Into The Wilderness
Lessons of failure lead to success in the backcountry
Being born and raised in Montana, I have been very fortunate to hunt big game every year. I have taken some respectable mule deer but have had a few giants escape my bullet in years prior. This year, I started off doing a backcountry early rifle hunt with some of my best friends and managed to kill a good bull on the last day. After seeing some giant mule deer tracks in this area, I figured it would be a good spot to go during the rut in mid-November. I lucked out with work to get almost the whole month of November off.
The first week of the season, my wife wanted to go try for a bull so we headed out early on the first of November to a spot that I knew mid-week could hold bulls with all the snow we’ve been getting. At first light, I spotted four bulls about 1000 yards away. We got to a vantage point and we couldn’t get any closer because it was all open. Three small bulls were at 400 and the big bull was at 705. My wife has practiced shooting long range with me and it was perfectly calm so she wanted to shoot the biggest of the four. I don’t think she realized how far 705 yards is.
My good friend and hunting partner is related to Lilja Barrels of Montana and we both built custom carbon fiber guns. Mine is chambered in .300 PRC and it was more than capable of that shot. My wife settled in and dropped the bull in its tracks. I think I was more excited than she was. With my wife’s bull out of the way, I could focus on deer. This was the year I had time to hunt more than I have in the past.
I went back to the spot close to where I killed my bull in September. This year we had a ton of snow early in Montana and our migration started early. I was on the fence about going so far in but stuck to my plan and went to my spot. The first time out I saw only a few does but knew the rut was coming. A few days later, I went back to where I saw the does, hoping a big buck moved in. There was nothing worth getting excited over. After four trips, I saw 4-6 bucks in the 150-170” range, and one I can’t say for sure was a shooter – maybe 180 – but only caught a glimpse before he busted me in the timber. A few days later, I invited my wife to go back with me. We asked my mom to watch our daughters and it was a go.
Our morning began driving a few hours to the trailhead. If you’re from Montana you know the Rocky Mountains can be very windy. We got out of the truck and we were in for it. It was gusting about 40mph and we had a 10-mile hike ahead of us before shooting light.
Shooting light came and went and we didn’t see a thing. At about lunchtime, we got to a vantage point and I spotted a giant buck track and told my wife, “We have to find this deer.” We sat and heated up some Mountain House meals while I started glassing the whole basin. About 600 yards away I spotted five does with two small bucks. I figured there was no way those bucks were running that group of does.
My wife and I took turns glassing while each of us ate. At one point my wife thought she spotted movement 100 yards behind the does we glassed and glassed and never saw movement again. With no sign of a big buck, we looped around the mountain with hopes of turning up some more deer. About an hour later we jumped a very nice mule deer but he skylined and was gone in the blink of an eye. We couldn’t turn him up again.
Around 2:00 PM a storm was rolling in and we made our way to the first group of does we saw. They were all up feeding before the storm hit. I threw my binos up and the first thing I saw was a buck looking our direction. His antlers looked like baseball bats growing out of his head. I told my wife, “That is a two hundred-inch buck. We have to go.” We were only 630 yards out, but the wind was blowing 30-40 mph so we definitely needed to get closer. There was a valley between us and they fed out of sight.
When we got to the bottom I asked my wife to stay behind and wait for my signal or a gunshot because I knew we were close and did not want to screw this up. I have unfortunately screwed up on two giants in the past. I started creeping up the skyline because I wanted the best vantage point and to hopefully see them before they saw me. I would take 2-3 steps, stop and glass for a few minutes, and repeat. It seemed like forever, but I finally made it close to where I last saw them and there was nothing. I started glassing in an old burn and spotted four does looking at me, watching as they busted and ran into the thick timber. My heart sank, knowing a buck of that caliber probably would not hang around if the does busted me.
All I could think was that I didn’t see the buck bust, so I just sat down and started scanning the area for movement. At 300 yards away I caught movement to my left in the burn and started glassing it. At first, all I saw were two small bucks that were with the does prior. All of a sudden behind them, I caught movement. I could not believe my eyes. Slowing walking, bobbing his enormous rack was the buck I thought was gone. Experience and past heartbreaks played a huge role in that moment and I knew what not to do. I had a very steep downhill angle shot, so I knew that I needed to get the best rest I could.
I extended my Atlas bipod all the way out, but it was so steep that it was hard to lay prone and get in my gun. After what seemed like forever getting set up, I started talking myself through the process. “Patience Zach, don’t mess this up. Wait for a clear shot.” The buck stopped with a clear shooting lane at 270 yards with angle shoot to 230. I dialed my scope one minute and settled in. With his shoulder in my crosshairs, I managed my breaths and slowly started squeezing the trigger. The gun bucked and I kind of lost him, but the sound of a 212-grain ELD-X hitting its target was all I needed to know that I hit him. I found him in the scope and he dropped in his tracks. I sprinted to him, still in disbelief over what just happened, and afraid that he would get up. As I got up to him and realized he was done, I was at a loss for words and remembered that my wife was still waiting. I ran back to get her.
I was so overcome with emotion that I had teared up, so when I saw her, she thought I missed. After growing up hunting around successful people I finally reached what most would say is the pinnacle of mule deer hunting. I still can’t compare this to anything else. There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into backcountry hunting. The best part of this whole hunt was getting to share the experience with my wife. My buck ended up scoring 203 ⅛” and kick-started a whole new love for high-country mule deer hunting.
By: Zach Vogl - Montana Mule Deer