Planning my first western hunt for mule deer in Montana

andyrowland

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Hey everyone! I am planning my first western hunt with a friend and I'm hoping that someone might be able to provide some insight before we put in our applications. Here's the backstory:

A good friend and I are white tail hunters in Alabama and we want to go hunting out west while spending as little money as possible. We have a good friend that lives in a tiny town in southwestern Montana called Dell. He said that we are welcome to sleep on his floor any time we want so we thought this would provide a great opportunity to save money while hunting out west. I visited the area in October 2014, fell in love with it's beauty and decided that I need to hunt out there one day. We are planning on driving from Alabama while taking turns sleeping and driving the entire way (yeah, we know). We also figure that it would be best for us to target mule deer instead of elk/mule deer combination since this is our first time. In the future, we may want to move up to hunting elk while camping out of the truck and maybe eventually going full back country. At this point, our plan is to sleep on our friend's floor and get up early enough to be able to make it to a decent glassing spot by sunrise every morning.

Here's where the questions start. (I've spent a lot of time on the FWP website and tried calling the Montana FWP offices in the area, but they said they didn't have time to answer my questions. Kind of disappointing considering how much money NR tags cost.)

Which district should we pick? (We think 302 is the answer)
My friend's house is real close to the convergence of districts 300, 302 and 325. District 300 is a limited draw so that leaves us with 302 and 325 as our options. 302 is to the west and extends to the state border and 325 is a bigger unit to the east and extends all the way north to Dillon. You have to put in for a permit for 302, but the permits are unlimited. 302 seems to have a lower percentage of private land compared to 325. Based on the time in spent as a tourist in 2014 as well as looking at satellite imagery of those areas, it seems like 302 would be our best choice. The problem is I don't know much about mule deer so I may be wrong about what appears to be a good place to find them. From my friend's house, there isn't a tree for MILES heading into unit 325. We drove east into that unit (325) from my friend's place when I visited and saw nothing but antelope, I'm not sure what term you use for that type of landscape, but it is rolling hills with grasses. It didn't look like great deer country to me. By contrast, when we drove west into district 302, there are way more trees and a big chunk of national forest land along with the BLM. We even saw mule deer from the road. It seems to me that 302 should be our choice. We don't want to have to get up at 2:00am every morning and drive forever to get into good hunting area. Not only does 302 look like better hunting ground, its WAY more beautiful country, and that is a big reason for our desire to hunt out there in the first place. The reason I am second guessing my gut is because of the harvest estimate statistics on the FWP website. It shows that way more deer are killed in unit 325 than unit 302. I think that might be because there are more people hunting in 325, more private land in 325 or perhaps they are killing all those deer in a part of 325 that is far away from my friend's place. What do you guys think? 302 or 325?

Is this a decision that we have to make by March 15th? I know that 302 requires a permit, but the permits are unlimited. Can we put in for a general buck tag and get the permit for unit 302 later?

Are there other tags that we should think about putting in for to increase our opportunities? I understand that mule deer doe tags are not available for that area, but I think we could get a white tail doe tag. Neither of us are particularly interested in travelling that far to kill white tail does since we kill them every year in our back yards, but our host said that he might appreciate the meat. How much would a whit tail doe tag cost and do we have to put in for them by March 15th? Any other species available? I think we could get a wolf tag, but my buddy doesn't think there are enough in the area to be worth the money.

Does anyone know of any guides in that area that would take us out for a day or two? We want to do this as DIY as possible, but we worry about spending all this time and money and never seeing anything. It would be nice if we could find someone to take us out on the public land for a day or two just to show us the ropes.



Anyway, we have a TON more questions (maps, gear, hunting techniques) to ask and I'm going to be on this forum asking for advice all year, but this is enough to get us started. I appreciate any help or advice you guys might have. Thank you
 

VAspeedgoat

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I can't help much with the unit delimma but I can tell you to invest in good binos and glass like crazy. If you get away from the roads and spend some time glassing, finding deer won't be hard. Finding a trophy is but finding a descent buck should be doable for a beginner. The distance will be the shock to your system vs. Alabama. Be careful on that drive, a third person to stay awake wiyh the driver would sure help. We had the same issue last year and it made me nervous when I would get sleepy driving. Good luck, this is a great place to get information.
 

Big Fin

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I've never hunted there, but odds are your headed down a good path. Keep going. Let us know how it turns out.

Thanks for signing up.
 

Randy11

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302 no longer requires a permit, it's now a general unit.
 

Thomas11

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I too live in alabama. Trying to figure out hunting the west on your own is hard for "us southerners". I've done 4 DIY trips outwest elk hunting. You just have to go and do it. After the first trip things will come easier and you will have an idea of what to expect. If your set on Montana, I would consider flying. It's like 40+ hrs from alabama. Also I've never found anywhere I could hunt elk and stay in a "house or hotel" for public land. It would just take too long to get to where all the elk were. I've learned the closer I can camp to where I'm hunting, I get more rest and more hunting and I have way more encounters because of this. Also get an onX map chip for GPS. Best piece of gear I own. It has allowed me to get around and hunt places so easily with a piece of mind that I know where I'm at. And learn the diff states draw processes in detail and then next yr apply accordingly! U can still apply in NM and CO as well this Yr if u were interested in a elk hunt. There's nothing like bugling elk in sept. For me I would definitely do an elk hunt over mule deer, but I'm sure deer would be great as well If that's what u want try first!
 
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Can't help much in that area but keep in mind that if you draw a mule deer permit you can't hunt them in any other unit. So if you draw 302 and are driving through 325 and see a monster you're out of luck. Also, please get a wolf tag. You never know when one will show up. You might not see one but if one happens to show up you'll be glad you've got a tag.
 

billy-bob8

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I would possibly go out a couple days early, stay at your friends place, scout like crazy, and then camp and hunt out of the truck in what ever area seems most promising.
I think I would go for the Elk/Deer combo license also. You have come that far and invested a lot already, whats a few more bucks, its only money, and I can't imagine how you would feel if the Elk opportunity presented itself. Besides how much of a demi-god would you be with your hunting buddys to bring a Elk rack and the great meat home to share at the 4th of July BBQ
 

andyrowland

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Thank you everyone for the advice and encouragement. I specifically want to thank Randy11 for informing me that 302 is no longer a unit that requires a permit. I did most of my research last spring based on last year's regs and never realized they changed it. Even the map in the application packet stilled showed 302 as requiring a permit.

My buddy and I put in our applications for the mule deer general combination. We just don't feel ready for elk and decided to save that money. The idea of cutting up a deer and packing it out is daunting enough that it was easy to pass up the elk tag. Based on some of your responses, you guys don't realize what kind of budget we are trying to abide by. We think we can do this whole trip for about $2000 each. That includes, tags, boots, packs, gas, maps and all manner of other gear we don't have.

We still have questions about other opportunity tags we should pick up. Not sure if I should start a new thread because the new questions are quite different?
 

andyrowland

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Also, native Montanans should blame Big Fin and Steven Rinella if me and my buddy are in your unit, screwing up everyone's hunt because we don't know what we're doing. If not for their shows and podcasts, I never would have thought western hunting was something that I could do without hiring an expensive outfitter.

Not only are they great spokesmen for hunting in general, they are great advocates for eastern hunters to head west and try something challenging and new.
 

VAspeedgoat

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Been there done that, we did our trip last fall for $1000 but that didn't include new gear. It did include tag, gas and hotels traveling. Another person would have dropped it to $800. Get a refurbished gps, theron binos, and watch ebay for a used pack. I would go for hiker boots instead of hunting boots because you can get them cheaper. Ebay is also a good place to pick up a functional rangefinder, but stick to sellers with near 100% ratings. Skip a spotting scope and don't worry about anything but a good day pack. You can split the load between the two of you and do fine packing out a deer. Check out camofire and steap and cheep to round out your gear. If I invested in one thing it would be good baselayers, maybe even merino wool if you can swing it. I got mine on sierra trading post. I would skip fancy rain gear to save money, truthfully a camo army style poncho will serve you well and eliminate the need to dry out clothes overnight. That should hold you under your $2000 dollar mark.

Practice deboning on a deer before you go. Its really easy so don't fret over it. If you can't get a deer of your own before your trip maybe a buddy will let you try on one of his. Though its significantly easier on warm deer.

Good luck
 

andyrowland

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The one place that I didn't want to skimp on money was the boots. Cabela's sells some boots from Meindl for about $300 that are well reviewed. I hope to try them on at the local Cabela's soon. We were also planning on getting used, military surplus ILBE packs. We don't need much of a pack for just a day hunt, but we don't know how far we may end up packing out an animal and need some type of frame pack for this.

I have a range finder, spotting scope and binoculars. I was hoping to figure out a way to put my binos on a tripod without having to spend a lot of money. I was planning on using my cell phone instead of a gps with the onx maps installed. I am definitely going to have to spend some money for clothes. I've never climbed a mountain in my hunting gear and worry about sweat soaking into the cotton clothes I own.

We are also wrapping our head around what type of emergency gear we should have. We hope to get as far away from the truck as is reasonable for a day hunt and don't know how concerned we should be about having to spend the night in the woods.

We have deboned quite a number of deer, but never in the field. We know our way around a deer carcass, but have never done it on the ground, way back in the country.

Thanks
 

junior71

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You will be fine. With deer it's all about water. Find the water, and you find the deer.
I think you may want to play with the onxmap on your phone. My son had it last year. It worked great with signal, but sucked without. Idk what the problem was, but he said, he didn't download all the maps? Idk, but my Garmin worked perfectly. I bought the cheap etrex. It's all I need, simple, compact, and won't break the bank.
We have done a lot of diy hunts. The best advice I can give is make a plan with your partner. Know the direction your headed everyday. Have a plan if someone gets injured. (Nearest HP)Topo's and Google earth are your friend, study your areas before you leave. Make plan, b, c, d. Don't be afraid to pull out and move. Some hunts turn into a scouting trip, don't get discouraged. Also, a local with some knowledge goes a long ways.
 

VAspeedgoat

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The one place that I didn't want to skimp on money was the boots. Cabela's sells some boots from Meindl for about $300 that are well reviewed. I hope to try them on at the local Cabela's soon. We were also planning on getting used, military surplus ILBE packs. We don't need much of a pack for just a day hunt, but we don't know how far we may end up packing out an animal and need some type of frame pack for this.

I have a range finder, spotting scope and binoculars. I was hoping to figure out a way to put my binos on a tripod without having to spend a lot of money. I was planning on using my cell phone instead of a gps with the onx maps installed. I am definitely going to have to spend some money for clothes. I've never climbed a mountain in my hunting gear and worry about sweat soaking into the cotton clothes I own.

We are also wrapping our head around what type of emergency gear we should have. We hope to get as far away from the truck as is reasonable for a day hunt and don't know how concerned we should be about having to spend the night in the woods.

We have deboned quite a number of deer, but never in the field. We know our way around a deer carcass, but have never done it on the ground, way back in the country.

Thanks

Its my opinion to start with good baselayers. If you get some good stuff like merino wool, the cotton outerlayers are less of a factor in my opinion.

There's a couple of good threads on emergency kits and first aid kits on here. Its usually pretty simple stuff. If you layer right and can make a fire you're in good shape. Take an emergency blancket and something to eat and it will be fine if you have to spend the night.

Deboning in the field, gutless method, is essentially the same as in a shop just doing one side at a time. Randy has a good thread on that on here and there are some god ones on you tube. If you would do just one before your trip, it would be all you need. If you bow hunt or know somebody that does, that may give you an early chance at it. Not sure how your seasons run down there.

Good luck.
 

Reeltime

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Andy,
Your putting too much worry into the processing and packing of the deer you may shoot. A mule deer split between 2 guys, bone in or out, is not a tough pack, you'll be fine!

Everything you need to know is in this thread. Boots are important, so are socks. I'd highly suggest at least one pair of high quality merino wool socks. Make a priority list and watch camofire religiously. You've got a long time to stock up! Good luck and have fun.

Make sure you go to the Calf-A for dinner and breakfast at least once!!
 

genesis273

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Make sure you go to the Calf-A for dinner and breakfast at least once!!

^^^This! After eating Mountain House for a week, come out to take a shower and get a good meal on an elk hunt before going back for another week, Calf-A's cheese burger was the absolute best burger that I've ever put in my mouth! It may have something to do with the circumstances, but we'll worth the drive through the big town and traffic of about 3 dozen folks! We ended up stopping in there again before going home.
 

andyrowland

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I've been to the Calf-A quite a few times when I visited my friend out there in the Fall of 2014. Those sausage breakfast sandwiches were insanely big. It looked like a 1/2 lb hamburger.

I would get up before anyone else and watch all the whitetails in the valley as the sun was coming up and then get breakfast at the Calf-A. It's an amazing place.

Also, my friend says the fly fishing on the Red Rock is terrible and no one should bother wading it. ;)
 

Watt21

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Lots of good hunting to be had in that corner of the state.

The camping vs staying with a buddy argument depends on what time of year you come. Having to drive farther but having a warm place to sleep at night definitely becomes a worthwhile trade when its snows and gets cold.

I would recommend that you come in mid November when rut activity picks up and bucks are more active during the day.

You can buy a whitetail doe tag over the counter with tag 399-00. Maybe one of you buy a whitetail doe tag and another buy a wolf tag. That way if you run across either species during the hunt you will have options and save money. You can buy these anytime so I would wait until closer to the season.

Also this year in 325 your mule deer tag will allow you to take either a buck or a doe. So, if you have difficulty finding a mature buck, you do have the option to harvest does.

You should be able to find a decent specimen if you are up early and covering ground with your eyeballs. You can almost always turn up deer with a good vantage point and decent glass.

I would highly recommend you guys buy onxmaps or a similar mapping software. There is a ton of public land here but its not always clear what land is what. GPS makes it so much less of a headache and allows you to confidently head out wherever you want. If you don't have a GPS then you can utilize phone integration as well. I think this is $100 bucks but only one of you would need to buy it and I would almost certainly consider it essential to a successful public land hunt.

How many days do you guys plan to hunt?
 

andyrowland

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We are planning on hunting for a minimum of 5 days but hope to have more time. A lot of it depends on my hunting buddy's job and we won't know that for a while. We are planning on hunting either the first or second week of rifle season. The friend that we're staying with is heading out on a steelhead trip during the second week of November.

The main reason we are staying with my friend is due to our budget. We don't have much camping gear and it's not really suited for cold weather. We would have to spend a considerable amount of money for camping gear. We hope to start moving in that direction for future hunts. Luckily, my friend lives in a fairly remote area and we think we can get to a decent spot with less than an hour of driving. My hunting buddy and I are used to getting up early to go hunt.
 

TNTBurton

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I know you said you want to focus on deer, but you may want to consider getting an elk tag as well if you can get one. There are quite a few elk down in that part of the state. Depending on what area and time of the year, you may be able to shoot a cow. You would be kicking yourself if you saw an elk and didn't have a tag. Harvesting an elk is unlike any experience you will ever have, not to mention the meat is delicious.
 
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