Ever since I started deer hunting, my dad has talked about taking a trip out west to hunt deer - a tradition that dates back to the 1950s, when my granddad, Jim Stephens, would make the trip with his friends from Pennsylvania to hunt deer in Colorado. Over time, the trips would expand to include my dad and his brothers, and was seen in some sense as a right of passage.
But, because of a lot of different factors, it was a trip that I never made myself - the farthest west I'd ever ventured to hunt was in Kansas, while I was a resident in the state. Although deer hunting in Kansas can be legendary - and I had more than a few shots at some really nice deer - I'd never ventured into a landscape totally different than the Midwest/PA deer hunting of my youth and adulthood.
Until this year. With my dad turning 60 and with me finally having a job with more than two weeks of annual vacation, we decided it was time to try knock a hunt off the bucket list. Although Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are still on that list, we settled on far northwestern Nebraska for a few very good reasons: 1. A relatively short drive (about 16 hours). 2. An easy to acquire out-of-state tag (no lottery system) and 3.) The chance to hunt somewhere completely different from home - the location being the high short grass plains of Dawes County, Nebraska.
|10-point hiding in the cedars.|
There's a lot I want to say about this hunt, but the best place to start would be with commending our hosts, Shared Outdoors, and Brian and Carroll Iodence, who run the hunting operation as part of their working cattle ranch. Having never contracted with someone to hunt before, I'll admit I was a little nervous about what to expect - but they treated us like family and their accommodations (check out their site to see the lodge) were incredibly comfortable. Best of all this place was an actual working cattle ranch (Brian is the 5th generation to work it) where the deer are truly wild and the hunting was a true effort - you couldn't just show up and expect to shoot a trophy.
As a working ranch on the high plains, Shared Outdoors' secret sauce is that it sits along the Niobara River, although in this part of the state it's more of (to this easterner) a small stream that provides a steady flow of water to an otherwise parched country. The river allows the Iodence's to irrigate crops like barley and alfalfa, as well as keep a healthy number of trees, cattails and bulrushes growing - perfect cover for deer in any country.
Although I was hoping to tag a mule deer on my first Western hunt, the range at Shared Outdoors is strictly whitetails - the more aggressive species having pushed the muleys away from the river an into the dry canyons away from the ranch.
As you can see from the photos, the four of us on the hunt - me, my dad, my uncle Don Stephens and my mom - were all successful at filling our tags, and there's a few other deer out there that were also successful at dodging our attempts to put them in the freezer.
|Uncle Don with his 8-point. Not sure how he's going to explain it|
to his granddaughter, who told him not to shoot Bambi.
As you can guess, we were all pretty excited for her and I know she's already planning on following up on this buck with another one in a few weeks when she travels to Pennsylvania.
This photo doesn't do the view justice, but this is the much-hyped "super moon" setting over a cow pasture, viewed from a window in our elevated blind. I hardly took any photographs on this trip, which is kind of sad, because the early morning sun rises across that huge horizon (not to mention the brightness of the moon and stars) were simply astonishing. Western Nebraska doesn't show up on many travel destination lists, but the place has a beauty that can only be appreciated by seeing it in person.
Speaking of elevated stands, this cow here was a real fan of the one that I shared with Uncle Don. Two different morning she decided to use the stands metal framing as her back scratcher - rubbing up and down on the stands cross-supports, and sending me and Don swaying not so gently in our seat. Brian told us if it became an issue we could shoot a round off over her head - but he should be glad I had already filled my tag by this point and was without my rifle, or I might have been tempted to aim just a bit lower.
We didn't end up shooting a deer out of that stand, but we did get to see a good bit of wildlife - whether it was a couple of small bucks like the one pictured here, or the multiple turkeys, coyotes and pheasants who happened to wander by. Even with the cold morning temperatures, it was worth the early wake up time just to see a few of God's creatures out and about - way better than any TV show.
All in all, it was an amazing trip - made possibly only by Jackie's willingness to let me go as she took on all parental duties and stresses - and one I'd recommend anyone taking if they get the chance. I'll also say coming home to some incredibly excited and happy kids left me with a wonderful feeling, especially little Abby who only wanted to be held by her Dad-da-da and by Ben and Sam, who wanted to hear all about the trip and how I "caught" my deer.
As it is anytime I can get out in nature, it was a refreshing escape from the everyday grind, and it reminded me of how important such experiences are. I also just finished process about 120 pounds of venison, so hopefully that reminder will come again and again, every time we visit the freezer.
|Not quite Wile E. Coyotoe, but this guy or his friends could be hear singing every night.|