"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold
Friday, November 22, 2013
The 2013 Montana Trip - A Two-Parter
(These two stories are also published at Good Hunt)
Montana Mule Deer Hunting
Harris and Trace with Trace's 2013 Montana Mule Deer
Curiously, for a place where you can see miles in every direction, the mule deer on this property popped out of nowhere. You’d sit there, glassing for hours on end with nothing but binocular burn in your retinas, when all of a sudden they’d line every hill like in a Western movie when the White Eye is in peril from a Bad Guy and the sympathetic Native Americans silently assemble a Show of Force that springs the man from danger. In this case, though, the mulies were the ones in danger.
Once satisfied the coast was clear below, they’d slither down the sides of these hills following well-worn trails of generations of deer. A few would pop out of the deep coulees between the hills unannounced; but either way, they’d all congregate – 50 or so at a time – on a pivot field at the bottom planted with alfalfa. On the edge of that field is where Harris and Trace were waiting Sunday afternoon.
Really, it sounds easy, but it’s far from – “far” the operative word. This ranch – just outside of Willow Creek, Montana – is a diamond in a valley, so to speak. The hills to the east and north pale in comparison to the snow-capped alpine fixtures constantly in the Big Sky horizon, yet they’re steep with plenty of nooks and crannies to shelter a large population of animals. As you move south and west there’s a river system that fuels the waterfowl hunting and harbors healthy whitetails amid the cottonwoods along the banks. Beyond that it gets steep again.
Positioned in between is where the mulies, whitetail and pronghorn all meet to feed. It definitely helps that the private ranches here grow alfalfa, wheat and other agriculture which lures the game from their haunts. The problem is, it’s open territory. Targets are deceptively far. Guessing a distance and then putting a rangefinder on it is humbling. There’s not much to break up a hunter’s movements other than the occasional cottonwood, olive tree, or hay bale – and they were too removed from the pivot field to bother setting up for a hunt.
Trace and Harris with the 2012 Mule Deer Harris killed
Oh, we performed our due diligence the previous two evenings. Harris killed a wonderful buck last year on one of the hills with Trace alongside to assist. Both of them drew tags this year and invited me to go along. Having been there before, it was tough to decline – with the promise of a duck hunt or two in the mornings, impossible. So the three of us spent Friday evening on the glasses watching herd after herd of deer move into the field – more deer than I’ll likely see in Florida over the next five years – hoping to make sense of their movements.
Realistic options for closing the gap on these deer were few – hide in the edges of the field and hope for one to feed within range without the swirling wind busting things up, or traipse up the hills like Harris did last year; however, the ranch manager had been reporting a number of shooter bucks reliably in the alfalfa with does. Plus, the one time Harris and Trace tried to ascend the hills and loop above the field on Saturday, every deer stopped munching and tracked their movement, though they were a cool half-mile away. It was amazing to watch how tuned in these animals were, which made us nervous about setting up too close to one of their trails. If it happened to be the wrong path the buck traveled, there was a strong risk of spooking the does.
Attacking the field was the clear choice, but there was no obvious fail-safe method in which to get within distance – fortune would have a say in this. On the last day of the hunt, an idea was born. The plan was for me to drop Harris and Trace along the grassy eastern edge around noon before the deer hit the field and wait them out. They’d rest prone, glass the field, and pray Ol’ Big Buck eventually drifted within a realistic shot. The theory was that even if the deer saw us they would not be bothered by the white Dodge Ram if it came and left in a relative hurry. For the guys to walk from camp to their set-up would have taken at least 30 minutes of needless exposure. Harris quickly unfolded a blanket on the hard ground, and they got settled as I turned back to the cabin to settle myself on the back patio to glass and enjoy the show with several ice cold Kokonees and Josh Ritter.
Those guys held on longer than I would have. To say Montana weather is unpredictable is about like saying the ocean has some water – it’s so understated it’s ludicrous. On a given day, the temps may rise to 65 or so, then comes a wind gusting 40 MPH out of the hills that will blow bricks off a table and, wham, 30′s. After two hours on the patio and not spotting a single breathing, caring animal that would excite at least a little adrenaline, I had bundled up with almost every garment I could find that would still allow me to raise my arms enough to look through the Nikon binos.
Exactly as I described it above, however, without warning or reason, suddenly deer were everywhere. A herd of does followed by a duo of immature bucks. Four whitetail does wandering behind Harris and Trace. Another string of 8 – 10 white-rumped mulies single-lining it from the SW. They were scattered all over Big Thong – a pair of similarly rounded shaped hills we named that had a ridge of evergreens that looked like a waistband at the top and a row of trees traveling down a coulee that perfectly bisected this terrain into a rocky-based butt…you get the picture, I hope…
Perhaps the beer was making one particular animal appear more attractive, but I had been keeping an eye on a large-bodied deer that was hanging around a herd of cows. When you deal with 130 lb. Florida deer for a living, every mule deer looks big. But this one just seemed different; however, he was a long way off in the dull of an overcast afternoon. So I’d keep scanning the countryside. But one time I gazed back as his head lifted and the setting sun poked through the clouds and lit up those antlers. Even at an incredible distance, it was obvious he was a shooter.
It’s illegal in most Western states to communicate deer activity like this to hunters on the ground, but it would not have helped anyway. They were pinned down by the numbers. The thought of moving would have sent all four-legged creatures scrambling up the hills. I sat there thinking about, if I were hunting him, how I could get in range but kept coming up blank.
Gradually, I lost sight of the buck as he ambled further into the field to feed under the pivot, a patch of olive trees the ringnecks would fly into obscuring my view. I wasn’t certain if the others guys had spotted him from their prone vantage point. Wasn’t totally sure I wouldn’t later find them frozen like Hatchet Jack…
Eventually, luck shines on everyone. Buy him a beer one day and Trace may relate the story of how he connected with that buck – it’s not my tale to tell. Up close, he was a gorgeous mule deer – a mainframe 4×4 with a single brow tine on his left beam. It was Trace’s first mule deer buck, and we couldn’t have been happier for him. Can’t wait for the mount to return from the taxidermist to admire it on Trace’s wall. By then the smell of his tarsal glands will have finally dissipated from my fingertips and clothing.
One forky hung around and circled The Fallen, thinking perhaps he was the new King of the Hill. It would have been a cinch shot and was pretty tempting, but Harris, the professional hunter he is, passed him up for next time.
Next time, that buck will be bigger, stronger, but hopefully no smarter. Mule deer hunting is tough enough in this part of Montana. Even when you’re surrounded by them.
(Thank you to everyone…everyone…who made this trip happen for me. Could not be more grateful. Congrats yet again, Trace! #corporatepigeon)
Keep reading below for more on this trip....
Fun in Airports - Montana to Tampa
Harris, Trace and I loped through the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport late Monday afternoon, three hunters still clad in cold-weather clothing that had, by this point, absorbed the funk of four days of travel, cabin drinks and saloons, and the residuals of our planned objective, all-day duck and mule deer hunting outside of Willow Creek, Montana. Every moment wasted was one that could have doomed us to watching our flight leave for Tampa.
The additional sweat from this sprint was cruelly inflicted by forces beyond our control. When the intercom notified us as we taxied to the gate that the jetway was not operating properly, the passengers grew restless. We had a short layover; others realized they were doomed.
One gentleman – though the term grew loose for him after this altercation – laid into a stewardess about this tardiness as if she had some charge of rule in the situation or was perhaps a contestant on Undercover Boss. She took it as a pro – I’m sure that wasn’t that the first rodeo for her. Like it or not, until they repaired the jetway or moved the plane to another gate, we were stuck in one of those small connecting Delta jets that don’t appear designed, strangely enough, to transport grown humans that care to sit upright.
So I can justify the frustration; his verbiage and manner, not so much. He even inquired why they didn’t deploy the emergency exit slides – not sure how chuting everyone onto a half-frozen Minnesota tarmac to scatter like ants for an entrance into the airport and through security would help anyone’s time frame. This guy clearly wasn’t a hunter – we’re far more adept to handling situations beyond our control and putting in the extra work to take advantage of what time allows.
Eventually, the stewardess – or, more likely, someone else – decided the best option was to taxi the jet to another gate, and the race was on. I hope that guy missed his flight – we sprinted past several who did who were forced to re-book their trips home. It had to have been funny and probably somewhat alarming in this day and age of airport security, to witness three guys in camo chug through the crowds to reach their gate. Making matters worse for me, my jeans kept falling down, and I had worn flip-flops from the camp – even though it had started snowing there as we were packing to leave – to help move things through security when in Bozeman. Tough to run with frostbite in your toes and pants around your ankles.
(Speaking of Bozeman, I will testify that airport is spiritually satisfying for sportsmen. Upon arrival, it’s the symbol that the adventure has begun. Large picture windows display the gorgeous surrounding snow-capped peaks. The line of hunters at baggage claim awaiting their firearms and gear discuss their fraternal purposes for their travel, whether it’s mulies or elk or waterfowl or upland birds. Departing will leave you wanting to return. Just a wonderful, albeit small, part of the experience.)
Our mad dash paid off as we made the departure gate in time, the lady scanned our boarding passes, and the stewardess welcomed us on the plane so the child behind us could commence kicking the back of our seats. I’ll refrain, in these delicate times of anti-bullying, from saying anything too nasty, but this kid was unruly. My fear of flying is well-documented; each thwack of his tiny foot into his tray table struck my heart, thinking for sure a wing had just fallen off. Two-and-a-half hours of this can drive nearly anyone to an outburst, but, perhaps recalling my feelings on the jerk from the connecting flight or the fact the parent-figure sitting with him and trying to correct his behavior in a helpless situation had the unmistakable appearance and weariness of a foster parent, I endured without snapping.
But, I noticed everyone looked weary on that flight as we got settled. The stewardess told us we would be waiting on another passenger, a big fellow who clearly had not run from Gate C2 to F13, nor seemed capable of. A lot of Western Hunts are physically demanding. The most strain I had was climbing in and out of a duck blind and this run. The details of the actual hunt are coming later this week. As a preview, let’s just say the scent of a rutting mule deer may not be scrubbed off us for another week or so, which probably rendered us more offensive than any other person on these flights.
We landed without crashing in Tampa, our mercy for not killing the seat-kicking kid rewarded by God, in my opinion. (Quick aside: when compared to the final approaches in Minneapolis and Bozeman, landing in Tampa feels like you’re setting down on the Vegas Strip.) Though completely wiped out, we spent the truck ride back to our respective homes talking and scheming about next year’s adventure – and happy to have been on this one.
Nothing that happens in an airport can detract from a hunt like that.