"If at first you don^t succeed, try, try again."
Jeff Gonzales followed the advice of that adage when he and three friends made their third annual trip to Colorado for the deer and elk season.
After two unsuccessful treks, Gonzales had a feeling his time would come.
“We had hunted the same area twice before. Although I hadn’t killed anything, I knew there were plenty of deer and some respectable trophy animals in the area. My friend, Jeremy Watkins, and his family had been killing good bucks and bulls there for several years, and the first year I went, one of my buddies killed a really nice buck. Then in 1998, I had shot and missed a big deer. So I figured it was only a matter of time before my luck would change. Actually, all I really wanted was just another chance at a decent one.”
That wish turned into reality for the 24-year-old laborer from Sonora, Calif.
The “secret” place the Watkins family returned to each year is a plot of Bureau of Reclamation land in Unit 22, located southwest of Meeker.
On this trip, Lynvelle Williams and Shawn Rapp accompanied Gonzales and Watkins. The group from California arrived a few days before opening morning of Colorado’s second combined season, and set up their camp. For the next two days, they scouted the area, hoping to find some game to pursue when the season opened on Saturday morning.
Gonzales’ chance to kill a buck was delayed a bit, however.
“All of us had drawn deer tags for the unit and bought ones for elk. So when we started scouting on Thursday, we really didn’t care whether we found deer or elk. As it turned out, the first thing we saw was a herd of elk. We spotted them late in the afternoon and watched them bed down. When we returned to the same area on Friday, we found the elk and watched them bed again. So when the season started the next morning, we headed back there, knowing the odds of finding them right where we had left them were super. And we guessed right. Shawn killed a nice bull, and that basically wiped out the rest of the day for all of us. We spent the rest of the morning and entire afternoon packing out his elk.”
On Sunday morning, Gonzales left camp before daylight and hiked about a half-mile into a rugged area.
“I had hunted around the same place the two previous years, so decided to give it another try. I found a big rock, made myself comfortable and started glassing right at dawn. Not too long after I started looking, I spied a monster buck with a really wide rack walking in a ravine. I guessed the spread at somewhere around 27 or 28 inches. But he was a long way off, so he could have been bigger or smaller. Regardless, he looked really huge through my binoculars.”
Gonzales had to guess at the distance because at the time his rangefinder wasn’t working properly when he tried to get an accurate measurement. Forced to estimate, he figured the range to be about 300 yards. He raised his Remington 700 rifle and shot. The 140-grain Sierra bullet from his .270 hit low. The buck quickly evaporated into the brush, never to be seen again. After the miss, the hunter tried the rangefinder again, and found out why his bullet hit under the buck’s belly. The distance was nearly 425 yards.
The missed opportunity really got to the disappointed Gonzales.
“I realized I had probably blown a super chance that might have been the only one I would get at a real trophy. At that point I was totally discouraged by my mistake. So even though it was still early in the day with several hours of daylight left, I quit hunting, hung my head and headed back to camp.”
In the meantime, at least one of his companions had taken a good buck. Williams killed a nice 4 X 5 that day, and when he and the rest of the group returned to camp, they consoled Gonzales.
“Those guys just wouldn’t let me get down in the dumps. Jeremy kept telling me there were plenty more bucks around and not to get bummed out about missing the big one. Shawn and Lynvelle backed him all the way, telling me that everyone misses chances. They all wanted me to get my spirit back up. It worked.”
“That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I decided I would head out the next morning with a renewed vigor. In fact, I intended to go right back to the same area and try to find the big one again. Of course, I hoped the second encounter would turn out better than the first.”
On Monday, Gonzales returned to the same canyon and rock, began glassing and soon spotted antlers on the far slope.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was a whopper buck. He looked even bigger than the one I had missed on Saturday. With my heartbeat going wild, I tried to get my bipod set up on the rock before he reached the brush, but I couldn’t get a good angle. I stood, deciding to try an off-hand shot. That didn’t happen either. Before I could put the crosshairs on him, he wandered down slope into the bottom of the canyon and disappeared in the trees. Right then, I decided to go after him.”
“Trying to be as quiet as possible and stopping occasionally to look for the deer, I made my way down the ridge. Once I got to the bottom, I started to make my way through the trees. All of a sudden, the buck stepped out. He was less than 40 yards away from me. We both stood still for a second and stared at each other. The last thing I wanted to do was spook him. Then almost as quickly as he appeared, he walked off and disappeared into the brush again.”
Fortunately, Gonzales managed to remain relatively calm despite his excitement. Keeping his wits, Gonzales was fairly sure he would get another chance for a shot.
“There were some openings in the trees in the direction the deer had gone. I removed my backpack and gloves so I would be ready just in case and kept watching. A few minutes later, I spotted him again. He had steeped into an opening and was now about 180 yards from me. But I had to shoot quick because with only a few more steps, he would have gone out of sight again. Just as I raised my gun, the buck stopped at 200 yards away and looked back at me. That’s all it took. Thinking it was a sure thing, I aimed at his neck and pulled the trigger.”
When the echoes of the .270 stopped, the deer wasn’t at the spot where he stood when Gonzales fired.
“Man, it’s hard to relate what went through my mind in those few seconds right after I shot. I immediately thought, ‘Oh no! I missed another monster, and maybe my buddies wouldn’t be so quick to console me this time.’ But I still hadn’t lost my optimism completely. I gathered up all my gear and headed for the spot where the buck was when I shot. I couldn’t find him, blood or anything else that indicated I had nailed him.”
Thinking maybe I had the wrong spot, I walked back to where I had been when I shot and quickly realized that I had been looking in the right area. Now my dejection was even worse than it had been the day before. Luckily, though, Jeremy had heard me shoot and came to investigate.”
“While I stayed put, I directed Jeremy to the area where the buck should have been. Within minutes, he began whooping and hollering, “Oh my God, what a buck. Hurry up and get down here. I couldn’t get through the brush quick enough, and once I saw the antlers, it was my turn to whoop and yell.”
As it turned out, the buck hadn’t gone more than a few steps from the spot where the bullet connected with his neck. But when he went down for good, he fell behind a berm that kept Gonzales from seeing him.
“I was glad Jeremy was there to help. I was probably too pumped up to see straight when I first looked for him because I had walked within a few feet of the place where he had stacked up in a heap.”
After the 60-day drying period, Gonzales’ buck, with 8 points on each side, scored 210 7/8 points under the Boone & Crockett trophy scoring system. The most impressive feature of the massive antlers was the outside spread of 37 3/8 inches.
At one time, Unit 22 was a consistent big-buck producer. But John Ellenberger, the supervisor of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s big-game branch, claims that isn’t the case today. In fact, he feels the Gonzales buck is sort of an anomaly for that area.
“That unit produced lots of trophy deer up to about 1984, when we had a really bad winter in that area. Since then, it’s been more of a maximum hunter opportunity area rather than a trophy factory. Hunters will likely go in there and see lots of deer but few trophy animals.”
“In recent years, our post season deer surveys that we do in December in that area tell us the buck-to-doe ratio remains fairly consistent at 15 or so bucks per 100 does. That’s not the optimum ratio for growing big trophies. A more respectable ratio for such an area would be about 20 bucks per hundred, and in those areas we manage for quality bucks around the state, we actually try to maintain a 30 to 100 buck/doe ratio. When we keep the ratio that high, we’re normally going to have a nice representative number of older, mature bucks that are definitely trophy-class. Unfortunately, we can’t always maintain the optimum levels.”
“In general, the harvest statistics and surveys show that the majority of the bucks in 22 are younger bucks, mostly yearlings and two-year-olds, with another ten percent in the three-year-old class. There’s only a smattering of more mature ones, and among them, the percentage of genuine trophies is probably quite a bit lower.”
Ellenberger is more optimistic for the future deer hunting prospects in Unit 22, however.
“For many years, the population in that country around Meeker has remained low but stable. But now it appears to be on the rebound and growing. This past winter was a real benefit. We had little snow on the ground during both December and January, the critical months for winter die-offs, and although the moisture in that area has been somewhat below the annual averages, it should have little affect on the deer numbers. So the carryover of deer should be excellent for the coming seasons and perhaps even better in the following years if the weather cooperates again in coming winters. Even though the current population is still quite short of what the habitat can support, we think we could eventually see some great hunting throughout that area.”
For Gonzales though, the hunting is already great.
“The deer I killed was possibly the biggest I’ll ever see, much less kill. To me, it was the buck of a lifetime. But I’ll be joining my friends and heading back to Jeremy’s special place again this fall with hopes of tagging another big buck and maybe even a trophy elk.”