October 21, 2020.
The year of Covid-19 and the year of the 6.8 Western. It was on this date that I arrived in Utah for a hunt that I had been looking forward to for years. It was a trip of firsts for me, it would be my first Mule Deer hunt, it would end up being the first mule deer kill with the 6.8 Western caliber and it would be the first time I set foot back in the Uinta Mountains without my good friend Ernie. Ernie had passed away 2 years earlier and I couldn’t bring myself to go back to those places that we had spent so much time together. He taught me so many things in those mountains and here I was about to enter the unknown without him…. More on that later.
When I first arrived the juices were flowing, I had been involved with the marketing and had known about this product from Winchester and Browning for a long time but I had not had a chance to see how it performed so first thing I needed to do was head to the range with JG from Winchester and Rafe from Browning. When I say range, being from Pittsburgh and now residing in Michigan, I mean like 200 yards of open ground which is hard to come by. When they say range apparently you just head out to the dessert and start off at 400 yards! I was slightly intimidated having spent most of my life in tree stand and the remainder of my gun time from a cushy blind over a corn field so right out the gate the nerves where kicking in. PLINK! Nailed it….300 yards with the Leupold dialed in thanks to the fellas that shot earlier…PLINK! Nailed 400 yards…PLINK! Nailed 600 yards…. And then BOOM…. wait for it, wait for it. Yea I missed. So, we ended the day with much deserved ribbing and much love coming from everyone that was standing behind me. I will say it was impressive to see the 6.8 performance at that range and what most impressed me was the recoil of the gun, there was virtually none and I was shooting a Winchester XPR out of the box.
Moving on, time to hunt and time get settled in on the Mule deer of dreams. We hunted with R&K outfitters which was a head start in itself since they are one of the best I’ve been with in a very long time. We spent the first few days glassing from a distance and getting a feel for what I was looking for. At this point I was so used to looking at Whitetail that I had to adjust my view with some of the frames on these giant Mule Deer. After about 3 days of “Inventory” check I was ready to pull the trigger and confident we could find a good one. It was 4:35 am when the alarm clock went off that day and as I stepped out of my tiny little log cabin, I noticed something very apparent…it was cold, and it had snowed…a lot! But none the less we bundled up jumped in the ranger and off to the mountains. After about 3 hours of complete misery and fingertips about to fall off… (Why would I wear gloves with fingertips seems to make too much sense) we finally spotted a group of deer bedded in valley tucked out of the wind which is exactly why we were there. One of those bucks immediately caught my attention in the spotting scope not only because he had a huge frame but because he was still in velvet! I was confused and excited at the same time. At this point the cold is now blistering my face and he was bedded at about 280 yards which based on my previous showing I was fairly confident I could get the job done. The one rule I had told the guide was I did not want to shoot him laying down so as soon as he stands, we can roll thunder but not until then. Seemed like a good idea at the time, 1 hour and 20 mins later and down three fingers to frost bite he finally stood up. Game on.
I had never shot out west with a gun before so my mind was racing between which dope to use and how the scope was calibrated and what range he was at and then finally I just went back to the ole’ instincts and held a hair high on his front shoulder. Boom! The 6.8 western barked out across the valley and all I could see was him snowplowing to his death in about 30 yards. Full pass through on both front shoulders…impressive to say the least.
Walking up on this giant in velvet was one of the best walk ups I have ever had, it was a new experience for me and I was so proud to be shooting this caliber for the first time in the testing phase before the launch. I had seen drawings and heard from the experts from both Winchester and Browning on what they were building and how they were building this and then all of a sudden, I was standing over my first Mule deer ever and I used the 6.8 western to do so. From what we can figure he was an old stag buck that lost his nuts long ago and shedding velvet wasn’t his thing, either way it was one of the coolest deer I have ever had the blessing to take.
The story doesn’t end there though.
After waiting for a few days and helping JG find his incredible buck he was able to take at 350 yards with the 6.8 it was finally time to go but I had one last mission. I had to make a stop in Salt Lake at Ernie’s grave. I had been dreading it, but I was also excited to talk with my old friend again and after about an hour visit it didn’t disappoint. I shared my first adventure in those mountains without him and told him how impressed he would be with the new 6.8 caliber and we caught up on 2020 as a whole…I imagine he has just laughing at me trying to explain the political climate and pandemic all in one breath. When I left there, I started a new tradition, I left Ernie the spent cartridge from the first Mule Deer ever killed with a 6.8 western on the left and on the right I left a full cartridge waiting for me to be taken into the wilds of Utah for another incredible adventure.
To me the 6.8 Western is more than just an incredible cartridge