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Snoozing on the job

| November 30, 2023 12:00 AM

Our general rifle season for deer and elk ended last Sunday. If you are like me, after many days of hunting starting in September, first for grouse, then archery hunting for deer and elk, then ducks & pheasants and many other game species, you may be ready to spend some time at home catching up on home chores and watching some football on TV.      

The week of November 7 was the peak of my fall hunting season. I was lucky enough to have my wife, son and two “adopted” sons, Todd and Steve, at our farm by Malta. Not only was deer season open, but it was the peak of the deer rut, so the otherwise shy and secretive mule deer and whitetail bucks were out searching for does for breeding. If you found a group of does and fawns, there was always a buck or two hanging around.

Last winter was a tough winter for deer in the Malta area where I hunt. I didn’t hear much in the way of winter deer starvation, but I think lots of does had a tough winter, so they didn't drop healthy fawns that could survive. Everybody that hunted with me this fall remarked how they felt the deer population was down. We saw deer every time we went hunting, just not the usual number of deer. The deep snows of last winter were great for soil moisture, resulting in good hay and grain crops, but were tough on wildlife.  After two years of drought, the melting deep snows filled all the local ponds, so the ducks and geese had good habitat conditions. When I came through the Havre game check station, biologists confirmed that hunting success was normal, but many hunters reported seeing fewer deer than normal.

Earlier in October, my friend Todd and I jumped a fat whitetail doe and her two fawns on the south end of my farm. We could have easily shot those deer. We had doe tags in our pockets. But we did not shoot. We figured that if that doe knew how to survive a tough Eastern Montana winter in 2023 and still produce two healthy fawns, we should allow those deer to stay in the local deer gene pool. Guess that was an indication of the conservation side of hunting. As the motto of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation says, “Hunting is Conservation.”

My wife, JoAnn, bagged the first deer of this recent trip. I must say I contributed some to her success by being old and lazy. The morning hunt started with JoAnn and myself sitting on a vantage point, viewing down the length of our mile long deer coulee. We saw four to six mule deer feeding in the south end of our deer coulee. We could not tell for sure if the deer were on our farm, or just south on BLM land. So, we drove my truck south for a half mile, then slipped out of the truck for the last half mile of the stalk on foot. We couldn’t find the deer in our coulee, so continued south onto BLM land. But search as we could, the deer had just disappeared! 

So, we hiked back to my truck and proceeded along our south farm boundary to the southeast corner of our farm. We parked the truck on a vantage point where we could watch the junction of three coulees and some good bottom land, good deer habitat. The landscape was vacant. The sun was pouring into the front window of my truck and I was toasty warm. One of my attributes of being an old fellow is that I can sleep anytime and anyplace. I suggested to my wife that I could take a short nap while she watched this prime deer spotting area. I snuggled down into my seat and closed my eyes. Wonderful! My nap lasted only a few minutes when my wife poked me. I sat up and she pointed to several mule deer, including a nice buck, feeding within 200 yards of the truck. Wow! We are not sure if the deer were bedded and finally stood up where we could see them or they simply fed into view from one of the side coulees.

The deer began to move away from us, out of the coulee bottom up on a small ridge. JoAnn was the designated shooter, so she quietly slipped out her truck door and used a fence post to stabilize her rifle. Boom, her gun discharged breaking the morning prairie silence. I was watching the buck in my binoculars and saw her shot impact the ground in front of the deer. She shot again and I could see that bullet hit the deer in the heart lung area. Instead of running off, the badly injured buck deer just ran around sniffing the does. That was an indication of the power of the deer rut. In spite of being severely injured, that buck only had breeding on his mind. Then the buck dropped down back into the coulee bottom and disappeared in the tall prairie grass. We waited a few minutes, but the buck did not appear again. We assumed it was dead. So, we climbed through the barbed-wire fence and walked down to the deer. To our surprise, when we got within 20 feet of the buck, it got up and hobbled off, but was clearly gravely wounded. It ran out of sight up a side coulee. 

We walked up to where the deer had bedded and found a large pool of blood. We had two inches of fresh snow, so tracking the wounded deer was easy. The blood trail made tracking even easier. A short way up the coulee, the deer finally succumbed to JoAnn’s shot and was piled up dead. About that time, our son, Erik, and Steve, his hunting buddy, showed up and helped get the deer back to the truck. Within an hour, the buck was hanging in our old farm garage, its hide was removed with the meat cooling nicely. I can’t help thinking that my desire for a short morning nap contributed to seeing that buck and my wife filling her deer license. The next day Steve filled his deer tag in our deer coulee with a nice buck.

Deer, like lots of game, have a habit of appearing out of nowhere and similarly disappearing. That is part of the fun of deer hunting. But if you still have a deer or elk license, there are still some deer and elk hunting opportunities left in December, including the muzzleloader season from Dec. 9-17. So, get out here and enjoy the mountains of Western Montana and go hunting. Perhaps our paths will cross. 

Don’t hesitate to take a well-deserved nap. Remember hunting is fun!