The Death Of An Old Mule Deer

A Colorado bowhunter chased this magnificent mule deer for two years without getting a shot. The story of how they finally came face to face at close range is a hunting tale for the ages, one that pierces through the bluster that too often obscures the true purpose of our enterprise and goes straight to the heart of why we hunt--and how.
The story begins last October when Matt (who prefers not to give his last name) first spotted the deer on a central Colorado ranch that includes, among other prime muley habitat, two acres of junked cars and farm implements. "He was in a bachelor group of seven deer I called the Junkyard Bucks, because those darned deer liked to crawl right under that stuff and bed down," Matt says. "I stalked him in there a couple of times but got busted."
Other close encounters followed, but the buck--which Matt nicknamed Ol' Split because of his three forked tines--always stayed just out of range. "I watched him tend does for an hour near my tree stand one morning, but he never closed that last 20 yards I needed," he says. Later in the season, Matt put in that same stand a young hunter looking to fill his first buck tag. The youngster got a shot at the big muley, but a branch deflected his arrow. When the does scattered, they halted near a stand Matt occupied. "I came to draw on him two or three times that day, when he was moving around 45 to 55 yards away tending does, but he never stopped long enough for me to squeeze off a shot," he says. "It was part of the charmed life Ol' Split lived."
"I hunted Ol' Split exclusively, trying to adapt to his ever-changing habits, but as these wily old bucks so often do, he seemed to have a sixth sense that kept him safe. As the rut wound down, he abandoned his social ways and vanished back to the solitary lifestyle that allowed him to grow old. By season's end, I was left wondering if I'd ever see Ol' Split again."
"This year, I hoped Ol' Split would return, but I wasn't sure he'd survived the rifle season. Then one day in mid November, after I'd come home from my annual Kansas whitetail hunt, I went scouting, glassing from a bluff overlooking the property. I was disappointed to see a goofy 2 x 3 tending does and running off bucks. I was about to leave when I saw the 2 x 3's attitude suddenly change from cocky dominant buck to intimidated wannabe. Moments later, I saw why: A large mature buck walked out of a deep ravine.
"It was him: Ol' Split had returned, even bigger and more impressive than the year before."
"From then on it was game on again. I always pick one deer to hunt and focus on that rather than filling a tag, and from the moment I knew Ol' Split was back, there was no doubt I'd found my buck for this year."
"Over the next three days, Split and his does spent most of their time on a neighboring property, where I don't have permission to hunt. But due to the random behavior of mule deer, I knew it was just a matter of time before they'd cross the boundary, so my spirits remained high."
"My fourth day out, I had spent an uneventful morning in a tree stand near the property line--until I heard a deer snort. The snort came from upwind, so I looked intently in that direction and waited. Seconds later, the first does appeared, running hard. More does and smaller bucks, including the 2 x 3, appeared, followed last by Ol' Split. They stopped in the same patch of trees I was in, only 70 yards away."
"Ol' Split was busy, and angry. When he didn't have his nose stuck up a doe's rear end, he was chasing off bucks. I thought for sure all this action would bring him 20 yards closer for a shot, but once again his good luck held. The herd drifted off to bed down 150 yards away. With chores to complete, I reluctantly snuck out undetected, but all I could think of all day was how I could kill Ol' Split that afternoon."
"Figuring the deer would be thirsty after so much activity on a warm day, I chose a stand near the only water on the property. My hunch was spot on, but by the time I arrived, the deer had already watered and were feeding 200 yards away in an open field. I managed to capture Ol' Split's attention with a couple of doe bleats, but he wouldn't leave his harem to check me out."
"The next three days were the same story: Ol' Split and his does stayed tantalizingly close but just outside my boundary. On Thanksgiving morning, after checking another property, I stopped to glass Ol' Split's home turf. He was the first deer I spotted. Oddly, he was all alone and moving up into timber near one of my stands. I watched him until he faded into the shadows out of sight. "A dusting of snow made for soft walking the next morning, so I decided to sneak down a bluff to where I'd last seen Ol' Split the day before. As I approached the spot, the sun was just cresting a ridge. I found a small knoll with good views and a cluster of pines for cover, and I remember thinking, 'If I were a big buck, I'd bed right here.' That thought was interrupted by what I saw next."
"Twenty yards away lay Ol' Split. He rested flat on his belly, with his legs tucked under his body and his chin on the ground and those magnificent antlers sticking straight up in the air. My heart skipped and I instinctively dropped to my knees and nocked an arrow. I thought, 'My gosh, I've just stumbled onto the exact deer I'm been hunting--in his bed and still asleep.' Then it dawned on me: Ol' Split wasn't sleeping. He was dead."
"I was in disbelief," Matt recalls. "My first thought was that someone else shot him and he ran up here and died. But when I turned him over I couldn't find a mark on him. It was as if he'd simply fallen asleep and never woke up." For 15 minutes, he marveled at the long odds--of Ol' Split's natural death, of his chance discovery of the buck's final resting spot. "I thought, 'How the heck did this happen, and how did I stumble upon it?' I concluded it was a little bit of predestination by a higher power. It's amazing in my book."
Matt (here with a buck he shot on the same property in 2003) says not all his thoughts were noble. "I hunted this deer hard for two years and would have loved nothing more than to be responsible for his death with my bow," he says. "The thought occurred to me, 'He's not more than three hours dead and there's not a mark on him. Who would know if I claimed him as my kill?' I guess I finally decided I would know, and that's what kept me from doing it."
Instead he let the buck rest where it fell, confident that nature would reassert its claim. Coyotes made quick work of the carcass overnight and Matt returned to salvage the antlers.
According to Matt's own tape work, the 9 x 7 rack, characterized by extraordinary mass and long tines, netted 185 1/8 typical and 203 5/8 nontypical. The outside spread is 27 inches. He estimated the buck's age at 7 or 8 years old.
But numbers don't do justice to the moment he realized Ol' Split had won their battle of wills. "The respect we have for these animals is what really shines through at a time like that, when you realize what a difficult life they lead and how fortunate we are to hunt them," Matt says. "It's hard to define how that changes a guy and what particular emotions that stirs, but they were there and they were real. I figure by telling the story, maybe other hunters can relate to it."
The rack now holds a place of honor in Matt's home, talisman of a remarkable adventure. The magic it holds is the kind we all could use a little more of: A reminder that the value of a hunt can never be measured by a tape; that the true work of a day in the field is to fill the soul, not a tag.