It’s late November, and again I find myself in the far northeastern corner of Montana visiting relatives for Thanksgiving. When the weather cooperates, my family and I make the long haul from our home in southwestern Montana to the wide horizons and C.M. Russell scenes of undulating prairie, a dichotomy of landscapes compared to the snowy peaks and timbered canyons of home. Western wheatgrass crunches underfoot, with pungent sagebrush dotting the view. When hunting here I envision cagey mule deer bucks dying of old age among the deep coulees and barren plains, and I’ll spend my time covering ground with binoculars and boots, hoping to cross paths with one of those ghosts.
Hunting on foot is not the favored method here, as this area has a bit of a road hunting culture. The appeal is understandable – bitter November winds pour out of Canada buffing the snow to Styrofoam-like firmness, and the temperatures routinely hover in the single digits at high noon. Being wrapped in the cab of an old ranch truck, heater blasting away with a thermos of coffee in your lap is not a bad way to escape the weather and do a little hunting. Stopping to glass a brushy draw or coulee for a deer (any deer) then motoring on, works if you want to punch a tag. But, like seeing a concert on TV contrasted with the live performance, it is not the same thing. I want to get out in the field and do it for myself. It is what brings me closer to the hunt – the sights, sounds, smells and feeling. Frozen eyelids and numb toes as well.
This is a land well suited to the hunter with a good pair of boots and optics. The terrain is moderate with just the right dose of steep in the form of deep coulees and rolling ridgelines. The amount of public land is expansive, and one can with a good dose of grit and hard work get themselves and a nice deer out of the field without too much trouble. It may not be as “backcountry” as some parts of the world in the truest sense of the word, but it is no less wild and liberating.
I equate it to a phrase that originated in the skiing world – sidecountry. From a skier’s perspective, the term “sidecountry” basically refers to backcountry terrain that’s easily accessed from a resort. Fairly straightforward to get to, yet still has that “backcountry” appeal. The issue with sidecountry is you can still get yourself into trouble if you head out unprepared – avalanches don’t care if the ski area boundary is 200 yards away, and wrenching a knee in a tree well is serious business when out of sight of the roped safety of the resort. The same can be said for “sidecountry hunting” in areas that at first glance seem like the proverbial walk in the park. The scenario in these wide open plains can easily play out like this:
‘That gravel road is just a mile and a half from where I shot my deer. Should be pretty straightforward to get him out of here. I wonder if I could drag him. Nah, better pack him out. The wind is getting pretty gnarly though…and now the snow… Feels like I am sitting in a snow globe. I hope I can get the truck out of there and the gumbo. Damn, why didn’t I pack my big down jacket…sunny and 35°? Did they throw that forecast out from a week ago? Should’ve packed a bit more gear. Did I only bring one Snickers bar? So much for just walking a bit to look at some country…this just got interesting…man, it is cold when the sun dips behind the hill…’
Like anywhere, the good weather can turn nasty, a tagged deer at your feet is still a lot of work and a mild injury can turn serious in a second. Treat any “country” hunt (side, front, back, you name it) with respect – bring the gear that will keep you safe, alive and comfortable so you can hunt from dawn till dusk.
The icy top strand of the barbed wire fence protested as I swung a leg over, noisily announcing my presence as I set foot on miles of public land. I was geared up for a full day out, and the forecast was surprisingly mild – sun anticipated, high of 39° with a little wind. Perfect. The last time I was here it was snowy and -11° in the morning. This was shaping up to be a great day hiking and glassing for deer.
I strode out across a wide plain better suited for antelope than mule deer, but the map on my phone told me what I would find about a mile to the west — steeper topography, brush-choked coulees and good browse was just over the horizon. My morning plan consisted of steady hiking to glassing points, breaking out the optics to pick apart everything in sight and repeat as necessary. After a few hours I turned up very few mule deer, save for a few does without a buck and a smallish buck in the distance that was off my list once I put the spotting scope on him. Knowing the clock was ticking on my one day hunt, I boogied back to the truck, shaking off the infamous gumbo mud from my boots with every step.
Wheels rolling with turkey sandwich in hand and coffee mug wedged between the seats, I navigated to my next spot via GPS, a giant swath of stubble field bisected by a nearly mile long coulee that doglegged to the south; it had the look of a poorly played Tetris game on my phone screen, but I knew it was a considerable amount of land, and it was textbook prairie whitetail country. I parked next to an empty Quonset, and stepping out discovered the wind was awful – directly at my back out of the west. I couldn’t access the area from the east, so I had to change tactics. I hiked due south across the stubble for about 700 yards, keeping out of sight of the coulee, then hung a left to the east. My scent was now blowing parallel to the coulee but well away from it, and I was making good time towards a low rise where I would hook back and drop over the edge to glass and carefully hunt my way back into the wind, hoping to catch sight of a good buck in the process chasing does.
As many plans go, mine was interrupted by the sight of three does and one large bodied buck rising out of a patch of grass I had ignored on my approach. I was so focused on staying out of sight of the coulee and covering ground that I didn’t even think four deer could hide in a pocket of knee high brush the size of a Prius in the middle of a stubble field. I froze mid-stride like someone hit pause. I watched the deer watch me. They were as still as statues and I was out in the open like a sore thumb. Busted.
Their next moves were not what I expected from whitetails during rifle season, but it worked to my advantage. I slowly brought up the binos to check out the buck. He was a big bodied, mature deer with five points on his right side, and oddly just one very long brow tine on the left. I thought I could see the bump where his main beam must have been broken off earlier in the season, or through scrapping it out with other bucks. His swollen neck gave him a Russian power-lifter look, and in completely non-whitetail fashion, they all stood still, watching me slowly sink to all fours, and bear crawl towards a better shot angle. Before I knew it, I was nearly 20 yards closer, and the deer slowly began to trot to my right. As they drifted to a stop and fanned out, I ranged the buck at 167 yards. I made the decision to take him once the doe behind him cleared out of the way. It was high noon, and I had a big deer with one crazy antler well within range. This was my ‘bird in the hand’ opportunity and with remaining daylight not on my side, I settled into a seated position, snugged the rifle and sling up tight and slipped off the safety. The crosshairs hovered behind his shoulder. Now or never.
After the shot, the buck was down in seconds. The does bolted after the shot, their namesake tails flagging over the rise and out of sight. Walking up on him, I felt deeply satisfied, as well as a twinge of remorse. I always feel a jumbled mix of emotions each time I kill an animal. Knowing this deer was coming home in a big cooler, I took the time to carefully break him down into quarters, backstraps, tenderloins and trim meat. It was a welcome change to have a flat stubble field as my work area. I seem to usually find the animal in the most awkward or steep spots, usually lodged between two trees. Time to get to work.
An hour of lifting, cutting and bagging left me with a tidy pile of gamebags, one cleaned up set of antlers (I was right — his left beam had broken off earlier in the season, and now was a smoothed over stump) and a laughable ‘pack out’ in front of me. This was not the “there I was, five miles deep, fighting off grizzlies in a downpour as the 100 pounds of boned out elk pulled me down at every step” kind of backcountry pack out. I was frankly pretty pleased with the situation, and enjoyed the trip out. Heavy, cumbersome, but short. Once loaded up in the truck I peeled off sweaty layers, chugged the rest of my water and headed for the house. My season was officially over, with a day to spare.
There it is. My “sidecountry” hunt was in the bag.