The mountains are calling: A do-it-yourself public land hunt
By Ben Gruber
My entryway is a disaster right now with gear spread all over the place. Remnants of the Missouri River mud will remain as a not-so-welcome reminder for many months.
An “out west” experience is something that many hunters put on their bucket list but for one reason or another never get around to doing. This is my third western hunt, and I love it more every time I go. This year I came back with a cooler full of meat and two empty coolers that I had hoped to fill.
Last Tuesday my buddy Tyler and I packed the truck up at 11 p.m. and drove 15 hours to northeast Montana’s Missouri River Breaks. Our minimal gear was all ready to hit the end of the dirt road and backpack another 5-10 miles into the backcountry with a deer tag and a cow elk tag. We wanted to be at least 2 miles from the nearest road, hoping to hunt animals undisturbed by trucks and ATVs.
Our plans were almost immediately doused as we arrived in the area at the same time as the tail end of a storm that dumped five to nine inches of rain on the area. For the first two days, we were unable to get within 20 miles of the area we wanted to hunt.
The Missouri River Breaks area is famous for its gumbo — not the food kind, the gumbo of the mud variety. Let me tell you, this stuff is for real. As soon as you set foot off of pavement or gravel, it immediately clings to your boots with every step until you are carrying an extra three to six pounds of mud on each foot. That is not an exaggeration. It is horrible, and forget driving anywhere off of a paved road.
By day three we were able to get close to where I planned to hunt. We threw up our tent right next to a gravel road and went to sleep with our stocking hats on as temperatures dipped to the low 20s. By daybreak we had a mile behind us and were starting to feel better about the trip. About 3 miles into the hills, with five pounds of mud caking each boot, we worked for each mile and each foot we climbed.
With two tags to fill, I had vowed to take the first legal animal in range, so when we rounded a corner and found a yearling mule deer buck standing 65 yards downhill, he became the first mule deer I have ever tagged. We boned the meat out on the spot, put 50 pounds of meat in each of our packs, and headed back for camp. With a half mile to go, the mud on my boots was unbearable, so I finally took them off and hiked the rest barefoot. We made it to the road, where another local hunter on his way out stopped and offered us a lift to our camp. When he saw my bare feet, he was at a loss for words.
We did the entire hunt ourselves. We hunted public land. We got a deer. We did not get an elk, but we had a few chances. It did not cost us an arm or a leg. I am here to tell you that if it is on your bucket list, you can do it too.
Ben Gruber can be reached at email@example.com.