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Thanksgiving Buck

The mule deer of a lifetime

A shortened version of this story was first published in the June/July 1999 issue of The Eastman's Journal

T.gif (911 bytes)hanksgiving came early for me in 1998, about 2:30 PM on Saturday, November 21, deep in the bottom of an anonymous drainage on public land in eastern Montana. Hunting mule deer has been a passion of mine for a long time and I’ve taken lots of medium sized bucks, and while I’d glimpsed a few bruisers over the years, until then I’d neverBigmuley.jpg (18722 bytes) connected on one. The powers that be apparently decided I had paid my dues, though, and blessed me with the buck of a lifetime; a big non-typical 7 X 7, 29 6/8" wide, non-typical B & C net score 205 7/8.

Montana isn’t known as the place to go for trophy mulies, rightfully so, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good bucks in Big Sky Country. I’m not going to say exactly where I found this guy, but I think a little background on my development as a hunter and the steps that led me to him will be revealing. I have always had the hunting bug, but my father didn’t hunt big game and the relatives who occasionally took me were pretty much road hunters. I managed to kill a few deer and antelope in my teen years, but never really got the opportunity to hunt much until my college days in Bozeman. I can still clearly remember the first time I was lurking down a ridge in the Bridgers and got what I call the "predator feeling", that right-brain thing where you stop thinking in words and are just "there" with all senses turned up to ten. I haven’t been the same since.

I grew up on a dryland wheat farm in north-central Montana, which we still operate. That is pretty much a six-month job, so after college I worked at several different jobs around the Bozeman area in the winter months. My father was a butcher before he started farming and we always did some meat cutting on the side. Since the hunting season in southwest Montana essentially runs from early September till late February, I eventually wound up operating a wild game processing plant. That immersed me deeply into the local hunting culture, and my passion for it steadily increased. Being a game processor is perhaps not the best occupation for someone passionate about hunting, though, and I had to limit my hunting to areas close to home. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the west slope of the Bridger Mountains is more or less out my back door. I spent every spare minute exploring the ridges and canyons of these rugged mountains and eventually got to where I was connecting onBridger5point.jpg (14178 bytes) mulies and elk on a regular basis. In spite of much hard hunting, however, I wasn’t finding any real trophies. I was sure they were there and I just wasn’t trying hard enough, or looking in the right places. The Bridgers had historically been a trophy producing area for mule deer, but as it turned out, I started serving my hunting apprenticeship in them about the time that era was coming to an end. After about a dozen years of hard hunting, my best muley was only about a 140, my best elk a decent 5-point. In spite of their relatively modest size, though, they are treasured trophies in my eyes, and looking at them brings back fond memories of my hunting education. I consider them the equivalent of diplomas on the wall, and in fact, they mean far more to me than my college diploma.

Through the meat business I had made the acquaintance of Dave Pac, a MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks biologist who has studied mule deer in the Bridgers for the last 25 years or so. I picked his brain whenever I could, and studied the compilation of his research. It makes for some pretty dry reading, but wading through the tables of numbers and biological jargon was very revealing about the status of the deer herd in the Bridgers. By the mid-90’s, nearly 80% of the bucks, on average, were being killed every season. The buck/doe ratio had fallen to only 6 bucks per 100 does by January of 1997. In April of 1997, the fawn ratio was only 7 fawns per 100 does. Not encouraging numbers, and I decided if I was going to put some decent antlers on the wall, I needed to look elsewhere. I shifted my elk hunting to other areas in southwest MT, and have enjoyed much greater success, but that is another story. The mule deer situation in southwest MT, and actually all of western MT is dismal, and it was clear I was going to have to expand my search.

During my research, I developed a set of criteria to use in evaluating hunting prospects that I feel is applicable in most situations. To have what I consider reasonable chances of scoring on a trophy an area should have:

  • Good population numbers. This seems obvious, but I know that especially in my younger days, and particularly with elk, I have spent much time hunting in areas where animal numbers were fairly low, or else they were dispersed over such a scope of country that just finding them could use up all the available time. I am also aware that trophy animals sometimes occur in areas where population densities are quite low, but I feel that hunting in those areas requires either more time than most have available, or an extraordinarily high degree of luck.
  • A relatively high male/female ratio. This sounds like the situation in many nightspots in Montana, but I am talking about wild game, the four-legged variety. In order to have huntable numbers of mature bucks or bulls, they obviously need to be able to live long enough to grow respectable antlers. In a herd with a healthy age structure, mature animals should be well represented, and there are reams of biological data about the negative implications for overall herd health when there is a shortage of mature males.
  • Limited Access. This is perhaps the single most important criteria, since without it the two previous ones are unlikely to exist. Since I hunt primarily on public land, limited access usually means difficulty due to distance or rugged topography, or restrictions on vehicle use. In fact, I pretty much immediately dismiss areas not closed to vehicle access. Other possibilities include limited permit draw areas, and private land where access is limited by the landowner.
  • A history of trophy production. Some areas are just unlikely to produce trophies due to deficiencies in soil minerals and/or nutrition levels, as well as failure to meet some or all of the above criteria. The various record books, as well as biologists, game wardens, and taxidermists are all good sources of information about this. I think that in some situations, this is probably the least important criteria, since changes in permit numbers or access restrictions can increase trophy potential over a relatively short span of time, say three or four years.


Applying these criteria to a prospective hunting area obviously requires some research, and the people I mentioned in the previous paragraph are all a good source of information. For unbiased, reliable information I think it is hard to beat the biologists, though. They aren’t going to tell you to look for a big one up "X" creek, but if you have done your homework and ask the right questions, they will tell you what they know, which is considerable. One of them steered me toward some areas in eastern MT. Some of the numbers which got my attention included a buck/doe ratio of nearly 1/1, and a fawn ratio the previous spring of 137/100. Compare that to 6/100 and 7/100 for the Bridgers, respectively, for the same time period. He also knew of at least three Booners that were taken out of a fairly broad region the previous season, so I made plans to head out there during the hunting season of ‘97.

Time constraints due to work and time spent elk and moose hunting closer to home didn’t leave a lot of available time that season, but with three days left in the season one of my main hunting partners, Dan Carter, and I headed east from Bozeman. We got into our chosen area and set up camp with enough time for an evening hunt, which did not allow much more than a cursory inspection of the area around camp. The next morning we continued our explorations, seeing a few does but no bucks. Around noon we were glassing off a high point when I saw a buck bedded on a shale hillside. He was a long way off, and we didn’t have a spotting scope with us, but even through 7X binoculars some outstanding back forks were visible. He got up and ambled into some nearby timber and we headed after him but never found him. We spent the afternoon lurking through the timber and meadows in that vicinity, seeing a good number of does, but no bucks. By late afternoon we had worked our way to a high ridge in a more remote part of the area and were glassing even more remote country to the north. We had covered a good bit of country by this time and were both tired. Dan decided to take a short nap, but I was a little cold and bored and decided to still-hunt along the ridge. I hadn’t been gone for more than five minutes when I heard Dan shoot. I worked my way back up to where we had been sitting and saw him wave at me off a lower ridge. When I got down to him he was standing over a beautiful 185 buck, the best he hadDans98buck.jpg (25091 bytes) ever gotten and one of the best either of us had seen, not counting those on someone’s wall. The next day was the final day of the season, and while Dan was backpacking his deer out I headed out for one last effort. I was working my way down the bottom of a drainage not far from where Dan got his deer when I looked up on a finger ridge and saw the biggest buck I had ever seen in the flesh watching me. He was a big 5 X 5, wide, heavy, everything you look for. Unfortunately, he was standing in some brush and I didn’t like the shot. About one or two steps would have put him in the open, but instead he just vanished and I never did get another look at him or any others. I came home meat and antlerless, but beside myself with anticipation of the ‘98 season.

By the fall of ‘98 some beneficial, partially self-imposed changes had occurred in my life. Farming has been tough for quite a while, and my family and I were growing quite disillusioned with having our wagon hitched to a seriously lame if not dead horse. I had been working on yet a third venture for about a year, a primarily internet based booking agency/ adventure travel consulting/ online magazine combo called Cowboy Heaven Consulting, named after one of my favored elk hunting spots. Between farming and the meat business I was having a hard time getting anywhere with it, so we decided to get out of the meat business so I could devote more time to my consulting business. One not unexpected benefit of this is that my available hunting time is now also greatly increased, so Dan and I scheduled a week for deer hunting beginning the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Once again we set up camp and headed out for an evening hunt. This time we were considerably more familiar with the area and headed in a different direction than before. We didn’t see many deer that first evening, but sign was abundant and we were very optimistic. The next morning, as usual, we went our separate ways. I had seen a few deer, but no bucks, and as is my habit was alternating lurking through the timbered spots with glassing from points. I had been sitting on a point not far from where Dan scored the previous year and had been glassing unsuccessfully for about 15 minutes. I had my topo map out and was studying it, but the wind was whipping the map around; not exactly stealth hunting. I happened to glance up and saw a doe cross a ridge about 200 yards below me. I got my binoculars up and saw another doe, followed by one of those "holy cow" bucks. He was a big typical that I would guess at close to 30" with heavy dark antlers. I only saw him for a second as he crossed the ridge, and as usual all three of them seemed to vanish from the earth after that. I continued hunting, and figured I hiked around ten miles that day, seeing around 25 deer total and passing on two smaller bucks. The first was a 3-point, around 22" high and wide. Deer from this area come out on your back and he was in a real nasty spot a long way from camp. I wasn’t even tempted, but on my way back to camp that evening I came on another buck, a 5-point about the same dimensions as the other. He was only about 200 yards off the main ridge above our camp and would have been duck soup to get out. My son had been abusing me about passing on a raghorn elk opening day, and a line I had been telling him went through my head, "you can’t shoot the big ones unless you don’t shoot the little ones", so I kept my finger off the trigger.

The next morning, as usual, we were well into our hunting area at daylight. Throughout the course of the morning I saw about ten does, but no bucks. I had worked my way far down into the lower reaches of a drainage, into some gentler country where you would more likely run into a herd of cattle than a trophy muley. I had decided to head up a side drainage, cross a large ridge and spend the rest of the afternoon hunting my way back up a rugged canyon where we had seen a lot of sign previously. I had only gone about a quarter mile up the side drainage, came around a corner and there was the buck of my dreams with about five does. The does were in the edge of the timber and took off in a flash, I barely even saw them. The buck stuck around a second too long, though. He actually stepped more into the open, probably thought I was the competition. Either that or thisBigmuley2.jpg (19656 bytes) was meant to be. At any rate, he was there long enough for me to get off an offhand shot with my pre’64 Model 70 300 Dakota, later paced at 165 yards that hit him high in the left shoulder and dropped him. Those that have hunted long and hard for a trophy can relate to the flood of emotions that come at a moment like that, a split-second, simultaneous combination of disbelief, elation, gratitude, awe, and respect that after a few moments turn into undiluted elation. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and I spent a good long while savoring it and taking photos, before dressing and caping my trophy. I cut him in half so I could hoist him into a tree out of the reach of the abundant coyotes in this area, loosely covered him with what was left of the space blanket I had used to keep the meat clean to discourage birds from feasting on him, strapped the cape and head to my pack and headed for camp, arriving well after dark. I was confident of my route and didn’t bother to keep my compass out, which resulted in my heading up the wrong ridge, but other than some additional up and down, plus some disconcerting uncertainty when I became sure I was on the wrong ridge, I made it back in fine shape, only a little worse off for wear and tear.

The next morning I shouldered my backpack and headed back out again to retrieve the meat. It was bluebird weather and I was about a quarter mile from camp when I realized I hadn’t put in my parka. I debated going back for it momentarily, but it occurred to me that heading out without adequate clothing is one way to wind up dead, so I went back, something I was later very thankful for. I made it back to where my deer was in good time and boned it out. I had been curious enough about the weight to throw in my small horse packing scale, and I wound up with 90# of boned out meat, which I split into two loads. I leapfrogged them back toward camp, carrying one load about a mile, leaving it and going back for the other, and so on. At one point I had just unloaded and was heading back with an empty backpack for the other load of meat. As I said, it had been a gorgeous sunny day and I was only wearing a long-sleeved undershirt and Carhartt pants. I left my heavy shirt, parka, and gloves strewn about on the ground by the upper meat bag. On my way back some ominous black clouds started building, but I figured nothing was going to happen right away and I wasn’t concerned. I had just reloaded my pack and was bent over putting it on when I felt a raindrop. Within five minutes it had turned into a full-fledged blizzard. Luckily I was traveling with the wind and my backpack shielded my head and torso, so only the backs of my legs got wet. Naturally, when I got back to the rest of my stuff everything was soaked, but I put it on anyway. I was lucky that most of the rest of my route from that point was in a deep ravine shielded by timber which kept me out of the wind, and my parka kept my upper body from getting any wetter, but in short order my legs were as wet as if I had waded into a lake. That cold canvas pressing against my bare skin with every step got to be a bit of a drag, but at that point I was only about a mile and a half from camp and did my best to ignore the discomfort. If I’d had to I could have left my loads and beat it for camp, but I was exerting enough to stay tolerably warm, discounting my legs. I eventually got both loads to the top of the ridge above camp and from that point I was able to carry one in the backpack and slide the other over the snow, protected in the nylon feed sack I had it in, saving one more leapfrog. Still, it added up to about sixteen miles of backpacking, including the trip the previous evening with the head and cape.

During the blizzard Dan was also heading back toward camp, but got turned around and headed up the wrong ridge. Maybe it was providence, because he killed a good buck on that ridge, a wide 5-point although not99trophies.jpg (17762 bytes) particularly heavy. After his buck in ‘97 he didn’t feel too bad, though. His measured 29" wide, but before we got home and put a tape to it we figured it had to be 30" and got some chuckles out of telling people that he had killed a thirty incher and that was the small one of the two. The next morning we headed back for his, which added about another four miles of backpacking. All in all, strenuous, but most worthwhile. Another guy I know from Bozeman killed a 170 buck in the same general area the same day I got mine, and I suspect, Lord willing, that we are not through taking trophies out of this area.

On a more general note pertaining to mule deer hunting in Montana, I feel we are already a couple of years past the low point and things should be looking up statewide in another year or two. In a recent visit with Dave Pac, he said as of his most recent census flight in the Bridgers, he is estimating the current buck ratio at 17/100, and the fawn ratio at 70/100. The Bridgers have gone to permit only for mule deer bucks, and many other areas of the state have also gone to more restrictive regulations. Dave also said the deer and other wildlife have gone into this winter in the best shape possible, feed is abundant, the winter to date has been for the most part fairly mild, and predation is down. He said lion numbers are fairly static, but he feels coyotes are a far greater problem and that coyotes take five times the number of deer that lions do. The coyotes in this area are developing mange, however, and also rodents such as mice and voles are abundant, which is really a preferred food source for them. He feels in just a couple of years, the deer situation should be much improved. That is encouraging, and mule deer aficionados in Montana have reason for optimism.






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