Manages Parisian Family Office. Began Wall Street, 82. Founded investment firm, Native American Advisors. Member, White Earth Chippewa Tribe. Was NYSE/FINRA arb. Conservative. Raised on Native reservations. Pureblood, clot-shot free. In a world elevated on a tech-driven dopamine binge, he trades from Ghost Ranch on the Yellowstone River in MT, his TN farm, Pamelot or CASA TULE', his winter camp in Los Cabos, Mexico. Always been, and will always be, an optimist.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mussellshell Madness --- Muleys in the Bulls

I woke up after 1 am and couldn’t sleep. Having gone to bed around 11 pm I knew it would be a long day but didn’t want to chance missing our flight to Billings, Montana. I roused my long time hunting pal and friend, Ron Branch at 3:30 am and we headed to the Atlanta airport for our early morning flight. Arriving in Billings is always a treat and this trip was no exception. The Yellowstone River sparkled as the pilot banked the plane to the west and we landed on the airstrip just as Air Force One had done the day before as President Bush stumped for the Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Little did I know then that we would speak to each other 8 days later after he lost his Senate seat to the Democratic challenger. Change may be afoot in the halls of Congress but I’m elated to know that nothing has changed in the Mussellshell River country and beautiful Bull Mountains that we would cover over the next week in my quest for a big buck and cow elk. The elk gods had failed me again in the MT lottery drawing for a bull elk tag in the Bull Mountains.

We picked up the necessities of water, trail mix and toilet paper as we headed out to the ranch of some long time friends after sighting in our rifles at the local gun range. Something I always do after traveling with firearms. My gun was right on and shooting perfectly. I had been hunting in this area since 1983 and know many of the locals. You can’t find a finer bunch of Americans anywhere than in this tiny town on the Mussellshell River. It was my first hunting trip back in the area since my long time friend, Creel Poole had went on ahead and as I glanced up into the timber above his old home I felt a twinge of sadness. A rugged stout man in his day and blind in one eye he was a gentle giant with a great sense of humor and smarts. His gift to me months before he passed will be with my family forever.

The deer population in this part of Montana is in good shape. Maybe even better than I had dreamed it would be. Whitetails and muleys were everywhere. Hundreds of them. Lots of bucks for sure. If only the Montana Department of Game, Fish & Parks could persuade the state’s politicians to change the law and stop the hunting of mule deer during the latter stages of the rut. Tradition dies hard in the West and those rules may be hard to change. It would be best for the deer herd and long term, probably better for hunters. I hope it happens sooner than later even if it means less rut hunting for me. I know the outfitters would fight it and they hold sway with the politicians. Money still talks.

The first morning dawned as usual. Priceless fiery orange colored the morning sky as we worked out an area right at daylight. Ron had misunderstood the nonverbal direction we were going to hunt out and it was my fault as I said the word, “southwest” instead of “southeast”. Our GPS units held points in both directions and we were soon far apart in moving to what we thought was a predetermined meeting point. I saw a couple of bucks feeding in an old burn about 8:30 and the clouds had moved in as the wind picked up. It was great getting the kinks out and moving in the hills once again. A far cry from the nasty snowy conditions I endured two weeks prior in the Gore Range of Colorado looking for one of the giants muleys in Eagle County. Ron and I made radio contact and determined we had not been on the same wavelength. We agreed we would meet at a water tank at 11:30 for some jerky and trail mix and I shut off the radio as a muley doe walked into view. About 15 seconds later I heard a bugle. Upwind in either of two canyons I knew I was fairly close. With the wind out of the northwest I had figured the elk to be in the canyon closest to me and where I figured they were due to the thickness of the timber. I worked so slow, so careful. Having topped out at the head of the canyon without nary an elk hair in sight I headed back south. It was well past 11:30 and I thought I should quietly make radio contact with Ron and tell him I was late to our meeting. Ron said he had spooked two small bulls out of the canyon north of the well and I figured they were the elk making all the noise as I headed back downwind on the ridge overlooking the other canyon. How wrong I was. I heard the first “blowing” sound of elk on the move as that tawny color moved by through the thick timber. The herd was blowing up the canyon upwind as I ran to the top of the ridge to find a decent vantage point. It was simply a bull bonanza. Bull after bull after bull. I thought every age of elk was represented in that herd with some huge bulls bringing up the rear. I picked out a calf who was away from the herd and moved out to the very end of a precarious rock outcropping for a better shot. It was too late as the tall timber was in the way and my feet were up against a 30 foot drop. If it was to be a cow elk or sudden death the choice was easy.
I listened to the galloping herd top the ridge and drop into a massive maze of canyons that were on my check list of places to hunt out the following days. It was to be my first time in that particular drainage and I knew those elk were headed there with reckless abandon. I figured given enough time we would find them again. Little did we know that it would be at first light the following morning when another herd came into view.

We were about a mile from the trailhead we were going to take back into the hills when Ron said, “what’s that”. I said, “elk” as we moved to the bottom of the draw and I shut off the truck. They were still a long ways off headed south moving across an open field coming from a water tank and I knew we could catch them if we moved up the draw and into some finger draws to try and intersect them. We bailed out of the truck and moved hard and fast, as fast as we could anyway. Both of us in our 50’s and in relatively good shape helped but it wasn’t as fast as my days in the hills of the Dakota’s chasing mule deer by a long shot. Ron and I have spent a lot of great time hunting together and this was his 4th trip to the Big Sky state, his first for an elk. I had cautioned Ron to make absolutely sure we would be firing at only cows and to be certain no bulls were behind any cows. I would have hated to have a bullet pass through a cow and kill a bull standing behind any cow.

As usual, these nomads of the hills were moving faster than I had thought. As we topped the hill it was now or never. Instinctively, I glanced at a big elk on the left, at the back-end of the herd and sized for horns. Nothing. The report of Ron’s rifle was still echoing as I pulled the trigger of my .243 a nanosecond later. The herd bolted and I ran to the ridge. Ron’s elk, the lead cow lay kicking in a death-throw and my elk was nowhere to be seen so I took off in the direction of the herd. Down and up I crested the hill and heard a running animal and saw the elk come to a halt broadside about 140 yards away. I put the rifle up next to a tree and touched off. At the sound of the “smack” the cow hit the ground. It doesn’t take long to shoot 1,300 pounds of cow elk but it does take a lot longer to load it into a pickup. We had a time of it but the job was done. We were two elated hunters as we pulled into the processing plant a mere 70 miles away that afternoon.

Taking those elk early in the hunt was nice. The pressure was off on the elk tags and we had plenty of time now to find some great bucks. Rutting activity looked to be on the rise but the weather didn’t want to cooperate. I only wore a hunting jacket once in a week. Very un-Montana like, warm wet weather was the forecast. A big full moon with a light drizzle and warm humid days probably aren’t conducive to great buck hunting and surely not great rutting activity. Over the next few days we saw hundreds of deer. We figured we saw at least 200 deer a day and probably one buck for every 10 does and perhaps one “maybe last day shooter” buck for every 25 bucks that we saw. We spotted a great buck and Ron wanted me to try to get him if we saw him and his doe group again. The next day they finally showed around mid-day working their way out in the open. It was wet and my boots were heavy with that famous brown gumbo clay as I made my stalk. As I was down on all fours and creeping to the top of the hill I could see the deer spread out across the hillside, all except for that big buck. He was behind the only tree on the hillside and one of the does spotted me as the wind had died and the midday calm was unusual. As they moved up the hill my shot presented itself. Easy Dean, just breathe and kill him right there. I squeezed so gently and at the rifle crack the buck stood there. On the second shot I knew I had a scope problem. He should have been on the ground. I kept firing. After 5 shots and still running for the hills I knew it wasn’t to be my buck. After a dejected walk back to the truck I knew my next order of business was back to the firing range. Pronto. As the drizzle continued, the answer to missing that great buck was obvious. The shooting range work showed my rifle to be shooting over 20 inches high. My rifle had taken a bad fall the night or two before when I leaned it up against a chair in the bedroom which I thought to be a stationary chair. It turned out to be a swivel chair which when it swiveled, dropped my gun against the concrete floor with the scope hitting the floor first. I knew I may have had a problem after the spill it took and I didn’t do anything about it. It cost me that beautiful big 4x4 mule deer. Such a gorgeous typical buck with such great front forks and all because I was careless, may it be a lesson to all.

As always, the week went by way too fast. The number of deer on the river was stunning. For all of the whitetail bucks we never, ever, once saw a 10 pointer. The Mussellshell 8, the standard 4x4 or 8-point horn structure was all we could find. Hundreds of them. What’s up with that?
The number of eagles on the river was eye-catching. Goldens and balds filled the air. Prairie dogs are not in any danger of extinction for the next 100 hundred years either. Muskrats, beaver and rabbits were numerous on the river bottom as well as a great pheasant crop. Geese lifting off the river were loud. Turkeys were numerous and big as fawns. We saw only 2 coyotes all week and Ron had a great view as he walked up on a couple of bobcat kittens playing in a tree. One ran off and the other stayed in the tree looking down on him. And as usual, a priceless memory in front of him and no camera in the fanny pack to record the moment. The hospitality of our hosts was as always, full of fun and good food. The locals are a hardy bunch and always with an optimistic attitude and friendly smile, maybe it has something to do with the fact there is no cell phone coverage in the area. We needed the weather to change and get the rut going again. I tired of working the hills and sweating in the light rain. Day 6 was ahead and the weather forecast promised the temperatures to drop near the freezing mark. I figured our time was near and I figured right. The grass was greening with the moisture over the previous few weeks and the warmer temps were getting the grass on the rise. We were finding deer everywhere it was green and we spent a lot of time glassing the bottom of canyons looking for green. And speaking of canyons, there is something magical about picking your way through those remote rims ever so slowly, always thinking there is a lion watching you and some Native Americans making camp in the next bottom. Being up there with the eagles is a wonderful experience. Looking into holes that could harbor a monster grey ghost is always fun and looking at trees that were saplings a mere 200 years ago, brings the term, “long-life” into reality. The sunsets are priceless for it is indeed the Big Sky state.

I luckily bumped into my buck in the early afternoon. It was cool and cloudy and bucks were still roaming. Ron had taken a wide 27 inch buck that morning a few miles south and I had to get back to some country that I knew had bucks and hadn’t covered yet. I got back just in time. I came up a steep ridge and broke out on top and there were 3 bucks hounding a hot doe and I kept looking for a bigger buck to show. I hit the deck and got my binocs up. The doe was keeping all of them busy and excited. I saw the big guy come out of the timber to the right of the action with his head down and the dark mass immediately caught my attention. It doesn’t take long for me to know a “shooter” after 6 days behind great binocs and a spotting scope, maybe a couple of nanoseconds. In fact after I made sure he had both sides of his rack and was a solid 4x4 I pulled my scope up on him to deliver a small chunk of metal going about one mile per second his way. It hit him and he took off before going down slow. He tried to get up and I knew that if he made it over a near ridge he would have tumbled a long way and I knew I better finish his life before he could make me drag him straight up out of a deep canyon. The neck shot was all it took. As I walked up slowly I knew he was worthy and deserving of my thanks. I am glad I passed on so many marginal bucks and there was a reason I missed that first brute. Things in life work out for a reason. Hard work and keeping my eyes open served me well in taking this great deer. In life, you miss 100% of the shots you never take. I’m glad I took the shot. And I’m glad my Dad long ago taught me to hunt and lucky for the love and support of my wife and two sons who, God willing, will someday work those hills with their Dad. May there be plenty of great shots ahead.

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