October 23, 2007
It's 6 a.m. and I'm sitting in the Minneapolis airport, awaiting my flight to Montana for a muzzleloader mule deer hunt with Chad Schearer, media relations director for Connecticut Valley Arms (CVA) and owner of Central Montana Outfitters. I've hunted with Chad once before in Alaska and I'm looking forward to hunting with him again in Montana.
I'm meeting freelance writer Scott Bestul here this morning. We'll be flying together for this hunt and on our way, we'll have a short layover in Denver where we'll meet freelancer Judd Cooney and Safari Club International's Stan Skinner, who will also be in camp with us.
It's the middle of the day now. Chad picked us up at the airport in Montana and we've been driving for approximately 90 minutes and are just coming into camp. It's a beautiful setting nestled alongside a freshwater stream that lies on the backside of a privately owned ranch that Chad leases for mule deer hunting.
As we exit Chad's vehicle we're greeted by his wife, Marsha, their two young sons Wyatt and Walker. Chad's brother-in-law Kevin and his two young sons Joe and K.W. Kevin are in camp. Kevin is there to help guide and Joe and K.W. will be helping with various camp chores as they learn the ropes of the outfitting business.
We'll be staying in heated wall tents. After settling in and choosing tents, it's time to shoot our muzzleloaders. We'll be using .45 caliber CVA 209 Kodiak Pro Magnum muzzleloaders loaded with 295-grain PowerBelt bullets during this hunt, and, as usual, Chad's taken the time to sight the guns in prior to our arrival.
What we're doing now is simply getting a feel for how the guns handle and shoot, and, as we expected, the guns are hitting right where they should be. We still have a few hours of daylight left so we'll spend the rest of the day glassing for mule deer. Chad, Stan and Judd will hunt a few miles from camp while Kevin, Scott and I will hunt close to camp.
We're in the truck and driving down a two-track that leaves camp, climbs to the top of a nearby hill and then meanders through the rest of the property. Kevin says we'll stop near the top and glass the surrounding hillsides for deer.
We've been glassing for 30 minutes and have yet to see our first deer. The two-track continues on for approximately 100 yards and then drops down the backside of the hill, so we've decided to continue on at least that far before glassing again.
We're now at the point where the road begins to drop down the backside of the hill, and there are deer all over in the valley below! What a difference 100 yards makes. The deer are grouped up in small bunches across the valley floor. One group in particular appears to have two very decent bucks.
Amazing! One of the bucks has an arrow sticking out of his back! It's too far away to see with the naked eye, but when we look at the buck through our binoculars we can see the arrow plain as day. It would be nice if either Scott or I could kill this buck so it wouldn't have to continue living like this, but there are too many other deer between us and him and getting close enough to him for a shot will be nearly impossible. Hopefully, this won't be the last time that we see this buck.
Our first night of hunting is over and we're back at camp. We used what shooting light we had left this afternoon to glass another part of the ranch but all we saw were does and small bucks. After we got back to camp, we learned that Stan Skinner has tagged out. Apparently, they found a good buck shortly after leaving camp this afternoon and Chad and Stan snuck to within 160 yards of the bedded buck before Stan took the shot with his CVA muzzleloader. Good for him. Stan's certainly gotten this hunt off to a good start.
It's almost 6:30 a.m. and we've just finished breakfast and will be getting back in the trucks shortly to start hunting. We'll use the same basic game plan today as we did yesterday- Judd and Chad will hunt a few miles from camp while Kevin, Scott and I will glass much of the same area that we did yesterday. Stan will be flying home today since he tagged out early.
After an unproductive morning of glassing, it's almost 2 p.m. and we've just watched a group of deer run down a hillside to our left. They're does and small bucks, but as we glass toward the top of the hillside they're running toward, we can see two much larger bucks bedded near the top. Kevin says both bucks are "shooters" so we'll get back in the truck, drive a little closer and see if we can sneak up on them by climbing up the backside of the hill.
We made it. We're at the top of the hill and Kevin has crawled ahead of me so that he can peek over the other side first to see if the bucks are still there. He's just motioned for me to crawl up to him so the bucks must still be bedded.
This just in: I'm a lousy hunter! The entire time we were climbing, I was very careful about where I put my feet so I wouldn't step on or against anything that could alert the bucks to our presence. And just as I was about to reach Kevin on my final hands-and-knees approach, I got careless and set the stock of my gun down on a rock as I crawled.
The sound was barely audible to my ears, but it was enough to spring the bucks from their beds and send them running down the hill and away from us. And as if that wasn't enough, Kevin's just informed me that one of the bucks was the one with the arrow in his back from the night before. So close, yet so far away.
It's dark and we're back at camp. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around and glassing several different bucks. We put a stalk on one, but it didn't pan out. After we watched him walk over a hill we got out of the truck and worked our way to the top, but when we peeked over the other side, the buck was nowhere to be found. It's like he vanished out of thin air or something. Poof. Gone.
It's 6:30 a.m., we've finished breakfast and are just about to take off for the day. During dinner last night, Chad made the comment that he and Judd saw a pretty good mule deer buck in a field a few miles from camp, so we're going to go check that out this morning. When I came into the dining tent earlier this morning, Kevin announced that he was wearing his "lucky Ghost camouflage" so we'll see if that makes a difference for us today.
We're coming up on the field now and Scott's just said that he can see a buck, so we're going to stop the truck and take a closer look from here with our binoculars.
We've seen and looked at several different bucks by this point in the hunt, but the buck we're looking at now appears to be head, shoulders and antlers above the rest. Kevin's just said hes a "shooter." He's with five does and they appear to be working their way off the field. There's a fairly high knoll that runs along the left side of the field and if they continue their current route they'll go right over the top of that as they come off the field. If we can get ourselves on the backside of that knoll, we should get a shot.
The buck is on the ground! Kevin and I made it to the backside of the knoll and were laying side-by-side near the top when the deer began to appear. Scott was in position for a follow-up shot at the base of the knoll in case I missed, but I got lucky and put the 295-grain PowerBelt through the buck's lungs from 124 yards.
After the shot, he hunched up and swayed back and forth for a few seconds before falling to the ground right where he stood. The buck certainly isn't going to break any records, but he's my first mule deer so he's special in that regard.
We'll spend some time taking pictures and field dressing the buck before putting him in Chad's walk-in cooler. After that's done, we'll spend the rest of the day trying to find Scott a buck. Hopefully, we can make that happen.
News flash: It took us the better part of the afternoon to find and get close enough to one for a shot, but Scott Bestul's just put a bullet into a buck. We saw the deer raking a bush near the bottom of a hill as we were driving, so we drove past him and around to the opposite side. Scott and Kevin then got out of the truck and snuck up the backside of the hill and Scott took the shot from the top as the buck continued to thrash the bush 100 yards below.
After the shot, the buck ran into some nearby brush and we haven't seen him come out yet.
We can see the buck now. He's poking his head out of the brush and he's very obviously not dead. Scott's trying to get another shot into him, but it looks like the brush is too thick. We're losing daylight quickly so we might have to back off and let the buck lay overnight. I feel bad for Scott. He's visibly disappointed, but as any hunter knows, this is simply how things go sometimes.
We're back at camp and just found out that Judd shot a buck earlier today, too, so we're swapping stories and congratulating him. We're staying pretty subdued, though, because everyone's still thinking about Scott's buck and hoping that everything works out for him in the morning. I doubt if any of us will sleep well tonight.
It's 7:30 a.m. and we're sticking around camp a little later this morning because we want it to be fully light out before we start looking for Scott's buck. The brush that the buck is in is fairly wide and long so the plan is for Kevin and Scott to go into the brush to look for the buck while I stay at the truck with binoculars to make sure he doesn't sneak out the other side if he's still alive.
Scott and Kevin have been in the brush for about 30 minutes now, and I'm starting to get a little nervous that we might not find this deer.
Kevin's just come out of the brush and he looks like he could be following something. He's walking toward the top of the next hill and he keeps looking at the ground like he's following a blood trail, and, wait a second- he's waving his arms and whistling! This just might have a happy ending after all.
We've found Scott's buck! Kevin said he started finding drops of blood in the brush and then followed them to the top of the hill where he found the buck. You can see the instant relief in Scott's face. Like it would any hunter, the thought of not recovering this deer was eating him up inside, and I'm glad that everything worked out.
With Scott's buck in the cooler, it's time to go back to camp, pack up our gear and head for the airport. The hunt is officially over and our flight home leaves this afternoon.
This has been a great hunt from start to finish. Everything I've read and everything I've heard about Chad's mule deer hunts has been right on the money. Maybe it's because he's a hunter himself, but Chad and the rest of his crew know exactly what hunters expect from a guided hunt and they go out of their way to give them that, time after time.
I only hope I'll be lucky enough to come back here and hunt with them again.