By: Randy Tucker
The Sweetwater River is a legendary waterway that once kept immigrants on the Oregon Trail alive as they crossed the barren waste that is the high desert of Wyoming. To me, my son, and son-in-law, it’s a little slice of hunting and fishing heaven nestled in a faraway, largely unpopulated area of America’s least-populated state.
The isolation is profound, and perfect, all at the same time.
It was October 2011, and my son Brian, son-in-law Adam, and I all had general deer tags. The hunting area allowed four-point or better mule deer, or any antlered whitetail. We had permission to hunt on private land from several ranchers in the area, so boundaries weren’t an issue, but finding a nice buck was the challenge.
My friend Doug Thompson owned much of the area we were hunting and asked that we look for whitetails first since this aggressive immigrant from the east was pushing the native mule deer, along with elk and even moose, out of their traditional habitat. If you haven’t watched these pushy little deer work their larger relatives off a good section of land, you’re missing a great example of nature at work and of a species that has no respect for the greater size and strength of another.
We saw hundreds of whitetail, but they were mostly does and fawns with a few spikes and tiny bucks.
As the day wore on, we moved off Doug’s place onto another rancher’s land, a rancher who didn’t care what species we harvested.
I crossed the Sweetwater on foot, and the barely six-inch-deep path I took through a gravel bed didn’t even get my socks wet.
I set up on a slight ridge with a cover of heavily gnawed cottonwood trees to conceal myself.
Brian and Adam were downstream several hundred yards on the other side of the Sweetwater.
A 3×4 mule deer buck moved down from a hill above me. Through my rifle scope, I could see a two-inch brow tine on one side and knew that a tine that long counted as an antler point, so officially he was a legal 4×4 buck.
He moved to about 150 yards away and sniffed the air. He knew a human was nearby as he looked right and left. I steadied my Remington 788 .308 caliber on a downed cottonwood trunk and fired a single shot. I hit him cleanly with a heart/lung shot and he dropped immediately. As he dropped, he flipped over one more time and rolled down a steep embankment into the Sweetwater. I raced across the 150 yards to grab the buck before he floated off, but I was too late, the current caught him, and the water was over my head at that section of the river.
I laid my rifle down and ran alongside the river as the buck floated downstream. He stalled on a patch of shallow water above a gravel bed a couple of hundred yards downstream and I was able to wade out and grab a leg.
This time my socks were wet since the water was about two feet deep, but I had retrieved the buck.
The boys came over a few minutes later after I tagged and field-dressed the buck and had a good laugh at my expense.
In the midst of one of America’s greatest desert expanses, I managed to harvest a deer that almost floated away.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting, and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].