For three Pennsylvanians, a return trip to Montana for whitetails surpasses their high expectations.
When Our 2006 Montana whitetail hunt came to an end, my dad and I vowed to someday return to this bowhunting paradise (see "Paradise Found," Whitetail Special 2006). That someday occurred exactly one year later.
We would again be hunting with Montana Whitetails, Inc., which is owned by Bob Harris and operated by Keith Miller, a friend of mine from Halifax, Pennsylvania. Since my last visit, Keith had been busy acquiring new leases along the Shields River, and then scouting and hanging stands in preparation for the 2007 season. Recent photos Keith had taken on his scouting forays and placed on Montana Whitetails' website showed lots of deer -- and lots of impressive bucks.
This trip, my close friend and hunting partner Tom Gaul, along with Bowhunter Magazine TV cameraman Bob Mussey, joined my dad and me. This was Tom's first trip West, and he could barely contain his excitement as he counted down the days to our November 11 departure for Wilsall, Montana.
My dad had come oh-so-close to taking his first buck with a bow the previous year. An equipment issue on the last
evening's hunt cost him a nice buck, and taught him a valuable lesson about practical shooting practice. To avoid repeating this mistake, he practiced hard all summer and outfitted himself completely with bowhunter-friendly clothing. By November, he was more confident than ever that this would be his time to shine.
In 2006, I had taken a respectable 8-point at Keith's, but I, too, had learned a valuable lesson on that trip -- patience. My goal this year was to take a Pope and Young buck or come home empty-handed -- a rather lofty goal considering a big part of the trip was to capture enough footage for a future episode of the TV show.
These young Montana bucks are showing real promise.
After a disappointing Pennsylvania season, with few deer sightings, I was really looking forward to a week along the Shields River. My dad and Tom also had had frustrating seasons at home, and they echoed my sentiments.
We left Harrisburg on November 11, bound for Bozeman, Montana. During a layover in Minneapolis, we hooked up with Bob Mussey. Bob was with my dad and me in Montana the previous year, and his watchful eye played a big part in my success. Little did I know how helpful he would once again prove to be on this trip.
As we waited in Minneapolis for our flight to Montana, Bob, my dad, and I gave Tom some pointers about judging deer on the hoof. As a Pennsylvania bowhunter, Tom had taken his share of bucks, but his experience with trophy whitetails was limited.
"Whatever you do, please don't shoot a buck on the first, or even second, day of this hunt unless his size truly makes your jaw drop," I told Tom. "You've got six full days of hunting, and the deer are rutting, so there's no need to rush things. Trust me. If you are patient, you will get an opportunity at a really good buck."
Landing in Bozeman, we ran into Adam Flod. Adam had been in camp with us in 2006 and was on his way back home from Keith's place. "You guys are here at the right time," Adam said. "The bucks are on the move, and they are very responsive to rattling."
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My dad was equally as excited over my first P&Y - class buck. I later shared in his own excitement when he took his first-ever buck with a bow.
As we went to pick up our bags and meet Keith, Adam pulled me aside and said, "Brian, I think you are going to be hunting the lease I hunted all week. There are several solid Pope and Young bucks on that property, including one that I believe will be pushing the 170 mark. I saw him twice and helped Keith put up a stand for you in that area. Good luck!"
With Adam's words ringing in my head, we loaded our gear into the rental vehicle and drove an hour north to Keith's camp in Wilsall, where Keith and guide/hunter Bill Pohl greeted us. Bill was scheduled to hunt the following week, but with Keith short on help, Bill had come out a week early to help guide.
With daylight fading, we quickly unpacked and went outside to shoot our bows. During travel, my sights had shifted, and I ended up shooting until after dark in the headlights of Keith's Suburban to make sure my bow was dead on. None of us slept well that night, especially Tom. Visions of big riverbottom bucks will do that to a guy.
The first morning was cold. Not quite as cold as the subzero temps we had experienced the year before, but cold nonetheless. Bill took my dad and Tom to their stands, and Keith dropped Bob and me off at a stand he and Adam had hung the week before. Bob and I readied our gear and waited for the warmth of sunrise to come.
Tom Gaul wasn't exaggerating when he said he killed a wide-racked 10-point. Looking at this deer's body, you can see why Tom and Keith Miller (right) needed help to get the beast out of the woods.
Shortly after daybreak, several does and smaller bucks filtered past our stands on their way from the alfalfa fields in front of us to their beds in the willows behind. The parade of bucks and does continued throughout the morning, but nothing I wanted to shoot came close enough.
When we went back to camp for lunch, we learned my dad had loosed an arrow at a good 8-point but had shot high. Tom, too, had seen lots of action, but, following my words of advice, had chosen to pass up several bucks because they didn't make his jaw drop.
That evening, Bob and I headed back to the same stand.
Again, we saw lots of deer, but nothing I wanted to shoot. Over a home-cooked dinner that night, my dad and Tom
reported similar results.
The second morning, Bob and I again hunted the same stand in hopes of seeing one of the big bucks Adam and Keith said were in the area. We saw several good bucks, but as
on the first day, none came close enough for a shot.
This scenario repeated itself that evening for me, but Tom had a different story. When dinner was on the table and Tom and Keith were still missing in action, I suspected
something good was up, and my suspicions were right. The Suburban hadn't even come to a stop, and Tom was already halfway out of the vehicle to tell me the story.
"I killed a wide 10-point," Tom said as he held his hands apart to illustrate the spread.
The sign in the window says it all.
"Is he a good buck?" I asked.
"He's the biggest buck I've ever seen in my life, and he dropped within sight. I'm not real good at scoring bucks, so you'll have to judge him for yourself," Tom said. "He was too heavy for me and Keith to drag out of the woods, so we left him where he fell and came back to eat dinner and round up some help."
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The Sheild's River flowing through Keith's leases is loaded with fat trout.
After a speedy meal, Tom, Keith, Bill, my dad, and I went to get Tom's buck. Based on Tom's description of the deer, I wasn't sure what to expect, and I only hoped his decision to shoot had been the right one. Upon reaching the buck, it was more than obvious that Tom had made the right call. His buck was a wide, heavy, 10-point that we later measured in camp at 142 inches and change.
Until that moment, I don't think Tom truly understood just how good his buck was. Tom has been a great friend, and I was as happy for him at that moment as if I'd killed the buck myself.
The next morning, Bob and I again returned to the same stand we had been hunting. As on previous mornings, this one started out with a bang, as bucks followed hot does from the alfalfa fields to the willows.
A half-hour after sunup, a doe came busting across a small opening to my right. Behind her was a dandy buck. The doe stopped just inside a small patch of cottonwoods, 30 yards in front of me, and the big 10-point, which I guessed at around 150 inches, held up in the opening, 40 yards behind her. Suddenly, a spike showed up and approached the doe. Having none of that, the 10-point promptly ran the spike back into the willows.
Scenes like this are commonplace at Montana Whitetails.
Given the big buck's demeanor, I thought he might come closer if I challenged his dominance. When I grunted on my call, he snapped his head around to look but didn't budge. I grunted again. He continued his gaze but wouldn't take another step. By this time, I had completely forgotten about the doe -- a big mistake. I tried snort-wheezing at the buck, and at that sound, the doe, who had been eyeballing me the entire time, snorted and took off. Her suitor didn't hesitate to follow.
It was 9 a.m., deer movement had slowed, and I was getting hungry. Hanging my bow on a hook, I dug a bologna sandwich out of my pack and was chewing my second bite and enjoying the scenery when Bob tapped my head and hissed, "There's a doe moving along the ditch behind us. She acts like there's a buck behind her."
Seconds later, Bob whispered, "There's a buck, a good buck. Get your bow!"
I threw my sandwich out of the stand, grabbed my bow, and spun around. I didn't know how many points the buck had, but his mass, plus the length of his G2s, were all I needed to see. "I'm gonna shoot this buck," I whispered to Bob.
"Are you kidding me? There's no way I'd let you watch this buck walk away!" Bob replied.
Looking ahead of the buck, I saw only one opening, which I had ranged earlier at 28 yards. When the buck entered the hole in the willows, I quickly put my 30-yard pin on his shoulder and released. My arrow hit a little forward and didn't pass completely through the buck. Still, I felt confident the broadhead had taken out one lung as the deer bolted back into the thick willows with my fletching dancing from his side.
A review of the tape confirmed my suspicions. We were going
to have to give this buck some time. Luckily, time was one thing we had lots of.
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We spent the rest of the morning quietly taping segments
for TV. It was an hour's drive back to camp, so rather than go back for lunch, I called Keith on my cell phone and left a message explaining what had happened.
Six hours later, Keith showed up, and we took up the trail. We found blood where the buck had been standing and a pretty good trail to follow. We discovered the back half of my arrow 100 yards down the trail, and 100 yards from there we recovered the buck.
I had tears in my eyes as I knelt next to the deer. He was magnificent. The buck's body and facial characteristics indicated his age at 41⁄2 years, and his perfect 8-point rack later grossed 1421⁄8 inches.
With three days left in the hunt, my dad was starting to feel the pressure, and he wasn't the only one. Everyone in camp was pulling for him, and we all waited outside for him the next two evenings, hoping he would return with good news. He didn't.
After an uneventful last morning, Dad packed his things in preparation for our early flight the next morning.
"Have faith," I told him. "Anything can happen."
God smiled on my dad that afternoon when, right before
dark, a 21⁄2-year-old 7-point gave him a 20-yard shot. When my dad released, the buck dropped just far enough that the arrow hit high, taking out the top of one lung. We waited several hours before tracking, and after jumping the buck out of his bed, we decided to call it a night.
We wouldn't be able to help in recovering the buck the next day because of our early flight. Even though Keith promised he would find the buck, Dad didn't get much, if any,
sleep that night.
The next day we were sitting in the Minneapolis airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Harrisburg, when my cell phone rang. It was Keith, and he was calling to report they had found my dad's deer, not 150 yards from where we had ended our search. Keith said he would bring the deer home with him after Thanksgiving.
Aside from the birth of my two brothers, I can't remember ever seeing my dad as happy as he was when he received this news. Who could blame him?
Montana had once again proven to be paradise -- this time, for all parties involved.
My equipment on this hunt included a Hoyt Trykon set at 60 lbs., Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 350s tipped with Rocky Mountain Ironhead-100 broadheads, Fuse sights and stabilizer, Nikon Monarch ATB 8x42 binos and Laser800 rangefinder, Summit Copperhead treestands and Bucksteps, Carter Insatiable 3 release aid, Wildlife Research Center's Special Golden Estrous scent and Scent Killer spray, ThermaSCENT scent dispenser, and clothing in Realtree camouflage.
Tom toted a Hoyt VTEC bow and Carbon Express Terminator arrows tipped with Muzzy broadheads. My dad used his Mathews Switchback and Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 250 arrows tipped with Rocky Mountain Ironhead-100 broadheads.
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.
If you are hunting in Wilsall, or anywhere in the United States, and need a good taxidermist, I highly recommend Joe Thomas' Montana Taxidermy Artistry. Joe has done both my Montana whitetails, and his work is top-notch. For more information, click the "Taxidermy" link on the Montana Whitetails website, or call Joe at (406) 223-7675.
This hunt will be featured on Bowhunter Magazine TV, airing the week of December 10, 2007.