By Mark Kenyon

I woke up, hopped out of the camper and into my truck, and pulled out of the airport parking lot. My Alaskan adventure was now behind me and ahead were Montana whitetails. Five hours later I pulled off the side of a dusty washboarded road and set up camp for the next six days. It was time to find some bucks and my stoke level was high.

Because of my last-minute invite to hunt caribou in Alaska, what was once going to be a two week trip for whitetails in Montana and North Dakota now had to be compressed into 5-6 days. So step one had been simply to find some promising looking pieces of public land on the maps – and I had done that in the weeks leading up to this first visit. I had five or six locations now that I wanted to get eyes on in-person to confirm whether or not they looked as good as I imagined they might.

So Night #1 and the following morning I chose not to hunt and instead drove dirt roads with my binos and spotting scope trained out into distant fields, trying to gauge whether there were deer on these public parcels and, more specifically, whether or not there were mature bucks.

Unfortunately most of the properties were less ideal than I expected, many being heavily grazed by cattle and sheep, and it appeared most the deer feeding on adjacent private fields were also bedded on private. But I did find one spot that looked like it might hold more promise – as there was a nearby alfalfa field loaded with deer, including a couple decent bucks. So on the afternoon of Day #2 I headed in and set up in an area with a good view, but that was also relatively tight to what I thought could be some quality bedding cover. Unfortunately, over the course of that night and the next morning, all I saw were does, fawns and a couple 1.5 year old bucks.

My worries had been confirmed. Because of how the cover on this public parcel was situated in relation to the neighboring private (where the food was), it seemed most of the deer (and all of the older bucks) were heading a different direction towards the food, passing through an area I couldn’t access.

So on the afternoon of Day #2 I had to make a new game plan.

On my maps I’d noticed another smaller piece of public land nearby, that was actually more directly behind the food source I’d been watching, the only issue was that it was surrounded by private land on all sides. But I had one thing going for me – a river snaked along the edge of this parcel – the same river that came by the parcel I could access.

In Montana the public has access to walk/wade rivers, as long as you are below the high water mark. So what I realized is that I could walk the main public land parcel all the way back to the river, and then take the long slow walk through the river to access this landlocked public. And so that afternoon that’s exactly what I did.

It took well over an hour to get back there, but when I did, it all seemed worth it.

I set up my stand just inside of a ring of dense cover – russian olives, willows and cottonwoods – but within that ring of cover was a large opening. To the north and west of me was great bedding, and to my south (a good ways off) was the aforementioned food source. My hopes were that I’d now finally be able to intercept some of the bucks headed that way. And I sure did.

Over the next few days in this area, I saw dozens and dozens of deer, including quite a few bucks and several nice ones. In fact a couple of these bucks had me grabbing my bow and thinking hard about sending an arrow – but in the end they just weren’t what I was after on this trip.

Last year in Montana I’d killed a nice three year old public land buck in a different area of the state, so on this trip I wanted to push myself a little harder and hold out for something that really got my attention. Over the next few days I continued to fine-tune my set-up within this 40 acre public parcel, seeing if I could locate other travel corridors where an attention-getting buck might be passing through – but by Day 6 I still hadn’t gotten eyes on one.

I’d snuck back and forth into this hard to reach public parcel 10 times, put a lot of miles on the boots and seen plenty of deer – but in the end nothing I would put my tag on. And with two days of full-day torrential rains forecasted in the days ahead, at the end of this past week I pulled the plug on the trip and headed back to Michigan.

My plans to hunt North Dakota were changed as well, given how much time I was forced to devote to Montana trying to fill that tag. So with the lack of time, I decided I’d return later in the season to try NoDak on its own.

And while, of course, I would have loved to have been “successful” on this hunt – I left Montana with plenty to be thankful for. I was challenged in new ways, got to watch all sorts of neat deer interactions, explored a unique and gorgeous part of Montana, and spent quality time quietly sitting 20 feet in a tree.

So now it’s time to focus here at home. Michigan and Ohio open in a couple weeks. And the Holyfield question (is he back?) will hopefully be answered soon.