Imagine sitting in the sagebrush country of the American west with a mule deer archery tag in your pocket.
Now imagine yourself being 30-yards away from not one, not two, but three mule deer bucks with bona fide thirty-inch spreads and slam dunk entry scores into the Pope and Young record book.
And you pass them up.
Such was the remarkable decision made by 26-year old Zach Shetler last fall on Sept. 10 while bowhunting the desert country of southern Idaho. While few archers in the right or wrong minds would pass up a chance at such muley bucks, the Shoshone, Idaho resident knew very much what he was doing. Moments later, the young bowhunter let an arrow fly at one of the largest mule deer non-typical bucks of all-time.
By the time the dust settled, Zach was tagging a 30-point buck that is not only the new Idaho state archery record for a non-typical mule deer and one of the best ever. Amazingly enough, while Shetler has arrowed five elk and four mule deer does, this was his first mule deer buck with a bow.
The 'Shetler buck', which could rank as high as fourth all-time on the Pope & Young list, has been given a gross score of 266 7/8-inches and a net score of 261 6/8-inches. Should that score be upheld after panel scoring, the buck would become the largest non-typical mule deer bow kill since 1989.
Not bad for an archer who the previous evening had stalked within 25-yards of a bedded muley buck and missed. But the following day, Shetler was back in the field after work, undaunted by his errant arrow. He was hot on the trail of a group of bachelor bucks that Zach, his brother Josh, and hunting buddy George Versis had been chasing since the start of the Idaho archery season.
"The bucks that were in that group, three of them were 30-inch bucks. Those were pretty much the bucks that we were chasing," Shetler said. "We got close a couple of times, but we ended up not scoring on anything."
On the evening of Sept. 10th however, Zach was alone on the flat desert floor littered with thick sagebrush. Determined to atone for his miss the previous evening, Shetler put on some heavy wool socks on his feet to help mask his stalking on the noisy, drought-stricken desert floor.
After the previous hunts, Zach and his hunting buddies had discovered that the herd of bucks generally stayed within a one-mile radius, although they seldom bedded in the same area twice. Zach made his best educated guess and crept into position among the two to four-foot tall desert vegetation to wait for the group of mule deer bucks to make their next move.
"I got to where I thought I was pretty close to their bedding areas," Shetler said. "I sat down and started glassing about 45 minutes before dark and waited for them to get up and start feeding."
The action begins
On the mild and calm September evening, it didn't take long for the action to begin.
"I was sitting down and I saw some of the bucks start to get up," Zach said. "They kept getting up and began feeding. It ended up that there were 10 bucks in that group that night, ranging from a small 1 X 3 to the one that I shot. And the three 30-inch bucks that we had been watching, they were there too."
As the mule deer bucks began to feed in Shetler's direction, it became apparent to him that the muleys would pass by out of range. Realizing that he had to move quietly into a better intercept position, Zach began his stalk. At his first stop, it appeared that the bucks would still pass by out of range. The archer moved again and when he stopped and eased his head over an embankment, the bucks were feeding 100 yards away and slowly moving in his direction.
As Shetler completed his set-up, a disturbing realization plagued him the monster buck that he was hoping to get a shot at wasn't keeping up the pace with the other bucks in the group.
"Everytime I came up for a look, that big buck was kind of trailing behind the others a little bit more," he said. "He was kind of lackadaisical and was kind of hanging back."
Delinquent or not, Zach pinned his hopes on the big buck's projected path. He wouldn't have to wait long as the first buck passed by his sagebrush hiding spot at a mere 30-yards, followed by another, and then another, and…well, I think you get the picture.
As he waited the big buck out, Shetler battled the shakes as the group of mule deer bucks methodically filed by his position.
"It was hard to breathe when they were coming. The 30-inch bucks were awesome looking. That's what we wanted that's a bowhunter's dream, to get a 30-inch buck. But when you put him next to them, they looked small. He was huge. It was pretty nerve wracking," he said.
As the three 30-inch muleys began to travel by his position, Zach realized that he was facing a huge decision to let them walk and wait on the slowpoke monster muley or take a shot at one of the three Pope & Young bucks that most hunters dream about.
"By the time they got to me, he had lagged behind them about 80-yards," Shetler recalled. "So I didn't know whether or not to take one of them or to keep waiting for him. But I elected to hold out for him."
Committed to the trophy
Now committed to the big non-typical or bust, Shetler fought off panic as the trio of record-class mule deer walked by. But his thoughts quickly turned to the slowpoke buck and the shot opportunity that was just moments away from becoming a reality.
"He was coming pretty quick, but I knew a lot of things could go wrong," Zach said. "I had a good sagebrush in front of me, but there wasn't much but sheet grass behind me. So after all of these other bucks walked by me, I was pretty exposed and I didn't have much cover but they were feeding away from me, so I had a chance to draw."
If Shetler had any doubts about passing up the trio of monster mule deer, those doubts were quickly dispelled as the huge buck fed his way into the range of his Hoyt Raptor compound bow.
"It worked out perfect," Zach said. "He came up feeding with his head down. I waited until his head got behind a sage brush and I came to full draw and shot him."
When Shetler unleashed his carbon arrow and Muzzy broadhead combination at 30-yards, the deer tensed and tried to jump the string. Upon impact, the buck whirled and trotted off, eventually disappearing into a gully.
A sleepless night
While the Idaho bowhunter was certain his shot was lethal, he was concerned that he had hit the buck further back than he wanted to. So after a short wait, Zach found the blood trail, marked it and eased out of the desert for a long and restless night.
"I didn't sleep at all that night," he admitted.
As it turns out, Shetler had good reason to toss and turn during the night. When he and his mom, dad, and brother returned the next morning at first light to begin looking for the buck, they quickly discovered that they were not the only hunters chasing the giant muley. The distinctive tracks of coyotes left Zach worrying if the deer would be found and whether the meat would be salvageable if the four-legged predators had discovered him first.
"We found a few specks of blood here and there, but we pretty much tracked his tracks," Shetler said. "That buck had a real small track, almost the size of a doe track. It was the strangest thing."
The small tracks of the buck also led to a little good-natured ribbing from Zach's dad and brother as they trailed the deer.
"They thought I probably got a little excited," he said. "I was trying to explain to them that it was the biggest buck that I had ever seen, but I don't think anybody really thought that it was the size that it was. And then when everybody saw the size of the track, they were razzing me pretty good. I guess they thought it was about the size of a forked-horn."
Zach and his family soon had more to be concerned about than simply tracking the buck. Two mid-morning cell phone calls let the Shetlers know the horror that most Americans already knew: the U.S. was under terrorist attack on the morning of 9/11/01.
"We had gotten phone calls from my uncle and my wife," Zach soberly recalled. "Nobody knew what was going on, just that planes had hit the World Trade Centers."
A few minutes later, Zach's quest for the mule deer buck of a lifetime would come to a bittersweet conclusion as the family discovered the spent deer on the desert floor.
"My dad saw him first. He didn't say much," Shetler said. "Our jaws kind of dropped when we first saw him. I was in shock. It was amazing. He was awesome. He was bigger on the ground than what I remembered."
Zach said he was glad that his family, who all bowhunt Idaho's abundant big game populations, was able to be with him when the muley buck of a lifetime was discovered. It also gave him a chance to return some good-natured ribbing in the other direction.
"My dad and brother had to eat a little crow," he laughed. "This is what my family has done all of my life, so this was a pretty big thing for a bowhunting family. But we didn't know if it was World War III or not, so it was a pretty weird thing."
"We kind of had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows right there where we found that buck," he said.
A hunting family
If it sounds like family is important to Zach, you would be right. The young archer is quick to credit his wife for his opportunities to chase bull elk including a 320-inch 6X6 that Shetler arrowed a few years back and trophy mule deer.
"I spend a lot of time out there and she is pretty supportive of me," Zach said of his wife, Jamie, who is expecting the couple's first child in June. "During elk and deer season, I'm pretty scarce and I'm not around much. The only reason that I can do that is that she is pretty supportive of what I'm doing."
Once the Shetlers took a few photographs, the deer was hauled into town to a taxidermist. While Zach knew he had shot a huge muley buck, he was about to learn just how big as people began to talk about the deer being the new Idaho state record and perhaps one of the best non-typical muley bucks of all-time.
"Once we sat and looked at him, even just my family and I, we knew he would score pretty high in Pope & Young," Shetler said. "But number four in the world, that was just crazy to me. I didn't know much about scoring, but with a buck like this, you learn a lot about the process."
The scoring process
Part of that process was the official scoring in November after the conclusion of the 60-day drying period. In addition to the non-typical net-score of 261 6/8-inches, the Shetler buck sports 17-scorable points on the right side and 13 on the left. It has an inside spread of 23 5/8-inches; a greatest outside spread of 35 7/8-inches; solid base measurements in the four to five inch range; and main beams measuring more than 23-inches each.
If the current entry score is upheld next year after panel scoring by the Pope & Young Club, the buck appears poised to become the number four non-typical mule deer of all-time in the P & Y record book. At its current score, the Shetler buck also becomes the new Idaho archery state record for a non-typical mule deer, easily surpassing the previous mark of 217 6/8-inches taken by James C. Ashley in Caribou County in 1977.
"The numbers really didn't mean a whole lot to me because I didn't really know where it placed me," Zach stated. "But to hear that it placed me fourth all-time, it was shocking to say the least. All we knew was that it was a beautiful buck and it was the most beautiful thing that I've ever seen."
No surprise here
Idaho Department of Fish and Game state wildlife biologist Lou Nelson said he isn't surprised that his state has cranked out such an impressive buck. He does warn hunters to remember however that such deer aren't common.
"Yeah, we've had big deer taken in a lot of different places," Nelson said. "But big deer are rare. The numbers of the really big monster deer that we see in our winter surveys you can basically count on one hand. Bucks of that size, hey, you'll rarely see one of that size in Idaho or anywhere else for that matter."
Nelson said that bucks like the Shetler buck grow such legendary antlers thanks to good food and good genetics. He said the final ingredient is to simply let good bucks grow up and reach the five to six year-old range where they have the potential to become great bucks. For the record, the Shetler buck is believed to be six years old or better.
So what does Shetler do now for next season? Simple, he returns to the desert with a mule deer archery tag in his pocket and he looks for his state record buck's little brother. But considering the genetics of that particular mule deer family, that sibling buck might not be so little.
"Once you see your first 30-inch buck, you just become a crazed idiot," Zach laughed. "Then you start holding onto your tags and waiting for one of those really big ones."
Shetler should know what a big one looks like. But then again, Zach also realizes that his historic bow buck is indeed a blessing. And in keeping his expectations for future hunting success realistic, he admits that he is not necessarily looking for a better buck next fall, just another good one.
"I get a big thrill out of getting close to any class of mule deer," he said. "A 27-inch mule deer is still awesome. This is just a bonus," he said.