2020 Wrap Up; Lessons Learned and Unlearned


New member
Jan 23, 2020
Not wanting to break from 2020's motto of "Always Keep 'Em Guessing", this year's deer season in Montana was interesting to say the least. Some interesting experiences had, some interesting lessons learned, and an unexpected muley spike heading to the sausage man.

For starters, this was never going to be a normal deer season. First time hunting Montana, hosting non-hunting family for Thanksgiving, more-than-usual crowding out in the field, and the fact that I had done exactly 0 planning for it prior to August were some primary factors in ensuring this was going to be kind of an oddball season. For clarification, I hadn't planned on a deer hunt because I had (foolishly) put my eggs in a pronghorn-hunting basket, but didn't draw the tag (first lesson learned: how to apply for pronghorn here). So when the end of August rolled around, I decided to get a deer tag and be fine with it for the season. Then the other issues began to arise.

I wanted to bring my dad out because he hasn't been out hunting in some 20 years now, and he could use the outing. He's not the most mobile fellow in the world these days (he's a 70 year old Vietnam vet), so that ruled out a lot of public land hunting from the get go. He can walk a pretty long distance, but a lot of up and down runs him ragged pretty quick. But no worries, plenty of BLM and BMA land that can accommodate that.

We spent the election up in Hungry Horse hunting around Glacier NP up and down USFS roads, and saw lots of deer, and even had one "shot out from under us". We had passed a whitetail buck (maybe a 4x4) on a USFS hillside, but didn't want to immediately park and spook him, so we idled up a bit. On my stalk down to find him again I heard the shot, and headed back to the car. On the way back down the road, we passed the guys who got him. They must've been maybe 3 minutes behind us coming up the road (2nd lesson learned: pull off and shoot the damn thing from the woodline, I guess) when they also spotted him. Bad luck? Who knows. Didn't see any other bucks on public that me and dad would have had good access to retrieving, so we came home empty handed. No big deal, lots of season left.

Then other family started to arrive. Did they want to travel? No. Did they want to see anything outside of Helena where I live? No. Did they have good attitudes about hunting? No. Did they need me to accommodate every little thing they needed? Yes. Were they guilt trippy about any time me and dad went out to hunt for a morning or afternoon? Yes. So that further reduced our ability to get out. Hunts around town from then on out. My less-than-ideal deer season just got a lot less idealistic, but no worries, the 3xx units around Helena are lousy with deer so we're coming home with something, at least.

So we start focusing on the BMAs and little chunks of easy-to-get-around USFS and BLM land around Lewis and Clark county, and there's plenty of access. But once we get out to these places and start looking around, turns out there's plenty of hunters too! Some of the sign-in boxes we saw were filling several pages a day. But there's seriously a zillion deer out here so I wasn't too worried. After visiting a few more spots we finally come across a chunk of BMA that's easy to access, easy to traverse, had moderate hunter numbers and had LOTS of animals. We came across a girl hunting this same chunk of BMA (shout out to Alyssa if she sees this), and through the kindness of strangers we had teamed up to scout an area where they were coming out to feed. She had primarily been hunting the afternoons, but it was pushing fairly far into the season and bucks just weren't hanging out in that area during the afternoon. We recommended teaming up again for the morning, and she agreed. Me and dad took the hills where we had seen a pretty nice 4x4 the morning before, and she was holed up in the food area. We heard a shot, went down, and there she was in the usual spot getting her 3x3's suit off. She had some help, so we gave her some congratulations and went about our way feeling pretty good. This area clearly had active bucks, even a mature one or two, and they weren't excessively pressured. We were sure we'd be lucky here. And interestingly enough it had a herd of about 30 antelope living on that chunk. We actually came across a LOT of pronghorn in the region 3 forested foothills while we were out. I would have never have thought of these places as good for antelope but from what I was looking at out there, that's it for drives out to Roundup and Lewistown if I can avoid it.

Over the next few days we come out to this BMA chunk and scout super early every day to really get a sense of their comings and goings. We establish their route from the food area up across a small hill-ridge thing into some brushy draw areas, and we make our plan: we'll come up the far fence line before light, set up on the hump, and when they're making way back up the hump for cover for the day, we'll whack the one we like. Seemed like a no-brainer and it was the closest thing to Texas hunting we were able to craft together this whole time. So the morning arrives and we make our way up the fence line, but we're not seeing any activity at all. The light is low and hard to see, but this field has been full of does every morning for almost two weeks with stupid young bucks chasing them in the field, and older smarter ones chasing them up in the hills, but so far we haven't seen a single animal. This immediately weirded us out. It's not often that deer just change their habits and abandon a choice food source. Especially all of them overnight. But we guessed maybe they were on the other side of some fencing and haystacks and whatnot and couldn't see them, or worse, we spooked them or they moved out early and we're just wasting time and energy out there.

Nonetheless, we get up to the hill-ridge thing and we set ourselves down and start watching. About 30 minutes pass by and we're well into shooting light and there's been nothing. No deer, no rabbits, not jack. We can see pretty far from where we were and we couldn't see anything moving through the fields. We discuss the options and decide to start moving up the hill-ridge thing to where we normally seem them crossing to get into the brushy cover areas. There's a ton of very fresh droppings, they already came through here. We're wondering what the hell happened, and dad goes to look in the brushy area. I keep moving up the ridge and suddenly there he is: a muley 3x3 or 3x4 popped himself out of the brush and was heading back towards the food area. I'm totally stupefied as to why any of this is happening but whatever, a buck at 60 yards taking his sweet time to walk across an opening is a gift from the gods that you accept without question where I come from. So I drop to my knee, take perfect aim and CLICK. No round in the chamber. Safety first, right?

So he hears my click, but does not enjoy my click, and goes stotting off down the hillside, through the food field below, and into some more brushy cover in a little draw area down there. I grab dad, tell him where I saw the buck go, and we devise a plan. Spread out, move down, and see if we can't get him to move in the brush so we can relocate him. This did not work. I don't know how we lost him, but we did. Sly devils, these muleys can be. So, with defeat on our shoulders and no meat in our bags, we start heading back to the car. I'm poking around seeing if I can't get something to move out there, and I realize that I've lost sight of my dad. I turn around and walk out into a clearing and I see him waving me down like he's a stranded driver. I go over and he's standing over one shot muley spike. And a pretty damn big spike, to be frank. Dad was taking a shortcut to the car (laziness pays off from time to time), and came across him lying there. But who shot him? We had been out there since well before shooting light, and we hadn't heard anything. Hadn't even seen anyone.

This buck was fresh. Eye was only just starting to glaze, skin moved on the body, and the blood was bright red warm liquid. The legs were pretty stiff and frozen, though. We immediately call the warden, and she shows up with her metal detector and scalpel ready to do some forensics. Says the eye dilation indicated it was shot in the dark and the big, mangled lead round she pulled out of it's chest indicated it wasn't my .243 copper round she was looking for. She agreed to let us have it if she wanted it, and helped us piece it out right there which was very nice, gave me this weird receipt thing for it, then went on her way to look for casings and whatnot. It had then dawned on us what had happened: there weren't any deer out that morning because some CRIMINAL(S) had been out in the middle of the night before shooting up little bucks and who knows who else out there. Fantastic. Meat's meat, though, and that little spikey went back to my house for hang time.

I basically called the season after that. Today's closing day, I'm exhausted, and one salvaged spikey is good enough for me to just go ahead and call it an absolute wash for 2020. Learned my lessons about having contingency hunting plans in place, shooting deer when it's immediately available, remembering to chamber rounds when getting into likely shooting areas, and recognizing when spotlighters have come through the night before when you weren't around. And that there's antelope in the forested foothills in November.

Interesting season, but I probably wouldn't do it twice.
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