Hunting in Montana & My First Mule Deer Buck

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I’ve been a whitetail hunter since I was young. Moving to Montana and living not too far from the Milk River I’ve had some memorable seasons filling the freezer. I enjoy the peaceful nature of whitetail hunting – watching the deer, learning their patterns and the challenge of being completely still and silent.

In Montana you get one “A” tag. It’s good for either a whitetail or a mule deer buck. You can also apply for antlerless tags based on the species and region but when it comes to hunting a buck, you have to choose which species to take. Some of you may be thinking, a deer is a deer right?

First off, mule deer and whitetail live in different habitats. Here in the treasure state, whitetail can be found in pastures and hedgerows near rivers and creeping through wooded areas. Mule deer prefer the open plains, clinging to slopes adorned with sage brush. At first mule deer seemed, well, almost like cartoon characters to me. Where whitetail are regal, cautious creatures, these big eared, bouncing mulies appeared to be almost tame. My opinion of them came from times when they frequented the shrubbery in our front yard. Where was the thrill and challenge in hunting that?

But last year, I caught the mule deer bug.

My husband and I went on a hunting date. Our day started out stalking a heard of pronghorn to fill my doe tag. We had success early on and we decided to head out to scout an area for mule deer. I had already shot a nice 4×5 whitetail that year but my husband still had a buck tag so off we went to mule deer country.  It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed every minute exploring the new territory. We lucked out and found a valley with a winding stream where I spotted two mule deer does.

There we were, perched on the hill looking down at the deer about 800 yards away. We didn’t spot a buck, but my husband decided to see how close he could get to the does. I chose to stay put with my camera as my man crept down the steep slope, made his way across the valley, crossed the stream and began the climb up the hill on the other side. From my vantage point, I took turns between taking photos and glassing the valley with my binos. I quickly discovered that the mulies that had taken residence near my house were far different from the mule deer we had found. With a keen sense of smell and always on the alert, the does were cautious, looking up from their grazing often and sniffing the air.  They were ready to bolt at the first sign of anything suspicious.

Hundreds of yards away I became my husband’s silent cheerleader, watching him get into a position across the valley. I glassed back over to the does and my heart suddenly began to race when I saw horns not far from them.  Did my husband know? There was no way for me to send a signal his way without being detected so I could only watch the scene unfold through my camera lens and binos.

I saw my husband begin to creep along the side of the hill, slithering onto a large rock overlooking the valley. I was torn between watching him and the buck, going back and forth between the two. Suddenly I heard a shot crack through the air. The buck was gone. I could no longer see him. I looked back to my husband. He started to rise up from the rock and cautiously made his way down to stop where I had last seen the deer. Did he get him? I could see the white teeth of his smile through the binos as he waved for me to come down. SUCCESS!

It was that experience that made me decide next season, I was going to try to get my first mulie. Watching my husband spot, stalk and shoot was thrilling. I love hunting whitetail, but I just had to give this a try!

It’s been an incredibly busy year for me. For the last two years my competitions have wrapped up early enough to enjoy both the pronghorn and deer rifle seasons. This season has been a long one though. Even as I write this I have plans to attend one more match. My husband has had his fair share of work obligations too so our time to prepare and enjoy the hunting season has been drastically limited this year.

Thanks to wonderful friends though, we were able to leave our daughter on a play date and head out in search of my first mule deer buck. I was also looking forward to another hunt date. In anticipation of the opportunity, I had been out scouting the area a week earlier. No matter if we saw deer or not, we knew it was going to be a great day. The drive was beautiful and we spotted birds of prey and a red fox along the way. An hour and half later and we were in mulie country and I won’t lie to you when I say we got lucky… VERY lucky.  Almost immediately my husband spotted two mulie bucks bounding through the tall grass. One was substantially larger than the other and we had a chance to get a good look at them before they disappeared over a ridge. We decided to give chase.

We waded out into the field, crossed a creek bed kicking up a couple of does along the way and then walked up a small hill to gain a vantage point. There they were about 500 yards away. The wind wasn’t in our favor though so we maneuvered around and then began to crawl closer, our movements hidden by the tall grass. We began a game of cat and mouse.  We moved forward 15 yards. They moved 15 yards away from us.

At that rate we would be there all day so we made a plan where I would set up to in the field and my husband would make a wide sweep to help “encourage” them to head into the wind and within my established line of fire. It was a good plan on paper but either my husband was way too stealthy or they simply didn’t care as they bedded down in a patch of thick willow reed. I remember thinking, “Um… ok. What now?”

I decided to try to get closer. The wind was in my favor as I crawled forward, pausing to glance up every now and again. My Prois helped keep me comfortable and hidden in the tall grass. I raised up enough each time to get the tiniest glimpse of antlers, the only part of them I could see among the thick reeds.

Closer… closer… I made my way to them. When I reached the edge of the reed patch patch, I started to move into a kneeling position and began to search for them. I rose a little higher, inch by inch until suddenly a head with antlers turned towards me, less than a 100 yards away!

It was the smaller of the two bucks. He hopped up and began to race away. I continued to scan with my eyes. Then suddenly there HE was. The big boy was staring right at me even closer. The crosshairs on my Leupold VX3 2.5×8 found the area right behind his shoulder and I thought “soft trigger” as I broke the shot. I could hear the thump of the ASYM .308, 168 Barnes TTSX impact right behind his shoulder. The buck shrugged violently as I worked the bolt on my rifle.  He was slow to move at first and I thought he would lay down, but he had a sudden burst of energy and began to bound off. He was broadside to me and I fired a second shot, but knew I had a clean miss. I worked the bolt again, tracking his movement and squeezed another shot. This shot matched the first and I watched the tough buck shrug once again, slow and then go down.

My husband met up with me and I could tell he was just so happy for me. I was so thankful to have him there to share it with me. I gutted the deer while he went for the game cart.  It was a rough haul back to the truck through the willow reed and thick grass but well worth it. My buck is by no means a trophy for the record books, but he’s my first mule deer. It was a wonderful experience to share with my husband and I am looking forward to making some great meals with the meat this winter!

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