Heart Break Ridge

It had been the perfect stalk and a record-book muley was just an easy shot away...or was it?

A dust devil whirling across the browning plain reminded me it had been a dry summer in southeastern Montana and an even drier autumn. I raised my binocular and saw that the distant summits of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains had gone whiter with a dusting of snow that had fallen the night before. Yet even now, in early November, little moisture had reached the semi-arid country I was glassing. Here, where the Tongue River meandered toward its confluence with the Yellowstone, the sagebrush and other plants that spread out across the prairie on either side of the shallow stream appeared to be panting for water.

"Wow, that is one big buck!"

Daydream over, I pulled the glasses away from my eyes long enough to glance at Roger St. Clair. Like me, the guide had been scanning the canyon opposite the ridge on which we stood. Now his binocular was focused on the valley floor, about 500 yards below us.

"How big?" I asked, as I tried to find the mule deer he was inspecting. "Pushing 190-maybe better than that because I can't see any deductions," St. Clair answered. "He's a 4 by 4 with brow tines and mass all the way out to the ends, and a nice spread."

Shadows were beginning to creep across the prairie, and in the waning light the landscape had flattened into a one-dimensional glob of bushes, grass and deer. Finally I saw the buck through my 8x42s. Actually, I saw two bucks. A 170-class muley was accompanying the bigger buck, which by that time was wrecking a young juniper with his antlers. The bucks were buddies, although it was clear by the way the bigger muley was crushing the shrub that they wouldn't be pals much longer. The rut was still a few weeks away, but already the old boy's butt-kicking hormones were starting to act up.

Earlier that afternoon, St. Clair and I had driven up to the ridge where we now stood because it was the highest accessible point. With binoculars and a spotting scope, we could see for miles in all directions, yet the biggest buck we saw was literally right under our noses. The problem was getting to him before dark. Much depended on his travel plans. Presumably, the buck and his amigo were making their way down to the cattle pastures along the river, although they were not in any hurry to reach them.

"We can wait here and we might get a chance to go after them this evening, or we can come back tomorrow and be set up near the bottom when they come out-which they probably will," said St. Clair.

My response was that of a whitetail hunter educated in the school of hard knocks: There is no such thing as tomorrow for a crack at a good buck-or at least nothing to count on. "Let's go after him as soon as we can," I said.

As might be expected, the bucks were only a few yards away from the dense cover of the short canyon they had exited some time before. Such canyons, termed "black holes" by local hunters, had enough browse and springwater seeps to provide excellent daytime sanctuaries for mule deer.

It was apparent that rather than cut across the open spaces, the bucks would hug the edge of the trees as they descended farther down the valley. That being the case, the lay of the land was in our favor. The shape of the main ridgeline was similar to that of an open hand. We stood on the thumb, and the four fingers extended into the plain, receding in elevation at the tips. The muleys were standing in the gap between the thumb and the index finger.

Hunting companion Greg Jones, product manager for Kahles Optics, and I had traveled to southeastern Montana expecting at least to have the opportunity to take a trophy mule deer buck apiece, and we weren't disappointed by what we found. Each day during our four-day hunt with Big Buck Outfitters (307-672-3424), we saw dozens of does and young bucks on our spot-and-stalk forays. Although other areas of the West have experienced dramatic declines in mule deer popations, the southeastern corner of Montana has fared well, if only because the size of the human population has remained static and much of the best deer habitat is within the boundaries of cattle ranches.

IN THE LAND OF GIANTS
The first morning, while St. Clair and I glassed the highlands around a cattle tank, I spotted a 170-class buck that I passed on because St. Clair assured me that much bigger bucks roamed these ridgelines. He wasn't exaggerating. The next day, while spotting and stalking on a nearby ranch, Jones surprised a big muley from its bed and dropped it with one shot when the startled buck stopped to look back. Its rack grossed just over 205 points on the Boone and Crockett Club scale and wound up netting a bit better than 195 B&C.; Typical of the trophy muleys in this part of the country, Jones's buck was spectacular for its overall mass, and for the height and length of its main beams.

Now, on the high ridgeline, my chance to take an exceptional buck had arrived. When the muleys decided it was time to leave, they stayed close to the treeline. As they rounded the first finger of the ridge, St. Clair and I made our move. We already had plotted our course and began to descend toward the valley. Sunlight was leaving and we didn't have time to spare, but because of the loose shale and rock that peppered the steep slope, there was danger in pushing too quickly. We scrambled downward, finding footholds and grabbing bushes to brake our descent.

Within a few minutes we reached level ground and scurried across the open toward the point where the bucks had disappeared behind the point of the first finger. The cove between the first and second fingers was narrow and not as deep, and as we sneaked forward we saw the bucks about 200 yards away. Unaware of our presence, they continued to walk nonchalantly along the edge of the cover.

"Have you got a shot?" St. Clair asked. I raised the .30/06 to my shoulder, looked through the 3x9 scope and covered the bigger buck for a few yards. He passed through an area where the shrubs were lower and I had a clear view. Then he entered a swale and vegetation came between us. Only the muley's back, neck and head were visible. I didn't like the odds. Besides, the wind was in our favor. The bucks didn't have a clue anyone was around and they were about to go behind the next point. I told St. Clair I would wait for a better chance as the bucks passed from view.

We paused for a few minutes and then hustled over to the base of the finger. It was much lower and we were on top of it within seconds. This secondary ridge was about 150 yards long and its flanks were covered with junipers and stubby ponderosa pines. A rock cliff capped its end and by the time St. Clair and I reached the edge we were practically crawling.

Slowly, quietly, we raised up in unison and looked out across the cove. Instantly we saw that the lesser buck was three-quarters of the way across the opening, looking back at us from about 200 yards away. Its face was wearing an "uh-oh" expression that told us our stalk was about to come to an abrupt end. Maybe it already had, because the bigger buck had vanished.

"Where is he?" I rasped, hoping St. Clair could supply an answer. "I can't see him."

By the way St. Clair was bobbing and weaving to sneak peeks through the trees, I could tell that he couldn't spot the bigger buck either. Perhaps the old muley, startled by our approach, had already entered the pines and junipers opposite us and was slinking through the cover 300 yards away. But he wasn't. In fact, he was more or less standing right under us.

"There he is-right there," St. Clair suddenly whispered. "If you're going to shoot, you better do it quick."

The buck was 90 yards away, staring up at us like a cow looking at a new gate. For some reason, he had lingered on our side of the cove-a fatal mistake, or so I thought. As I stretched out on the rock shelf, I unsnapped my fanny pack and flung it under the forend of my bolt-action to make a rest. There was nothing in the scope but deer and I didn't rush the shot. I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger.

At the blast, dust and debris flew up, and for a split second I couldn't see the buck. I expected him to be lying on the ground or making his death run, but instead, he was standing stock-still with his eyes still fixed on me. I don't know which of us was more surprised: the buck by the shot, or me by the fact that I had missed.

WHAT WENT WRONG, AND WHY
Instantly, the muley sprang away and followed his companion, which already had taken off. I frantically chambered another round and tried to pick up the bigger buck again as he bolted across the plain. He reached cover and I waited for the muley to reappear on a treeless, rocky ramp halfway up the hillside about 250 yards away. As he bounded through the opening, I got off another shot, but the bullet hit ahead of his chest and caromed harmlessly off a boulder beyond him. That was all. If the muley stopped to look back, he did so in a place where we couldn't see him.

I rolled over halfway and looked up at St. Clair. "I can't believe I missed that first shot. There was just no way," I said, shaking my head in disgust. Jones and I had made sure the rifles were sighted in before we went hunting, and I was positive that I had not jarred the scope enough to knock it out of alignment as St. Clair and I made our mad scramble down the slope of the ridge.

"You didn't exactly miss, but you never had a chance anyway," St. Clair said. "The bullet hit the shelf right in front of you."

I looked back at the cliff and, sure enough, there was a fresh notch in the rock about a quarter-inch from the edge. While all I saw was crosshairs and buck through the scope, it never occurred to me that the muzzle might not clear the cliff; because everything happened so quickly, I never took the time to look. My mistake; the bullet had clipped the rock shelf and flown off into never-never land. Such things happen when you're in a hurry. I felt foolish, but more than that I felt disappointed.

That night in the ranch bunkhouse, St. Clair and Jones didn't give me much time to feel sorry for myself. The strategy we plotted included a return trip to the same ridge because St. Clair thought there was a chance the muley might repeat his travel pattern the next evening. Perhaps we both imagined it, but as the buck bounded away up the ridge it appeared that he was more bewildered than alarmed, more cautious than fearful. The two deer might have continued on to the river pastures that night and would slip back to their black hole the next morning.

At daylight there were six pairs of eyes scanning the ctal mistake, or so I thought. As I stretched out on the rock shelf, I unsnapped my fanny pack and flung it under the forend of my bolt-action to make a rest. There was nothing in the scope but deer and I didn't rush the shot. I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger.

At the blast, dust and debris flew up, and for a split second I couldn't see the buck. I expected him to be lying on the ground or making his death run, but instead, he was standing stock-still with his eyes still fixed on me. I don't know which of us was more surprised: the buck by the shot, or me by the fact that I had missed.

WHAT WENT WRONG, AND WHY
Instantly, the muley sprang away and followed his companion, which already had taken off. I frantically chambered another round and tried to pick up the bigger buck again as he bolted across the plain. He reached cover and I waited for the muley to reappear on a treeless, rocky ramp halfway up the hillside about 250 yards away. As he bounded through the opening, I got off another shot, but the bullet hit ahead of his chest and caromed harmlessly off a boulder beyond him. That was all. If the muley stopped to look back, he did so in a place where we couldn't see him.

I rolled over halfway and looked up at St. Clair. "I can't believe I missed that first shot. There was just no way," I said, shaking my head in disgust. Jones and I had made sure the rifles were sighted in before we went hunting, and I was positive that I had not jarred the scope enough to knock it out of alignment as St. Clair and I made our mad scramble down the slope of the ridge.

"You didn't exactly miss, but you never had a chance anyway," St. Clair said. "The bullet hit the shelf right in front of you."

I looked back at the cliff and, sure enough, there was a fresh notch in the rock about a quarter-inch from the edge. While all I saw was crosshairs and buck through the scope, it never occurred to me that the muzzle might not clear the cliff; because everything happened so quickly, I never took the time to look. My mistake; the bullet had clipped the rock shelf and flown off into never-never land. Such things happen when you're in a hurry. I felt foolish, but more than that I felt disappointed.

That night in the ranch bunkhouse, St. Clair and Jones didn't give me much time to feel sorry for myself. The strategy we plotted included a return trip to the same ridge because St. Clair thought there was a chance the muley might repeat his travel pattern the next evening. Perhaps we both imagined it, but as the buck bounded away up the ridge it appeared that he was more bewildered than alarmed, more cautious than fearful. The two deer might have continued on to the river pastures that night and would slip back to their black hole the next morning.

At daylight there were six pairs of eyes scanning the c