The walls of my office hold more deer mounts in varying poses and configurations than I want to count. They honor the animals I hunted and the experiences gleaned on those trips. Long after we've finished the last grilled backstraps and smoked sausage from those animals, the antlers on the wall help you return in your mind to that particular day, recalling the sounds, the smells, the weather and the people with which you shared the hunt.The thick antlers of a Montana mule deer are my time machine today...
It was late October of 2104. As Chad Schearer’s Ram truck climbed the winding gravel roads of this vast ranch country east of Great Falls, it struck me that nearly a decade had rapidly passed since I last hunted in the great American West. Merle Haggard’s timeless hit “Big City” played in my head and I grinned happily. “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.”I tend to like places where there is more livestock than people.
Our hunting area was near north-central Montana, close to Missouri River and just north of Lewis and Clark National Forest and the impressive Little Belt Mountains. Minuteman III nuclear missile silos of nearby Malmstrom AFB also inhabited this same outdoors wonderland.
Schearer, a world champion elk caller and former Montana outfitter, heads up BPI Outdoors’ Marketing Department. He was guiding retired Marine Master Sgt. Dan Hanus and me. Hanus was in charge of the custom rifle shop for Bergara (bergarausa.com), one of BPI’s brands, and I was working on a story for The Military Times about Hanus' transition to this new world.
The hunt was scheduled for just three and a half days. Temperatures were unseasonably warm and I wondered how it might affect our chances. Turns out, the answer was, “Not much.” We arrived at the lodge in mid-afternoon and test-fired the Bergara custom rifles. Hanus used a .30-06 and I had a .300 Win. Mag., both in the lightweight sport hunter models. They were, as the cliché goes, tack drivers.
Schearer popped the question, “Want to go hunt some mule deer?” Yeah, man.
We spied numerous mule deer tucked into shrub-dotted coulees as we meandered along miles of dusty roads. A coulee is a name for just about any water drainage in the area. They usually support various shrubs and provide excellent cover for deer.
As the afternoon waned, we slowly traveled a ranch's grassy two-track toward a small pond fed by a trickle of a creek. Scrub brush dotted the hillsides. Small clusters of trees sucked up groundwater near the pond. Schearer scanned the hillside with his Konus binoculars.
“Does have been in here every day and the pre-rut is kicking in. Bucks are moving down from the high country and starting to roam and…whoa, there’s a buck…a nice buck!” Schearer announced.The buck was high on the opposing hillside, thudding his hooves into the turf as he purposefully trailed a doe.
“Two-hundred and forty-four yards,” Schearer called out after laser-ranging the deer. “One of you guys should shoot that deer.”
Hanus and I quickly reverted to classic comedy dialogue, with numerous exchanges of, “After you,” “No After you…” “You want him?…” With the deer approaching the hilltop, Hanus opted out. I was happy to take the first crack.
Looking through the rifle’s scope, I marveled at the buck’s massive body. He was built like an NFL linebacker with powerful shoulders and a neck that looked like it was going to pinch off his head. I had a solid rifle rest and prepared to shoot. When the deer briefly halted his march and turned broadside, I centered the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger.
The 180-grain Hornady bullet thumped home and bruiser buck tumbled down the hillside. Just like that, the rifle shooting portion of my Montana deer hunt was over.
This buck was a bull. Schearer looked at his lower jaw and estimated the deer was likely 6.5 years old or more. His antlers, while standing high and respectable, did exhibit signs of an old warrior beginning his decline. Later measurements at the buck’s neck just at the base of the jaw, with the hide removed, showed a 23-inch circumference. A few inches lower on the neck was better than 30 inches around. He was a beast.
Hanus Shoots & Scores
Hanus’ hunt lasted a little longer – until about 9 a.m. the next morning.
After spotting a nice buck sporting a unique six-by-six crown of antlers, Hanus crept into a prone shooting position and patiently waited as the deer moved away surrounded by about 30 does and fawns. Each time a shot looked forthcoming, a doe stepped in the way. When he finally fired, the buck was nearly 100 yards further than it was when Hanus first took aim.
With our deer down, and nearly 3 full days left on our trip, we partook of the area’s myriad outdoors opportunities. Nearby small lakes held thousands of greater Canada geese and hundreds of mallards. Despite the wind not being in our favor, our group bagged 12 big honkers and about a half dozen ducks the next day. The final day saw us beating the brush alongside Bergara’s Jason Sebo and Texan Chris Schirmer for wild pheasant and sharptail grouse.
Hunting wild birds in this vast country is a world apart from shooting preserve-raised birds. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a dog and instead set up drives through the coulees and thickets. These wild pheasants like to run and often flushed 50 to 60 yards ahead of us. We flushed more than 30 birds Saturday but only 6 pheasant roosters and a single grouse fell. Still, what an experience!
If You Go
Nonresidents applying for general deer licenses (mule deer or whitetail) in this area have had good success the last few years. For antelope, the draw can be much harder and success depends on the specific geographic area.
Montana has more than 8 million acres of public land. Schearer said the state also has a “Block Management” program where the state pays private landowners to open up ranches for hunting for the general public. If looking for an outfitter, Schearer recommends Centennial Outfitters (centennialoutfitters.com) who hunts out of southwestern Montana.