September 27, 2015

Hunting Montana: Version 1.2 (Jane Doe's Last Stand)

I just returned from another three days of hunting for elk in the Beaverhead Mountains.  I was in the same place as a I was a few weeks ago where I had no trouble finding elk every day, but this time they were elusive.  In two and a half days, I saw/heard exactly zero elk and scared a handful of deer: and this is supposed to be approaching peak rut when they become easier to find.  Frustrated, I decided to move south during the middle of day three, closer to where I had the mountain lion encounter (see Version 1.0).

In this new area, I discovered a road was closed that I was anticipating being open.  In this, I saw an opportunity.  Instead of hunting from my truck each morning and evening, I would backpack in to this difficult-to-access basin and see if I couldn't stir up any elk in the next few days.  Thirty minutes later my backpack was packed and I was headed in.  By 3:00 pm I had my camp set up, including tent, hammock, and bear hang.  I left around 4:00 to head up the ridge I was camped near.  There was a road (shown on my map) traversing the ridge about 2/3 of the way up, which I assumed would also be closed.  When I got there, I found a fairly well maintained road with recent tire tracks.  Did I just walk a whole bunch and delude myself into thinking I was in a more remote area than I really was?  Probably.

I would periodically bugle and hope to hear a response either above or below me as I followed the road, at the same time walking quietly in hopes that I might discover an elk before it noticed me.  At about 6:00 I was a good two miles from my camp when I saw a white ungulate butt near the top of a meadow.  Given our separation, I could easily tell it was a doe.  My first thought was, "Just my luck.  I finally found fur and it's something I can't shoot."  I used my range finder anyway, which told me the doe was 78 yards away.  Where I had been hunting previously, I could only shoot antlered mule deer.  After further internal mental debate, I convinced myself that I had moved far enough south that I had entered a different hunting unit, and in this unit I could only shoot antlerless mule deer.  I realized this about the same time I noticed three more deer, all does, following the one I initially saw.

I've got fur in sight, it's legal to shoot, and they're just on the edge of my maximum shooting range.  They're all feeding downhill through the meadow, which means they'll continue to get closer until they get to my elevation.  There's a large tree in the middle of the meadow with branches all way to the ground, so I take a few steps to position myself in the trees at the edge of the meadow to shoot as soon as they come out from behind the big tree.  My shooting lane is wide enough for them to take about 10 steps and be within the window the whole time.  At the rate they were moving, this should be more than enough time to range and shoot one of the deer while they fed.

Of course, it can't be that easy.  When the deer come out from behind the tree, I ranged them at 55 yards, but they didn't stop and feed.  They walked about 15 steps before going back to feeding, not giving me an opportunity within my window.  Now the tree immediately to my left was blocking a clear shot, and I was in a kneeling position.  With four deer about 50 yards away, I had to stand up and take three steps in dry, crispy, crackly ground.  I waited until all four heads were down feeding, and I stood up.  Several seconds later, I took a step, but didn't weight that foot until I was sure they hadn't seen my movement.  Weight foot, wait several more seconds until all four heads are feeding again, and repeat.

I now had a clear shot, but I was less hidden by the trees lining the meadow.  I ranged the largest deer in the group at 53 yards.  I slowly brought by bow up to draw position and waited for that deer to turn broadside, which she did a few seconds later.  I drew by bow and noted that none of the deer seemed to notice.  I sighted my 50 yard pin just above where I wanted to hit, focused on my target, and released.  To say I was determined not to screw up the shot would be to put it mildly.

I couldn't see my arrow or where it hit, but about 1/2 second after the release, I heard a sound I'd often heard described; the slicing, hollow, thwack/thump of the rib cage taking a high velocity impact from a razor sharp object.  Even so, all the deer ran 15 yards to the opposite side of the meadow, none of them acting injured.  A few seconds later I thought I saw the white flicker of a tail, which I interpreted as Jane's end.  After 10 minutes of waiting, I went to search for my arrow.  Unable to find it, I began looking for blood.  I didn't see any right away, so I started to second guess the sound I heard that made me so certain I'd made a good shot.  Five yards from where she was when I shot, I found a good quantity of blood on the ground.  I followed the blood trail and found a dead deer about 10 yards inside the tree line, about 25 yards from where I shot her.

Upon closer inspection I realized I'd made a perfect double lung shot, and the doe was even larger-bodied than I had thought.  It was now 6:30, only 1.5 hours until dark.  I was two miles from camp and four miles from my truck.  I was now glad that the road I had been walking up seemed to be open, because the deer had expired about 150 feet from it.  Over the course of the next three hours, I did the following:

  • gutted, skinned, and butchered the deer,
  • hauled the meat in game bags up to the road,
  • tied the meat up in a tree,
  • walked two miles back to camp,
  • packed up my camp,
  • walked two more miles with a full pack back to my truck,
  • drove up the 4WD road to where I had left the meat hanging,
  • packed the meat in the cooler,
  • made one last attempt at finding my arrow, which I eventually found firmly embedded in the ground, and
  • started driving home with a cooler full of meat!
It was a goal of mine to redeem myself by making a good shot on a deer or elk after shooting a pine tree instead of an elk earlier this year.  While target shooting, every shot is a double lung kill shot out to about 70 yards.  Shooting at live animals has proven to be much more difficult for me.  I get too excited, think that the animal is going to move, and rush the shot.  Now that I've proven I can make a good shot in a real situation, I hope I can make it a habit.

Firsts:  This is the first mule deer I've ever shot, the first non-Whidbey Island deer I've killed with my bow, and my longest kill shot by about 20 yards.

The Arrow:  The arrow I recovered late at night was no more worse for the wear.  It also happens to be the same arrow I shot into a pine tree earlier this season and proceeded to excavate with a bone saw.  With a bit more luck, this same arrow will shoot a pine tree, a mule deer, and an elk in the same year.

Jane:  I referred to this deer using the non-so-clever name of  Jane Doe.  I've come to realize that naming the animals I've killed is commonplace for me.  I believe I do this to single out the particular animal, thereby recognizing it as a unique being and appreciating the fact that I have ended it's life in order to feed my own.  I know if Jane had a choice in the matter, she'd still be running around in the woods, dodging hunters, cougars, wolves, etc.  Nonetheless, I thank her for her sacrifice and the resulting meat in my freezer.

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