Big Country, Big Skies, and a Big Buck

By Ryan Lawson

Eastmans Hunting JournalRyan Lawson
Montana, 2007, DIY, Private Land

With the sun starting to fade over the rolling sagebrush hills, the feeling of the last day of the Montana deer season started to sink in. My hunting partner Toby was sitting in the passenger seat, and I could tell he was feeling the same thing.

With evening coming fast, we drove the last old two-track road through the dried-up creek bed to a little outcropping of rocks nestled in the sagebrush. Driving slowly through the rutted roads, Toby spotted two does on the horizon. Something had their attention. I glued my eye to the spotting scope and tore apart the sagebrush, but nothing seemed to be there. Then I caught a glimpse of a buck trailing a doe on top of the ridge. Closer inspection revealed a buck that every deer hunter dreams about. At 450 yards, the buck turned broadside and showed off his 28-inch inside spread and two six-inch kickers.

At that range and with shooting light almost gone, Toby decided not to take the chance. There was nothing left to do but watch this monster buck do what big bucks do. As if he knew, the buck stopped and gave us one last look and then vanished over the top of the hill...

The rest of the year seemed to drag on. As winter turned to spring, I had dreams of that buck skylined on the horizon. I became committed to harvesting only that buck, if he survived the winter, even if it meant eating my tag.

With working two full-time jobs and having two children in sports, there was no time for scouting until a month before the season. I had the itch to go, so I finally left one afternoon. While driving in, I spooked some antelope out of a waterhole. There was a monster of a buck in the herd, so needless to say, that night was spent watching him.

The day before the rifle opener, I decided to go to the big coulee where I had seen him the previous year. When I got to where I wanted to be, I started glassing. There were deer everywhere, mostly does and younger bachelor bucks.

Ten minutes into glassing, I glimpsed a deer with his head feeding in the sage. He finally lifted his head, and I couldn’t believe it; it was him! Wow; he had put on mass and length, and from what I could make out, he had lost a cheater. I watched him for over an hour until he bedded down in the thickest bunch of sagebrush on the hill. As hard as it was to leave, I didn’t want to bump him, especially since tomorrow was opening day.

On the drive home, I called Toby and told him. He was thrilled, but unfortunately he had prior arrangements for the next day. With Toby busy, I called another friend of mine, Robby Davis. There was no hesitation in his voice when I told him of my good luck. The plan was made to be at the bottom of the ravine before light.

Big Country, Big Skies, and a Big Buck

That night was unbearable. My eyes didn’t shut once all night. The image of that buck just kept playing back in my mind over and over until finally, at 2 a.m., I couldn’t handle it anymore. I got up and decided to go even earlier than we had planned. Robby was not impressed with me banging on his window at 3 a.m. We were more than two hours ahead of time, and Robby didn’t let me hear the end of it as we sat in pitch darkness.

Finally, the blanket of night began to peel open as the orange and yellows of sunrise broke through. With no wind and the sun beginning to peak over the hill, we started walking through the sagebrush coulees. The plan was to hike up a dry creek bed and make our way to a huge tree that stood out in the sagebrush. If the buck was where I had seen him the night before, he would only be 200 yards away at most.

It took an hour to get to our destination, weaving in and out of deer. Once there, we immediately broke out the optics. We glassed for over an hour but found no buck. The longer we glassed, the more depressed I got. I knew he had to be there somewhere, but where?

After three hours of glassing, Robby wanted to get some lunch and come back in the evening. Not a chance. There was no way I was leaving that canyon. It was now time for plan B. We left the tree and headed to some cliffs that were the highest vantage point in the area. I was not giving up, and if Robby wanted lunch, he would have to walk to the highway and hitch a ride. With that being said, he opted to stay.

It was now 1 p.m. and would be hard to locate the buck until evening, but I just had to keep looking. We split up to cover more county; Robby stayed by the cliff trail while I walked down to a big rock where I could glass. After half an hour of glassing, I picked up s ome t h i n g below the cliffs on the other side. I could tell it was a buck, but I couldn’t tell if it was him. With the twitch of his head, his cheaters gave him away. I instantly grabbed my gear and ran to find Robby. When I got there, Robby was gone. Not wanting to waste time, I decided to get moving to close the distance on the buck.

Big Country, Big Skies, and a Big Buck

I came around the last set of rocks and could see the cliff that the buck was lying under. As I got closer to the cliff edge, the trees and shrubs I was using for cover came to a stop. The only objects that could keep me from skylining myself were dried out blades of grass. I took off my pack, left everything but my rifle and rangefinder, a

nd began to crawl through the coarse sandstone.

Finally reaching the edge, I caught a glimpse of the buck still bedded and facing away. I took my time and put the shot together in my mind. With the buck motionless below the cliff, I began to settle in for the shot. I found the buck in my crosshairs and put it right in the middle of his front shoulder.

When the shot rang off through the canyon, the buck jumped up and stood motionless like nothing happened. I quickly reloaded and fired again while the adrenaline started pouring through my body. The buck started walking toward the bottom of the ravine, and with one shot left, I took a deep breath and squeezed. BOOM. As the last shot echoed through the canyon, the buck was gone.

Frantically, I ran around trying to locate him, but the ravine was too deep. With no way to get down there, I had to go back around. Not knowing where the buck was hit, I was more than a little bit concerned. It’s tough to have that kind of encounter but have no resolution.

I ran back to find Robby, who heard the shooting and saw the buck run down the ravine. We got to the other side and started up from the bottom of the ravine. The sagebrush was waist high, which made it difficult to spot anything. Walking through the thick sagebrush, I caught a glimpse of white underneath the brush. It was him lying on his side; he was done.

The high fives and hollering echoed through the canyons as we walked up to him. “What a buck!” was all that would come out of my mouth for hours. He is a 6x8 stretching the tape to 32-1/2 inches wide, and is everything I have ever wanted in a big mule deer.

I want to thank my grandfather and grandmother for getting me involved in hunting and the outdoors. He taught me everything I know about hunting, and without that knowledge I would never have been blessed with this opportunity. I try to teach my kids everything my grandfather taught me.