"Expect significant accumulations of snow and strong winds tomorrow through Sunday morning."
The warnings were out and Brutus was charging through Montana. This was the first winter storm I’d ever heard named, and although it had potential to be significant, I translated the "travel on the side of caution" warnings as, "the deer rut is about to blow open...start packing."
The night was still young. Phone calls were made, gear dialed, and I had no doubt in my mind we could make it to our destination in eastern Montana by sunrise. Friends, Steve Vedders and Jess Patrick, had seen the forecast too and would be joining me on the trip.
Fueled by a little Red Bull and lots of excitement, we cruised across the state. Deer eyes glowed like beacons in the ditch. Every posse of does was being courted by a buck, but many were young. I had hunted this area two weeks prior, and although bucks were plentiful, finding a mature representative of the species had proven to be as easy as drawing a Missouri Breaks sheep tag. We had our work cut out for us. I talked to several locals earlier in the fall and it was apparent that drought had hammered the area, killing many bucks in the process. I had faith in the region however, and knew the low hunting pressure and superb genetics made for great potential.
Morning came quick and Brutus was late to our date, but an impenetrable foggy mist had set in. Optics were fully multi-coated – in layer after layer of ice. Glassing proved ineffective, and the decision was obvious: we’d have to sneak through their bedroom. Unaware of our presence, silhouettes of deer began to appear in the mist. We saw five bucks in the first thirty minutes. Necks were swollen and antlers barely visible through the ice that encapsulated them. The hunt was young and we were confident the area held something more.
It was time to spice things up. We had heard rumors of mule deer responding very aggressively to the sounds of a distressed fawn. Jess had a handheld predator call stashed away in his pack, and well, the rest is history. Within seconds, deer were beelining through the fog headed for our perch. Incredible. It worked so well that a herd of eight does were about to swim the small river and scale the 75 foot bank that separated us. The ladies had brought nothing but young bucks with them. It was time to relocate.
After a quick bite to eat, we fueled up and headed further east to check out some new country. Whitetails dominated this area. A small creek swept through the corner of the parcel, and the inside edge brushy and trashed by some love-sick buck. We split up to cover as much ground as possible. Less than two hours of daylight remained, the mist was thick as ever, and our ‘significant snow accumulation’ was a mere hazy dream. That was OK. Steve and Jess didn’t need Brutus' help to notch their tags. By nightfall, they had each taken a respectable buck. Moments like that only happen once or twice a season and when they do, I do whatever I can to soak it up. Camera flashes illuminated the timber. Laughter rang throughout the river bottom, and Brutus had arrived.
The snow had set in, and we quickly pitched our three season tent on a small chunk of BLM land. Would the tent withstand the wind? How much snow could it hold? These questions had the volume turned down. All I could do was replay what had just transpired and anticipate the morning’s hunt.
Dawn was clear and cold. Snow shrouded the sage flats around us and capped the towering buttes in the distance. With the snow, lack of wind, and a predator call in hand, we headed for the buttes.
Deer scampered around the rimrock as we glassed from the sage flat. We snuck around the backside and Jess lit up the ponderosa-studded basin with the notes of a distressed fawn. 15 minutes later, from the rolling sage hills adjacent to the hollow came ten does. They had committed, and so had the buck with them. The herd paused at two hundred yards trying to locate their distressed young. As the buck lip curled and courted his ten girlfriends, I pulled the trigger. The does were oblivious to their fallen mate and quite surprised when their distressed fawn turned into three Optifade clad hunters.
Brutus had coated the buck's antlers in a shield of ice. He was old. One tooth remained, and I wondered how he achieved his stocky build. Above all else, sharing the experience with great friends was what made the hunt memorable. Two days, three bucks, and a visit from winter storm Brutus made for an experience I won’t soon forget.
Photography: Steve Vedders and Isaac Nelson