In Montana, a river doesn't have to be glamorous to be a great whitetail destination.
With the ice off the river, my nine-point never hesitated in crossing it to investigate the sounds of my rattling.
Mention bowhunting whitetails in Montana, and most people think of places like the Milk, Powder, and Missouri Rivers. There's no question that these well-known waterways, made popular in recent years by big name TV hunting personalities, produce big riverbottom bucks year after year. But there are other Big Sky whitetail hotspots, and one such gem I discovered in 2005 is the Shields River and outfitter Keith Miller's Montana Whitetails, Inc.
Flowing in the shadows of the Crazy Mountains outside the little town of Wilsall, the Shields is home to upland birds, turkeys, antelope, mule deer, elk, moose, and big whitetail bucks. Keith's riverbottom leases here total 31 square miles, and two days prior to my November 14, 2009, arrival there, Mother Nature blessed me by covering every acre of them with 10 inches of snow.
This would be my fifth consecutive year of hunting with Keith, always during the third week of November to coincide with the peak of the rut. I knew the fresh snow and bitter cold temperatures forecasted would have the bucks on their feet all day harassing does. The only real foreseeable challenge would be enduring the frigid conditions long enough to get a crack at a good buck.
Keith's hunters stay in a comfortable three bedroom, two bath ranch house. After getting settled in, I sat down with Keith and guide Bill Pohl to catch up and discuss strategy. Based on my observations from 2008, Keith had hung a stand in a thin strip of cottonwoods bordered on one side by the Shields and by a highway on the other. "A lot of does bed there, and we actually saw two P&Y-class bucks while we were hanging the stand," Keith said. "The wind will be right for that spot, and with highs in the upper teens, plan on sitting there all day for at least the next three days, or until you kill a buck."
The thermometer outside camp the next morning read minus nine degrees, and the one in my rental car confirmed it as I made the 40-minute drive to my assigned lease. In an effort to be as scent free as possible, I opted to change into my hunting clothes outside my rental, which was parked in a small turnoff on the side of the highway. Let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've stood in the snow in subzero temps, wearing nothing but your skivvies, while getting blasted by the wind from passing tractor trailers!
The Shields River is home to a variety of game. On my 2009 hunt, ice on the water kept big bucks like this one on the opposite bank for the first two days.
The snow made for slow going on my walk in to the stand. Once I was in the stand and organized, daylight came quickly, and it wasn't long before deer started filtering from nearby alfalfa fields into the riverbottom.
While I saw plenty of deer and considerable rut activity, I had a problem. The stretch of river Keith and I expected deer to cross was iced over, and it was clear that the deer did not like walking on ice. Every deer that tried to cross the river to my left quickly changed its mind and stayed on the opposite bank.
This trend continued the rest of the day, and the next, with the majority of the "fun" taking place across the Shields. When I returned to camp the second night, I told Keith that if the ice wasn't gone when I got to the stand the next morning, I was going to try breaking it up to see if that would encourage the deer to come across.
Fortunately, when I got to the river's edge an hour and a half before daylight the following morning, the previous day's sunshine and warmer overnight temperatures had done the work for me -- the ice was gone! Unfortunately, as I sat in the predawn darkness, the wind that had been perfect for the stand was shifting in an unfavorable direction.
At first light, I spotted three does walking the opposite bank. One of the does stopped at a scrape directly across from me and urinated in it before she and her companions walked to the water's edge like they were going to cross. Remember the changing wind? Well, it was now blowing right at the does, and they caught my scent and turned tail before ever dipping one hoof in the water. If this keeps up, I'm outta here before I ruin this stand for the rest of the week, I thought.
Over the next two hours I saw plenty of deer, including some good bucks, but nothing came close to my stand. I decided to sit until 10 -- one more hour -- and then head back to camp if the wind didn't improve.
At 9:30, I was staring off into space when I caught sight of a big-bodied deer 250 yards away on the opposite bank. As the deer walked steadily downriver through thick willows, I caught a fleeting glimpse of his head through my binoculars and saw enough horn to have me frantically reaching for my rattling antlers.
The buck was already out of sight when I clashed the horns together loudly for about 30 seconds, and then hung them on a limb behind me and grabbed my bow. Turning around, I was shocked to see the buck coming up the far bank on a dead run. Now directly across from me, the tall nine-point never broke stride as he entered the river and waded through the chilly waters.
When the buck reached my side, the steep riverbank hid him from view. Moments later, the buck crested the bank 35 yards to my left and paused to survey his surroundings. Unable to find the source of the fighting sounds, the buck started walking towards me at an angle that would give me any number of good shots. With no cover to hide my movements, I took a chance and drew as quickly as I could. The buck never flinched. Tracking him with my 20-yard pin behind his shoulder, I bleated to stop him and then released.
Keith's hunters stay in this ranch house, which Keith has updated for 2010 with new beds, furniture, and a flat-screen TV.
My arrow entered tight behind the slightly quartering-to buck's shoulder and exited behind the l
ast rib. The buck spun and ran a short distance before going into that stop-start routine that indicates the inevitable is about to happen. And it did, as the buck crashed into the powdery snow 75 yards from where I'd shot him. Keith later put his tape to the buck's rack and came up with 130 gross inches.
The next day, I returned to the same stand to try and help Keith with his management program by taking a doe. Less than an hour after daylight I accomplished that goal, killing an old, dry doe.
With the meat from both deer donated to a local family, and the buck's cape and antlers in the capable hands of Wilsall taxidermist Joe Thomas (his work is without question some of the best I've seen), I spent the rest of the week fishing for trout, socializing with old friends, and wishing my time in this very special place would never end.
Author's Notes: On this hunt, I used a Mathews Reezen 7.0 set at 65 lbs.; Carbon Express Aramid KV 350 arrows fletched with Bohning Blazer Vanes and tipped with Rocky Mtn. Ti-100 broadheads; Black Gold FlashPoint sight; Trophy Taker rest; Scott release; Nikon binoculars and rangefinder; Summit treestand, Bucksteps, and Seat-O-The-Pants safety harness; Wildlife Research Center's Super Charged Scent Killer spray and Golden Estrus gel lure; Knight & Hale's Rack Blaster grunt call and EZ Gravity Bleat; LaCrosse Alphaburly insulated boots; and fleece clothing in Mossy Oak camo.
My love affair with Montana Whitetails, Inc. is still going strong as I prepare to hunt there again this November. For more information or to book a hunt, contact: Keith Miller, Montana Whitetails, Inc., 25 Bright Lane, Wilsall, MT 59086; (406) 578-2383 (home); (717) 512-3582 (cell); www.montanawhitetails.com.