It was the 3rd morning of a rifle mule deer hunt in the desert southwest of Phoenix. I had been drawn for big game in AZ at least six times over ten years, and still had yet to bag my first animal. My father in law and I had been given access to an alfalfa farm surrounded by open desert that had a way of drawing in deer like moths to a flame. Due to scope issues with my rifle, by this point in the hunt I had missed two large bucks, and burned through a whole box of ammo trying to sight in again. (After the hunt, I discovered the issue was over-torqued scope rings leading to erratic/inconsistent groupings...apparently saving $40 on an inch/pounds screw driver and cranking them down "tight enough" is not the proper way to mount a scope) We arrived before dawn on that third morning and I was determined that this was the day my slump would end. As I gathered my gear and loaded up my rifle, I found myself with four rounds in the gun, three in a spare magazine, and one lonely .30-06 round sitting in the box. “I’ll just leave this in the Jeep,” I thought to myself. “After all, who could possibly need more than seven rounds to put down a deer? Plus, who walks around with a loose bullet in their pocket? I’m not Barney Fife!” (In hindsight, I should have called off the hunt with that rifle until I could get it fixed. If I couldn't get consistent groups at 100 yards on paper with that improperly mounted scope, I had no business shooting at a live animal. Live and learn, I suppose.)
I grabbed my day pack, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and we began to walk the half-mile in the dark to get to our hay-bail blind that looked out over the alfalfa. As the sun began to rise in front of us, I spotted him – a beautiful 4x4 grazing just at the edge of the field. I ranged him at 220, and began to get set behind my rifle to take the shot if he presented me with one. This is when I learned that facing due-east as the sun is rising can pose a problem with one’s optics – I couldn’t see anything! I kept changing angles and shifting my cheek weld trying to see clearly through the scope. I was finally able to get at just such an angle that the glare was no longer a problem and I could see the buck, but it definitely wasn’t my normal, comfortable shooting position. The buck turned broadside, I squeezed the trigger…”missed low” came the response from my father in law who was watching the whole thing through his binos. For whatever reason, the buck was looking around for the source of the sound, but wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. So I moved down a notch on my Drop-Compensating reticle and cracked off another round…”didn’t see where that one hit” came his response. I jacked a third round into the chamber, dropped my cheek to the stock, and the glare was back – I couldn’t see anything. Frantically, I shifted my shoulders, feet, cheek – I moved everything I could until I had a clear visual on that buck – and finally saw him again. He was standing right next to the barbed wire fence, ready to jump back into the safety of the desert scrub-brush, so I took a hurried shot…”missed left,” he said.
At this point, the buck decided it was time to leave, and jumped the fence to safety. Frustrated beyond belief, I stepped back to survey the field. To my surprise, I could see there was a group of about 15 does still standing in that field. And as I scanned deer after deer from right to left, a set of antlers caught my eye. Right in the middle of all those does was a thick-bodied 3x4 grazing in the alfalfa! Though he was certainly alert and looking for the source of the recent commotion, he didn't seem in any hurry to get out of there. I realized I only had one round still in my rifle, and since I was clearly having accuracy issues, I swapped in a fresh mag of three, placing the first magazine with one solitary round on the hay-bail to my left. I figured this buck would start moving away any second now, so I didn’t take the time to range him and guessed he was about 250 yards out. I placed what should have been the correct hash-mark on the correct spot, squeezed the trigger…”low,” said my father in law, clearly getting frustrated. The buck trotted away 20-30 yards, nervous does were wandering everywhere, but eventually he stopped broadside and the does cleared out of the way. Second shot, another hash-mark down…”still low.” The buck trotted further again, does wandering in and out of my field of view, but once again a clean shot presented itself. Third shot, yet another hash-mark down…there was the unmistakable thud of the round impacting the deer. The does took off, having finally had enough of these shenanigans, and the buck just stood there. He didn’t stagger, didn’t fall down, but wasn’t really doing anything. “You hit him, but you need to finish him off…shoot again,” urged my father in law. Feeling awful that I now had a wounded deer standing out there, I wanted to get him put down as quickly as possible. At this point my gun was empty, and I had that one round in a magazine to my left. So I swapped mags, set up on this deer with my heart pounding and ears ringing, and fired the shot…”missed left.”
I felt sick. I couldn’t believe I had just missed this wounded deer with the last bullet I had on me. My father in law, who was focused solely on the buck in his binoculars, had no idea about the predicament I was in. “Shoot again…whenever you’re ready…he’s standing right there…come on, shoot!” Sheepishly, I whispered back, “I’m out of bullets.”
“You’re what?!?!” he yelled. (Apparently, we were done whispering now)
“Well, I have one more back at the Jeep, but that’s all I got.”
“Well then you better get back there and bring the Jeep around, I guess!”
So, I left my empty rifle and all my gear and ran the half-mile back to the Jeep while my father in law kept glassing that buck to make sure he didn’t make a run for it. I drove back up to our blind, and could see the deer was still standing out there in the field. I threw open the hatch and grabbed that single .30-06 round that just an hour prior I was so confident I would never need, and immediately felt the humiliation of silently mocking Barney Fife’s single shirt-pocket bullet he always carried around. Apparently, Barney was quite wise and his perceived foolishness was an elaborate ruse.
Anyway, realizing this deer was now well over 300 yards away and having absolutely no confidence in the zero on my rifle, I dropped down next to a berm that ran out into the field and belly crawled closer to that deer. When I was able to pop back up the side of the berm and range him, he was a mere 160 yards away. If I wasn’t able to make that shot, I guess I’d be down to running out into the field with my sidearm like John Wick, which didn’t seem like it would go all that well. I spent what felt like hours setting up and making sure everything was perfect, steady, and comfortable. I took no less than 17 slow, deep breaths, and with a gentle squeeze I sent the last round I had in my possession at this buck. He dropped immediately with a clean hit to the vitals. Finally, my first deer was dead and on the ground! I was elated, if not a bit sick over how long he had to stand there with a gut shot while I ran around looking for a bullet like an idiot.
In the time since that awesome and frustrating morning, I have re-lived and re-told that story dozens of times. My father-in-law gifted me with a new (and much better) rifle for Christmas, and has not-so-subtly hinted no less than ten times that an upgrade in optics would be advisable. (If I didn’t know better, I’d think he thought I could use some performance enhancement in my long-range shooting). But when all is said and done, I firmly believe that every hunting experience – whether an animal hits the ground or not – is a learning experience. We are always growing and improving as hunters with every single day spent in the field. And of the many lessons I learned on this desert deer hunt (and there were MANY), the one that sticks in my mind is to ALWAYS bring the Barney Fife bullet. If you ever think to yourself that you have enough rounds on you to do the job so you might as well leave the extras in the truck, just do yourself a favor and add a few ounces to your pack by bringing just a couple more…you never know what can happen when buck fever kicks in, and it could mean the difference between a lost, wounded animal, and meat in the freezer.