A rancher greets me in front of his house at the end of a long, dusty driveway. He knows why I'm here. Two months earlier I searched through Montana's catalog of Block Management parcels and found his property listed. I called and asked if I could hunt mule deer on his land. "Sure," he'd said. The rancher kindly offers me lunch before he gives me a property map with an X marking the best spot to camp on his land.
Days Required: Seven Necessary Paperwork: Combination license, which includes fishing and upland bird licenses ($570 for nonresidents; fwp.mt.gov). Must-Have Gear: Bring clothing with a wind-blocking lining, because eastern Montana winds have bite. Before You Go: Talk to the landowner about your expectations before you arrive on his doorstep. Some may not allow camping; others welcome it. Having an open dialogue from the start will help you create contingency plans before you hit the highway. Last-Resort Guide: Hidden Valley Outfitters.
Photos by Tom Fowlks
For the D.I.Y. road-trip hunter, Montana's Block Management program promises all the solitude and opportunity of an outfitted hunt—but without the guidance and high price tag. In a nutshell, the state cooperates with landowners to provide free hunting access on private land. Participation is voluntary, and license sales fund the program. Last year, about 1,270 landowners made 8 million acres available to hunters like you and me. I've taken advantage of the program several times—and with great success. Here's how I go about planning a BM hunt.
Every year, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks prints a book outlining the properties in the BM program. I always order a copy, because it includes details like acreage, game species, open dates, number of hunters allowed, and whether it's a Type I (show up and hunt) or Type II (reservation required) zone. And of the state's seven blocks, I usually look to Region 7, and for good reason. It's the largest block, and on average one-third of Big Sky muleys—not to mention nearly 50 percent of the pronghorns—come from the southeastern corner.
Before my trips, I pore over maps and aerial photos, comparing it all to the available land to determine where I want to hunt—typically a mixed scene of open plains and sandstone bluffs with a creek nearby. And once you know where you want to hunt, it's easier to design a driving route; reaching some of the more remote properties requires a combination of highways, county roads, and unmaintained two-tracks. Landowners provide property boundary maps at check-in, but a gazetteer and a USGS topo-map selection are must-haves.
Mule deer thrive in a variety of eastern Montana habitats, so the key to finding and taking an animal is strong legs and clear binoculars. Since most landowners don't allow OHV use, foot travel is the name of the game. By reaching a high vantage point before first light—one that allows me to see in most directions—I acquaint myself with the landscape instead of blindly walking over the terrain, and spot deer headed from open areas into coulees, moving around water tanks, and bedded on south-facing slopes. Muleys are active all day at this time of year, so the more time you spend in the field, the greater your odds of success.
On the last morning of my trip, I cross the Powder River to stalk a buck I saw bedded from a butte a half mile away. Before heading home, I stop back at the ranch house to say thanks. The rancher nods at my success but asks why I went to the trouble of packing out the meat. Pointing to a faded line on my map, he says using the back road would've been easier. At least I know for next year.