Rocky Mountain Whitetail

Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV.  You can tune in for hunts with Jana on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET, Tuesdays at 1:00 AM ET and 12:00 PM ET.

His rack blended in to the downfall as if the buck had planned it that way.  Perfectly camouflaged among the dark, twisted branches…almost.  From 450 yards away, I stood on the opposing ridge top, glassing intently with my Vortex binoculars.  Trying hard to steady my breathing after a steep climb, I starred at the branches hoping my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.  Suddenly, with a slight flick of his ear, my wishful thinking was confirmed, his antlers barely giving away his position among the thick cover. Perched high on the skyline of the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, lay a bedded whitetail warming himself in the November sun.

Can you spot the buck's rack?

Can you spot the buck’s rack?

I’ve come to love climbing the mountains of Montana , hiking countless miles in a day in search of a mature buck. As much as I love sitting in a treestand watching the woods come alive around me, I also love having my boots on the ground and covering a lot of terrain.  I have also grown to love long distance rifle shooting, taking classes from the best shooters in the world.  We had recently spent three days on a long range precision course with Nemo Arms in Kalispell, Montana to strengthen our shooting capabilities.  Rifle hunting out West is quite different from the thick, Wisconsin woods where I grew up hunting whitetails from a box blind.  The farthest shot out of any of the treestands on my Dad’s property near the Wisconsin Dells is about 200 yards thanks to the dense oak and pine forests.  In the vast topography of Montana, you can literally see for miles and with the endless public land hunting possibilities thanks to the use of OnXmaps, we simply love exploring as much as filling the freezers.

IMG_7474Cameraman Jimmy and I had been looking forward to exploring new areas near the Rocky Mountain Front, a few hours away from our home near Missoula, Montana.   With  the OnXmaps’ “hunt app” cached into our cell phones and both carrying tags that were good for whitetails or muleys, we loaded up the camera gear, stocked our backpacks and headed out for three days of fun on the Front.

An early winter storm greeted us on our first morning out,  bringing cold winds and stinging sleet.  Trudging up the steep hillside, our goal was to get to the top of the ridge to gain a vantage point and work the wind.  We didn’t need our headlamps thanks to the snow illuminating our way up the slope until the early morning light peered through the clouds.  The fog began to set into the lower coulees as the storm broke shortly after light.   Every so often we would take a break from climbing to pick apart the upper ridges with our binos.  One thing I’ve learned about hunting with ‘Eagle Eyes’ Jimmy is to be patient when glassing.  I’ve also said, “That former Marine can pick out a black bear in a coal pile at a mile away!”

On our third or fourth stop we spotted a beaded muley buck right out in the middle of the open slope.  Fortunate for us, the fog was still pretty heavy and he was facing in the opposite direction.  We were 500 yards away and decided to get closer for a better look.  Using the rolling terrain to our advantage we worked up around the buck and were able to approach him from above, working the wind and getting to 150 yards.  He stood up from his bed, stretched and pawed at the snow covered grass, giving us a great look at his rack from all angles.  He was a younger buck that needed another year so we moved on up towards the rocky cliffs in hopes finding a mature buck in the pre-rut.

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We made it to the top of the ridge where the timber was concentrated. The numerous tracks in the snow, along with frozen deer beds and other sign verified our assumptions that the bucks liked hanging high.  The winds were sharp as we worked the skyline, glassing below into the cracks and crevices of the mountain.  There were plenty of does and I couldn’t help but wonder why they choose to hang where the snow is deep and the winds are harsh.

We saw a variety of smaller bucks throughout the day, pausing only once to take a mountain house break for lunch. The storm had dissipated and the skies were turning blue.  While it was fun filming some younger bucks corralling their posse around the hillside, we couldn’t help but wonder where the big boys were.  At one point during the day my heart skipped a beat when I peaked over the rocky ridge to see a huge bodied muley below.  I quickly raised my binos only to discover the largest bodied forked horn buck I’d ever seen. “Can you get over his body size?” I whispered to Jimmy.  “He’s just never going to be anything bigger than a 2×2.  You can tell he’s an old deer.” Jimmy replied.  This massive, mature buck had the blessings of bad genetics and would live to see another day up high on the Rocky Mountain Front.

It’s amazing the difference a day can make.  We woke to a beautiful but crisp morning and decided to hunt a lower piece of ground that held a lot of timber.  Typically these lower elevations can hold both whitetail and mule deer and we were excited to explore a new area. The sun felt warm on our faces as we climbed up the edge of the timber, our breath still visible in the cold morning air.  We stopped to glass an clearing because Jimmy spotted a few doe working the edge of the timber below.  Suddenly a buck appeared, his head down smelling the ground, unaware of our presence.  Perched above the deer at 300 yards away, I stared hard at his body trying to size him up.  “I’m just going to get ready just in case,” I told Jimmy as he readied his camera for some action.  “He’s a nice whitey buck but I think he needs one more year.” I whispered from the prone position, watching the buck through my Vortex rifle scope.  We filmed the small group of deer work into the timber before heading on up the ridge to the top.  Reaching the summit we stopped to glass and pick apart the landscape below.  That’s when I saw what I thought was a rack in among the branches of a downfall on the opposing ridge top.

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The flick of his ear gave him away.  Jimmy was already thirty yards ahead of me, walking off to glass another area.  “JIM! JIM!” I tried to loudly whisper.  He finally realized I wasn’t trailing him and he turned around to see me frantically waving my arms for him to come back!  “Right there!  Right there!  A buck bedded in that opening!” I said as I pointed proudly at my find.  “Wow Sherman! (My nickname from years past that Jimmy likes to use often.)  Nice spot!” he whispered.

Because of the way the terrain laid out there was no other way to get closer to this buck.  Laying on the spine ridge, the buck had a perfect lookout.  Everything I had learned up to this point would come into play.  Jimmy ranged the buck at 442 yards while I dropped my pack and got readied in the prone position.  It was now a waiting game for the buck to stand up from his mid morning rest.

Ten minutes later, and with a kink in my neck, the buck finally rose from his bed.  Presenting me with a perfect broadside shot, I let the Nosler 180 grain accubond fly.  The bullet trail disrupted the air at breakneck speed, striking the buck through his heart.  He buckled before diving into the timber below, out of our sight.  “Great shot!” Jim shouted.  Trembling with excitement I looked over at Jimmy in disbelief.  “I’m not even sure what his rack looks like but that was the biggest bodied whitetail I’ve ever laid eyes on!” I exclaimed

Dropping off the ridge into the dark timber we found the buck a mere twenty yards from his perch.  As we approached the old monarch, there was zero ground shrinkage.  We joked about him being half angus bull!  There’s nothing like gripping your hands around your buck’s antlers, turning his headgear in all directions, inspecting him in all his beauty.  Jimmy and I hugged again in celebration before notching the tag and preparing to quarter him out.

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When you’re miles into the backcountry the real work always begins after the trigger’s been pulled.  We caped out the beautiful buck and spent all afternoon quartering and packing our Tenzing CF13’s to the brink.  There’s no greater feeling than being able to harvest your own meat, spending time in the great outdoors and creating your own adventure.  We both walked off that mountain with heavy packs, sore quads and huge smiles, rehashing the past two days and already planning our next excursion in the wilds of Montana.

 

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