California Rodeo in Wyoming
Chronicles of My First Mule Deer Hunt
By Jim Ramos
September 12-19, 2001
Saturday, September 8, 2001
I knew we were in trouble at the planning meeting and BBQ two weeks before we left for Wyoming. Three of the four men, I had never met before that night. They were buck hunting fanatics, with over 80 mule deer to their credit. Being the only mule deer virgin in the group I was excited to hunt with them. We met with our families and had a wonderful time of eating wild game, the great desserts prepared by our wives, and having fellowship. I was especially impressed with the heartfelt prayer time with the men as we held hands and prayed for God’s blessing on our trip. Driving home my wife asked me what I thought of the guys. My knee-jerk reaction was, “Wow, what a godly group of guys but it concerns me that we are packing in with five horses and only one of us (Bill) even knows how to saddle one! Having a very negative experience with a horse as a kid I was intimidated, and this meeting only confirmed my biggest fears.
Wednesday, September 13, 2001
What I did not know was that we were literally in for the ride of our lives. A ride in which God would teach each of us many things about patience, endurance, and blessings at the end of many trials. We were soon to experience not only the storm and the rainbow but the pot of gold at the end as well. These are the chronicles of our ten-day trip to and from western Wyoming.
There is a great hunter code that says you never reveal where you hunt and so to maintain that sacred code, I will say only that we hunted in western Wyoming. I would hate to break the code which you and I hold so deer (I mean dear). The Trip started with Bob Thomason and Bill Mathes, who we later named the “Horse Whisperer” leaving a day early to scout. The plan for us was to get there in plenty of time to set up our base and our spike camps and still get in a day in scouting. On Wednesday, September 13, 2001, at 5:00 in the morning my close friend Dennis Spiller picked me up along with my gear (which had been packed for a week) and met up with Jeff Borges. Dennis was my contact for the tip and Jeff was the spearhead of the hunt.
I am forever indebted to these two great friends for giving me such an
opportunity. The 18-hour drive was the fastest I had ever experienced as we
bombarded Jeff with questions about Wyoming and listened with childlike intent as he shared story after wonderful story of his many great Wyoming adventures. Little did we know that this would be the adventure of adventures! For Jeff, this was a trophy hunt of a lifetime as we had drawn for an area known for large bucks with a strong non-typical genetic pool. As we drove by the Ruby Mountains Jeff sharedmore incredible stories of previous bow hunts in the Rubies. It was like taking a guided buck tour! We stopped in Wells, Nevada for Dinner at a small hunting diner that we later learned was closing down. We ate great half-pound grease and cheese (in that order) burgers as we prepared ourselves for the hunt by watching a video on hunting the Ruby Mountains called, “Too Many Bucks”.
We drove under the tapestry of God’s artwork exhibited in the form of
intense lightning showers to a small community called Alpine, Wyoming where we slept for the night. In this small lodge were trophy mounts that we dreamt of one day having on our walls at home.
Thursday, September 14, 2001
Waking up the next morning was my first experience with the beauty of Wyoming. I woke up to a pristine meadow foreshadowed by red rimrock. It was absolutely surreal! I was like a kid in a candy store! We drove in the crisp of the Wyoming September to our outfitters. Let me say this is potentially another story in itself as the outfitter we had had inherited the business from his father the year before. His younger brother (who was the hunter in the family) was in line to take the business but in a tragic twist of fate months prior to our arrival died of complications from a tooth abscess. This brother was clearly not familiar with hunting or the area we were hunting. He got lost taking Bill and Bob in the day before our arrival and Bob had to help him find our area! This only compounded my already clandestine fears. We loaded our horses and drove another half-hour to where we would meet Bill and Bob at base camp.
What happened next was shocking. The outfitter took out a blaze orange can of spray paint and sprayed a circle with the word, “No” on the chest of Ace saying, “Do not, at all costs, ever put anything but your butt on this horse. He will flip over backward and go crazy if you do.”
When we arrived Bill and Bob had lightly scouted an area and discovered a place in a local burn where some elk hunters had seen some good bucks. However, on the way home the horse Bob was riding had lost his saddlebags filled with Bob’s Leupold spotting scope along with some other important hunting items. We prayed about this and an hour later an old Ford truck pulled up with, yes, his saddlebag. The old Wyoming local said he figured this was ours since we were the only California looking guys around! From this, he had deducted (they don’t use that word in this part of Wyoming) that it belonged to us. He was right!
Let me take a moment to share the dynamics of this group worth mentioning. Not only were each of my partners’ godly men, but men blessed with the gift of leadership as well. As you may well know five men gifted in leadership can run into major conflicts if plans are not clear and leadership has not been pre-determined. Because these men loved God so much instead of conflict, we sat for three hours upon arrival not willing to make a decision or step on somebody else’s feet. We were instantly divided into two groups: one that wanted to stay with the original plan of hunting at 9, 500 feet into the Granites and the other hunting in the lower burn that was discovered under Bill and Bob’s scouting.
After literally three hours of peaceful discussion, we decided to load the
horses and set up spike camp at the base of the Granites. We would then scout the burn and keep that option open. However, two problems arose from this plan. The first problem was the gale force storm that had rolled in. The second factor was that only Bill could saddle the horses (Bob was learning quickly), but he had never hooked up the large packs for them. As fast as the storm rolled in it was gone and we hurriedly loaded the horses. The others encouraged Jeff and I to go on ahead to establish the high mountain spike camp. Four miles later we found the perfect streamside location, but the guys were still nowhere to be seen. Thirty minutes later they arrived. They shared the first of many California rodeos in Wyoming. One of the horses were spooked when his saddle (which the guide had put on) fell under the horse, causing him to run and buck in fear. It took 30 minutes to grab him and calm him down enough to fix the saddle. We set up camp and headed back to base camp in a torrential rainstorm to get a warm meal in town and a good night’s sleep before we would scout the burn in the morning.
Friday, September 15, 2001
We began a pattern with the horses that would continue throughout the trip and
slowly wear on my mind and spirit, which was staying up until nearly past midnight each night and waking up around 4:00 AM. The first morning was not only damp from the previous afternoon showers, and I remember it being unusually cold for this California boy. It felt like a damp 30 degrees. Today would be our only real scouting day in the burn and from this, we would decide which basket we were to invest our eggs or ammo for that matter. After a deep sleep contented with a full stomach of chicken fried steak and hash browns from the night before we began day one of the official California rodeos in Wyoming. If we thought yesterday was tough this morning started with Dennis letting go of the reigns of his horse Pepsi (I will never drink the stuff again) when he successfully jerked the bridle out of his month. Trying to catch a runaway horse when you can barely ride is an impossibility, which I succumbed to, jumping off mine to watch this rodeo transpire. Inexperienced, but willing to learn Jeff, tried to catch the runaway soft drink but his saddle had other plans. Slipping under his horse, Jeff flipped under Ace breaking his new Steiner binoculars in half!
From where I stood (safely and firmly planted on the ground) I thought he
broke his neck but aside from a little pride and new lesson on how to saddle a horse properly he wasn’t too damaged.
Bob, on the other hand, being more confident after a full day of riding on his horse “Blue” tried to corral old Pepsi. But Pepsi had other plans jumping into the reigns of Bob’s horse Blue and wrapping them around the saddle horn. Away they went with Pepsi bucking and kicking Blue in the chest to the point of blood. Luckily (or unluckily you will soon read) Bob jumped off just in time. But as his back leg was going up and over Blue, the horse bucked, and the saddle horn met Bob’s horn and down went Bob.
Horses two men zero.
Luckily the reign came off the horn and Blue’s limp wasn’t too serious.
Finally, Bill, who we affectionately labeled “Horses Whisperer,” seduced old Pepsi to relent and submit to our authority. With egos, rear ends, and other unmentionables damaged we got on the horses and rode the four miles to where we would scout. Leaving Blue behind to recover I volunteered to walk since I trust my own legs by far over those of some rodeo bucking bronco!
After scouting we decided our base camp needed to be moved and after
another two-hour discussion (I was wondering if this is the usual protocol for
hunting out of state) placed Jeff in charge of the temporary relocation transportation and engineering department of our camp. In other words, it was his job to find a new sight and tell us how to set it up. The new camp brought new hope and with it a new morale for the coming day and the season opener. Dennis and Jeff opted to hunt at our high mountain spike camp and the three of us decided to hunt the burn. At three in the afternoon, in the rain, we said goodbye to Dennis and Jeff not worrying about the hunting but hoping the horses wouldn’t kill them! Bill, Bob and I headed to town for showers at the local KOA and some more chicken fried steak, which was slowly becoming the official meal for our trip.
Saturday, September 16, 2001
The opening morning and the day we had been anticipating for months finally
arrived! All the events of the past three days had been conveniently forgotten, or at least went unmentioned, as we saddled, sipped coffee, prayed together, and began our three-mile journey into the burn where we would spend our first morning. We had finally ended our rodeo careers and could focus on the task at hand, which was killing trophy mule deer.
By the end of the day however, we would surely come to realize how wrong we were. The rodeo began early as we paralleled the creek heading into the burned area. Suddenly the front horse Bill was riding went crazy and turned. Seeing a stubborn badger coming at us Bill jumped off his horse and we all made a sharp left turn up the hill and into the thick bush. Thankfully what could have been ugly ended up being uneventful as was our hunt for the morning. Seeing over 30 dear and a few small bucks I met the guys at the horses around noon. Instead of heading back to camp however, we decided to make a long loop up to the spike camp where Dennis and Jeff had hunted earlier that morning. Not feeling comfortable doing this I succumbed to peer pressure.
Oh, how I should have learned by now!
We began our 10-mile excursion to the spike camp. I say 10 miles because we had to make a loop north around the mountain, we hunted to get to the spike camp. It may have been shorter but in hindsight, it felt much longer! After a scenic afternoon of riding and walking the horses, we came upon the top of the ridge at what must have been close to 9,500 feet.
At this point, Bill’s horse Pepsi refused to walk another step. With eyes
looking glazed and refusing to eat Pepsi collapsed! We thought the horse would die on that mountain but after prayer, removing its saddle, and waiting half an hour we decided to leave him there hoping he would follow but realizing we had just purchased a dead horse. I cannot explain to you the feelings we experienced on that mountaintop, but it was a unique blend of fear, mourning, and utter despair I had not experienced in years.
Working our way down to the creek we noticed Pepsi following from a
distance, he slowly began to regain his senses but as soon as our confidence grew Blue, Bob’s horse began to wobble, shake, and nearly collapsed! We took his saddle off and placed both on my horse, which because I had walked him most of the time was still fairly strong. That soon changed too as we looked over our spike camp and he too became weak-kneed.
To make a long story short we made it to camp just before dark. We started to tell Dennis and Jeff our rodeo experience but (of course) they had one of their own. And we would soon experience yet another. Ace was the horse Jeff was riding.
He was the smallest. Ace was the horse with the word “No” in blaze orange onto his chest by the guide. We were told that this packhorse was not allowed to pack anything but people! Feisty and small we let our lightest and most feisty hunter Jeff have the privilege of riding him. Being tough himself Jeff was not about to put up with a stubborn horse and when he tried to ram the bit into Ace’s mouth the angered horse did a literal backflip onto his back nearly killing himself.
Thus, for the rest of the trip, we nicknamed him Flipper. While we were still laughing about all this Ace (aka Flipper) broke loose from his rope, which was common for us until we discovered yet another use for duct tape and was feeding in the bag of oats. Bob gently tried to grab the reins of the horse and he bolted through our lean-to and kitchen area. In the process losing his reins, which we were never able to recover.
Frustrated with the day Bob and Bill wanted to take the two fresh horses
back to base camp which left me with Dennis and Jeff and no fresh horses. The plan was to return the next day with all of our supplies for a week at the base camp. Remember I had not planned for this so all I had on me were the sweat-drenched clothes on my back. After a discussion around 10:00 PM, they saddled “Flipper” and Doc and headed to base camp in the darkness of the Wyoming wilderness.
Looking back, it was that day and night that broke me. After waking up once during the midnight clear to retie the horses (remember they had been schooled in chewing through ropes) we tried to sleep. Since my sleeping bag and clothes were still at base camp, I made the mistake of trying a new undergarment that I learned the hard way did not wick away my body’s moisture. I tried to sleep with only a borrowed Gortex jacket from Jeff but around 4:00 am I woke up shivering uncontrollably from my wet clothes. Complicated by the 30-degree high mountain night I need immediate attention.
Dennis must have felt me shivering and shared his bag with me. Thanks buddy!
Sunday, September 17, 2001
Needless to say, we were all so tired from the stress of Saturday that at 6:00 Sunday morning we finally lumbered out of bed. With time for breakfast, which consisted only of a strong cup of coffee we got our boots on, fed those evil horses, and went for a morning hunt. Dennis and Jeff hunted together, and I set off towards the granite peaks three miles north of our campsite. I stopped after about a mile and began to glass about a ridge over a mile away and instantly spotted six good bucks feeding across the ridge. Three of them were mature four-pointers. Excited I made a sneak on them only to get to shooting position just as they fed over the ridge. An exciting moment for me was when my radio buzzed the call of an excited hunter. He had just shot a trophy.
When I asked him how big it was, he said he had height, width, mass, and all the extras. He had estimated him at 37 inches wide. Excited I said, “Jeff that is awesome! You finally got your trophy of a lifetime!” The radio was silent then a voice came on saying, “Jeff, who is Jeff?” I never heard from the mystery hunter again. By 10:00 I had spotted over 14 bucks, 6 of them being bucks worth a second look. I headed back to base camp to share my experiences when I met up with Jeff and Dennis. They had seen few deer and were extremely discouraged from their morning hunt. I shared my buck stories and excitedly we decided to head back to base camp to get Bill and Bob and hunt these high mountain mulies.
We uneventfully (finally) saddled the horses and slowly walked them back to camp. Pepsi was still in really bad shape and it could have gone either way at that point. More on Pepsi later. We made it down to the base camp where Bill was saddled with the packhorses and at the trailhead coming to meet us. We were so thankful he wasn’t further up the trail. Upon arrival, we shared my morning glory and calmly he said, “Oh yeah, Bob killed a buck today.”
Knowing Bob was hunting for a trophy we asked if it was what he was
looking for. Bill calmly replied, “Well, it only has one small one-inch eye guard.”
Then after a dramatic pause, he added, “But I guess the thirty-two-inch spread
makes up for it!” We were ecstatic! He had killed a four-point trophy of a lifetime. If it weren’t for a crab claw left G3 it would have gone Book.
He had made a 450-yard shot and his 300 Win Mag held true dropping the monster buck in his tracks with a solid hit to the neck as he fed unsuspecting of his demise. The buck had been lying with several other bucks and getting only a front view, Bob selected the widest one as the biggest of the bachelor group. However, upon the shot, Bob noticed one of the bucks was a massive non-typical buck with high horns and a beautiful 5 x 7 spread.
The buck wasn’t wide but had Bob known everything he said he might have had to make an interesting decision. Our morning failed in comparison to theirs and we quickly abandoned all plans, packed up our spike camp, and planned to hunt the burn for the remainder. In less than two hours all were in agreement so Jeff and Dennis admirably volunteered to saddle up and go back to the spike camp to break it down. What a day!
On the way up Jeff and Dennis had a fairly uneventful trip except for a tense moment when the rope got wrapped around “Flipper’s” leg and Dennis intuitively cutting it with his pocketknife, which he usually kept in his fanny pack but happened to have it in his pocket. On the way back Dennis experienced another California rodeo in Wyoming!
As they were crossing a creek on the way back Dennis decided to get off
the horse and walk part of the way to give the horse a brief (forgive the pun
which you will see momentarily) break.
Now I know why cowboy boots exist. As Dennis went to pull his foot out of the stirrups the left front of his hunting boot got caught on the stirrup and over, or should we say under, he went. The next thing Dennis knew he was staring straight up at the oil stick of this finely tuned machine! Thankfully, and miraculously if you knew these horses, the horse stopped in his tracks and Dennis was able to recover (except from the humiliation).
While Dennis and Jeff were on the trail Bob, Bill, and I took Bob’s buck to the butcher, showered at the Hobak KOA, and enjoyed what became the nightly
tradition of chicken-fried steak and eggs at Lou’s Diner in Jackson, Wyoming.
Monday, September 18, 2001
Monday began at 12: 30 in the morning as we woke up to horse snorts around our tent. This meant one thing; the horses were gone again. There was a slight moment of tension as Bill, Bob and I lie in our bags hoping it would all go away. It didn’t. Bill was the first one up with the rest of us following closely behind. One horse was still tied, two untied and wandering in the camp and two were gone! Of course, “Flipper” and Pepsi were the two prodigal sons (of Satan). After searching several minutes, they were nowhere to be found. Getting into Bill’s Suburban we drove about two miles down the road, where we saw two sets of glowing green eyes in our headlights. It was our wayward friends. After chasing them down we literally herded them back to camp where we duct-taped their ropes to the tree and collapsed into bed around 2:00 AM. As soon as my eyes shut the alarm went off at 4:00 AM signaling the start of a new day.
Let me tell you how hard it was getting out of bed that morning.
All of us were tired, frustrated, and edgy. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Jesus was the only thing that held camp together that morning. We saddled some of the horses (by this time I refused to ride), formulated our plan, had some coffee, much needed prayer and were off. Bill and Jeff would walk in about a mile and hike up into the backside of where Bob shot his trophy. Dennis and Bob would ride in about two and a half miles to the canyon where Bob had killed his buck. I would walk up another mile-and-a-half to the northern most ridge, hike to the top where we would all meet eventually. Exhausted from the sleepless night I humped it up the ridge but was there a good 45 minutes after daylight. Usually like to get there in the dark but today it wasn’t meant to be.
Walking in I jumped a nice 26” four-point at about 100 yards but passed on him as he only gave me a backside shot. Reaching the summit, I walked up on three feeding bucks. Two were little forkies and one was a small 4x4. I sat and watched these bucks for several minutes until my frustration caught up with me. I had come to Wyoming for my first mule deer and my only goal was to kill a four-pointer. Here he was.
At the point of exhaustion, I just wanted my hunt to end so I dropped the
hammer on the little guy killing him so quickly that his buddies looked at their
dead friend and kept eating! The kill was anticlimactic as was the little four-point, but I was excited that the pressure was off, and I could now help the others in harvesting the trophies they sought.
No sooner had I dropped my buck as six other bucks stood up to my left up one being an impressive four-pointer. He was narrow but high and thick. I radioed Dennis and he made his way to me. To my right, another 26” symmetrical four-point made his way within 30 yards of me. We exchanged a few awkward glances and I mock shot him with my Weatherby 7mm. Wow, I wish I could have done it all over again! He slowly trotted off. Dennis and Bob arrived shortly, and I sent Dennis in the direction of the other bucks.
Instantly Dennis started shooting, and shooting, and shooting. Bob and I
laughed and radioed Dennis asking if he needed more ammo. He didn’t as he had killed the thick buck I had seen. We labeled him the Abraham Buck as God had delivered him to Dennis at about fifty yards. The buck was 300 pounds on the hoof with a spread of 23” wide by 23” high. We estimated he would go close to 180 Boon and Crockett. Dennis had hit him six times before the huge buck finally went down. It took us over an hour to drag the massive buck a quarter of a mile.
Bob and Jeff decided to head back to camp to get the horses as Dennis and I stayed with the bucks. Four hours later we heard from them. With anxiety in his voice, Bob told us to hang the buck and leave him there and hurry down the trail to meet him. Pepsi had something wrong (again), and they thought he was going to die in the camp. It was near dark when we met them on the trail. We were able to get my buck out as we had hung him on the trail but opted to come back for the Abraham buck in the morning. In the meantime, Bill was looking for us and had missed a large trophy. We all met up in the dark finally and headed back to camp. Miraculously Pepsi survived but it was the last straw. He was out of here in the morning!
Tuesday, September 19, 2001
The next day found us much more horse wise and horse sick. Dennis and Bob would wait for the new horse, say goodbye to Pepsi, then pick up Dennis’ trophy still hanging in a tree four miles from camp. Bill enjoyed hunting alone and with the entire burden placed upon him with the horses nobody complained. He would hunt the same region where Bob had killed his buck and seen the non-typical. Jeff and I hunted up the canyon where I killed my buck. We saw several bucks but none that Jeff wanted to take. After several hours of still-hunting, we met up with Bill on the radio and took a nap on the top of the closet ridge.
After walking up we hunted down and just above the gut pile of Dennis’ buck, we saw a sight I will not soon forget. A large black bear was sleeping under a tree with his left front paw behind his head as a pillow and his right front paw on his stomach; It was so human looking it was frightening. We crept away as to not disturb the bear’s slumber and again parted ways. Jeff and I headed back to camp and bill continued hunting. Later that day Bill would miss another 28” buck, never killing the trophy he was after although he had some opportunities.
Back at camp old Pepsi finally was retired and replaced with our new
horse Jeremy and with him brought a whole new attitude in camp. When our hunt was over and the guide picked up the horses, we told him how much we appreciated Jeremy and his comment was, “Yeah and he isn’t even one of our best 40 horses. Hey, did you think I would leave my best horses with you Californians!”
That added some perspective to the trip. That night we headed to Hobak for showers and dinner in Jackson and prepared for the last day of the hunt.
Wednesday, September 20, 2001
The last day was fairly anti-climactic. Bill killed a small meat buck in the morning. Jeff, who was the selfless leader of the trip, said he was ready to go home that night. He only asked for one more evening hunt, which I volunteered for. We headed into Hobak, took our last showers in Wyoming, bought souvenirs for our families, and headed back to base camp to pack up and climb those majestic Wyoming mountains one last time. On our last hunt Jeff and I jumped two nice bucks and missed one with nearly a 28” spread. Jeff finally got his shot at a nice trophy and was content with his hunt and the success of those he led with him.
Thursday, September 21, 2001
We broke down camp and left Boulder Creek around 9:00 PM driving straight
home and arriving in San Luis Obispo around 7:00 the next evening.
The mountains of Wyoming had crept into my very soul. There is something about the wilderness of Wyoming that uncovers the raw spirit of a man. They are a place where a man confronts his deepest fears and discovers new courage. The mountains invite, beg, and dare a man to enter their presence. They manifest the naked weaknesses in every man, but in his weakness, he is clothed with strength. They stretch his physical limits until he discovers spiritual awareness. They reveal his worst self and through that finds his best self. They beat a man’s spirit to death only to be born again. You’re only an interloper in their deep canyons and dark timber until freed from darkness and despair. The mountains beckon and seduce a man beyond the hunt, beyond the kill, and into the richest depths of his manhood.
I will go back to that place again.