Fathers watch their sons tag big bucks during an unforgettable public land deer hunt.
Montana’s general rifle season was well under way, but I was in Zimbabwe filming a pilot for a new TV show. You’d think being on safari in a foreign country would have kept me focused, but I was dreaming about big bulls and bucks in the States. I couldn’t wait for my annual pilgrimage to the public hunting lands of eastern Montana.
It’s difficult to pack for a wilderness hunt, and the Badlands have earned the name. Known for steep canyons and gumbo mud that can stop a monster truck in its tracks, the Badlands can give up big bucks to those willing to go the extra mile.
This year, I would be heading out with my sons, Walker and Bowen. We were set to join my brother Al and his son, Josh, for some well deserved deer hunting.
Throughout the decade we’ve been hunting there, Al and I have taken some very respectable mule deer in the Badlands. We’ve also encountered a few whitetails. I knew that my love for the area would pass on to my boys as they came of age, and I couldn’t wait to share that Montana hunt with them.
Bowen, 13, took his first whitetail, a doe, during the 2008 season. He was immediately hooked for life. Walker, 15, has taken two beautiful mule deer. In 2007, he tagged a big 7x6 muley that I filmed for Nosler’s Magnum TV (airing on Outdoor Channel). My hope for our Badlands hunt was to film Bowen’s first buck on video, and then hunt with Walker for his first whitetail.
Driving across Montana, you get a sense of just how big the state is. The terrain changes constantly, from mountain ranges to deep prairie canyons, surrounded by a sky that won’t quit — Big Sky Country, indeed. After six-plus hours behind the wheel, we reached our destination.
You have to be ready for anything in the Badlands: 25-below-zero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, gumbo mud and, as with any land open to the public, other hunters. As we pulled into camp, however, the weather was beautiful. With any luck, both my sons would get a chance to fill their deer tags.
Four days of hunting awaited us as we gazed upon the rugged Missouri River Breaks. Steep terrain surrounded our camp, nestled in a small canyon that offered protection from the prevailing north winds. After putting the tents together, Bowen and I headed out for the last three hours of daylight.
While glassing, we noticed a large mule deer standing in a burn about a mile distant. With no time to lose, Bowen and I darted off the lookout into the large canyon. Forty-five minutes later, we eased up the slope directly across from the old burn, but the buck was long gone. With light fading fast, we headed back to camp. Along the way, we jumped a wide, fork-horned mule deer, but Bowen passed on it. We’d try again tomorrow.
After a long night in the tent, we woke to another perfect day. Montana’s eastern sky lit up with hues of pink and orange. Several elk fed across from us as we worked our way to a vantage point near a steep cliff face.
We glassed all morning and watched several small muley bucks chase does. Later, after six miles of navigating some crazy terrain, we hit pay dirt. As we rounded a small ridge, my mind’s eye registered a familiar shape. Not 200 yards away was a bedded whitetail buck!
After getting Bowen lined up, I moved into position and began to film. Bowen assumed the prone position and found the 5x4 whitetail in his scope.
With the camera recording it all, my son squeezed the trigger. The sound of the shot echoed back as the buck’s legs pointed skyward, stiff as a board. It rolled and came to rest in the bed it had just exited. Bowen had just taken his first buck. I was as happy as I’ve ever been, and there were many congratulations passed around the campfire that night.
After watching 15-year-old Josh score on a 25-inch-wide 4x3 mule deer on day three, Walker and I decided to try an area where I had seen several nice whitetails over the previous three years. With the perfect sunrise on its way and the wind in our favor, Walker and I moved up the canyon, looking for a vantage point where we could begin a rattling sequence.
The massive red brush willow valley was lined with fresh rubs. We knew whatever made them wasn’t far away. Climbing a small hill gave us a bird’s-eye view, and we glassed both ends of the valley. As the sun slowly began to illuminate the expanse before us, I settled behind some sagebrush and began to rattle.
Walker sat motionless to my right, lying prone to keep his outline hidden. After about two minutes, Walker whispered, “Three does are coming, Dad.”
Sure enough, the does heard my rattling, but where was the buck?
In a flash, as if I had dreamed it, a big whitetail stood in the willows looking in our direction. A 130-something buck stood motionless as well, but it looked like a spike by comparison to its big brother.
“Walker, get ready,” I said. “There’s a huge buck coming.”
I tried to get the buck to step into the open for a 200-yard shot, but it continued to follow the does. “Walker, you’ll have to shoot when it gets to the next opening. It’s not going to stop!”
Whoomp! Walker’s gun roared.
I could tell the 180-grain AccuBond struck home as the buck disappeared into the head-high willows. “How did the shot feel?” I asked.
“It felt real good, Dad,” Walker said with a look of confidence on his face.
A few minutes later, the three does emerged at the edge of the willows. Mr. Big was still with them. “That’s him! Shoot him again, Walker!”
He took aim and fired a second shot. The buck trotted off with its tail tucked in classic big-buck style, vanishing around the corner of the ridge.
“How did that shot feel?” I asked. “I heard the bullet hit!”
Walker looked at me with a big grin and said, “I hit him good, Dad.”
Pumped with adrenaline, we made a beeline to where we last saw the buck. As we got to the corner of the ridge, Walker shouted, “There he is!” Sure enough, my son’s first white-tailed buck fell 75 yards from the second shot.
It was the biggest public-land whitetail I’ve had the opportunity to see taken. As we got a better look, I realized the buck was bigger than I originally thought. A 6x6 mainframe with split eye guards made it a perfect 14-pointer. It had incredible mass and beautiful black beams.
Later, I replayed the two successful hunts in my head. What made them even more special was watching my boys use the hunting skills I had taught them over the years.
Both started off with old-school Daisy BB guns. Next they moved on to Sheridan single-shot pellet guns, and then on to their first .22 rimfires. Those years of shooting at targets, tin cans and small game helped them become incredible shots in the field. Start your kids when they’re small and help them become proficient with whatever gun they’re using.
I’ve seen my boys shoot ground squirrels out to 300 yards. Growing up in the West has given them opportunities I only dreamed about as a boy hunting doves with my single-shot .410 in western Maryland. When I was a kid, I would have never thought of shooting a deer at 200 yards or more, but that’s all in a day’s hunt to my boys. It comes down to spending time with the firearms they’ll be using. The time you share with them outdoors at the range or plinking is priceless.
I know my boys will remember that hunting trip for the rest of their lives. Montana’s Badlands delivered great bucks to all three young men, and hopefully they’ll pass on to their sons and daughters a love of the wild outdoors and hunting.
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