Mitchell Sandquist has waited fourteen years for this. Fourteen years eating and growing on venison provided by his dad and brothers. Fourteen years listening to hunting stories of family and friends. Fourteen years exploring the forests, brush pockets, and canyons of his family’s Idaho farm. Fourteen years thrilled by the thunderous flush of grouse, the ponderous thud of a fleeing moose, the hulking black of a foraging bear. More than anything, though, Mitch wants to bag one of the graceful, leaping whitetails that race across the wheat fields and disappear into the woods. And now his chance has come. He and I close on three bucks working down the canyon wall to water in the creek.
“Don’t worry about rolling rocks or being seen,” I say, just before we start down the long, steep decline. “There’s no place to hide, and we’re so far away that they won’t notice us. They feel safe when they’re across the canyon like this. Ready?”
“Ready,” he says.
With that we set off, stepping, sliding, jumping, but mostly catching ourselves against the pull of gravity as Palouse dirt crumbles and basalt rocks slip underfoot. We plunge toward an old logging road where we hope to rendezvous with whitetails.
I check twice through the binoculars as we descend. Each time the three bucks are continuing to pick down the opposite slope, nibbling here and there, yet making good time. But I’m unconvinced they’re going for water. They might disappear into the brush pockets or dense stands of Douglas fir along the route. Our mission is based in hope.
Mitch slides the last five yards to the logging road on his bottom, holding high the Winchester 270. “Good job,” I say. “Better check the action and barrel.”
He pulls the bolt the way I’ve taught him and peers down the barrel from the chamber. “Clear.”
“Perfect, now all we have to do is ease to that pile of rocks and those pines. I’ll lay my pack on the ground for your rifle support. If the deer are still in the open, you should have a two-hundred-yard shot. But we have to go easy. No stomping, no rattling rocks.”
We slip forward and descend toward another slope to get around a patch of brush. Beyond this the going is easy. The lip of the bench blocks our view of the deer.
“Here’s where we crawl,” I whisper. “If they haven’t dived into the thicket, we should be able to see them. We’ll go slow and watch closely. If they don’t see us, you’ll have a shot at a calm, standing buck.”
We belly to the rocks and survey the stream 400 feet below, but there are no deer along it. “They must be in the brush somewhere,” I whisper.
“I see one,” Mitchell whispers. “It’s by that yellow bush.”
“Above or below us?”
I see the buck when it steps forward. A second browses 30 yards behind it. But where is the third, the big one I saw leading the troop?
“Can I shoot?” Mitch asks.
“Get ready. Nestle into the pack and steady the rifle. See how steady you can hold the crosshairs on its chest as I look for the third.” I haven’t told Mitch the great size of the lead buck for fear of inoculating him with a bad case of buck fever. The deer looked fully mature, deep chested, heavy, and packing 150- to 160-inches of 10-point antlers. It’s by far the largest I’ve seen in Idaho. I studied it for two mornings through a 60X Swarovski spotting scope, hoping Mitch could get a shot at it. But now it’s gone. “I can’t find the biggest one,” I say.
“Can I shoot one of these?”
I scour the slope once more before relenting. “Okay. If you want, take the one in the lead. It’s got five points on one side, for sure. Take your time. They have no idea we’re here. Hold dead center on its chest and squeeze one off.” My laser rangefinder indicates the buck at 260 yards out when Mitch fires. The deer takes the hit and lunges forward, slowing to a walk. Then it stops. “Give him a finisher. Right behind the shoulder, middle of the chest.”
Mitch’s second shot punches through the heart, and the buck tumbles into the brush, stone dead.
It’s a long, hot climb to the deer and a longer, hotter descent to the creek, where we gut the animal and bloody Mitch in honor of his first trophy. He beams and begins talking of next year’s hunt—another deer hunter born.
Be sure to read Spomer’s previous Dispatches from Idaho here.
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