During a recent conversation with a friend, the subject of western big game came up. I was told by my whitetail-obsessed buddy that he had no desire to hunt any further west than Iowa. I was in a bit of shock. Even after a short debate, it was a one-sided conversation. I almost felt sorry for him, realizing that there are a small percentage of hunters who know what the western states have to offer.
The Montana Rocky front is more than a hundred million years old, and, throughout time, the wind and weather have shaped it into a matrix of endless peaks, valleys, ravines and creeks leading to valleys, carving habitat that will test the best of hunters. “Big Sky Country” is a misleading phrase when you begin a hike up one of the Rocky’s numerous face walls. The sky seems to get lost in the towering granite and shale peaks. Some south slopes may not see the sun until after noon, and the immense spruce and lodgepole pine forests can swallow you without direct daylight for hours.
What intrigues me most is how resilient mountain-dwelling animals are. One has to respect an animal that can cover miles of ground in minutes – ground that takes us hours to cover. Their ability to disappear into the landscape is only preceded by their ability to spot danger from all directions. A mule deer’s will to survive is no less than a whitetail. They have to contend with more than hunters and coyotes. There is an abundance of large predators such as grizzly, black bear, wolf and stealthy lions, all of which overrule human pressure.
This past November found this mountain enthusiast heading west again. As soon as the Montana Rocky Front came into view, even though my destination was hours away, I felt like I was seeing it again for the first time. With a few years of traversing these magical mountains under my belt, I’ve figured out that bow hunting mountain mule deer is not much different than bow hunting whitetails in lower elevations. The terrain may be more difficult, but funnels and pinch points are still a key element.
My favorite time to peruse mountain mule deer is the last two weeks of the season. The Montana Fish and Wildlife have carefully set the ending date of the season to close before the peak of the rut. These two weeks will be pre-rut leading into the rut, so the bucks will be on the move. For several years, I spot and stalked these bucks, putting extensive miles on my boots. After a few seasons, I realized that the bucks were patternable due to the very mountains they live in.
Ultimately, the Rockies determine where the animals can travel in any certain area.
More than 50 percent of my trip consists of glassing slopes, looking for worthy bucks. Once found, it’s time to pay attention to the does they are tending. A buck’s harem will dictate much of his own movement. Patterning the does will give insight to where you need to be in order to intercept them.
Finding their food and water sources will put you one step ahead. Learning their travel routes to and from, and using the terrain to your advantage can put you within bow range – almost a gift to the bow hunter.
Weather is the determining factor in the higher altitudes. Mature mule deer are not dumb. They live where their chances of survival from predators are best, humans included. They prefer the loose shale slopes near the top of the highest elevations, areas that give them the best vantage point and escape routes. One has to be ready to adapt to Mother Nature’s attitude. If the forecast calls for bluebird days, you will find yourself on long uphill hikes. With good weather, they have no reason to leave their high elevation vantage points, making actual hunting time slim.
Cold weather and snow are key components for deer movement. A front rolling in will intensify activity and rutting behavior right before your eyes. A foot of snow or more in the high country will push does down from higher elevations, bringing the bucks in tow. Enduring subzero temperatures in lower elevations, in my book, is much better than hiking miles in hopes of finding deer in the same location you spotted them before the long hike. Being a bow hunter puts you in the same category as the lions when it comes to ambush. Why chase after a meal if it will come to you?
With knowledge of the mountains and the deer travel routes, I have been able to place hunting treestands in locations in anticipation of bad weather. During this past season’s hunt, the forecast was for fair weather except for a short two-day window of below-zero conditions. I had been glassing several mature bucks and knew these few days would be my opportunity to capitalize on my hunt with a bow.
Does associated with the bucks above had traveled a creek drainage that flowed from more than a thousand feet above. From past experience, I knew that when the front moves in, the does will head to the valley for easier grazing.
I could hardly sleep the night before the cold weather showed. The following morning, I climbed into my stand nestled in a hundred-year-old spruce at the base of the creek near the valley floor.
Not only did the cold weather get me excited, but the deer were on the move as well!
By three o’clock, it warmed to minus nine degrees, a big difference from the 40 degrees the day before. My stand was in a location where I could only see the valley below and no more than 80 yards above, so every slight sound put me on high alert. At 4:30, I heard a twig crack less than a hundred yards above me. As I was reaching for my bow, I caught sight of a dark set of antlers 80 yards through the spruce bows. I drew my bow in anticipation, and, as it was meant to be, the mature buck stopped at 42 yards before jumping a small creek and entering the open valley. I was already at full draw when I found my mark and squeezed the trigger on my release. I can still picture the frozen mist as I exhaled the rest of my deep breath. I watched as the arrow left my PSE and seemed to hang in eternity before the arrow disappeared into the buck’s chest.
Each trip to the Rocky Mountains is a privilege to remember forever. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity, you need to make an effort to visit one of our nation’s greatest treasures. The experience will outweigh the pressure to harvest an animal, but taking one with a bow will put you in another category.
by Dave Lee