When I hunt whitetail deer in Montana, it’s usually not a matter of if I get a deer, but when. This year was different, however.
Vastly different. I went to Great Falls with my wife Julie and four kids, and three of us bought whitetail doe tags. With the price of a buck tag set at $500-plus, going after does is the only affordable option.
Unfortunately, this year featured a severe outbreak of a disease called EHD, which is spread by a midge that hatches in water. Massive die-offs were reported across the state in late September and early October. Some areas saw death rates as high as 90 percent.
We normally hunt about an hour east of Great Falls. My father-in-law, Bob Guditis, said he saw only one or two whitetails in the area the entire fall before we got out there on Nov. 24. His outlook was bleak, to the point of suggesting that we try hunting for something different, like ducks and geese.
We contemplated this option, but in the end, felt like we wanted to try for whitetails. The allure of venison is just too strong for us to resist. Besides, we were trying to get deer for people here in Minnesota who walked away from the firearms season empty-handed.
So, my two oldest sons, Joe and Andy, and I all bought the doe tags and decided to struggle through the tough conditions. We found out very quickly that Grandpa Bob was telling the truth about the whitetails. On the first morning of our hunt, we went to the usual places where we had killed deer in the past, and saw no whitetails anywhere.
Time for Plan B
So, we had to formulate a different option. Because hunting for whitetails was closed north and west of the Missouri River, which cuts through Great Falls, we had to stay south and east. We found some state land and Block Management Area parcels to hunt, and went at it on Tuesday. Plus, Grandpa Bob owned a small piece of land right on the Missouri, on the side of the river open to hunting.
We did see some whitetails, but the sightings were way down from previous years. It’s a spot-and-stalk game in Montana, and we were able to go on just four stalks the entire week. I was trying to help the boys get their deer, so when we were together, I always tried to let them be the shooters. When we split up, I would have my chance.
Problem was, every time we split up, the result was always the same for me – no deer. That didn’t bother me, as long as the boys still got their chances.
They had a nice opportunity on Wednesday evening, when a doe and fawn came out into a field. However, they couldn’t get as close as they wanted, and had to take long shots, which they missed. I was about a half mile away and heard the shots, but nothing came out for me.
Finally, on Friday about 1 p.m., we saw a group of does with a buck on a piece of state land. The three of us began the stalk, with the conditions being favorable. The deer were facing away from us and the wind was in our face. Plus, there was just enough contour on the land to allow us to move in undetected.
However, about 200 yards in, a doe jumped up to our left and ran behind us. We figured it was one of the deer in the group we originally spotted and had seen us and spooked. The others were sure to jump up and run, too, we thought. But, they didn’t. And, amazingly, this particular doe eventually stopped about 500 yards beyond us and stood there. Not only that, she wasn’t looking our way.
Time for action
So, Andy decided to try and stalk in on this deer, while Joe and I went after the others. Andy got to within about 150 yards and laid down for a shot. Meanwhile, Joe and I snuck in on the other does and buck. Joe made it to a post that was well within rifle range and sat up to get ready to shoot. I hung back to make sure I didn’t spook any deer before he got a chance to shoot.
I alternated between watching Joe and watching Andy. Eventually, I saw Andy get ready to shoot, and then heard his shot. I watched the deer through my binoculars as it ran off. It went about 75 to 100 yards and dropped. Then, I turned my attention to Joe, who was still lining up his shot. I found out later the strong winds blowing in his face was making it very difficult to steady his rifle. Unfortunately, it was not possible to lay down for the shot, which is one effective way of dealing with wind.
Finally, Joe took a shot at one of the does, which was bedded in the grass. He thinks his shot went low. The two does and buck jumped up and ran off. He shot again, but didn’t connect. It is about impossible to hit a deer that is spooked and running full bore.
The good news is, Joe got another chance the very next day. This time, the deer was only about 80 yards away and standing broadside. Joe didn’t miss this time, and that pushed our deer total to two for the trip.
As for me, I never fired a shot on the trip. That’s OK. I wanted the boys to get a deer way more than I wanted one for myself. I have been in the woods quite a bit this fall, and was able to take my first deer with a bow. That makes my season a success, no matter what happens after that. for Joe, on the other hand, this trip was his only chance to deer hunt. When we spotted the two does on Saturday, he offered me the chance to stalk in on them, based on the fact that he had shot at deer twice already.
But, there was no way I was going to take this chance away from him. And, the smile on his face after the doe went down confirmed that I made the right choice. It meant that all three deer hunters in our family got a deer this year.
Tough season overall
That’s an amazing feat, considering how tough the season has been this year. Theories abound as to why, but almost every deer hunter in Minnesota this year is saying that it has been a tough season and that deer sightings are down. And, of course, the disease outbreak in Montana is making its whitetail hunting even more difficult than in Minnesota.
So, I am VERY happy with our results this year. And, deer hunting is not over yet. There is the archery season here in Minnesota, which goes until the end of the month. I hope to get out a time or two before it ends. I’m thinking it would be nice to get out after we have some snow on the ground. Then, you can see where the deer are moving. Plus, tracking is a lot easier with snow on the ground. That was the case when I shot my buck with a bow in early November.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll get another deer with my bow. That would be fun. And, it would give me more venison to eat and share with family and friends.