for the Families
Figure 2. Evening Before Opener – Matt Keeping an Eye on Biggy Smalls
It had snowed off and on during the day before the opener. The trail was wet and slick, but I was happy to see we were the first tracks on the mountain. Our destination was about 7-miles straight up hill, so we kept our heads down and made steady progress. We had originally planned to spend a couple of nights up on the mountain but since I forgot the tent we had one (1) shot at Biggy unless we made the voyage up the mountain again. Deep down we were both kind of relieved knowing that our wives would be driving up to camp with all our kids (we both have three little ones) after school was over on Friday. Our goal was simple – bring some buckhorns back for the wall tent! (Preferably Biggy) We walked through the cloud cover at about 9,000-ft and it warmed some as we made our moonlight ascent. We could tell where the top of the mountain was as it was blocked by the glow of the moon. Matt proved to be an able hiker and tough. I had purposely left camp early, as I didn’t know his hiking abilities ~ this was our first hunt together. He was as excited as I was having laid eyes on Biggy the day before. We summited before daybreak and had plenty of time to walk the rock ridgeline to our chosen spotting location. I got us a bit turned around and added a couple of miles to the adventure on loose boulders covered with ice. (I am sure Matt was wondering what he had gotten himself into even though he didn’t complain once as we stumbled our way across the slippery boulders.)
As the day awoke, the view from 11,000-ft was breathtaking. Our camp was covered with clouds below, but we could feel the pride of having conquered the hike and being in position to make a good stock on Biggy. We had hiked past two (2) high mountain tent camps and hoped the hunting pressure wouldn’t spook our buck. One tent was still pitch black and the other was just starting to stir. I hadn’t seen other hunters like this before in our targeted area and was happy we got up and going so early. The trend for setting up camp in “the kitchen” has changed how you need to hunt many of the places we have been enjoying for years. I don’t blame people for wanting to setup on the mountain since most don’t have the luxury of horses, but let’s hope the pressures of needing to get big bucks to post pics and write stories doesn’t ruin the main reasons we all love to hunt.
Figure 3. Dawn Above the Tree Line and Clouds. We were hunting near 11,000-ft.
We were in position well before shooting light and liked the view from our vantage point. Matt is a long-range shooter and I told him he could take the first shoot. It was damn cold. We both did our best to stay warm as the sun slowly peaked over the mountains. The anticipation of seeing Biggy was noteworthy.
After a couple of hours, nothing. Not even a doe. Besides being cold, I was antsy to check some other alpine bowls that have been productive in the past. (I had a hunch that Biggy and his buddies might spend the early morning hours feed there.) We decided to make a move. Moving quickly, we made our way across “The Spine” to the eastern side of the mountain to a proven spotting location. Before we had our packs down I had a nice buck spotted. He was a couple of miles away but I thought we should make a move on him. (When you have kids, the few hunting days without them along become very precious.) Matt felt strongly that we should wait for Biggy to show himself at his usual mid-morning time. It was a tough call because this buck was probably a mid-180 class buck. We decided to split up. I put a move on. I eased back around the mountain and went into full run mode to get into range of the buck before it moved or got pressure from other hunters. Breaths at 11,000-ft aren’t quite as fulfilling for this 40-yr old as they once were….
After catching my breath, I crawled up to the ridge to take a peek. To my surprise the buck was still there. As I ranged and got setup to shoot, I noticed another hunter putting a stock on the buck. I had a clean 300-yard shot. He was a dandy buck with deep forks and was very heavy. After chewing on it, I decided to pass on the shot because of the other hunter (one of the in The Kitchen tenters….) was in pursuit before I was on this buck, even though I had a better shot at this point. I did stay and watch what happened though. Sure enough the buck jumped and made a run for the mountain top. I had my sights on him again but still decided to not shoot. It was great to see another nice buck that we hadn’t spotted before. Feeling frustrated with the hunting pressure in the area I walked back to Matt’s spotting location with a feeling that Biggy was surly gone. He didn’t get so big by accident!
This time we changed our strategy. I wanted us to stick together and go back to our original vantage point, but Matt wanted to sneak down into the trees where I had seen Biggy several times. We split up again. Matt snuck down into the honey hole and I went back to our morning spotting location.
Almost as soon as I had arrived I got a glimpse of a buck that had been hanging with Biggy. Oh man, he was within 50-yards of where I thought Matt was hiding. Obviously, we hadn’t thought this through fully. I had a feeling Biggy was going to show and I wouldn’t be able to shoot with Matt sitting down there.
I watched the buck closely paying attention to his body language. Often does will look back to see if a buck is following, but these early season bachelor herds act much differently. The group will find its own path together as they seek the best food and protection. I could tell the buck was sensing danger, probably smelling Matt, but he didn’t want to change his path. Behind him it looked like the tree was moving and quickly I figured out it was Biggy! You have to be kidding me. He is coming out at exactly the time and place we thought he would. The problem is I can’t shoot because I don’t know where Matt is at this point. Hopefully he gets a close range opportunity! Oh man, watching Biggy at 500-yards compared to our spotting location over a mile away was something. I was shaking hoping Matt would get a chance. Minutes seemed like an hour as the buck of my dreams fed across the clearing. Then he was gone.
I picked up my gear and raced to try and find Matt and see what had happened and maybe try a push or ambush the majestic buck. In all there were seven (7) bucks in the group. When I found Matt and looked around I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t seen any of the bucks. They had worked their way through trees about 50-75 yards ahead of him but the wind was loud enough and he couldn’t hear the bucks moving and the mountain was so steep with enough trees that he couldn’t manage a glimpse. Hunting country this steep proved to be difficult yet again! We collected ourselves and started to walk towards the bucks only to see the last buck with this head down weaving through trees into the dense forest below.
We sat a minute and I gushed over the Biggy sighting. Poor Matt just missed the opportunity of a lifetime. I felt bad as I described what had just transpired. Inside I was gripping too as I knew I could have at least had a long shot if I had made Matt come with me to the selected vantage point. We guess this bucks scores between 210 and 220 BC points. Potentially a once in a lifetime type buck.
Knowing the timber was very thick where the bucks went we decided to walk back up to the ridge and spot a couple of nice bowls where we knew deer bed up mid to late morning. We loaded up and moved out. By this time our legs were starting to get tired and the wind was blowing hard so we headed for a cluster of trees to make some coffee and spot for a while. After sharing some jerky and getting the portable cooker going to make some coffee I spotted a good buck. We both got our spotting scopes setup quickly and confirmed that it was a shooter. I ranged him at 545. He had good mass and tine length and was still in the velvet. He had another decent buck with him. The excitement mounted as we got setup. I had told Matt he could shoot first so the plan was for me to spot for him and if he was able to knock the best one down I would try for the other buck.
The wind was howling over the top of the mountain and blowing across the shooting lane. Matt took his time, corrected for the range and wind and squeezed off a shot. Nothing. He scrambled as the deer moved up the hill not knowing where the shot came from. Matt shot again and the deer staggered. Seeing that it was hit good I shot at the other buck and knocked it down. It rolled down to the mountain and came to rest at the bottom of the steep ravine and we watched it die. Matt’s buck wasn’t in sight so we decided to split up and go after it. I went high and Matt dropped down the steep ridge we were sitting on thinking that the buck probably went downhill. He ran down the rock slope as fast as he could.
As I walked to the trees along the top of the ridge I ran into a little buck sleeping. I couldn’t believe he was still sleeping after the shooting that had just taken place. He didn’t bolt until I poked him with my gun. His head was bobbing as he was dozing off and even when I poked him it took him a while to realize what was going on before he bolted. That was the first time I have ever snuck up on a sleeping deer. I was able to get a couple very close-up photos in doing so. About then I heard the crack of a rifle below and I knew Matt had found his buck. What a hunt!
I changed my trajectory and headed down the mountain almost getting myself in a very bad situation on a talus rock slope that began to slide. Crawling to safety I held on to large piece of rock outcrop still solid to the mountain. Eventually I made my way down to my buck. I was happy even though he wasn’t Biggy or either of the two (2) other large bucks seen earlier in the day. It had been an outstanding hunt. The best part would be spending the next few days with my wife and kids hunting together. Quickly I went to find Matt.
Wow. Wow. Wow. The buck was as good as I thought it was. Matt was on cloud nine as this was his first high country buck and what a story to tell! Given the time and the lengthy hike up and then down to camp we decided to clean the deer and come back in the morning to pack them out.
Figure 4. Sleeping Buck that I Snuck Up On
Figure 5. 2016 Opening Day High Country Mule Deer
Figure 6. My Buck
Figure 7. Heavy Base and Tall
Figure 8. Matt’s Stellar Buck in Full Velvet
The hike up and out was a killer even without fully loaded packs. We brought the horns and some of the meat out, but knew the next day would also be a challenge. Thank God when we made it to camp as we were both beat. Our kids were so stoked to see us, hear the story, and play with the horns. Mission accomplished – Buckhorns for the Wall Tent! Our wives were sure happy to see us too. I made a good decision to shoot even though it wasn’t the buck we had been spotting. Now I could spend the weekend with my kids and help my wife hunt Biggy!
Figure 9. Kayden and Hunter with our Buckhorns
Figure 10. Raegenn Checking Out my Buckhorns
We enjoyed our morning in camp with the families and then packed up and drove around the mountain range in order to have a much easier hike to retrieve our bucks. Matt’s wife Chelsey had brought playdoh and other games for the kids, which made camp fun for them. Tylee cooked up a big old breakfast and then we were off. The whole gang!
Figure 11. Kids Camp Activities
Figure 12. Kenley – Our Artist
Figure 13. Brooke!
Figure 14. Hunter the Hunter
Figure 15. Howling at the Moon
Figure 16. Exploring
Figure 17. Girls Leading the Way
Figure 18. Raegenn – Being a Big Girl
Figure 19. The Troops
Figure 20. Family Hunt
It was a long day hiking back up to the high country to retrieve our deer meat. Our wives carried their rifles along and we spotted a few small bucks, but they had their minds set to beat us. We boned the deer out and brought them out in one load. Uffda! Kayden, our 7-yr old, was a trooper and carried out most the other gear. It was great to have him along and such good learning for him. I was sure proud of my little man.
After dinner we went out for an evening hunt with the full crew, but didn’t see anything within range. The girls were going to get up early and go hunting while Matt and I took care of the kids. Atlas they stayed in camp with the crew and we enjoyed a big breakfast and fun with the kids.
Figure 21. Mmmmm Sausage
Figure 22. Lunch in the Trees
Figure 23. Kayden Helping with Camp Wood
Figure 24. Dishes are More Fun in Camp
After breakfast I took the older boys down to the creek to do some fishing. Kayden had been honing is fly-fishing skills all summer and was very happy to teach the finer points to Hunter.
Figure 25. Making a Fly Fisherman Out of Hunter
Figure 26. Fish On!
Figure 27. Boys Will Be Boys
Figure 28. Creek Cleansing
Every 7-yr old boy’s dream is to find a frog. Kayden did just that in our wall tent no less! The day was capped off with another family hunt. What a great time spent with the family. No phones, no video games, no distractions ~ just family, the great outdoors, and good companionship. It really doesn’t get any better than that. Until next year!
Figure 29. Treasure of the Week – a Frog in Camp
Figure 30. Holy Grail for a 6-yr Old
Figure 31. Tylee and Chelsey Showing Kiddos What to Look For
Figure 32. Chelsey and Brooke Putting Some Miles On
Figure 33. Matt and Cruz Spotting Bucks
Figure 34. Rae’s First Hunting Camp
Figure 35. Kenley and Brook in Camp
Figure 36. Evening Spotting Adventure
Figure 37. Sudbeck Family!