A few years ago in late November I found myself in a situation most bow hunters dread, the possibility of slurping up a big ol' bowl of tag soup. I still had my chances but I had a pocket full of unfilled Elk and deer tags well into the Montana rifle season. With very little chance of taking a rifle pressured elk with a bow, let alone a bull, I concentrated my efforts on taking a deer with my bow in particular a mule deer buck I had been spying on during September and early October. With long tall tines, great mass and numerous sticker points, this buck was unmistakable. He roamed the typical rolling open sagebrush country that big bucks seem to easily disappear into. My plan was to use his only weakness, find him when he's looking for love! There are several other nice bucks in the area but the tall wide rack of the sticker buck was on my mind. My planned time to hunt luckily coincided with a early snow storm that dropped a foot of fresh powder.
Soon after I started my hour long hike, the darkness turned as the sun began to rise. At the half-way point I cut the tracks of 3-4 does and one very large set of buck tracks. I couldn't resist following the fresh tracks as the sun was rising. The snow had blanketed everything and I made almost no sound as I paralleled the tracks winding through the pines and sage. It was now legal shooting light as the single file line of tracks crested the ridge a hundred yards ahead. I picked up the pace to hopefully catch a glimpse of the buck and form a strategy to set up a stalk from the ridge. I had my fingers crossed that it was the big buck I was after. As I peeked over the ridge I could see two groups of does scattered throughout the pines but no sign of the buck. I sat for a few minutes glassing through the binoculars hoping to see those big antlers moving through the scattered pine trees. There was little chance of being detected, the wind was in my face and I blended into the fresh powder dressed in snow camo. I finally picked up movement to the right of the does and found the match for those big tracks left in the snow. He was moving directly away from me and by the looks of him he was definitely a "shooter". I made the decision to try a stalk regardless if it was the "sticker" buck or not, the clock was ticking and the foul taste of "tag soup" was closing in. I quickly looped around 150 yards to their right behind the ridge and out of their sight. My plan was to intercept them before they bedded. As I was moving through the sage I was shocked to see a herd of elk feeding on a ridge less than a half of a mile away. The contrast of their tan and brown coats against a blanket of white snow was so shocking I couldn't believe they had gone unnoticed. I thought to myself how great it would be to take a bull this late in the season in fresh snow in my snow camo, opportunities like this don't come around very often for a bow hunter. The buck however was still my priority and I thought if I blew the stalk I could try for plan B, chase those elk!
I continued on to get ahead of the does and belly crawled to the top of the ridge to peak over once again. My plan was working as they were still headed in the same direction. I finally reached my point of ambush and waited for the does to filter by me, hopefully with buck in tow. The first doe appeared less than 20 yards away. The wind was light but was now a crosswind. Suddenly the first doe became nervous and looked in my direction then slowly walked back in her own tracks. I could see through the trees the sure sign of my failed stalk, the bouncing white butts of a fleeting herd of mule deer.
I was still unsure if it was the sticker buck or not but it didn't matter at this point. I decided to go ahead with plan B, try to fill my elk tag! I began backtracking my own tracks in the snow toward the point where I had first spotted the elk feeding. Halfway there I caught movement in the sage ahead of me...it was a Bull!!! I was in the open but the snow camo made me invisible. He was walking toward a small group of trees about a hundred yards ahead of him and I felt I had enough time to intercept him. I suddenly noticed another bull walking in the same steps as the first bull and he was bigger. My plan was to let the first bull walk into the trees and assume the bigger bull would follow. As soon as the first bull disappeared into the trees I quickly moved forward, positioning myself with a small pine between us to conceal my movements to get within shooting distance. I crept to just under 80 yards as the second bull was now too close for me to move without detection. He suddenly stopped behind a group of trees and I used the soft quiet snow to my favor and ran as fast as I could to close the distance. I stopped within bow-range, slipped an arrow onto the string and drew back. I held my breath as he stepped into view his head turned toward me staring at the strange white statue. I released and the arrow flew straight and true. The bull sensed the danger and began to move, but the arrow had found its mark. As the bull ran full speed directly away from me the first bull burst from the trees and both ran side by side through the sage and out of sight.
I waited in the deep snow for an hour enjoying the sunshine and taking in the moment. I trailed the bull for a surprisingly long distance but there was not doubt by the signs left in the snow that the arrow had found vitals. I tracked him to his last bed in a small patch of timber close to a mile away.
I never did get a chance to see the sticker buck again. However I'm almost certain he survived the hunting season and hopefully the winter predators. And luckily I have forgotten what tag soup tastes like!