Wally Huggins (TN) shares his experience hunting elk/mule deer with Stockton Outfitters
Authored by Mr. Wallace Huggins
As a qualifier for what is to follow, this is an account of my first elk/mule deer hunt and some of the observations may seem elementary to some of the grizzled veterans out there. That said, the purpose in writing this is to share what, for me at least, was a unique and memorable experience. In so doing, I hope even the most experienced of you find something worthwhile to glean from this hunt.
I'll begin with the outfitter, Stockton Oufitters out of Butte, Mt. There wouldn't have been a hunt to write about without the flexibility of Mark Shutey, owner/proprietor. My original bow hunt in September had to be canceled due to a back surgery and Mark brought some assets together to enable me to join his last November rifle group even though he had been booked up for some time. So, my thanks to Stockton start there.
The three guides, besides Mark, working with our group were each unique and different as you might expect. My guy, Doug, was young, fast and aggressive in his style. Even comparatively, I believe we spent more time going up than the five other hunters in camp. Having hunted the area we were in since he was a youth, Doug seemingly knew every square foot and he wasn't shy about trying to get me into every place he could drag me. As an aside here, I'll remind all the low-landers out there of the obvious...hunting steep slopes in southwest Montana isn't like shooting Whitetails out of tree stands in middle Tennessee.
I thought I had decent cardio, back surgery notwithstanding, until Doug started up the first steep incline of the week. Next time, I'm gonna arrive a couple of days early and do at least some light running in the environment to avoid the shock of experiencing my first oxygen deprivation carrying a rifle and pack.
So, the stage was set for the week. I'm not a young guy (63) and my challenge each day was to muster the mental attitude necessary to go up where Doug was certain most of the big animals had gone seeking refuge from the pressure of the other hunters in the area. Turns out, Doug was pretty darn good finding animals. I, on the other hand, even though I consider myself to be in decent shape and to be a pretty good shot, would prove I could be as rank a rookie as they come.
Strike one came on day two, when Doug spotted a nice bull elk on an opposite slope across a ravine about 400 yards away. The problem was he was standing in one of about six small openings which all looked alike to me. Doug, much to his disappointment, couldn't talk my eyes on. The lesson we gleaned from that was that any future attempts to get me to see what he saw would start with finding something we both could see and agree on. He could then give me directions from that point. From my military days, this was more what I was used to. Elementary? Maybe. But critical.
My strike two came on day three when Doug spotted a nice mule deer buck. The good news, Doug did a great job getting my eyes on him. The bad news, we had just gone up a steep pitch, I was looking uphill, through the trees, at the buck who was giving me a forward quartering view about 100 yards away. I couldn't get a comfortable position, my heart was pounding from the climb, and yet I thought I took a good shot. Not so much. After a thorough search, I had to admit I'd missed. The good news was I hadn't maimed the deer. He had a clean getaway. Doug was nice but he couldn't have been happy. My guide was working his butt off for me. But good news would come for us. Perseverance...a word to live by in thisenvironment. All you old hands already know this.
Doug continued to go higher and harder and demonstrated a unique ability to sneak up on sleeping cow elk, playing coyotes, and apparently, we were even close to inadvertently treeing a mountain lion judging from the tracks in the snow going partway up a leaning tree. Cool stuff indeed. I can't overstate how Doug could move so fast and so quietly. We were covering ground big time.
The payoff was about due. On the next to last day, we were coming back down from the morning hunt of a ridgeline, Doug spotted a mule buck and seemed more animated than normal about his size. About 150 yards when first spotted, he was pushing a doe aroundin the clearing ahead. We were still in thick woods and my chance for a shot would be through one of the gaps in the trees the deer was walking through. Doug picked the best gap, gave me cogent and concise direction and I took the shot as my deer walked through the gap. Unlike a few days before, the breathing was under control, the position solid, the sight picture clear if brief, and the trigger squeeze controlled. Elementary, correct? But critical. "Good shot" came from Doug as the buck arched up and took off. At that time, we saw several does and another buck we hadn't been able to see before running away more or less together. Our buck took a different course only adding to the confidence we had made a hit.
But this wasn't going to be that easy. The most heartening and disappointing moments were to come. We got to where the buck had been walking and found....nothing. No hair, no blood. Nothing that would confirm a hit. Doug and I crisscrossed the area for about an hour and found...nothing. Given my shot and miss a few days before, despite the reaction we had seen from the buck when I shot, Doug concluded I must have missed low or in front and spooked him. Talk about heartbreak.With my tail firmly between my legs, we met up with two of the other groups from our camp and had lunch. During this time, the three guides got together, Doug, Skip and Kraig. After some discussion amongst themselves, Kraig came over and asked me about my shot. Best I could, I recounted everything; the position, the breathing, the sight picture, the squeeze. He said something like, "OK", and went back.
The next thing I knew, a search posse had been formed. The three guides and one of the other hunters (thank you Jason), who was no slouch when it came to shooting, tracking and field dressing, were going to find this deer. My spirits soared as newfound confidence took the place of anger and disappointment. It was still not a done
deal but at least we were going to try.
I believe Doug found the first hair. Then Skip got blood. Then Kraig got on a unique set of tracks among the dozens that filled the area we were in. Our deer was dragging a leg. Now the questions came up. How bad was he hurt? How far could he go? Turns out, he was hurt bad. But it also turns out he was tough as nails. Into a steep ravine, and then up the other side! Along a ridge, a lot farther than I thought we would have to go, and there was still no deer in sight.
In fairness to Jason, so he could continue his hunt, Kraig and Skip decided to leave the rest to Doug and me. It had been about five hours since I shot him, it was getting late, it was snowing and quickly going to obscure the tracks and blood, but at least we were chasing something tangible. Hopes were cautiously high. Then, at a barbed wire fence, the tracks and blood disappeared among a virtual freeway of game trails and tracks all along and on both sides of the fence. Despite his best efforts, Doug couldn't make out our guy's tracks. No signs of dragging. No more blood.
Light fading and the snowfall increasing, Doug decided to "circle out". A few hundred yards east along the fence, a few north, a few back west, and then a last leg to the south back toward the fence. Doug's instincts made him state, "He's gotta be bedded up in here somewhere". A minute later, we bumped him out of his hiding. It was him but he took off like a shot, before I could even get the rifle up for my own shot.
The bad news, this deer could move far and fast. The good news, Doug had fresh tracks and an unshakable confidence. With an hour of shooting light, he turned to me and said, "This is gonna suck, but we have to do this. You, OK?" Sweaty, glasses fogged up, and feeling truly old, all I could muster was "Yeah." With that, my guide set sail, slowing only to give me breathers. Up a big hill, over another fence, back down in a zig-zag, across a large clearing, across the road 75 yards from where our Jeep was parked. This deer was serious about surviving. Finally, up a gradual slope, he doubled back, moved laterally and went up again. Another 30 yards and Doug spotted him lying down under a cedar. Finally, the last shot was taken at close range to end his misery, and a long day.
Rather than belabor, I guess it's best to let you derive what's pertinent for you from this account. I am deeply grateful to Doug for his tenacity and raw hunting skills. I am humbled by the generosity of Skip, Kraig and Jay. Lastly, as always, when it comes to wild animals, I continue to be amazed at what's possible for them.
Great buck! Congratulations !
Great story and with a good ending , awesome buck , Congrats Wally
Great Story- well written. Sounds like a Great Outfitter with some fantastic, hard working guides! Really liked the story. Congratulations.
Those guys are tough.....I've been there.
Awesome. Great commitment . Congrats.
Another great story! Thanks for sharing!