Muleys in the Coulees
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite Holidays of the year. Food, football, fellowship, family, and friends are just a few reasons to give thanks. In addition to that, the Thanksgiving holiday is also strategically aligned with the Mule Deer rut in Montana. Not many Western states can boast about having a deer season that orientates itself with the peak of the rut. Mule Deer are hard enough as it is to get within lethal distance of, so being able to chase them in the later part of the year plays to a hunter’s advantage to those looking to fill their tag. As with most late season hunts, weather is the one variable that can make or break success over failure. In the case of this year, conditions were cold and windy which aided in the breeding activity. The Mule Deer rut was in full swing!
It was the 18th of November and time to head North for a week long excursion. My good friend and hunting partner Brandon Williams was accompanying along on the journey to the Big Sky State. We set out that sunny afternoon with a GPS route stating 1331 miles to our destination. 19 hours on the road is not my idea of exciting, but when we knew that the following day we would be hunting Mule Deer, we made it a straight through drive with the sun rising that morning as we crossed the border. We were officially on Montana soil and ready to start scouting for deer.
Coming back this time of year reminded me of hunting with my Dad and Brother. Every year, on Thanksgiving Day, it was tradition for us to go out and fill our deer tags. It was not uncommon to go out that morning and have three deer in the back of the truck before returning home for turkey dinner. We were meat hunters and that was a valuable lesson we learned early in our hunting careers. Fast forward almost 20 years, I was back in the same areas that my Dad used to take us as kids. It was almost like Déjà vu as the topography and landscape had not changed over the course of that time. The old grain silos and homesteads from the 1800s still standing as fixtures to prove that the past stood the test of time. I recall looking over at Brandon and telling him “Soak it all up, we can’t take it back to California with us”.
Our first few days were spent inventorying deer and sizing up the gene pool. The ‘high line’ of Montana is frequently acknowledged for its prized possession Milk River Valley. This area is well-known for world class Whitetail Deer and has always produced some of the largest deer in the state. In the shadow of those river
bottom dwellers, this part of the state also yields its fair share of Mule Deer with healthy populations bouncing back from the year’s prior winter die off. Brandon and I were covering the miles pounding the frozen tundra and seeing high densities of deer. It was pretty common for us to glass up 100+ deer each day with all herds having at least one mature 4X4 buck. Although it had been well over 20 years since I had been in these old stomping grounds, almost all of those old honey holes held the same quality of deer as I remember years ago. The rut was just starting to snap and the smaller 2-3 year old deer were definitely sniffing their way around. The female does were in abundance at first light and easily recognizable as the herds were active most all morning. The weather had changed a week prior with lows in the teens and highs in the 30s. This made conditions perfect for chasing Mule Deer.
On day three, we headed to one of my favorite areas as a kid where we had harvested many deer in the years past. This region is ideal to put optics to work as the plains are flat for miles and the deep coulees run as far as the eye can see. The term coulee comes from the Canadian French word meaning to flow; normally a deep ravine or gulch, usually dry that has been formed by running water. Those that have been to the Canadian border or spent any time in the northern plains, know what I am talking about. The wind is always a wild card and normally blows out the west at high rates of speed. This day was no different as the gusts roared at 20-30 mph on the tops of the coulees. Right at sun up, we had glassed up a lone buck and doe. This was not your ‘typical’ buck as when he sky lined himself, it was evident this deer had lots of character. From well over 1000 yards away, this deer had points and extras that was not a normal genetic for this region. We knew we needed to get a better look at this deer so we loaded up our packs and headed down into ‘Muley Coulee’. We had jumped him a few times with one opportunity where Brandon was under the gun but did not feel comfortable taking the shot as the buck was moving. We watched this deer trot away but knew of his location and did not want to pressure him anymore that morning.
As the snow started to drop in, we decided to check another area where optics would play to our advantage. This proved to be a valuable plan, as my hunting partner Brandon spotted up a buck in which he wanted to hunt. From well over a mile, we could see a solid frame 4x4 resonate through our binoculars. This stalk could have not ended any better as we settled into 100 yards of this herd where that buck gave Brandon a perfect broadside shot… First buck was down!
It was getting to the late part of the afternoon and time to go find that buck we had turned up that morning. After packing out Brandon’s deer, we worked our way over to the coulee we had anticipated the non-typical buck would be held up. With my naked eye, we peered over the ridge and I immediately picked him out bedded in the bottom of the draw. Once he spotted us, he was on the move with another buck he had picked up along the way. These deer blew out of that area and went right back to where we had just harvested Brandon’s deer a few hours prior. With knowing the topography, we hustled our way back over with just enough time to get a glimpse of this old roman nosed bruin walking down the draw right where I had expected him. I ran down the ridge in hopes to get one last crack before shooting hours ceased. Both of those bucks walked out at 211 yards and stopped to catch their breath after that long run from the adjacent ridge they had just vacated. I set my 7mm Rem Mag on shooting sticks and dialed my Huskemaw scope elevation turret to the line of sight yardage. After having ran a mile or so myself, I could see my heart beating inside the scope with every breath I took. The wind hold reticle was lined up, left index finger released the safety on my Model 700, and with one last deep breath, I squeezed the trigger. The watermelon thud rang out across the coulee sealing the deal on this old stubborn goliath of a deer.
Ground shrinkage is always one of those fears after the animal is down. As I walked up, I started to notice even more character than what we had spotted previously. After picking up the antlers, I started counting… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 on the right side… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 on the left side!!!! I could not believe the amount of extras this deer had hanging off of his old solid 4X4 frame. He was definitely on regression as his bases were stubby and thick with no eye guards and most of his teeth had been rubbed down to nubs. This deer had lived a great life and will forever be known as the ‘Muley in the Coulee’.
This trip had many experiences that would last a lifetime. In addition to our
harvests, my brother Harley was also able to connect on Thanksgiving morning with a symmetrical 4x4 taken out of the same area we had harvested three days prior. This moment was very special for me as my two nephews (Jake, 12 and Ethan, 9) were able to see their first big game animal harvest by their father. The best skill we can give our next generation is the gift of conservation. This is how we give thanks!