There are few experiences that take me back to those sleepless nights filled with wide-eyed anticipation, tossing and turning through seemingly countless hours of darkness the night before Pennsylvania's buck opener.
However, put a Western hunt on the calendar and watch me turn into an insufferable 12-year-old all over again — at least that's what my wife says! There's just something about the unknown of big country and an even bigger sky, along with the potential for legendary trophies.
What already seems like much too long ago, this hunt started with a simple e-mail to Rich Schneider of J&J Guide Service. Many e-mails back and forth turned into phone conversations about hunting, family and occupations.
I heard about Rich's operation through friend Jim Burnworth, host of Western Extreme TV, who has had some fantastic success with Rich over the years. Considering Jim can hunt just about anywhere his heart desires, his decision to return to J&J year after year is like the big neon sign that says, "Eat at Joes."
In this case though, it's "Hunt with J&J!" BOWHUNTING Editor Christian Berg and I had been talking about hunting together for a few years, and when he heard my 10-minute sales pitch he decided to jump on board.
Wanting to make the most of this trip to "The Last Best Place," we decided to extend the hunt for a week and pursue DIY elk on the western side of the Crazy Mountains.
The other person making up the "we" in this case is good friend Justin Wendorf, a co-worker, accomplished target archer and diehard bowhunter from Pennsylvania who would not only chase elk with me, but would also be looking to fill his deer tag DIY-style while Christian and I hunted with J&J. In fact, Rich generously invited Justin to stay at the ranch house and use it as base camp while hunting the nearby Custer National Forest.
Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, finally arrived, and after saying goodbye to our families, Justin and I turned the Bugle Bus (nickname for my 12-passenger hunting van) westward and settled in for the long ride.
A mere 1,500 miles, 25 hours and seven states later, we met up with Christian and cameraman Jake Hanson in Rapid City, S.D., before trekking the final 165 miles to the J&J ranch house. Introductions ensued and we had the pleasure to meet Rich, his son and guide Danny and Danny's good friend Travis Burke, who would be camp chef and guide-in-training for the week.
Situated in southeast Montana near the town of Ekalaka, J&J Guide Service has access to some absolutely incredible mule deer habitat. Even in the stretches that look desolate, your eye will catch pockets of mule deer and antelope grazing on seemingly invisible vegetation. If you know where to look — and Rich certainly knows — you will also find lush alfalfa fields, acres of forest, flowing water and shifting terrain that screams big-game country.
Four-fifteen came early the next morning, but actually not early enough as I had been thinking about and preparing for this moment for months! One by one, hunters and guides emerged from their rooms and gathered for a quick breakfast before loading up and heading to a butte called T-Rex.
The rock formation resembled the prehistoric predator. I welcomed the pre-dawn climb to the top, as it gave me time to breathe deep the fresh air and work out some of the nerves that had been building. Everyone picked out a spot among the rocks, prepared their gear and waited for the first signs of a new day.
As light began to reclaim the land, the Easterners in the group were treated to a view unlike anything they had ever experienced back home. Vast plains interrupted only by the occasional butte, crop field or drainage ditch, stretched to the horizon in all directions. Picking an animal out of this expanse is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack.
However, Rich and his guides have an incredible knack for spotting creatures whether moving or bedded. Full light revealed multiple groups of whitetails, pronghorns and mule deer both near and far, all of which Rich had to point out until we got the hang of discovering them ourselves.
As we narrowed the field to several potential groups, predicted their movement and then finally planned a stalk, I realized we were being introduced to a whole new way of hunting. Three bucks had bedded about a half mile to the east and it was game on as Rich rallied the troops and the stalk began. With only one cameraman between us, Christian and I decided we would trade stalks during the hunt, and somehow I drew the first opportunity!
Christian stayed back to observe through his Nikons as we made a beeline for a spot marked just short of the bedded bucks. We snuck along one of the drainages toward our goal before climbing the hill that led to their beds. However, a couple hundred yards ahead of plan, the bucks burst from behind a rock outcropping and were gone.
It wasn't until we returned to our original perch that Christian relayed how the bucks got back on their feet when the sun invaded their bedroom and moved to more permanent shade. Unaccustomed to target-rich environments, I got that all too familiar feeling that I may have just lost my one shot at success. Little did I know that this was just a small taste of what Christian and I would experience during our hunt with J&J.
There was no time to dwell on what could have been, as in our absence another good buck was spotted on the butte called Hanging Tree, which was right next to T-Rex. He was tucked up under a ledge high on the slope. It was my turn to stay on the sidelines as Rich led the charge up the butte with Christian and Jake on his heels.
What seemed like two hours was in reality closer to 30 minutes before the team descended back to the plains floor and relayed the story. It turned out that this stalk ended much like my own with the buck moving from his original spot before they arrived, surprising both the hunters and hunted.
No animals were grounded that morning, but wow — what a great way to start the week!
Returning to camp, we were met by Justin, who gave us the details of his eventful morning. He had many sightings and one close encounter that did more to feed his excitement than fill his freezer. He was energized and loving the experience. That evening we visited some new territory and witnessed plenty of activity
before time ran out on our pursuit as the sun slowly disappeared into the distance. Evenings at the ranch house were filled with good food and even better camaraderie.
Morning number two found the crew — including Danny for the first time — sitting on a knife point ridgeline overlooking a couple sharp draws filled with a mixture of trees and grassy openings. We were hoping to catch a nice buck sneaking back from an evening in the crop fields to bed on one of the rocky side hills.
Rich and Christian were on one side of the ridgeline, while Jake and I set up on the opposite side. Danny ventured further out onto the point to see if he could catch an approach into the draws. Thirty to 40 minutes into the hunt, Rich decided to crawl over to my side and see if he could offer his eagle eyes to the chase. It wasn't two minutes before he had a good buck spotted in the open rocks on the opposite hillside.
I swear my eyes were open! After a few minutes of studying the buck and his position, Rich had a plan in place and off we went. It was a long way around, so Danny drove us to the back side of the ridge where he dropped Rich and I off to begin the stalk. From our original glassing position, it looked like our best approach was to sneak down on the buck from a slight angle.
However, what we couldn't see was the rolling curve of the terrain that kept the buck hidden until we were right on top of him. As he jumped up only a few yards away, only his head and rack were visible. Great buck, but no shot. Still, we were getting closer! This method of hunting was a blast!
Everyone gathered back at the truck, and while deciding our next move Danny spotted a group of bucks forever away on the side of a remarkable, rock-topped butte named Chimney Rock. After discussing options, past experiences on that butte and the position of the buck, Rich and Danny were ready to roll. A truck ride through the valley brought us to the back side of Chimney Rock where most of the team headed up toward the massive rock tower. Christian was in the game, and I stayed back hoping for the best.
I'll let Christian explain what happened next:
"It was just one of those rare bowhunting situations when everything was in our favor. A stiff breeze was blowing right in our faces as we crept around the base of Chimney Rock, which not only prevented any of our scent from reaching the bedded bucks, but also covered any noise we made as we crouched down and slowly closed the distance," he explained.
"Amazingly — or at least it was amazing to this Pennsylvania treestand hunter — we were able to tuck up against the rock wall of the butte and slip in to 30 yards without any of the five bucks in the group having the slightest idea we existed!"
From that point, it really became a waiting game, because the bucks were quite content and in no hurry to do anything. A good 4x3 buck was bedded broadside at 30 yards, and although Rich suggested tossing a rock or something to get him to stand, I decided against the tactic for the simple reason that there were several scrubby pine trees around the buck, and although I had a clear shot to where the deer was bedded, if we startled it and it got up and moved even a step or two in either direction, my arrow was likely to be blocked by vegetation.
With Rich, Jake and I all crouching so close to the deer, I feared it was only a matter of time before we'd be busted. Minutes can seem like hours in situations like that, but the waiting gave Jake plenty of time to catch some awesome footage, and when my target buck started twitching his back muscles and flicking his ears, I hooked my release onto my nocking loop and assumed the position.
Sure enough, the buck stood up without moving an inch to either side and presented a perfect shot, slightly quartering away. I took careful aim and sent the Rage-tipped Easton FMJ on a short flight that found its mark and sent the startled buck scampering down the hillside below our position.
As the buck neared the bottom of the slope, it stopped and tried to figure out what had just happened, giving me the opportunity to quickly nock a second arrow and somehow connect a second time from a distance later ranged at 63 yards. After the second shot, the buck ran behind some pines and disappeared. We feared the buck may have reached some thicker timber in the valley below, but after waiting the standard 30 minutes, we took up the trail only to find my buck lying dead less than 40 yards from where we last saw it.
"At that, the celebration began, with smiles, shouts and high-fives all around. Thanks in large part to Danny's keen glassing skills and Rich's knowledge of the terrain, I was able to close the deal on a classic spot-and-stalk scenario. Our group was 'on the board,' and after the impromptu photo session was over, I simply told Jon, 'You're up.'"
From that point, it was up to me to get the job done and give the BOWHUNTING team a two-for-two double. My confidence was running high and for the next several days we experienced highs, lows, a miss and a few incredible stalks that promise to be some of my all-time favorites. One evening in particular we witnessed a golden eagle buzzing our position on the butte, a large coyote slinking along the rocky edge of a ridge and a mother bobcat with her two youngsters playing in a dead tree on the clifftop far above our heads.
"There are few experiences that take me back to those sleepless nights filled with wide-eyed anticipation, tossing and turning through seemingly countless hours of darkness the night before Pennsylvania's buck opener. However, put a Western hunt on the calendar and watch me turn into an insufferable 12-year-old all over again — at least that's what my wife says!"
A midday stalk, set in motion based on intel from Rich and his elk-hunting client, took us high onto a butte and into goat-mode as we navigated our way along an extremely steep and rocky sidehill only to have the buck catch us at the last second and plummet over the edge to safety. We didn't know the buck's fate until arriving back at the truck where Justin watched the whole thing go down through his Nikon spotting scope.
In an amazing feat of survival, the buck plunged nearly 30 feet only to hit the ground running down the slope without so much as a stumble. Incredible! And speaking of Justin, he successfully stalked and arrowed a nice whitetail buck in Custer National Forest on day three of the hunt. This hunt was turning out to be everything anyone could hope for.
Now, to be completely honest, there was some doubt creeping in and I wondered if we were going to close the deal before time ran out. While the opportunities kept coming, any bowhunter can tell you everything needs to fall perfectly into place and the stars have to align for that magical moment to happen! Still, our confidence was high and Danny was certain this was going to happen, which brings us to day five and one of the most memorable mornings I have ever spent afield.
That morning, we headed to familiar territory in the hills across the plains from T-Rex and climbed to our vantage point well before dawn. Increasing daylight revealed the usual cast of characters, with antelope, whitetail and mule deer dotting the plains and drainages — including two groups of particular interest. A gang of six or seven bucks with at least two shooters among them were headed in our general direction; however, they were over a mile away and could end up anywhere.
A smaller group spotted much closer had a solid buck in the lead. When he and his two smaller buddies slipped down into a drainage ditch to our right, we decided to grab our gear and make a move over to the next hill, which would essentially put us right on top of him. If he decided to head up the slope he could potentially come right to us. Once on the opposite hill, Danny guided us to a saddle where everyone set up and began the waiting game.
Things were starting to look a little bleak, as it seemed probable that our buck decided to bed down in the drainage for the day. However, the larger group of bucks would revitalize the party as they emerged from a drainage about 900 yards out in the plains. It was the first time I was the one to spot a group of animals before anyone else. Could it be a sign my luck was about to change?
Now, these bucks were still a long way off and could end up just about anywhere, but their steady, albeit slow march had them moving in our general direction. The clan's leader had a super wide rack and one of the others had double droptines. Either would be a trophy, especially for an Easterner who had never taken a mule deer. We kept our eye on them while also checking on the closer buck from time to time in case he
decided to switch bedding areas.
While not sure exactly what I was doing at the time, everything became crystal clear when Danny excitedly told us the bucks had been spooked and were quickly heading our way! In a heat-of-the-moment decision, Danny moved us 80 to 90 yards up one side of the saddle in hopes of catching a glimpse of the fleeing bucks and possibly intercepting them.
Seconds felt like minutes and it seemed they had vanished. Did they get to the hill and run westward along the base toward the crop fields? Had they just simply stopped and regrouped? Had they already slipped by us? As all these questions were running through my mind, I caught a flash of something flying through the saddle where we had just come from. With a shout of "there they are" and without even thinking about it, I drew my bow and did some kind of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon demonstration back toward the saddle.
So many thoughts were rushing through my mind and all of a sudden it happened. One of the bucks had split from the group and followed a trail that brought him to within 15 yards of my position. Before I could wrap my head around what was going down, the arrow was on its way. My whole body shook after the shot as I tried to regroup and gather my thoughts.
What just happened? By some miracle, the buck came from well over a mile away and ended up so close I could see his nostrils flare with every breath. Incredible fortune! Then I heard it — Danny's voice breaking through my mental chaos telling me he thought the buck was hit back a little. He was fairly certain, and unfortunately the cameraman was focused on the double-droptine buck and had missed my shot, making it impossible to verify shot placement.
Ah, that feeling of not knowing and mustering the discipline to wait when every fiber of your being is telling you to go, go, go is one of the toughest things a hunter will endure. Everyone stayed positive, and we knew the two-inch cutting diameter of the Rage Hypodermic broadhead would certainly do the trick.
Some five hours later as a team of guides and hunters swept our way along a likely hillside, I heard Rich yell out those sweet, sweet words, "Got him over here!" The experience of the recovery, high fiving, hero shots and congratulations all the way around was exactly what I had dreamed of for months after that first email to Rich.
Thanks to persistence, good attitudes, a lot of hard work and a couple of great guides with prime hunting land, we were all able to make it happen and have an awesome time doing it! Once encountered, a Western hunt is almost certain to change you. However, I can only tell you about the land of milk and honey. It's up to you to make it a reality and experience the adventure for yourself.
For more information about Montana bowhunting opportunities with J&J Guide Service, visit jjguide.com or call Rich Schneider at 715-820-0869.