Monday, December 03, 2007

Montana Hunt 2007

We said a prayer in front of the garage under the stars. The 3 of us, holding hands, asking the Creator to put us in His good graces and let us do His work on this trip. The time was 5:05 a.m. on November 17th, Saturday morning. Stopping for a cup of coffee on the way to the airport, my son, Hunter, age 15, had to have a donut, 4 of them to be exact to tide him over to breakfast. Being a high school swimmer has its advantages on how to gain weight. We got to the airport early and flew through the quagmire of TSA personnel, (Thousands Standing Around), no one profiling, not a one of them looking for an Islamic militant, though I did see a very small boy, maybe age 5, being frisked with a “wand” in the secondary security area. Go figure.

It promised to be an extremely busy day at Atlanta’s international airport and probably one of the busiest holidays in history for air travel through Atlanta. The North West Airlines gate was full of hunters, dressed in their Mossy Oak and Realtree colors sold at Cabela’s. The majority of them were headed to Canada, to Edmonton and Saskatoon to hunt their quarry under the eyes of their outfitters and over the legal bait stations of feed and alfalfa. Hunting you call it? Nope, it’s just sitting in a box and shooting. Like I have always said, baiting is a significant condemnation of a shooters ability to hunt. It’s the staying warm part that must be difficult, that and staying awake. Arriving in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to light snow flurries we ate some brunch, Ron Branch my hunting partner of about 16 or 17 years, we can’t decide which, hitting the eggs hard and my son, Hunter hitting on a monster Hickory burger. We left a couple of minutes late out of Minnesota and headed for Billings, a plane full of Montanans, ex-Montanans and wanna-be Montanans, I among them the latter bunch. Clear weather, a smooth flight and good spirits amongst our fellow travelers made the time pass quickly. Getting caught up on our reading of some great mule deer articles only fueled our anticipation of another great week in Montana.

I have been fortunate to hunt this area of Montana since 1983. The first trip was with my Dad a couple of years before he retired from a career in law enforcement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. My parents lived then in Crow Agency, Montana and we made the trip up north of Custer, Montana in 1983 on the dusty gravel road that back then had twice if not three times the number of mule deer around.

Over the years, I’ve made a lot of great friends in the Musselshell River community near our hunting areas, some have gone on ahead and one in particular, the late Creel Poole, had inspired in me way back in 1992 to give serious consideration to hunting a quarter-million acre ranch in east central Montana that was home to thousands of antelope and very few mule deer.

Our hunt started in the Bull Mountains on Sunday morning, November 18th. My hunting partner, Ron Branch of Tifton, Georgia and I awakened to the usual opening day jitters of being adequately prepared to go afield. Any hunter worth his rifle goes through the mental gymnastics on opening day and this for us was no exception. The alarm clock said the time was somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m. Awful early to be up readying our gear but sleep was the last thing on my mind. My son, Hunter, dozed peacefully beside me, looking over at his sleek trim musculature I thought it but a scant 15 years earlier I had held him close in my arms and dreamed of our time hunting together in Montana. Today, those dreams were now a reality, his tall frame resting peacefully beside me as his body recovered from a grueling academic schedule and his swim team participation as a 10th grader at Milton, Georgia’s Milton High School.

We arrived at the local café about 5:45 a.m., our game plan to start trying to fill our cow elk tags in the Bull Mountains of Central Montana. Drawing a bull elk tag is extremely difficult in this hunting district as a nonresident and we were unsuccessful in our bid again this year to draw bull tags. Oh well, there is always next year.

We headed into the hills as daylight beckoned and the wind picked up. Miles back into the hills I shut off the truck and all 3 of us took our GPS readings on the 4x4 as we headed up through some thick pines to get into the rim and coulees that we thought would hold elk. The weather had had been warm, very warm and in warm weather, elk need water. Every day. Their heavy winter coats and the abnormal warm temps would put them around water and our maps showed where water was. The one thing a good elk hunter is always, I repeat, always concerned with while hunting elk on foot is the wind. Wind direction is key and we hunted into a good stiff breeze out of the north-west. We fanned out and walked up on a couple of nice mule deer, one a very tall 3-point (6 pointer for you boys back East) that had a very narrow rack. Moving, very slowly, about three-quarters of a mile from the truck I hand-signaled our team at the base of a small ridge to come together, I had something to say. We were at the south end of a large pasture and I whispered we had to be careful to glass the small basins ahead as we moved into the rims above. The warm temps of the preceding week had been replaced by near freezing temps and animals were on the move, deer heavy in rutting activity and elk no doubt up and moving under the overcast skies. I told the guys to advance slowly up the ridge and keep in contact via hand signals if elk were spotted. Ron moved up to my right side and Hunter to the left. As we neared the top, Ron was hand-signaling furiously elk were ahead. Hunter and I, now together worked slowly up and over the ridge into the blowing wind. There were elk below and all we could see was cows. Our time had come.

We were on our knees and ready. Hunters BAR .243 rifle barked and the cow dropped in its tracks. I looked at the rest of the bunch that had spooked and watched a big cow turn sideways. I raised my rifle, the same Belgium-made, BAR .243 that Hunter shoots. At the shot, she folded too. Ron’s 30.06 barked and Hunter watched a big cow hit the deck higher up the opposite ridge. It was about an hour after we began our hunt and our elk tags were filled. Sometimes, luck happens. Let the work begin! Ron and Hunter began the process of gutting the animals and I headed back to attempt to snake our rented 4-wheel drive pickup back into the drainage as close to the animals as possible. We got lucky. We were able to get the vehicle right up to all 3 elk. Sometimes, luck happens.

Day 2 found the same insanity of awakening far too early. What is it about hunting season every year that gets grown men, myself having been hunting for nearly 45 years to awaken far too early in the day? It was Monday and snow was in the forecast. Little did we know that the snow flurries would turn into a little more than we had bargained for.
We shut off the truck in the exact same place as the day before, to make it simple to keep the same GPS location. We headed upwind and came over the same ridge where we harvested elk the previous day. Expecting magpies, crows, ravens, eagles, bobcats or coyotes to be feasting on the gut piles, the cycle of life what it is, we encountered a lone coyote having some fine dining on elk entrails, one of the finest scavengers on earth.

As the morning wore on the snow picked up and the temperatures dropped, wet snow coming in with the wind, straight into our eyes. Hunter and I had split from Ron early and headed into the maize of rims and box canyons that I had been in the previous year for but a single day. I liked the country. Up and down, pines, rims, game trails, snow coming down harder. We caught a few bucks on does in some spots but no shooters. We had plenty of time ahead and we wanted to be selective. This particular area of Montana was absolutely hammered this summer and fall by Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) and its cousin, Bluetongue. These diseases hammered antelope, mule deer and whitetails. By our estimation whitetail deer populations in the area we hunted were off by at least 75% and mule deer numbers were down as well. The cruelty of thousands of dead animals was hard to fathom. Bluetongue is normally considered a livestock disease that typically hits sheep the hardest. Wildlife typically die from bluetongue's close cousin, epizootic hemorrhagic disease which hits white-tailed deer the hardest. Both bluetongue and EHD are transmitted by the same biting midge, which hatches out in late summer and persists until the first hard frosts of fall. During that time, midges that bite infected animals will pass the disease along to new victims. Not all animals die from the disease, but many do. Where we were in Montana, it wasn’t hundreds dead. It was thousands. All week we saw eagles, balds and goldens, working antelope and deer carcasses. Carcasses everywhere. There isn’t a scavenger that will die of hunger in the Musselshell River part of Montana this year. It was hard to keep snow out of our optics and I had failed to bring my scope cover. Guess I woke up too early to remember that small item!! Our binocs were hard to keep dry and bringing them up near your face with some warm breath only fogged them faster. We saw some bedded elk ahead and worked closer when Hunter spotted a deer lie down in the middle of the cows and a spike bull that were bedded down. It appeared the color of a buck, that yellowish tawny color of a big buck with his head stuffed up under a juniper tree. I couldn’t see horns but it was a buck, having been around mule deer for 40 years I did have a clue. As we worked upwind to gain a better advantage of what kind of buck he was we scooted into a feeding cow elk. We stopped in the blowing snow and sat tight. I heard a grunt and here came a nice 4 point (it was a 10 pointer for you boys back east as we don’t count eye guards/ brow tines). It was a beautiful buck. A great frame, nice forks, dark chocolate color, maybe 40 yards away, just not heavy mass nor wide beyond his ears. I looked at Hunter, he looked at me. He whispered, “I’ll wait for a bigger one.” I am glad he did. Being 15 and having never shot a mule deer I knew he was thinking straight.

As the day wore on I was cold. Hunter was dressed better than I was. We worked into a box canyon only to be turned back by sheer walls of sand stone rims. On to the next canyon, same story. By my estimate and not my GPS, we hiked between 2 and 3 miles out of our way to escape the rims and missed all the game up on top. As the blowing sleet and snow turned into grey overcast I was glad to see Ron in the pickup. Ron had seen plenty of deer like we had just no shooters. Only the spindly typical Bull Mountain muley bucks that need better genetics, better nutrition or just more maturity. Same questions, few answers. Maybe it’s just the skewed buck-doe ratio that does it. If you know what it takes to grow great horns on muley bucks in the Bulls besides living to 6.5 years of age or older let me know. Or call Jay Newell, the muley biologist in Montana Hunting Unit, Region 5. I often think a doe should be harvested prior to any hunter taking a buck. And allow non-residents to take more does for half the cost. It might make better economic sense and do more for the herd if that is still what game management is all about. It’s often more about money. Imagine that.

Daylight on Day 4 found us about 75 miles from where we woke up. We were stocked up with some great snacks and had a great friend with us. Having his pickup with chains along in such remote country made things easier. The weather was cold. Flurries coming down and a good Montana wind going. We had access to this property for a couple of days and wanted to cover as much of the muley ground on it as possible. The ranch held thousands of antelope and probably hundreds of dead ones, EHD being the culprit. Coming up on a good coulee, Ron and I bailed out of the truck while my friend, Scott Walker and Hunter drove a mile or so to the head of the coulee to get parked and try to “block” any deer headed upwind and out the end of the massive canyon. In my haste to cover the mile of coulee I had bailed out without my warm, orange hunting jacket. I pulled my stocking hat down tight and headed into the wind on the canyon rim with Ron moving slowly through the bottom. About three-quarters of a mile along the rim, I came over a ridge and looked far ahead down the side of the steep coulee. I saw deer and plenty of them. I saw Hunter across and farther down the canyon too, sitting still in his blaze orange hunting gear, thinking he probably couldn’t see the deer. Pulling my binocs up to my eyes, I couldn’t see much, snow and fog covered the lens. Looking through my scope, the big front forks looked nice, no “crab claw” front tines on this brute, something I wanted to avoid after my 2006 buck was so sweet but had a crab-claw on the right front antler. The buck was pushing a doe directly away from me and at a good clip. He was out there a long way. With the wind blowing so hard I dropped on my back and did a 360 degree roll into a rock outcropping. An offhand shot was impossible in the gusting snow, a kneeling shot would have been “iffy” at best. I needed a strong steady rest and pushing my shoulders back into the rock outcropping with my rifle resting on my knee gave me the edge. On the first shot the buck broke straight up and out of the canyon. He’d been shot at before and his first instinct was to break away from the doe group and get up and over the ridge to safety. I kept my cool and kept shooting, trying to stay calm and put a bullet into his vitals. At the sound of the “thud” on the 4th shot I figured I had him as he buckled forward and topped over the ridge. It took awhile to get over to the rim where he came out. The crimson stain on the snow obvious, it looked like a good trail to follow and easy. Boy was I wrong.

Ron came up over the rim to join me thinking we would be shaking hands in celebration of harvesting another great animal. Ron and I enjoy a special friendship, he’s a good ole’ boy from South Georgia who just happened to teach himself how to hunt deer rather successfully. He enjoys what it takes to find and take down a great buck and being “officially” deaf, he relies on his eyesight. Ron and I have shared some sights over the last decade and a half and have taken some great animals, elk, muleys and whitetails among them. I credit Ron for teaching me one important facet in taking those South Georgia, brush-loving whitetails and it can be summed up succinctly in one word, patience.

The snow was whipping down harder and I was a having a time staying on the buck’s tracks. The doe group he was with had followed him up and over and their tracks had made it difficult to follow. I stayed on the track over the next mile and a half, down and up over 3 big canyons. The blood trail never diminished but the buck was going straight up each canyon, something you don’t see in a mortally wounded animal. Three times the buck laid down, we never saw him once in any of the 3 canyons we were in. The blood flow was constant, which helped so much and the snow flurries died down some. It was the toughest track of my life. The buck just didn’t act that wounded, the blood trail told me he was hit good. They are just tough animals, in tough country.

It was at the rim of the 4th canyon that Ron and I split up as we followed his trail over into the pine-studded coulee. As we inched up over ever so slow, he leaped up like a muley can, high and fast to make a quick exit. Horns were everywhere, he was a dandy.
I pulled my rifle up quick to find him in the scope and he was in the pine tops, Ron had a clear shot at him and dropped him like a bad habit. The elation of the moment was hard to describe. I know Ron felt the same way. It was unlike any of the hundreds of other deer I have killed. The buck had been relentless. So had we.

We found the buck motionless and dead, just like Ron’s camera at that moment. The big buttes on the skyline made the deep canyon a perfect setting for the perfect picture for the perfect buck. The memory will stay with me forever.

It was a long drag out of there, hours it seemed. Hunter was digging in to help. It was truly a great experience having my son and myself on each horn and Ron pulling the rope in front. It made for a great team and the 3 of us expending 50% less energy if there had been only 2 of us. As the day wore on, we covered many miles and saw some deer. Late in the afternoon Hunter emptied his rifle on a massive whitetail buck, a good buck that Scott really liked. You see, my friend Scott has a real love affair going with big wide, tall whitetail racks. He’s taken some dandy’s on the Musselshell River and has some land on the river. Scott calls muleys “stinky’s”, an apt name for the grey ghosts during the rut. It had been a great day, my buck tag was filled with a doe tag yet to fill. Now I could concentrate on taking some pictures, with my camera, not Ron’s.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and we had so much to be thankful for. We had spotted a beautiful muley buck in the morning light, a tall 4x4 with great character. Hunter missed the buck once and then Ron opened up on him as he came over the ridge. Ron connected on him at the longest range he’s ever taken an animal, well out there in the vicinity of the 400 yard mark. He has a great rifle, was settled in and just kept his cool. Sometimes luck happens.

As I walked up to the buck, Ron’s elation was easy to see and the drag was far easier than my buck for sure. Our fabulous Thanksgiving meal prepared by Scott’s wife, Kim was truly spectacular. For 3 souls from Georgia out banging at muleys in Montana we were treated like kings. After Hunter finished a second helping of a great dessert we headed out in the sunshine to harvest our does. We had drawn 2 muley doe tags and 1 whitetail doe tag. I wished I could have exchanged the whitetail doe tag for a muley doe tag but that’s the way disease works, an unequal opportunity killer. Hunter took his doe first, his first mule deer ever. It was vintage Hunter, cool, calm and collected with a sprinkle of humor thrown in. As usual it was another “one shot” kill for him. Ron tipped his doe over on a beautiful shot just as the deer was jumping a fence. Another great shot! My whitetail doe hit the ground as the sun was fast headed down over the horizon. Three does down and two more days to get Hunter a great buck.

Friday morning found us again up in Garfield County, Montana. About an hour after daylight, Ron and Hunter in the pickup behind us pulled up behind Scott’s rig. I motioned for Hunter to bring his rifle and to come quick. It was a vantage point too good not to see deer. The canyon rim we were about to walk over to was the same canyon I took my buck 48 hours before. Ron followed Hunter slowly, Scott and I and Hunter walked to the rocky outcrop and took in the vista. Snowy slopes greeted us. This indeed was muley country. I hadn’t been standing on that rock rim for but maybe all of 15 seconds glassing when I looked straight down to the bottom of the canyon, 183 yards straight down to be exact. The words coming out of my mouth were very matter-of-fact, “kill him Hunter, kill him” is all I said. Hunter, raised his rifle to his shoulder, took quick aim and fired. That muley buck buckled and fell forward off the ledge in a heap. It all happened so fast, he just came up from his bed and there he was, bam, Hunters first muley buck. Sometimes, luck happens. We were so happy for Hunter. Hunter with a grin even his girlfriend couldn’t wipe off. Dad beaming like he does when he watches his youngest son make a huge hit or block on the football field or when he gets to watch his number one son kill his first muley buck and Ron and Scott showing their colorful excitement for Hunters first muley buck. He was a dandy. Nice palmation, a dark chocolate 4x4 with brow tines, and nice front forks. What more could a teen ask for in his first buck mule deer. It was priceless. Hunters buck was also the heaviest buck we took because as it turned out, the buck had been gored fighting another buck and had the hide and flesh on his left front leg torn wide open. Another reason he was by himself and not on a doe group during the peak rut time. Fighting to hold a harem of females is tough work for any species!

Unfortunately that 183 yard shot straight down was 183 yards straight up on the drag. Scott had with him a 300 foot nylon strap that helped. The drag up was very hard, vertical to be exact and once the strap reached the back legs of the buck we brought him up by driving Scotts rig back 300 feet from the rim. It worked great or we might still be there. As the afternoon waned Scott still had his buck tag to fill and we hadn’t seen much in the way of deer or bucks, even the little “dinkers” as we call the little bucks were staying put. The weather was downright cold even with the afternoon sun. As we came out across some CRP ground to head back to the Mussellshell River country, Scott the old whitetail aficionado himself, spotted a nice buck, a buck we think was the same buck Hunter had missed a couple of days prior. We saw the buck head off at a dead run with a couple of does and figured he would be in Wyoming in the next hour at that clip as they headed south to break into the rough stuff south of the CRP fields. We kept moving across the section and spotted a nice group of muleys ahead, a couple of “dinker” bucks among them and they followed the coulee south at a good clip. As we crested a rise, Scott and I saw the big whitetail buck at about the same time. A great whitetail buck hesitant to leave his does. He just didn’t run, the does thinking they were safe and well-hidden in the taller sage in the coulee bottom. At the sound of the rifle shot the buck continued running, mortally wounded. Scott was indeed one happy guy! So were all of us. It was a fitting end to a great week in Big Sky country. The buck was a brute, a great mature animal with over 20 inches of width, long brow tines, 11 points, some nice stickers and a great color. A Montana beast for sure. Sometimes, luck happens.

The hunt was special, to be with my son on his first Montana big game trip, to hunt in such remote country, to renew friendships made in years gone by, to catch the rut and weather perfectly, to fill our tags with such great animals and great horns, to see so much wildlife for the countless coyotes, antelope, eagles, geese, turkeys, sage grouse and hawks it was a priceless experience. Someday, God willing, both my sons, Hunter and Jordan and friends Ron and Scott will be with me for another shot at some of Montana’s grey ghosts.

Someday, I hope, all over again, luck happens.

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