‘Braggin Bucks’
By Dave Wood

.....This story is about a hunt for Columbia Blacktail Deer in Washington’s Olympic Range. Penned
from memory, it is my hope that as you read along, it would take you along on this hunt of a lifetime!

Phil Huffman and myself, lifelong Blacktail hunters, prowled the hills along the North Slope of the Olympics since we were kids. I grew up on the west side of the Dungeness River, Phil on the east. We trapped, hunted and dreamed through the pages of Outdoor Life, Fur Fish Game and the likes of these. We followed the stories of some of the great outdoor writers like Jack O’Connor. As the years went by we each got married and still, on occasion, managed to hunt together.  This is one such occasion.
...As I mentioned before, when we grew up, the river was our stomping ground. In sharing this hunt it reminds me of the many trips we have made over the years, and the influence Phil and his dad Neal have had on my hunting. One trip comes to mind where Phil and I were on the mountain with Neal. Neal stayed on the rim of a basin; the two of us, young and full of energy, slipped down into the bowl. We hunted across a shallow ridge and climbed up onto a huge house sized boulder to ‘look’ around. When we got back…I’ll never forget the lecture and eye opener we both received from Neal. He fervently shared with us that while we were climbing on the boulder, several nice big bucks spooked, and were going over the top of the hill on their way to ‘no-mans-land’! That moment is a classic; I mention it with respect because I’m a better hunter for it. The ‘old guard’, as we respectfully refer to the older and wiser hunters, have forgotten more than we may ever know!
.. Our story began in August of 1987 as we planned a horseback pack-in hunt. The plan was to go upriver into the backcountry taking advantage of the early buck hunt open only in the Wilderness Areas. Typically, this time of year, a hunter can expect decent weather and possibly catch some of the bucks still in velvet. Most of the larger and older bucks (if we could find them) would be rubbed and carrying black or darker antlers. It was an exciting time and would be one of my first ‘horse’ trips with Phil providing all of the livestock and their gear. Always, in the past, my back had gotten the gear in and the meat out, so this was to be a special treat! We planned our hunt to be into the backcountry by Sept. 15th, and at the time we had no idea our plans were about to change dramatically.
With everything set, a plan in place, and gear nearly packed; Phil called with some last minute news that sent us scrambling with new ideas! Fred Holmes, a very good friend and accomplished hunter, had called him with a startling tip! He had spotted what he referred to as ‘Braggin Bucks’ while on a scouting trip.  This group of deer, deep in the bottom of an often-overlooked basin, was only a day hike off the road. We knew it well, and it had to be checked out before we packed into the backcountry. Going on memory, I believe Fred had an injury and that is why he chose not to go after one of the bucks himself, a tough break.
Phil and I talked it over and decided a day or two would be all we needed to check out Fred’s tip. After that, it would be up the river into some great hunting area and some trail riding!
... It seems like yesterday as I remember hiking up the mountain in the pre-dawn. The smell of the morning that all high-country hunters can relate to. Daylight was breaking when we left timberline and started across the meadow towards the first creek. We hunted and kept our eyes peeled for deer, but our destination was another mile away so we didn’t hunt it like we normally would. We didn’t want to miss the daylight hunt and have the game bedded before we got there. The sun was already hitting the highest peaks and we knew the deer would soon be out of site to escape the heat and bugs. There is a spot in particular where we like to slip over the rim, so we headed for it. Within this brushy spot not only could we change basins without being detected, it also had some shooting rests; things only the years show you, and handy to know.

...With a couple of days of 'dreaming' over Fred's tip still on our minds, we slipped over the top 'wired' with excitement. The morning sun was on the rocks and upper chutes of the basin to our left. We settled in and began an intense glassing of the basin. I was still in the first stages of scanning everywhere, and hadn't settled into the 'more effective' grid pattern of spotting, when I spotted three bucks feeding up a chute. They were just above the shade line out into the morning sun. Feeding up and away, they had awesome, long shadows that incredibly I still remember today! These were real bucks! Each had a magnificent rack and any one would be a shooter in my book regardless of points. One in particular stood out because of his 'beyond the ears' look. But then there was another with an exceptionally tall and heavy look. We recovered from the first WOW! Then made a quick plan. The deer were working their way up the chute at an alarming pace, and we were 500 yards away. Phil knowing the country very well (having taken several trophy bucks here) jumped into action and said he knew where we could get into range. With me hot on his heals we slipped back over the rim out of site. It was going to be a foot race to see if we could get into rifle range before the buck's fed over the hill into the steep rocky bedding area.
...Several hundred feet higher on the basin rim we slipped back over onto the slope the bucks were on. There they were! Already clear to the top of the steep chute, one buck was already out of site! The second buck walked into the 'slapping brush' as we got rests. The third buck, the one with wide antlers, stood straight away offering no good shot at all. Our mostly unspoken code gave me first crack at him (for spotting), and Phil encouraged me to touch off a shot. I pulled down on him and squeezed and hesitated, not liking the shot he offered. Before I could second guess anything he was out of site…I thought I had done the right thing, but my stomach felt sick over allowing three tremendous deer to simply walk into cover without a shot fired.
Dave Wood and Phil Huffman with their Washington High Country Columbian Blacktails.
...Once again we put our heads together and made a plan. With another short hike we could slip back over the rim and side-hill out in front of the deer. Perhaps then we could sneak in above them and maybe spot them still feeding or bedded. It was not by chance these bucks were out of site; they had slipped into one of the steepest, roughest outcroppings of rock in the whole area. They knew exactly what they were doing! The hike out onto the rocky ridge was tough and also a very long mental hike; I beat myself up for not taking the shot offered. I guess we all know the feeling…enough said. We worked our way across a steep slide and through a notch onto the ridge where the bucks should have been. We combed that hill up one side and down the other looking for those three bucks. We even went all the way down to the end where we figured they just wouldn't go. It was no use, not a deer anywhere! On the hike back up to the first spot, we carefully checked for any sign of a crossing. Not so much as a fresh track! Quietly talking over our next move and possible bedding spots, I suddenly spotted a brown speck down in the rocks below. One glance through the scope and I knew it was deer hair. We silently slipped behind a rock and made our way to a vantage point for a better look. With packs off to use as rests, we eased into view of the deer. There 90 to 100 yards below laid an awesome four-point buck. He had no idea we were within a hundred miles. Using my daypack propped up on the rock for a rest, I touched off a shot. He jerked, stood up and the second shot dropped him back into his bed. Fortunately he never moved again, it was straight down for 300 feet below! We didn't move a muscle! I'm sure we both expected the hill to come alive with the other two bucks making their escape. Oddly enough, there was no movement below on the hill. Silence…nothing but silence! ...After several minutes, I started across the steep chute to find a route down to the buck. Phil stayed on guard to check out anything that may spook into view. As I traversed across the hill, trying not to think of the danger, I wondered where the other two bucks had gone. About ten or fifteen minutes later, I eased up and peeked over a vertical bluff. There, 30 feet below laid my deer, and a dandy he was! I wondered how I would dress and bone him with no room to work except the bed he lay in. Easing back from the ledge I worked up and over to come down from the side when I heard a subtle noise. Right before me a massive set of antlers and head popped up into view! The buck's eyes looked like saucers as we made eye contact! Just as quickly he was gone, and it sounded like some serious scrambling going on over the edge out of site! The jig was up so I yelled up to Phil "here they come"! With rocks rolling the two big bucks came bounding into view as they headed straight away across the hill. How they could move like that, in country like that, is still a marvel! They popped in and out of view on their way to safety. I expected a shot from Phil at any moment, but found out later, his view was not as good as mine was. Glancing up, I saw he was gone from his original position. Obviously, he was after the bucks and trying to cut them off. In a few minutes I heard a single shot fired, and then silence. Well, I had my work ahead of me and wasn't sure what Phil's situation was.
...Sharing our stories later, I found that Phil had only gotten a glimpse of the escaping bucks. One of his interesting comments was how he observed the biggest buck hesitated and try to horn my buck laying in the escape route. I guess to get him to move and run. Phil said he didn't actually poke him, but lowered and shook his head, then simply jumped over him and out of site. It happened so fast and then they were out of his site. Paralleling the escaping deer, Phil was able to cut them off and get a shot, dropping his huge buck on the edge of a steep bluff of rock. The deer had dropped, rolled and hung-up his antlers in an old log…it was all that stopped him from continuing on over the cliff. Not able to free the big buck by himself, he cut the head off and the body did indeed roll to the bottom of the valley below. It was a similar situation with the buck I took, he ended up on the valley floor and we boned and packed from there.
After I had spooked the two big bucks across the hill, I found a narrow path down to my buck still lying in his bed. What I also found was the beds of the other two bucks tucked up tight to the rocks. I deduced that when I looked over the rim at my buck, I couldn't see the other deer because the rim cut back under me. It was a rush to set there for a minute and imagine how it all played out! I literally was only 30 feet vertically over those bucks! They must have heard me and walked out to have a look and that is when the big buck and I made eye contact. Penning this story from memory, I still remember the rush I felt looking into the old buck's eyes! After the two deer were out of site I followed a thin trail down to the bed my deer lay in. I was use to hanging my deer and then boning them; so with only his bed to work in, I was out of my comfort zone. Like I said, both our bucks ended up in the bottom, but that is the chance we take when we hunt in the rimrock.
Packing those animals up and out of that valley, Phil and I knew we were living the hunt of a lifetime! Dave Wood Jan.13, 2002 Ketchikan, Alaska Date of Hunt: September 1987

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