Chad Ward of Missoula, Montana, may have missed a complete photo of this 130-class whitetail by a nose, but he drilled it at 180 yards with a Federal Premium 200-grain Nosler Partition bullet fired his Remington Model 700 .300 Rem Ultra Mag north of Great Falls last weekend–the first weekend of his season.

“It’s more gun than needed, but I love it and it is great for longer distance shooting that I was expecting might happen in this area,” says Ward, who is the fourth generation president of Montana’s sporting goods stores Bob Ward and Sons.

After talking with a contact at Custom Bird Works and the Big Game Connection in Missoula, I learned about very few whitetails being brought in so far, except for Ward’s.

“I was hunting alone in a river bottom area in Region 4 of Montana, northwest of Great Falls,” recounts Ward. “I snuck down onto a small bluff overlooking the river bottom before daylight. There was just enough light starting so that I immediately saw the buck even though it was almost a half hour before shooting time. The buck was about 400 to 500 yards up river standing right on the bank having a drink.

“Before I could get situated and put my binoculars on the buck, he started to move away from the river and headed in my direction. He was coming closer but I was worried he would get into a large area of thick trees and bushes just beyond me to lay down for the day before shooting time arrived. And in fact, he did. However, about a minute or two after shooting time arrived, he appeared in a small grassy area in the middle of the trees about 180 yards away. I had about 10 seconds to get my scope on him, decide if I wanted to take him, and then pull the trigger. Well, I did pull the trigger and was rewarded with the solid sound of a hit. a lot of great meat for the freezer and a very nice set of antlers to remember the hunt by.”

Overall Activity Status: Rifle buck seasons are now underway across all six western whitetail states. Rut sign is still scarce, but hunters are connecting on some nice bucks, with every kill I’ve heard about occurring during the first or last two hours of the day. The exceptions are two bucks that Idahoan and Washingtonian hunters pushed into other hunters during mid-day.

There are, of course, some wide open landscapes where spot-and-stalk opportunities exist, but hunters in all six states will enjoy better odds ambushing travel lanes near food and water, even in open country, per Ward’s example. There will be no estrous does or seriously rutting bucks anytime soon, except for outliers, so sticking with early season tactics, even here in late October, seems to be paying off for most of the successful hunters I’ve talked to and those I’ve heard about from contacts. Although whitetails are at least 10 days away from showing serious rutting signs in most Western states, there are some exceptions.

Fighting: Only scattered reports of broken tines offer any evidence of potential fighting, and based on other signs, like bucks continuing to travel together, the tines were likely broken during sparring matches or while rubbing their antlers. Drought in some states and drought-like conditions in others lead to more brittle racks, another possible contributor.

Rub Making: Reports of rubs continue, but nothing to indicate a major spike in rub making triggered by the rut.

Scrape Making: Minimal scrape making has been observed in Wyoming, as I recently reported, and now in Montana, where a Montana Whitetails hunter near Livingston observed a young buck making a scrape. On the same hunt, he observed three mature bucks traveling together, too.

Chasing: The same type of non-rut-related chasing between young bucks and does has been observed, but nothing serious.

X Factor: Lots of hunters have been in the woods now, toting bows, muzzleloaders, and rifles. Deer have been shot at and have stood near others that have been. Bucks will make themselves scarcer and scarcer for at least another 10 days, which is the earliest date any contact offered for observing serious rutting behaviors, most said longer. Successful hunters will mostly be concentrating on reliable feeding and watering areas early and late.