By Mark Kenyon
“Ughhhhh. I blew it.”
That’s the text I sent at 4:00 PM Monday. I’d just gotten my Montana opportunity and I’d blown it. 1500 miles of driving, an expensive non-resident tag, weeks of planning – all for this one chance – and I let it slip through my fingers.
But then, just seconds after sending that message, everything changed.
Let’s rewind the clock a bit though. As I mentioned in my last journal entry, my plan for Night #3 of my Montana hunt was to make a move back to the northern section of this property based on my observations Sunday night. I’d watched several shooter bucks enter the neighboring alfalfa fields and it seemed that they came out of the same section of cover that I hunted near on Saturday. So I had a choice. I could go back and sit that first stand or I could hang a new set in a slightly different area. I chose the latter.
This past summer on the podcast I’d talked about how one of the most important things we need to do when trying to hunt and kill mature bucks is to always make the small necessary adjustments, no matter how tedious or inconvenient they might seem. Well in this case the easy thing to do would have been to go in and sit the treestand I already had hung. It was in the right general area and I’d already had to hang new stands each of the past two nights – it sure would have been nice to just walk in and climb up. But I had a feeling that a small tweak was needed. On Night #1 I saw several shooter bucks in the fields, but I never was able to actually see where they’d come from and on Night #2 I confirmed that they weren’t coming from south of the river. That left only one logical option – they were between my first stand and the river, about 70-100ish yards south of where I’d originally hunted.
So around 12:30 Monday I strapped another stand and sticks onto my back and began the long, circuitous walk to this new spot – adding a long extra loop in my path to ensure I stayed far from where I thought these deer were bedded and that my wind didn’t blow into the cover on my way. In the map below you can see the stand from Night #1 marked with the orangish circle, Night #2 with the blue circle, and Night #3 with the red star.
Fast forward two hours later and I’m sitting in my treestand shaking. Literally shaking. I hadn’t shot anything and I wasn’t cold – this shaking was because of a gut feeling, as serious of a gut feeling as it gets, and now it was physically manifesting itself in my nervous stomach and shaky hands. I’ve had this happen twice before – the night before I shot Jawbreaker in 2014 and the night I killed my October 1 Michigan buck in 2015. Could I go three for three? I was in the spot and conditions were perfect. This was it.
To the west of me was thick bedding cover in the form of cottonwood groves and a maze of willows. To the north of me was a tall grassy field with several trails converging at a low spot in the fence line leading to the east, where the large alfalfa fields were. And finally to the south of me were several trails running parallel to the river, which was about 45 yards from my stand. My stand was situated in a cluster of small trees and a large shrub of some sort encompassed the entire cluster, all the way up to the base of stand. Essentially all that was visible of me was my upper torso, otherwise I was enclosed in this tangle (see photo below).
I was anticipating that any deer in the area would be exiting the bedding cover to the west and heading east into the alfalfa fields, traveling to the south of me along the river, or to the north of me on those trails that head to the fence crossing. I could shoot to either option. The wind was blowing from the west and a touch north, so my hope was that it would blow my scent out in the alfalfa fields, but just south of where most the deer would be feeding. That said – I was still placing a lot of confidence in my scent control program. If deer were winding me as soon as they got into the fields and running back into the cover, there’d be no chance of a mature buck eventually coming through. So I sprayed down with Scent Away, put a good dose of Nose Jammer on the tree, turned on my Ozonics and crossed my fingers.
So – I’m stoked/nervous/confident and trying desperately to get all my gear set up in the tree before something moves through. It was cold and windy, and based on what I’d seen the previous two nights, early movement could be expected. And speaking of early movement, for whatever it’s worth the Moon Guide showed me that the moon would be overhead at 4:22 PM, leading me to again suspect early movement. Well, as I’m setting up my camera gear, I noticed a flash to my right and here comes a young 10 pointer, then another young buck and from there it was just more of the same, deer after deer after deer. Eventually, upon getting out into the fields, some of them veered south, and I nervously watched as they got closer to my wind and then raised their noses, testing the air – but not one spooked. This continued until a little before 4:00, which is when I noticed another bit of movement directly underneath me.
It was a shooter. Right underneath me. And instead of walking out towards the alfalfa, he was jogging back in towards the cover. He must have walked right below me, beneath all that brush, and with all the wind I never heard him. And just as quickly as I’d noticed him, he was gone. I’d made the perfect move, had a shooter at five yards, and somehow didn’t even know it. I’d done it all right and then screwed up in the dumbest way possible. After a few minutes I texted my buddies and cursed my misfortune. Being a Michigan boy, I’m not used to getting more than one opportunity at a shooter buck in a season.
But this is Montana, not Michigan. And 30 minutes of self-inflicted mental abuse later, I noticed another flash of movement. This time to my north, a nice eight pointer. Quickly I flipped on the camera, grabbed my bow and ranged him- 20 yards. But as I did this, I changed my mind. He wasn’t the buck I wanted – a little young – so I put the bow back on the hanger and watched. I noticed though that he kept looking back over his shoulder and finally, after a few minutes, I saw what he was looking at. A dark bodied, tall tined eight pointer – the big one from the night before (at least that’s what I thought in the moment). This was the one.
In a flurry I again grabbed my bow, flipped the camera on and waited. The original buck was standing right on the path I’d walked in on, sniffing the ground – but apparently the Nose Jammer and rubber boots worked, because he lost interest and began to head back out towards the field. The tall eight followed and as soon as he stepped out from behind a tree, I drew back and waited for him to stand still. Seconds later he did, the shot was slightly quartering away, and my arrow went right through his heart. 70ish yards later he was down.
Walking up to the buck a half hour later I still couldn’t believe how quickly things had happened. Both on this specific evening and on this trip overall. Just three days of hunting. Just an hour of hunting that night. Just a handful of months after first coming up with this crazy idea for a deer hunt. And here I was at the end of a blood trail, on a random little piece of public land, in the middle of wide open Montana, with a beautiful buck on the ground. I couldn’t have written it out any better.
Going into this hunt, honestly, I was a little intimidated. I’d never done anything like this before. I’d never hunted western whitetails. I’d never taken a major whitetail trip focused 100% on public land. I’d never hunted deer in early September. I’d never been on a hunt completely on my own and so far from friends/family that I was without any chance of assistance if needed. It seemed that there were a million variables that would have to fall in my favor for all of this to work out and I’d need to make all the right choices along the way. Could it happen? I figured it was possible, but maybe not too probable.
So on the drive out, I told myself that the experience itself would be reward enough from this hunt. Even if I didn’t fill my tag, I would be putting myself out there into a brand new and challenging situation and that would surely lead to some incredible memories and learning experiences. And I was right. The experience, the memories, the learning experiences. I got all of those and more. Hunting the usual places in the usual ways can certainly be fun, but there’s something special about moving beyond that too. Every time I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone and into a new challenging hunting situation, I’ve been rewarded tenfold. And this hunt was a perfect reminder of that.
So sitting here today, with this first whitetail adventure of the season in the rearview mirror, I can tell you two things. First, I’m an incredibly thankful hunter for having this experience and this opportunity. And secondly, Montana is awesome.
I’ll be back.
If you haven’t been following the journal to this point, be sure to check out the first 3 entries of the season leading up to this success (Journal 1, 2, 3). I’ll also be posting a follow-up blog soon detailing exactly what specific factors/decisions I believe led to this kill. Finally, keep an eye out for more journal entries throughout the rest of the year!