North Dakota- The smell of fresh steak hangs in my house as the meat I am eating melts in my mouth, nourishing my body without having ever been processed, or altered by human hands. There’s something special about this meat. It isn’t the taste of the meat, though it is fantastic. It isn’t the tenderness, though it is more tender than any restaurant or grocery bought meat I’ve ever had. It isn’t fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is special. The reason it is special is not just because it is meat that I harvested myself, though that is part of it. The reason it is so special is that it is part of one of the backstraps from my 2019 velvet archery mule deer, the first animal I have taken with a bow.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to hunting at a very young age, and I quickly learned to love the taste of wild meat. I grew up spending most of my time hunting small game, ducks, geese, pheasants, and one deer a year, a whitetail deer from the farm country of North Dakota. I attended college in North Dakota and optometry school in Arizona, but I was always very busy with school, and over the last 8 years before this year, I only took two deer, a small whitetail during college, and my first mule deer, with a rifle, in western North Dakota, while I was home from optometry school for Thanksgiving break.
We spent that weekend hiking around the badlands of southwest North Dakota and the group I tagged along with hunted by walking through the badlands. I took a 3x3 mule deer, young, but plenty large, on the second to last day of season. I was thrilled, I had logged 37 miles of hiking that weekend, and when the time came to fill my tag, I took it. That hunt, along with my spot and stalk Wyoming pronghorn rifle hunt the next year caused me to fall headfirst in love with western style hunting, but especially spot and stalk hunting.
Last winter, in anticipation for graduation from school, and finally seeing that I would have the time to dedicate to big game and archery hunting, I purchased a bow. A good friend of my brother’s, Jake Wheeling, owns an archery shop in Dickinson, ND, called Little Missouri Archery. I contacted him to purchase a bow. He told me that the best bow he had ever shot was an Elite Energy 35, and being the rookie that I was, I had no opinion, so I said ok. He put together a package for me, and shipped it to Oklahoma, where I was interning at the time. I spent many nights at the indoor range, and borrowed my grandmother’s backyard to practice shooting. I graduated this May, and as soon as I could, I purchased my first bow tag.
Archery tags in North Dakota are good for any part of the state. My plan for that tag was to hunt opening weekend in the public lands of the badlands of southwestern North Dakota, spot and stalking mule deer. I figured that I would hunt that first weekend, not come remotely close to filling my tag, and have to wind up shooting another whitetail, possibly even a doe, on my uncle’s farmland later in the year, as my schedule was so busy, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford to spend another weekend this year in the badlands.
I ventured west, the night before season opened at noon the next day. I arrived in camp and met up with a good friend, Brandt Haskell. I had moderate expectations for the weekend. I knew there were plenty of mule deer in the area, and I saw a great buck right off the road, in full velvet, feeding on some ditch grass. But my expectations were countered with the fact that I am a rookie, not only to archery, but also to good honest spot and stalk style hunting. I also was dealing with a ruptured PCL courtesy of ice fishing the winter prior, which I thought may hamper my efforts if the time came to scale nasty terrain and get close enough to let an arrow fly.
The morning of opening season, we hiked a mile and a half back to the first glassing spot. Within minutes, we glassed up two bucks, both in velvet, a giant 4x4, and a smaller 6x5 with cool stickers and bladed antlers. Our rule of thumb is “you spot them; you stalk them”. Brandt turned those two bucks up, so he was the one to make the stalk. Right before opening hour, the bucks moved to a tougher spot and bedded, and unfortunately, a doe bedded with them in that spot. As soon as season was official open, Brandt made the stalk. He made a great stalk, but unfortunately, miss doe had to go and ruin the party. She bolted, and ruined his stalk, when he was about 10 yards from his shooting position.
We made no more stalks that day, and frankly, had a hard time spotting bucks. Hours behind the glass resulted in very few deer at all, and as far as bucks, only one little fork horn. We returned to camp dejected, and mended our wounds with a little Canadian whiskey while we comforted ourselves with a fire. The next morning, Saturday morning, we spotted the same two bucks as day one, in the same place. We spotted them at the same time, so we flipped a key (we didn’t have a coin), and I was the one to make the stalk. This would be my first stalk ever with a bow and first stalk on mule deer. Very little wind was around, a rarity in North Dakota. I got to around 100 yards, and was scaling a hill on a cattle path, when underneath some sage my boot found a hidden twig. The snap sounded like a firework, and the bucks scampered over the hill, safe again. I turned around, and headed back to our glassing spot, shaking from the adrenaline rush I had just encountered.
The remainder of that day was much the same as the previous, other than a chance at buck that moved before Brandt could get into position. Hours were spent glassing and hiking, with no more bucks turned up. Again, we returned to camp dejected, and opted for whiskey and a fire.
The next day was Sunday morning. The forecast called for highs around 85 degrees. With minimal motivation, we snoozed alarms, and wound up getting going around 9AM. I assure you, it wasn’t the whiskey that caused this, rather, I think it was the dejection. However, after two days of miles and hours of hiking and glassing, and only the same two worthy bucks turned up, one might understand if there was a morning headache. Our plan was to start at a new spot which continued for miles and miles, with glassing spots after each valley.
The very first valley, we watched three bucks go into a shady spot shaped like a C. Brandt spotted them, so he stalked them. He made a great stalk again, but the buck he was after was sitting straight away in a very poor position. As the buck spotted him, he began moving, and Brandt’s arrow found the clay directly in front of the buck’s brisket. I made the hike down to him, and we continued on to the next valley. The next valley was like many of the others we glassed, with no deer spotted, so we continued to the next one, where that pattern continued.
We reached the fourth glassing spot, which overlooked a riverbed that ran westward down the valley. I sat down, set my pack down, and immediately thought “nope”. The terrain was intimidating, with a very tall and steep clay butte that we were sitting on. I was feeling pretty down by this time. I was sore, sunburnt, sweaty, and smelling like you would expect your local beggar to. Nonetheless, I started glassing, and looked far down the riverbed to the west. I caught a glimpse of an abnormal shape, and zoomed in with the spotting scope. Perched under the shade of an overhang of another clay butte was a buck. The butte he was perched under was shaped like a V, and he was sitting right under a ledge at the apex of the V. I stifled my excitement, because I realized how far and how nasty of a stalk that might be. I watched him for a little while before I called out to Brandt, “buck”. We both focused on the buck, and saw that he was a giant 2x2, heavy, wide, very tall, and in full velvet. As we sat glassing him, we caught glimpses of a small 2x2 which bedded to the west around the V, out of sight, and another buck which seemed to maybe be a 3x3 which bedded to the east of the V, out of sight.
I sat there for a little while with numerous thoughts in my head. My first though was of the stalk. I thought it was too extreme, especially the return trip, and especially with my knee missing a vital ligament. My second thought was of the time it would take me to stalk, and the chances that the buck would move by the time I got there. My third and fourth thought were of my rookie status as an archer, and the poor approaches that the position of the buck warranted from our vantage point. I said to Brandt, “I don’t think I’m doing this”, to which he replied, “If you don’t, I will”. He mentioned how no matter the terrain, stalk, or approach, if you spotted a good buck in the badlands, you have to make the stalk, as opportunities are limited. He was right, so I packed up, and headed down the butte.
My target was the giant 2x2, as he was the only one we could see. I made it down the butte and into the riverbed, where I started westward. As I made my way down the riverbed, I bumped two other bucks, one small, one far from small, but I had no chance at either bucks after I flushed them. Of course, the bucks headed southwest, towards the other 3 bucks I had glassed up, so I was nervous they would spook the other three. I reached the point in the riverbed where I planned on dropping my pack, and made my approach from the east. At about 80 yards out, I realized that my approach was suboptimal, and my only shot would be absolutely on top of the buck, right in front of his face, and only yards away. I knew that this would result in the buck flushing, and a nearly impossible shot due to the chaos. I backed out and went back to where my pack was.
I regrouped, and made my stalk from my plan B location. I went into a group of trees about 60 yards from the buck. This approach would lend me a broadside shot, and allow me to potentially shoot the buck while in his bed. I hesitated momentarily in the trees, and caught my breath. Suddenly, I heard a snort, and seemingly only yards away. I froze, but the buck snorted again, and bolted. I must have been within 10-20 yards of this buck and I never did lay eyes on him as the trees were too thick. At this point in time, I was sure that the other three bucks had bolted, as the buck that snorted at me was not nearly as stealthy as I was trying to be. I made my secondary approach, but at about 40 yards out, felt wind at my back, going right towards the bucks. I knew that I smelled pungent, and as soon as I felt that wind, I turned around, and booked it back into the trees.
My plan C approach was to go around the bucks, and stalk from the west. The problem with that approach was that the small 2x2 was bedded over there, and I didn’t know where. Sure enough, about 30 yards from the ledge that the giant 2x2 was bedded under, I spooked the little 2x2, and I never saw him, but I surely heard him. I was one hundred percent certain that at this point in time, the jig was up, and I would have to return back up to the glassing spot, a mile to a mile and a half away. I continued anyways, and peeked under the ledge where the giant 2x2 was bedded, only to see it empty.
I took a few steps forward, less stealthily than any of my previous steps, and all of a sudden, saw two giant points turn towards me along with an ear. I froze and drew my bow, thinking surely the buck would bolt, and I would have to send a prayer in the form of an arrow if I were to fill my tag. I stood motionless with my 70-pound bow drawn, leaned slightly to the right, so the buck couldn’t see me. After what seemed like an eternity at a standoff with this buck, I was starting to shake. I let my bow down as softly as I could, and to my surprise, the buck didn’t dart off. I stood there for again, what seemed like an eternity, which was probably more like 10 minutes. The buck eventually turned his head as the wind was okay, and he couldn’t see or smell me. I ranged his ear, and I was seven yards from him.
After those ten minutes of waiting for the buck to stand and walk out, I watched an innocent thirteen striped ground squirrel hop from the cliff onto a rock, about 3 yards from the buck’s face. The buck was already nervous, and the ground squirrel acrobatics caused the buck to run from his bed (at least this is my hypothesis as to why he ran, I didn’t feel the wind swirl, and he still couldn’t see me, so I have to think the squirrel jumping directly in front of his face may have startled him) and he departed. Quickly, I drew my bow again. I had no time to range, as he was moving. I figured he was at twenty yards or inside, so I tried to lead him with my top pin, which is set for 0-20 yards, and proceeded to send an arrow right over his back.
In a split second, every profane word I knew went through my mind. But then, something happened. If you remember back from when we were glassing, there was another buck with the big 2x2 and the small 2x2, bedded to the east around the V shaped butte. The noise of my bow shooting caused him to get up out of his bed, step out into the open, and stand broadside, as I was frozen. I quickly and deliberately grabbed another arrow from my quiver, nocked it, flipped up my arrow rest, drew my bow, and settled into my shooting position. This all took place over about 5 seconds, and the buck gave me just enough time. I figured he was within 20 yards, so I placed my top pin over the kill zone. I released my arrow, and watched it pass right through the buck.
My adrenaline was at an all-time high, I was shaking so badly I couldn’t stand. I fell to my knees and threw my hands up in the air. I knew the shot would kill the buck, but the shot was a few inches back from perfect, so I didn’t know how far he would go. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over the ridge to the east where he ran. He was trotting about 50 yards away, and I saw no blood exiting him. I was worried that my eyes had deceived me, but at 20 yards or closer, I knew I had hit him. I knew it wasn’t a heart shot, but I found my arrow and saw it covered in dark red blood, so I knew my shot was good. I kept my eyes on him as he slowed to a walk. He bedded under a small juniper tree about 100 yards from where my arrow passed through him. He raised his head a couple of times before rolling a small way down the hill where he kicked, and passed.
I grabbed my pack, and glassed up to where Brandt was watching from. I knew he had seen what had transpired, and later it would be evident that he saw me raise my hands in the air, but didn’t see the buck until he bedded and passed. His reaction was captured via snapchat and sent to numerous friends and hunting buddies.
I was reminded of a story from a friend who made a great shot on a buck, watched him bed down, and expected him to pass, but pushed it a little too quick, bumped the buck, and never found it. I waited until Brandt got to me about a half hour later. The buck never moved, and we came up to it together. He wound up being a mainframe 3x4 with two small eye guards that may make him a 4x5, but to be honest, I don’t care what you call him.
At this point in time, I was in a state of pure disbelief. A rookie to archery, on his second ever stalk on a deer had just harvested a full velvet mule deer, and a good one at that. The shot was better than I had thought, and was just behind the lungs. We used the gutless method of cleaning the deer, so I can’t say with certainty what vitals I hit, but I would guess it was right through the liver, with maybe some collateral damage to the back of the lungs. Either way, a deer that beds and passes 100 yards from the spot he was shot is hit well. I nicked the cavity during butchering, and he was full of blood, but the exit wound was plugged by tissue. Luckily I was able to watch him bed and pass, because had he ran, or made it around the corner, I wouldn’t have had a blood trail to follow, and anyone that knows the badlands of western North Dakota knows how much that terrain resembles a labyrinth of never ending draws, buttes, hills, valleys, and places to hide.
We took photographs, and began cutting up the deer for packing out. Shortly thereafter, we began hiking out. I’m glad I had a partner, because that three and a half mile, two and a half hour pack out was some of the hardest hiking I have done to this day. I know there are worse pack outs, especially by elk hunters in various states, but it was certainly one of the more difficult pack outs one may find in North Dakota.
We arrived back to the truck relieved, sore, sweaty, wet from a rainstorm that drenched us on the way back, but happier than any two other guys in the world at that moment. That first celebratory beer that was waiting in the cooler as we arrived back at camp was the best beer I have ever consumed. Backstraps were cooked on the grill that night, and the same backstraps are in my belly as I type this.
I am so fortunate, lucky, and frankly, undeserving of this deer in my opinion. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen to rookies. I owe infinite thanks to Brandt Haskell, my hunting partner, and Jake Wheeling with Little Missouri Archery, who got me set up with a great bow, and helped me with any questions I had regarding archery and sighting that bow in. I know numerous people who go to the badlands of North Dakota annually to bow hunt those same mule deer, and have never gotten one, or have taken 6-10 years to punch that tag. I’m sure there are guys who fill that tag more often than that, but they are better hunters than I am. The fact that I got it done on not only just a mule deer, but a good one in full velvet, which was on my bucket list, during my first year, on my second stalk, smelling like a combination of a garlic processing plant and the dumpster of your local buffet in the summer absolutely bewilders me. The fact that the buck stood broadside long enough for me to nock another arrow, draw, and fire could only be because of divine intervention, and I will not be convinced otherwise.
Bow: Elite Energy 35
Sight: SpotHogg Hunter 7 Pin
Release: Scott Wildcat 2
Arrows: Easton Axis
Broadheads: G5 Montec
Optics: Leupold RX650
Boots: Cabelas Meindl "Perfekt"
Pack: Eberlestock J34 Just One
Not enough thanks in the world to my hunting partner Brandt Haskell. It truly was a team effort.
The pack out begins. At one point in time during this process, I thought to myself, “I’m never doing this again”. But who am I kidding, this weekend is inked in permanent marker next year already. Let me assure you, those buttes in the background are much steeper and higher than they look, and are especially unenjoyable in 80+ degree weather.