We awoke on Day 2 (our first full day) to find that it had rained overnight, a scenario that every Missouri River Breaks hunter fears, for with precipitation comes mud. Now Breaks mud isn't just any mud, but a special blend that sticks to everything that comes into contact with it. With the exception of the main gravel road, vehicular travel was severely restricted by slick, sloppy roads. Rather than sleeping in and waiting for the roads to dry out as I suspect many other hunters did, we made the most of it and hiked into the country surrounding camp.
My Dad and I headed east along the shore of the reservoir until we'd put some distance between us and camp. We quickly got into deer, including some pretty nice bucks, but nothing with the 4x4 configuration that we were looking for.
By late morning we'd slogged our way through the mud, and into a series of drainages containing good security cover on north facing slopes and good browse on the southern exposures. In one of these drainages we bumped into a bedded buck and doe - the buck was big - a deeply forked 4x4 with great height and mass. The buck split from the doe and never looked back, escaping unscathed. I was feeling dejected about botching that opportunity. The buck and doe had been bedded in some sparse cedars at the bottom of the ridge - had we simply approached from the north we probably could have spotted them before they bolted. I suppose I could've taken a quick shot at the buck at about 80 yards on a dead run, but I wasn't confident in my ability to make a clean shot in that situation.
At this point it was after noon, the wind was howling and the deer were all bedded. We climbed to a high vantage point on the lee side of a ridge and settled in for a long lunch and rest break. On a cold day in the backcountry, there's nothing quite like breaking out the Pocket Rocket for a Mountain House and cup of Starbuck's VIA. The fuel, stove, water pan and food weigh next to nothing, but provide a hot, fast and delicious meal.
Fat, happy and cozy in the down jackets that we pulled from our packs, it was difficult to keep from dozing off. By mid-afternoon we started seeing a few does up and feeding, signaling us to get back on our feet as well. At about 3 o'clock I spotted a lone buck standing in heavy cover nearly a mile away. A quick look through the spotting scope revealed that this was a buck worthy of closer inspection. We devised a stalk, which included provisions for some does feeding between us and the buck - does that could easily throw a wrench in things if they spooked in the direction of the buck.
The stalk went off without a hitch, until we were approaching the final ascent to the saddle that would serve as the planned shot site. Working through the deep coulee bottom I glanced up at the ridge line to the west and saw a small army of blaze orange heading in the direction of the buck! These were the first hunters we'd seen all day and they were about to become a major problem for us. They weren't aware of the buck's presence - their frequent stops to glass in the opposite direction made that evident. I quickly made myself highly visible to them, hoping it would be enough to deter them from their course, which was a beeline for the buck's location. It didn't work, they continued to the ridge top, stopping directly above the now bedded buck. They were no more than 70 or 80 yards above the buck as they stood and glassed back to the west.
As we scrambled up the last hundred feet or so to the saddle, I was muttering under my breath - something about this not being my day. I thought that the buck would surely break from his bed with the presence of the other hunters. Upon gaining the saddle I slowly peeked over the top to glass the buck's last known location and wouldn't you know it, there he was, still bedded with an ear cocked to the hunters standing just uphill from him. It was a classic scenario, a wise old buck bedded just out of sight of the oblivious hunters, waiting them out, secure and confident in his chosen location.
I now had a dilemma on my hands. A dandy 4x4 buck was bedded less than 200 yards from me, broadside. I could have easily shot the buck where he lay, but with hunters just above and behind his location I felt that it wasn't a morally sound shot to take. I was now confident that the buck wouldn't bolt from his bed, unless the hunters pushed down through the cover he was in. After waiting for an excruciating 10 or 15 minutes, the hunters finally dropped off the ridge, giving me a safe shot at the buck. With shooting light fading, I steadied my Blaser R8 chambered in .30-06 and took the shot. Hit hard, the buck quickly expired a few feet from his bed.
We made our way down to the buck, a mature 4x4 that I'd venture to guess was 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years old. We made quick work of quartering him for the pack out. I was very pleased with the performance of my new knife, a SCKW No. 6. I loaded up my pack with two quarters and hung the remainder in trees - out of the reach of coyotes. We'd return the next morning to retrieve the rest of the meat, along with the antlers.
With the aid of headlamps we covered the two miles back to camp, arriving late and tired. In the comfort of a warm wall tent we re-fueled on elk burgers and Gatorade as we shared the details of our day with Matt and Dave.