Hunt of a Lifetime: Fife uses bow to bag state-record mule deer


YAKIMA, Wash. – Hunting Washington’s most prized deer can take significant time and effort, not to mention a little bit of luck.

For 27-year-old Jake Fife, it took 16 years to earn an archery tag for one of Yakima County’s most coveted and restricted units, the location of which he asked not be used in this article. So when his early scouting last summer identified a buck bigger than any he’d ever seen before, bringing it home became a single-minded obsession that defined his daily routine.

“Wake up, go to work, think about the deer, get off work, go see the deer,” Fife recalled. “Think more about the deer. Come home, sleep think about the deer. Dream about the deer.”

Those dreams became haunted by a missed opportunity on the opening day of the season, Sept. 1, but nine days later Fife found the perfect chance for redemption. Countless hours of target practice finally paid off when he took down the buck, two weeks before the season ended.

Fife’s elation and pride from his first archery kill along with a full freezer plus plenty for friends from 175 pounds hanging at the meat locker provided enough rewards, but he would earn much more. The buck’s net score of 229 shattered the previous record of 2033/8 for Washington nontypical mule deer, and it won Best-of-Show in the archery category of the Horn and Antler competition at February’s Central Washington Sportsmen Show.

“It was really special due to the fact that I was able to finally get it down with a bow after a lot of failed attempts on other deer and stuff that I ended up never getting,” Fife said. “I feel pretty spoiled, but at the same time, there was a lot of hard work and disappointment before that happened.”

Hunting in his blood

Fife took his first hunter’s safety course to acquire a license at eight years old, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

He initially applied for the unit where he would eventually find his record-breaking buck as 10-year-old, and Fife gained experience hunting elsewhere with his father, Gary Fife. Longtime hunting partner Trevor Dallman met Fife during their freshman year at Selah High and joined him in collecting virtually all of the many deer mounts now hanging from the wall in his east Selah home.

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“We started off pretty young and just kind of going together and before you know it, we just hunted well together and started having good success,” Dallman said. “Mostly deer, elk and waterfowl.”

Fife learned to hunt with rifles and muzzleloaders before finally picking up a bow a little more than three years ago. He worked hard to gain confidence and skill with his Bowtech Carbon Knight, learning how to factor in the wind and hide well enough to creep within range of a potential target. Dallman said the Naches Valley head baseball coach and P.E. teacher has always had the “eagle eye” for finding the biggest game animals, including a memorable one that got away after a close call a couple years ago.

So when Fife sent Dallman a picture of an even more massive buck, Dallman quickly agreed to be a spotter and help out however he could. That meant tagging along whenever possible, and he heard plenty of stories from days when he couldn’t make it out to join his friend.

“He’s just so dedicated, I knew he wasn’t going to go for anything else,” Dallman said. “There was multiple other bucks when he got this one that were, at any other time, ‘wow, that’s a huge buck.’”

As one of two hunters selected in late June for an archery tag on a unit known for old, large bucks, Fife found his ultimate goal after several days of scouting about three weeks before the season opened. He tried to track the buck for about six hours daily on the weekends and two to three during the week, totaling well over 50 hours.

Finding trends proved more difficult than expected as the buck wandered around to different trails, bedding down and drinking water at multiple spots. Fife figured the deer’s tendency to stay in the general area would give him a good chance, though he couldn’t imagine just how soon it would come.

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Taking down a “giant”

Fife didn’t sleep much the night before he began his hunt for the buck he referred to as a “giant” in a blog post for Northwest Sportsman magazine last October.

He woke up early and shortly after the sun rose saw a shocking sight — the buck of his dreams all alone. Fife carefully worked his way to within 70 yards of the patch of sage where he believed the deer was resting, only to see it stand up 30 yards away, then bolt upon seeing a disturbance so close.

“He didn’t stop to look back to see what I was,” Fife said. “I watched him go over one ridge and then go over another ridge and then go over another ridge. I was like ‘oh my god’ and then he never came out of that one, a big canyon, so I knew he was around.”

Nerves engulfed Fife even more than before following the close encounter, but he remained patient, waiting for the ideal moment. He saw the buck out in the open and with others over the next few days, including on a couple when the unit was closed, choosing to keep his distance rather than risk another failed stalk.

Finally, on Sunday, Sept. 10, Fife discovered the buck behind a large patch of brush and watched it feed while darkening up its horns by rubbing them on and off for about two and a half hours. He also called Dallman, who went out to spot for his friend as quickly as possible on another beautiful, sunny morning.

“Pretty much I had a perfect view,” Dallman said. “You could drive this road up on this hill and I could see everything.”

He watched as Fife slowly and methodically crept towards the bottom of the draw, eventually taking off his shoes and crawling on hands and knees through cheatgrass and stickers. He eventually settled into a spot about 40 yards away, behind a bush enough to be hidden from the deer, with a slight, steady breeze blowing into his face.

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But as Fife partially stood up, awkwardly off-balance, waiting for the deer to stand and turn around, he felt his bow jump a bit and realized he needed a more comfortable position. So he immediately pulled back the string, stepped up and through the bush, then when the buck got up, locked eyes, and stomped his foot down, Fife let his arrow fly.

“It just went right through him, just disappeared,” Fife said. “It happened so fast I was just like — I knew I seen that I hit him but it didn’t make much sound or anything.”

An anxious hour

Doubts about what looked like a perfect shot crept into Fife’s mind after he watched the buck sprint away at full speed, and a phone call to Dallman only confirmed those fears.

From the road, he’d seen the buck tear off through the plain at full speed showing no signs of injury, then eventually slow down before it headed into some bushes and disappeared. Fife couldn’t find any traces of blood — or his arrow — so he decided to wait an hour until about 12:30 p.m. to begin a thorough search.

Dallman directed Fife to the bushes, and there it was, a buck even bigger and more incredible than he’d seen at a distance or in his pictures. Dallman and a game warden who watched the hunt helped Fife back to the truck with his price, which he estimates weighed about 300 pounds.

The success garnered Fife plenty of attention and opportunities to tell his story to fellow hunters, but he insists the high score isn’t really important to him. He’s hoping a full mount will be done by the end of the summer, and he’ll always have some unforgettable memories.

“Not even just to get him, but to be able to hunt a deer of that caliber was pretty cool,” Fife said. “Who knows if it’ll ever happen again? It might not.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>