Kate posing with deer

Third time's the charm: The story of my first mule deer hunt

Persistence paid off with a freezer full of venison.

By Kate Holcomb
DWR Native Aquatics Biologist
Statewide Mollusk Specialist

Kate posing with deer

My husband and I enjoy hunting, fishing and foraging across Utah. It's a wonderful way to obtain healthy, flavorful wild food!

After placing the tongue in a game bag with a collection of organs, bones and various cuts of meat, I finally sat down to begin cleaning the skull of my first mule deer. As I sat there picking away, I reflected on the moments that led up to my successful hunt.

It all began back in July. My husband, Jordan, and I took advantage of the long holiday weekends to make two scouting trips to my hunting unit. Things looked very promising for the hunt during both trips, and before long, it was October and time for the hunt.

It was going to be an exciting hunt — my first western big game hunt — but I also felt some pressure. This was one of our last opportunities to really fill the freezer this hunting season.

Day one: A hopeful start

On opening morning, the race to the best hunting spots began. The glow of the rising sun poked through colorful leaves that were still clinging to tree branches. We headed to an area that had consistently held lots of deer sign and settled in to wait among some dead trees on the edge of a clearing.

It wasn’t long before we heard shots from other hunters in the area. That seemed promising. Then, we heard a deer crashing through the woods and heading toward us.

Could this already be an opportunity to shoot my first buck? No, it was a doe. She was followed by another doe and fawn, and not far behind them was a grandfather-son-grandson group of hunters.

After the winds made their morning shift, we decided to still hunt the remainder of the day. We saw lots of does, fawns and a few hunters, but nobody we ran into had seen any bucks in the area.

Overlooking the valley at sunset

It's always a good feeling to return to camp after a long day of hunting.

We ended the day in the same area where we'd started and watched the sunset as the juncos and chipmunks settled down for the evening. Day one was a bust, but we had several more days of hunting ahead of us.

Day two: Bucks in sight

As Jordan and I were making breakfast and packing our bags for day two of the hunt, I told him that I wanted to start the day by hunting the same "good spot."

When we got there, I set up with a view of the same clearing we'd watched the first morning, but Jordan was looking into another clearing on the other side of the ridge. At about 7:50, I heard him quietly whistling at me. He'd spotted three legal bucks!

With gun in hand, I carefully (and awkwardly) scrambled on hands and knees through the dead leaves and saplings as quickly and quietly as I could. I could see the bucks, but there were lots of trees in the way that prevented a good shot.

I shuffled to the right a few feet. One of the bucks moved into a possible shooting lane. I moved right a few more feet. The buck moved to the left toward a massive fir tree. I moved a few more feet to improve my shooting lane. The buck moved a little closer to the tree, but there was still a chance that I could make the shot. But would it be a good shot?

Well, then it was too late. The buck was out of sight behind the fir tree.

We waited to see if the buck, or one of the other two bucks, would pop out from behind the tree. But after several minutes of not seeing any of them, we were puzzled as to where they'd gone.

I stayed in place, but Jordan began looking for the bucks in a wider radius from the fir tree.

It seemed like forever. As I was sitting there scanning the area around the fir tree, I began to think that I should have just taken a shot at the buck. Next time, I would be more decisive about making a decision.

A few minutes later, Jordan found one of the bucks. He was feeding up the hill, along the edge of the woods. Again, I gingerly scrambled about 10 yards through the crunchy leaves toward Jordan.

Now, I had another opportunity to shoot a buck, but I would have to act quickly. Everything looked good for the shot, so I took it. The buck kicked his back legs and ran straight into the woods.

It all happened so fast! Was it a good shot? Jordan thought the buck might have been limping slightly as it ran into the woods, but neither of us got a good look at the buck before he was into the woods and out of sight.

We waited about an hour and then went to look for any sign (hair, blood, guts) that the buck had been shot. After two excruciatingly long hours of searching the area where the buck had been — and then searching an extensive area beyond there — we found nothing. We concluded that I'd totally missed the buck. What a bummer. But I was glad that the deer had not been wounded.

We spent the rest of the day hunting through aspen groves and oak brush, but without any luck. As daylight faded, I hoped I'd have another chance to shoot one of the three bucks the next morning.

Day three: A successful hunt

On the third morning of the hunt, we headed back to the same spot and followed the same plan as the morning before.

Deer tenderloins roasting over a campfire

To celebrate, we enjoyed delicious buck tenderloins cooked over the campfire.

Despite the woes of the previous day's hunt, I had hopes that this was a high-use area for deer. Even if those three bucks did not come back, maybe there would be some new bucks moving through the area.

Sure enough, at nearly the exact same time, the three bucks were back in the spot where I'd shot at the buck the previous morning. This time, I was ready and knew exactly how I was going to execute the shot.

I waited for the buck to walk into my shooting lane and tried to take the shot. Nothing happened. My safety was still on — d'oh! I quickly removed the safety and took a shot but missed. Oh no, not again!

But the buck just stood there looking confused. So, I quickly tried to focus and compose myself, loaded another bullet and tried again. This time there was no question — it was a successful shot. The buck dropped! Third time's the charm.

Deer tenderloins roasting over a campfire

To celebrate, we enjoyed delicious buck tenderloins cooked over the campfire.

I will never forget my first mule deer hunt with Jordan. It was a special and exciting hunt for both of us. Harvesting big game isn't just recreation for us — it's a lifestyle.

We enjoy hunting, fishing and foraging as a way to explore natural areas throughout the state, and we also appreciate the exceptional health benefits and flavors that come from wild foods.

I feel incredibly lucky that my husband and I share a love for this lifestyle, and we're looking forward to many more adventures together in the future.

Kate Holcomb

Kate Holcomb

Kate has worked as an aquatic biologist across the country for the past 10 years. She has mostly worked with non-game freshwater fish, but has always had a special place in her heart for the work she has done with freshwater mussels. She is currently enjoying the opportunity to coordinate native freshwater and terrestrial mollusk conservation efforts here in Utah.

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