Friday, December 21, 2012


Montana.    It’s not getting any easier, but “do-it-yourself”  in Montana can still pay off.   It just takes  work, some luck, some leg-work and some time.   Isn’t that what trophy hunting is all about?  Year after year I hear hunters tell me about their quest for big bucks, how bad they want to hunt out west, how they can’t quite ever scrape enough money aside to do it.   Truth be told, if it was easy, everyone would do it.  I don’t fish, I don’t play golf but I do enjoy hunting Montana.   I like to get it done, now for my boys.   In my short 58 years I have found that if people want to do something they will do it.  If it’s important to them they will do it and will find a way.  If they don’t, they will find an excuse and invariably excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough.     Our trip to Montana was going to be different this year, which was guaranteed.   For starters, the ranch property we hunted for the past few years was off-limits to hunting.   The disastrous winter of 2010 and disease had taken its toll.  Fawn recruitment was poor and between the cats, coyotes and severe drought of this past summer ranch ownership had made the decision to shut down big-game hunting.   So, I had to come up with a plan.  After all, with an expensive non-resident license in hand you do need a place to hunt.   Between phone calls, letters and some luck I was able to find some access and get  lined up for the week of Thanksgiving for my two sons and hunting pal for an elk and deer combination hunt.    My beautiful wife was in the mix this year too so our team was going to start with her running with us.
We didn’t know what to expect.    My wife had suffered enough Thanksgiving weeks without us so she decided she would roll with the team for part of the week and return to TN for Thanksgiving Day turkey with her parents.

Our party had 2 bull tags in Unit 590.  No easy task.  My youngest son had a cow tag.  I had returned my cow tag for a refund.   No sense in killing another cow,  I’ve shot enough elk in my life and we wouldn’t need any more meat than filling the 3 tags we had.  The locals were quick to point out how lucky we were.  Yes, luck played a part.  The reality is, many years of applying for lottery bull tags and paying full bore non-resident prices also played a huge part.  We paid more in fees to just acquire bull tags then residents would ever pay in a lifetime!
In my annual pre-hunt email  to our team I started it with the following.  


Let me start with an apt analogy of our upcoming week as I see it.
“Cowards never start. The weak never finish. Winners never quit.”
There was no “quit” in us and you’ll see why!  We arrived in Montana on Saturday, the 17th of November without one of our gun cases.  Thank you DELTA!  It did arrive a couple of days later though.  We were able to borrow a rifle from a client for a couple of days but there’s an element of distrust with somebody else’s rifle that any good hunter would attest too.  If you hunt and can shoot straight you know of what I speak.  Confidence is part of the battle.  To me, a big part, nope, make that a huge part.

After hitting a busy WalMart for the basics we headed out, hours into the brown eastern Montana terrain.  It’s always nice to drive away from a city, traffic, congestion, people and into the country I grew up in.    It’s like old home week, like homecoming at church, like an old pair of gloves or boots that put a smile on your face.   It just feels good to be part of it.  It’s renewal.  Don’t believe me?  Try it sometime yourself.  Montana will welcome you with open arms!   

Team members were my wife, Pam,  son, Jordan, a sophomore in high school and son, Hunter, a junior at GA TECH.  Hunter is a proud member of the United States Air Force ROTC detachment at TECH and will be completing his degree in mechanical engineering next year.   My pal, Ron Branch, from south Georgia and long time hunting pal rounded out our team. 
Day 1 found us in the pines  south of Melstone and north of Custer, Montana.   It’s an area I have been hunting for nearly 3 decades and the change is obvious.

It’s now elk country,  lots of posted ground,  low mule deer populations, high whitetail populations,  good coyote populations,  an occasional big cat and throwing an outfitter or two into the mix along with a nasty winter in 2010 only added to the change.   Like many places, no most places in Montana, in the early 1980s, when one would make inquiry to hunt a ranch, ranchers would simply say to you, “have at them boys, go kill ‘em”.  Now, sons and daughters run the show.  It’s a different time for sure.  It’s the changing face of the old West and the changing face of eastern Montana even without a gas or oil well in sight!
We were going to hunt elk the first few days and then head into some prairie country on the back end of the week for mule deer.  We had buck mule deer (or whitetail tags) in hand and fully expected to bump a decent buck the first few days in the Bull Mountain timber.  It wasn’t to be.   

The prolonged drought across Montana had taken its toll and the fires in the Bull Mountains this summer were devasting to many ranchers and wildlife habitat.

In this picture , behind us was a massive burn area that we had permission on that I figured would have enough "green" late in the year to attract some bulls or muley bucks and does. We couldn't find an elk track anywhere but did bump some does and a small buck or two.

Out of many years of hunting elk it was the first year that any of us with tags did NOT have a shot opportunity on a real big bull or even a decent bull.  Hunter could have filled his bull tag on a fat spike bull at 30 yards but smiled and let him move on to grow up for perhaps another young hunter, years down the road.  Jordan never had a shot opportunity on a cow and Ron never set his eyes on a decent bull until the back-end of the trip on property that our tags were not good for.  That’s the down and dirty version but the work, sweat, fun, laughs and memories were once again, priceless.   My wife had an absolutely fantastic time taking video and pictures  and did find a couple of sheds.

No cell phone coverage.  No internet.  No video games. Great food.  Only coyotes howling all day, shed hunting, the incessant wind blowing in the pines, titanium aircraft miles overhead leaving contrails, eagles soaring, turkeys stalking, geese migrating, ravens talking.   It’s Montana in November, what’s not to like!
A couple days along, Jordan had an exciting evening  that Pam was able to film when he rattled in a nice muley buck at last shooting light.  It was from this high vantage point he started shooting.
He finally was able to connect but we were not able to recover the buck the next day.   Video looked like the deer was dead on its feet.  It got dark so fast and the deer was in a very steep coulee so we decided to move out and find the deer in the morning.  We reviewed the film again and it looked like the deer was about to go down but the disappearing blood trail ran out after 250 yards for good.   Jordan was a 16 year old walking disappointment.   It happens.   We did our best and again, with our  GPS units and walkie-talkies  were able to mount a high tech effort to find the beast.  It wasn’t to be but not for our lack of trying.    I am a fairly good tracker, no, make that a good tracker and it just wasn’t to be.   I have always said that killing big mule deer usually boils down to a game of seconds and inches and this was no exception.   I just wish Jordan had killed it on the first shot.  He does too.   He realized how immense the country is and short of finding magpie’s feeding on a carcass in the next few days within miles of where he took the shot, that finding the deer would be impossible.   I think the deer will make it if predators don’t get him but it’s a cruel world in nature and like our world, on a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone is zero.

On Day 5 we had moved into some beautiful country about 35 miles north and east of Ingomar, Montana.  Check it out on a map.  There is nothing there.   The ranch we were hunting on had been shot out the year before and in the past 14 months a total of 21 bucks had been killed on the property.  I knew going in it would be tough to find a mature muley and I expected us to find at least one decent buck at best.  My expectations were met, not exceeded.  Hunter made a nice shot on a nice buck to draw first blood.

He used his experience from years afield to move up to a pine tree and luckily had a great rest on a stiff branch to help steady his aim while shooting into a stiff wind.   I talk about this a lot to the team and we always try to increase our odds when shooting by getting down on the ground, leaning into something, getting to a fence post, anything to give us a better chance of holding steady into what is usually a stiff Montana wind.   Hunter is only 20 but has had the unbelievable good fortune to have killed a pickup full of bucks in various states and I think every buck he has killed has been a 10-pointer!  He is a cool customer when things get heated and someday will be a tremendous asset to America sitting in the captains seat of a taxpayer owned, United States Air Force aircraft.  When the shooting starts I want that boy on my side.  His deer this year?  A nice muley for sure.  I like the mass at the bases.   It was a tough drag straight up as you can see but with the 4 of us taking turns we just manned-up and got it done.

Once we cleared the rim we put the buck on the neet kart and rolled.  (  There’s not a finer device for hauling deer on earth!

We did run into some nice bulls, in fact we saw more bulls than bucks!   Here’s a picture of the biggest 6x6 bull at about 150 yards.

My hunting pal, Ron Branch from Tifton, Georgia is the guy in the middle here.  For a south Georgia boy he's turned into a good muley hunter!   In fact, he's even learned to take the cold weather in stride!   Always a pleasure to share a camp fire and a good liquor drink out of a tin cup with Ron!

 With so few deer on the 25-section ranch and trespassers having driven over every inch of ground in the few days prior to our arrival and after a couple days of scouring every nook and cranny in the rough stuff and turning up nothing but a few guppy bucks and very few does I made the executive decision to head north into the “BREAKS” and hunt public ground.  The weather turned cold, with wind chills at near zero but we had a blast up there and although we ran into plenty of deer we didn’t turn up a buck we wanted.

I like hunting the Montana  breaks.   I grew up deer hunting in the Badlands of western North Dakota on the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation  (good hunting, cheap licenses if you do the work) which is similar.   Montana has about 10 million acres of public land, much of it can be rough, may require lots of hard work and can hold a lot of animals.  You just have to get away from roads, 4-wheelers and commotion.    It’s amazing that there is a relationship between rough country and how many hunters want to get out of the pickup and do the work, you think?  It’s easy to decipher that math!  We found more deer in rougher ground which we expected; we just didn’t find Mr. Big.    Without our GPS units and the software on our Garmins from we wouldn’t be able to operate as quickly and effectively as we do.  Everyone carries a good old-fashioned compass as well.     If you hunt Montana or Colorado I would suggest you invest in the software.  It allows you to see game units, find public land, locate yourself on paper maps, access forest service roads and most importantly gives you the name of the private land-owner to track down and call in the off-season!  I get plenty of questions about what I carry around my neck.  All are essential to me.  Binocs, range-finder, GPS, GARMIN with software.  All are tucked into pockets to keep the weight off my neck.  I keep a cow elk call handy as well when hunting elk.   
The week flew by.   We dealt with a flat tire and when we went to change the tire we found the jack kit had been removed (stolen) and the spare tire changed out as well.  Hertz made it right for us!
We were able to get plenty of great pictures and video’s of game and took this picture of a beautiful whitetail thinking he was hidden right off of Highway 12 in the timber.  Jordan is exceptional at using his iPhone camera and holding it up to his binocs and taking pictures.    I wish we would have had a crack at this bomber whitetail. 
There were some magnificent trophies taken around Montana this fall and one of the greatest muley bucks I have ever seen was shot a couple miles south of Melstone, Montana the week before we arrived.   This is a picture of about what that deer looked like except he had heavier mass.
I wish someday I get a crack at a buck that magnificent.    Where they come from, where they grow that mass and width, how they get to that 6.5 or 7.5 age-class or more still is a mystery to me.  That head gear in eastern Montana attracts a crowd for sure!.
We took some great video of a buck that nearly ran over us hunting a doe.   As you know, I am a big believer in wearing blaze orange and this video is a testament to the inability of deer to distinguish three orange pumpkins sitting motionless just a few yards away.  When still hunting in the timber it makes it so much safer to know where everyone is at and to find your party members easier.  Although we carry walkie talkies we don’t use them while hunting as it is illegal in Montana.  We do use hand signals to communicate across distances and we use the universal one-handed fist pump when some decent bone hits the ground!

On our last morning Jordan and I were in another game unit on a friends property trying to get Jordan on a good whitetail as that unit was off limits to mule deer hunting due to a special lottery tag you needed to have for muley bucks.   We saw alot of deer as it was in a migration path between the river and the hills where they bed for the day we just didn’t see a bomber whitetail buck. Lots of dinker bucks, no bombers.  We headed back to the bunk house to pack and head to Billings and back to reality (or lack thereof).  Jordan was in good spirits, still rehashing his incident with the buck that we couldn’t find.    After lunch we finished packing and headed out on our way to the Billings airport.   

In amazement we spotted a group of deer feeding out in some rimrock that we had watched the night before that were on off-limits private ground.   They had crossed the county road overnight and we would have never thought that the same small herd would be up and moving around  past 1 p.m the next day but the rut had something to do with it.  We kept moving down the road and I drove into the ranch to check with the rancher to make sure we could make a move on the deer and got the green light.  Jordan quickly got his things together and we headed back up into the hills.   

The weather was very mild for late November as you can see.  Jordan was able to use a fence post “rest” and dropped the buck at the very last minute of the trip!

Talk about working hard, keeping motivated, never giving up.   Jordan got it done! 
As a Dad, I couldn’t have been happier.  It’s what hunting at this stage of my life is all about.

In a November week there were some lessons learned,  memories made and we whipped up a whole lot of “never quit”!   We covered more miles, more country this year than ever before and saw far fewer deer. We wound up shooting the two biggest muley bucks  we saw.

Me, I never fired a shot!   I am a lucky guy and thank my Creator every day! 


No comments:

Native American Advisors CHIPPEWA PARTNERS