Montana’s Wilderness Whitetails

(c)  Jack Ballard

The country was ripe with distractions and I fell victim to them all. Stationed on a wide creek bottom deep in a federally designated wilderness area, I was some eight miles from the trailhead and a half-mile from heaven. Lulled by the purr of the brook and intrigued by a nosy ruby-crowned kinglet, the realization seeped over me that this was one of those intimate moments with nature that explains why sporting folks can hunt happily for days without ever pulling the trigger.

A fresh gash in an alder’s bark refocused my attention on hunting. Deer sign was everywhere. Trails, tracks, rubs and fresh scrapes littered the meadows and timber. Although I knew I was in the heart of whitetail country and had spied a dozen does, I’d yet to find a buck.

A confirmed mule deer hunter by upbringing, this trek into the backcountry was motivated by a single goal — to down my first whitetail. On the foothills ranch of my youth, gray-faced mule deer nibbled tender browse from mountain mahogany and bedded in the sage. The only time I saw deer of the odocoileous virginianus variety was along the Jefferson River bottom as I made the daily commute in a lumbering yellow school-bus that transported my siblings and I to town in the name of education. But now I was hunting that deer of casual acquaintance. The previous autumn my older brother had discovered this wilderness haven that was home to both whitetail and mule deer. Although he’d killed a tremendous non-typical mule deer with a gnarled rack and gargantuan body that dwarfed any deer I’d ever seen (living or dead), my heart was set on a whitetail.

Struggling from my armchair which years before were living roots of a Douglas fir, I stretched, cracked my chapped lips with an uncivilized yawn and began still-hunting. My boots tracked less than 200 yards when gray-tan movement in the scattered timber ahead caught my attention. Now visible, now obscured, a whitetail doe browsed lazily about 60 yards ahead.

Time and the wind were on my side, so I eased against the slender trunk of a leafless aspen and waited. My suspicion that the doe had company was soon confirmed. First I spotted her dainty fawn, then a smaller doe. Some moments later another deer approached. Immediately the junior female snorted and shied away. Sure enough, the final member of the party was a buck.

He was mature, but no eye-popper. As I watched, he lowered his head and approached the doe I’d first spotted. When she, too, fled his advances, he raised his head and looked my direction. Four matching tines sprouted from each side of the rusty-brown hair above his ears. Trophy or not, I instantly decided this would be my first whitetail.

When the buck looked away, I raised the .444 Marlin to my shoulder and centered the bead just behind his shoulder. My left thumb slowly eased the hammer into the cocked position, securing the firing mechanism against the trigger with the faintest of clicks. A standing animal and a 50-yard shot give any marksman a winning hand. After the shot, a short walk through the frosty grass took me to the fallen buck. As I admired his thick hair and ran my fingers over the knobby antler bases brightened with reddish-gold stains from the inner bark of alders, I couldn’t help but think it would be a long time before I matched the magic of this hunt.

Although some might question the logic of hunting designated wilderness areas and other backcountry locations for whitetails, serious deer hunters and lovers of wild lands have taken notice. Whitetails are on the rise in many wilderness environments in Montana and other Rocky Mountain states, showing up in areas that a decade ago held only mule deer or no deer at all. Here in the Treasure State, the waving white tails of the country’s most widespread and populous big-game animal are found on the eastern side in remote habitat that smacks of antelope and sage grouse. In the mountains of the central and western portions of the state, whitetails have browsed their way up drainages that take them into the traditional haunts of ivory-antlered elk, mule deer and blue grouse. While hiking above timberline on the Montana/Idaho divide near Superior, a startled deer burst from a tiny copse of stunted evergreens as I approached on a trail. To my surprise it wasn’t a mule deer at all, but a sleek whitetail doe. Two years ago, while photographing elk in Yellowstone National Park I heard the faint, but familiar hoof-stomp of a curious deer. Turning my gaze in the direction of the sound, my eyes locked on those of a young whitetail buck, an animal clearly at home in the hanging basin whose elevation topped 8,000 feet and whose most common resident mammal was the brown-maned elk.

Although theories abound, no one can adequately explain the expansion of the whitetail’s range. Some biologists believe the migration to new haunts stems from an overpopulation of the prolific deer’s traditional range. Others believe the whitetail, an incredibly adaptive animal, is simply moving into niches under-utilized by other creatures. Theories aside, one fact remains undisputed: the whitetail’s wanderlust has opened a new world of possibilities to the intrepid hunter.

Some of the best places to experience the unique attraction of stalking this short-eared deer are in the backcountry. Although designated wilderness areas boast excellent hunting in certain portions of Montana, any roadless area that lies a couple of miles beyond the reach of motorized vehicles has backcountry appeal. Although one can certainly kill whitetails with less effort (just ask farmers who don an orange vest after a day’s work and topple winter meat from the front porch), solitude and big-buck potential give wilderness areas an aura of challenge that’s tough to find while hunting deer nourished by agriculture. Impossible as it may seem, while hunting my favorite wilderness for whitetails, I’ve yet to encounter another human except my own hunting partners.

Locating a backcountry destination for whitetails of the adrenaline-inducing kind involves three basic factors: habitat, access and elk. Habitat generally includes the presence of deciduous trees and shrubs, along with migratory corridors or areas where deer can escape the deep snow and extreme winters of the wilderness. Although whitetails dominate much of the deer hunting scene west of an imaginary line from Missoula to Glacier National Park, certain other backcountry locations also provide suitable habitat. I’ve hunted them in several drainages in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and felt their curious eyes upon me in proposed wilderness in the Snowcrest Mountains, neither area of which is commonly viewed as whitetail country.

The second factor, access, is what insulates growing (and sometimes witless) bucks from hunting pressure. In the mind of many hunters, whitetails are seen as superior in intellect and naturally more wary than their mule deer cousins. However, I’m prepared to argue that such a perception is primarily a result of hunting pressure, not nature. Hunting in a little-known drainage with a small whitetail population that sees few fall hunters but a number of summer hikers, I’ve encountered mature bucks that seem positively naive compared to their hotly-hunted counterparts closer to civilization. One of these, a wide-racked four-point whose beetle-cleaned skull and antlers grace my dwelling, paused to offer me a second shot after botching an easy broadside poke that stretched scarcely further than a third baseman’s throw to the first bag. I’d like to think my slug was deflected by a branch, but whatever the reason, the startled buck bounded away at the shot. In the meantime, I broke the action of the New England Firearms single-shot .243 and reloaded. After a frantic dash, the buck stopped, stomped and turned his curious eyes in my direction. One strike and you’re out, at least for trophy bucks that offer a chastened marksman an opportunity for redemption. Had that deer been a member of the harried whitetail clan on the Madison River bottom, his flight after the first shot might well have taken him into Broadwater County.

Besides suitable habitat and difficult access, an absence of elk also ups the odds of a wilderness location harboring memorable whitetails. It’s not that whitetails and elk don’t coexist. These two very different species of the deer family often occupy the same habitat. However, where there are elk, there are elk hunters. Wapiti whackers also carry deer tags in the pockets of their sweaty wool shirts as well as an elk license. Guess what happens when a frustrated elk chaser blunders upon a whitetail buck with as many inches of antler as a raghorn bull? Good wilderness hunting for whitetails is seldom a combo deal. Find a remote patch of deer habitat devoid of elk and you can hunt in solitude for the next decade.

Preparing for a wilderness whitetail hunt requires much more planning and physical training than casually pursuing the same quarry within minutes of Main Street. Essentially, the wilderness hunter has two options: tackle the backcountry with day-hunts or pitch a camp in the hinterlands.

To day-hunt successfully, it’s best to reach your hunting area early, preferably by first light when deer are most active. Then you must have a hunting strategy that allows you to return to your point of departure the same day, often after dark. Such a regimen can be very taxing, even to the most physically fit hunter. However, the rewards significantly outweigh the expenditure of energy. One season, I had no venison in the freezer and but two days left on the big-game calendar. The first day, I hunted hard, but unsuccessfully. On day two, as light melted murk from the timber, I was moving steadily up a wilderness trail, nearly five miles from the trailhead. With my hunting area just a few minutes up the path, I was feeling good about my timing and physical conditioning. Just then, movement hobbled my haste. A white-tailed buck, larger than any I’d killed, was tiptoeing through a maze of gray alder trunks to the left of the trail.

Chambering a shell and dropping to a prone position, I readied myself for a shot as the buck sauntered through a narrow opening in the brush. Unfortunately, good timing and conditioning don’t always translate into good shooting. Not wanting to miss the opportunity I aimed too quickly, ending my last buck encounter of the season with nothing to show for it but a handful of hair trimmed from the animal’s brisket by the fat, 265-grain slug of my .444. Nonetheless, the experience vividly underscored the advantage of being in deer country at daylight instead of dawdling around the trailhead.

When time allows, I actually prefer camping in the heart of the backcountry versus hiking in each day on foot. Although it requires much effort, wilderness camping is a special, almost sacred, experience. Backcountry camping puts you within minutes of your quarry. It allows you to wring every minute from autumn’s sun-short days without reducing your endurance to rubble. While wilderness camping for whitetails I’ve felt my neck hairs prickle at the scream of a mountain lion and poked my head from the tent at midnight to behold the night sky brilliant with stars, with the glowing blaze of the Milky Way so vivid and bright it seemed to flow just over the jagged watchtower of a peak above my humble camp.

Sharing a camp with my brother in mid-November, I once killed a fine, fat buck late in the afternoon. The next morning, we ate breakfast, fed the mule, then leisurely sauntered from camp to cape, butcher and backpack the buck. A windless and sunny dawn, the night’s frost had faded from the sunlit meadows, but clung cold and stubborn to the weathered grass in the shade of the pines.

As I watched him peel hide from antler bases with a surgeon’s precision, I couldn’t help but think every hunter needs a taxidermist in the family. I was mulling the prospects of recruiting another brother into the outfitting business when movement beyond Leroy’s hunkered back zapped me back to reality. A whitetail, considerably larger than the one we were dismantling, was sauntering through the timber scarcely a stone’s throw away. Wrapped in the fog of the rut, the buck was sniffing and peering ahead, dutifully seeking an opportunity to fulfill his ordained role as propagator of the species.

“Buck,” I hissed.

The skinning knife froze and dropped silently onto the green cape. In a single, fluid motion Leroy’s ungloved hand reached for the .30/30 resting against the trunk of a lodgepole. He twisted and straightened. I let out a low bleat. The buck stopped, the rifle fired. Then the woods rang with the noise of celebration — music to the ears of the hunters but ill-tidings for Molly, the mule who would ferry the fruits of our shooting back to the stock-truck.

Montana big-game hunters are blessed with numerous species and diverse habitats in which to hunt them. Throughout the year, my mind often recalls pleasant times afield with family and friends. There are many ways to create memories. When it comes to whitetails, I’ll make mine the wilderness way.