September 03, 2015
It's been five years since Jay Gates picked up his deer rifle.
After nearly 50 years of chasing deer up and over some of the most rugged landscape in North America, his knees and hips finally gave out.
Gates could probably hobble a short distance from his truck and sit and wait for a deer to come by, but that's not his style.
"If I can't do it properly, I won't do it," insists the 70-year-old Arizona resident.
For Gates, a proper deer hunt has always meant donning pair of boots, a backpack, and throwing his Remington 700 .270 over his shoulder then wandering out into the vast open country of the West in front of him. Sitting in a tree for hours?
You might as well put him in prison. There's no telling how many miles he's covered in his lifetime of chasing whitetails, Coues deer, blacktails and muleys, but it's likely well into the thousands, perhaps even 10,000.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I wouldn't hunt whitetails if I couldn't spot-and-stalk," he says.
A Love of Deer
Gates' storied hunting career started in 1957, when he killed his first deer — a fork-horn muley, near his boyhood home of Kingman, Arizona.
Soon after, Gates was consumed with hunting; all types of hunting. Sometime in 1978, though, something clicked. He had already killed a handful of whitetails, a bunch of mule deer and quite a few Coues deer.
Gates, however, realized the antlers from those animals and the methods necessary to collect them captivated him far more than the other big-game species he hunted.
So did the country they lived in. Steep rugged mountains, rolling plains and farm country interrupted by craggy, wooded draws all pulled at him the way the ocean pulls at a sailor.
About the same time, Gates happened to read an article in Petersen's HUNTING, by then-editor Craig Boddington, who wrote about killing all four deer species in a single season.
"I just figured if he could do it, I could do it, too," he recalls.
A year later, Gates set out for Coastal California with the goal of shooting his first-ever Columbia blacktail.
After glassing countless does and just a handful of small bucks, he grudgingly shot a fork-horn.
Since then, he's taken all four deer species in a single season 14 times! And he added Sitka blacktail, found only in Alaska, to his yearly deer slam a half-dozen times.
All but a handful of Gates' deer were taken by spot-and-stalk hunting, and many came from public land.
At the time, drawing a non-resident deer tag in Montana, Wyoming or Colorado was as simple as filling out an application, writing a check and sending them in.
The Allure of Open Country
"I absolutely hate sitting on a stand," Gates writes in his 1988 book Bucks I Have Taken (And Bucks That Got Away). "It's a lot like waiting around for Congress to lower taxes€¦ you don't feel like you're getting anything done."
That's one reason he fell in love with the plains of Eastern Montana. Although the terrain bore little resemblance to the Coues deer country of Arizona, it did have one similar characteristic: It allowed Gates to spot deer from afar and plan a stalk to put him within rifle range.
The same held true for the Dakotas, Wyoming and Eastern Colorado, where, in 1986, he killed one of his best whitetails ever, a 170-inch brute.
Gates actually killed that buck while perched in a tree ("Like some damned monkey," he wrote.), one of the few times he killed a buck from an elevated platform.
The buck didn't walk past him, though. Instead, it was trotting from his friend and long-time hunting companion, Jack Odor, who was making a man-drive.
It was one of 48 whitetails he's killed during his lifetime. Gates has also taken 73 mule deer, 30 Coues deer, 17 Columbia blacktails and six Sitka blacktails.
All told, 12 of his deer qualified for entry into Boone & Crockett's Records of North American Big Game. His secret was nothing more than a love of the sport and the will to walk for miles until he found what he was looking for.
He also had the blessing of his wife, Karen, an accomplished hunter herself and a frequent partner on his many trips.
A Different Era
Gates admits he grew up during the Golden Age of deer hunting. Mule deer populations were at their peak, and the cost of tags, gas and other necessary expenses were cheap. Permission to hunt private land was often achieved simply by asking.
"It used to take desire to do the things I did. Now it takes money," he laments. "The cost of some of these hunts, has gotten to be a joke. I couldn't do what I did these days. It's too expensive."
Nothing was free back in the day, though. Gates owned a small beer distributorship, which provided the necessary income to fund his passion.
Capable employees allowed him to be gone for weeks on end. He often guided for outfitters in exchange for the opportunity to hunt their land and he preferred to spend what money he had on hunting. He spent as many as 150 days per year chasing deer in one place or another.
Despite what seems to be the end of a storied hunting career, Gates isn't at all bitter. In fact, he only speaks fondly of the places he's been, the people he has met along the way and the deer he has killed along with the ones that got away.
"I don't feel sorry for myself. That's life," he says. "I've had a good one."
Hunting tip: Be persistent. To me, that means that you work at the hunt, you get to the top of the hill and then the next one and the next. You kick one draw and then another and another. You just keep going. Don't give up.