81 years of looking down the scope
Mildred Bryant is pictured with her buck after the 90-year-old celebrated her 80th anniversary of hunting by harvesting the mule deer.
(Photo courtesy LINDA ERICKSON/IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME)
| November 15, 2022 1:00 AM
Hunting has no set expiration date — if you can shoulder a firearm, still see good enough to look down the sights and traverse a fair amount of open country, then your clock’s still ticking. If you’re 41 and fighting for a Super Bowl ring, you’re ancient. If you’re 41 and looking for that seven-point bull, well, you’re in your prime.
Then there’s Mildred Bryant. The 90-year-old New Plymouth resident has been hunting big game for nearly double that timespan, and she recently harvested a handsome 3x4 mule deer near Malta after 80 years of looking down the scope.
Next time you’re out stalking a buck and your legs get a little sore, think of Mildred’s story.
Cutting her teeth on Oregon blacktails
Bryant’s story begins near Coos Bay, Oregon. As a young girl, she spent a vast amount of time riding horses and learning the ropes (literally) associated with life in rural Oregon. And many of those pastimes, including hunting, have stuck with Bryant since those early days.
“I’ve hunted all my life and shot my first deer when I was 9 years old,” Bryant said, then paused. “Eighty years ago.”
“Eighty-one,” Bryant’s daughter and lifelong hunter, Linda Erickson, added.
It didn’t take Bryant more than a second to flip through the 90 years’ worth of pages in her mind to recall that exact day.
“We only had a single-cab truck, and my brother’s friend, Willard, was always with us,” Bryant said. “And for some reason my dad was taking Buster, my brother, into town with him, and he made Willard and I stay home alone. Well, that made me mad.”
Right then, Bryant decided she would go hunting in spite of her dad’s orders to stay at home. She took his rifle off the wall and shot her first deer, a buck, that afternoon.
“We couldn’t pack it. We weren’t big enough to carry it!” she said. “I went and got a rope and hung it by its horns, up in a tree. I gutted it out and hung it up so it would drain good.”
Sure, gutting and hanging a buck is about as glamorous as cleaning one’s rifle barrel after the season, but imagine doing it for the first time as a 9-year old.
A few hours later, her father came back from town to an ecstatic little girl.
“I killed a deer,” she said.
“You did not,” he said.
She assured him that she had.
“My dad was so mad at me. He could’ve blistered my butt, but he didn’t. I remember I was starting to bawl, because I thought he wasn’t going to listen to me. But I needed to get the deer home.”
Her dad finally conceded to help, and they drove up the property where Bryant had hung the deer. When he saw the deer, let’s just say he had some very choice words, according to Bryant.
Always a spitfire
You got to have a certain level of grit to be a big game hunter; most folks know that. But to hunt big game for over 80 years, that’s a whole other level of ‘grrr’.
As one’s does, Mildred Bryant’s (known in her earlier days as Mildred Peterson) life changed in the chapters to follow. She got married, had children — five daughters to be exact — and moved to Redmond, Oregon, later in the early 1970s. She and her family took up a dairy farm with 85 milking cows and worked “night and morning,” Erickson recalled. “Yet mom and dad still hunted.”
“One of us usually stayed home while the other went out,” Bryant said.
One fall, nine family friends from the Oregon coast came up for a hunting trip near Joseph in northeast Oregon.
“Well, I had to stay home and take care of the kids and school and run the dairy,” she said.
Bryant’s husband and the nine-person hunting party had taken the truck, trailer and all but three horses with them on their trip up to Joseph. As the doldrum of housework and running a dairy gnawed at Bryant’s venturous spirit, she got a wild idea: She and two of her daughters would load up their horses and go hunting.
“We borrowed our neighbor lady’s old truck, put our two horses and a little white Arab mare in a trailer and left my other three teenage daughters at home to milk those 85 cows.”
Mildred and her two daughters took off for some open land, spent the night in the back of the truck and headed out early that morning to locate a deer.
“Pretty soon we heard this deer coming through the trees, hitting his horns, you know,” Bryant said. “Click click click. So I took a shot, wounded him. He kept on moving, past my daughter. She pulled up a shot, never shot at anything before I don’t think, and took a shot. And she let go.”
Bryant was able to get another, fatal shot on the fleeing buck. “As he started going up the shale rock, I got him good.”
Bryant and her daughters retrieved their horses — this hunt being a little more premeditated than her maiden hunt as a mischievous 9-year-old — and went to load up the deer. There was only one problem.
“We couldn’t lift the thing. He weighed 165 pounds. And he was on shale rock.”
At that time, five guys Bryant recognized from an auto supply shop in town came up and over the hill.
(At this point, one might think: “How fortunate. Five gentlemen, probably all volunteering, self-respecting townsfolk who would give the coat of their backs, conveniently show up and offer to help the three gals load up their deer and away they go.”)
That’s not how Mildred tells it.
“They were so mad because I got there and got that buck,” she said. “They figured they were going to start below and come up to the top where they had seen that buck before.”
The road up to the top had been closed for the season, meaning the hilltop was only accessible by foot or horseback.
“They never offered to help. They were so mad, they just left.”
Unless you’re a squirrel or a morel hunter, long packouts are rarely fun. Your resources are usually frustratingly thin or tangled and somehow you fail to see the silver lining of a full freezer when that freezer’s contents are still ratcheted to your sweaty back.
And just because you have a couple packhorses at your disposal, doesn’t mean the job won’t have challenges.
“We hoisted the deer up on to a stump and brought the little white mare over. Me and my daughter slid the buck off the stump on to the mare when its feet went out from under her because of the shale rock.” The Bryants repeated the process and got the same result.
“Finally I rode one of the horses back down to the truck. An older gentleman down there said he wouldn’t be able to hike up to help, but if he could ride one of our horses, he would come help us load it,” Bryant said.
With the fellow’s help, she was able to get the 165-pound buck hoisted up on to the little mare’s oversized saddle, “with each of us on either side balancing the deer on its back,” Bryant added.
And the Bryant women weren’t done. The next day, after they had got the large buck back to the house, skinned and hung in the spud cellar, Bryant’s oldest daughter went out on horseback and shot a 4-point.
If wall (mounts) could talk
Later that week, her husband returned from Joseph. The party of 10 had tallied up four deer, with her husband’s small three-point being the biggest.
Bryant recalled just how proud her husband was of the deer he’d shot. Back on the dairy farm, she said, you didn’t take vacations. You worked seven days a week. And you certainly didn’t go on a weeklong hunting ‘adventure’ with friends.
“For him to go up to Eastern Oregon to hunt and take that time off from work was a big deal,” Erickson said.
Mildred chuckled. “I told my girls, ‘Now when Daddy comes home, you wait ‘til he shows us his deer, and then you come out with ours.’”
As the story has it, Mildred’s husband wasn’t too happy to see not just one buck outsizing the one he brought home, but two. Both harvested within a few miles of their Redmond home.
“He was so mad that I got this big deer that he would not eat the meat,” Bryant said. “He swore to God that his deer tasted better than mine did, too.”
It’s a funny, unspoken biological behavior that possesses every hunter from Coos Bay to Connecticut: The first thing a hunter notices when they step foot in another hunter’s home is their taxidermy.
It doesn’t matter the quantity or quality. Horns, heads and hides — each one has a unique yet relatable story associated with it, a story you hope you hear from the person who hung those relics to begin with.
And hanging on the wall above Mildred Bryant as she recalled that story was a beautiful set of mule deer antlers, with four points on either side.
Eighty-one years of looking down the scope
We all dread the day, as hunters, when the pursuit outruns the pursuer. Our legs get weak, our knees give out, our vision gets blurry. You don’t really know when that day will come, only that it will come well before you’re mentally ready to allow it.
Bryant isn’t ready to hang up her spurs — a fitting phrase for a lifelong horse-riding big game hunter. For her 80th season hunting deer, Bryant wanted to do something special.
That anniversary came in 2021, but after a series of unforeseen setbacks, Bryant and her daughter, Linda, had to take a rain check until the following year. And when you get to be 90 years old, that’s an expensive check.
Erickson and her mom made plans to get on a mule deer buck on a friend’s property down in Malta this fall. After applying and drawing a controlled hunt tag, Bryant spent a few days just like every other hunter, sighting in her rifle and getting some practice at the range.
“I just wanted to say I hunted something for 80 years,” Bryant said.
With a little assistance from a level tripod and the love and support from her daughter and grandson, Ryan, Bryant brought out her trusty .270 and put an eye up to the scope, but wasn’t able to see too well.
“We set her up with my 6.5 Creedmoor that had a better scope and could help her see a little better,” Erickson said.
With a handful of shots and the support of her family and their close friends who owned the property, Bryant was ready to find a buck.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the outdoor life’
The next morning came, opening day, and Bryant and her entourage found a spot along the property and settled in as the sun started throwing shades of purple and red against the hillsides. It didn’t take long for a smaller buck to step out into the field.
Bryant settled in atop a wooden stool and took a long look down the scope. Her first shot missed just wide, and the little forked horn ran off.
Not long after, one of the property owner’s ranch managers spotted two mule deer bucks striding out into the field, one a large 3x4.
“The one closest to the tree!” one of the folks yelled.
Bryant looked down the scope and squeezed the trigger. At 224 yards away, that large 3x4 dropped without knowing what hit it. After 81 years, Bryant hadn’t lost her touch.
“It was quite exciting,” she said. “We loaded up the buck and hauled it back to the shop to hang. Then gutted it out. We had some that night.”
A family friend of Bryant’s and manager of the ranch carefully caped out the buck’s head and gave it to a taxidermist, where it will stay for a few more months. But upon its completion, there’s only one place Mildred Bryant plans on putting it.
Hung on the wall, right beside her other 50-year-old 4x4.
“There’s nothing wrong with the outdoor life,” Bryant said. “I truly believe that.”