Stalking Monster Mule Deer in Montana by Bill Heavey
I’m on my hands and knees on an uneven outcropping, holding my bow flat against the rock, moving forward an … Continued
I’m on my hands and knees on an uneven outcropping, holding my bow flat against the rock, moving forward an inch or so at a time. The midday sun, high and slightly behind me, throws my shadow just forward of my head. An erratic wind gusts from 5 to 20 knots and back down again. I’ve been timing my movements with each surge in the breeze to cover the tiny noises that now sound to me like avalanches: a pea-size pebble rolling a few inches as I shift my foot, the horrendous scrape of my cotton pants cuff against the stalk of some tiny high-plains plant. Fifty yards back–a lifetime ago–I removed my boots, forcing myself to slow down even more, to move even more quietly. Now I’m methodically trashing a brandnew pair of $20 Filson socks in the prickly pear and gravel up the back side of this giant igneous rock. A pair of socks for a crack at a big muley buck is a deal I’ll take any day. He’s close. When the wind stills, I can actually hear the drone of flies buzzing around his eyes.
At the moment I have two problems. The little one is that I can’t find places to put my hands and feet that will allow me to come to a standing position and take the last two steps forward. (Also complicating the situation is the fact that my body has begun to tremble.) The bigger problem is that all of a sudden I’m drowning. I can’t get any oxygen in my lungs even though I’m sucking air as heavily as I dare. It’s not the altitude, which is slightly over 4,000 feet. It’s certainly not physical exertion; I’ve barely moved 18 inches in the last five minutes. No, the cause is that after a 45-minute stalk guided by outfitter Chad Schearer, who has been signaling me into position with big orange flags from half a mile away, I’ve finally just taken a quick peek over the edge of the rocks. And there, 6 feet below me, bedded down calmly in the shade, lies a wide-racked, deep-forked, 4×5 muley.
Most muley hunters get up before dawn, glass the animals as they head into bedding areas, and attempt to stalk within rifle range through trees or other cover. You can also try to connect this way with a bow, though the majority of archers use tree stands or blinds to ambush the deer near water holes or cropfields at dawn or dusk. But if you hunt muleys with Schearer, who runs Central Montana Outfitters, you don’t do anything the conventional way. Instead of rising at 4 A.M., you have a leisurely breakfast and start glassing around 9, after the deer have left their nightly feeding areas and are beginning to bed down. Midday (I got on this deer at 11:30) is prime time. Stalking ends around 3 P.M., by which hour the deer are up and slowly transitioning to feeding areas. At dusk, on the 20,000-acre ranch we’re hunting, you can set up in a makeshift blind of branches stuck into the dirt as you hunker down in a ditch at the edge of one of the many alfalfa fields. But it may feel anticlimactic by then to let the deer come to you.
You can stalk to within yards of a bedded mule deer at lunchtime because of the unique geology of central Montana. As soon as I drove into this country, what struck me were the “stegosaurus” rocks–perfectly vertical spines of stone busting out of the crests of hills–that looked exactly like the plated armor on the dinosaur’s back. The rocks were so uniform as to appear man-made, vestiges of some ancient civilization. The technical name for such formations is igneous dikes, and there are few places on earth where they and mule deer coexist.
What Schearer has found is that the muleys–especially the larger bucks–escape the warm sun of summer and early fall by bedding at the foot of these rocks, and that they have been doing this for decades, if not centuries. Some of the beds I check look almost like shallow trenches, hollowed out from many generations of use. The deer nearly disappear into them. This means that even on land that Schearer has been hunting for years, he sometimes finds deer hard to spot, especially in the fall after the muleys have turned the same gray-brown as the rocks. We spend hours each day glassing for them with binoculars and spotting scope from elevated areas on the ranch. It’s a little unsettling to survey a huge expanse of country with the best optics available, knowing that there must be half a dozen or so good bucks in it looking back at you, and you can’t see them.
I’m still starved for air, still stuck on the rock. As I crouch down, senses overloading my brain like an ocean liner bearing down on a rowboat, I notice in a vaguely disembodied way that one of the vanes on my nocked arrow has come halfway unglued and now hangs raggedly from the shaft. Normally, I’d yank it off, since an arrow with two vanes still flies almost perfectly true, whereas one with a ragged third vane drops like a rock due to the increased drag. But arrow trajectory is not a major consideration on a 2-yard shot, and fixing it now would sound like ripping an entire bedsheet in half.
It’s not like I’ve never taken a deer before. I’ve reached out and touched them at 200 yards with scoped rifles and watched them drop silently to the ground. I’ve shot them at 50 yards with muzzleloaders and slug guns, close enough to see the hair blow up, see the animal stagger under the shock of all those foot-pounds, see its legs churn the air a few times before it lies still. I’ve killed them with a bow at 20 yards, well inside the animal’s bubble of security, close enough to see his coat ruffled from his last bed, close enough to see the shaft go in black and come out red on the other side. It’s personal at that distance; an individual deer that you’re killing. The elation and the guilt (say what you will, I do feel guilt) are proportionately greater as you get closer.
But at 6 feet the fletching will barely have cleared the bow when the broadhead enters the deer. My hand may be on his flank when his muscles twitch for the final time. What I’m feeling is the emotion our ancestors must have felt tens of thousands of years ago, the one that surfaces when we truly confront what it means to be alive. It is awe in the original sense of the word: a strange mingling of terror, veneration, and wonder. It has always made men shake, and it is making me shake now.
I risk one more peek over the rocks. He’s still there, and apparently still suspects nothing. If anything, he looks slightly drowsy. I am trying to keep from coming completely unglued, but I can’t stop shaking. My rational mind is a faint ember, while my autonomic nervous system, the part that usually hums along quietly in the background, has turned into an arsonist. Intellectually, I know that this stalk–successful or not–poses no physical danger to me. Either I’ll get the deer or I won’t. But intellect is not in charge at the moment. My primitive brain is. And it’s saying code red.
The geology that makes this kind of hunting possible requires its own kind of tactics. You need a buddy who can see the deer and signal you with the flags because you are almost always approaching via an angle opposite to where you glassed the buck. You’d never find the animal without help. (Using electronic transmissions to guide a hunter to game is illegal in Montana. It wouldn’t be effective anyway. Mule deer got their name because of their big ears; they’d hear a radio and bolt long before you knew where any were located.)
The key to effective communication is a few basic signals rather than a bunch of complicated ones. The flagman watches the deer in a spotting scope or binoculars and holds a banner on the side that he wants the hunter to move toward. (When he first started hunting this way, Schearer and his buddies signaled each other using Cheetos bags stuck onto arrow shafts. Now he buys the big blaze-orange banners with wooden handles that truckers use, which he says are perfect.) On this approach, for example, the deer is bedded along a 100-yard ridge of rock. And because I can’t see Schearer and the flags unless I am so close to its crest that the deer can see me as well, it has taken me three painstaking approaches to get on him.
When you’re in position at last, right on top of the deer, the flagman holds the banners directly in front of his body and makes a downward stabbing motion. If the animal moves or busts you, he waves the flags overhead repeatedly, and you go back to the truck and look for another deer to stalk.
Another challenge this style of hunting presents is that you have to be disciplined enough to wait until the buck has bedded down for the bulk of the day before you start. A mature buck may change its bed three to five times, chasing the shade over the course of a morning, before he finally settles in. There’s obviously no percentage in stalking an animal that may be gone by the time you get there. Not only does the buck have to be bedded in a spot where he’s going to stay for a while; the wind must also be right. Schearer says he sometimes glasses an animal for four or five days, waiting for favorable conditions, rather than educate a trophy deer with a failed stalk. The presence of smaller bucks and does bedded nearby that will give you away is another major consideration. Sometimes that negates the stalk before you’ve even begun. Other times it means adding an extra mile or so to your approach.
Nevertheless, this ranch contains so many different places where deer bed that you can usually find enough animals to work all day long. Schearer has had clients connect on their first stalk, though it takes most hunters six or seven tries before they get it right. He had one who was a champion target archer, who could put four arrows in a tennis ball at 60 yards, but who couldn’t hit anything with fur and eyes. That guy methodically blew five stalks a day for five days. He made noise, got seen, got winded, or missed the deer at 15 feet. In the end, Schearer says, he led the guy up and did everything but aim for him. The fellow finally got his buck.
Frank Roberts–who owns a share in the ranch and has been guiding for Schearer for many years–says, “Heck, usually we do it until the hunter is sick of it.” They get many stalking opportunities because this area has nearly constant sunshine, especially in the fall, and averages a scant 16 inches of rain a year. In fact, this part of Montana is suffering through a five-year drought. But we’ve had three days of rain and snow, more precipitation than the ranch has seen in 10 years. The deer are bedding low in heavy cover instead of up in the rocks. This could be my only chance.
But I’m having trouble closing the deal. That’s because a successful stalk requires two very different skill sets, and the ability to switch from one to the other in the blink of an eye. During the approach, caution rules. You cannot move too slowly, quietly, or carefully. Most people, Schearer tells me, blow this part because they rush it.
Then, after what seems like an endless period of doing everything you can to leave the animal unaware of your presence, you must draw your bow, step up to where you and he each have a clear view of the other, and shoot. A shot at an unalerted deer is the exception here rather than the rule; Schearer has told me that on this particular stalk there will be no way to get a shot off without the buck’s seeing me. Once I stand, even if he doesn’t pick me up immediately with his 270-degree vision, he’ll see my shadow and know instantly that a predator is above him. After that, I may have two or three seconds before he’s gone. I nodded my head dutifully when this was explained to me. But my adrenaline was already running high then. Schearer could have told me my mother was a bus, and I would have nodded solemnly.
Now I’m flummoxed. I cannot find a way to avoid making noise before I’m in final position to shoot. There’s just no way to cover the two steps to get into place without scraping brittle stems and loose scree. (By now, I’m also positive that the buck can hear my heart beating.) I’m still on my hands and knees, unbalanced, agonizing. At some level, I know that time is running out, that accepting that I’m going to make some noise getting up to shoot is better than never taking a shot. It’s just that my body has stopped taking orders from my brain.
Indecision is not a luxury you have at this distance. When I finally bite the bullet and begin to rise, the buck is already up and moving away. He’s not doing the mule deer pogo; he’s not even walking stiff-legged, so I know he hasn’t winded me. But heeding that sixth sense that prey animals are born with, he has decided to change beds. And he’s out of range by the time I draw my bow. He takes his 9-point rack with him as he lazily meanders out of sight.
I am heartsick, disappointed, and frustrated. Yet an unexpected sense of elation, of being vividly alive, floods me. So does a feeling of addiction. This is hands down the most intense hunting experience I’ve ever had. I want to do it again, right now. I walk back to the truck quickly, where Schearer is waiting with a look of commiseration on his face. “Bud, you were so close. Believe me, I know exactly how–“
I cut him off with a shake of my head. “We’ll do that part later,” I tell him. “You think we should go back and have another look at that little canyon?”
Schearer is smiling as he fires up the truck. And you can almost read his thoughts: Hooked another one.
Chad Schearer finds three pieces of equipment especially important for clients undertaking a day of spot-and-stalk mule deer hunting:
OVERBOOTS Predators such as bears and lions can sneak close to their prey because hair on their feet muffles noise. Safari Stalkers use the same idea. These fleece overboots with soft bottoms slip over your hunting boots for your final approach, enabling you to quietly slip through dry leaves and twigs. They’re $25 from Crooked Horn Outfitters, 877-722-5872; www.crookedhorn.com.
BINOCULAR STRAP A system that transfers the weight to your shoulders while still keeping binoculars readily available and out of the way of your bowstring is a must. The slide-and-flex Bino System fills the bill for $20-$25, also from Crooked Horn Outfitters.
SECURE ARROW REST A Whisker Biscuit arrow rest has synthetic bristles that completely encircle the arrow shaft so it can’t fall off. This allows you to stalk and take the shot without worrying if your arrow is going to drop. (While I was hunting, one member in the party, an accomplished bowhunter, twice missed opportunities on muleys when his arrow fell off the rest as he came to full draw. Schearer drove 100 miles that night to get him a Whisker Biscuit.) Models start at $36, from Carolina Archery Products, 919-245-1400; www.carolinaarcheryprod.com. –B.H.
WANT TO GO?
For more information on Chad Schearer’s mule deer hunts, contact Central Montana Outfitters at 406-727-4478 or visit www.centralmontanaoutfitters.com.