“I’m sure glad I have a brand new, 10” LED lightbar sitting on my workbench,” I grumbled out loud to myself. I knew it was bright as hell because I had hooked it up once to my Jeep’s battery, and I remembered how blindingly bright it had been, which, at the moment, would have been a monumental improvement to my crappy situation.
After riding my quad to the top of the steep hill in the pitch-black moonless night, I was convinced I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I stared at my gas gauge and trip odometer and attempted some mental math: I was now 40 miles into this quad ride, and my gas gauge showed under half a tank. I pushed the iridescent light button on my Timex Ironman watch: it was well after Midnight. “This was really, really stupid,” I silently scolded myself, in that way we do when we have spent a lot of time by ourselves and needed to tell someone about our poor decision-making paradigm.
It had started like any other day of hunting in the Owyhee Mountains. I have a little quad ride that I like to take during rifle season. As much as anything, it is a long, full day out of the house that distracts me during football season. Since I don’t have much time to hunt, I try to cover a ton of ground to a little secret spot, and I usually run into a forked horn that I can shoot. In Unit 40, you can only hunt two-points unless you draw the big buck tag.
I had unloaded my camo Yamaha Grizzly 700 out of my pickup well before dark and was several miles in before daylight. It had never bothered me to do this ride in the dark because I always knew daylight was only 30 minutes or so away. I love being out in the woods before light, when the dark starts to get gray before it gets light, and slowly the world and the views open to me before the blinding sun slivers over the top of the ridge.
I hunted most of the day but noting interesting happened until I shot a coyote. I saw him sitting, facing away from me, about 200 yards away. He was unaware I was there. I steadied off my quad bag and squeezed the trigger.
I heard the bullet hit the coyote from long distance, even though I didn’t see it after I shot. However, when I got up to the spot, I found him. I was reminded again about that “Thwack” sound a bullet makes when it hits and how unmistakable it was. I continued my trip to the plateau.
I drove to the backside of the plateau and shut off my quad. I put my feet up on my front fenders and reclined back, opened a coldie, and perched it on my gas tank. I settled in to watch the rimrock while the sun sank lower and lower.
“Is that a deer?!” I screamed to myself as shadows grew horns on sagebrush. It’s amazing to me how I can see deer in something that doesn’t even look like a deer, upon further inspection. But, when I do see a deer, it’s amazing to me how much it stands out and there is no way I can be unsure of what I’m seeing.
And that was the case now. A perfectly matched forked horn was picking his way slowly up the trail in the rimrock. When I saw him, I swung my legs off the fenders and got my .300 Weatherby Magnum out of the gun rack. I found a good rest off my quad bag, about a 150-yard uphill shot, and slowly exhaled and pulled the trigger. I heard the bullet “Thwack,” just like I had heard the bullet hit the coyote earlier, and I watched the deer hump up and knew that he had been hit hard.
The buck jumped up the remaining few yards to the top of the rimrock and disappeared. I hurried from my quad, scurrying up the trail the deer had been on. In my buck-fever state, with my heart pounding, I didn’t even think about my hunting pack which was in my quad bag or, more importantly, the knife and the flashlight in my hunting bag. When I got to the top of the trail, I saw good, bright red blood against the rock, and I knew that the Weatherby bullet had hit hard, opened fast, and done a lot of damage. I expected to find the deer soon.
And I was right. Five minutes later I found him down against a dead, forest-fire burned tree. The patch of trees on top of this plateau had burned the previous summer and it still smelled like campfire up on top. Everything I touched left black soot on me. I noticed the blackness of everything, but I had no idea how much it would matter later.
Getting down to gut the deer, I realized I had left my good knife in my quad. Realizing this made me realize where my flashlight was, too, and look around at how dark it was quickly becoming. Not wanting to use my pocket knife to gut the deer, I made a decision that at the time I didn’t think was a big deal: I decided to walk back to the quad. It was only 15 or 20 minutes away and I would grab my backpack and head back to the deer.
One I got back to my four-wheeler, I actually had my backpack on and was walking back up the trail when inspiration hit me: “why walk up a trail when I can ride up the road to the backside, get to the same elevation, and then easily walk to deer instead of walking uphill?” I asked myself out loud. Momma didn’t raise no dummy, and I wasn’t about to walk where I could ride. It was about 6:00 PM and I noticed that I needed the headlights on to see the road.
I decided to ride around the back left side of the butte. Had I gone to the right-hand side I was familiar with, I would have been able to ride right up to the deer. But the left-hand side headed farther away from the rimrock than I thought it did. As I tried to guess about where the trail topped out to the rimrock, I got more and more confused about where the deer might be.
Soon, I was off the quad walking around. I found the burned trees up on top of the butte but nothing looked familiar. The burned ground and trees made everything black and I couldn’t find blood or where I had been. After 10 minutes, I was frustrated. After 30 minutes and a trip back to the quad, I was mad.
Three hours later, I was walking back up the trail I had been on when I fell hard. I had been up since 4:40 AM and had not realized how tired I was. I tripped on something unseen and landed on my right hip, hard. I caught my breath and slowly, sorely stood up. All of a sudden, stumbling around in the dark began to look really stupid. What if I fell and broke my ankle or something?
I looked at my watch. I began the mental math equation that I would continue for the rest of the night. It was 9:00 PM, dead dark, and I was 26 miles in on a quad ride, by myself. I was not going to find this deer. So I made a decision I have never made before in 30 years of hunting: I had to leave it. I could not find where the deer was and I was another fall or accident away from having something bad happen. I returned to my quad and started heading back to the truck.
All of a sudden I was hurrying. I kept having to remind myself to slow down because I didn’t need a crash to make my situation any worse. The mud was right at freezing, so the trail kept switching between sloppy and frozen and it made for difficult riding.
Suddenly, I stopped at the top of the hill. I could see the lights of a town in the distance, except they weren’t in the right spot. I shouldn’t have this view. Well, I had never had this view before in all the times I pulled to the top of the hill, which meant I was on the top of the wrong hill.
I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. After cussing myself for not mounting my LED lightbar on my quad, I started to get serious about my situation.
The dread of running out of fuel in the middle of the night overwhelmed me. How could I have been so stupid? I must have driven past a turn in the dark. Quickly, I headed back down the hill and thankfully found my mistake, only 500 yards away. I quickly made my left-hand turn and was soon seeing familiar trees and landmarks. The road looked normal again and I was able to hurry along.
When I got to the top of the hill and opened the gate, my phone started buzzing. I had several missed calls and texts from Lynette. I came to find out that she had hit the panic button about 10:00 PM and had called Gabe. Gabe reassured her that he knew where I was, yes it could take this long, and if I never showed up, they would know where to look for the body.
I sent a few texts that got out, saying I was fine and would be home by 3:00 AM.
I made it back to the pickup, loaded my quad, and set off for the two-hour drive home. It was about 12:30 AM when I got back to the pickup.
The entire drive home, my eyes burned. I was so pissed at leaving that dead deer in the woods. I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t find it. What kind of a hunter was I? How could I do this?
Once I got home and let my wife know I was still alive, I laid in bed burning over the same issues. How could I leave that deer? I hadn’t even gutted it. Did anybody see me? Was I going to get arrested? I don’t think I ever fell asleep that night.
About 5:00 AM, I got out of bed and put my hunting clothes back on. I had come to a decision. It was Monday and a school day, so I drove to work and made sub plans with my quad still in the back of my pickup.
I was going back and finding that deer.
I rode my quad up the right-hand side almost directly to the deer. In the daylight, when I could see and recognize everything, I rode within 100 yards of it. By 9:00 AM, I found it exactly where I left it. It had been cold, below freezing, but I had never left an animal without gutting it so I didn’t know what to expect. I began the worst part of the hunting process, and everything inside was soon outside and looked about like what I thought it should.
I loaded the deer and was soon at the gate where I had been just the night before. Soon I was home, unloading quad and deer, hanging the deer in the garage, and skinning as fast as possible to get done before football practice at 3:00. The meat still looked good.
I am so glad I went back and found that deer. The disappointment of leaving him in the woods and wasting that meat was more than I could bear. Life has lots of these moral and ethical dilemmas that sometimes we know are happening and sometimes we don’t. I didn’t expect to end up riding a quad in the middle of the night, about to run out of gas, but that’s where I ended up. Luckily, it worked out in the end and I was able to say one of my favorite lines about hunting: little bucks made good meals.