Modern firearm season opened Saturday for hunters of Washington’s most popular game animal — the buck deer. Check the state’s hunting regulations pamphlet, but for the most part, Central Washington has opened up for any white-tailed bucks and three-point minimum muley.
Deer, spry and wild, spook easily around these parts any time of year, especially now, as men and women in hunter’s orange will testify. And even though conditions look good for this fall’s big game hunting, the odds of two hunters knocking down two bucks side-by-side are slim. Those rare and strange stories are what local outdoorsman Henry Wright loves about the pursuit of wild game.
Wright, sales associate in the gun department at Hooked On Toys in Wenatchee, had the chance to lead such a hunt last year at this time, but the details of his story get even more out of the ordinary.
The chance to bring home a deer drives hunters to roll into their hunting grounds, and though the goal is venison, for many, the experience of spending those serene morning hours in the wilderness is a reward in itself.
Wright, of Wenatchee, accounts for this by hunting a variety of game animals in a variety of seasons. In preparation of taking his twin brothers-in-law, Sam and Dan Koontz, both 16 at the time, he scouted areas around his hometown of Waterville for mule deer. He attests that preparation helps turn chance into opportunity, but sometimes success comes in the mix of right place and right time. Abandoning his original spot due to high hunter traffic, he led the hunting party of three to a shrub-steppe plateau bordering Douglas County farmlands.
“It was the opening day of hunting,” Wright said. “We weren’t planning on going to this spot. The spot I wanted to go to was flooded out (with hunters).
“It was their first deer hunt. I had to change plans and go to a different spot. It’s unpredictable when you have so many hunters out there pushing game around.”
The new spot, five miles out of Waterville, admittedly, wasn’t where Wright wanted to be.
“They knew even though we might not see anything, you always have to be quiet,” he said, “and I’m trying to show them everything as we go along, which is hard when you’re looking for deer.”
The hunting party arrived around 6 a.m. on opening day and quietly searched the area for deer waiting for the legal light of day to take a shot. Sunrise came about 6:30 a.m., and the action started at 10 a.m.
“We were behind a stubble field, and I heard footsteps,” Wright said.
He raised his binoculars to get visual confirmation of the legality of the deer that stood 25 yards from them.
“I saw antlers and I saw it was legal. I got Sam’s attention and whispered, ‘Turn around slowly – and shoot. That. Deer,’” Wright said.
The weird part is not that the rookie deer hunter missed his first shot at a deer; the strange part comes next.
When Sam Koontz stood, the deer did a “duck and jump” maneuver and ducked the bullet that hit the hillside behind. A second buck, until then unseen, emerged and ran.
“A second buck took off running,” Wright said. “Sam was working the action on his rifle, and his brother Dan came running up with the gun to his shoulders and put the (second deer) down on the run.”
The shot went through the shoulder, ending Dan Koontz’s hunt on opening day.
“Ten yards away from him stood the first buck,” Wright said.
After the deer ducked the shot, Sam Koontz had another chance and took it with perfect aim through the lungs.
“Sam put one through the lungs broadside within 10 seconds of his first shot. They were both wide-eyed, but I was being quite vocal. I was like ‘holy … both on opening day!’ I can’t believe this happened. Both on opening day,” Wright said.
Wright’s job of taking them to the deer was over, but the boys’ job had only begun at that point. Dan Koontz stayed with his deer while Wright and Sam Koontz pursued Sam’s deer, finding it five minutes later, dead.
“Then they got to learn all the work that goes into taking care of the deer,” Wright said. “They got some roasts out of the deer and got sausage and jerky made with the rest.”
Nearly identical sporterized 7×57 Mauser rifles were used by the two to take the deer. The brothers have been shooting with the rifles for about four years prior to taking them on a deer hunt.
“It all happened really fast,” Dan Koontz said. “I don’t remember looking through the scope. I probably did and don’t remember. I was going off instinct.”
Four hours into a patient and quiet hunt, and it came down to 10 decisive seconds to keep two startled bucks from getting away.
“I don’t even remember racking another (round),” Sam Koontz said. “I’ll probably go out again this year. I’ll use the same gun. I’ve got other rifles, but the Mauser is customized (cut down) from a military grade. It’s a nice rifle.”
Dan Koontz had to make the choice this year between modern firearm season and archery season, which is over. He gave archery a try this season shooting with a recurve bow.
“It’s harder to sneak up on a deer shooting recurve,” Dan said. “I’ve got to get pretty close and wasn’t able to this year.”
More than 100,000 hunters are expected to take to the field this modern firearm deer season, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife news release. Game manager Dave Ware expects this season to be a good one coming off a mild winter last year.