Anything you care about or enjoy doing can and will bring out emotions. A mom in the stands at the baseball game cheering for her son, cares, that’s why she’s there, that’s why she’s cheering, that’s why when junior strikes out she shows emotion. True hunters care about the game they pursue, they care about having a good hunt and want the reward of taking game for their efforts. Some hunters will even get emotionally attached to their game. I’ve seen guys almost break down and cry if they’ve been hunting a certain buck for years when they finally take the animal. It could be because of the accomplishment itself, it could be that they are sad the deer is gone and that chapter of their career is over, or maybe it’s the thrill of doing something you set out to do and stuck with it until the end. There’s dozens of reasons why they get emotional but each for their own reason.
Some guys become emotional before they even actually harvest the animal. I’ve seen guys shake so bad they couldn’t pull the trigger, commonly called buck fever, but it’s an emotion of excitement almost overwhelming to the point they can’t function. I’ve seen guys get flustered and work the bolt of their rifle before even firing the gun, I heard a story once of a guy who aimed at the deer, worked the bolt of the rifle without firing and then commented to his guide that he couldn’t believe he missed and the deer never moved. The guide informed him he never actually even fired a round. Personally I don’t get this way, I do care and I do get a little bit emotional but not to the point of not being able to function.
I have friends so dead set on killing what they consider to be a big buck that they haven’t even killed a buck at all in over five years. I cant imagine what their excitement might be when they actually do kill what they consider a buck worthy of throwing five years worth of tags away. I’m not that way either, I go out to have a good hunt and kill deer and clean deer and eat deer, that’s what I do but on my recent Montana mule deer hunt I found myself caught up in chasing a big deer and it was a good hunt that I ultimately lost. Here’s what happened.
I had a general season tag and a little bit of a plan, sure everybody wants to kill a giant deer but a respectable deer that gives me a good hunt is all I ever really ask for.
I arrived the Monday after opening weekend and met with the landowner of a Block Management property we were hunting. Block Management land is private land made public through an agreement with Montana Fish and Game and the land owner to allow people access to hunt during the season. Some owners have different rules so meeting with an owner or checking in at the farm house is pretty standard. The owner of this piece of land allowed walk in only but had access to a state piece of land that we could get too through him so in all we had several sections of ground but had to walk it all. After our meeting and getting a couple tips we decided to start walking.
My brother in law Bo also had a tag so we decided to just walk it out and see the country and get a plan for the next couple of days.
The owner said the deer were hitting an alfalfa field across the road and bedding down in the day on his land so the plan would be to see where they left the field and what drainage they took to bed then kill them on the way, easy right? Well not so much as I would learn in the following days.
An hour into our hike as I stood at the end of a little finger that came off a drainage a buck blows out of the cover not twenty yards away and bounds across the drainage and up the other side and stops at 100 yards looking back to see what had scared him out of his bed. I knew it wasn’t the buck I came for an hour into the hunt. Even if it had been a giant I would have been a little disappointed in killing him just because I wasn’t ready for the hunt to be over.
We hiked around most of the day getting the lay of the land until the evening came and I wanted to be close enough to that field to see where the deer entered. We did not have permission to hunt the field so all we could do is intercept them.
We watched the sun set on the field and seen where several deer had came from so I followed the ditch they used back with my binoculars to where it came the closest to the land we could hunt and I would set up there later in the week.
At this point I’m feeling pretty good. We’ve seen several deer I’m happy to be in Montana and the weather is pretty nice so no complaints.
Next morning hoping the deer use the same drainage to leave as they did to go into the field we set up in the dark at the closest point we could get to the field. As the sun broke over the tall trees lining the banks of the Yellowstone River it began to hit the field. I strained my eyes through the glass to see but no deer were around. I thought maybe they were still in route and they may come out close to us but it didn’t happen.
We spent the rest of the day hiking around glassing looking for bedded bucks until the evening then made our way back to the field again and again the deer came in through the same drainage at the same time but I couldn’t tell where they entered the drainage on their way to the field, obviously not the drainage I was sitting in so on to plan B.
The next morning we leave even earlier hoping to get in before the deer start out of the field in the case we had spooked them the day before. As I turned the truck to make the last bend in the road before the gate there he was a big big mule deer. I’m not a mule deer expert but I know a big deer when I see him. His body was huge and rack was big and he was crossing the road onto the property we were hunting but being almost an hour before legal light and him getting spooked by the truck I knew we wouldn’t get on him that day.
A few days have gone by with some sightings of deer mostly does and at a distance. We found out who owned the land the field was on and that was a no go. I’m starting to get a little frustrated just because I know the deer are in the field every single night and they leave before daylight but why can’t I find them bedding down. Ive hiked all over and glassed for hours so I told Bo I’m going in hours before light and if I can at least see them through the glass as they go to bed I will know the direction and have a clue which drainage they use. Bo said good luck I’m out. I didn’t blame him a bit. Laying on the cold ground for hours in the dark isn’t fun but I was getting desperate.
5:00 AM the next morning in the pitch dark I’m laying under a huge rock that I drug some dirt out from under to help me fit and I’m glassing toward the field trying to squint with the very little moonlight to make out a deer. I couldn’t see fifty yards so I just lay as still as possible listening for deer hooves on the rocks. Any sound or sight or clue of any kind to tell me a direction.
After about an hour I heard a sound that had become very familiar over the past few days and that was the school bus. Lights flashing and bumper rattling it came by at the same time every morning. I was a couple hundred yards from the road but I knew that the headlights would shine that field when it made the turn so I steadied my glass on the field and as the bus turned I could see all across the alfalfa and no sign of a deer. I was disappointed, almost pissed off that I had done this work and for nothing, like the deer or land owed me anything for my efforts. It was my decision and it was proving to be a bad one.
I’m starting to get tired, I’ve hiked miles and miles. Only sleeping a few hours a night is starting to catch up to me and not to mention the two day drive to get to Montana from Texas. Over the course of a week my sleep has totaled about 25 hours. It’s a mistake to let your mind tell you that it will work out just because you think you deserve it. You have to go earn it, just because you feel like you deserve something doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy you have to work to the end and I had told myself this is going to work out. In my desperation to outthink deer that have lived their lives doing this everyday I somehow told myself I was smarter than them and that in the days I had been there I could just work hard and one would step out. Sure working hard and being out there do help but nothing is going to come easy. This is public land, do it yourself hunting. No guide, no scouting, just a tip from a farmer and start hiking. It’s the hard way, I’m in no way bashing anyone who hires a guide or goes on guided hunts. I’ve done it myself but getting a huge deer is not so important to me that I would spend that amount of money and take away from a hunt by having someone else pattern the deer and know their exact routes. I’m all for anyone doing it it’s just not what I do.
I had plans to take Mary Ann fishing later in the trip and also wanted to shoot some pheasants and ducks. In my mind the mule deer portion of this hunt would last a few days and we could catch some fish and shoot birds and take it easy. Not sure why I thought that would work it’s never worked before.
Like I said I’m starting to get frustrated, I’m letting my emotions get to me and put pressure on me. That’s ridiculous I know, I’m in Montana hunting wild, free range, mule deer in awesome country and honestly any deer taken would be a “trophy”. Most Texans don’t even get the chance to go or even draw the tag let alone go kill a giant in less than a week, unguided on public land.
I was thinking over all my options and not wanting to hike the miles in and out another day so I lay there cold sulking like a little kid.
The sun started to shine down on the Yellowstone River again and I looked out across miles and miles of Montana land scape and thought, “you are an idiot stop making this harder than it is. Go do what you do, hunt like you hunt and kill a deer.” So I grabbed my glass and scanned the area between me and the field one last time and something caught my eye. The sun was just starting to make the frost on the grass shine and I could see tracks. Following them back I could see they lead toward the field. A lone set in the area where we had seen the big buck days before in the dark. I got up and started walking.
I followed the tracks the lead from the direction of the field and passed by my rocky location to my left. I got on the trail quickly because I knew the frost would start to melt off when the sun got high. The temps were right at freezing but the frost wouldn’t last.
A mile in I had an idea of where we were going and of course I hadn’t been in this spot but I had walked all around it all week.
Down in a low spot hidden from the wind the owner and his kids had built a teepee years ago for camping and just hanging out. I had avoided the area thinking the giant white canvas would likely keep deer away.
As I rounded the side of the hill and hit the small two track road that lead down to the old camp I picked up the tracks again but this time on the dirt road. I was certain these were the same tracks I had followed from the field because they were fresh and going the same direction.
I glassed around a little but didn’t spend a lot of time as I thought the deer may have just passed through the camp, I couldn’t imagine him being bedded right there.
I walked up to the teepee and decided to take a little break and take some pictures. It was an awesome sky that morning and there was a little smoke house next to the teepee also. I walked around the camp snapping pics and just looking at the whole scene. Even though it was modern it still made me think about the old west.
I gathered my gun and started up the hill just yards behind the smoke house and I stopped at the edge to glass. I no longer got my binoculars to my eyes when what sounded like a freight train came blowing out of the brush not 15 yards away and just below me. It scared me! I jumped back confused for a second because I had been walking around there for half an hour and now suddenly something is there. It wasn’t just something it was the buck! There’s not a doubt in my mind he had watched me walk down to that camp and watched me take pictures, but assuming I had no idea he was there he thought his best chance was to let me pass by so he just laid low and his plan would’ve worked flawlessly had I not been caught up in the moment with the whole Wild West scene that I painted in my head and stopped to look a little longer.
He came from just behind me and below so by the time I realized what was going on he was at top speed. 95% of the time a mule deer will get to the top of the hill or end of the drainage and stop and look back but this dude had no reason to stop and look he knew damn well what had scared him, he had been watching me for half an hour.
I can’t see any other way this could’ve happened. I think I got close to him in his bed before he realized I was there and only having one escape route which was pretty open and flat he just hoped I would pass by.
I ran a few yards to a rise to try to get a rest, shooting a running deer off hand is not my style. On my last trip to Montana I missed one trying that shot and I’m just not comfortable with it. The deer is at top speed not doing the typical mule deer “pogo” either, he’s running like a thoroughbred and I’m not gonna get him.
In the split second all this happened my emotions went from, happy to just be there and be hunting to the worst I’ve felt as a hunter ever. I had busted my ass and done everything right and gotten to within yards of a mature mule deer buck in his bed and then let my guard down for a minute and it was all for not. I was gutted. I seriously was upset, partly because I had lost, partly because I finally had figured him out and did all the hard work then failed in the end. I just sat down, I was truly feeling some serious emotions that I don’t usually feel. I think lack of sleep, being tired from hiking, seeing the deer on the land I could hunt and not killing him, and knowing that was it for hunting that deer in the time I had all just hit me at once. I didn’t know what to do. I thought for days if I could just find them on the land we had permission to hunt I could kill him but I didn’t.
I felt like I had failed miserably. I almost wished I had never seen him at all, then I thought I had done good to track him a mile in and even find him bedded. It was confusing to me to have these thoughts. Normally I go out find a deer, any deer and I shoot it, take it home and eat it, the end, what’s the big deal. This was different because I put pressure on myself to kill a deer so that I could fish and visit family and do other things.
There’s a saying that a lot of African hunters say, take what Africa gives you. Don’t have these expectations of giant animals or great stalks or perfect conditions. Just go hunt and take what the land gives you. Why get upset over not killing a big deer when it’s just to show your buddies anyway right? I’m not here hunting for them I’m here for me. I’m here to enjoy myself and have a good time and not to kill a giant to put on instagram and tell everybody how much better of a hunter I am because I killed a giant. I had worked my ass off and I’m sure done some things that a lot of hunters couldn’t do. Laying on frozen ground for hours, following tracks for miles, getting up in the early morning hours for days to hike miles for nothing. I had had a great hunt it just didn’t end the way I thought it should. I should just take what Montana gives me.
I walked back to the bucks bed and stood in it. I got down at his eye level and surveyed the area. There’s not a doubt that deer watched me walk that camp. I could clearly see the teepee and the trail I came down. I actually had to smile a little and tip my hat to this dude. He won, he didn’t even know he was playing the game all week but he still won.
I hiked out the draw the buck had ran out of when he made his escape but knowing he hadn’t stopped until he had likely hit the Wyoming state line it was a half hearted effort.
I was energized from the excitement but I had no reason to keep going deeper. I made the decision to walk out two big draws that I hadn’t hit that week hoping that another buck was using them but I never saw another deer. Afternoon came and I made my way to the truck. A few more miles on my boots and one more story to tell but no deer.
On the drive to town I decided to hunt pheasant that evening and regroup and try some different ground for deer.
Bo and I had a great shoot on the corn field both of us knocking down several nice roosters and I picked up a couple big fat squirrels too, it felt good to actually be successful at something for a change. Walking the narrow strip of trees between the cut corn field and the banks of the Yellowstone River was almost like being in a dream or a movie. It’s a beautiful place, the sun comes through the huge cotton woods making it hard to pick up the pheasant when they flush. The sound of those big roosters rising and the river running in the back ground is an experience that not many will ever get and those that do would be best to recognize what they are witnessing. It’s simply an awesome place and I would drive to Montana to do that alone even if they didn’t have great deer hunting.
We took Mary Ann to the river for some fishing later as the weather was nice and she had been inside all week and I thought she needed to get out. It was a nice little trip, we didn’t catch any fish but so what. We got out, we walked around and had a good few hours in some awesome scenery with family, that’s a win.
I told Bo I wanted to try a place we had hunted a couple years back where I killed a deer before on the last trip. He agreed and one very warm afternoon we planned to make the hour drive.
Bo kills most of his deer from this place and there are some good ones there. In the days I hunted it on the last trip we struggled to find anything but does and spikes but I had seen the pictures and knew they were there. Not that killing a doe or spike at this point would be bad, it would accomplish my goal, I had a great hunt but still had the feeling of wanting a respectable deer.
Almost to the gate as we talked about the 70 degree temps in Montana in November and how crazy it was I caught a glimpse of a deer in the ditch. Not a dead deer but a bedded deer. I seen his rack over the brush as he turned his head. I told Bo there’s a buck in the ditch. A live one and he looked pretty big. He looked at me like I was crazy because it was 2:00 in the day and 70 degrees and the sun was shining straight down. Why would a deer be bedded on the side of a road. I couldn’t believe it either but he was there. I told him pull over I need a better look. I asked him if the land he was on was land we could hunt and he said yes that is Mr. So and so, I forgot his name but of course Bo knows him he knows everybody. He said we can hunt that, if that deer goes into that pasture and you want him shoot him.
So I grabbed a rifle and my orange vest and started back toward the deer. The deer knew something was up and had stood to take a look. I’m not sure if he seen me or the truck or just had a hunch but off he went across the pasture. I hurried up toward the gate and got a rest just as he was making his way through the big round bails of hay and got a scope on him.
I’ll admit that when I got glass on him he was not as big as I first thought but I knew exactly what I was shooting when I shot him and I’m ok with him.
I had the hard hunt, I was beaten by the big deer and now here’s this buck in the broad daylight broadside on land I can hunt and I felt I’d be a fool to pass him. Take what the land gives you!! I felt like this was almost the land giving me a consolation prize for my efforts. I made the decision to shoot him if he stopped and like I said most times they do. He got to the top of a small hill and the cross hairs settled behind the shoulder. I was almost too happy to even pull the trigger but I guess instincts took over and I just felt the recoil. There was no reason to even second guess my shot. I knew the shot was perfect and knew the deer was dead and I knew my hunt was over.
The deer lunged forward and went behind a bail but he was dead and I knew it. I walked back out to the road where Bo was standing still looking a bit confused at what all had just happened. I said I got him. He says you sure. I said yeah he’s dead right up there the shot was perfect he never came out from behind that bail.
We walked back to the truck and drove up to the bail he had went behind and there he lay not ten yards away. I was happy! Look I know he’s not the deer most people drive to Montana for but I’m not most people. I told you all I ever ask for is a good hunt and a respectable animal and I had gotten both of those just not together.
One day I do hope to kill a big deer, I have a spot on my wall I’ve always said was for a big mule deer I think they are beautiful animals and I hope the hunt that I kill him on is as great as the deer itself but as long as I can keep going and keep having experiences and keep making memories with family I will be happy. If I die having never killed a big mule deer I won’t be disappointed at all and honestly sometimes I think what if I did kill a huge deer then what? Would I still want to go and hike those miles and abuse my body and brain for another one? Maybe, but until then I’ll just try to keep my emotions in check and keep having good hunts.
In the following days after I finally killed a deer we shot more pheasants and some ducks and went on a great fishing trip that I wrote about earlier you can read about it here.
I spent time with my niece and nephews and even tried out some hockey which I suck at, at least I know I won’t be spending time trying that again.
Emotions are a funny thing, they can truly make you question who you are. I never thought I could feel like I felt that day I watched that deer round the little knob out of that draw about hunting. Hunting to me is my life and it’s fun and if it gets to the point where I start to question myself about why I’m doing it I’ll quit. I do it to be alive, I don’t want to just exist I want to live and putting pressure on myself and being that disappointed over a deer is not what it’s about to me.
Soon I hope to be in Africa and I already know that my mind is going to keep going back to the investment of that trip and is what I kill worth what I paid and the time I spent working and the planning, but I have to block that out and enjoy each and every moment and not feel like I need some kind of pay back in the form of dead animals for what I’ve put in. The experience of being with family, seeing things that few see, hearing sounds that few hear, and making memories that can never be taken away are the pay off, not the kill. When I get to Africa I will tell myself everyday, take what Africa gives you.