Tales From Summit to Sage: Haley Fitzgerald

Please note: this story includes colorful language and could be offensive to some readers.

My story starts before the ass crack of dawn. It turns out I am not highly motivated at 4 am, so my boyfriend (Matt) kindly assigns me the task of feeding the dogs and making myself a coffee before we go. By now, he knows the coffee is more for his safety than my well-being, and he opts to do the brunt of the labor before we depart.

At the bottom of our road in Jackson, WY, a friend meets us for the adventure. Our horses paw the trailer’s rubber mats as I sip my coffee and our friend Ryan tosses his bag and scabbard into the back seat of the Dodge. Upon arrival at our (what will remain an undisclosed) location, it’s still pitch black, and the horses shift uncomfortably as our headlamps reflect off their eyeballs. I am riding the four-year-old half draft, Rio; we acquired from a retired outfitter a couple of months ago. He is somewhat reliable at this point in our career together, but I can feel his discomfort as I douse my headlamp and start up the steep hillside. As we ascend, the light starts to brighten. A sliver of orange moon guides us until the sun begins to wake up. At this point, we are on a familiar ridge, and I tie up Rio to start on foot. We glass for hours. The pink skyline is met by the dry reds of an early Wyoming fall, and there isn’t a critter in sight.

Alas, my binoculars do work on bovine! It’s opening day of rifle season for deer, and all we have seen are cows. We know who holds the grazing allotments here, and after several hours, the group begins to joke that we should call up and inquire about the cost of a tag.

Finally, a buck appears in the shadow of a pine that is surrounded by yellowing aspens. We are collectively here to fill MY tag, and everyone has gotten eyes on this fellow except for me. I must admit my eyesight is poor, or rather, my eyes just haven’t had enough experience to recognize the camouflaged shape of a tawny hide in the tan dried grass. We crunch our way to a ridgeline that will hopefully allow me to see the buck I am hunting. The ridgeline doesn’t allow for a decent view, and ultimately the bovine blows our chances.

Haley’s companions overlook prime summer range where they expect to turn up a mule deer buck.

I’m not very ego-driven when it comes to killing things. I find that this is a trend that I see and respect in women and myself. I only want to take the chance if the shot is there, and I know I will harvest the animal humanly. It is opening day, and I have all season to fill a tag. I’m not just looking for any opportunity; I’m looking for the perfect opportunity. Did I mention I still haven’t laid eyes on what I’m hunting?!

We collectively decide to make our way back to the horses. During the hike back, we run into a group of Wyoming good-ol’-boys. I haven’t met any of them personally, but I’ve heard the legends and folklore. Of course, Ryan and Matt talk with them like they are old friends, which they are. I listen to one of them tell tall tales about a buddy who keeps finding trouble with ladies of the night he takes on as full-time housewives, and he has us in stitches. Not the most boring way to end a morning in the woods. We all glass a bit longer, and the legends take-off on horseback. I enviously watch as a fjord horse takes up the rear. We are still on foot, and the ascent looks daunting.

We finally hit a plateau, and my breath is heavy. I take a hard right at the three horses I see in the distance. As I have mentioned, my vision is poor, and as I trudge closer, I realize those are not horses. I go to veer back on the path with my comrades, but a waiving orange hat catches my eye. All three of us make our way to the Wyoming legends walking as quietly as possible per their gestured request. “We’ve got your buck!” was followed by instructions on finding him in my scope.

I found him still as a statue between two trees. I could not see his rack, but I could see his girth and mass and knew he was a prize. The pressure was on. I had an audience of 6 men who intermittently commented on if I missed the shot, they’d be sure to get it and also I needed to remember to breathe. I would not have this opportunity without them, so I asked them to shut the hell up as politely as possible. One in the chamber of my Remington 25-06, three breaths in followed by three breaths out, squeeze don’t pull. Follow the ritual.

WWF Development Director, Haley Fitzgerald with her western Wyoming mule deer: her first big game harvest.

Despite the adrenaline coursing through me, I took him down with one shot through the lungs. That is all I care about – a humane kill. Matt assured me by the way that he had tucked up that he had taken a few bolting steps and fallen. He was right, and he was proud of me. I also really care about that.

We quickly found him 80 yards away, a beautiful mule deer buck in full velvet. We made quick work of field dressing him with my New West Knife Works 4″ Outfitter knife- the only hunting knife I’ll ever use. After the first few cuts, I rubbed blood in Rio’s nostrils. Today would be my boy’s first day packing out an animal, and he did it like a goddamn champ, securing his forever home. We packed out, and on the car ride back, Matt notified me that I would be receiving an early Christmas present in the form of a shoulder mount to remember the buck and the experience of harvesting my first mule deer.

WWF’s Development Director, Haley Fitzgerald’s story is an example of the experiences outdoors the Wyoming Wildlife Federation fights to retain and improve. Her buck lived at the end of the longest big game migrations in the lower-48. The hunting opportunities provided by the public land nearby offered her a chance to not only have an incredible memory but the deer she harvested filled her freezer for the fall.

If you would like to support WWF’s work to continue to conserve Wyoming’s wildlife, wild places, and outdoor opportunities, please consider donating today.