09 November 2007

Montana Mule Deer Hunting

Mule deer hunting is to elk hunting as an easy morning hike is to a three-day peak bagging trip. Both mulie and elk hunting are wonderful pursuits, but they differ enormously in scale. And of course there are exceptions, such as the high-country, wilderness, "pack 'em out six miles" hunts that my young friend and superb bow hunter Chad Krause engages in.

A word about ethics: since I am talking about hunting and not mere shooting, I'll omit any serious consideration for the way that many of my fellow Butte residents "hunt" mule deer. As one good friend and former student (and a pretty good guy in most ways) puts it, "Hell, elk hunting is about hunting. Mule deer? We road hunt them fuckers."

Mulies inhabit a wide range of habitat in the Northern Rockies, from the flat sagebrush prairie to the jagged, broken foothills to the alpine meadows and goat rocks. Thanks to my friend and former hunter Dave Carter, I learned of a jagged, broken ridge that fits my ideal for a perfect mule deer hunt. It is far enough away from roads to keep the riff-raff out, and yet with a little planning and good luck you can find, kill, and haul out a mulie buck in a half-day's hunt. Sometimes.

This past weekend, I was blessed with two mule deer hunting partners: our "little brother" AJ and my old friend Don Kieffer. The latter made a long-overdue visit from upstate New York, where he is blessed with fine white-tailed deer and turkey hunting. Here's Don, hiking across some typical sage brush and mountain mahogany habitat on the slopes of our ridge, where we expect to see both white-tailed and mule deer:

Oftentimes, especially during the rut and with heavy hunting pressure, a mule deer buck and "his" does head for the highest, most rugged country they can find. And so this is where we spent our time, clambering along the top, staying off the ridge line, glassing carefully for bedded deer, and stalking every group we could find. I'm fussy about mule deer hunting, and generally avoid shooting the big bucks or any buck with a lot of does. Dominant bucks are stinky, and I'm talking gag-a-maggot stinky here. Usually, the stink seems to stay on the hide, but occasionally it permeates the meat no matter how carefully you field dress, skin, and butcher the critter. Ask Brent Patch, who once killed a stinky big buck whose strong-flavored wild flesh refused to be tamed by the strongest and hottest of spices!

Three humans moving through mulie habitat is a bit much. Mule deer have sharp vision and acute hearing, and still-hunting is difficult at best. After a brief conference, AJ hunted one way along the ridge while Don & I went the other. AJ was barely out of sight when we heard my little 25 Roberts crack once and then -- a minute later -- once again (I gave him three cartridges this year). Sure enough, AJ killed his buck:

And what an unusual rack: a 6 X 6 with triple brow tines on once side, double brow tines on the other, and one set of double points:

Maybe it was a mulie-whitetail hybrid, or maybe just a case of too much testerone. He was a stinky one, and ruled over about twenty does. Almost before Don & I could figure out what was going on (we're a little slow on the uptake, sometimes), we saw AJ a mile below us washing his hands in the river, his buck safely stashed along the railroad tracks. Like last year, we found a mountain bike handy for the two-mile trek along the railway grade. Tough going, but it beat dragging all the hair off on the rough ballast between the ties:

Don & I have 50-some year old knees, and by the time we got AJ & his buck back to the truck, we were tuckered out and it was dark. Did I say that you could hunt this ridge in a half-day? Well, there was a qualifier about "good planning and a little luck" with that claim. And not being 15-years old--an age when no task seems too daunting if you want to do it.

After letting the ridge quiet down for a day or so, Don & I went back and sure enough found the perfect mule deer buck: a fat forkhorn. Not too rutty. Young & tender. And in an appropriately rugged spot near the top of this outcrop:

Just before we saw the buck silhouetted on the ridge, we watched a 3/4 curl bighorn ram strut out of the sagebrush ahead of us, and a yearling moose ford the river far below us. Don's 7 X 57 is a great deer rifle, and he was generous in letting me shoot it. The rifle dropped this little buck in its tracks. It took longer to move it the first two hundred yards out of the rocks than it did to drag it the next mile to the truck:

With the two of us ferrying packs and rifle and taking turns on drag duty, we were home well before noon. A sandwhich and quick cup of coffee, and us old guys were starting to feel young again. We had time to drive back over to the lower Big Hole for a quick afternoon antelope hunt.

It took awhile to locate them in the basin where I usually hunt. We drove by three or four mulie bucks that would have been a Butte road hunter's dream. Turns out, all the antelope bucks and does were together in a herd of fifty or more critters. By the time we spotted them and stalked within almost-shooting distance, the sun was well behind the western ridge. Though I was sorely tempted, Don wisely suggested we save this one for another day. As Chad Krause pointed when I told him this, "A lot can go wrong real quick. Especially when it's getting dark." Good advice, Chad. Good judgment, Don.


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john smith said...

There is something very refreshing about not understanding a word that anyone around you says. Deer Hunting

EcoRover said...

Haha, you're funny Howard "John" Smith. And a lousy hunter, but no need to go there at this time.

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