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The power of cheese, crackers and rutting mule deer

Fog and Snow Morning
The third weekend of Montana’s 2015 general hunting season was hours away. With my mind in the mountains, I completed my Friday at work knowing I had a long night ahead of me.

For over two months, I had been either driving to a weekend hunting destination or hiking into a hunting area for what had become my usual Friday evening activity. In August, it was miles behind the wheel to southwest Montana to chase antelope. In September and October, it was long drives to hunt elk with friends near Bozeman, a really long drive to participate in the Montana unlimited bighorn sheep hunt in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and a lot of numerous short drives that turned into late-night hikes to hunt deer and elk closer to home.

This Friday evening would be no different. With my pack waiting by the door, I said goodbye to my wife and two little girls. It was almost dark when my hunting partner showed up and we had a solid hour drive ahead of us followed by as much hiking as we were up for. On previous trips into this area, seven hours was a safe amount of hiking time to budget just to get where we needed to be. We figured that as long as we got to the halfway point, we were good for that night and it would allow us to hunt our way in the following morning. That meant we would hike until about midnight. We both took Monday off as we knew that committing to this place required time — as much to get there as to allow opportunities to arise.

We parked the truck on the side of the forest service road and ducked into the darkness. As we hiked, a strange reflection caught our eyes at the same time and we discovered a trail camera along the trail. We joked about the owner of the camera not even being close to where the deer were. We knew at around 3.5 miles in, we would lose the trail and would have to navigate by the creek noise alone. It was all uphill and it didn’t take long to wear out our eyes, ears, and legs. We strung a tarp and crawled into our sleeping bags. I sent my “camped for the night” message home from my Delorme InReach and closed my eyes.

The next morning we quickly packed up our temporary camp and headed for the creek to get water and have a look at the mountain. From a gravel bar in the middle of the creek we can glass a few nice rockslides and avalanche chutes. Almost as quickly as we had dropped them the night before, we slung our packs and began climbing.

Kirk Russell quote about hunting
We remembered places along the way by what we had seen there in the past. We glassed a 320” class bull from one bench a week before the archery season opened. Then there was the drainage where we saw what we thought was a juvenile male black bear. It turned out to be a surly sow with a cub that we failed to spot until we decided to see who would turn first. As we hiked within 35 yards we both noticed that she was popping her jaws and salivating an awful lot — not really acting afraid. She didn’t charge and, eventually, packed up her cub and left. Yet, once we realized the position we had put ourselves in, we agreed that we should probably give all bears a little wider berth when we are not trying to hang a tag on one.

This time there were no memorable events. We climbed. At the last pitch up there is a series of rock shelves that require careful climbing of the gaps and cracks in the rocks with hands and feet. This obstacle marks the last removal and replacement of our packs on our way to the best vantage we have found to hunt this area. A grassy bench at the base of some cliffs is where we would be calling home for the next two and a half days. From here you can see two massive bowls and timbered fringes around them. From the cliff above camp you can see the mountain to the north and everything in between.

We dropped our packs and pulled out our tripods to get to work. I run 10x binoculars on a tripod and my partner sports an 85mm spotting scope. Not exactly ultralight, but necessary to find animals in this environment. A few months prior, on a scouting trip, we counted 19 mule deer bucks in this spot in two days of glassing. Our hunting would be like our scouting — use our legs to get to the area and then use our glass to find the animals.

There was a good amount of snow on the ground so we started scanning for tracks. We immediately realized the concentration of deer we had found during scouting had moved on. Were we late? Had the earlier snow pushed the does out with rut-anxious bucks right behind them? We couldn’t imagine they had been pressured by other hunters. After all, who would go to such lengths to camp in the snow and sit in the cold way up here?

We finally spotted a couple does below us in the timber along the creek. Those were the only animals we saw in our first half day of glassing. That night we discussed the situation and knew we had to give the area time. The rut was on and when bucks are moving, it’s only a matter of time before they appear. I sent my “camped” message home and slipped into my bag.

Sleep didn’t come so easily that night. Visions of a buck we elected to pass on opening weekend quickly filled my mind. He was a respectable, 160” class deer that I was afraid may come back to haunt me. We watched him for nearly two hours as he moved effortlessly through steep, rocky ground and finally found a daybed behind an old snag on a cliff overlooking the deep canyon below. That is where we left him.

Continued below.

The morning of the second day, I boiled my coffee in the dark and headed for an east facing perch that allows a great view until the blinding sun breaks the horizon. It was a very still morning; nothing was moving. And, to make matters worse, the snow fields didn’t appear to have any more tracks than the evening before. We each glassed different areas for a couple hours that morning. My partner saw more deer down along the creek, but I saw nothing.

As I snuck around camp, eating a breakfast of cheese and crackers, I kept to the trees and shadows looking at the country around us. If not careful, we could be seen by animals above us. Glancing to the southwest at a band of rock in the middle of a slide, I saw two does hopping wildly through the snow. Instinctively, I set down my breakfast and bolted for my tripod. I told my partner what was up and he immediately told me to grab my rifle, not glass. When I looked away, a buck appeared behind the does and there was no second guessing on whether it was a shooter. 

I snatched up my rifle and grabbed my pack lid as I knew I would need a little more elevation for the uphill shot. As I settled in behind my rifle, I pulled my rangefinder from my chest pack and sent the first laser beam across the drainage. I knew I didn’t have time to put the data into my shooting program so I pulled my range card from my pack and focused on the “7500 ft @30 degrees F” column. I dialed my scope and mentally adjusted that drop data for the uphill factor. For once, the wind was nearly nonexistent. I only had the elevation to calculate. I checked the deer through my scope and sent for another range reading. As I completed my pre-shot routine, my partner reminded me to focus on the shot. Don’t look at his antlers. I double-checked my scope adjustment as I stuffed in my second ear plug, checked my bubble level and leaned into the bipod just a bit. 

Bipod legs on a pack lid are not ideal but I was steady. As I clicked the safety off, I heard my partner mumble, “Man, he is big…” 

I think I thanked him for that and asked if he had them in his scope. In the same instant that he replied in the affirmative, my bullet was on the way. At that range — and with no brake on my rifle — I can usually get back on target to spot impacts. As I recovered from the recoil I saw the buck folding into the snow. I reloaded and held the crosshairs on him but that was it. He was down. An incredible feeling of relief, excitement, and accomplishment poured over me. I had literally gone from eating to settling my crosshairs in about 60 seconds. We celebrated briefly, but the view through the spotting scope was a sobering reminder of what we had done and where we had done it.

Walking up to mule deer
The kill site was on a very steep side hill that splits into a couple different rockslides below. These slides run all the way to the creek in the bottom and have some deadly drops and impassable terrain on the way down. The mission had gotten very serious very quickly. We finished eating as we emptied our packs for the retrieval effort.

Mule Deer Antlers Stuck in Snow
When I reached the buck, his left antler was buried deep in the snow and tangled in the beargrass beneath. When I pulled it free, I knelt by him in awe. All the details of the hunt raced through my mind. I looked down at our camp and then at my partner who had almost climbed to my side and just shook my head. There were times when this feeling seemed so far out of reach; to suddenly be where I was at this moment put all the hard work, year-round training, shooting practice and all the other preparation in perspective. I was where I loved to be, hunting the animals I most love to hunt in my home state on public land.

Kirk Russell with Montana Mule Deer
We took plenty of time to take the necessary photos and both of us basked in our accomplishment. 

Mule Deer Back View
I truly believe that a hunt like this is only possible with combined effort. In country this raw and unforgiving, it would be downright dangerous to attempt such a hunt alone. Two sets of eyes, ears, and, most importantly, legs, are requirements to safely bring yourself and an animal home.

We completed the butchering chores and loaded our packs. I took two bags of boned out meat, and the head and cape. My partner took the largest meat bag and two smaller ones. Our packs felt heavy on the steep mountain side.

Mule Deer at Camp
When we reached camp, I finished cleaning the meat and got it spread out and cooling in the snow. My partner was right back behind his tripod and there was no discussing whether we would be hiking out that day or staying another night.

We did not see another mule deer. If they were there, they eluded our eyes well. We made a fire that night and cooked fresh meat for dinner. Before I crawled into my tent, I shined my beam on the head and cape hanging in a subalpine fir about 75 yards from camp. I smiled in the dark.

The weather changed overnight and there were snowflakes in the air. The next morning was more of the same: glassing. At mid-day we decided we had better wrap this up. We broke camp, shouldered our packs, and took the first of many steps that would get us off the mountain. The ground was now white where it hadn’t been the previous day and we knew this would likely be our last trip into this place this season. We were lucky the snow wasn’t too deep already and knew we best not stick around to watch it pile up.

Before we made it to the creek in the bottom we had each fallen more than once. My partner attempted a controlled sliding descent on a slick grassy slope and as soon as he let gravity take him, he was no longer in charge. As soon as my boots touched the same grass I was taken away in an uncontrolled turtle-on-his-back slide. My pack threw me to the ground as my feet slipped out from under me and the next thing I knew I was sliding on my rifle to the bottom of the grassy stretch. It leveled off before the rocks and, fortunately, all’s well that ends well, but that loss of control really got my attention. Had either of us gotten seriously hurt during our climb down we would have been in trouble. There is simply no room for error on the mountain when it comes to safety.

In the bottom, it rained the entire hike out. With every minute our soaked gear took on more weight. We didn’t talk much for the last few miles of the trip but as soon as we rounded some familiar bends in the trail and passed the trail camera, we knew we would be seeing the truck very soon.

As the tailgate came down, my partner retrieved his keys from under a nearby rock. Our packs came off. Dry clothes went on. By the time we had secured all of our gear and stowed our rifles, the heater was just starting to push some warmth our way.

Kirk Russell with his 2015 Montana mule deer front view
We had achieved exactly what we intended: survive a few more days in the high country and work hard for an opportunity to build memories.

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