Montana Mule Deer

By Jeremy Gneiting

Jeremy GneitingJeremy Gneiting
Montana, 2005, Public Land, DIY

My hunting seasons start out the same as most every other big game hunter out west, with the annual ritual of applying for those coveted limited tag areas. While I love to hunt all of the North American big game species, my main passion is big mule deer. Montana has not been known as a big producer of trophy caliber mule deer bucks over the last couple of decades. There are few really gooad reasons why.

Montana has a very lengthy general season that lasts clear through the peak of the rut. While chasing big rut crazed mulies is appealing on a certain level, the problem with this scenario is that after a couple of years you have killed most of your big, genetically superior bucks that would normally have the chance to breed and pass on their genes to the next generation. It's not that Montana doesn't have the genetics or the habitat. I have collected plenty of trophy class mulie sheds over the years that range from 180-inch class bucks to 220-inch plus non-typicals, but these sheds are very old. Few bucks of this size exist in Montana today. From the evidence I have obtained through research in the fi eld and extensive reading, it appears that the main factor that keeps Montana low on the list of trophy producing states is simply poor management. A shorter season or at least one that closes before the peak of the rut, and a few more limited tag areas would signifi cantly increase the numbers of mature bucks harvested in Montana and would be benefi cial to the overall genetic strength of our mule deer herds. Montana has a few limited tag areas that have really started to produce some great bucks.

The general tag area I chose to concentrate my efforts on was an area a friendly game warden told me about that still held some good bucks. The area is classic beautiful high alpine country. In August of 2005 after being unsuccessful in the special drawing I planned a scouting trip for later in the month. My wife was able to accompany me on this trip and we spent four days camping, hiking and glassing. All in all we saw nine bears as well as lots of bucks and bulls. On the last morning of our scouting trip I glassed a couple of dandy bucks high on the mountain. I returned a few days before rifle season to set up camp and scout some more. I glassed a lot of bucks in the days leading up to the season but none that were shooters in my opinion. Th e day before the opener, crowds of hunters swarmed in and began noisily throwing up camps. I decided to head home and come back in November when it would be colder, we'd have more snow, the crowds would have thinned out, and the rut would be coming on.

I headed back in early November this time with Mike, a hunting partner of mine. It was midday by the time we got camp set up so we headed out for an afternoon and evening hunt. We hiked up to the fi rst observation knob. Th e wind was really blowing but we did manage to spot some does and smaller bucks. After about an hour or so we headed around the mountain to another spot to glass a giant burn. We glassed for quite some time but all we saw was a lone doe. Th e wind was just howling which explained the lack of deer in the open.

One lesson I have learned over the years is glass, glass, glass, all day long even in less than ideal conditions. This method is extremely boring most of the time, but it will pay off . I was using this technique and was going on about three to four hours of nothing when I passed my glasses through a steep avalanche chute on the edge of a thick patch of old growth timber and there he was, standing where he wasn't the other several dozen times I had glassed that exact spot. It was quite a distance across to the canyon wall he was on but even through my binoculars I could see he was heavy. I quickly set up my spotting scope and honed in on him. Some does had emerged to feed and the big buck worked his way down to them and started dogging a little doe pretty hard. He was chasing her with his neck outstretched, head down and lip curled. He'd chase her, this way and that way tipping and tilting his heavy deep forked rack the whole time, giving us a look at every angle. It was a splendid show. At that point I was contemplating a stalk on this buck. Th ere were some steep partially timbered benches on the same side that the buck was on that I could possibly skirt around to get a shot. Th e main problem was the wind. It was swirling relentlessly. It just wasn't right for a stalk, and I knew it, but I decided to work around and give it a try because of how hard he was working the doe. Long story short I got about a second long glimpse of him at about 100 yards or so pursuing a doe into the timber with that stiff legged walk of a rutting mature buck. Th e does had apparently winded me and took the big buck back into the timber. I decided to back out right away and circle back around and glass until dark and hope the does would be back out and bring the buck with them. Th e does came back out shortly after I got set back up, but the buck didn't join them until almost dark; too late to do anything.

I got very little sleep that night and arose early the next morning to head back and hopefully relocate the big buck. We hiked up and over the steep rocky knob in the dark still air and set up to glass from where I'd seen the buck the night before.

At light the wind came up strong and cold. It was blowing snow all over the benches where the deer had been the night before, and I saw no deer high on the mountain. In highly windy conditions I have learned to glass sheltered spots out of the main force of the gales. Th is is what I proceeded to do and immediately started spotting deer. I spotted two different groups of does and both had a nice buck with them but not quite as good as the buck from the night before. A handful of does appeared in the new growth of an old burn, and right behind them was my buck. Th ey were on the same hillside I was on and were now working their way across to the other side to bed for the day in the old growth timber.

There was no time to waste. I quickly worked my way down the mountain until I was on roughly the same level as the deer. I eased out to a big stump and tried to range the buck, but my rangefi nder must have had low batteries and would not work. I was frustrated and felt it was still too far for a shot. I had only one choice and that was to get up close and personal and be quick about it. I eased back into the saplings and headed down the mountain as rapidly as possible. When I reached the bottom of the trees that were concealing my approach, I had about 20 yards or so where I would be completely exposed. I watched them with my binos until all heads and eyes were turned the opposite direction and then I ran in a low crouched position into the bottom of the ravine. I proceeded as quickly as possible until I was just below the bench the deer were on when I last saw them. I slowed down, crouched low and slowly eased up and over. I saw a doe jumping across a steep avalanche chute about 100 yards away. I could see the big buck following. I sprinted forward, flopped down in the prone position, and found the buck in my scope. I centered the crosshairs behind his front shoulder and smoothly squeezed the trigger. I immediately heard the whack of a solid hit. He took two staggering jumps and piled up in a patch of saplings. On walking up to the buck I was stoked to fi nd he was as big as I had judged him to be through the spotting scope. He was very symmetrical and even though he was only 20 inches wide he had a lot of other great features. His G2's were 16 inches long and his G3's and G4's were 10 inches long. He also had great mass and some blading, as well as lots of character bumps and knobs on his beams and bases. Th e buck is an awesome heavy horned mature high country buck. We spent the next couple of days looking for a nice buck for

Mike with no success. We spent the last day and a half holed up in camp with a raging white-out blizzard. Th e wind was blowing so hard and the snow was coming down so thick that at times you couldn't see more than a few yards. When the weather finally blew out the next day we knew that we had better make our escape while we still could.

When we got to the truck I was worried about how diffi cult it was going to be to plow our way down the canyon as nobody else had been that far up since the storm. In the drifted areas we were dragging the undercarriage bad but the snow was fl uff y enough it wasn't too bad. We had gravity on our side. Th ere were a couple of deep washes that had me really concerned, so when I came to those spots I gave it the wood and plowed through with the snow level as high as the hood and side mirrors at times. Th ere were a few white knuckle moments but we made it out. As always I am very thankful to God for blessing me with a wonderful life in the great outdoors and being able to take part and enjoy all of His wonderful creations.