NOV 20, 2023

The Ups and Downs of Hunting - Montana Muley

By Dan Larsson

Look at that mass and dark chocolate coloring.

I was following the muley doe through downed lodgepole timber when I heard it - big antlers bouncing off each other below me on an old logging road. You know that moment when your heart slows, and you know you are about to get a poke at a truly big buck. I left the doe and began creeping down the ridge. Every step was carefully picked up and placed on another log's other side, laying 1-4 feet off the ground. They were well under 200 yards, and a snapped stick would ruin the opportunity I knew was about to present itself. They didn't work their way toward the doe, so I kept searching for an opening to view my greatly anticipated monster. It was getting dark, and I was running out of time. I started creeping faster and faster. An opening showed some movement. Antlers! Big antlers! Moose…antlers. What on earth were two bull moose fighting a month after their rut?

Do moose have a 2nd rut? I do not know.

I can't begin to tell you how awed I was at the experience while being completely crabbed that my giant muley buck had just morphed into a moose. Well, now what? I hiked back to the vehicle and made my way home. It was a bittersweet drive. At least I'd had ice cream on the way up. No, grown men don't pout. I keep telling myself that.

The year 2021 shall be known as the year the weather didn't cooperate for hunting. I have a wolf-trapping buddy who says the weather in Montana this season kept him from producing. There were pockets of brief rutting early, but I couldn't find good rutting activity until the end of the season, just before Thanksgiving. I love showing people how to hunt and helped nine guys harvest big game this year. It didn't leave much personal time to hunt, and I was beginning to think I would eat my general license instead of a buck.

That last week before the end of rifle season, I found a canyon with rutting muleys. There were half a dozen that included two nice bucks. Unfortunately, they were what we call crab claws. There just needed to be more length to their fork tines. Harvesting them would have been a repeat of last year when I about croaked myself retrieving the buck I shot. Downfall, steep, loose sidehills, cliffs, and snow. Yay. Insert eye roll here. Nevertheless, I was determined to shoot one of them to rid the gene pool of poor forks and get some meat on the ground.

On the way up the canyon, I chose a spot on the mountain at 500 yards and checked the zero on my rifle. I had beat it all around the woods while hunting. It's good to freshen the carbon in the barrel and ensure I didn't abuse the scope to the point of missing an opportunity. I shot two bullets that hit their pie plate-sized mark and felt pretty good! Weatherby sent me an excellent rifle chambered in their new 6.5 RPM. This Rebated Precision cartridge gives you Magnum performance out of a lighter-weight action. It has a standard-sized rim and reduced length, allowing Weatherby to fit it in their 6-lug action instead of the 9-lug most comparable cartridges require. Their Backcountry Titanium rifle weighs less than 5 pounds! Wow! The gun they sent me was their Accumark. This rifle is well suited to accuracy with its hand-laid fiberglass stock and fluted barrel. It weighs more than 5 lbs, but long-range shooters know that more weight makes accuracy easier.

I and many shooters joke that the scope is more important than the rifle. This isn't true, but most hunters put their money into the rifle and skimp on the scope. A scope will only shoot as well as the gun it is on, and the gun will only shoot as well as the scope that calls in its airstrike. I chose the Skinner 1-6x scope for this application because it is decently light for a 30mm tube, and I know I can beat the tar out of it and trust it for the shot. Pairing it with the flat shooting 6.5 RPM means no holdover to 300 yards on a deer-sized killzone. The 1st hashmark was good to go at 500 yards, and I was competent with it to 7 football fields. Magnification is sometimes overrated.

Public land in Montana is open to everyone. When I drove up to my jump-off, where the logging road is gated, two vehicles and a camper were parked in 4-6 inches of snow. I'm not usually in a foul mood, but this season kicked me at every turn. A week before this, I had hiked above this gate, seeing deer as I moved out when the clouds lowered, and I had almost no visibility all day. Now, I had a ridge I knew bucks were on and people all over. Yay. Insert a sarcastic, happy comment for those hunters and their luck here.

In all actuality, I do wish those hunters at the gate luck. Hunting is a blessing for all, and Montana is blessed to offer an opportunity to so many. Nonetheless, you always hope you have the mountain to yourself for the day.

I love snow. It makes tracks and their age much more accessible to determine, and most deer must touch the ground occasionally. I drove halfway down the mountain, slept in my Jeep, and then returned to the road's end before daylight. I did this to scout and look for tracks in the snow. No new tracks. So, I headed back down the mountain to a usually closed gate. It was open, and there were no tracks in the fresh snow. I drove to the top of the mountain and began my hunt. Working my way along the top of the ridge, I hit a saddle at 1st light. The snow was torn up. Tracks everywhere showed signs of fighting bucks. You could see where a buck would stiffen his back legs, and the opposing buck would push him skidding backward. The best part was that the tracks looked fresh.

I left my rifle at the edge of the opening and started walking around, looking at the tracks and taking pictures. The bucks had torn up an area close to 70 yards square. I was so awe that I didn't notice the ears in the new growth timber above me. I'm still laughing. I looked up and froze. The muley did look in my direction were not spooked. Then, a flash of antlers as a buck chased one of them through the tiny openings. I slowly ran back to my rifle, returned to the log where I could see up the hill, and started tracking the deer with the scope. They were 200 yards away and fleeting back and forth. Finally, I saw a tall rack with lots going on and the body. I could barely see him through some tree limbs but could not see his rack. I put the crosshairs where the least number of limbs were and shot him.

He dropped. I didn't get to see that, as I'm pretty sure the 6.5 RPM put six trees on the ground before it hit the buck. (That was a joke…for those not expecting humor. Insert laugh here.) I hurried up to where the deer was and came upon the does at 10 yards. They were looking around, confused. This is a good sign that one of their numbers is unresponsive and immobile. I searched everywhere and found him lying in the snow. I took pictures and gutted him. I made knives and used a 540-layer belt knife during the gutting. Laying it in his armpit while I pulled the unwanted guys out, I forgot the knife there.

Returning to my Jeep, I could drive to a road below him, drag him down and into a tarp in the Jeep, and shut the back hatch. Yippee! No 24-hour retrieval this year. During the drag out, my knife fell off the ground. I didn't realize this until I was off the mountain.
I didn't get to see what his antlers looked like until I walked up to him. I am more than pleased with this 150's muley in the last few days of the season. I have one regret, though. I didn't get to see who he had just been fighting. Nonetheless, I was blessed and ended the season on a serious high note! No pouting on the drive down the mountain this day!

My son and I returned during bear season and hiked up the hill to the kill site. I had just broken my ankle in a horse accident and had to crutch my way along. We found my knife all rusted and sad. I refurbed it with desert ironwood handles, which are still in use!