Season-long pursuit for Montana's high country bucks
It all started during my first semester of college when I met who is now one of my best friends, Shonn Roberts. Shonn was the one who introduced me to some new hunting locations and ideas for hunting mule deer. Once we became better friends, we started to plan a scouting trip in mid-August to locate giant high country velvet mule deer in Montana. The plans for this scouting trip changed multiple times throughout the summer as we debated where we should go and how long we should camp. Weeks before the scouting trip we spent hours on the phone talking about what new areas we thought looked good on Google Earth, whether we should scout multiple areas, what mountain ranges we wanted to explore, if we had the right equipment to stay for four to five days in the backcountry, and how far we wanted to pack in to locate a 180” plus deer. We eventually made up our minds on what area we wanted to scout with some help from Shonn’s dad.
Finally, the day came: our first attempt at locating high country mule deer in Montana. I remember feeling excited and scared because, for me, this was the first time I had ever stepped foot in the gnarly and steep mountains full of grizzly bears. Shonn and my other buddy, Kaleb Gravelin, grew up in northwest Montana and have been exploring this country for years so it was familiar territory to them.
We took off at the trailhead with plans to get as high as we could before dark so we could still set camp. We did very little glassing that night due to limited daylight. As we laid in our tents I remember feeling lost, feeling almost stuck, with no way out of sleeping in grizzly country.
Not even an hour into our first sleep, Shonn woke me to tell me that there was a bear. Choosing not to believe him, I went back to sleep. Shonn then woke me up and starting freaking out due to the fact that we actually had a grizzly 50’ to 75’ away from our camp growling and thrashing around. Being new to this situation we built the fire up as big as we could and grabbed our pistols, firing two warning shots into the thick timber. We ended up only seeing a flash of the bear and, ultimately, scared him off for the night.
With zero sleep we packed our camp up and decided we needed to find a higher glassing point and a better area to camp. Walking two to three more miles in and up the steepest country any of us had ever been in, we finally found a new camping area with some great glassing spots nearby. We set up camp number two and took a midday nap as we waited for the sun to go down so we could try and locate some mule deer.
The first two hours of glassing we did not see a single deer and we were starting to get frustrated thinking we were in over our heads. Then, out of nowhere, I saw something move across the basin with my naked eye. I threw my spotting scope up to find two bucks—both well over 160” and one that might be near that 180” to 190” mark. I remember putting my hands over my eyes and telling Shonn and Kaleb, “We did it boys! We found what we were looking for!” Shonn threw his spotting scope up on the group of trees where the bucks were and sat there in complete silence admiring two giant high country velvet mule deer.
During the rest of the scouting trip we ended up locating five to seven more deer; two being smaller three and four points. We knew we had found a potentially awesome hunting spot for the upcoming season and seasons in the future.
Three weeks later, archery season arrived. We decided to go back up to the area we scouted and hunt for a couple of days before we went back to college. The Friday before opening day we headed in with nothing but high hopes. Half way through the hike it started to pour. After checking the forecast, we decided to head back to the truck. It was too risky since we were camping rookies and didn’t have the right gear to brave the cold wet weather.
As archery season continued, we located very few deer up high and decided to switch our strategy to elk. I ended up harvesting an amazing Montana bull that scored around 315” and Shonn shot his first bull elk with a bow on public land. We then decided to do some more research on Google Earth to find some new mule deer spots to hunt once rifle season started. We learned a lot about archery hunting high country mule deer during that frustrating season. We learned that we have to be more mentally tough than we thought, that we had to buy the right gear for future hunts to brave Montana’s elements, and that it is totally normal to spot less than five deer a day in the high country.
We knew, going into rifle season, that it would come down to finding a mature deer in the rut around Thanksgiving. Once rifle season started, Shonn became busy with wrestling, which meant that Kaleb and I hunted hard without him. We wished he was with us. During the first weekend, Kaleb and I hunted with Shonn’s dad in an area on the far west side of the side where he’d had success before finding big mule deer. We ended up walking eight to nine miles that day only to find four does and a bunch of wolf tracks.
As the second weekend approached, Kaleb and I decided to try a different spot in the northwest portion of the state. We walked all day to reach the top of a peak and found 10 to 15 does along with one wide 3 point that we decided to pass on since it was still early in the season. Walking around seven miles that day we knew we had found a good spot with plenty of mule deer in the area. This would be a spot to return to during the rut.
Over the following two weekends we tried two new spots in search of a mature 4 point mule deer. We were becoming less and less patient since we hadn’t spotted a single mature buck all season. We knew in the back of our minds that we would keep pushing until one of us harvested a high country mule deer, but after hunting those two weekends only to find a few does and no bucks, it came down to the last weekend.
As college students we had Thanksgiving day, Friday and the weekend off to hunt for the last time that season. Shonn and I left Great Falls, MT on Tuesday after class with hopes of hunting hard all weekend. On Wednesday, Nov. 23, we went up to another new spot only to find out that it would be foggy all day. The fog only lifted once all day, but when it did, we managed to locate a small 3 point buck that looked to be rutting after some does. On the way out we noticed a large deer track crossed over our footprints. We decided to try and track this deer because we thought it could be a shooter. After tracking it three-quarters of a mile, we finally caught up to it only to find out it was a small 2 point. Disappointed once again, we headed off the mountain with nothing on our backs and no antlers to show off.
Thanksgiving morning came and Shonn and I headed up to the same spot, figuring that if it wasn’t foggy, we would locate some deer. As the sun came up, we were already at our glassing point and found two does very early. We were excited and hoped there would be a buck nearby. The temperature was around 10 degrees that day with wind chill into the negatives. After glassing for two hours in the morning and not seeing any bucks, we decided to head back toward another basin that had looked promising on Google Earth. On the way down, we once again noticed a buck track that crossed over our footprints in the snow. Exchanging glances, we knew we should try and follow this buck to see if it could be a shooter. It was tough, tracking this buck through thick alder and straight up the mountain, but we finally got to the top of the ridge where I looked up and saw a neck and one tall dark antler. Knowing It wouldn’t be long until the buck took off I flipped my scope covers off and squeezed the trigger, hitting the buck. I fired again and once again connected. Shonn and I watched the buck start trekking through deep snow going downhill. We followed the blood trail until he piled up about 300 yards down an avalanche shoot. I remember Shonn saying “We just shot our first high country mule deer.” I looked at him and smiled, knowing it was a fairly large buck. Grabbing onto his antlers and pulling them out of the snow was surreal. Looking at each other with very little words coming out of our mouths we just smiled and let it all sink in.
From that moment on we knew our new addiction and passion would be hunting mule deer in the hardest spots possible. There is something about thick dark antlers that we love.
After taking several photos we de-boned the deer, threw him in our packs and started the four mile hike back to the truck.
There is something special about packing out a deer, especially after knowing how hard we worked all year, all the hours on Google Earth, all the hours on the phone discussing mule deer and the high country, all of the elevation climbed and miles put on our feet for one brief moment of pulling the trigger and knowing that it finally all came together. Still to this day, I grab my deer’s antlers from my room and hold them and remember everything I went through to harvest that buck.
The following day, we set out to try and harvest bucks for Shonn and Kaleb. Little did we know that this would also be a day to remember. After we got to our glassing point at daylight we became frustrated not spotting any deer. On the walk out, I decided to take one more look. I spotted a bachelor group of six bucks; one was a shooter. I ranged the buck at 592 yards and Kaleb dialed his scope and squeezed the trigger, dropping the buck in its tracks. After Kaleb shot his we spotted a different buck that we hadn’t seen before; this buck looked giant even from 600 yards away. Shonn then dialed his scope and dropped that buck in its tracks also. Two high country bucks down with two shots at 600 yards both dead within 50 yards of each other. We all managed to fulfill one of our goals (harvesting a high mountain mule deer) in a matter of two days.
After getting both their bucks out we drove back to town with nothing but smiles on our faces and stories to tell. That night we sat around the fire telling stories, boiling our skulls, and cutting up all the meat. The 2016 hunting season was one of my favorites for many reasons; mainly, because I got to experience things I thought were impossible, see things I would’ve never seen hunting flat land or in eastern Montana, and finally accomplished one of my goals with my two good friends, Shonn and Kaleb. At the beginning of the year I wasn’t quite sure how the high country would treat me. After spending multiple weekends in places I thought couldn’t be touched by humans, I realized that, “in order to see fantastic things, you have to go to fantastic places.” (Quote from Donnie Vincent)