• braxton.hamilton

Big Al, The Magician

Big alpine muley bucks have occupied my mind since I was a little kid. It seems the whole world is against the mule deer and yet they still find ways to thrive. From dodging hunters and other predators to migrating over a hundred miles crossing highways and fences and then back. Life for an alpine muley isn’t easy. It is a rarity to find an old buck in the high-country and even more special to get the opportunity to hunt one. Wyoming’s high-country houses some spectacular bucks and every year you hear of at least one true giant that got killed. It always comes back to the popular saying, “big bucks don’t get big by being stupid.” They are more often found hiding out in a dark canyon, thick timber, an old burn or thick aspen stands in lower elevations trying to avoid relentless hunters. Although my desire for a world class buck is immeasurable, hunting and being in the high basins on the top of the mountain is something I desire just as much. I often describe my love of the high-country in ways that sound almost like a romance. To find a giant old buck where there are rock slides, cliffs and world class views would be the pinnacle of hunting alpine muleys. As a tried and true mule deer hunter I never give up on the idea that there is a bigger and older buck somewhere.

Every year I find myself in the mountains searching for big bucks at the end of July until opening day of archery on September 1st. I look over as much country as I can and use as much spare time as I have behind glass and in my boots searching for a target buck. I usually will go from drainage to drainage that I have pre-scouted in the off season until I find the one buck that I will hunt. The summer of 2018 was no exception. In 2017 my buddy Kyle had found a massive buck that we knew had some amazing potential and he never harvested him. For the first scouting trip I decided to go look for him with hopes he made it back to the high-country once again, with an even more spectacular rack. This scouting trip I was accompanied by my two best friends and absolute mule deer hunting freaks, Josh and Storie. After spending three days looking for the massive buck we ended up going into another basin that Kyle and I had seen some good bucks in the year before. As we peaked over the edge of the mountain and were able to see the whole basin I remembered a buck that Kyle and I had seen from a very long way away on a smokey morning. The buck was tucked into some scrub pine, below a rock slide and we never got a great look at him but saw that he had matching kickers on his G3s and looked like a good buck but not huge so we moved on. I told Josh and Storie about the buck from last year and I began to glass in that direction. Instantly I picked up two deer. I put my spotting scope up and saw that one was really big but couldn’t see details. The three of us made our way around the basin to a cliff edge to get a better look. This time when we brought out the spotting scopes we were all in complete awe. It was the buck from last year and man did he get huge! He had multiple extras and one was a big long split cheater on his left back forks. His back forks were deep and long tined, but what stuck out the most was his width. We estimated that his outside spread was close to 35”. This was by far the biggest buck any of us had ever laid eyes on in the high-country. He still had the matching kickers on the G3s and much more. The three of us sat there all-night drooling over this buck and the beautiful scene. He was across on a rock slide under a 300ft cliff and offered a beautiful showing the whole evening. Sitting there watching him do what mule deer do was a moment none of us will ever forget. Knowing each other’s emotions, there was time where it was silent and we just sat there in admiration. Without even thinking about the hunt that would inevitably come, the three of us discussed how amazing it was to be sitting on top of a mountain with the sun setting behind wildfire smoke and being in the presence of a world class buck that none of us ever thought we would get to see. It was truly an honor and blessing.

Scouting alpine muleys is just as rewarding as hunting them. I love being in the mountains this time of year with my friends, sharing incredible moments watching deer and discovering how small we are and how big God is. I love learning about big cagey bucks. Where they live, how they use the landscape, their daily feeding, watering and bedding patterns. We named him Big Al, and as the days passed it quickly became Big Al, The Magician. Someone was almost always up there looking for him and learning as much as we could. On the weekends that I couldn’t make it due to work, Storie would run up there and try to keep tabs on him. In the past we were accustomed to watching a buck seemingly all day long and learning every habit he had, but with The Magician we only ever saw him a handful of times. It seemed every trip we made we would only see him for a morning or an evening on the last day up there. We scoured the mountain and used every angle we possibly could, 360 degrees around where he was living and had a hard time pinpointing his bedroom. We knew where his house was, but the bedroom he spent most of his time in was obviously in a spot that you couldn’t see from anywhere but actually standing there. The summer was winding down and the encounters we did have with him were spectacular every time. The archery hunt was about to begin.

We went to the mountain two days before archery opener to try and locate him and make a game plan on him. He never showed himself until the evening before the opener. Our hopes were high until we started to see the glow of a camp fire directly below where The Magician appeared. He was literally only a couple hundred yards from the two hunters that had moved into the basin. They set their camp in the bottom of the basin right next to the water source that the deer were using. I knew with all the activity at their camp that he wouldn’t hang around for long. My plan for the opening morning was to try and get a good vantage and locate him again. Just as big bucks are so notorious for doing when people arrive in the mountains, The Magician disappeared. We spent the next few days spreading out and covering the mountain from every angle and could never locate him again.

As I have matured into the hunter I am now I have noticed a sense of tranquility within me. Before when uncontrollable circumstances would arrive such as losing a buck or people entering my honey hole, I would lose control and my anxiety levels would shoot through the roof. After everything I have encountered in the pursuit of big deer, I have learned to control what I can and not leave a single stone unturned but to be more relaxed about what I have no control in. During this hunt, I felt at such peace that the evening of day 2 when I couldn’t find Big Al, I spent time helping Storie on his own stalk of his target buck. This turned out fruitless, as Storie misplaced his arrow and non-fatally struck the buck. But this diversion away from my pursuit of The Magician was key that day. There is never a second that goes by during a hunt that you can’t learn from. I saw how incredibly well Story executed his stock and picked up key points that led to him releasing an arrow. I also learned from his devastating finish. We all did. I knew to make my shot count.

On the third day the other guys had to go home after the morning hunt to head back to work. I still had a few days available to hunt. With no new sightings of Big Al, I thought about everywhere we had looked and been. I knew everything about that mountain. Everything but one spot. There was a small east facing cliff that had some bedding areas above it and it gradually sloped off before the drop that would support a small feeding area. This was the only place I hadn’t looked. It was 3:30 and I knew the sun would be just right to where it touches the deer and they get up for a little bit before moving beds one last time before evening feeding. Once I made it to where I had a clear view of the cliff I raised my binos. Instantly a big deer filled my view. It was him! He was up feeding on the steep slope just above the cliff. Typically it’s best to bed a deer before beginning a stalk, but I knew that he was going to bed again and it would likely be just above where he was feeding in a small patch of trees. I had a long way to go before the sun would drop and he would get up and start feeding again. I didn’t want to wait around and let him get up before I got there.

I made my way to him. I got about 250 yards away from the cliff edge and took off my back pack and boots. With wind checker and bow in hand I began my stalk. The aired summer made for a very slow stalk. All the vegetation was dried up and if accidently stepped it could be the end of the stalk. As I made my way across the loose rock and through the dried grasses I kept seeing does and fawns nearby getting out of their beds. It was like a long game of Minesweeper. One wrong move and boom, a bomb would go off and ruin the hunt. Some moments I found myself in mid-stride when I would see a doe feed out and would have to stand like a stone statue on one leg. Focusing on each muscle in my quadriceps until the doe fed out of site until I could eventually finish my step. Finally, I made it as close as I could to the group of trees I thought he would have bedded in. I raised my rangefinder to get a range. As I was looking through it a giant rack appeared and The Magician stood up out of his bed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My prediction was right. Exactly right. He had no clue I was there and everything I thought would happen so far had. Just as if God was orchestrating it himself the buck stood, stretched and took a step forward and put his head down behind a bush to feed. I ranged again and dialed my pins. I have been practicing for this moment for years. I had done everything necessary to be in this moment. I raised my bow. I had been in this position before with a previous big buck and took a shot I wasn’t 100 percent with. When I began my stalk, I put on a mesh facemask. As I tried to settle my anchor point on the string it didn’t feel right. I let my bow down refusing to make a bad shot unless everything was perfect. I took the mask off, re-drew on him and settled my pin. The world stopped spinning and before I knew it the explosion from the bow filled the evening air. He pin-wheeled straight down the cliff line and out of my site. My shot felt great, but I never saw the arrow hit. I heard something break and thought I had hit a branch. With pure adrenaline I ran to his bed and looked around. I glanced in the direction he ran and couldn’t believe my eyes. There he lay, not 60 yards away. I fell to the ground and was overcome with emotions. I could hardly breathe.

I have always had a goal of taking a giant deer with my bow in the high country and it just happened. Every mile stone I have ever had with a hunt was reached. It’s a weird feeling when you reach goals that you never thought were possible. After taking pictures I crawled back up to the top of the mountain where I had phone service and called Josh and Storie on a three-way call. It felt so good to tell them that all of our hard work meant something. I just wished they were there to share that moment. Storie had just gotten home and showered when I called. He informed me that he was going to take tomorrow off work and drive all the way back into the mountains and hike back in to come help me get him out and take pictures of him for me. He got there at 3 am and we slept under the stars in a deer bed next to Big Al until the sun came up. It blows my mind that I have friends that are this supportive and willing to do anything to help me. When the sun rose, Storie took some of the most remarkable pictures that really did this amazing buck justice. After every hunt I have always wished that I had taken more pictures. Thanks to Storie driving and hiking back in to me, I will never have to.

The Magician had eluded hunters for years. After taking him, a guy from Idaho had sent me pictures of his sheds that he had been picking up on his property for the past three years. Every year he was magnificent. When Kyle and I saw him from a long way away and didn’t think he was huge we were very wrong, as he performed one of his best magic tricks yet that year. His shed set that year went around 210”. I learned a very valuable lesson to always get closer and double check bucks that look above average. Passing on him last year was a blessing all in its own. He green gross scored 224” with velvet still on. He has a 35 ¼” outside spread. I took him on his biggest year.

Thank you to my dad for instilling the love of the hunt in me. I have learned more from you than any man could believe is possible. Thank you to Josh and Storie for helping me scout and being the best hunting partners a guy could ask for. Good friends are hard to come by. It doesn’t take long for life to teach you that but it’s truly a rarity to find someone who will be there no matter what the call. Thank you to Brian for involving me in The Wyld Company. I can’t wait for what the future holds for us. Most importantly, thank you to my wife Stasia, for always being there for me and encouraging me to pursue my dreams. I love you.

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