Northern Montana is a harsh land populated by tough, independent ranchers who have acquired a knack for survival. The soil is mostly poor, primarily dry land wheat country, which appears starkly brown for much of the year. It is a land where you might plant 5,000 acres and harvest only 2,000 - where just two inches of rain can spell the difference between a profit and another trip to extend the operating loan.
As you drive across northern Montana you'd swear there wasn't a whitetail deer within 100 miles. No trees, no food, no deer - at least that's what you'll think. Maybe that's why it's such an interesting place to hunt - it offers a refreshing twist from the day-to-day whitetail strategies involved in hunting most traditional habitats. The deer are there all right, and they live in brush-filled coulees and river bend thickets such as those found along the Milk River.
The Milk winds through this brown country like a huge green snake. It comprises the largest continuous band of cover to be found for fifty miles, all the way from Fort Peck Reservoir to the Saskatchewan border. High bluffs guard the Milk River on each side, as if to keep this green snake from slithering off to some warmer, more hospitable clime farther south. Did I say inhospitable? Winter in this part of the North America can be brutal and the deer here survive almost entirely because of the alfalfa that covers the valley floor on both sides of the river. Despite limited cover, the river bottom and the coulees of the surrounding bluffs are alive with deer.
In one of these alfalfa-covered river bends Team Realtree found One Super Stand. It is a classic early season stand that lies between a thick bedding area and a well-used feeding area - it just so happens that both terminals are only 200 yards apart! What makes this stand so unique is not the traditional bedding to feeding pattern that prompts the deer to walk past it, but rather the challenges the hunters face when setting up in such small cover with such compressed patterns. It doesn't take much of a mistake to move a big buck out of the river bottoms and into the coulees where they become much more difficult to hunt with a bow.
DISCOVERING THE STAND
Most of the stands I've written about in my career have belonged to an individual hunter or, at most, to a couple of hunting buddies. In most of those cases it has taken a dozen years or more for those stands to produce multiple trophy bucks. By contrast, this Milk River stand is hunted by several people each year and it has produced three Pope & Young class bucks in only three years.
When Michael Waddell and David Blanton, of Realtree Outdoors fame, first scouted this region of the Milk during August of 1996 they were amazed by the number of quality bucks. From the bluffs overlooking the river they watched several alfalfa fields in order to determine the patterns of the bucks using them. After watching up and down the river for three or four evenings, David and Michael had learned enough to hang 10 double stands that would be used for filming bowhunts for the company's Monster Bucks videos. This One Super Stand was one of the original 10 that Waddell and Blanton scouted and set.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR SMALL COVER
The first thing the two hunters determined when scouting the Milk River was the need to stay away from the stands in the morning. I hunted with the group that first year in 1996. It was relaxing to sleep-in and hunt only during the evenings, but it was also essential. When dealing with such small cover, where bedding and feeding areas are so close together, it's virtually impossible to get into a morning stand without being detected.
There were a few spots along our section of the river where a hunter could jump into a canoe and slip across into a stand right along the other bank that was located along the edge of a bedding area. But this strategy only worked in spots where the fields were several hundred yards from the river, providing a bit of a cushion. There weren't many such spots. Then, of course, it also had to be a spot that was expendable, because the pressure of hunting right in a bedding area soon had the local deer vacating that stretch of cover. It was quickly determined that morning hunts were taboo.
There was another rule in camp: no one climbs down from an evening stand until the "distraction" arrives. After the deer leave the river bends to feed they remain fairly close to each stand for the rest of the evening. David and Michael rightfully decided that a hunter climbing down from his stand with deer all around would immediately ruin that stand. And with several hunters per year hunting each stand, that wasn't an option.
The deer along the Milk River are very familiar with ranch vehicles. When the rancher pulls into a field it is nothing out of the ordinary. The deer will move off, but usually only far enough to get out of his way. Each hunter was instructed to stay on stand until the truck pulled right up to the tree to cover the commotion. It worked like a charm. Okay, enough background. We're finally getting to the fun part - the hunting action.
BILL JORDAN'S BIG 8-POINTER
The first buck to come from the stand fell that first year, 1996. The stand wasn't hunted heavily in September, but Bill Jordan discovered its virtues in early October. He sized up the stand and the wind and decided it had to be moved so he could avoid detection. Quietly moving the two stands 50 yards, Bill was satisfied and climbed in for his afternoon hunt. If you've watched the Monster Bucks V video you've seen the hunt. A beautiful 130-inch eight-pointer came right past the stand as it headed for the alfalfa field. Bill made a good shot and was soon standing over the buck. This super stand had officially been discovered.
The stand is hunted sparingly in an effort to keep it from being burned out. It wasn't until the next year, 1997, that the stand again produced action. Bob Foulkrod got his wires crossed with his cameraman and missed a hurried shot at a nice buck as it came past the same stand. Of course, much to Bob's chagrin, the miss was caught on video and is shown for all to see in Monster Bucks VI.
"For some reason 1997 was a poor year all along the river," said Waddell. We spent several evenings sitting on the bluff overlooking the field in front of this stand to see what was coming out. We like to "take inventory" each season so we have some idea what class of bucks exist in order to have a realistic idea of what to hold out for. We weren't seeing much of any size that year so we didn't hunt the stand very hard."
The action on this river bend really redlined in early October of 1998, however, more than making up for 1997. "We had several hunters in camp," said Waddell and the river bend where this stand was located was my only spot to hunt. For two evenings I watched the field from the bluff a quarter-mile away through the spotting scope. Both evenings I saw the same three eight-pointers in the 125- to 135-inch range go past the stand. But the wind was wrong for this spot and all I could do was watch and wait. Every morning I practiced with my bow because I just knew I was going to get a shot once the wind swung to the northwest.
"Finally, on the third day of the hunt the wind cooperated and the rancher dropped us off at the stand with his pickup truck. I just knew I was going to get a crack at one of those nice eights. It was still two hours before quitting time when all the bucks I'd been watching came past on a trail that took them just out of bow range. It looked like it was all over, and I was really bummed out. Then I looked 100 yards back into the river bend and saw a buck making a scrape under some brush. It was a deer I hadn't seen before - a huge eight-pointer!
"The buck made a bee-line straight for my stand and went past at only 15 yards. The quartering-away shot was a slam-dunk and when I heard him crash after a short death run I turned to the camera and went nuts. He was by far the biggest buck I'd ever shot. (He later scored 150 inches.) But the excitement was a little tainted. Hunting is fun - that's why I do it - but it's also my job - we're trying to get footage for our videos. The cameraman who was hunting with me was fairly new and had failed to properly engage the record button! We didn't have a single frame!
"That didn't detract from the excitement of taking such a huge buck, though. I was still pumped, but I stayed in the tree anyway. We didn't climb down until the rancher came for us so as not to disturb the other bucks that were still feeding in the field." With three good shooters still using the area, it made sense to put a second hunter on the stand the next evening. Team Realtree Hunting Editor Michael Hanback was the lucky hunter.
"The wind stayed out of the northwest," said Waddell. "Hanback had a few does and smaller bucks come past right away. They were following the same trail as the big eight-pointer I'd shot. It wasn't long before the three Pope & Young bucks came past too, at a range of about 25 yards. Michael made a good shot and got the biggest one of the group."
Again the hunter waited for the rancher to arrive before climbing down to admire the beautiful 135-inch nine-pointer. Believe it or not, the next night, as Waddell watched from the bluff, another good buck walked right past the stand. "Even though the wind was still perfect we decided not to hunt the stand a third night in a row," said Waddell. "We didn't want to burn it out. But I'm sure that we could have taken another big buck from the spot had we sent a hunter there!"
If you find yourself hunting bucks in small cover, remember the special tricks these open-minded bowhunters put into action. It isn't worth the risk of trying to hunt your best areas in the morning. Find a location that's expendable for morning hunts. Spend plenty of time watching from a safe distance before you ever commit to a stand location, get between bedding and feeding areas without being detected and arrange a distraction that will permit you to get out of your stand at the end of legal shooting time. With this unique approach, small cover can produce big results.
Get the latest news, tips and tactics in your inbox!