Montana Muleys

Photo by Paolo Marchesi Sometimes it's easy to forget where we are. The familiar look of eastern Montana's rolling grasslands is, suddenly, nowhere in sight. We still have the horizon-to-horizon views, but instead of sunburned yellow and gold grass, and patches of evergreen timber, there's nothing but reddish-brown rock and dirt. And none of it flat. It doesn't look like Montana. Or even like part of the United States. It looks prehistoric and otherworldly. And it is. This is the Missouri River Breaks-prime mule deer country in the middle of nowhereOutdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi Hunting the Missouri River Breaks is like mountain hunting, except in reverse. We start at the land's high point, the softly rolling hills of the high plains. After a short hike we drop down into crags and draws, created by geologic catastrophes that moved massive amounts of earth, which were then sculpted by wind and water.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi Stalking through the steep-sided land, we fight to maintain our elevation. Gravity works with the heavy mud on our boots to drag our feet down with each step. Looking around at the intimidating rock formations that tower in front of and above us, it's easy to think that the going would be a little smoother at the bottoms of the narrow box canyons we're skirting.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi But when we slide down I realize we've been lured by a siren's song. Rain and melting snow get directed into these bottoms, and the result is thick brush and slick ground that is physically impossible to walk through. The twists and oxbows of the channels completely turn me around. Normally I take pride in my ability to stay oriented, but in this terrain that skill has abandoned me and I have no idea which way leads back to the truck. All we can do is grit our teeth and claw our way back up to the mid-level heights to continue hunting.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi If my guide, Kelly Burke (www.burkeranchoutfitters.com), shares any of my directional anxiety, he doesn't show it. The 33-year-old Montana native maneuvers as though this were his backyard, which in many respects it is. We're hunting in the massive block of public land that surrounds Fort Peck Reservoir - the 1.1 million acres of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge - and Burke and his family have roots here that predate the creation of the reservoir and the refuge that surrounds it.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi As we pick our way through the badlands, the only signs of human presence we encounter are occasional piles of stones. These are navigation marks, Burke tells me, placed by Basque shepherds to lead them and their flocks to favored grazing spots.
"There's a rock sculpture around here of a beautiful woman done by one of the shepherds to keep him company, but I've never seen it," he says.
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Photo by Paolo Marchesi Moving across a saddle that connects two draws, we spot a mule deer doe as she trots over the rim of rock in front of us and out of sight. Just below where she disappeared, a young buck stands frozen, staring our way. He watches us for a full minute, skylined 120 yards from our location, seemingly dumbfounded by our intrusion, as photographer Paolo Marchesi takes pictures. Eventually the deer hops over the ledge to join his girlfriend and we continue hiking.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi They are wavy apparitions in our binoculars and spotting scopes, an effect created by their distance and the mirage distortions in the air. We check them one by one for headgear and spot a buck in their midst, though we can't tell much about him other than that his rack's well outside his ears and that it seems to have good height-two facts that are enough to get us moving in his direction.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi Inching forward, I place one knee firmly in the center of a small cactus and nearly bite my tongue in half trying to keep from crying out as tears flood my eyes, the pain turning my face purple. My self-control is rewarded by the sight of a small buck bedded at the bottom of the hill. As Kelly and I shift to get a better look at the deer, our buck and doe explode out of the brush to our left. They move off too fast to offer a shot, but Kelly thinks we still have a chance to catch up with them.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi We pursue the pair to higher ground, following what we think are their tracks, which happen to lead right into the hills we wandered the day before. Soon we're back in the middle of that raw country, and by early afternoon the ridge where we started our hunt in the morning is just a hazy spot on the horizon. So much for covering ground with our eyes instead of our feet.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi At the end of the third day we spot another good buck, again feeding in the company of a doe. As with so many other deer, we found him by glassing from the high edge of a deep, broad valley. We keep an eye on him until both he and the doe feed out of sight before Burke says, "Let's go." My two partners drop over the edge of the nearly vertical wall beneath our perch and disappear out of sight like two monkeys scrambling down a tree. I make my way down much more slowly and then run to catch up as I reach level ground. It takes us about 15 minutes to jog across the valley. Slowing down, we circle behind the spot where we last saw the deer and gingerly work our way up a draw next to the one we think the deer went into.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi Our careful approach pays off. We find the deer in a small, shallow depression that looks like an amphitheater. My range finder puts the buck at 220 yards. When I shoot, I'm certain I've hit him well. But he just stands there. I work the bolt and shoot again. This time we hear a satisfying thunk when the bullet strikes. The buck tumbles over and we exchange backslaps, grinning like idiots. It's then that I notice the furrow in the dirt where I shot.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Photo by Paolo Marchesi I had consciously checked to make sure my muzzle had enough clearance along the side of the hill before my first shot, but apparently I didn't check well enough. Happily my second shot flew down the channel created by the first to find its mark.
After the spoiled stalks and hard miles invested in this hunt, I'm grateful for the lucky break. We butcher and quarter the deer there and start walking in the dark toward the truck. We have only four miles to go, but after being immersed in this wilderness, the distance between us and the road back to civilization feels much longer.
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Photo by Paolo Marchesi Kelly Burke guides for elk, antelope and deer. To book a hunt with him, contact Burke Outfitters at 406-228-9727 or burkeranchoutfitters.com.Outdoor Life Online Editor

Montana's rugged Missouri River Breaks are a haven for public-land mule deer hunting. By John B. Snow.