At first light I was driving again, but with virtually a whole day to spare. When climbing up towards the Continental Divide, the first snow greeted me. ‘Slow’ was the motto now, nice ‘n slow. At 8AM I entered West Yellowstone, my first visit of this magnificent park, now after the fire seemingly overgrown with a billion Christmas trees. Only two roads remained open there, enough to visit Old Faithful, and 7 hours later leave at the North Entrance en route to Bozeman. To make it short, I had seen all the major food groups: buffalo (wanted to touch the bull with snow on his back, crossing the road in front of my bumper), elk, swans, geese and ducks, and outside the park antelope, bighorn sheep, mulies and whitetails.
Montana must be the tittibar for deer hunters. There are deer everywhere to see. But you can’t touch them since they are all on posted private land. I took note of one field, however, with over fifty mule deer in it, because I had just passed a sign proclaiming access to public land. That wasn’t too far from Yellowstone, so about eighty miles from ‘home’.
Thursday night Josh and I went out for dinner, to visit and talk things over. He had purchased, as a resident over the counter, a deer and an elk tag. To make it short, we never seriously pursued elk, because deer seemed so much easier, with his tag good for any whitetail, or an antlered mule deer. Turns out it wasn’t easy. Where we did find access to public land, elevation was way up, and deer population (and tracks) way down.
Around Bozeman you will find mountains in seemingly all directions, and in November they all sport shining white snow covers, certainly at the higher elevations, where, if any, the public land can be found.
Friday we followed fresh-looking tracks in the snow until we reached who’d made them – six mule deer does. We decided on day trips, returning to town every evening. Saturday we headed low, along the east bank of the Missouri, not too far from Free Forks, the beginning of this nation’s longest river.
Take note, this is definitely combo country. I did not bring my over-under, because I wasn’t hunting, but should have. The combo would be good for any whitetail that might jump, plus be ready for the pheasants, ducks and partridges we flushed.
In the afternoon we were back in the mountains, in snow. Few deer tracks rewarded our effort. But on our way back towards the 4Runner we flushed two grouse, one of them landing on a branch, maybe fifty paces from us, with several leafless trees in between. The binoculars revealed a clear shot.
“Josh, try for the head or neck”, I whispered. He took aim, for quite some time, trying to find that bird in the 6X Leupold. Finally the 7 Mag Savage barked, and the grouse fell straight into the snow below, without that feared big puff of feathers. The bird seemed completely intact. Only after plucking did we find the fatal wound. The 162 grain Hornady had barely nicked its neck. We enjoyed grouse for dinner that night.
On Sunday we decided to head towards Gardiner, where I had seen all those deer in one field. When we arrived, there was immediate good news – not a single mulie was in that field. So they must be in the slopes above, also known as public land!
We hiked in, me all excited with anticipation. And Josh not at all into it, because to him it looked like a barren hill, where the wind was in our faces, carrying an annoying drop of rain too often.
We climbed , then headed left along the major mountain. About a mile later three mulie does showed us their tail end as they left the scene. Josh, now thoroughly disgusted, suggested we return to the vehicle. OK, it was his hunt. I recommended to drop lower, near that promising field, on our way back. We had only one more drainage to cross when a buck busted from that.
“Shoot him, shoot him” ….. “no wait, no shot, don’t shoot now!” Josh did not get the shot off in the first forty yards. Then that smart-ass mulie had quit running exactly when he was silhouetted against a handful of trailer homes about a third of a mile away. Be sure of your target and what’s beyond! No shot! Absolutely no shot!
Within seconds, he was around the bend and gone. “We have one more chance at him, he will try to climb to get to safety,” I explained. “If we rush up to that saddle, we might see him again.”
Now I could see that sonny boy had indeed done some mountain hiking all year long. He reached that saddle so quick, my heart wanted to burst. When I reached Josh, breath and heart going wild, he had already made out the running buck. “Is that him?” he asked. “If he has horns, shoot!” I replied.
By then I had him in the Kahles 10X binos, still climbing and a good 300 steps away. When he hesitated to almost a stop, the Savage spoke, pushing the buck slightly forward. Then he turned and ran downhill, actually towards the Toyota, out of sight. Not knowing how far the deer might still travel, we strategically closed the distance, so we would always have a safe shot. Not necessary, we found him expired about 150 paces from the SUV.
By Arizona standards that buck, a forked horn with one extra kicker, had a large body and fairly tall antlers. That did not really matter. It was meat in the freezer for a student on a tight budget. I taught Josh how to field dress the critter. He eventually stuffed the 7 Mag back into the gun case, commenting “I like this rifle.” How could he not! Two shots, two kills.
We hung his prize for two days to age the meat. I played tourist on Monday, visiting the birth place of the Missouri, a cliff where Indians used to drive buffalo to their deadly falls, and a State Park for caves, but access was closed for the season.
Tuesday was work day, skinning, de-boning and packaging the buck. By then Bozeman had its first real snow, eight inches. A taste of real winter as the first deer roast was baking in the oven. The next morning a real frost had arrived, ten degrees. Even so, we took his roommate’s dog to the nearby park for some Frisbee action. The dog did not care about winter, plowing through the snow after the soft disc. We could only handle it for maybe thirty minutes, then escaped back into the heated house. When Josh had to return to classes that morning, I pointed the Toyota south. The 4Runner with its 200,000 miles on the odometer and me would be friends for yet another 1070 miles. Auf Wiedersehen, Montana, truly the mountainous Big Sky State! I’ll be back.
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