Not This Year

In July, I found out that I drew an antlered deer tag for the Cage Ranch. Almost immediately, I started to envision a big buck making the fatal mistake of walking into my crosshairs. Where on the creek would I hunt? Would I pursue the deer from a stand or on the ground? What new equipment would I need? What is the longest shot I am comfortable taking? Preparation would be critical if I was going to successfully execute in 2014.

In early September, Bob and I set up stands and a trail camera in a seemingly prime spot just off the dry creek. We used the flatbed truck and a heavy chain to tear down two big limbs that prohibited a clean line of sight to the left/right of the shooting platform.  Once the job was complete, we took a few doves that were buzzing through the trees.

The trail camera pictures over the next six weeks were revealing. The photographs displayed numerous bucks frequently patrolling the area that I would eventually hunt. Some of the deer had large bodies and displayed magnificent racks. In 2013, I took a respectable 113 inch, 5×5 3 ½ year old muley. Many of the deer we were looking at were larger and that was exciting.

At noon October 24th, I started my two hour journey to the ranch. Bob informed me that some personal reasons would prohibit him from joining me on my hunt.   Admittedly, I was a bit anxious as Bob has been mentoring me over the last few years. His big game tutelage has been essential in transforming me into a better sportsman. Furthermore, Bob is a good guy and I would miss the friendship.

The ride to the ranch allowed me to think out my strategy for the weekend. The weather forecast promised highs in the upper eighties. These were unseasonably warm temperatures for eastern Colorado. I theorized the heat would have deer moving when it was dark, and bedding down only a short time after the sun rose. To that point, I would be in my stand before 5:00 am and wait. If I did not have a positive encounter, I would walk the Shipping Trap pasture and employ a spot/stalk approach.

When I arrived at the ranch, I immediately drove to my trail camera to review the pictures taken over the last three weeks. Sitting in my running truck, I opened the files. Unlike the September pictures, there were only two photographs taken. One picture was that of a young buck moving at dawn, and the other of a coyote. I was not discouraged or deterred, and was committed to my plan.

Day 1

The excitement of the forthcoming day had me up and ready to go at 3:00 am. I was by myself and that provided me the freedom to quickly have my coffee, and make my final preparations to head to the creek. The walk from the pasture gate to the creek was one mile, and my Garmin GPS loaded with onXmaps, guided me to the stand. The temperature was forty two degrees, and my pace along with my Under Armour Ridge Reaper clothing kept me warm.  Once in the stand, I removed my Badlands Stealth pack and took out the essential equipment that included my Vortex Diamondback binoculars and my Leupold RX-1000i TBR rangefinder. Despite the bright stars in the sky, I could not see much of anything. At about 6:15 am, I thought I picked up movement near the trees in front of me. Putting my binoculars to my eyes, I observed a big bodied deer at fifty yards moving east. He actually slowed down when he got to my right, and methodically turned toward my position. Because he was so close, I was able to hone in on his rack. He was a symmetrical 5×5, with wide main beams and prominent eye guards. He was absolutely bigger than the deer I shot last season. I contemplated if he was what I was looking for this year. It was 6:40 am and the legal shooting time was minutes away. The buck moved back to the southwest actually walking twenty two yards in front of me; exposing his entire left flank. I gripped my Tikka T3 Lite, but did not chamber a round. I watched the deer plod along, eventually disappearing in the high grass beyond the property line. I immediately second guessed my decision to let him go, but hoped I would be rewarded with a bigger animal.

Later in the morning, I witnessed a small buck quickly moving north as well as a few does making their way to the adjacent property. At 9:00 am, the temperature was seventy eight degrees, and my gut told me the deer had stopped moving. I got out of the stand and prepared to conduct a systematic spot/stalk strategy. From my position, the Shipping Trap pasture extends two miles to the northeast. The dense tree line would provide me the necessary cover to keep a low profile as I glassed every fifty yards. As I approached the last ¼ mile, I made my way across the creek. An unfavorable wind had picked up, and I was afraid it would reveal my position to any deer in the vicinity. Realizing I was making noise due to the dry tumbleweeds I was stepping on, I decided to stop and glass. A doe popped up and looked back at me at about one hundred and twenty five yards. She was joined by a small buck with ½ his rack missing. They both simultaneously turned away from me, and headed toward the east end of the property. I waited a few minutes to see if they had company, but there was no movement. As I approached the next clearing, three does jumped to their feet at thirty yards. A magnificent buck then unfolded from the tall grass and stood staring right at me. All of the blood in my body rushed to my head as I dropped to my knee, put my rifle in my bipod and chambered a round. While I was attempting to engage, four additional does rose up, and immediately ran to the west. The buck quickly followed them. I put my crosshairs on him at about seventy five yards, but he was so fast I was unable to make an ethical shot. I sat down to collect myself, and watched the three original does follow the rest of the herd to the west. Realizing I was ill prepared for that type of encounter, I began to curse myself for not having a round chambered. I am confident with my Tikka, and I know I could have pulled an accurate freehand shot at thirty yards. I stared my buck in the eyes, and failed to execute on a phenomenal opportunity.

I made my way back to the stand at 3:00 pm. With temperatures nearing ninety degrees, I was not hopeful for the late afternoon hunt. I stayed with it until dark, but did not witness a single deer.

Day 2

I was absolutely amped for the morning hunt. The daytime temperature would force the deer to be on the move early in the morning. If I was to have a chance at a big buck, it would have to come at first light. At 6:00 am, even though it was very dark out, I started to frequently glass my surroundings. At about ten after, I picked up a big deer at about eighty yards moving quickly to the west. He was a buck but I could not determine the rack size, and he was not sticking around. At about 6:45 am, I was able to clearly see my surroundings. Kneeling on my stand, I looked straight behind the platform to the south. I saw some slight movement and witnessed a lone buck feeding in the grass. My Leupold rangefinder had him at one hundred and fifty yards, and I put my binoculars on him to get an idea of size. He was another 5×5, but was smaller than the one I passed up Saturday morning. While his size was disappointing, I was excited at the early action. I spent the next hour watching two bucks and three does feeding in the neighbors pasture. They were too far to estimate their size, but I would have liked to see them up close. A lone doe ran down the middle of the creek heading west so I prepared for additional deer but it did not happen. Minutes before I was going to exit the stand, I picked up movement in the trees to my east. It was a young buck making his way right to me. I snapped a couple of pictures when he was just twenty feet away.

My late morning stalk had me taking an alternate route to the clearing where I saw the big stud and his ladies. Unfortunately, they picked me up early and scattered before I could get a clean look. I still pursued them, but they seemingly disappeared on me. The temperature was in the upper eighties and I realized that any chance of success would have to come late Sunday. To that point, I laid out a plan for the late afternoon hunt. I would bisect the pasture and glass for activity. With a little luck, I would spot a buck and then begin my pursuit. I sat on a hill that provides a great vantage point of the Shipping Trap pasture and started to glass the area. Admittedly my patience is limited, so I decided to see if I could create movement by moving myself. Three hours of walking brought me to the realization that I would not take a deer in 2014.

Whether you are hunting or fishing, all you ask for is an opportunity. That occurred Saturday at about 10:15 am. Unfortunately, my inexperience negated my chance in achieving the stated goal. The ride home was filled with vivid memories of a fantastic hunting weekend at the Cage Ranch. Like any competitor, I wish for a future encounter with the buck that managed to evade me.

Deer on the trail camera.
Deer on the trail camera.
Big Deer 2014 Color
Deer I passed up.

It’s about the Friendship

About ten days before opening day of pronghorn rifle season, Bob told me that a couple of his hunters had not redeemed their landowner vouchers. He asked me if I would like to exchange one of the vouchers for a tag, and hunt opening day weekend. Realizing that his question was rhetorical, I started my preparation for the unanticipated adventure to his ranch. Our friends, Dave and Chad, had tags of their own, and they were equally as excited to pursue the elusive “speed goat”.

Opening day coincided with both of my sons’ state soccer tournament. To that point, my departure from Parker would come in the early evening on Saturday. During the boys’ soccer games, I received regular texts of videos of Bob and Chad’s hunt. Having personally taken part in similar stalks last season, I became anxious, even though I was 130 miles from the ranch.

The early evening drive to the eastern plains was interrupted by a flurry of text messages. After pulling over to fill up the tank on my Ram 1500, I read the texts. Chad had taken an enormous pronghorn buck! I was so excited, I stopped filling up the tank jumped in my truck, and rocketed down route 86.

Upon arriving in pronghorn camp, stories of the day’s events unfolded. Bob and Chad described multiple pursuits throughout the morning that resulted in fleeing animals. Finally, late in the afternoon, they were able to get on a herd of goats that contained a big buck. The chase pushed the group of pronghorn to the edge of Chad’s shooting comfort range. Setting up at about a three hundred and twenty yards, Chad was able to knock down the animal with a shot from his 7mm Mag. The reminiscing continued until complete exhaustion forced us all into our beds.

The game plan in the morning centered on getting Dave on his first big game animal. He worked on sighting in his new Tikka T3 Lite late in the afternoon on Saturday.   He even was able to chase a few animals prior to the hunting day concluding. I was excited to help Dave get on a buck. At first light, I ventured to the range with Chad in order to ensure I was still shooting my Tikka T3 Lite 30-06 accurately. It only took four rounds to reassure me that my rifle, and Bushnell Elite scope were operating flawlessly.

At about 7 am we all grabbed our coffee and piled into Bob’s truck. It did not take long to spot a few pronghorn making their way east. A few minutes of glassing confirmed that the male was young and we would not pursue him. We worked hard to spot and stalk a few amazing bucks throughout the day. Unfortunately, we could not close the deal on a pronghorn with antlers. At about 4 pm, Dave declared he wanted to take a break, and directed me to take part in the next hunt. The day’s events already had my blood racing through my veins. With the rifle now in my hands, I got focused on the task at hand.

Bob’s brother-in-law, Brent, reported that he spotted a large group of pronghorn just to the southwest of headquarters. We were driving east when we spotted eight females about 100 yards off the road. They immediately picked their heads up and gazed at us. We realized that the buck was not present but was probably close by. As we continued to drive east, we saw the big buck about 150 yards away on a hill. He was chasing off a young male when we startled him. We stared at one another for about five minutes until he moved speedily off the hill in order to round up his ladies. There is a draw that moves to the south, and we assumed the herd was moving away from us. Protected by a number of hills on the back side of the depression, Bob and I jogged to where we last saw the buck. Realizing they were gone, we looked at one another and pointed to the east. With my rifle in my right hand, and my BOG-POD in my left, I started to sprint, using the ridge as cover. At about the five hundred yard mark, I was able to discreetly glance at the herd. I did not have my range finder, but I guessed they were 300 yards ahead of me. Acknowledging the distance was out of my range, I sprinted to the top of the next ridge. As I approached the crest, I attempted to slow my breathing. The adrenaline was flowing but I felt composed. I knew the shot would be far so I cranked up the power of my scope. I inched forward trying to be quiet. With the rifle already in the bipod, I took a knee, and quickly captured the buck in my crosshairs at about two hundred yards. I could see a few of the females turn, look up and take notice of my presence on top of the hill. To that point, I knew I had to act with purpose. As the buck moved left, he exposed his left shoulder, and I took the shot. The Barnes VOR-TX 168 grain bullet entered just below the neck and dropped him to the ground.   I shouted with elation as I knew I had accomplished my objective. We made our way down the hill and congratulated one another. My successful hunt was the result of a total team effort. I thanked everyone for their help, and told them to get in the truck in order to find a buck for Dave.

Just before they departed, Bob gave me a quick gutting refresher. This pronghorn was only my third big game animal, so my cleaning techniques are rudimentary at best. It took me about forty five minutes to finish the process, and get him hung in the barn. I asked my friend John to drive me back to the boys so I could participate in Dave’s search for his animal. We managed to find a few sizable pronghorn, but could not complete the harvest.

As we sat on the tailgate of Bob’s truck, we admired the full moon overhead. The sun had dipped, but the air temperature was still in the 60s. Bob stated that this was his favorite time on the ranch. I understood why. While Dave was visibly disappointed, he recognized that the quest had been invigorating for his soul. He is committed to getting back into the field, and finishing the job next season.

Equipment Used

Elegance No, Execution Yes

I am not a fly fisherman. I am a fisherman who elects to fish with a fly. If you watched me pursue my quarry you would quickly dismiss my abilities, as there is not natural rhythm to my motion. Not dissimilar to my golf game, there is little elegance associated with the required technique. I have as much in common with Tiger Woods as I do with Lefty Kreh. We share similar tools, but that’s where the comparisons end.

Despite my lack of expertise, I have worked hard to learn to catch fish on the fly. I watch television shows, instructional videos as well as leaning hard on friends who seemingly cast a perfect loop. In six years, I have become confident when I step into a body of water. I am able to formulate a basic strategy that provides me an opportunity to frequently hook up. Admittedly, I still forget the name of popular flies, and I rarely deliver the perfect presentation. That said, I have and continue to catch fish; the ultimate objective of the chase.

Over the last four years, I ensure that I take one day in the summer, and venture to Spinney Mountain Reservoir for the callibaetis hatch. Callibaetis mayflies in their nymph stage are easy prey for cruising trout. The hatch comes off when the air and water temperature are conducive for the nymphs to start moving to the surface of the water. At that time, trout begin to feed voraciously on the bugs. Their activity can be easily monitored as the fish begin to roll on the evading insects. The feeding frenzy can last for hours or be over as fast as it started.

In mid-July of 2014, my day provided seemingly perfect conditions; no wind, warming temperatures, and an actively growing weed line. We arrived at the Spinney inlet just before 8 am. A number of fishermen already had made their way into the water, and were positioning around the bay. I rigged up quickly and started my walk west. I had hoped that I could locate an area where the water dropped from three feet to something significantly deeper.   I assumed that the trout would start to feed in deeper water. Unable to locate a radical depth break, I decided to scan the water until I witnessed a fish roll. At about 9:15 a.m., the first fish appeared with a slight splash about thirty yards to my left. He remained on the surface foraging on helpless callibaetis.   I moved in the direction of the ripples, and started to make sloppy false casts. When I determined I had enough line out, I made a final and accurate cast. I offered an Amy’s Ant and a #12 hare’s ear as my trailer. My heart was pounding as I believed my flies were in the vicinity of the fish. Within seconds the trout engulfed the ant, and I reacted with a strong strip set. Unfortunately, I did not feel the weight of the fish, realizing in seconds that he was gone. Upon inspection, I noticed my 3x tippet had snapped below the knot.

Undeterred, I began to quickly re-rig as fish were obviously active. Incorporating the same set up, I started to make casts at not-so-subtle movements in the water. Once the flies had settled on the surface, I made slight line strips in order to make the artificials realistic.   Like a crocodile taking down a wildebeest, the hit was violent and unyielding. The rainbow ripped line at an extreme pace, only pausing to breach multiple times.   As soon as I felt that I had her under control, she surprised me with another long run. She finally succumbed to my efforts, and I eased her into my net.

Over the next few hours, I managed to hook six more fish and land five. The callibaetis hatch at Spinney is an extraordinary experience, and it will always be a part of my Colorado summers.

2014 Callibaetis Hatch Video

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One Pretty Hen

Whether you’re fishing or hunting, public land access is competitive and often challenging. The philosophy is usually first come, first served”. Additionally, the hottest spots are hotly contested. An abundance of fishermen means that the fish see many flies. By definition, they’re challenging to hook. To that point, when you have located a secluded spot that holds an abundance of big fish, it becomes a well-guarded secret.   

My friend, Chad, had told me that his dad recently discovered a barely touched fishery holding a plethora of world-class rainbow trout. Joe had fished the area in late April, and had landed a few bows over ten pounds. With that in mind, we blocked off an afternoon in mid-May to fish the spot. The drive was two hundred and twenty miles, and it had us traversing through some gnarly country. Upon arrival, we noticed a single fisherman making his way around the waterway. A powerful westerly wind forced him to demonstrate his casting prowess. It was not long before we witnessed him skillfully hook and land a few fish. As he made his way to the shore, we asked him a series of questions regarding his success that day. He told us that the morning bite was strong; landing over fifteen fish with sizes ranging from 18” to 22” inches. Double hare’s ears stripped aggressively were the flies of choice.   We thanked the man for sharing valuable intelligence. Then, Chad, Joe and I made our way into the water. It did not take but a few minutes before Chad noticed three enormous shadows cruising just in front of us. As fast as they appeared, they were gone. Chad and I tied on a custom designed crayfish pattern, and Joe decided to throw an olive damsel fly. Given the twenty mile an hour northwesterly wind, I worked hard to make mediocre casts on a forty five degree angle. On my tenth cast my fly was hit hard, but my hook set was late. The fish rolled high in the water column, then disappeared.

By mid-afternoon, the three of us had fished hard, but had no results. The wind proved a challenge, and the morning action had obviously shut off. As Joe was telling me that he was going to take a break, a fish slammed his damsel imitation. A long fight ensued.   Eventually, Joe brought the stout fish to the shore. She was not over ten pounds, but was still very impressive. There was another lull in the action, so all of us made repeated fly changes. Not surprisingly, Joe found a pattern that started to produce intense and repeated action. Utilizing a #12 bead head hare’s ear, and a custom designed nymph dropper, Joe methodically stripped his line. As the flies neared his standing position, he gently raised his rod tip. It was at that point, the trout ate the caddis imitation. Given Joe’s success, I tied on the same hare’s ear with a flashback pheasant tail trailer. I carefully observed Joe’s movements, and I began employing the technique. On my fourth cast I slowly raised my rod tip as the flies neared me, and I felt dead weight, so I set the hook. The fish, only a few yards from my position in the water, moved with purpose to my right. I was able to see her side as she passed me, so I knew she was big. The headshakes became increasingly violent, and I feared the fish would break off. My friend Slade told me to not mess around with big fish, and get them to the net quickly. With his sage advice in mind, I reeled hard, and walked back toward shore. When I saw the leader, I grabbed my net and leaned back, guiding the massive rainbow into my net. The fish was so big, she would not fit into my 26” Brodin. My largest trout on a fly measured twenty six and three quarter inches, and weighed nine pounds. We took a few pictures, and I carefully released her.

We fished for another few hours with limited success. I did manage to hook up with a beautiful twenty one inch Yellowstone cutthroat. A Monster Rehab Green Tea energy drink, along with frequent memories of my trout, made the two hundred and twenty mile drive back seem like teleportation. The secret spot produces, and my Garmin now has the coordinates.                                                                             

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Welcome Home

For the last six years, early spring has meant a journey to the North Platte River in central Wyoming.  The river is packed with large, aggressive and hungry trout.  The land that surrounds the water has the characteristics of the old west; a limited amount of people, plenty of indigenous creatures, and predictably unpredictable weather.  It’s a unique place that allows visitors to escape life for a brief period of time.

2014 represented an atypical adventure for me.  My fly fishing mentors, Chad and Joe Butler, completed their annual visit just one week prior to my trip.  Additionally, the group that I had invited all canceled just days before departure.  While I absolutely enjoy fishing with friends, this trip is about personal mental relief.  For a few of days, the mobile phone is off, and emails go unchecked.  I become all consumed with pursuing fish.  

Day One

After the five hour drive from Parker, the contents of my truck were quickly unloaded into the cabin.  I slipped into my waders, strapped on my chest pack and rigged my fly rod.  The river is only minutes away, and the anticipation makes it hard to focus on the task at hand.  I had planned to patiently scout my favorite spots along the river, and drop in only when big fish exposed themselves to me.  When I started my truck, the strategy went the way of the dodo bird.  I hit the gas and darted to one of my favorite holes.  While there was not a vehicle present, I witnessed a lone fisherman making casts against the river bank.  A three minute wade put me at the top of an elegant riffle.  My two fly rig consisted of a chartreuse egg on top, and a Slade Fedore designed leech as the trailer.  The initial drift hugged the near seam, allowing the flies to move slowly over the shelf into deeper water.  Stunningly, my indicator pulsed, so I quickly jerked the rod over my left shoulder.  The trout raced across the fast water then headed downstream.  I followed the fish until he moved into an eddy and could be easily netted.  Over the next five hours, I hooked over two dozen fish but I landed only half of them.  There was size to most every trout with the largest equaling 21”.

Day Two

About a month before my vacation, I planned my second trip with guide extraordinaire, Slade Fedore.   Slade is a Casper native, expert fly fisherman, and a great person.  He gives advice without being demeaning, and provides timely compliments, but he is never patronizing.  Slade and I like to get after it early, so we were the first boat to unload on the Reef.  Our initial float produced three great fish.  Heading downriver, we kept picking fish up on both the egg and the leech.  The weather got a bit windy and snowy, but the bite continued to be hot.  The day was highlighted when a gigantic golden eagle plucked a pheasant from the river bank.  Minutes later, a bald eagle flew twenty feet above us, and landed on a fence post paralleling the waterway.  Almost simultaneous to the eagle perching itself, a big trout exposed himself in the middle of the river.  Slade and I both noticed the fish, and I made an immediate cast to a spot ten feet in front of him.  While the first cast was junk, my second cast hit the mark.  Seconds after my upstream mend, the bow slammed my fly, and burned 40 feet up and across the river.  He was big and my heart was racing.  The fish pulled a 180 and screamed downriver stripping fly line off the Bozeman RS Reel.  I applied gentle pressure with the hope he would behave.  Instead of acquiescing, he started to perform violent headshakes and even took to the air a few times.  We managed to get him to the side of the boat, but just out of the reach of Slade’s net.  When he was sufficiently recovered from the initial battle, he cut across the river then back behind the boat.  Only eight feet from me, I saw the hook perilously hanging in his right cheek.  A final thrash dislodged the fly, and the fish disappeared into the depths of the river.  Disappointed, I hung my head, realizing that I had just lost a 23” slab.  We ended an awesome day drinking a few beers while listening to my cabin neighbors perform a bit of authentic blue grass music. 

Day Three

Recognizing that the weekend was approaching, and the crowds would start to appear, I was up early in order to get to a favorite spot.  It did not take long for the river to begin fill up with fellow fishermen.  By early afternoon, I counted twelve rods executing similar nymphing techniques.  In order to experience much needed solitude, I walked to a more remote, but historically less productive area.  While there is no distinctive structure, I found water that supported a steady drift.  Not dissimilar from the rest of the river, I started to frequently hook and land good size rainbows.  As the late afternoon approached, we made a decision to head to a reservoir and fish the ice out.  Reports were that there were huge trout hitting crawfish imitations stripped slowly along the bottom. We talked to some bait fisherman who had picked up a few nice fish during the afternoon, but they told us that fishing was slower than in past years.  Nevertheless, we spent hours casting big streamers around ferocious winds.  As my mind wandered, an enormous leviathan appeared from the depths of the lake and took a slow pass at my bait.  Unfortunately, she did not commit to the meal, and headed back where she came from.  The day ended with only one of us landing a trout.  The lack of action did not take away from the immense splendor of the early evening in the western United States.

Day Four

I decided to cut my trip short by a day. The weekend crowds were amassing, and competing for fish was not a part of the game plan.  There is a great hole downstream that can produce a lot of action, but can also fill up quickly.  To that point, I got up early and made certain that I was the first person at the spot.  While the weather was perfect, the fish were semi-responsive.  Uncharacteristically, I had to work hard to invoke an initial strike.  Four fish later, I began to witness other anglers making their way into the river.  In addition to my fellow waders, there were many boats filling up the most fertile area in this section of river.  I realized that the trip was over, and it was time to depart.

The ride home is long, but full of pleasant memories.  I was able to think about the fish I had caught as well as the many that evaded my net.  After six years fishing the Platte, I have earned veteran status.  I know the water, and understand how to catch fish.  Year seven awaits!

The Video

 

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Working Hard so I can Hunt, Fish and Golf