Montana Mule Deer Hunting: Pounding Public Land for Big Bucks

Montana Public Land Mule Deer Hunting

My buddy Jake applied for and received his third Montana deer tag since I moved to Montana in early 2019. Jake has had a deer tag in 2019, 2020, and now 2022. In 2019 and 2020, I tagged out during archery season. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to tag out in archery in 2022, so this was the first time Jake and I got to hunt together while we each had a tag in our pockets and a rifle in our hands. We planned to hunt mule deer and pound the public land for big bucks. Jake flew in from Michigan the evening of November 17th, while I was driving through blizzard conditions in Wyoming on the way back from Kansas. We loaded up the truck on November 18th and headed to our hunting location. We were in a pretty rural part of the state without a lot of lodging options, so we slept in my truck to be closer to the hunting action the next morning. On the morning of the 19th, we flipped a coin to see who would be the shooter on day one, and decided we would alternate “first shooter” rights every day afterwards. Jake won the toss, but deferred to me for day one.

This is a terrible idea…

We arrived near the hunting area just after first light. The access road in this area isn’t exactly ideal, and on the 19th, well it was downright awful. Substantial snowdrifts covered the road, and despite 4-wheel drive and the locker engaged, the Tacoma came to a halt 4 or 5 different times in the first 100 yards of road. Our initial plan assumed we could make it in 6-7 miles on this access road. After the first 100 yards, Jake and I looked at each other with that “this is a terrible idea” look, so I backed up to where the road wasn’t so bad. We debated a bit about whether to put on the tire chains, or if we should just check out a different area. The day one excitement overrode our better judgment and we chained up and started smashing drifts again. It took about 20 minutes to make the first 300 yards, with two other rigs watching from the safety of the undrifted section of road. Once we broke through the first 300 yards, we ended up on some higher ground and the road “improved”. We were able to travel the next several miles with only the occasional hang-up. When we arrived to the pre-planned destination, we were a little annoyed to see two other trucks following us on the freshly broken trail, but hey, that’s public land. One truck continued beyond us, and the other (a Tahoe with street tires and no chains), decided they had better turn around before they ended up in a bad way.

We loaded up our packs and rifles, and set out a little before 8 a.m. We didn’t have much action for the first mile, which is pretty typical of the areas I hunt in Montana, but as we started mile two, the action really picked up. Over the next 3 hours, we saw about 60 deer, including 15-20 different bucks, but almost all of the bucks were 1.5 year olds or 2.5 year olds. One may have been 3.5, but not quite what we were looking for.

Somewhere around 11 a.m. and 5 miles from the truck, we spotted the first good buck of the day. By the time we setup the tripod and the spotter, the buck slipped over a ridge and was out of sight. We packed up the spotter and started closing the distance. About 600 yards into the stalk, Jake spotted a different buck that looked pretty good. A 4×4 with good mass, nice forks, and solid main beams. We looked him over for a minute or two, figured he was a 140-150 type buck, and I decided I would try and shoot him. We closed some more distance and started running out of terrain. We army crawled up to the edge of a ridge, and I asked Jake to range the buck while I found him in the scope. “450 yards”, Jake says. I check my ballistic calculator app on my phone, and dial my scope for the proper holdover. There’s a light wind, I’m laying prone and shooting off a bipod. I watched the buck for a little over a minute until he presented a broadside shot. I squeezeed off a round, and nothing…clean miss.

I get a little frantic, and repeat “What’s the range? What’s the RANGE? WHAT’S THE RANGE?!?!” as Jake struggles to range the buck again. “It won’t work”, Jake says. I’m getting a little flustered, and then the buck and his does dip around a corner and we lose sight of them. Around this time, Jake notices that the lens that covers the laser on his rangefinder is packed full of snow. “That’s not good” I think, and I decide to range the location where the buck stood when I took the first shot. “661 yards”…well, that explains a lot.

We regroup, clean out Jake’s range finder, check the topo map, and guess the most logical escape route of the buck. After about three-quarters of a mile, we relocate the buck with a little luck. I get a bit of déjà vu as we crawl to the edge of a ridge for round two on the same buck. This time, Jake and I both range, and again, it’s 450 yards. I set the scope, steady myself, wait for a broadside shot, and shoot. This time, the distinct “Thwack!” of an impact. The does start running up hill, but the buck is hit hard. He stands at the impact site for 15 seconds, and then starts lumbering towards us. The buck runs into a draw and we lose sight of him. We run up to the edge of that draw, then slowly crest the edge. I spot the buck bedded down before he spots us. It’s obvious he’s mortally wounded, but I always shoot again when possible. I get setup for a second shot at 170 yards, and that one puts him down for good.

Mule Deer Hunting Public Land Montana

Jake and I do a bit of celebrating before the gravity of the situation hits us. We are over 5 miles out, in fairly hilly terrain, and it’s now around 11:45 a.m. We get to the buck, take some pictures, and get to work. As we are breaking down the deer, we both realize it will be dark (a little after 5 p.m.) by the time we get back to the truck. We decide that de-boning the deer at the kill site is the best plan of attack on such a long pack out. At 2:12 p.m., we are loaded with a de-boned deer, cape, and antlers. We check OnX before we depart and plan a longer, “easier” route that looks to be around 5.5 miles. A little over 4 miles in and the sun sets and we are already pretty well exhausted. Around 4.5 miles, we both run out of water, the temperature drops to about 18 degrees and the wind is howling. Jake only has a thin pair of gloves on and his left hand starts going numb. We trade gloves for the rest of the pack out. Around mile 5, we consider abandoning our packs just to ensure we get back alive. We are really struggling now, but we solider on. At 6:07 p.m., almost 4 full hours, and just shy of 6 miles later, we finally arrive at my truck. Needless to say, we are exhausted, thirsty, and genuinely relieved to be back to my truck.

Author's Note: Montana now allows e-tagging, which is why no physical tag is present on the antlers.

I’m not sure if I would do it over again, but it makes for a heck of a story now. For anyone that intends to hunt out west…or even big woods for that matter, this is also a bit of a cautionary tale. Make sure you can chew what you bite off. I don’t know how much more we had in the tank, especially being completely out of water. I’ll be a little more aware in the future of what a pack out like that means, especially in such a remote area with cold temps and wind. The buck ended up scoring 146 6/8” and is my new personal best by 6”, and has a story that I’ll never forget to go with it.