09 December 2012

Hunting Where the Deer and the Antelope Play (Southwest Montana near Butte)

Unseasonably warm weather prevailed through November, so it did not seem like the general hunting season. Still, both the pronghorn antelope and mule deer hunting were good.

Pronghorn Antelope

I hunt antelope on the vast sagebrush prairie of the lower Big Hole River valley in southwest Montana. Here's a view from a cliff where the river has carved its way into the rock:

In a rancher's hayfield along the river, several moose (including two bulls) posed:

While nearby another small bull crossed the river: 

Though the afternoons were warm, night brought freezing temperatures. Some rancher left the sprinklers on, creating an artificial snow field:

The upland terrain is dotted with interesting features both geological (I think this is a lava outcrop):

And historical (a cairn, probably built by sheepherders a century ago):

Some days, it seems impossible to stalk within shooting range of pronghorn antelope. They spot you a mile away and run to a high point two miles away... No matter, for it's a beautiful place at dawn:

And in the afternoon, which often brings interesting cloud formations imposed on an impossibly blue sky:

It's a always a pleasure when my old friend Dave Carter can join me for a day afield. He no longer hunts, but enjoys a good hike. Here he is, posing with an ancient, stunted juniper:

Perhaps because of our healthy wolf packs or because elk are still repopulating niches emptied out during an era when they were nearly exterminated, more and more elk seem to be living on the high prairie. For the third year in a row, I found a herd of elk with a big bull while I was antelope hunting. This photo is a little fuzzy (taken through my binoculars), but you can see the elk bull at center left:

With this warm weather, I tread carefully for the prairie rattlesnakes are out and about. On this day, however, I found only a rattler's skeleton (minus the head and rattles--perhaps taken by some depraved soul who killed the snake):

This pronghorn antelope skull shows the huge eye sockets that support the animal's incredible vision:

Hunting another day, I walked up over a ridge-line with the afternoon sun low behind my back. A herd of a dozen or so antelope fed and bedded on a hillside near the top of a coulee a half-mile distant. With the low sun, they did not see me so I backtracked, fell behind the ridge, circled round, and then crept on hands and knees (I wear hard shell knee-pads in this prickly pear cactus country) to get within easy shooting range. A set of shooting sticks is essential, since any sort of natural rifle rest is usually lacking. That night I savored the liver, and repeated my pledge to honor the pronghorn antelope's spirit and use this doe's flesh well:

It was a long mile back to the truck, and I wished Dave had joined me this day to help with the carry. It is said that the further you must pack a big game animal, the better it tastes. It is certainly true that you appreciate it more.

Mule Deer

Mule deer are found in the same open country as pronghorn antelope, but tend to concentrate in and prefer areas that are steeper and more rugged with hiding cover such as Douglas fir. Mountain mahogany -- a favorite deer food -- also grows here. For the first hunt of the season, I joined two colleagues, one of whom, though a veteran white-tailed deer hunter from Minnesota, had never hunted mule deer. I think Keith likes it:

I took a break one weekend to hunt elk with a former colleague now at another university. His wife is also an avid hunter. The three of us did not find any elk, but had a great hunt in the hills above the prairie spring where we saw a number of mule deer. Earlier that morning, Matt and Jenn had already killed two deer, including this mule deer buck:

Though I enjoy the fellowship of hunting with friends, I am more attuned to nature while hunting alone. I like taking time to appreciate things, ranging from the musical flocks of geese passing overhead (I believe these were snow geese):

Even the common sight of prickly pear cactus has a beauty all its own:

I'm careful where I step for other reasons, too. As I suspected while antelope hunting, the warm weather had brought the prairie rattlesnakes back out. I was sitting down glassing a hillside when this little one (pencil diameter) came slowly from a burrow (at right, near the end of the stick):

I have great respect for them, and deeply appreciate their beauty:

Moving along this ridge requires scrambling over the rocky outcrops, and -- fearing I might be in a den site -- was very careful where I put my hands. It's good to move slowly anyway, for every draw can hide deer. Peering from one steep ridge side into a a draw thick with mountain mahogany, I spotted four mule deer bucks together. I stalked as closely as a I could, and chose the buck with the smallest antlers. As a subsistence hunter, I find the larger antlered, more dominant bucks are often "ruttier" and not so good eating:

Again grateful for the bounty of this good earth, I struggle to get the buck a few hundred yards to the ridge-top, after which I had an easy half-mile drag to the truck.

Arriving back in town I was greeted by the sight of one of our frequent rainbows during the warm, rainy November:

Near the end of November, the weather changed. Little Brother "A.J." came home from the University of Montana for a long weekend and I joined him for a hunt on a blustery, snowy morning with temperatures in the low teens. The wind created some drifts near the ridge-top, and it took some effort to plow our way to the top:

I am very proud of A.J. He has become a slow, patient, and ethical hunter. From a vantage point overlooking a steep coulee, we watched several herds of mule deer does feed and mill about (deer at upper right):

His patience (and endurance) paid off as, in carefully glassing the thick mountain mahogany, he spotted this fat buck and made a clean kill:

As A.J. field dressed the deer, I watched several more dozen deer pass by, including several small bucks. A golden eagle heard the shot and glided past, checking out the kill. They are often the first scavenger on a gut pile, and even the ravens respect their presence and do not press their luck:

We use copper bullets for this reason, because raptors are very sensitive to and many die from the lead fragments left by conventional bullets. This lead is also unhealthy for hunters who eat a lot of wild game. An added bonus, the Barnes copper bullets perform perfectly every time, mushrooming to about double their original diameter (this one came from the mule deer I killed this year):

As A.J. began the drag back to the truck, a flock of migrating tundra swans passed over (with a few unidentified, darker species mixed in). What an outstanding sight:

Although it was a bit of a struggle getting A.J.'s buck to the top of the ridge, from there is was a long, easy downhill drag to the truck. Many Montana hunters "road hunt" for mule deer--that is, they drive around on the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service roads until they see deer and then shoot them from the road--often without even getting out of their truck. This is really just shooting, and not hunting. Also, these so-called hunters miss out on experiencing and knowing the amazing habitat that mule deer call home:

Along with the incredible views found in such places:

While I'm ready for the skiing to begin, it has been a pleasant autumn and the freezer is full.


Should Fish More said...

Really nice pictures, Pat. Seems like you're fully acclimatized from your time in the Middle Kingdom. I spent a month in Seattle with the girls and grandkids, Emily sends her regards (my Emily).
If you don't have room in your freezer, I'll happily rent out mine.......

Arija said...

Great post as always. You must eat a great deal of meat. I am not allowed to eat game so I envy you somewhat since my aunt in Sweden was a fabulous game cook.
Your country, even with rattlers and prickly pear, is wonderfully inviting for communing with nature and I respect your ethical hunting methods. One never appreciates properly what comes too easily.
Thanks for taking us along . . .

Judy said...

Wow!! I love that shot of the snow geese!!! I like that you are a hunter who uses the meat, and respects the animals and their environment. I can look at your kills and not wince that the beauty of the animals has been desecrated. (I have a friend who has become vegetarian because of the way animals are treated, and her rants affect my perceptions.)

Fred Gill said...

Interesting blog. This is one of my favorite blog about hunting and I also want you to update more post like this. Thanks for sharing this article.

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Jade Graham said...

Despite that, elk herds are facing different sets of challenges, including habitat, predators, Deer Scents

Flip Jork said...

The difference in recoil between the .243 and the 7mm-08 is minor while I've found that the performance of the bullets on deer is anecdotally very different.
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