Friday, November 19, 2010

Muley Camp - Days 5&6

The pressure was on for Friday, we had three tags to fill and this was the last full day to hunt. We kicked things off with a strong pot of coffee and a big breakfast comprised of biscuits and gravy, eggs and canned peaches. My Dad and I planned to penetrate a couple of miles into a roadless area today. We had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to the trailhead, but made good time and found ourselves alone at the trailhead at first light.

Things looked promising early on, with several does quickly spotted. Unfortunately we couldn't find a buck. Our bad luck held out as we worked deeper into the roadless area, seeing does, but no bucks. When we finally did see a buck, things still weren't going our way. We'd stopped at a great vantage point to glass a big drainage. We'd been sitting there for a good 5-10 minutes when suddenly a buck and doe bolted out from the bluff underneath us - they'd been bedded no more than 30 yards below us that entire time! The buck, a 3x3, stopped briefly at a hundred yards, but my Dad's rifle was just out of reach.

We saw upwards of fifty elk in the morning, including some good bulls. Deer numbers just didn't seem as high in this area - perhaps due to the higher elk densities, perhaps not. Regardless, we decided to abandon the roadless area in favor of some country closer to camp where we'd been seeing excellent numbers of deer throughout the hunt.

Sure enough, as soon as we'd driven into the general area that we wanted to hunt for the afternoon, I spotted a herd of deer about a mile away, far down a deep drainage. Through my binoculars I could see that one of the deer was big bodied, a mature buck no doubt. Upon taking a look through the spotting scope my suspicion was confirmed and we set out after the buck.

We made good time dropping down to the herd's last known location and the wind was in our favor. We had plenty of time, a solid hour of shooting light remained, so we crept in, glassing thoroughly in an effort to relocate the herd. When we slowly peeked over the top of the drainage that they'd likely fed into, sure enough, there were deer. Two does. I glassed the drainage quickly, but thoroughly (or so I thought) and concluded that these were different deer, as no buck was in sight and there were fewer does. We were dejected, but still had some light remaining and decided to hunt our way back to the truck. We moved down the backside of the ridge a couple of hundred yards before I decided to peek back over at the does...just in case. I chose a terrible spot to peek over - I had nothing for cover. As I peered over the ridge I immediately new I'd screwed up, directly across the drainage was a big bodied deer - bringing up my binoculars revealed a solid buck - a buck that had seen my big head bobbing on the bare ridgeline. I dropped back out of sight and instructed my Dad to get ready for a shot, that the buck was moving up the opposite ridge and would be coming into our line of sight quickly. Within seconds a pogo-sticking buck could be seen on the top of the opposite ridge - 200 yards away. The buck stopped for a few brief seconds to look back, I instructed my Dad to take him if he could - but he hadn't had quite enough time to get set-up and the buck vanished over the ridge unscathed.

While there was still a half day, morning hunt on the horizon for Saturday - in all reality the sun had set on this hunt. It was a great hunt, and any hunt that I get to share with my Dad these days is a special one. For him it was all about the experience, seeing new country and enjoying the time afield and in camp, pulling the trigger wasn't paramount.

Back at camp that evening we learned that Matt had found success - looking to fill the freezer, he'd harvested a "meat buck" in the morning. They saw a monster buck late in the afternoon and managed to close the distance, but by the time they were set-up for a shot the bedded buck had blended into the surrounding sage in the low light. Dave made the ethical choice and chose not to shoot.

With our tags filled, Matt and I had the luxury of sleeping in on Saturday morning, while our fathers hunted together for a few hours. By the time they'd returned from their morning hunt we had camp torn down for the most part and had even found time to wet a line in the reservoir.

With any luck this hunt, with these guys will become something of an annual tradition.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 4

On Thursday morning we loaded our packs for a full day afield, rarely do we return to camp for lunch and this day would be no exception. We hiked into an area where we'd seen some deer, and a good buck, early in the week. Right off the bat I spotted a lone buck feeding over a ridge. I only got a quick look at the buck, but he appeared large enough to warrant further investigation. We gave chase, but never saw the buck again...he was probably moving quickly, covering country in search of does.

We continued covering country ourselves, doing a good deal of detailed glassing along the way. We spotted a few more does throughout the morning, but no bucks. Interestingly, throughout the week we'd been seeing a lot of elk sign nearly everywhere we hunted - yet we hadn't seen hair nor hide of an elk. The Missouri River Breaks is famous for its big bull elk (and sheep, and deer). The chance of drawing a license here is very slim, hovering around 3% in most years. This morning we finally saw elk on the hoof - my Dad glassed up two cows in heavy cover on a north facing was neat to see them.

As it turned out, this was to be quite a day for elk sightings. About an hour later, as we worked our way across the bottom of a coulee, I happened to glance to my right to see a big 6x6 bull elk bedded fifty yards away. Amazingly he was bedded in a little cutbank crevice - right out in the open sage! And then later in the day we got to see a group of 6 bulls move by us at little more than a hundred yards. These bulls were all amazing, with some in the 300-320 class, but nothing truly huge. That is until I spotted a bull moving parallel to us along an open slope late in the day...he was a ways off, but he was the type of bull that The Breaks is famous for - an enormous 6x6.

While elk were the story of the day, we did have an opportunity to put a stalk on a big 3x3 mule deer buck (yes, the bar had been lowered a bit) in the afternoon. The buck was about a half mile away when we spotted him, he was solo, and moving in our direction at a steady clip - cruising for does no doubt. When he moved out of our line of sight we scrambled to ambush him. Unbeknownst to us, during the few minutes that it took us to hike to the adjacent ridge the buck had veered to the north - a ninety degree turn that put us out of position. The buck was now 400+ yards away - out of range as far as we're concerned. We gave chase, but as luck would have it the aforementioned herd of 6 bull elk crashed the party - they'd been pushed our way by other hunters and blew right by the buck, who was nowhere to be found once the dust settled.

As we hiked back to the truck in the fading light we glassed up several does, but none were in the company of a buck. For the first time all week we beat Matt and Dave back to camp in the evening, they'd embarked on an ambitious loop hike into some roadless fact it turned out that they were the hunters who'd bumped the elk in our direction. They'd seen deer as well, with Matt coming across a buck and doe. According to Matt the buck was a big one, and provided him with a brief window for a shot opportunity. Dropping into a prone position and using his pack as a rest, Matt took the shot - with no reaction from the buck. Upon closer investigation he found no sign of having hit the buck, what he found instead explained the miss: a tree sporting a substantial gash from his bullet.

After another great dinner and night cap, we set the alarm for 4:30am - we had just one full day left to hunt and we were eager to make the most of it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 3

The thermometer outside the wall tent registered 16 degrees when we awoke on the morning of day 3. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, tortillas, canned peaches and coffee, we loaded into the trucks to head out for the day. Matt and Dave motored west, while my Dad and I drove as close as we could to the kill site of my buck. With the cold weather we were in no huge rush to get to the quarters that we'd left in the field. We worked our way in slowly, hunting all the way in an effort to fill my Dad's tag.

We weren't a half mile from the truck when we started seeing deer, and lots of them. The first bunch consisted of 7 or 8 does and a lovestruck 3x3. Moving on, we quickly glassed up another the time we arrived at the kill site a couple of hours later we'd probably glassed about 50 deer, including 4 bucks - but nothing large enough to pull the trigger.

The quarters were hanging right where I'd left them - nothing had disturbed them overnight. I skinned out the skull and we loaded up the Eberlestock pack with meat and antlers for the hike out.

On the hike back to the truck I picked up a nice 6 point elk shed, it wasn't 200 yards off the road! We arrived back at camp and got the quarters into a cooler before enjoying a leisurely lunch and completing a few camp chores. For the afternoon hunt we decided to drive into some new country to the west and do a bit of glassing. On the drive in we passed by Matt and Dave's rig parked above some good looking country - we later learned that they saw many deer in the area, including a nice 3x3 that Matt couldn't quite talk himself into taking at this point in the hunt.

The afternoon was bone chilling, with a bitter wind blowing out of the north. Prolonged glassing sessions were miserable, but we did see several does on distant ridges as the sun set.

At the end of day 3 our camp was 1 for 4 on mule deer. With my Dad having come all the way from Arizona for the hunt, I really wanted to be sure that he had an opportunity to fill his tag. In fact, I'd practically begged him to shoot the buck that I ended up harvesting, but he wouldn't hear it. I'd spotted the buck he'd said, it was mine to take. We had two full days of hunting left, I was confident that we'd get him a buck.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 2

We awoke on Day 2 (our first full day) to find that it had rained overnight, a scenario that every Missouri River Breaks hunter fears, for with precipitation comes mud. Now Breaks mud isn't just any mud, but a special blend that sticks to everything that comes into contact with it. With the exception of the main gravel road, vehicular travel was severely restricted by slick, sloppy roads. Rather than sleeping in and waiting for the roads to dry out as I suspect many other hunters did, we made the most of it and hiked into the country surrounding camp.

My Dad and I headed east along the shore of the reservoir until we'd put some distance between us and camp. We quickly got into deer, including some pretty nice bucks, but nothing with the 4x4 configuration that we were looking for.

By late morning we'd slogged our way through the mud, and into a series of drainages containing good security cover on north facing slopes and good browse on the southern exposures. In one of these drainages we bumped into a bedded buck and doe - the buck was big - a deeply forked 4x4 with great height and mass. The buck split from the doe and never looked back, escaping unscathed. I was feeling dejected about botching that opportunity. The buck and doe had been bedded in some sparse cedars at the bottom of the ridge - had we simply approached from the north we probably could have spotted them before they bolted. I suppose I could've taken a quick shot at the buck at about 80 yards on a dead run, but I wasn't confident in my ability to make a clean shot in that situation.

At this point it was after noon, the wind was howling and the deer were all bedded. We climbed to a high vantage point on the lee side of a ridge and settled in for a long lunch and rest break. On a cold day in the backcountry, there's nothing quite like breaking out the Pocket Rocket for a Mountain House and cup of Starbuck's VIA. The fuel, stove, water pan and food weigh next to nothing, but provide a hot, fast and delicious meal.

Fat, happy and cozy in the down jackets that we pulled from our packs, it was difficult to keep from dozing off. By mid-afternoon we started seeing a few does up and feeding, signaling us to get back on our feet as well. At about 3 o'clock I spotted a lone buck standing in heavy cover nearly a mile away. A quick look through the spotting scope revealed that this was a buck worthy of closer inspection. We devised a stalk, which included provisions for some does feeding between us and the buck - does that could easily throw a wrench in things if they spooked in the direction of the buck.

The stalk went off without a hitch, until we were approaching the final ascent to the saddle that would serve as the planned shot site. Working through the deep coulee bottom I glanced up at the ridge line to the west and saw a small army of blaze orange heading in the direction of the buck! These were the first hunters we'd seen all day and they were about to become a major problem for us. They weren't aware of the buck's presence - their frequent stops to glass in the opposite direction made that evident. I quickly made myself highly visible to them, hoping it would be enough to deter them from their course, which was a beeline for the buck's location. It didn't work, they continued to the ridge top, stopping directly above the now bedded buck. They were no more than 70 or 80 yards above the buck as they stood and glassed back to the west.

As we scrambled up the last hundred feet or so to the saddle, I was muttering under my breath - something about this not being my day. I thought that the buck would surely break from his bed with the presence of the other hunters. Upon gaining the saddle I slowly peeked over the top to glass the buck's last known location and wouldn't you know it, there he was, still bedded with an ear cocked to the hunters standing just uphill from him. It was a classic scenario, a wise old buck bedded just out of sight of the oblivious hunters, waiting them out, secure and confident in his chosen location.

I now had a dilemma on my hands. A dandy 4x4 buck was bedded less than 200 yards from me, broadside. I could have easily shot the buck where he lay, but with hunters just above and behind his location I felt that it wasn't a morally sound shot to take. I was now confident that the buck wouldn't bolt from his bed, unless the hunters pushed down through the cover he was in. After waiting for an excruciating 10 or 15 minutes, the hunters finally dropped off the ridge, giving me a safe shot at the buck. With shooting light fading, I steadied my Blaser R8 chambered in .30-06 and took the shot. Hit hard, the buck quickly expired a few feet from his bed.

We made our way down to the buck, a mature 4x4 that I'd venture to guess was 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years old. We made quick work of quartering him for the pack out. I was very pleased with the performance of my new knife, a SCKW No. 6. I loaded up my pack with two quarters and hung the remainder in trees - out of the reach of coyotes. We'd return the next morning to retrieve the rest of the meat, along with the antlers.

With the aid of headlamps we covered the two miles back to camp, arriving late and tired. In the comfort of a warm wall tent we re-fueled on elk burgers and Gatorade as we shared the details of our day with Matt and Dave.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 1

Fresh off a fantastic, 6 day mule deer hunt in Montana's Missouri River Breaks, I'm unpacking gear, butchering venison and looking over photos from the trip.

Over the next few days I'll be sharing some of our experiences from the hunt here, on the MSJ blog.

Day 1

On Sunday night I motored east to Billings to meet my Dad, who had flown in from Arizona for the hunt. This was to be his first big game hunt in Montana. We left my sister's house early Monday morning, stopping briefly in Grass Range for burgers, coffee and to top off the gas tank. My Dad soon got his first look at The Breaks as we descended into the river valley and crossed the mighty Mo via Fred Robinson Bridge. My old man liked the looks of the country: rough, scenic, and moderately timbered - perfect for hiking and glassing...the style of hunting that he enjoys most.

Our destination was Fourchette Bay on the north shore of Fort Peck Reservoir, this remote outpost would serve as our base camp for the hunt. After turning off the highway we navigated fifty miles of good dirt roads into Fourchette, driving through a seemingly endless sea of unspoiled Montana prairie in the process.

The plan was to meet my buddy Matt and his Dad at camp, they'd arrived the day prior and set up the wall tent - and perhaps even done a little hunting by now. As the road dropped to the campground and turned the corner, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the number of camps wasn't overwhelming (it can be a tent/trailer city here at times).

Although Matt and his Dad were out hunting, we quickly spotted camp and unloaded our gear. With a few hours of shooting light remaining, we decided to get out and have a look around. We drove a few miles from camp, parked and hiked along a large ridge with numerous finger ridges descending into deep creek bottoms on either side. Deer sign was everywhere and we soon got a look at our first muley of the trip - a young buck. Just before last light we spotted a sizable herd of deer feeding on an open slope just a couple of hundred yards from us. A good size buck was with the bunch, but in the low light we had trouble determining just how big he was and neither of us were itching to pull the trigger this early in the hunt.

It was an encouraging afternoon that indicated we could expect to see some rutting behavior from the bucks. As we pulled back into camp in the dark, the wall tent was glowing from lantern light and smoke was billowing from the chimney. Matt and Dave welcomed us and had a hearty meal of spaghetti in the works. After dinner we enjoyed a few libations as rain drops began to fall on the tent, leaving us wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Killin' Roosters

I have always said I am a hunter, but I don't necessarily like killing. The bigger the animal, the more compassion I seem to have. Shooting a bear doesn't excite me much. Elk hunting is my game due to the challenge of it on public land, but I still want to make a quick, clean kill more than anything.
Many "genteel" sportsmen and women who enjoy tweed and fly fishing, hunt birds, but pass on big game blood sports. Birds are, I guess, perceived more as targets, they not being mammals running around on four legs. I get that, although I still have a lot of love for the native birds and Hungarian Partridge. Who wouldn't love any little covey bird that huddles up to survive the wicked blizzards of the prairie? I hunt all of the above, but with great reverence.
Pheasants are different. I like to shoot them dead. Especially the late season, running devils that they are. Hunting in November and December is often most productive with a couple of guys pushing birds and a couple more doing some blocking. Mix in a few dogs, doing what they do, and you can get the buggers to eventually flush. I have never said pheasant shooting is difficult, but getting them to fly can be.
The pheasant hunting I cherish the most occurs in tall native grasses or CRP. One hunter, one dog and one wily rooster. It may require multiple points by the dog and a brisk pace by the hunter, but if you are taking baby steps or expecting your dog to not relocate, you lose, the rooster wins. When it comes to pheasants, I like to win. I assume the dogs do also.