Years ago, my dad and I were riding our Honda Trail 90 motorcycles across an old county road in Montana. As we dropped down into a coulee, a bachelor herd of antler laden animals jumped up and bounded to the opposite ridge. They stopped and turned broadside giving us a good look. At first glance we thought they were elk from the size of their antlers, but no, they were all mule deer bucks - the biggest I had ever seen at that point in my life.
Years later and I’ve still been searching for just one buck of that caliber, to no avail.
In the 1980’s some giant mule deer were taken in the mountain range I spend a lot of my time hunting. But, like most units in Montana, mule deer have been on a steady decline and finding a mature buck is no easy feat. Despite the odds, I’ve hunted the same 10 square miles for a mule deer buck worthy of ‘giant’ status because… well the power of positive thinking suggests that one still exists.
My footprints have graced every game trail, bench, wallow, ridge, meadow and canyon. 10 years of shed hunting, scouting and hunting this 10-mile section and I still haven’t seen the deer I envision. Yet, I continue as if the buck I imagine will materialize out of the pile of sheds I’ve picked.
I've taken a couple mature bucks out of the area, the largest in 2009.
Last year, on the opening day of rifle season, two acquaintances shot good deer in one of the main basins. I had seen one of the bucks during archery season, a crabby 4x4. But the other was a larger 4x4, not a giant, but the biggest deer I had ever seen come out of there since the ones in the ‘80s. This only reinforced my belief that an even larger mountain buck still lived in there somewhere.
Hours of planning and internal debate went on in determining where I’d be for the opener of this year’s rifle season. The theory I landed on was there had to be a bachelor herd of bucks where the confluence of three mini-drainages formed at the top of the mountain. It was a tough spot to access and I felt like few would put in the effort required to hunt there. And so, my roommate Shane and I would be the ‘few’.
In addition to being one of my best buddies, Shane is a great hunter and he's super talented with the camera. When I arrowed an elk this September, Shane dropped everything to help me pack out the meat and take pictures. The laughter and smiles we shared made for one of the most fun packouts I've ever had. Thanks for all the great memories, Shanovision!
On the Friday night before opener, Shane and I hit the trail at 9 PM with packs loaded for two nights. We had to climb 3,000 vertical feet, then traverse a ridgeline four miles to where I wanted to camp. As we began to climb, the reflection of white snow against the dark sky became apparent. We were soon post-holing in knee deep crusty snow. Hours earlier the snow was warm and corn like but once the sun had set, the surface layer had froze solid. One step you’d bust through to the ground, and the next you’d stay on top doing everything you could not to slip. We each questioned our sanity throughout the climb but we knew we’d eventually reach the top, where we assumed the snow would be solid and the walking easy. When we reached the top, we were greeted to a gorgeous moon-lite sky, shooting stars and even deeper snow. We took turns breaking trail. Every step for about a mile we sunk to our waists. Exhausting. To add to the enjoyment, we cut four fresh mountain lion tracks – a female with three kittens.
At mid-night we were halfway there. A long, narrow craggy ridge blanketed in snow was the only major obstacle between camp and us.
The last time Shane and I hunted together started at 3 AM and ended 16 miles later at 11 PM. We climbed 4,000 feet, had a 10-yard quick draw with a cow elk and crossed a 50 yard stretch of thigh-deep river in the dark without waders, and it was snowing. Thinking back on it, every time we’ve hunted together has been an undertaking. This hunt was shaping up to be no different.
At 2 AM, after an arduous trek down the crusty ridge we found a sheltered spot behind a big snowdrift to setup camp. We made it. The sky was still clear, stars abundant and there wasn’t an ounce of wind. It was a peaceful night and we were excited for sunrise, just hours away. We pitched our tent, downed a mountain house and fell asleep with visions of what the morning might hold - just a few hours away.
At 6 AM my first alarm went off. Snooze. 6:15. Snooze. 6:30. Snooze. 6:45. Snooze. At 7:00 I finally got moving. First shooting light was at about 7:20. I shook Shane’s lifeless body. An aching groan confirmed he hadn’t expired during the night. I bailed out of the tent and walked over to the head of one of the drainages to see what might unfold. Immediately, I felt nauseas and quickly realized that I had only consumed half a liter of water during our five-hour trudge the previous night. I forced down three liters as the sun rose.
Three miles down the ridge we were on, I spotted a flash of orange. Another hunter as crazy as we were was working his way up the ridge. He moved cautiously, as if he’d seen something. Soon, he was speed walking along the ridge with rifle in hand. He had bumped something and it was moving my direction. I repositioned myself at the top of an avalanche chute where I had a clear shooting lane if anything were to come by.
Minutes later I saw the flash of antlers bolt through the broken spruce below me. It was a bizarre looking 3x3 mule deer. One of his right tines pointed down instead of up. The buck ran down the side of the chute and into thicker timber, never giving me another glance. Next, I spotted orange dots 3,000 feet in the basin below me. Mule deer does scattered about. 30 minutes went by before more deer trickled out in the chute below me. Two does and two bucks popped out at 400 yards, then three more bucks at 100, then another, and another. The eighth buck crashed through the scrub timber in the chute, literally! He tried to jump a dead bush but got caught up midflight and cartwheeled once over. When he regained footing he weaved through the trees and stopped on the edge of the chute. I had seen seven other bucks that morning and he was by far the oldest. I steadied my Grandpa’s 7mm Mag and squeezed the trigger.
After the deer was down, five more bucks ran by. None as mature as the one I had shot. The hunter that I spotted on the ridge earlier that morning eventually came into view near the bottom of the chute. He was unaware of my presence or that there was even a shot fired. He hiked down and out of sight.
Before walking down to the buck, I walked back to the tent to get Shane. The group of deer that ran by me also ran by him. He was never presented a clear shot.
With a deer down we decided it was too difficult to hike out the way we came in. The snow was too deep and our packs would be too heavy to safely navigate the ridge back. Instead, we’d pack up camp and drop into the drainage directly below. This route would get us out of the snow but would mean an eight-mile hike back to the truck. We were ready for hard ground.
I knew the buck I shot was a good one, not the giant I dream of, but I thought he might be the biggest buck I had ever seen on the hoof in those mountains, and he was. My only regret was that I pulled the trigger, not Shane.
So many experiences led to this moment. Years of learning how to hunt, learning how to live off what’s on my back, building mental toughness, scouting, picking sheds and just hunting led me to being five miles back at the confluence of these drainages on opening morning. It’s amazing to see the process through and have it amount to something you can touch and feel. I can’t wait to see what the sum of our efforts equates to in the years ahead.