The Perfect Shooter

After an intense obsession with mule deer, the author finally got a crack at his first buck during a Montana muzzleloader hunt last fall

Montana mule deer
The author heads to north-central Montana for a mule deer hunt.Ralph Smith

After the botched stalks, after the passed shots, after all the empty hours searching through glass, I suddenly, finally, had my choice between two strong mule deer. We killed the quad’s engine. The bucks stood on opposite sides of us—and both were within range. The deer to my right, feeding in a field with a few does, was bigger, but there was nowhere for me to get into position without spooking him. The left-side buck, however, gave me a better shot. He stood broadside on the crest of a hill, about 70 yards above us, backlit by the early-morning sun. He turned his head, taunting me with a vision of a wide 4x4 rack.

We rushed to the edge of the brushy fenceline, keeping low. I stuck a primer in my muzzleloader and quietly shut the breech. Kneeling, I used the bottom strand of the barbwire fence as a rest, then focused on calming my breathing.

I settled the crosshairs.

I squeezed the trigger.

Click.

Passing Glances

I can pinpoint the moment I fell for mule deer. My initial desire to hunt them had more to do with the country they live in than any true affinity for the species itself. I love the West and covet any animal that’ll take me there. I’ve chased pronghorns, turkeys, and trout in that rugged country; muleys were next on my list. And so, in 2014, I traveled to western Nebraska for a spot-and-stalk hunt in the Sand Hills. On the first morning, I saw my first mule deer. He was a small buck, and since it was early in the first day of a four-day hunt, I decided to pass—but I couldn’t take my eyes off the animal.

The fact that the deer wasn’t very big didn’t make him any less grand. There are certain moments that stick with outdoorsmen and keep them coming back: the orange slashes on a cutthroat, the thunder of an Eastern’s gobble, the out-of-nowhere emergence of a black bear in the woods. What this small muley buck did next was, for me, one of those moments. And all he did was turn his head.

I almost lost my breath. It was as if his antlers had made a whoosh, as if the air had shifted. There was a wild force behind that movement. For the rest of the hunt, I couldn't stop replaying it in my mind.

Later in the day I saw that same deer, in the same spot. I passed on him again—and never saw another muley the rest of the trip. I was fine with eating that tag, though. I didn’t come home with the venison I’d hoped for, but I did bring back a new obsession. And with that obsession came the excuse to go back West.

The opportunity to return came last October, when Chad Schearer—​the host of Shoot Straight and a marketing rep for CVA muzzleloaders—invited me to his place in north-central Montana for another mule deer hunt. I don't think I even bothered checking my calendar. I'd be there.

Montana mule deer
Class Dismissed: An old schoolhouse stands in a draw in the wide open Montana country.Colin Kearns

Spy Games

Schearer and I climbed into his pickup before sunup. After two cars passed us on the gravel road, Schearer joked about the heavier-than-usual traffic. The DJ on the radio buzzed with the town’s excitement surrounding opening day of rifle season. We had brought along a rifle just in case—if a long shot at an absolute giant presented itself—but this was a muzzleloader hunt, and inside a soft case was the CVA Accura that I’d sighted in yesterday. I liked the idea of needing to be closer to a mule deer.

We stayed inside the truck for the first hour, pausing frequently to glass the country. The landscape of the lease was as diverse as it was vast: a collection of buttes, hills, draws, dikes, and rolling prairie—all nestled below the Highwood Range. It looked as if you could walk in any direction and find deer. And we could have done that and gotten lucky—or we could’ve wasted a lot of time and energy. Instead, we loaded our gear into a more versatile UTV, which gave us a tactical advantage in addition to convenience. The deer here were used to the ranchers driving around in trucks and quads; they were more likely to spook if they saw us approach on foot. Our plan was to cover as much ground as possible till we found the right muley, then drive until we were out of view and plot our stalk from there.

“We counted three bucks: Two were solid shooters that kept busy sparring with each other when they weren’t chasing does. The third was a giant.”

The morning and early afternoon passed without much excitement. We mostly stuck to the tops of ridges, from which we took long breaks to glass the country below. Schearer dissected the land with impressive precision and thoroughness, picking out details that most hunters couldn’t. We had seen a handful of bucks so far, but all were on the small side.

“That’s a buck for someone,” he would say, “just not for you.” Neither of us had a trophy-or-bust mentality, but we also didn’t want to settle on the first day.

Just before noon, the first nice buck appeared. We watched as the deer trotted across a pasture on the opposite side of the draw from our position. He was heading toward the ruins of an old prairie schoolhouse. Schearer and I hopped into the UTV and raced down our side of the draw toward an outcropping where we could glass the deer more closely and maybe plot a stalk. By the time we reached the spot, the buck had already bedded—though we couldn’t tell where. In no rush, we took a seat to have a look. Schearer unzipped his pack and took out a bag of -apple-nut muffins his wife, Marsha, had baked. “This will change your life,” he said. I ate one, and immediately asked for another. Then we returned to our buck stakeout.

Schearer likened this style of hunting to being a sniper: He’ll observe a deer from a long way away, for as long as necessary, waiting for the wind to be just right before he even thinks of making a move.

A half hour into our watch—still with no sign of the buck—we thought we’d caught a break when a small group of does came into the picture. “Sit and be patient,” Schearer said, glued to his binoculars, “and see what happens.” They appeared to be moving directly toward the brush where we assumed the buck was bedded, and we were hoping the buck would rise and reveal his position once the does were close enough. But he never resurfaced. We waited a little longer before Schearer suggested we break for lunch and move to another spot. If we didn’t see anything there, we could come back here tomorrow morning.

Montana mule deer
Coming to an End: The author approaches his buck on the second morning of the trip.Chad Schearer

In the late afternoon, we drove toward a new spot. Schearer suspected last night’s near full moon had the deer feeding late—and sleeping in—so these hours should see the deer up and moving more. “I have a good feeling about this evening,” Schearer said.

Sure enough, the first muley we saw appeared to be just waking up from a long nap. Schearer pegged the bedded buck from 2 miles away, and we spent the next hour keeping tabs on him through the spotting scope. When the deer rose, he thrashed at the overhanging branches of a tree near his bed. Other deer emerged—a few does and one more buck. Both bucks were big; trouble was, they were on property that we didn’t have permission to hunt. We watched them a while longer, before deciding to drive up ahead of them and sneak in for a closer look.

We parked the quad and duckwalked along a fenceline, downhill, until we could see the herd below. We counted three bucks: Two were solid shooters that kept busy sparring with each other when they weren’t chasing the does. The third was a giant—but he was bedded in thick brush, away from the others. All the deer were on the opposite side of the fence, where we couldn’t shoot. When the biggest buck got up to feed, I willed him to hop the fence—and give us a relatively easy, short stalk toward a good shot—but he went right back to his bed, and seemed to have no intention of leaving. And why would he? He had everything he needed right there: food, does, and cover.

We kept watching. Eventually, one of the smaller bucks crossed the fence and bedded down in a spot that Schearer said we could try to approach for a shot.

Or, he added, we could back away now and come back first thing tomorrow morning for a chance at the big deer. He left the choice to me. Never pass on a deer the first day that you'd shoot on the last day. That deer-camp cliché rang in my ears as I mulled things over. In the end, my decision didn't come down to wanting a bigger deer; it was simply a matter of wanting the hunt to continue. Schearer was the ideal hunting partner—laid-back, but aggressive when it mattered; kind, and fun to be around. I wanted to hunt with him some more. And I wanted to see more mule deer in more of this country.

We eased back up the hill, leaving the herd alone in what was left of the daylight.

A Do-Over at Dawn

Click.

The gun didn’t fire. The dud shot took me by such surprise that I froze, which gave the buck standing high on the hill all the time he needed to vanish. Schearer and I looked at each other, and his expression matched what I assume he read in my own: a mix of confusion, frustration, and disappointment. We couldn’t know for sure, but we were almost certain that in my attempt to keep quiet leading up to the shot, I didn’t close the muzzleloader’s breech firmly enough to seat the primer. Whatever the reason, it was a terribly anticlimactic start to the morning.

I cased the gun and got back in the UTV. I tried to shake off the mistake but couldn’t help worrying that I’d blown the only shot I would get. Schearer drove up a hill, heading toward the spot where we’d watched the group of deer yesterday evening, but once we crested the top, he immediately killed the engine. Less than 150 yards away, clustered along a fenceline, was the biggest herd of mule deer we’d seen yet—and in the middle of more than a dozen does was a stout 4x4, practically golden in the early light.

This time, there was no question, no decision to be made. In the initial look I’d had at the deer, I knew he was more than big enough for me—but I don’t think that’s what led me to react as instinctively as I did: simultaneously unzipping the gun case as I stepped out of the quad; loading a primer and firmly snapping the muzzleloader shut as I walked to the bed of the UTV to use it as a rest. No, what led me to take the position I was in now—peering through the scope, waiting for the does and fawns to clear for a shot as I begged my heart to chill—was the grateful recognition of a second chance. I had passed on opportunities yesterday, and already today—less than five minutes ago—I had messed up what should have been a chip shot. I’ve hunted long enough to know you can’t count on another chance, no matter how much time you think there is left. When you’re not after a trophy or a personal best, when the experience of chasing an animal you’re crazy about in country you love is what drives you, the perfect shooter is often the one that’s right in front of you, the one that catches you by surprise.

I settled the crosshairs.

I squeezed the trigger.

Bang.

Montana mule deer
Parting Shot: The author with his first mule deer, a 4x4 taken in north-central Montana.Chad Schearer

Still Life

After the blackpowder smoke cleared, after my heart settled, after Schearer and I shook hands, I sat down in the grass. A dozen yards away was my mule deer. Schearer had left to get the truck, and would be gone for about an hour. In his absence, three of the does from the buck’s harem returned, watching me from a safe distance. Opportunistic magpies flitted in to dine and dash in the nearby gut pile. Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep still.

“Less than 150 yards away was the biggest herd of mule deer we’d seen yet—and in the middle was a stout 4x4, practically golden in the early light.”

I would sit for a moment, staring at the animal, then I’d get up and find a new place to sit. This went on, as I edged closer each time, until, eventually, I found myself kneeling beside the buck. I ran a hand over the deer’s hide. I palmed the bottom of his hooves. I grabbed the antlers.

Trophies don’t matter all that much to me, but as I lifted the rack, turning the head this way and that, recalling the moment when I watched that first wild muley turn his head toward me, it was hard not to become transfixed: Something I had wanted so deeply was finally in my grasp.

A thin patch of clouds hazed over the Montana prairie—the dawn sunlight that had lit the buck on fire was now long gone. My mule deer tag was punched. A small part of me was sorry that this experience of chasing this animal was over. Mostly, though, I was just thankful to have seen a good hunt through to the end.

I gently lowered the deer’s head to the grass, and let go.

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