In The Hills

18 Sep

After eight hours of work on Saturday I was out the door and headed back home to switch vehicles, say goodbye to the family, and hit the road west to Nebraska. For the most part I had everything loaded in my truck and was 99% ready to go chase deer and antelope in the sand hills. The only thing left to do was take on the nine hour drive. To say I was excited was an understatement, but I also had mixed emotions as this would be the first real trip away from the family since my daughter was born. The Iowa Hawkeye football game kept me preoccupied for the first half of the trip. I was making really good time because I avoided having to stop turning a gas station soft drink cup into a urinal. I stopped just west of Omaha to get gas, stretch my legs and empty my pee cup. As the sun begin to set traveling down interstate 80 all I could think about was the task ahead of me. I had no idea what I was going to do and no experience with this kind of hunting. This entire trip was going to be a learning experience for me; but I was ready to give it the ol’ college try. Five hours later I pulled in to Ogallala and found the cheapest hotel in hopes of getting a little shut-eye.

 

This is the view I had while glassing the hay field.

Absolutely amazing views everywhere you look.

 

When the alarm went off I was already awake, I was staring at the celling and thinking about what the possibilities might be for the day ahead. It’s not like I was going to get much sleep anyway with my all my excitement and what sounded like an argument between a trucker and a prostitute in the next room… it made for a good laugh. Still dark, I jumped in the truck and headed north across the Lake McConaughy damn into parts unknown. 19 miles further north just as the east begin to light up I made a turn and left the reality I was used to behind me. The next four days I would be hunting in the lowest populated county in America (under 200 people). You either raised cattle or provided a service or product to someone who raided cattle. As the sun was coming up and I slowly drove down the dirt and sand roads feeling like I was on another planet. I spent the previous 4 months studying areal maps of these hills, but no map showed what I was seeing. Steep rounded grass covered hill for as far as the eye could see. The top of each hill providing another spectacular view of what looked like infinity.

My excitement level soon skyrocketed as I spotted my first group of mule deer doe coming off a crop circle and heading back to bed in the hills on a property I could hunt. I glassed the group of deer for about 20 minutes to see what direction they were heading and to give me an idea of a good starting point as a potential first stalk. Two more miles down the road I spotted a large group of antelope (12 females and one large buck) heading back into the hills. I pulled out the spotting scope and instantly knew that I was going after the buck in this group as my first stalk, he was huge. I drove to the end of the road glassing the area then decided to head to the place I was staying to unload my bags, say hello to my host and head back to where I saw the antelope to start hunting.

I introduced myself and made small talk with the 85 year old property owner talking a little about our families and history of the area but the only thing that was on my mind was how I was going to approach my first every stalk. It was about 10:00 am when I finally parked my truck, threw on my pack and bow, and started walking the fence row to find a good vantage point to stat glassing. I had several thoughts running through my head on the first hike in. I kept telling myself “slow down, keep your head up, don’t get sky-lined” and a million other pieces of advice others had told me prior to this trip. Honestly, it was difficult to stay focused on hunting as every step brought on a new view or species of plant or animal I wasn’t used to seeing. I was heading in the direction where I last saw the heard of antelope, but when I got there they had moved to a new location. So I decided to find the highest point and start glassing. Three more hours of bouncing around resulted in more awesome views, but no game. It was time to change locations, I headed back to the truck to review my maps and notes for the afternoon hunt. I decided to sit over top a large hay field where I could see an entire valley. From this position I was able to see over ¾ of a mile in each direction and all the funnels and washouts leading to and from the hay field. I watched natures show through my spotting scope as a dominate antelope kept chasing away a bachelor from his herd while in the opposite direction a mule deer doe and her twin fawns fed in the hay field. With endless views of God’s creation all around me, at this particular moment in my life I felt like the only person in the world.

(I am purposely leaving out the second day of the trip as not a lot happened. The heat index was over 100 and I spent most of the day in the shade. There was no animal movement.)

 

I found out the hard way how adorable these little guys are.

I found out the hard way how adorable these little guys are.

 

In the early morning shadows I was on top of another hill in hopes of catching the deer coming off the crops and going to bed. It’s truly amazing how well these animals can blend in with their surroundings. It takes a keen eye to know what to look for. I watched a doe and fawn disappear around a ridge and decided it was time to do some stalking around some “bowls” that they seemed to be heading towards. Playing the wind I would approach each bowl from the downwind side very slowly taking a couple steps then glassing what was visible. I did this a couple times before I came across a bowl that was actually holding deer. While coming up on my fourth mini-stalk I noticed some ears of a mule deer bedded in the grass. Not knowing if I wanted to shoot a doe this early in my trip I took a couple more horizontal steps to close the distance between myself and the doe without exposing the rest of me to the horizon. I was watching the doe through my binoculars when I noticed in my peripheral another doe on her feet in full alert looking right at me. I tried to make myself smaller by going to my knees but it was too late. With a couple snorts, a total of five does ran out of the bowl to about 80 yards then stopped to look at me as if to say “Nice try dipshit.” I learned a very important lesson at that moment… Once you find the first deer or target animal, don’t get tunnel vision. I was so excited to be close to my first mule deer that when I was making my horizontal move I exposed myself to the side of the ridge that was initially covered up by the lip I was skirting. Thus resulting in a bedded doe busting me. It was not that last time during this trip that I fell victim to the same mistake. It’s very hard to be aware of what is in front of and behind you at all times.

After my first encounter resulted in failure I had high hopes that I could duplicate the previous scenario but this time with a buck. Come to find out that it wouldn’t be until the drive home that I would see my first mule deer buck. Anyway, I spent the majority of morning and early afternoon jumping from bowl to bowl trying to find more bedded deer. I was successful on a couple more stalks where I would get close enough to shoot but then back out and try not to spook the does practicing for a hopeful buck encounter. It was somewhere around 2:00pm when I got back to my truck, fixed myself a ham-loaf sandwich and headed to my next location. Long story short… I went on a four hour walk and all I got was a cactus thorn in my ass cheek. I still had a blast as I wasn’t sitting in my cubicle. Extremely tired, I went back to the house and don’t even remember tucking myself into bed.

 

Several hours a day were spent looking through the spotting scope.

Several hours a day were spent looking through the spotting scope.

 

Overnight there was a 30 degree temperature change as huge cold front moved through the area, surprisingly without dropping any precipitation. With an extra hoodie and jacket I was hiking back up in the hills to another vantage point between a hay field and crop circle in hopes of catching some sort of movement. I had made the decision that today I would shoot anything that presented an opportunity male or female. Because the sky was overcast and there was a little bit of dew covering the grass the area looked completely different. Different colors and shading, still absolutely beautiful. While glassing I noticed one lone antelope in the distance and three mule deer on the opposite side of the valley moving away from me until they faded in to nothing. Because I could see a long distance over a large area I spent close to three hours inspecting every nook and cranny through my barrowed spotting scope. I then made a couple half-ass stalks on what I thought was good cover that resulted in nothing. I also noticed that the wind was starting to shift and that I should probably head back to my truck and approach the area from the opposite direction. So that’s what I did. My mind was overflowing with random thoughts over the course of the 30 min walk back to the truck. The mind can come up with some crazy thoughts when it is exhausted. I thought about my family, my job, the dumb things I did in college, and wondered how my life would have turned out if a couple specific moments would have turned out different.

By this time the sun was just starting to peek through the clouds and providing me with a little warmth. It was somewhere around 1:00pm… forgot to mention I took a snooze within the confines of a cozy sand dune out of the wind. For the next hunt I decided to go back to the same spot over the hay field I was the night before but further to the west so I could see the entire field and the terrain leading to it. Because I had studied maps of the area I knew there was a cattle tank I that couldn’t bee seen from the field where I wanted to park my truck. Two cattle gates later and a close call where four wheel drive saved my life, I came over a small hill and noticed the cattle tank I had seen in my maps… then I noticed 6 antelope looking right back at me. I put the truck in reverse and pulled out of sight hoping they might still be there when I walk back up, yeah right, they were long gone.

I used a well-worn cattle path to get to the top of the hill and not knowing what to expect I took it really slow and made stalks over every hill in hopes of running in to some sort of game. I was moving so slow and quiet that I felt I was breaking in to someone’s home. All of a sudden two whitetail bucks (130 class 8 and a 160 class 10) jumped out of the bowl I was glassing and took off down the valley. Just when I thought I had glassed the entire bowl, there was a 10×10 wash out where these bucks were bedding. Nothing I could do except shake my head and keep moving. After that encounter I decided it was time to explore the hayfield. So I made the long walk down to the opposite side of the valley glassing all of the small groves of trees and thorn thickets that surrounded the old buildings. Before entering the hay field I decided to make a quick loop around a thorn thicket that was in a deep washout. While walking down wind I heard a crash coming from the thorns so I got my bow ready any made a couple quick steps towards where I thought whatever it was would pop out. I stood there for what felt like 10 minutes trying to see in to the mass thickness. Then, like a rocket launched into space, a big-bodied whitetail buck with a junk rack popped out and was gone. Not sure if the wind shifted or I was making too much noise. I walked the rest of the way down to the hay field and started noticing a little more deer sign. I had a good feeling that this was the place to be, but not this time of year. I had a feeling that as the season progressed this would be a hot spot. But right now a majority of the movement was taking place after dark. Again, I made the long walk back to my truck going over different options and possibilities about what to next.

 

I was blessed with a full moon making the morning walks very easy.

I was blessed with a full moon making the morning walks very easy.

 

With about a hour of light left I decided post up on the tallest point I could overlooking a crop circle that I had yet to explore. By the time I got to where I wanted to be there were already a couple whitetail does in the field. I somewhat zoned out while watching the sunset when I noticed a little movement to my right. It was mule deer doe and two fawns just hanging out before heading to the field. Then I noticed two more, and then four more, and the next thing I know I was surrounded my mule deer. I counted 23 different deer in no hurry to get to the field. After watching them for a while and with light fading fast I decided it would be best to slip out and then come back first thing tomorrow morning and try to catch them going back into the hills.

Nothing wakes me up faster than having to climb straight up hill with a full pack first thing in the morning. By the time I reached the place I was the night before it was already starting to get light, but because there was a thick layer of clouds there was no beautiful sunrise. The wind was fairly strong out of the northwest witch was perfect for the area I wanted to hunt. I glassed my way through a couple empty bowls and was headed towards higher elevation to glass the area where all the deer were coming from the night before. When I got to the top I slowly started glassing my way through a part of the hill that had been eroded by wind and rain making for the perfect crossing as not to become skylined. I stood there for about 15 minutes scoping the ins and out of every hill. Again, I slowly crept around the corner keeping my eyes open scanning the ridges. I thought the coast was clear, it wasn’t. By the time I saw her she had me pinned so I hit the dirt behind a large bush. I crawled a couple inches forward so I could just barely see her through the grass. The next 30 minutes were spent face down in the sand while she stared in my direction. As soon as I noticed her body becoming more relaxed and her putting her head down for a couple bites I crawled behind another much larger hill where I dropped my bag and got my bow ready. A couple sneaky moves later I had her back in my sights and almost within shooting distance. There was just one problem, she was on the side of a steep hill with only one way that would offer a shot. I was going to have to climb up the opposite side hill she was on and then shoot straight down on her. From this point on I was going to be blind until I had spotted her again this time within shooting range. I put my plan to action making every step count. I wasn’t worried about making any noise as the wind was making perfect cover. The closer I got to the top of the ridge the harder my heart would beat. I was in the perfect position. I was looking down in the area where I last spotted her ready to draw back at any moment. But there was just one problem… no deer. She was gone and I was a little bummed. I put all my gear back on and started walking.

In order to get to the next location I wanted to hunt I had a 3 mile walk in front of me. I took my time periodically stopping to glass. I spotted a couple mule deer does in the distance but not on a property that I could hunt. About 2 miles in I stopped for a granola bar and a quick nap. Falling asleep outside is very easy for me for some reason. I laid there with my eyes closed and realized that I hadn’t seen another human for close to 48 hours. I was out the door in the morning before my host was up and he was already in bed by the time I got back to the house. It was a unique feeling being that alone. Although I did miss my family, truthfully I liked it. You’re completely on your own out here.

 

Sand roads were the main course of travel. I used a lot of four wheel drive.

Sand roads were the main course of travel. I used a lot of four wheel drive.

 

When I awoke from my nap I packed up and hiked the last mile to an open area surrounded by high hills. I found a hill that overlooked the entire valley with the sun to my back and snuggled in close to a large bush that was making a little shade for me to hide in. I glassed a long row of trees hoping to see the next Nebraska state record mule deer record bedded in the shade… no such luck. After about an hour, just as I was ready to pack up and head back to the truck I noticed an object moving across the plains about ¾ of a mile away. Through the spotting scope I realized it was an antelope buck moving pretty fast in my direction. He was so far away I didn’t even think about making a stalk on him. For about 20 minutes I watched him zigzag between a cattle tank and a fence row getting closer and closer to me. When I first ranged him he was about 230 yards, this is when I started thinking about making a move. He was making his way along where short grass met tall grass and begin to feed on the shorter grass. Taking my focus off the buck for a short moment I observed the terrain and put together a game in my head on how I was going to try and make this work. Almost automatically, when he went behind another hill I quickly stood up and was jogging down the hill to find cover in the taller grass below. My plan was to flank him down wind, go to the top of one of the smaller hills, get another visual, knock an arrow , then start my approach. When I got to my next glassing position the buck was nowhere to be found in the direction where I last saw him. I took my time and glassed everything I could. I dropped down in to another low spot and started heading in the direction where I last saw the buck. After about 40 more yards I started walking up another small hill to glass the next low spot. The first time I put the binos up he was looking right at me at about 70 yards. I hit the deck and started cursing for two reasons, the cactus thorn in my kneecap and because I knew my chance with this buck was more than likely over.

I slowly got to my knees and brought my binos back up for a look. The buck was still in the same location but for some reason not looking in my direction. He put his head down and slowly walked out of my sight. Then he snorted. I had the wind and the snort confirmed that he actually saw me. Then he snorted again, and this time it came from my left and was closer. He was trying to flank me and get my wind. So I started moving backwards in hopes of getting closer to him when he finally did come up behind me. I was crawling on my knees when I noticed him at a very close distance looking right at me. I was pegged. I pulled up my range finder but was having trouble getting an accurate reading through the grass. I set down my range finder and hooked up my release wondering why the buck was still hanging around. As I drew back from my knees the buck did a quick hop then turned around to look at me again. I was at full draw and settled my 40 yard pin right behind the shoulder. The arrow was away…

In the wide open the distance was deceiving. I guessed, guessed wrong, and the shot was about 2 inches low. After replaying the shot in my head over and over again I just started laughing. Not real sure why, just laughed. I think it was a mixture of an adrenalin dump, pure happiness, and disappointment all rolled in to one. I did however get a shot on the fastest animal in North America, and not a lot of people can say that. Little did I know that this was going to be the last hunt in Nebraska. The walk back to the truck seemed like it took forever, the entire time analyzing the shot in my head and wondering if there was something I could have done different to change the results.

 

The sunsets were amazing, almost distracting me from the reason I was there.

The sunsets were amazing, almost distracting me from the reason I was there.

 

My cellphone alarm went off just like it did the previous 4 days but this time when I looked out the window it was down pouring. So I went back to bed. I woke up a couple hours later, still raining. I joined the old man upstairs for the morning news and the weather forecast. The radar showed rain for the rest of the day and the forecast called for more rain the next day as well. I made the decision to pack up my things and cut the trip a day short. I said goodbye to my host and explained to him that he had no idea how much I appreciated the hospitality and the opportunity to hunt his property. The drive home was long and rainy but I knew I had my family at the other end.

Like I mentioned earlier, the beauty of this area is absolutely amazing, I can’t express that enough. Although I didn’t come away with any game, I did leave with memories and experiences that will last me the rest of my life. I truly believe that this trip made me a better hunter and planted more voices in my head telling me to start planning for my next adventure. Someday I’ll come back to the sand hills, and when I do, I’m going to dominate them.

Thanks for reading,

Dan (DFW)

5 Responses to “In The Hills”

  1. Brent Rich September 19, 2014 at 4:11 am #

    Sounds like an awesome experience!

  2. LS September 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Assuming you had a tag would you have shot the 160 class whitetail?

    • Dan Johnson September 23, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

      I did have a tag and yes I would have shot the that deer, just never presented an opportunity.

  3. Mike H September 24, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    I have been wondering about your trip since the last w2h podcast. I finally remembered to check here.

    Great writeup. I was riveted, anxiously reading to see if you were able to fill a tag.

    It sounds like the trip was a great success and your planning paid dividends. It sounds like the puzzle was really coming together and the last two days would probably have resulted in a dead animal. Maybe next trip you can make the rut.

    Now you just need to apply your skills and stalk an Iowa whitetail.

    • Dan Johnson September 24, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

      Thanks for reading Mike! As far as stalking whitetails in Iowa… it sure would save me a lot of time trimming out stands. 🙂

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