Paradise Found

When the whitetails are rutting in Montana, bowhunters are sure to get all rattled up.

This rustic ranch house served as our base of operations for the week.

AT AGE 12, WHILE on a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park, I fell in love with Montana. Its breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife had this budding outdoorsman believing he had found paradise. Like all good things, our vacation ended, and soon we were on a plane home to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Flying over the mountain peaks and rivers, I vowed to return to this magical place.

Twenty years later my chance came through an invitation from my friend Jason Weaver. Working at a local archery shop, Jason was setting up a new bow for me when he asked if I would be interested in bowhunting whitetails with him in Montana that November. The hunt was with Bob Harris's Montana Whitetails, Inc., a familiar name, as Bob had run classified ads for his outfit in Bowhunter for years.

I called Bob the next day and set things up. Bob had room for one more hunter, and my dad, Rick Fortenbaugh, was quick to fill the opening.

Bob told us the November weather can be unpredictable, with daytime temperatures ranging from 70 above to 10 below. To prepare, my dad and I spent several mid-August practice sessions sweating off the pounds in our fleece jackets, balaclavas, and winter gloves.

On November 12 we boarded a plane for Bozeman, Montana. During a layover in Cincinnati, we met up with my cameraman Bob Mussey. Several hours later we touched down in Bozeman, rented a car, and drove an hour north to Bob's ranch in Wilsall, where Bob and guides Keith Miller and John Hollander greeted us. Keith is from Harrisburg, and we occasionally crossed paths back home. He would be taking over Montana Whitetails in 2006 and was there to learn the ropes from Bob and John.

After unpacking our gear, Bob drove us around his 12 miles of Shields River bottom, where he has exclusive hunting rights.

"You guys are here at the perfect time," Bob said as he slowed to look at some deer feeding in an alfalfa field. "I've been guiding here for eight years, and rut activity cranks up every year around November 14. If you brought rattling antlers, use them, because they really work here."

Back at the ranch house, Bob pointed to a cluster of cottonwoods 200 yards away. "That's where you'll be hunting tomorrow morning, Brian. Your stand is in a travel corridor close to a big willow thicket where the deer bed. There's a pile of deer in there, including a couple of dandy bucks that will easily make Pope and Young."

When the other hunters arrived that afternoon, I was surprised to see some familiar faces. Adam Flod, Tom Mills, Jim Kinsey, and Dave Parker I knew from home, and I'd met Jason Fuller from Eastman Outdoors at the 2005 ATA Trade Show. Amazingly, the only face I didn't recognize was Glenn Livelsberger, Tom Mills' father-in-law.

AT 4 A.M., THE ALARM rudely interrupted my sound sleep. Under a clear sky, the thermometer outside read five below zero! Talk about a shock to one's system! Just 24 hours earlier in Pennsylvania, it was 65 degrees.

"I hope you brought enough clothes," I said to my dad, who had just made his way out to the kitchen.

We all wore so many clothes, we looked like penguins as we waddled outside in the darkness. Some drove away in Suburbans, while Bob Mussey and I walked directly to our stand site. The air was so cold that the Shields River, which we had to cross, had turned slushy, and the willows cracked and the snow squeaked underfoot with every step. Still, we made it to the cottonwoods without spooking any deer.

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Jason Fuller's 129-inch buck started a chain reaction of success.

Not long after sunrise the first deer, a big-bodied 6-point, showed up on the scene. He was heading toward a scrape 70 yards away when he spotted a doe in the willows and took off after her. A short while later, a deer sprinted across a field several hundred yards to my left, then another deer, then a half-dozen more. What's stirring them up? I thought. It didn't take long to get an answer. Coyotes! Three of them, running the deer in circles. The commotion put a quick end to the activity near our stand, and we walked back to the house to get warm.

Soon everyone else returned, and all reported seeing at least one quality buck. My dad, who had yet to kill a buck with his bow, had shown some real restraint in passing up a decent 8-point. "The buck was broadside at 21 yards," Dad said. "The only reason I didn't shoot was because it was the first morning. But boy was he tempting."

Over dinner that night, stories were the same -- lots of deer sightings, no shots. But things changed the next day, November 14, as rut activity really picked up. Big bucks were chasing and fighting, and they were coming eagerly to rattling.

Other animals even responded to my rattling. As Bob and I sat in stands overlooking a pasture bordered by thick willows, I started rattling to get the attention of a 120-class 8-pointer that was working a scrape 200 yards away. While the buck stared in my direction, looking for the source of the fighting sounds, a nice bull Shiras moose suddenly appeared from the willows 50 yards behind the buck. The moose crept to within 30 yards of the

8-pointer before the buck heard him and turned to look. The startled buck stood his ground for about two seconds before giving way to the moose and disappearing into the willows. That scene sent Bob and me into a fit of giggles, and I was surprised we saw any deer the rest of the evening. But right at last light we saw two 130-class bucks chasing does around the field.

And, as we learned back at camp, Adam Flod and Jason Fuller had both arrowed super bucks early that afternoon. Jason's buck, which had split brow tines and green-scored 129 3/8 inches, was chasing a hot doe in front of his stand. When the buck stopped to thrash a sapling, Jason's Carbon Express Maxima Hunter put the buck down quickly.

Adam's buck came so fast to the rattling antlers that Adam barely had time to grab his bow and make the 20-yard shot. His massive-bodied buck also had split brow tines -- a genetic trait common to that area -- and green-scored 138 inches.

Waking to a heavy s

nowfall Tuesday morning, Bob and I decided to sleep in rather than risk damage to Bob's camera gear. Everyone else braved the elements, and it paid off for Glenn Livelsberger, who killed a handsome 8-point at first light.

Bob and I got back in the "saddle" that afternoon, this time at a riverside stand across the bedding area from our first morning's stand. My first rattling sequence produced results in the form of four does. Two young bucks soon followed and chased the does out of sight.

Adam Flod's 138-inch buck fell victim to aggressive rattling and a well-placed arrow.

An hour later a doe appeared in an opening 100 yards away, and she was doing her best to shake three bucks hot on her tail. Two of the bucks were young, but the third was a shooter indeed. I tapped Bob on the leg and pointed, but by the time he got his camera fired up, the foursome had disappeared into the willows. We heard their crashing and saw them cross an opening several times over the next 30 minutes, but they never came close to bow range.

Returning to that same stand the next morning, Bob and I did not see a single deer,

so that afternoon Bob Harris suggested we sit a stand my dad had hunted the first morning. Dad had seen eight bucks there, and Bob assured us a couple of real monsters hung out in the area.

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Glenn Livelsberger braved the snow and cold to take this hefty 8-pointer.

THE STAND HUNG IN a huge cottonwood tree, from which we could see several hundred yards in every direction. The Shields River flowed 75 yards in front of us, creating a natural funnel, and numerous tracked-up trails meandered within easy bow range. Safely belted in, I took a moment to range some nearby trees while Bob got his equipment situated.

Shortly, Bob tapped me on the shoulder. "Some does are walking that fenceline behind us," he whispered. As I turned to look, Bob hissed, "There's a buck! A good buck! He's coming up behind the does."

I could see the does, but the buck was directly behind me, and I could not see him around the huge trunk of the tree. Picking up my antlers, I rattled lightly. Bob could clearly see the buck from his vantage, so I relied on him for a play-by-play.

"What's he doing, Bob?" I whispered.

"Looking at the does. He didn't hear you. Rattle harder," he said.

Several times I mashed the antlers together hard. "I still can't see him. What's he doing?"

"He's looking. Rattle again," Bob urged.

I clanged the antlers together for a couple of seconds as hard as I could.

"Stop! Get ready. He's coming!" Bob said excitedly.

The buck was moving left to right, angling towards us, and I now could see him. When he was 100 yards out he stopped and looked through the woods in our direction. It's too open here. He can see a long ways. That's as far as he's going to come, I thought.

Tom Mills' patience during the week was rewarded when this 10-point strolled within range of his recurve.

Even though the odds seemed against his coming any closer, I decided to rattle one more time. Using the big stand tree to hide my movement, I clicked the antlers together a couple of times. Without hesitation, the buck trotted toward us. I quickly hung my antlers, grabbed my bow off its hanger, and prepared to shoot.

The buck was now less than 30 yards away and moving fast. When his head disappeared behind a cluster of trees I came to full draw. When drawing I could not see his head, but he obviously could see me, because he instantly stopped behind the trees. I held for close to a minute, silently praying for him to keep coming.

Finally he did, and when he trotted into the open, I bleated with my mouth. He stopped cold at 17 yards. I put the pin on him and released.

Upon impact, the buck ran back in the direction from which he had come. Through binoculars, I watched him cross the river and then slow to a walk in a field on the other side. Then he went out of my sight. Immediately, doubt crept into my mind. If my shot was as good as I thought it looked, there's no way he would have traveled that far, I thought.

"Bob, my shot looked good. Didn't it?"

"He was quartering-away more than you thought. I think you got only one lung. Let's give him lots of time before we do anything," he said.

Three hours later, after dark, we met up with Bob Harris and told him what had happened. Bob felt confident the buck was dead.

"Let's go find him," he said. "I think I know where he was headed. We'll take a shortcut in the Suburban."

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No trick photography was used to magnify the size of Dave Parker's buck. He's really that big!

As we neared the spot where I'd last seen the buck, the vehicle's headlights flashed across blood on the snow. The trail led to a small patch of woods in the middle of the field, and there lay my buck. I knelt next to the beautiful 8-point, admiring his polished antlers and swollen neck. After handshakes and photos, we loaded him in the Suburban and raced back to camp to eat dinner before it got cold.

That same evening, Tom Mills arrowed a nice 10-point with his Schaffer Silvertip recurve, and the next day Dave Parker filled his tag with another awesome buck.

WITH ONLY ONE DAY left, it was crunch time for Jim Kinsey and my dad. I had bought a doe tag, but instead of hunting a doe I opted to sit with my dad.

Perched in a stand above my dad, I saw an 8-pointer through the trees and used my grunt and bleat calls t

o get the buck turned and heading in our direction. As the buck stepped from the timber, Dad came to full draw. When he released, his bowstring must have grazed his chest or arm, because his arrow kicked to the right in front of the buck's chest. Dad was visibly disheartened.

"Don't worry about it," I whispered. "We still have plenty of daylight left. Anything can happen."

Over the next three hours, three more bucks came to my rattling, but none offered a shot. Then, just before dark, a hot doe came streaking right at us, and close behind was a 130-class 10-point. The buck's head was a foot off the ground as he grunted with every dogging step. This is it, I thought. If she keeps coming, she's going to put that buck right in Dad's lap. Unfortunately, at 50 yards the doe cut left and hopped a fence, taking the buck with her across a field and out of sight.

AS SHOOTING LIGHT FADED, we climbed down and went to find my dad's arrow.

"Dad, I'm sorry it didn't work out for you," I said.

I don't know who was more proud of my Montana 8-point, my dad or me. He instilled his love for the outdoors in me at a very young age, and I'm not sure if I can ever thank him enough for this gift.

"What are you sorry for?" he said. "I had a great time this week. I got to spend a day in the woods with my son, which is something that doesn't happen nearly often enough now that you're older. And the excitement I felt watching that big buck chase that doe made this whole trip worthwhile."

In the dark we walked side by side down the snow-covered dirt road, both of us silently vowing to one day return to the paradise we'd found in Montana.

Author's Notes:

I used a 60-pound Hoyt VTEC, Fuse sight and stabilizer, Trophy Taker Shakey Hunter rest, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 350 arrows, Rocky Mtn. Ironhead 100 broadheads, Nikon binoculars and rangefinder, Summit Copperhead treestands, Lowrance iFinder Hunt GPS, and clothing from ScentBlocker and Whitewater in Realtree camo.

My hunt with Montana Whitetails, Inc., ranks near the top of my "Favorite Hunts" list, and my dad and I will return in November 2006. Bob Harris is transferring the reins into the capable hands of Keith Miller this year, and Keith is already hard at work scouting, hanging stands, and acquiring new leases to expand his hunting area. To book a hunt with Montana Whitetails, Inc., contact: Keith Miller, 1601-C Mountain House Rd., Halifax, PA 17032; (717) 362-8831 (home); (717) 512-3582 (cell); www.montanawhitetails.com.

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