I love camping in a wall tent, there’s just something about crawling into a sleeping bag, having the stove packed with firewood, and listening to the sounds of the night.
But after listening to a resident beaver chew on, and eventually chew through, a tree right next to our tent, a good night’s sleep in a hotel room was welcome. Our alarms sounded at 4 am, and we were reminded that while this was our last day in Montana, we still had one more hunt left in us.
We were sore, physically, and mentally exhausted, and we had no idea if we would have any better luck on this morning, than we had on the previous three. But we were going anyway.
If you remember right, this piece of Bureau of Land Management property we were driving out to on this dark, chilly, morning was an overnight feeding and bedding area for a large group of mule deer, who otherwise spent their time across the road in higher elevations. This river bottom also holds a lot of whitetail.
Having both types of deer hanging out in the same area makes it really tough to hunt when you only have a tag for one or the other, especially when that tag is for a doe.
On Tuesday afternoon, we had some whitetails hanging around us that would have made it hard to put a stalk on any muleys, without them alerting every deer on the entire 282 acres, of our presence. Come to find out, that wouldn’t be our only encounter with some nosey whitetails, before it was all said and done.
We pulled down the easement to the property line and parked the truck. As quietly as we could, we got out, got our packs on and started our hike in. Sarah had mentioned that we should try to go down to the river, and walk the edge all the way over to the point where we would about be in line with the makeshift blind we had made on Tuesday.
The fallen Cottonwood/blind was in a good spot for catching the mule deer as they worked their way out of the river bottom each morning. That was where we were planning on sitting on our last hunt. We had a dirt two-track path to walk on for a good part of the way in, which was quiet, and since we were going in in the dark, quiet is exactly what we needed.
While walking along the riverside, I saw a shooting star, I turned to Sarah and asked if she saw it, but she hadn’t. I couldn’t believe how bright it was going across that Montana sky, it just took my breath away.
We continued down the dirt two track path, but as we had to change direction and go toward the blind, we were going to start battling large sagebrush bushes, brittle clover stalks and dry leaves that had dropped from the surrounding Cottonwood trees. I turned to Sarah and whispered, “Soft steps, we are going to go slow and I’m going to try to find trails to use, but take soft steps.”
We worked our way toward the blind and with about 80 yards to go, I heard the one sound no deer hunter wants to hear, a deer blowing at us. We immediately dropped down to our knees and waited to see if we could figure out where it was coming from, it was still mostly dark, so it was hard to know, but I thought it was straight in front of us.
Then, it happened again, this time from our far left. A few seconds later I could hear the combination of feet pounding the ground and a deep exhale each time those feet made contact. They were mule deer, and while we couldn’t see them, we knew they weren’t sticking around.
We agreed that we weren’t going to be able to get to the blind, so I suggested sitting near an old rusty fence row about 25 yards from where we currently were. Daylight was coming and if we were going to have any chance at filling a tag, we had to get sitting down as soon as possible.
So that’s what we did. We stayed low and found a slight rise in the terrain, just in front of that old barbed wired fence. We were sitting behind a few tufts of tall grass, still trying to get our eyes to adjust to the lingering darkness.
We took our packs off and tried to get comfortable. Sarah had her shooting stick set up in case she needed to be ready. Two deer, both bucks, one a small whitetail and one a spike mule deer, fed up to within 10 to 15 yards of us, but never busted us.
A few minutes later, after legal shooting light began, and not 30 yards from where it happened on Tuesday morning, a doe presented itself, and we couldn’t tell if it was a Mule deer or a whitetail. I couldn’t believe this was happening again.
But it was short-lived, because when she passed by us, we could tell by her rear end she was a whitetail. Soon after, a group of four Mule deer approached from behind, just over Sarah’s left shoulder. She saw them and whispered to me, but I didn’t hear her, and I carelessly moved my head.
They ran off. There was one other group of mule deer about 400 yards away, that I was keeping my eyes on. It was light enough now that we could see in every direction, but that meant everything could also see us. I happened to glance over my right shoulder and saw what I thought to be a pile of Mule deer.
I whispered to Sarah, she looked and told me she only saw two. I slowly looked once more and laughed to myself. What I had seen were two mule deer and a bunch of downed trees. But in that moment, I knew that this was it, our chance to make something happen, but man, did we have to be careful.
I asked Sarah if she wanted to go for it, and she did. She is an avid, and very successful, turkey hunter back in southern Illinois, so she knows how to put the super sneak on an animal. But this was her first time stalking a mule deer.
I told her to leave everything right where it was, our packs, our binos, all of it, because we were going to bellycrawl about 20 yards over to where we had a good clear shot at the two does. We didn’t need anything, but a low profile and our rifle.
We talked before ever leaving the truck, that if we got into a group of deer, she would aim for one on the left of the group, and I would go for one on the right. Since I shoot left-handed, and she shoots the opposite, it just made the most sense, to prevent us from shooting across each other.
We both got on our stomachs and slowly started to crawl through the sagebrush and dirt, I went to the right and Sarah to the left. When I got up near the strands of barbed wire that were barely still attached to the old fence posts, I tried to find a good spot to rest my rifle for the shot.
The two Mule deer were still feeding and hadn’t spotted us yet. Sarah found a pile of dirt to rest her gun on, so she was going to shoot from the prone position. I laid my left-handed .270 on a strand of barbed wire, but the weight of the gun was too much, the wire sagged and didn’t offer a good rest.
I happened to glance up at the corner fence post and noticed that it had started to deteriorate, creating a V in the top of the post. I instantly decided that I was going to try to stand up and set my rifle in that post. This was risky, I could blow this entire thing if one of those two Mule deer noticed my movement. But it was my best option.
I whispered to Sarah to get ready to shoot, because I was going to stand up and if the deer saw me, she needed to just take the shot. She was a little frazzled and was breathing hard, and unfortunately had fogged up her scope.
Once she gave me the all clear to stand up, I slowly got up off the ground and carefully rested my rifle on the top of that fence post, it nestled into that V like I had cut it myself to fit my rifle. I was ready, I was set up, my safety was off, and I had not been seen.
The two deer were still feeding at 128 yards. I looked over at Sarah and told her that we needed to do this and do it quickly. She asked me to give her a second to calm down, which I did. Then she said she was going to count to three, she would take the one on the left, mine was on the right, just like we had planned. I found my doe in my scope, I took a deep breath and I heard 1, 2, BOOM!
I was startled, I looked up and saw Sarah’s deer fall, and then I scrambled trying to find mine in the scope again. The doe started to run, but she stopped, cut back toward the other deer, changed directions twice, and finally stopped for a split-second, while slightly quartering to me, and I squeezed the trigger.
She ran about 10 yards before her front end dropped and she expired within seconds. Getting my sights on that doe was like following a pinball, bouncing off the bumper rails at light speed, inside an old arcade game. But it was done.
I looked over at Sarah and she was beside herself. She had concerns that she had spined her deer, but neither of us saw any movement where it had dropped. Emotion took over and she buried her face in her still extended arms that were gripping the 30.06, her father’s gun.
He gave it to her last summer, it was her first rifle, and a meaningful one. I watched Sarah shake uncontrollably and try to find the words to describe what she was feeling. We had hunted so damn hard over the last four days and having this all go down the way it did, was a tremendous relief, but also incredibly exhausting.
We both put our guns on safe, I told Sarah to just take a few minutes to catch her breath as I walked back twenty yards or so, to gather all of my stuff. When Sarah stood up to get her things, we hugged and laughed about what had just happened.
I never heard her say “3”, and she felt terrible that she shot before I did. It was an absolute “fire-drill,” as Randy Newberg calls it, when things get crazy in a hurry. But we made it work and we had finally filled our Montana Mule deer tags, in double fashion, on our last possible attempt.
We had a lot of work in front of us, getting these two deer skinned, quartered, and loaded in our packs, but first, pictures. We moved the deer into a position that was respectful, and I cleaned the blood from my doe’s mouth. I propped my phone up on my pack and set the timer, before running over to sit next to Sarah and the two beautiful Mule deer we had worked so hard for.
This was Sarah’s first time quartering a deer in the field, so she watched intently as I did mine, helping me by holding legs and the hide. She quickly started on hers, as I finished and began to clean up my knives and get my pack organized. Sarah did awesome, I never had any doubt that she would.
We got our deer in our packs, including the heads, as we were going to drop those off at the local Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office for CWD testing, got our packs on our backs, and headed for the truck. Thankfully, we only had a little over a half mile to hike with all this weight on our backs. Believe me when I tell you, we felt every single step.
On the way back to the truck, I made a confession. I told Sarah that earlier that morning, on the walk in, I had made a wish after seeing that falling star. I figured it was ok to tell what it was, now that it had came true.
After seeing the star, one of the brightest and fastest I had ever seen fall from the sky, I wished that we would be able to both have a safe hunt and both get clean, ethical shots on a deer. A chilly breeze must have hit my face as I turned back toward the truck to keep hiking, because my eyes were suddenly watery for some reason.
We went back to town, picked up some ice and got our deer into our respective coolers, got cleaned up and checked out of the hotel. We made a few stops in town, including dropping off our samples to the MFWP office. We spent some time in a little shop that Sarah was dying to visit called “Girl Ran Away With A Spoon”, made our way through a fast food drive thru, and started the long trip home.
I think while we were insanely grateful, completely exhausted, and ready to see our families, our dogs and sleep in our own beds, our hearts still ached a little bit as we left Montana. I have developed a special connection to this place, and I think Sarah not only understands that connection better now, but she fell a little bit in love with Montana, as well.
We were tested, by a wide variety of factors on this adventure, including, at times, challenging elevation, loose gun barrels and scopes, aching bodies, grouse and coyotes ruining our hunts, the daily disappointment of never getting quite close enough to the deer we so desperately wanted, and an overachieving beaver who insisted on working the night shift right outside our tent .
But in the end, we never quit, we kept trying, we adjusted our game plan, and we were fortunate enough to find us a couple of does to take back to Illinois, and Indiana, respectively.
This trip was epic, memories were made that will last a lifetime, and I am so glad that Sarah and I were able to do this together. But mark my words, this won’t be the last time we take off for wild places to chase the creatures we love and respect so much. We are just getting our feet under us and catching our second wind.