Best Day Hunting Muleys

By Kathy Hadley

It was still dark outside and cold, very cold. I got dressed, grabbed a cup of coffee and walked outside to listen to the morning. I heard coyotes singing off in the distant hills but nothing else.  Looking east, I could see a sliver of the sky just starting to get light. Time to get going. I grabbed my rifle, binoculars and hunting pack, said “I’ll see you in a few hours” to my husband and off I went into the sage brush covered landscape of Eastern Montana.

I was after mule deer who I knew were somewhere around me in this beautiful, up and down country of leg straining hillsides and miles of sagebrush and deep coulees (where I might surprise a sage grouse or sharp-tail and scare myself to death).

The sky was just starting to lighten and shooting time was a few minutes away when I heard a noise that at first I couldn’t identify. I sat down behind some brush, put my rifle on my lap, waited and listened. Below me about 100 yards away I heard a clashing and clattering sound. Looking hard, I could just make out the top of the backs and heads of two mule deer bucks.  I froze, moving just my fingers to keep the deer in focus in my binoculars and watched these two big bucks put their heads down, charge each other and lock antlers over and over again. The bucks were big and

beautiful and I could see their breath in the cold morning air.  This fight went on for a long time while the cold seeped into my bones. And then all of a sudden they were gone, vanishing in the cold of the early morning light.

I sat for a while, thinking how lucky I was to be in this place on this day and to have a bird’s eye view of this fall mating behavior among mule deer. Finally I hit the trail again, smiling and thinking that this is going to be a very good day for hunting.

I am a still hunter which means I hunt very, very slowly. I walk a couple steps, stop, look and listen, walk a couple steps, stop, listen and look hard again. I try to use the terrain to stay out of sight of any animals and keep to the shadows and hide behind trees while looking for odd shapes, ears in the grass and straight legs in the distance. As I slowly hiked I saw a few deer in the distance moving in the early morning light but most were too far away to tell much about them.

After a while I came up against a steep hill with a narrow game trail across it and a sharp drop off to a river.  I slung my rifle across my chest, leaned into the hill and scampered across the face of the hill. On the other side I stopped, glassed and could see a few mule deer about 300-400 yards away in the river bottom, under some trees. I slowly made my way towards the deer, trying to get a sharp enough look through my binoculars to see if there were any bucks in the group.  By this time, the sun was up, the skies were clear and there was a light breeze that was working in my favor.

After what seemed like hours I finally closed the distance to where I though the deer would be. Peeking around a tree, I saw nothing.  I looked harder, thinking surely they were here if I could just find them. I glassed and glassed looking hard at all the clumps of sage brush and at the bottom of the trees along the river. Nothing.

Disappointed, I walked through some rolling sagebrush hills down into an area along the river with a few trees and sat down in the shade of a tree and behind some pretty thick brush to take a break. Drank some water, ate some crackers and enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the beautiful morning.

Looking around I couldn’t believe what I saw then– an ear of a mule deer sticking out of the tall grass that was really not very far away from where I was sitting.  I was stunned, felt foolish and my heart started pounding.  I couldn’t believe that I had missed this deer considering I’d been sitting in the same place for 10 or 15 minutes.  I looked again and saw more ears and finally some really nice antlers. My heart was really pounding then. I found the group of deer that I had been looking for but the bad news was I couldn’t move and take a shot.

My rifle was sitting on the ground beside me next to my hunting pack and I knew if I tried to pick it up there was a good chance that the deer would see me. I also needed the deer to stand before I could take a shot. So I waited for the deer to get out of their beds and move away.  I was frantically running scenarios through my head about how exactly to get the deer to stand up but not run while getting my rifle to my shoulder with a good hold in time to shoot.  Finally decided I couldn’t do it.

So I waited, sitting still, not moving and loving to just watch them in the grass. Looking at their twitching ears, watching to see how often they moved their heads, counting bucks and does and fawns. More time passed, they didn’t move nor did I.

I finally noticed how high the sun was getting in the sky and knew my husband would be wondering where I was if I didn’t show up soon so I had to get back.  I took a last look at the bedded deer, quietly whispered to myself “good job deer—but watch out, I’ll be back early tomorrow” and I was.

These experiences could not have happened without a healthy sage ecosystem. These broad landscapes are home to many important, but sometimes forgotten wildlife species, both game and non-game alike. Without our distinct support and advocacy these far from town places will die by a thousand cuts – development, fragmentation, overuse and abuse. However, with our engagement and advocacy, these ancient landscapes will endure and my story can be one of a young women many years from now.

The best way to move forward now is to support the Sage Grouse Conservation Plans. Artemis just released a short report detailing the plight of the sage grouse, mule deer, and the sage ecosystem. See the report here – Living on Common Ground: Sportswomen speak out to save the mule deer, sage grouse and sagebrush country.

Kathy Hadley is a lifelong hunter and fly fishing angler. She is the mother of two sons and lives on a ranch in western Montana with her husband Wayne. She has been a volunteer and board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation for many years and is also the Chair of the National Wildlife Federation Board of Directors and an Artemis co-founder.