Whenever you decide to go on a road trip with your best friend, it’s going to go one of two ways, its going to be epic, or you’re seriously going to question your friend choices by the time you get back home, but you always hope for epic. I hoped for epic, and epic is what I got.
Sarah and I got on the road for Miles City, Montana on Saturday morning. We were going to drive to Spearfish, South Dakota that night, stay at an already reserved hotel, then go on to Miles City the next morning. We had a great drive out, with lots of good conversation, and as few pit stops as possible.
We were both excited and a little anxious about getting to camp, getting our wall tent set up, and squeezing in an afternoon hunt on day one. This was Sarah’s first time camping in a wall tent, her first time hunting in Montana, and her first time hunting Mule deer.
So, it was kind of a lot. It didn’t take long to get a reaction out of her after we crossed into Montana from Wyoming on Sunday morning. The landscape was breathtaking, and it only got better the closer we got to our destination. To make things even more exciting, we were seeing mule deer and antelope everywhere we looked, as we headed northwest on Highway 59.
We rented a tent for this excursion from a place in Colorado called Outdoors Geek. They rented and shipped us the tent and accessories to Miles City and a fellow Midwesterner and friend of mine, Jen, who was also hunting out there with her husband, picked it up for us at the local UPS store a few days earlier.
It was waiting for us at the campground when we arrived, so we quickly put it up and unloaded the truck. Within about an hour and a half, we had set up our living space for the next four days, complete with cots, sleeping bags, lanterns, a cooking space, the wood burning stove and a pile of firewood.
As we were finishing up, my dear friend, Nicole Qualtieri, pulled into the campsite with her trusty partner, and one of my favorite canines, Butch. We chatted for a bit, I loved on the dog, and then Sarah and I switched gears. We changed into our hunting gear, grabbed our packs and our rifles, and drove out to a piece of public land about 30 minutes from camp.
I knew this spot from the year before, and I knew that it was going to test us right out of the gate. We are flatlanders from the Midwest, and I can speak for myself that the “Covid 20” is a real thing. I was not in the shape I wanted to be in for this trip, but we were there and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, other than just suck it up and deal with the pain and consequences later.
We hunted that property on both Sunday evening, and all day on Monday. We hiked in about four miles on Monday, found some great glassing spots and saw several deer. Most were bucks, which didn’t do us any good because we were carrying doe tags, but they were fun to watch, nonetheless.
I have learned over the last five years, that if you are hunting public land, you are more likely to find the animals you seek, and have a more enjoyable experience, if you are willing to go further from the road than everyone else. We didn’t see a single soul back in there on Monday, which was what we were hoping for.
After hiking a little further and sitting for a while, I asked Sarah if we could climb up one more ridge, just to peak over and see what was on the other side. It happened to be the tallest one we had climbed yet, and was straight up, right behind us. But it was worth every single step.
There are those folks who fish, me included, who negotiate with themselves when it’s time to go home for the day, by saying “just one more cast.” But when I get out West, my mantra shifts to “just one more ridge.” Blame it on curiosity, or hope, or maybe just my adoration for these wild places, but I can’t help myself. So, we climbed one more ridge before heading back toward the truck, as the hours of daylight would soon start to dwindle, and we had a long way to go in unfamiliar terrain.
As we crested the ridge and saw what was on the other side, I felt a sense of wonderment that almost brought tears to my eyes. It was a beautiful valley, with multiple timber covered fingers dropping into it, as if they were landing strips telling the elk and deer where to go.
The tall ridges on the opposite side made me want to go further, although physically it would be a miserable task. Instead, Sarah and I split up and found a couple of places to sit and glass for anything with four legs and was moving. As she moved further down the ridge, I found myself a comfy place to sit in a bed of pine needles, under the tree from which they fell. I sat for a while, just taking it all in. I don’t think I even raised my binos to my face, because I wanted to see the entire view for as long as I could.
Now I did have tears in my eyes. I was sitting in a place I never wanted to leave, although I knew staying wasn’t an option. Sarah sent me a text asking if we should start heading back, I agreed that we should. Then I sent another: “When I die, I want you to bring my ashes to this very spot, and when the afternoon breeze picks up, let them fly.” I choked back tears as I stood up, and we headed back down the ridge and back toward the truck.
On the walk out, we decided to change things up for the next day. I mentioned another spot that I had hunted last year that I knew held deer, although it was a combination of Mule deer and White-tailed deer, so we would need to be very attentive to what may be in our crosshairs, before making the decision to squeeze the trigger.
And it isn’t as easy as you may think, to tell the difference between the two when you are in a high-pressure situation and you are hunting does. We had just a little bit of daylight left, so we hightailed it out to this other piece of Bureau of Land Management ground to see if we could spot any deer.
To say that there were deer there would be an understatement, as we saw between fifty and sixty mule deer either in the neighboring field, or on the property we would be hunting the next morning. The mule deer in this spot always come down from the high elevations and across the road in the evenings to feed and bed for the night.
In the morning, they work in the opposite direction, at least that’s what they did the last time I hunted this area. It seemed that they were right on schedule and their patterns hadn’t changed much. We both felt better about this place and our impending hunt the following day, as we drove back to camp.
Tuesday morning, we got in there before daylight, but we weren’t sure what our plan of attack was when we walked away from the truck. We ended up putting a stalk on a group of deer that were about a half mile away. This was a tricky task, as we were no longer in the rocky, rough terrain filled with tall ridges and deep coulies to shield us from being seen.
We were now in a primarily flat river bottom with only sage brush, patches of tall grass, and stands of Cottonwood trees to occasionally hide behind, as we closed the gap. We got within sixty yards before Sarah set up for a potential shot on a doe. But as I mentioned before, there was some confusion on whether the animal she had in her crosshairs was a Mule deer or a whitetail.
We had Mule deer tags so shooting the wrong animal would not only be embarrassing, but also against the law. Sarah passed on the shot,\ because it wasn’t a great shot to begin with, as the doe was facing us, but also because we couldn’t be sure. The deer winded us and stotted, or what most people call “hopped” away.
It was then that we confirmed that they were indeed Mule deer, as whitetail don’t stot. After they disappeared we realized that all the Mule deer had made their way back up the hillsides and across the road to spend the rest of their day. It was 8:30 am.
I noticed that my scope was extremely loose as we were closing in on those does. Which didn’t concern me that much, because I had already told Sarah that she would have the first shot on a deer if the opportunity presented itself. Now that the shot didn’t happen and the deer were gone, I needed to fix my scope, and thankfully Sarah had a multi-tool in her pack to make that happen.
I took my scope off and tightened the rails back down. Ironically, the night before, Sarah noticed that my floating barrel on my rifle was floating a little too much. I fixed that issue before bed, but was leery about whether my gun was going to be off, and now with the scope laying in my lap, I figured that shooting it a few times at some paper wouldn’t be a bad thing.
We went and put up a target at the recreation area we had hunted the day before, and believe it or not, my gun was on point at 100 yards. Sarah shot hers for good measure and hers was dead on, as well. Hopes were high about our next time out.
That evening, all of Tuesday, and again Wednesday morning, we were outsmarted by the many Mule deer in that river bottom. It wasn’t all our fault, though. Tuesday evening there was a beautiful coyote that was holding up the deer from moving down from the ridges until we were past shooting light.
They came down after a doe chased the coyote off, and only made it within range, three minutes after shooting light. Wednesday morning, we had a plan which I believe was going to work, until I stepped on a covey of twenty or more Sharpe-tailed grouse. They aren’t the quietest birds on the planet when they are startled and fly off, and when they scattered, the group of deer we were sneaking up on looked right at us. We were busted.
They all slowly filtered up and out of the river bottom, once again. We forged ahead, but quickly realized we were out of luck. Those deer weren’t coming back until dusk. I suggested going to a Block Management Area about thirty miles from camp for the afternoon hunt.
I was just ready to see some different scenery and Nicole had sent a text saying she saw a group of does in that area that morning. We had to tear down camp on Wednesday, so the tent and all the accessories could get back to the UPS Store before 6 pm. Since it was early, we decided to go back and get busy on that daunting task, just to get it over with. After we had cleaned up camp, dropped of the tent, and packed all our belongings back in the truck, we headed off for our evening hunt.
The scenery was stunning. We drove the two-track back about four miles, but it just didn’t feel like mule deer country. I’m sure they were in there, but it was so incredibly vast, we just didn’t know where to even start. We turned around and made our way back to the spot Nicole had spotted the does that morning. We hiked in, jumped another coyote, and found a good glassing spot out of the wind.
We sat for a few hours without seeing any deer, so we decided to put on some miles and do some exploring. We hiked down the ridge we were on, across the bottom, and up the other side, to see what was just out of view. After repeating that exercise about three times, were started to lose light.
As we started back to the truck, Sarah had a moment much like I did earlier in the week. The sunset was stunning, the colors just kept getting better as darkness approached. We snapped a few pictures and she asked if we could just stand there for a few minutes and take it all in. Who was I to argue?
On the drive back to town, we ran into another friend, Rachelle, along with her daughter, who happened to be broke down on the side of the road, literally in the middle of nowhere. After Sarah gave her some zip ties, yes, zip ties, she was able to limp her truck back into town.
Sarah and I headed to the Montana Bar to meet up with Nicole and her friend Sam and to have some supper, before checking into our hotel. We sat at a good Covid-safe distance from each other, had some laughs, and good chit chat before calling it a night.
Of course, I had to go out to Nicole’s truck to say goodbye to my good buddy, Butch the Border Collie. In true Cindy fashion, I cried while shutting the truck door. I went back into the bar, and with tears in my eyes, hugged Nicole one last time. I love that dog, but I wasn’t emotional because I was saying goodbye to him, I was also saying goodbye to my friend, and I was saying goodbye to Montana, a place I have come to love in ways I never expected.
A shower at the hotel was a welcome luxury after a few days of being filthy, sweaty, and living in a tent. My knee was twice the size it should have been, and my ankles weren’t far behind. We were exhausted. We had given it our all for three and a half days of hard hunting, but we couldn’t seal the deal.
I guess it was a good thing that we had decided on Tuesday, that if we couldn’t get it done by the time we were supposed to leave, we would give it one last shot on Thursday morning before heading back East. We set our alarms for 4 am and went to bed with sore bodies and a plan for that river bottom.