Archery elk is unparalleled in adventure consistently yielding the highest of a highs and lowest of lows. September never fails leaving me mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. So, naturally, I look forward each year to my second favorite hunt—eastern Montana rifle mule deer. This hunt promises mild terrain and loads of action. 2019 was no exception; Ben and I had planned and anticipated our eastward trek for the last 365 days. We were finally burning rubber and as the miles rolled by, my imagination ran wild anticipating monster muleys rutting through sage.
We were in new country and the terrain was rougher than expected. Regardless, the rugged coulees and canyons promised the potential of a wise old stag hidden in its folds. True to its promise, the nearby private land was already taunting us with giants roaming fearlessly through golden fields.
We uncoiled our road trip legs and quickly hiked into a glassing knob as daylight waned. We glassed a handful of modest bucks and a distant hunter climbing out of a hell-hole with a big rack on his back. We hiked out in the dark and encountered four more hunters hiking in to help their fortunate buddy get out. Knowing the hunters would be causing a ruckus late into the night, we opted to let the spot rest a few days.
Using the dark, we relocated to our plan B. Driving the dirt roads, we were blown away by the number of mature bucks rutting in the private fields. I could hardly stand the taunting any longer! It was time to hit some public! We made it to a convenient piece of BLM, set up camp, and crashed for the night.
Early the next morning, we passed a local rancher working in his barnyard. We stopped and asked about local road conditions. Small talk ensued and eventually we asked if he would graciously allow us to cross a quarter mile of his fields blocking us from public ground. After ensuring we weren’t outfitters, the rancher granted permission to pass through! I normally hate bothering land owners, but every once in a while it pays off.
After passing through the fields we arrived in the foothills of the public. We split up with a plan to meet at noon. Incredibly, every fold in the land seemed to conceal a new herd of deer. I wasn’t seeing giants, but the sheer number of deer and quality terrain promised something more.
As the time neared to meet Ben, I sat on a vantage point enjoying a bagel sandwich while glassing around. Three does were bedded on a distant sage flat. I did a double take on two of the does as branches in the background caught my eye, but I resolved there was nothing to get excited about.
I polished off my sandwich and threw on a puffy jacket due to the chill. Before moving on, I checked the distant does one more time. I quickly realized my error—the two does with the branches materialized into a large, mature buck! I needed a closer look.
Private lines and rough terrain pigeon-holed my approach to one cut. I couldn’t catch a break as something caught the does’ attention. I watched in frustration from too far away as the ladies led their love sick buck over the private line. From the glimpse I got, he was a shooter.
Ben happened to be near and signaled me from a higher ridge. We linked up and worked a few more ridges together without seeing more than a few does. As the evening golden hour grew closer, we hatched another plan to go separate ways and meet after dark.
I left Ben, cutting across country and through a hollow I had stalked through earlier. As I hit the bottom, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by deer. Several bucks were scattered among the does. I didn’t see anything to fill my tag with.
I climbed out of the bottom and started up the opposite side. Two new does caught my attention, crossing through a saddle above me. I paused in anticipation of a rutting buck in hot pursuit. My heart began to pound as my vigilance was rewarded and a set of mature, dark horns trotted out behind. I lay my rifle across my pack and settled the crosshairs on the buck from 300 yards away. He had moved up and his antlers blended in with trees behind. Was he as nice as I thought?
The buck and one doe disappeared down the backside of the ridge. I remained frozen as the other doe stood sentry, staring suspiciously in my direction. Minutes ticked by and the doe wouldn’t leave her post. I began shivering as the cool breeze chilled my body again and I eventually considered getting up regardless of the doe. I resolved to wait her out. I glanced below and saw Ben walking several hundred yards away. I cow called to get his attention and he sank down in the sage.
At long last, the doe decided I wasn’t a villain and meandered over the ridge after her herd. I sprinted from my perch. Rifle at the ready, I crept over the ridge and peered over the top. Nothing... there was nothing. Puzzled, I began slowly following the ridge higher. After only a few yards, I glanced down and this time saw a doe and a buck staring back. Dropping to a knee, I placed the 4x4 in my crosshairs. Either this was a different deer or I had sorely misjudged him—he was no shooter.
Standing with the intent to hunt on, the adjacent hill began crawling as deer jumped out from behind every tree and sage bush. My heart pounded again as the last to move carried mature, dark horns. Again, I dropped to a knee and tried to quickly evaluate the trotting buck. My heart was pounding unlike it had with any other buck that day. I could tell he had good forks and mass. It was enough.
My Tikka jumped in my hands and the buck mule kicked. He turned and began trotting up the hill. Unwilling to let the buck run, I fired twice more and the buck fell.
I sat back, rifle across my knees. Lost in my own world, my jumbled thoughts organized themselves: “My tag is filled.” “I hope he is as big as I think.” “Were all of my shots good?” “That was a blast!”
Time passed and I soon realized Ben was sitting down below, watching the situation unfold through his binoculars. He had to be pondering what I was doing just sitting here for so long. I raised my arms over head in victory and my odd calm passed as elation took its place.
After collecting Ben, we walked to the downed buck together. He was exactly what I was looking for. His dark chocolate antlers curled in on top and his eye-guards hooked downward. I thankfully cut my tag and attached it.
Ben and I quartered the deer and readied it for pack out. As I peeled the skin back and observed my shots, I was mostly satisfied. Two of my shots were right through the shoulders. The third was far back and caused me to lose some meat. I didn’t need all of the shots, but I was pleased the deer died with no chance to run.
We were back in camp well after dark where we enjoyed a king’s meal—fresh grilled tenderloin, hotdogs, and powerade. A great buck, a great friend, beautiful country, and a comfortable camp. Does it get better? With Ben’s tag still to fill, it very well could.
- Jess Patrick