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Rifle Magazine
November - December 2003
Volume 1, Number 6
Number 6
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Cover photo John R. Ford
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Sorry, I am not going to offer you any tactics. There are no secrets here, no magical ways to catch bucks like these. These are different, better-to-be-lucky-than-good hunting stories. The east plains of Colorado grow massive bucks of both the white- and black-tailed race. There I have seen, and even taken, mule deer and whitetails that will stop your heart. Most of the time catching them was simply a matter of perseverance, knowledge of their habits and, yes, a huge measure of luck. I hope you have fun with them as I did.

“The Moose” Hunt

My son and I usually hunted together. He lived by the river and I on the rolling sage hills and sub-irrigated meadows a few miles from, and about 500 feet in elevation above, the South Platte. Between us we kept a relentless eye on the deer; watched them day and night. Yes, we saw them as we moved in their world during the day and also spied on their secret night-life as they fed in the corn and alfalfa. These regular forays with a spotlight were very informative. Night gave us a look at many, even most of the deer. We could keep track of the populations and see all but the most secretive bucks from time to time. The spotlight often gave our lives a purpose for months or even years at a time. Once in awhile the spotlight would offer a glimpse of a heretofore unknown monster. Then, the hunt was on.

It was so with a buck that came, to us, to be The Moose. He was “our deer,” for no one else knew of his existence. We saw him one early winter night or at least “almost” saw him. There was an apparition that sort of slunk out of tall corn and into the heavy riverine brush. He was gone in a blink and what we saw made little sense to our minds or eyes. Atop a rather gray-bodied deer were a pair of parallel shafts with a wad of “stuff” on top. His spread was not wide, rather his greatest spread might have been 12 inches at the most, but the beams were as thick as our arms. On top was a fan or palm, with about five or six little short points on each side. His name was for very obvious reasons.

The days and weeks that followed offered no further information. He had vanished, as they will do. But late the next summer, when the big bucks would go through that quiet time, when their velvet is almost mature and when they covet clover flowers, we saw him again. This time he was a mile away, grazing in an open meadow, and he was still very impressive. As the leaves turned and frost touched the dawns, we began to hunt him in earnest.

Rich had seen him first, so The Moose sort of became his deer. He saw the buck twice more during autumn, always slinking at a distance in very little light. But those bits of intelligence said he liked a particular stretch of river. When season opened in late November, we waited in ambush in the afternoons and stalked him from above at dawn. Several days passed, and so did several other very big bucks, but Rich held fire. (While I did not, and we will go there in a moment.)

Then on the morning of the sixth day, we stalked from the north side of the river, stalked the sand ridges down so we could look over the brush jungles below. As we crept past the last big sage, we came face to face with our prize. The Moose stood in the reed beds, looking out at us from only 75 yards. The safety catch slipped, Rich leveled his rifle, and we both stopped. He had a baby face. Our giant, ancient “moose” was only a three or four years old! Or at least we thought so. We slipped out backward and left him to his secret life in the river.

We encountered The Moose from time to time over the next five years; we came to know him, came to like him very much. Five years later he still had a baby face and his palmated rack began to recede. We left The Moose alive and well and wonderful when we abandoned our native Colorado. Perhaps he is still alive, still a baby and still, yes, a wonderful buck.

But the year of The Moose was not without its successes. While we searched for Rich’s buck, we had seen tracks, huge tracks. Once we decided to abandon The Moose chase, we began to hunt the tracks. This great   8-point monster became the “Close-Enough Buck” from the Fall 2000 Rifle Hunting Annual. I landed a dandy right in the middle of our search for The Moose.

While Rich haunted parts of the river known to contain our quarry, I generally spent my evening vigils about two miles downstream. There was always the chance his buck would show up in my meadows, but I deeply and secretly hoped he would not. I might have fired. But as it turned out, a turn of luck put something incredible in front of my rifle.

Spring floods had done strange things to the old river. In places it had flowed out of its historic banks for weeks at a time, spreading deep layers of silt and gravel on the hay meadows. This more or less destroyed the  native hay but planted vast groves of cottonwood and willow. The young cottonwoods were as thick as the grass, and by the time of this fall, they were about 20 feet tall. These, combined with willows, formed what would be a jungle by any description.

My plan was to slip into a place where I could watch gaps in the jungle at about 3:00 in the afternoon, watch the remaining open meadows, just in case. Over the first days I saw things, wonderful things.

I remember well the two-year-old buck. He was just a little fellow but with a wide spread and many points. He had an attitude and almost challenged the much older bucks. I said almost out loud to myself, "One day this fellow will be a monster." Then there was the dandy 5x5, a big old buck, but he had broken several points. He was fun to watch, interesting to wonder about, knowing he would grow another year older and perhaps not be so hard on his head gear next time. Generally I was occupied by The Moose, spent a lot of time watching the shadows and listening for the snap of a .270 from up the river. But the shot did not come.

This particular afternoon and evening were a bit different. A big, high-pressure bubble had dropped over the plains and in early December that meant only one thing in the low river country: cold, deep, hard cold. When I left the truck to begin the hike into the bottoms, everything cracked under my feet, and the air bit on my cheeks as if it were hot. At 4:00 p.m. it was 10 below zero! It was pretty, though, with the frost from the night before still sharp and bright. The barbed wire looked like Christmas-tree garland, and the clover pods acted like jewels in the late sun.

As the sun went down, it seemed as if this afternoon would be like most others, with a few bucks mixed in the fields full of does and fawns. But things began to change suddenly.

I could see a plume of steam puffing out of the thickets, coming from the direction of the river itself. It was a doe, running not for her life, but running hard. She was hot and wet, having plunged through some of the warm water sloughs on her way from the riverbed to the fields above. She looked back from time to time and was clearly running from something. Moments later another, larger, more frantic steam engine began to puff out of the brush. He was on her trail, a trail that led past where I was lying, about 20 yards to my left. It was good my teeth were attached, for if not, I would have swallowed them.

His nose was on the ground, and his antlers sort of silhouetted against the sunset. The thing that struck my mind first was the brow tines - long, extremely long, wavy brow tines. Then there was the rest: points sticking out in all directions, lots of points sticking out in all directions. I swivelled the muzzle of my Blaser 7x65R just a little to the right, squeezed the grip that cocked the mainspring and tried to find a hole in all that thorn. Fortunately the buck took a sharper angle to the left for just a second, exposing the front of his chest.

It has only happened to me a few times, times when I walked up to a downed critter and they grew as I approached. This buck grew and grew. We had never seen him before, nor had any of our spies given us any intelligence that would indicate such a thing lived. But there he was in all his grand wonder. Yes, to catch the huge buck you need to be two things: out hunting and very lucky!

The Dam Buck and the Damn Flag

This autumn was an odd one. I knew it was the last time I would hunt the river of my childhood. Things were changing. I was leaving my native home, and progress had come to the old river. I thought as I stalked the willow breaks and crept up behind the tumbleweeds that had piled up in the rotting fence corners that still suspended the rusty barbed wire. This wire had been unrolled a century before; I thought of the honest, old things and how they stood in stark contrast to the little flag.

It was a curious flag that represented much that I do not like in the world. It stood where I had run three great dogs in search of pheasants and quail. It stood not far from where I had watched my second Canada goose fall nearly 20 years earlier. It was only 400 yards from where I had taken my first whitetail buck. On one grand Christmas morning, I fired my first muzzleloading shotgun from a place now within sight of this flag. I fired it at mallard drakes idling against a cobalt blue sky and giant cottonwood trees covered in hoar frost.

The place of the flag had been owned by a Frenchman who lived to hunt ducks on the warm water slough that had been, at the price of $1 million, turned into an artificial trout stream. The slough had once been good enough duck hunting to attract both Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway. The curious little flag stood in the middle of a strange meadow. The grass seemed rather useless, for it was too short for a deer or an elk to graze. It was in fact too short for the clever pronghorn to nip, too short for even a goat or a rabbit. The little flag stood more or less in the center of the green, of the ninth hole, of, yes, a golf course. But in spite of the desecration of the old river, I was going to take one more buck.

I carried a fine rifle, a new one that was good enough to be old. It was a Dakota Model 10, stocked by Don Allen himself with the best piece of Circassian walnut I have ever seen. It seemed worthy of my last great plains buck. But, of course, I had to find the buck to prove it, and this year, also in contrast to many from the past, I had not seen nor heard about anything special lurking in the river. Without a specific buck to hunt, every morning and evening was a prospecting venture.

There were many normal things, nice 4x4 bucks, lots of youngsters, but nothing that really seemed worthy of pursuit. One could hunt the Platte River and the plains differently than much of the whitetail habitat in other parts of the country. While there was a very dense riverine belt, there was also the rest of the world. This consisted of mostly rolling sage sand hills that had some elevation above the river bottom. The "high-ground" had two purposes. First it was a fine platform to use to scout down into the timber. With good binoculars and spotting scopes, many fine and very secret bucks came to light. But there was another side to the rolling sage and grass-covered sand. White-tailed deer and specifically some big bucks have evolved in the big open country. They too understand the value of visibility. They live like old mule deer or pronghorns - live by watching.

I had been cruising the high ground, searching the river belt for deer late one afternoon when something caught my eye. It was the tip of a very white antler, slipping gently through some tall grass and into some very dense willows. The wind was wrong, and he was too distant to make any attack this even­ing. But, the apparently very long and numerous points gave me a purpose.

What made this fellow different from most was his house. He had not gone to the dense river, nor had he gone to lie up in a little saddle in the midst of thousands of acres of visibility. He had, instead, crawled into the trees that had sprouted below a dam on a lake. This lake was, in reality, an irrigation reservoir made nearly a century earlier. Its dam was nearly two miles long, while it puddled water over nearly 30 square miles. As I looked at the big picture, and the apparently big buck that had gone there, I wondered why I had not hunted here before. That oversight was about to be remedied, at exactly very dark tomorrow morning.

I idled gently through the “country club” and switched off where most would normally hunt, right in the thickest woods. But this was another kind of hunt, with another kind of cover. The dam wall was nearly 30 feet tall, and the wind drifted out of the east. A big loop  to the west brought me to a place where I could slip over the wall with some reasonable trees for cover. Then a quiet stroll down a sandy beach would bring me within easy rifle shot of where I had seen the horns the evening before. On my left was four miles of perfectly flat sand and water, okay ice. Was I really hunting whitetails or dreaming of the Bahamas? At the moment, in the setting moon, it did not feel like deer hunting. Ah, well, sometimes you just have to believe.

When I felt close to the right spot, I scaled the dam wall. While concrete is a little slick when it is nearly vertical, it is also very quiet. No sticks to crunch, no brush to break. Soon I was snuggled into an old fence corner with a few tumbleweeds for cover. The cross brace was a dandy rest, and the sky was getting red.

At first the world below seemed empty, then various sets of ears began to punctuate the long sand grasses. There were, to my surprise, a lot of deer using the dam. In addition to the big dense trees, there were a few clumps of scrub willows scattered here and there. They grew in little depressions, low spots that had kept their roots close enough to seep-water from the lake so they could survive in a world not unlike the Kalahari Desert.

In one of these clumps there were several sets of ears, and a few of them had horns sticking out above. But, they were small horns. Four little bucks were playing, sort of half-heartedly courting a lady who had no in­terest in teenagers. Soon the sun was nearly up, and there was enough light to see all colors, while the little merry-go-round continued without pause. The doe hid, pawed at the inept suitors, and they chased in circles, appearing and disappearing in turn.

Suddenly the scene changed. The doe stopped and seemed to be intent on something else, while the little bucks lowered their heads and began to retreat. Perhaps the sheriff had just come to town. Moments later the long white tines of the evening before appeared, and they had about 300 pounds of buck beneath them. He stopped about 10 feet from the doe and about 150 yards from me. I looked at him, then at the useless little meadow and the silly fluttering flag, said “good bye” to them all and pulled the trigger.

American Rifle
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