February 17, 2023
Though I had my third Montana deer tag over the past seven or eight years in my pocket, I had yet to actually hunt deer in the Big Sky state. Each deer license was drawn in conjunction with my general elk tag, and I held it for the off chance I might come across a nice buck while chasing elk with my bow. That all changed in November of 2017 with a phone call from my good friend Robert Hanneman. He and his three sons were driving to eastern Montana for the last weekend of the general deer season, and he invited me and my son, Tripp, to go along. On a whim we made the nine-hour drive and met the Hannemans right at dark on Friday. With only a day-and-a-half to hunt, I had no illusions I would even see a buck, much less actually kill one.
I was proven wrong by 9 a.m. the next day when I took a handsome 4x4 buck. By the end of the day, Robert and his son Connor had shot nice bucks as well. Eastern Montana proved to be a gem that’s ready to be unearthed through research and hard work. Here’s how I did it.
Drawing A Tag
There are some areas in Montana that require a special draw tag to hunt, but large portions of the state are open to be hunted by anyone with a general tag. For those unfamiliar with hunting in Montana, all tags—even the general tags—are issued to non-residents through a drawing. There are a few options for getting a deer tag: the Deer Combination-General ($646) and Big Game Elk/Deer Combination-General ($1,108).
In 2022 the draw odds for the Deer Combo were 54 percent with 0 points and 40 percent with 1 point. The Big Game Elk Deer combo was 71 percent with 0 points and 35 percent with 1 point. For the past several years the Landowner Sponsored tags have been guaranteed, but there is a caveat. Those applying for these hunts must contract with an outfitter before applying, and these tag holders can hunt only on the deeded ground of that landowner. Bonus points are purchased at the time of applying for $50 and are worth the investment if you want to draw a tag in the next few years. It’s worth noting that in regards to bonus points for the general draw, points purchased go toward that year’s drawing.
A Giant Checkerboard
Most of eastern Montana is a mixture of land ownership. The primary landowners are the Bureau of Land Management, State Trust Lands, and private entities and individuals. Many areas are literally a checkerboard, with each square mile owned by a different person or entity. Due to this, a GPS or mapping system on your smartphone is a must while hunting. Also, corner-hopping land is illegal in Montana, so there will be times you cannot access land even when its within reach.
There is some quality hunting on public land, but often private and public land are mixed in together. The season runs concurrently with the rut, so deer are often moving and will move on and off private land with regularity. With a GPS and some time and effort, nice bucks can be found on public land. Yes, you will likely spot bucks you can’t shoot because they are on private land, but there are enough deer that success is possible even with no access to private land. For those willing to hike away from the roads, 130- to 150-inch bucks are available, and there are even bigger bucks for some lucky hunters.
The past two seasons I have been fortunate to go on hunts on a large chunk of private land that a friend of mine leases for the purpose of guiding hunts. We have hunted this area over Thanksgiving week after clients have left for the year and the rut is winding down. The first time we hunted this area was in 2018. I had not drawn, so I tagged along with my friend Patrick Mayer and his son, Colby. Patrick and Colby both shot nice bucks, and Tyler Ferris, of Western Hunt Co., who leases the property, shot a nice management buck.
Although we hunted only a few days, it was the best deer hunting I had ever experienced, and I was thrilled when we drew in 2019 and got the chance to hunt the property again. This property, along with many others, offers a unique opportunity to hunt nice bucks during the rut. Ferris told me that most hunters who go guided or have access to private land could expect bucks in the 150- to 170-inch range with the chance for even bigger. He also said that most guided hunts in the area would average around $5,000. Of course, there are some cheaper and some more expensive options, and expectations on those hunts likely go up or down according to the price.
Bucks For All
After what I had seen in 2018, I knew we were in for a great hunt when we drew the tags in 2019. Ferris agreed to let Tripp shoot a nice buck if my brother and I would be willing to shoot management bucks. All I really wanted to accomplish on this hunt was to get my son a nice buck, so this was more than okay with me. The Friday before Thanksgiving my brother and Tripp and I drove to Billings. Patrick and Colby flew in from California to meet us. After a short night’s sleep, we were on the road, headed farther east to Ferris’s lease. We wasted no time getting out in the area to look for bucks, and an hour before dark we spotted a nice 160-inch buck. After a short stalk, Tripp sent a couple of shots his way, but he bounded off no worse for the wear.
The next morning we were in a new area, and an hour into the day we spotted a huge buck pushing the 190-inch mark. Patrick, Colby, and I played cat and mouse with this brute for a few hours, and after a final stalk, Colby missed a heartbreaker on the great buck. The rest of the day was uneventful. We spotted several nice bucks, including two dandy management bucks, but no shots were fired. Early on day three we headed back to an area where we had seen some great bucks the day before and saw a buck hot on the heels of a doe cross the road right in front of us. Colby quickly decided this was the buck for him and took chase. Within minutes, Colby made a successful 300-yard shot from the prone position. We were on the board. We took some photos, and after taking care of Colby’s buck and getting him back to the truck, we were off to another area in search of more bucks.
A couple of hours later we glassed down a draw, and I spotted a few bucks. Tripp and I headed down to get a closer look, looping out of sight of the bucks. When we arrived at where we thought they would be, we could see all of the bucks—except the biggest in the group. After several nervous minutes, the 4x4 buck fed out of the bottom right below us and Tripp made a perfect 225-yard shot. Soon after we got Tripp’s buck back to the truck, a storm set in, which meant we had to hustle back to the main road before eastern Montana’s legendary gumbo mud had us stranded in place. We were glassing down toward a bottom where we had previously seen a few bucks. Patrick decided he wanted to poke around some of the crevasses and creases we couldn’t glass from the rig. I wasn’t sure it was a great idea, but with some prodding, I agreed to go along.
An intriguing aspect about this part of the ranch is that there seemed to be an abundance of whitetail bucks. I was after management mule deer, but Tyler had said he didn’t care if I shot a whitetail. A half-mile into our hike in a driving rainstorm, Patrick stopped and said, “Man, that stump looks like it has antlers.” As soon as the words left his mouth, a big whitetail buck and a doe jumped up and took off. Luckily for me, they stopped after a short run and gave me just enough time to get a shot off and kill a beautiful Montana whitetail. The next morning Patrick took a 26-inch 4x4 mule deer.
Montana has always conjured visions of chasing bugling bulls in September, but over the past several seasons that’s changed. As much as I love chasing elk, I now regularly daydream of chasing rutting bucks in eastern Montana. At first glance, this landscape, with its open grasslands, sagebrush, and broken badlands, doesn’t look like anything special. Once you spend some time here, you realize the area is very much alive with wildlife, and it gets in your blood. This part of Montana very much has a hold on me, and I hope to visit it often for as long as I can.