“I’m shootin’ pretty good,” Reo Joe told me on the telephone. “I can’t wait till October 5.”
Reo is the 11-year-old son of my hunting partner Doyle Shipp, and Reo started shooting a “stick and string” almost as soon as he could walk. Montana law requires big game hunters to be 12 years of age, and Reo would turn 12 just 10 days before the end of the 2007 archery deer season. I knew he was drumming his fingers impatiently as the magic day approached.
Meanwhile, I was bowhunting my own deer in Alberta, Canada. The giant 5x8 muley had eluded me for 3 straight days, and Reo’s birthday was only 2 days away. Reo and I have always had a special bond, and he had asked me many months before to take him deer hunting as soon as he turned 12.
“It would be the best birthday present ever,” Reo explained.
Of course I said yes. In Montana, a youth hunter under 14 years of age must be accompanied by a parent or adult authorized by that parent. Now, with a giant buck eluding me and Reo’s birthday hunt a 14-hour drive away, I began sweating the outcome of my Alberta trip. Would I have to drive away from the most massive mule deer I’d ever seen on the hoof?
The next afternoon answered that. As famous guide Duane Nelson watched, I crawled and slithered within 50 yards of the bedded monster. He rose to feed, and I smacked him. The deer later scored right at 200 gross record-book points—one of my best five muleys ever and by far the most heavy-horned. Even the fourth circumferences were more than 6 inches.
I bade a hasty farewell to Duane, packed my pickup truck and hit the road. Only 4 hours before daylight, I reached a motel near Reo’s house in eastern Montana. It would be a short night, but I was excited for my young pal.
Dawn was still a faint promise when Doyle dropped off Reo on his way to work. The sight of an excited kid dressed in head-to-toe camo with a bow in one fist and a hunting backpack in the other made my heart glow. He was grinning from ear to ear as we loaded up and headed for a mule deer hotspot I’d scouted several weeks before.
Reo’s shooting setup was designed to take down a deer with ease. Though only 12 years of age, he’s a strong young man capable of drawing 40-45 pounds. With a little guidance from Doyle and me, Reo had selected a Hoyt RinTec XL—a short-draw, powerful compound bow with light mass weight for easy carrying. With a Scott caliper release, Whisker Biscuit arrow rest, TruGlo bowsight, Beman carbon arrows and low-friction Rage two-blade broadheads, he was set to bag a buck. Doyle had told me Reo was grouping practice broadheads inside 3 inches at 20 yards—a level of proficiency that would make some experienced bowhunters jealous. When he got the shot, I figured Reo would make good.
We parked on a high point and headed up a long ridge on foot. Crimson arrows of light shot upward across a clear, faintly blue autumn sky. My heart began to pound, and it wasn’t from the hike. If there is one thing that gets me more excited than hunting an animal myself, it’s seeing someone else shoot a critter. In this case, success would put me completely off the adrenaline charts.
The place we were headed was a beautiful ambush spot. Mule deer frequently fed all night on sagebrush flats to the south and then headed for the high hills at daylight to escape the sun and bed along cool, thickly treed slopes. Several deep saddles cut the ridge we were on—perfect funnel points for climbing bucks. The wind in this area normally blew from the west, so I figured we could hustle upwind from approaching animals and set up a crosswind shot.
A pheasant cackled just before sunrise. These gaudy birds are common in eastern Montana … even in foothills more suited for wild turkeys and grouse.
As if on cue, five muley bucks popped out of the brush and meandered toward us across the flats. We were 100 feet above the deer, with a grandstand view and all the time in the world. Reo’s eyes were as big as silver dollars as the bucks angled our way. As a Montana native, he’d already seen plenty of mule deer in his young life, but as we all know, big game animals are different when you have a license to kill in your pocket!
The bachelor bucks wandered toward us, nibbling on bushes as they moved. Then the sun chinned over distant peaks, bathing the sagebrush flats in brilliant amber light. As if touched by cattle prods, the deer began walking fast toward the ridge. Two were average 4x4s, one a 3x3, the others 2x2s.
“I don’t care how big he is,” Reo informed me as we eased downhill with the wind in our face. “I’m so excited, any deer will do!”
The bucks were headed for a shallow cut in the ridgeline 100 yards away. We tiptoed into the wind, peeking downward through the trees to keep track of the deer. The bucks were trotting now to escape the warm glow of the sun.
We were 20 yards from the saddle when a rooster pheasant exploded at our feet, glittering like the mouth of hell as he rocketed straight up to clear the trees. As we watched in startled amazement, the doggoned bird sailed directly over the bucks. They took one frightened look and galloped away. We never saw them again.
“That’s huntin,’” Reo said as we plodded back to the truck. He’d heard Doyle and me say the very same thing many times before.
Before the early November rut, bowhunting mule deer is largely an early morning and late-evening affair. We had to shed our coats before we reached the vehicle, and I knew that animals in this weather would be deep in escape cover until late afternoon. Reo and I went back to the motel for some lunch and a nap. I badly needed a snooze, and Reo admitted he’d been too excited to sleep much the night before. Soon we were both cutting Zs.
Unlike white-tailed deer, mule deer normally require sneaking at ground level. They’re too unpredictable and wide-ranging in most areas to allow bowhunting from a ground blind or treestand. Whitetails are certainly spookier than mule deer, but I believe bowhunting muleys is at least as difficult as sitting on stand for whitetails. Western mule deer are hunted year-round by coyotes, wolves and/or mountain lions, and they don’t stand still for mistakes. One wrong move, and an archery hunter is sunk.
That afternoon, my fiancée Greta took time off from her job as a pharmacist to join us for Reo’s afternoon hunt. Greta and Reo share the same birthday, they get along great, and she was hoping to see him bag his first archery deer. At 4 p.m., we headed for another mule deer honey-hole.
We had barely started sneaking when seven mule deer bucks and two dozen does appeared at the mouth of a deep, heavily timbered draw. As the deer fanned out to feed, Reo and I started a slow sneak along the tree line. Greta was close behind. The wind was right, and the relaxed bucks were stuffing their faces.
Sometimes things happen fast. A fat 3x4 appeared like smoke in front of us, his oak-colored antlers bobbing bewitchingly as he fed.
“I want him,” Reo said in my ear. “There are bigger ones ahead, but I want this one!”
Far be it from me to argue with a birthday boy. “It’s 25 yards,” I whispered, softly punching the rangefinder button.
The bow thudded, the arrow hissed, and the broadhead smashed home. What followed was amazing. The twin blades on the Rage slid backward and fanned to their full 2-inch cutting diameter, slicing a huge hole completely through the buck’s lower chest. He wheeled, stumbled less than 30 yards and collapsed. I’ve never seen faster broadhead performance.
And I’ve never seen a more excited bowhunter. Reo did everything but back flips as he hugged Greta and me. I knew there would be many more deer in this bowhunter’s life, but there can never be another first buck. It was the best birthday present ever for me … and it wasn’t even my birthday!