Into The River Bottom
I have been hunting mature whitetails in the public forest for as long as I can remember. Let me tell you, it isn't all that easy. These mature animals have been honing their skills season after season and learning our mistakes, as well as the mistakes of our competition. Not only are we competing against the numbers of hunters, we are up against the average hunter. Yes, the average hunter is undoubtedly a great man; he who ventures out into the brush, tags a large bodied doe or buck, and presents every bit of harvested muscle to his family is a great man. However there are other hunters out there who wish to accomplish the same goal, yet exclusively prey on a mature animal. But whats the point? Why are we so driven to venture so deep into the bush and harvest these big bodied animals wielding such massive headgear? After all, young deer require much less work to harvest, and are much more tender. The simple answer is that we are addicted to the challenge. It is in our blood to not only complete the greatest challenge out there, but to conquer that challenge. The older the buck, the wiser the buck, the greater the challenge, the greater the hunt. This is what makes the sport so great. We are up against such a brilliant species that we expect failure time and time again; yet when the time finally unfolds, and the animal is in range, the months of built up ecstasy fills the body and soul. We become addicted yet again.
"One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted...If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job." Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting.
Fall of 2012
This quote is dead on, and to me, it is quite relatable. By many, my first season in Montana can be considered as a successful hunt. I however, consider it a failure. I got a lucky shot at a nice 4 point muley out east, but I failed to hunt him. I failed to give him the respect he deserved. I was in a new area for only two days when I glassed up a herd within stalking range. I stalked the herd of deer, located the bucks, and harvested the rut-vulnerable buck with a 300 yard shot. That is the end of the story. I butchered at least seventy pounds of meat, attained a respectable rack but I wanted something more. I wanted the hunt.
Spring of 2013
I changed tactics. I finally decided to hunt the upcoming fall. In fact, you could say it was the spring of 2013 when I decided to hunt. I used my knowledge from hunting the pressured woods of Wisconsin and devised a simple plan. I needed to find low hunter numbers and good genetics. I first looked up harvest statistics, searched through forums, and questioned locals; you could say I didn't learn a whole lot. Then it dawned on me. Spring means sheds and sheds mean genetics, so I took my girlfriend Tina to hike the local areas every weekend. We learned the land's deer numbers and genetics by picking up the newly shed bone. Eventually I became so consumed by the hobby that I rented a canoe in order to hike a landlocked parcel of state land. Our first day there made up my mind. Well… the ultra heavy 5X6 brown match made my mind; and I could only dream of what that old buck would look like in the months following. Along with the match we found numerous nice sides, mostly white from the years before, but showed good genes nonetheless. Throughout our hike, dozens upon dozens of deer were seen as well. In one fell swoop we found great genetics, great numbers, and a hard to access parcel. Throughout the late summer, I frequented the grounds.
Opening Morning of Montana's 2014 General Season
The alarm buzzed at 2:30 a.m. I started the coffee maker, put a burrito in the microwave, then took a scent free shower. I put on my chilly Sitka Gear that was hanging outside for days, grabbed the waders and left with Tina. About an hour and a half later, we launched the canoe and were on our way. The ride was unparalleled; the moon illuminated the water, coyotes were howling all around and the thunderous smack of a beavers tail frightened us throughout the drift. A while later we beached the canoe and headed for the other side of the section. We settled down on a high bluff, and I checked the time. 45 minutes before sunrise - we were right on time. I soon brought out the glass and started looking. Does here, does there; the deer started moving from their feeding grounds. An occasional coyote would be spotted "mousing" along the brush lines. At 15 minutes before sunrise, the deer were moving everywhere and I could make out one mature buck in the mix. I had eyes on him for only ten minutes when buck headed into the thick "rabbit brush" and was out of sight. 15 minutes after sunrise, the smaller bucks had all disappeared. Other canoe hunters now arrived and walked the river bottom. Small bucks and does fled, but the larger buck stayed put. Each day following was much like this. We watched the bucks move in twilight, bed in their special spot at sunrise, and then the orange suits would pop up along the river bottom. The weather was calm and the deer were stuck in routine trying to avoid the oblivious hunters. It was still to early in the season to ambush the buck on his turf. We waited, we watched, we learned.
I was excited this morning, November 12, 2013. I felt it, I knew it. This was the day. The rut is on, clouds are covering the sky, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees since yesterday's heat. I could hardly sleep last night, but I was raring to go like a young hound on a smelly cougar track. The drift was quite chilly that morning, but it was great nonetheless. "Slow down," Tina said over and over as we ditched the canoe for the bluff… finally, we made it. It was maybe a half hour before sunrise and I started glassing. Fifteen minutes passed, nothing. What the hell? My memory shifted. My dad's voice filled the mind, look for parts of a deer, not the whole deer; I got ahead of myself and was quickly skimming the land looking for a whole deer. Take a breath, and glass it again. I made larger, slower sweeps this time. Even then, nothing. I glassed the thick brush. Not even a doe. There is that moment during a hunt when your expectations are so high, and reality humbles you to such a low low…
Then the moment when you yell in a whisper, " Deer! Deer! Deer! A bunch of deer!" From almost a mile away in an open area I usually overlook, I spotted chaos. I knew exactly what was going on down there - a full blown rut fest. We have to get over to the other side of the section NOW. I grabbed all of my stuff and set off on a sprint, Tina was a leap behind. Nearing the area, I came to a crossroad: should I go down there in the action, or should I get up on this small bluff and glass it out? I have made the mistake of impatience before, and thus chose the latter. After crawling over the bluff on my hands and knees, I could see the deer in my naked eye. All of the sudden I could hear rattling that sounded much closer. Shoot, some guy already beat me. I raised my binos up to see two bucks smashing relentlessly. They were nice. I switched to the other bucks nearby. They were nice too. One was wide but short. Another was tall and wide but thin. You name it, these 6 bucks were all different. After figuring out where they might move, we headed towards the river. The waders were in the canoe…whatever. The freezing water chilled my legs, my feet went numb, and the mixture of adrenaline and cold felt amazing. After safely crossing the river, we started our stalk. We were maybe twenty feet off of the bank when I spotted tan. I brought my binos up and could see the group was working a brush line no more than a hundred yards away. In between was a clearing, and I had a perfect idea. I stayed put. I stomped the brush under me, smashed my antlers together, wheezed, grunted, snorted, you name it. I threw everything in the book at him to bring him into the clearing. The wait was long and my legs were shaking; I had the fever. Minutes later I saw long tines moving through the brush. I could tell his was my deer. In a series of drawn out moments this deer was now stomping along the brush broadside. Such a beautiful, powerful animal trudging along completely oblivious to me. I just wanted this scene to last. When I felt it time, I steadied the crosshairs and squeezed. BANG-thump… drop.
I sat speechless, staring at the sky. It was cold now, very cold. Knowing that this deer died a swift, humane death warmed me up some, but the months of hunting and scouting now ended. The same eyes blued from glassing were now staring at the defeated king, and the emotions ran high.