The Montana weather may have been unpredictable for his hunt, but the outcome at this whitetail hotspot was anything but.
Checking weather.com two days prior to my fourth consecutive mid-November hunt with Keith Miller's Montana Whitetails, I couldn't help but be a little pessimistic.
As you can see here, my cameraman, Bob Theim, works hard for his money.
Unseasonably warm weather was forecast for all but the last three days of my hunt. That wasn't good if I hoped to see and, God willing, put my tag on one of the many trophy whitetails looking for receptive does this time of year on Keith's leases along the Shields River.
Would I still see lots of deer despite the warm weather? Absolutely. My three previous trips told me so. Would the bigger bucks be on the move as in years past? Only time would tell.
Calls and scents had proven very effective before, so they were at the top of my pack list as I readied my gear the night before my departure. Early the next morning, I boarded my plane in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the flight to Bozeman was uneventful -- a welcome change from my recent string of bad travel luck. Keith and guide Bill Pohl met me and the other hunters for the week at the airport, and they gave us a quick report for the week just completed: Weather had been warmer than normal, so even though the deer were rutting, the bigger bucks weren't moving much yet.
After loading up my rental vehicle I followed Keith and Bill to the local Wal-Mart where I bought a doe tag, something Keith encourages all of his hunters to do. He needs help in keeping the buck-to-doe ratio balanced. From Wal-Mart we drove an hour north to camp just outside the little town of Wilsall.
With plenty of time before dinner, I unpacked my gear, checked my sights, and talked whitetails and hunt strategies with Keith and Bill. After dinner, Keith and I returned to the Bozeman airport to pick up cameraman Bob Theim, who would be taping my hunt for Bowhunter TV. Bob and I had worked together successfully twice before, and I hoped our hot streak would continue in the coming days.
It was late when we got back to camp, and Bob had just come from Illinois where he had spent a week taping another TV hunt. With six full days of hunting ahead of us, I suggested sleeping in the first morning to give Bob a chance to recoup. Bob would have none of it. "I can nap in the tree," he joked.
When the alarm went off four hours later, I almost expected Bob to reconsider my offer, but he was up and ready to go. As camp slowly came to life, I stepped outside to check the weather. The skies were clear, and the thermometer read 35 degrees, just as predicted -- unfortunately! At this time of year, all-day sits are the norm. But if the forecasted warm weather slowed deer movement, Bob and I planned to return to camp for lunch and a short siesta.
Keith had several double-stand setups already in place for us before we arrived. Wind direction that morning dictated we sit in a big cottonwood 20 yards off the Shields River.
Keith said the deer liked to cross a shallow stretch of water behind us before traveling on one of the three main trails that crisscrossed in front of my stand. He also said there were several scrapes nearby, the closest being 30 yards away.
Under the cover of darkness, Bob and I quietly made our way down a two-track to our stand tree. As Bob ascended the tree, I hung a couple of scent wicks soaked in Wildlife Research Center's Special Golden Estrus and HOT Buck Scent and "connected" the wicks to several nearby scrapes with a scent drag.
The sunrise over the river was spectacular, and we didn't have to wait long for things to start happening. The first deer we saw, a half-racked three-point, followed the exact travel route Keith had predicted. When the youngster crossed one of my scent trails, he put his nose to the ground and followed it right to a wick, where he stopped broadside. I had no intention of shooting, but his reaction to my scents gave me confidence in my strategy.
I can think of no better way to cap off a great day in the woods than sharing stories of the day's hunt over a home-cooked dinner.
We spent the rest of the morning watching dozens of deer crossing 200 yards downriver from us. I rattled and grunted at every decent buck crossing the river, but not one of them showed any interest. Honestly, I'm not sure if they could even hear my calling over the sound of the swift water.
As the sun rose higher, so did the temperatures, and by 10 a.m. deer movement had slowed to a trickle. So Bob and I headed to camp to eat lunch and discuss our plans for that evening.
Keith said he had confidence in the stand we'd hunted that morning and suggested we sit there for at least a couple of days, provided the wind was right. Not one to argue with an experienced outfitter, I agreed.
That evening and the next morning, Bob and I saw lots of deer, including a couple of bucks I would have been proud to tag. But, as on the first morning, most of them crossed the river in the same spot, 200 yards away. This was too much for me to take, so at lunch we went back to camp to talk to Keith about hanging a stand where we had watched one deer after another enter the woods after crossing the river.
"I'd give it a try, but that patch of woods is very narrow, and it's also where they like to bed," Keith said. "I'm afraid all we'd end up doing is blowing every deer out of there and ruining that lease for a couple of days. Why don't you guys sit that stand again this evening, and if the same thing happens, I'll put you in the stand where you regretfully passed that 10-pointer last year."
That evening was pretty much a carbon copy of what we'd experienced since the first morning. So, before turning in that night, Keith showed us on a map how to get to the new stand. He also told us the weather was supposed to be very warm and deer movement might be slow, but every day after that would be progressively colder, and there was even a chance for snow.
Until Bob and I were standing under it, looking up at the platform with our headlamps, I had almost forgotten the height of this stand. It was easily 25 to 30 feet high, and the tree wasn't very thick. The butterflies began churning in my gut.
"I'm not gonna lie to you, Bob," I said. "I hate heights, and if I didn't bowhu
nt, there is no way you'd get me up this tree."
Bob basically told me to suck it up, make sure I was buckled into the Summit Climbing System, and take it slow. Easier said than done, I thought.
Before facing my fear and climbing the tree, I put out several scent wicks. Then, after finally reaching the platform, I double-checked my harness and pulled my bow and pack up to the "eagle's nest."
With first light, I could see several bucks chasing does in circles in a distant alfalfa field. I figured it was only a matter of time before their attempts at courtship would bring them past my stand.
Lowering my binoculars, I was surprised to see a mature doe feeding 40 yards in front of me. With an antlerless tag in my pocket and an itchy trigger finger, I told Bob I would take her if she fed within range.
That's when things got interesting. The doe suddenly stopped feeding and nervously looked behind her. At the same time, I heard what sounded like antlers raking a tree.
I killed my Montana eight-point on the warmest day of my hunt. When the weather finally turned cold and snowy, bucks like this fine 10-point (Inset) teased me the rest of the week.
Then I heard a buck grunt, and the doe leaped forward and started walking in my direction.
At this point I had forgotten about the doe and turned my attention to the row of willows where the buck sounds had originated. Bob, however, was still focused on the doe, thinking I was going to shoot her as originally planned.
The doe was almost directly under me when her suitor finally showed himself. The three-year-old eight-point looked plenty good to me, and as he worked his way toward the doe I slowly positioned myself for the shot while whispering "Bob, buck!"
Bob didn't hear me, but he did notice my movements as I started my draw and quickly swung the camera onto the buck. As I reached full draw, Bob whispered that he had him in his viewfinder. When the buck paused at 10 yards, I released. The arrow reached the buck so quickly I honestly couldn't see whether it had hit him, but it sounded like a solid hit, and the buck kicked his back legs out and ran 30 yards before stopping to look back.
Based on the buck's reactions, I felt fairly certain he was going to drop where he now stood broadside. Still, I quickly nocked another arrow, just in case.
"Shoot him again!" Bob hissed.
Again, not one to argue with sound advice, I came to full draw, put my 30-yard pin behind the buck's shoulder, and released. This shot left no doubt, as my white fletching disappeared through the buck where my pin had been a split second before.
The buck ran 20 yards before stopping on the crest of a ditch. His legs splayed and moments later he tipped over sideways, rolling to the bottom of the ditch.
"What happened on my first shot?" I asked.
"I think your arrow deflected off a branch and passed under his chest," Bob replied.
After making the harrowing descent, we walked over to the fallen buck and, sure enough, Bob was right -- almost. My first arrow hadn't completely missed, but it had just grazed the buck's armpit.
Over the next three days, the weather turned colder with snow as I tried to fill my doe tag -- unsuccessfully. And with the cold temperatures came one Pope and Young-buck sighting after another.
Was I disappointed at not holding out longer? No way! A good buck in hand was still better than two, or three, or four trophy bucks in the Montana bush. And they'll be there when I return this fall.
Author's Notes: On this hunt I used a Hoyt Katera set at 60 lbs.; Carbon Express Aramid KV 350 arrows; Rocky Mtn. Ti-100 broadheads; Fuse sight, stabilizer, and quiver; Scott release; Summit Copperhead stand, Bucksteps, Seat-O-The-Pants harness, and Climbing System; clothing from Sitka; Nikon binoculars and rangefinder; Knight & Hale rattle bag and grunt call; and Scent Killer and scents from Wildlife Research Center.
Keith Miller's Montana Whitetails is one of those places I just can't stay away from, and I'll be returning again this November. To book a hunt with Keith, contact: Montana Whitetails, Inc., 25 Bright Lane, Wilsall, MT 59086; (406) 578-2383; (717) 512-3582 (cell); www.montanawhitetails.com.
This hunt will appear on Bowhunter TV on Sportsman Channel the week of September 7, 2009, and again the week of December 7, 2009. Check local listings for airtimes.