The Process

Story and photos by Zack Boughton - Stone Glacier Director of Content

When it comes to hunting, there is process. To find and kill an animal takes a series of steps, determined by experience, by the present moment, and by the animal. It’s a concept we can articulate, but it has an identity without boundary, constantly evolving. For me, drawing a deer tag that got me excited was the driver of my dedication back to a process, one that I felt could end in standing over an exceptional deer. I’ve committed to hunting mountain bucks for years. It’s here that a mule deer shines. No offense to the prairie, but there is something about a smart, old, big-bodied, swollen-necked mule deer high on a ridgeline deep in the embrace of jagged mountains. It’s beauty and the beast all wrapped into one.


My legs were burning. I was climbing 1,500 feet to a main ridge that would serve as my camp and glassing location. It was July and this would be my first scouting trip. This was step one of the process. As I set up camp, my imagination tingled at what might be lurking in these high alpine expanses. Bucks are more visible in summer in this country as velvet antlers push them away from thick timber and bugs keep them in the high basins and on windswept ridges. I figured some hard miles would give me intel that hopefully would be valuable in filling my tag. I hadn’t called anyone, didn’t have any hot tips, and didn’t try to nab anyone’s spot from a YouTube video or Instagram post. This was my chance to see what I was made of as a mule deer hunter. Look at a map, make a gameplan, and get your ass up on the mountain and behind the glass. After seven days and six nights on the mountain, I had looked over about 120 bucks in four different areas. I saw a lot of nice deer but nothing that struck me as a hammer. My return would be focused on the buck that had the most dominant look: a straight four with a good frame and some swagger.

Hunter looking through binoculars 

It was two days before the season, and I caught a tan body sliding between cliffs above the trail. A big left four in the spotter flashed through small pines as the late morning sun illuminated the velvet rack. My heart sped and a small shot of adrenaline hit me. It had been a month, and I hoped this was my buck. So far my process was delivering. As daylight slid down the canyon rims on opening day, my spotter swept across a rocky stretch of mountain. A lone deer was feeding here, and as I zoomed in the spotter I was quickly looking at one of the largest deer I’d seen on the hoof. This was the deer I scouted. The look was unmistakable, and what I thought would finish as a 180-class buck was now much larger. This would be my target.

Mountain mule deer


For three days I sat sunup to sundown observing this buck and looking for a chink in the armor. There was no obvious one. By day four, I knew we had to try something. If we didn’t, another hunter surely would if they spotted this buck. Around 4 p.m. we crossed the canyon and side-hilled in to within 150 yards of his bed. Our plan was an ambush on an evening feeding route down the mountain. With no visual on the buck, we had to commit to sitting until dark. Nothing showed and switchy winds felt like the easy culprit. With light fading we retreated, gnawing on whether we’d see this deer again. For two and a half more days we tried to beat this old giant. We could not get an opportunity. It was time to head home, and I hoped we might cross paths again in a little over a week’s time.

Dawn again broke with me seated back in a familiar place, glassing east at the rocky face. It was once again two days before season opener, this time for rifle. My plan was working up to this point; scout a nice deer, relocate him and archery hunt him, and if that failed to produce, come back with a rifle and hope to put a final stamp on the hunt. I only saw one deer that morning. He was my number #2 deer, which was a good start, but no sign of “the one.” The next morning the big buck showed. He was alone but back on his pattern. On this day, the night before the season opened, he elected to make a potentially fatal mistake. He got up around 5:30 and fed across the hill in sight of the saddle up canyon, a common glassing vantage. As I panned my Leica up to the saddle, a figure hunched behind a spotter. Did he see the buck? My mind raced and I cursed the buck across the drainage. Why couldn’t today be the opener? He would have been dead hours ago. But no, the cards we are dealt are outside our control. Tomorrow I would be ready.

Hunter with tent in mountains 

The rain had been going for hours as I crawled from my tent. I hoped this would be to my advantage. Maybe the rain would keep some guys in tents for the morning. As I glassed through the rain, I hoped for just a glimpse. This would allow us to make a quick plan and then burn 15 minutes across the canyon to get in position. Thorough glassing that morning failed to turn him up. If he was across the canyon, he wasn’t on his feet long. Around 10 a.m. we saw two hunters walk out onto the small ridge below where the buck had been calling home. They walked in the wide open before plopping down and glassing up onto the rocky face. Frustration at this point was an understatement. I had worried about other hunters pushing the topic and going into his bubble. Now they sat in open sight below him with a thermal shifting the wind up towards the buck’s core area. Awhile later, they walked back to their horses and out of sight. The hope that had returned was soon shattered when two guns shots rang out four hours later, sounding as if they had come from where I saw the two hunters. My gut wrenched. A third shot echoed as the hunters neared the buck, ending my hopes for this deer. One of the men walked down from above the buck. In his hand was the right antler busted just above the brow tine. All the time, the work, the patience, and this would be how it would end. I did my best to be sensible about the whole thing, but my emotions ping ponged around my head. My process had proven it could work until it didn’t. I couldn’t control other hunters; it’s public land and they have the right to hunt the way they see fit. It wasn’t “my” deer, but damn it had felt that way in my head. Years of experience brought other failures when opportunity was right in front of me, and if I’ve learned anything from those it’s that you need to find closure and move the hell on. The process would need to continue.

I hadn’t planned on needing more days, but there I was returning a final time. Rain hammered the windshield as I switched into 4WD and climbed towards the trailhead. The weather would be less than ideal. After three hours of climbing, I finally reached my glassing perch. Sitting there, the fog pushed in and out, revealing parts of the mountain in small windows. As an opening presented itself, I saw a bedded buck. The spotter showed solid forks on his right side and my heart sped a bit. Over the next four hours I slipped into as close as 100 yards. In the end a group of does I hadn’t seen blew up the party and frustration boiled. It seemed nothing could go right.

I loaded my pack the next day and pushed across to the next basin. That night as I side-hilled back towards the tent, I saw a solid-framed deer bound off below me. I quickly moved above the deer and watched as two bucks bounced through aspens before stopping. The spotter revealed a solid four-point with a frame outside his ears. This wasn’t the giant that filled my daydreams, but this was a damn nice deer and my excitement told me all I needed to know. The shot wouldn’t be easy. A downhill, sidehill rest across the backpack would force my trained skills to focus and execute on a process. As my crosshairs dipped before raising straight up on target, I slowly pulled the trigger. As the gun recoiled my scope returned to the buck. He looked hit hard and ran downhill out of sight. I grabbed my gear and started my descent to see if I could find my buck before the dark consumed the valley. As I neared where I’d last seen him, I saw a deer piled up just a hundred yards down the ridge. I smiled and walked down to lay hands on a great deer, one I had wholeheartedly earned.

Hunter with mule deer buck


In the end, the process worked. I grew as a mountain mule deer hunter, learning much along the way. What I thought could provide an opportunity did, but what stuck with me most was something I had told myself before the hunt started: the experience of the hunt is the most important part. If it’s not fun, even if the fun is challenging, then why do we do it? Moments of this hunt had brought despair, anger, and frustration. Things that I was mad at had worked their way into my heart, but it was that struggle that illuminated the things that bring me back. The beauty of God’s creation, the challenge of living on the mountain with animals that continue to amaze me, the friendship crafted through hard days on the mountain, the mental struggle that forces us to inspect our own motives and heart, and the blessing that we get the opportunity to hunt in the first place.

We all want to shoot the big one, but if that’s our only focus hunting will never provide lasting happiness. Only by embracing the journey and the process of being a hunter — by understanding that highs come with lows and by being grateful in the days we spend on the mountain — will we truly find happiness in hunting.

This story first appeared in the 2023 Stone Glacier catalog. If you want a paper copy of the catalog delivered to your mailbox, consider joining our catalog mailing list.

Hunter packing out mule deer buck in the mountains