A Montana Mule Deer Hunt With Top Guides
A Montana Mule Deer Hunt With Top Guides
February 09, 2023
Story and photos by: Cody Voermans
BY THE LAST WEEK OF NOVEMBER, THE 2021 MONTANA HUNTING SEASON WAS INTERESTING, TO SAY THE LEAST.
The September archery season had been a bust for me. Between work responsibilities and family obligations, I didn’t spend much time in the woods with my bow. When rifle season rolled around in mid-October, I focused all my efforts on helping my two sons, Lane and Kyler, fill their deer tags. Kyler, age 11, connected on a fine mule deer buck during Montana’s youth season. And Lane, age 14, put his tag on a solid whitetail buck the first week of November.
That’s a long winded explanation for a short concept. It was the last week of Montana’s deer season and it was finally my turn to hunt. Mule deer hunting is a passion of mine and both my sons excitedly accepted their roles as “top guides” for an eastern Montana deer hunt. Both of their faces lit up at the thought of switching roles and planning a hunt for Dad rather than the other way around.
Lane and Kyler jumped headfirst into planning a five-day deer hunt over the Thanksgiving holiday. They chose northeast Montana as our destination and started poring over maps and playing with the onX Hunt App on my phone. They wanted to locate large chunks of public land offering hard hikes through rough country. To my face, they were adamant we would have the best chance at a good buck by hunting rough country. Behind my back, they giggled every time they mapped out a steep canyon that would, in their minds, burn the old man’s legs to keep up with them. I caught on to their plan pretty quick and made it clear they would have to check their boots and bring their “man cards” along if they wanted to out-hike Dad. Both of them just rolled their eyes and shrugged off that notion. Oh, the confidence of youth.
Our plan was to drive east Tuesday evening after the last day of school before the long holiday weekend. Kyler mapped out each day’s hunt on public lands across hundreds of miles of Montana. His hunt plans ventured farther and farther east each day until we would near the North Dakota border. I interjected that his plans gave no consideration to current gas prices and that we could probably find a good buck/cheaper buck closer to home. His response to that was, “You can’t put a price on fun, Dad.” I couldn’t argue with that thought so, with a smile, I responded, “I guess you can’t kid. I guess you can’t.”
Lane took on the responsibility of calling his grandmother to inform her we would not be joining the family for the Thanksgiving meal. Let me tell you, that call was no small feat. Family time is important around here and Lane had to lay on some heavy charm to convince his grandma this hunt needed to happen. I heard him use phrases like “critical to my dad’s sanity” and “father-son bonding time.” I still don’t know exactly what transpired or what deal was made, but Grandma agreed and the hunt was set. That boy has a silver tongue and could likely sell snow to an Inuit. I think I’ll have him do the talking if we ever need to acquire landowner permission to hunt private ground.
Just days before the hunt, my new Sterling Precision rifle showed up at our local gun shop. A new 6.5 PRC with a PROOF carbon-fiber barrel, a Defiance Machine action, and TriggerTech trigger all set in an AG Composite stock and topped with a Nightforce NX 8 scope. I didn’t have much time to sight-in the rifle but luckily, I didn’t need much because back in October I had the opportunity to put over a hundred rounds through that rifle. I just wanted Sterling Precision to swap out the standard magazine follower with a flat follower that would allow three rounds to feed from the magazine. More on that later, but that’s why I received the gun back from Sterling Precision just days before the hunt.
With only a couple hours available on the range, I fired one shot to bore sight, four shots to get a 200-yard zero and five more to get an average muzzle velocity. I plugged all the data into my Sig Kilo 2400 rangefinder and took verification shots at 400 and 700 yards. The rifle was spot on, and we were ready.
During our drive east the first evening, I asked my boys, “Where is the best place to look for deer?” Kyler immediately sounded off with, “A brushy coulee, Dad.” Lane thought a bit and decided that “canyons near agriculture” were the best place. Both of them sipped their Gatorade and waited patiently for me to validate their choices. Inside, I applauded their choices. They were both right, but I didn’t want to show that on the outside. Instead, I put a smug grin on my face, tuned up the radio and said, “Well, boys, you’re both right and you’re both wrong. The best place to look for deer is, most certainly, the last place you found them. That’s why I think we should make our first hunt in the area where I shot a great buck last year.” Both of them rolled their eyes, a common occurrence these days, but happily agreed to the plan.
After a short sleep in a rustic motel, we headed out in a cold, snowy, but very calm morning. The wind in eastern Montana can be atrocious this time of year but on this morning, we had nothing to complain about. As dawn broke, we were heading into a large chunk of public land with two pickups in front of us and at least two behind us. The hunting pressure on Montana’s public lands is growing each year and the presence of so many other hunters dampened our spirits. We’d been hunting for about 30 minutes and were still driving when Kyler started to get frustrated by the other hunters. He spoke up and recommended that we leave to find another area with less hunting pressure. I found this to be what we call in our family, a “teachable moment,” so I said, “Kyler, if you want to hunt deer, you first have to see deer. Let’s let these other hunters pass and stop a while to glass those far hillsides and draws.”
With that, we pulled the truck over and trained our binos on every nook and cranny we could see in the surrounding miles of open country. In just a few minutes we located over 40 deer, including multiple small bucks. We chuckled as one of the trucks drove right past a decent four-point buck bedded in a draw. There is no substitute for patience and observation skills when hunting deer.
A few minutes later, I spotted a large-bodied deer cut across the top of a coulee about two miles away. I was able to get a spotting scope on it just before it disappeared over the ridge, but I didn’t get a good look. I had just enough time to tell that it was a buck with a tall frame. That got my boys excited and before I could put the spotting scope away, they were both out of the truck and organizing their backpacks for a long hike.
The rut was in full swing and I guessed the buck was tending does on the far side of the ridge. We would likely have plenty of time to catch up to him but we had about a mile of flat creek bottom in front of us. I wanted to get across that flat and reach the cover of some broken hills as soon as possible in case the buck reappeared on our side of the ridge or other hunters took notice of our plan. We packed some water and a few snacks for lunch, I strapped my rifle to my pack and we all set off in a hurry.
Our route took us two miles up a shallow coulee below the ridgeline where the buck disappeared. I wasn’t sure of the wind direction on the ridge and could only take my best guess at its direction. Along the way, we stopped to glass multiple times and found a surprising number of does and young bucks. Nothing we were interested in though.
The final incline up the ridge was very steep and I chuckled when my “top guides,” who had been so confident they would out-hike their dad, needed a break. Of course, they pawned it off as a good time for me to catch my breath in case I needed to shoot the buck at the top of the ridge. Finally, I got to roll my eyes back at them.
When we crested the ridge, I was disappointed the wind was only partially in our favor. Immediately, we made a hard button hook to the right for about 200 yards and approached the next canyon with the wind in our faces as much as possible.
As we reached the rim of the next canyon, I was hiking in front with Kyler right behind me. Apparently, he was hiking with his head down because when I spotted a doe below us and stopped abruptly, Kyler ran into my back, nearly knocking me over. The commotion spooked the deer and we watched her trot down the coulee and out of sight around a corner. This was in the general area I had seen the buck a few hours earlier, so we quickly dropped our packs and hustled to a high point overlooking where the doe was headed. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards when I spotted a group of 10 deer headed down the coulee below us. The doe had picked up some friends and one of them was a nice buck trailing the group.
At this point of the story, Kyler would like me to mention that his dad went into full-monkey mode. Apparently, when I spot a good buck, I instantly drop to the ground, drag my knuckles in the dirt and say things like, “Oooh, oooh, oooh—big deer.” To him, I look and sound just like a monkey. Somebody should tell that boy it’s not cool for “top guides” to make fun of their clients. Besides, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Before I uttered my second, “oooh,” both my boys were prone in the snow next to me.
When I found the buck in my binos, I saw long tines, heavy beams and a couple kicker points. I heard Lane whisper, “That’s a good buck, Dad. You should take him.” My demeaner quickly changed from nonchalant to all business. After all, a client should always trust his guide.
While I set up the rifle and chambered a round, Lane began ranging the buck. The herd was moving down the canyon, away from us and rapidly gaining distance. I heard Lane call out, “475 … 525 … 575.” About then, the herd stopped traveling and the buck went back to rutting a hot doe. The pause gave Lane a chance to confirm the distance with the SIG rangefinder. I found the buck in the crosshair just about the time I heard Lane say, “Dad, it’s 605 yards. Come up 2.9 mil. Zero wind. Hold center. You can make that shot.” If ever there was a moment when a father’s pride could make his heart leap out of his chest, that was it. All of my coaching and all of his practice on the shooting range had paid off. He was 100 percent confident in his range call and I trusted him.
Following Lane’s instructions I dialed for the distance, centered the crosshair just behind the buck’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The recoil bounced my view just off the buck but I didn’t need to guess at the outcome. Kyler, who was laying just behind me, had been watching through his binos. When the shot broke, that boy went into full-monkey mode himself. “Oooh, Oooh, you got him, Dad! You got him.”
I chambered a second round and got back on the buck, hit hard but stumbling across the sidehill. My second round went over the buck’s back due to poor trigger control but my third round found the crease of his shoulder and put him down. Lane slapped me on the back and said, “Good shooting, Dad. That’s a big deer. I want a Sterling rifle for Christmas.”
When the deer was down, I reloaded the rifle, but not in the usual top-load fashion. With the new flat follower Sterling Precision installed, the loading must be done from the bottom. I closed the bolt, flipped the gun upside down and opened the floor plate to drop in three rounds. Some care was needed to cleanly close the floor plate but the process was quick and simple. I have a short action on this rifle and it is not altogether easy to top-load three rounds in 6.5 PRC. The advantage with a flat follower is that three rounds fit and cycle smoothly from the magazine. At that moment, I was grateful for those three rounds.
We made our way down to the buck and both Kyler and I were were laughing and glad-handing the entire way. Lane, on the other hand, was mostly quiet. When I asked him what was wrong, he shook his head and hesitantly mentioned that guides have to pack out their clients’ deer. This buck was a good three miles from the truck and he was not looking forward to the job. I just laughed and reminded him of some words his great-grandfather used to say to me in similar situations: “There is nothing better than the strain on your back a successful hunt puts there.” The work is half the fun.
When we reached the buck, I immediately noticed how small and emaciated his body was. While my boys admired his antlers, I took stock of how severe the drought has been in Montana this year. Month after month of little to no rain had stunted all vegetation growth and an explosion of grasshoppers had eaten most of the available feed for deer. The surrounding landscape looked like the face of the moon and the effect of the drought was plain to see on this buck. His hip bones were protruding out where roles of fat would normally be and every rib was visible through his winter coat. I felt like I had saved this buck from the misery of a drawn-out starvation as winter progressed. It was a somber feeing that caused me to worry for all of Montana’s deer population in the coming months.
Lane and Kyler, on the other hand, were overly excited by our harvest and quickly started taking pictures. It seems my boys are not only “top guides” but also fine photographers.
In the end, the boys did a great job quartering the buck. True to form, Lane carried the lion’s share of the meat in his pack. Kyler packed out the loin meat and I had only to carry the head, one front shoulder and my Sterling Precision rifle. When it comes to packing meat, these two “top guides” are hard to beat.
I purposely saved the best part of this story for the end. We had my deer packed out to the truck by 3:00 p.m. on the first day of the hunt. That meant we had time to visit some nearby friends that evening and leave for home the following morning. It took us seven hours of driving on sketchy roads but we made it home in time for the Thanksgiving meal. My parents were surprised and overly happy when we walked through the door unannounced and ready to carve the turkey. My mother told us she had much to be thankful for this year. Among other achievements, her grandsons had guided their dad to a great buck and got everyone home safely just in time for dinner.
I am grateful for these things as well.
Thanks, boys, for a great hunt.