October 28, 2010
A quick change in plans leads to a memorable trophy.
As I rolled across the broad valleys of west-central Montana, a warm-fuzzy feeling began to flood over me. It was early September, a new bow season was upon me and I was about to spend a good deal of time in wild places. With a tag in my pocket that allowed for an elk, a deer, small game and fishing, I was "loaded for bear." The next few weeks were going to be an excellent adventure!
West-central Montana is a beautiful landscape, rich in scenery and big game. This is a bowhunter's paradise!
During the 1,500-mile drive from my home in Oklahoma, dreams of big-antlered elk had constantly floated through my head. Being an elk junkie from way back, I was very excited about the prospects the "Big Sky" state offered. I knew I'd be in some game-rich areas -- the rest would be up to me. As always, it would be in meeting the challenges of a classic "self" hunt that I would find true success. Whether the hunt ended in tag soup or meat for my family, I would come out of the experience a much richer man. Memories for a lifetime lay straight ahead. Adrenaline and testosterone flowed through my veins.
Could a guy be more alive?
As I rolled through foothill valleys, I was "winging it." Having failed to put together much of a game plan during my pre-trip research, I found myself relying on an approach that I'd used on many previous outings -- simply get there, find good-looking country, then hit the ground running. Wondering at the naivety of my approach, I nevertheless found great solace in the simple-mindedness of the entire idea. Hey, whatever will be, will be!
Since my primary focus was on elk, I headed toward the national forest ground that blanketed a nearby mountain range. As I wound along a road that closely followed a creek drainage, I couldn't help but notice the gorgeous game habitat that surrounded me.
Lush alfalfa fields dotted the river bottom, while oak brush and aspen thickets covered the surrounding hillsides. Brush-choked ravines intersected the landscape at regular intervals. From research, I knew most of this country was privately owned and harbored tremendous populations of both deer and elk. My plan was to set up a base camp inside the forest boundary then pack into some of the more inaccessible areas of public ground that sat directly above the premium private ground. Surely this would lead to some good elk action, wouldn't it? I couldn't wait to find out.
When I passed the national forest boundary sign, I began to look for a secluded spot to camp. Turning onto a rough, two-track road, I soon found myself in a perfect location.
There was ample grass and water for my mule nearby and a nice, flat spot for my camp.
In less than an hour, I'd set up housekeeping and my mind began to fill with wanderlust.
With a few hours of daylight remaining, I decided to get in my truck and go for a look-see. Heading back to the main road, I rolled slowly along, sipping on a cold soda, soaking up life to the utmost.
Soon, I began to spot many deer, in many places. There were deer on the forested public ground, and there were even more deer in the private alfalfa fields. As the evening progressed, I realized I was surrounded by a deer resource that was simply amazing -- there were deer everywhere! In about an hour, I had counted more than 200 deer -- mostly whitetails, though mule deer were also well represented. In one alfalfa filed alone, there were 20 mule deer and 50 whitetails, and of the whitetails, 18 were bucks! To top things off, there were Merriam turkeys present, and a few elk also. Both excited and confused, I wondered where to start in this incredible smorgasbord of game. What an exciting position to be in!
Getting back to base camp at dark, my mind was spinning. Could I still prioritize elk with this incredible deer resource at my fingertips? Unsure of what to do, I decided to simply hang out for another day before I committed to a course of action. As I drifted off to sleep, I knew I needed to spend more time in this low-country deer haven before I headed to the backcountry for elk. Yes, tomorrow would encompass a much closer look at this "deer issue."
A New Direction
Sunrise found me covering ground in my truck. And once again, deer were everywhere. I couldn't seem to get enough of the sight laid out before me and almost ran off the road numerous times while gawking at deer in nearby fields. I began to realize my elk dreams were going to have to be put on the back burner. Hey, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
Spotting a cowboy working on an irrigation system, I pulled off the road and parked. I was determined to break the ice with one of the locals. Approaching the rancher, I soon found him to be a pleasant, kind fellow. In a short while, I'd mustered up the courage to ask permission to bowhunt. Much to my great satisfaction, permission was granted. As I drove away, excitement welled up inside me. Now -- though my original elk plans had just gone out the window for the foreseeable future -- I had a newfound mission. This scrawny Okie was going to try to put a Big Sky buck in the freezer.
Plunging full speed ahead, I quickly set about learning the lay of the land I would be hunting. When evening neared, I grabbed my binos and headed for a nearby hill that overlooked the small creek that ran through the property. Right on cue, deer began streaming down from the hills in large numbers. Many does of both species were visible, along with a few small mule deer bucks. A fair number of nice-antlered whitetail bucks also were present, all freshly out of velvet.
The sight was breathtaking! Laid out before me were lush, green alfalfa fields intersected by a clear stream. Flowing toward all this lowland beauty were amber hills dotted with stands of aspen, oak and pine, already in their early fall colors. On the near horizon, massive, snow-capped peaks lorded over the entire scene, adding further awe to an already mind-boggling view.
As I headed back toward my truck in the twilight, once again my mind was spinning. It was clear I had a tremendous resource at my fingertips; I simply needed to make the best of a great opportunity. I now needed to make some decisions about my goals and my strategy. Since I'd not seen my first whopper buck, it was clear that I'd have to be willing to harvest a "representative" buck if I was going to hunt the property for which I had gained
permission. Also, it appeared my best opportunity for success would come from evening hunts. All this considered, I crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep with hunting scenarios drifting through my head.
This was the base camp author Eddie
Claypool set up in the national forest land where he hunted in west-central Montana. Claypool said he watched both whitetail and mule deer pass through his camp area each day of the hunt.
My first morning spent afield with bow in hand consisted of a lot of watching and very little hunting. I had expected such, and as I watched the deer head back to their daytime bedding areas, a particular whitetail buck caught my attention. My 10-power glasses made it clear this buck had some "extra stuff' going on in his rack. Unable to get a clear look at the buck's rack, I nevertheless could tell he held some unusual characteristics. For some reason, this buck appealed to me -- I wanted to get him.
During midday, I drove into a distant town to phone home. I'd been away about a week, and it sure felt good to hear my girl's voice on the other end of the line. Telling Peggie of my recent adventures, it was uplifting to hear a happy and supportive voice on the line.
Relating my accounts of the country and its bounty, I took a moment to tell Peg of the "oddball" buck I'd seen in the morning. Nonchalantly, Peg stated she wanted me to "kill that buck for her." Quietly laughing inside, I assured her I would try.
As I headed afield for my first "serious" hunt, I wondered what the evening would hold.
Certainly, I would see a lot of deer, but I also knew things rarely went as hoped. I did know I was going to take things slowly and carefully, taking as long as necessary to work my way into a shooting opportunity at a nice buck. Thoughts of the odd-antlered buck were in the back of my mind, yet with many other nice bucks in the area, I really had no intention of holding out for this specific animal.
Making a circuitous route that kept the wind in my favor, I approached an area that I'd observed many deer moving through in the past few days. Quietly making a ground blind on the edge of a brushy thicket, I settled in to see what might happen. A few does and small bucks soon began making their way into the surrounding alfalfa fields. As the afternoon wore on, the action really heated up.
Pictured are a few of the whitetail deer Eddie Claypool encountered during his scouting efforts. Whitetail and mule deer were so plentiful in the area that Claypool decided to abandon his pursuit of bull elk in search of a trophy buck.
Two nice 8-pointers made their way past my location just 40 yards out. Though I was sorely tempted by the 120-class bucks, I chose to wait and see what else developed.
Answers were short in coming.
Toward early evening, three nice bucks appeared on the field approximately 150 yards from my location. One clearly had better bone than the other two. I'd glassed these three bucks moving together on previous days, and I'd chosen the spot where I was hiding this evening with hopes of getting a good shot at one of these bucks. The bigger buck was the best buck I'd seen in the entire area, and I wanted a chance at him badly. With the appearance of the bucks on the field at such a distance from my location, I realized my plans for an ambush weren't likely to materialize this evening. Wondering if I should sit tight, or push the matter, I stewed in silence.
After a while, anxiousness got the best of me. Crawling slowly away from my blind, I soon found myself in a nearby dry wash. Stealing a quick peek back toward the field, I breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that I'd not alerted any of the deer. Heading around a small hill, I carefully made my way toward the area where the three bucks were feeding.
In a moment, movement slammed me to a stop. A nice buck was making his way through a brushy thicket to my left, hurriedly headed toward the nearby alfalfa field. Catching a glimpse of quality antlers, my mind instantly went into "hunt mode." Hitting the ground, I hurriedly crawled forward in an attempt to make it to cover.
Getting behind a bush, I grabbed an arrow, nocked it and slipped my release onto the string. Now ready, I took a quick peek to see if the buck was still nearby. Spotting the buck hurriedly walking past my location, my mind screamed 30 yards! In an instant, the bowstring was back and the arrow gone.
A few minutes and a short trailing job later, my prize was in sight. As I walked up to the buck, I had no idea what to expect. Kneeling beside the buck and lifting his head out of the grass, I instantly recognized him as the "oddball" buck I'd told Peggie about only a few short hours earlier. I simply couldn't believe it. Instantly, an old saying came to mind: "I'll take luck over skill anytime." Right at that moment, I could certainly agree!
Hurrying back to my truck, I raced to town to call a certain amazing girl I knew. The first words out of her mouth were, "You got him, didn't you?"
I could only shake my head and say, "Yes babe, we certainly did."