12:23AM – The glow of my computer screen reveals a map littered with steep faces, jagged peaks, avalanche chutes, and small alpine lakes. Since this time last year I’d been waiting to return these mountains. As we bounced up the rocky back road the anticipation built as steep faces grew from the thick creek bottom. For the past two years I’d wanted to wrap my deer tag around the thick antlers of a mature mule deer.
Early last October I began to search the mountainous country of Western Montana with that purpose in mind. Many days were spent without ever laying eyes on a big deer. The only glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel was a day in late November when we arrived at a new trailhead only to see a bruiser of a buck down just above us on the mountainside. A couple of hunters vibrantly glowed off the snow covered hillside. I knew we were getting closer, but I would have to wait till 2013 to continue searching.
My 2013 deer season began on October 12th. My Metcalf was full of backcountry gear and food and we headed off up the mountain. The goal was simply to become more familiar with the area. Our first day started with a moose sighting. This bull stood patiently observing the area and quickly had me dreaming about one day having a moose tag in my hand.
We set up camp that night and laid eyes on a few deer through the spotter. Day 2 was spent looping high onto a rocky ridge and inspecting an adjacent basin. No deer were spotted, but we gained valuable knowledge of the area. As we descended back to the truck we spotted 2 bears feeding on berries in the thick brush on the adjacent hillside. The brush was far to thick for a bow stalk and we simply watched them disappear into the tall bushes. No bucks had been spotted but we felt confident that we could change that when we came back with a rifle in hand.
Montana’s general season found us back at the same trailhead with packs loaded down for 7 days. We slowly worked our way up the uneven trail keeping our eyes peeled for the tan hide of a mountain buck. That morning the spotter revealed two bucks nosing does high on the mountain. Neither buck was the “one” and we pushed onward up the mountain.
Day 2 broke with a storefront rolling in. Cold temps and snow were being called for. We were ready for the nasty weather, but unfortunately I had forgotten to tape the drop chart to the side of my stock and only remembered the data for 0-300 and 600 yards. To top it off Travis had come down with a head cold. We decided to back out for a few days and then come back for a fresh start.
Three days later we were again headed back up the mountain. Our goal would be to hunt a loop taking us over 3 mountain passes and through some great country to try to find a big buck. The gameplan was to get camp up to the first pass and spend two days there glassing the adjacent hillsides. Without knowing where these bucks liked to spend their time meant we would be putting in a full days work behind the glass. As we settled in for our first night, the sound of snow bouncing off of our tent was something we weren’t sure if we should be happy or mad about. When our alarms went off the next morning, snow and fog surrounded our camp. Low visibility, wind, and more snow meant we would be hunkered in the tent for some time, and we intended to wait it out. To worsen a poor start to our hunt, I’d started the morning with a sore throat.
The following afternoon the fog lifted just enough for us to sneak out for the last few hours of daylight. We slowly worked down and around a ridge working our way through the rocks. Nothing. It appeared that the the game would be found high on the exposed, wind blown slopes or far down the drainage below us. We made it back to camp where a fire was built, and we dried out before taking refuge in the tent once again.
6:20AM I’ve already been awake for a few hours. My sore throat has developed into a full head cold. Being stuck in a tent at over 7000′ with a cold is no fun, but the weather was clear and it was time to move. We shook our snowy tent off and loaded up our packs once again. We slowly began breaking trail through a foot of snow as we moved towards our second camp location.
After two days of living in the tent we were low on water and took a detour down to a lake to pump water before continuing on. As we did the unmistakable tracks of a buck crossed the trail and went up the hill.
With our water refilled we pushed on with high hopes of getting an opportunity in the next three days. Just as we reached the flat bench we would be calling home another storm began rolling in. We quickly got our tent up and immediately got out of the weather to avoid getting wet. A few hours later the visibility had decreased to about 200′. The decision was made to still stalk that evening and see if we could cut a track. With no tracks found we headed back to camp.
As I unzipped the tent the following morning I was very displeased at what lay before me. Another foot of snow and zero visibility. Enough was enough and I made the decision that sometimes the mountains win. This time, just as many times before they won. We quickly packed up camp once again. With two feet of snow it now complicated our descent back to the truck.
The plan had been to traverse some avalanche chutes where the deer liked to live and then work down to the trail and finally make our way to the truck. With the snow it made the idea of traversing avalanche chutes one that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t feel like dying, and we decided to slowly slip and slide our way down through the trees and brush. Multiple small cliffs had to be navigated around and three hours later we finally set foot back on the trail. Five days essentially wasted in a tent and hiking through snow. Again I had failed to even lay eyes on a big mountain mule deer. No one said it would be easy and when you must teach yourself everything and find your own locations to hunt it makes it even more difficult. With no time this summer to scout I decided that our annual trip east must once again be done. This time we’d be exploring on our own in hopes we could fill not one but two deer tags.