Record Quest: Whitetail and Mule Deer Hunting Along the Montana/Wyoming Line

On Election Day I traveled to the tiny Montana town of Alzada for a week of whitetail and mule deer hunting in southeastern Montana and northwestern Wyoming with Mike Watkins' Trophies Plus Outfitters. Given the location of his outfit, Watkins offers his hunters a very unique opportunity: the chance to hunt quality, mature deer of two different species in two different states. Watkins leases approximately 140,000 acres of ranch land, about 70 percent of which is located in Montana.
The ranches in Wyoming feature more varied terrain than the ones we hunted in Montana. Deep, wooded canyons and draws open up into sprawling pastures. Rolling sagebrush flats drop off suddenly at sheer sandstone cliffs. Just a few miles to the north, the Montana ranches are much flatter and defined by seas of sagebrush-dotted pastures and hay fields that are laced with meandering, willow-choked creek bottoms. All of it is classic western deer country, and as we drove and hiked across the ranches you couldn't help but sense that a deep-forked muley or heavy old whitetail would be around the next bend or down the next draw. When all was said and done, I witnessed five awesome bucks get tagged--two muleys and three whitetails--in five days. Here's how it all went down.
Day 1: November 7, 2012
Our hunt began on the 8,000-acre Tope Ranch in Wyoming, just a 10-minute drive from Watkins' comfortable ranch house-cum-hunting lodge. I was guided by Watkins' son Richard, a full-time National Guardsman out of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Jake Jacobs of Weaver Optics was my hunting partner for the first part of the week. Right at first light, we spotted a good whitetail, along with a couple smaller bucks and does, in a hay field. We hustled out of the truck to try and get set up for a shot, but by the time we did, the buck had fed down over a hill. We moved a few hundred yards to our left, thinking that he might swing around into the bowl below us, but he had apparently gone straight down into a wooded draw and disappeared. Rather than go after him and risk pushing him to the extent that we never saw him again, we got back in the truck and drove around the ranch, stopping occasionally to glass. Hunting from a truck gives Watkins' customers their best chance to see the most deer. For one, the deer are accustomed to ranch trucks and don't spook at the sight of them. Second, given the size of the ranches Watkins leases, you could walk and hunt all day and see but a fraction of the property…and a fraction of the deer.
Around 9:00 a.m. we parked the truck and walked out to the end of a point that formed one side of a canyon, high above a wide-open landscape. We glassed for 15 or 20 minutes, but didn't see anything, and were walking back to the truck when Richard, in the lead, stopped short and pointed down across the canyon. Jake and I looked down and spotted a whitetail doe staring up at us and figured that's what Richard was pointing at. "No, to the left of the doe," he hissed. Three hours after first seeing him, at approximately 9:30 a.m., there laid the whitetail buck we had seen at first light, oblivious to us, but locked onto the doe. I quickly laid down to set up for a prone shot, rifle rested on my pack. Richard ranged the deer at 240 yards and about 30 degrees below us. Soon after I had gotten set up, the doe took off up the hill a bit and stopped. When the buck finally stood up, he moved straight uphill and stood behind a tree for an interminable 2 or 3 minutes. When he took a step forward he was at approximately 270 yards. I fired and missed, my bullet harmlessly hitting the ground in front of him. Luckily--and shockingly--he didn't move, so I racked in another 200-grain .338 Federal Fusion round and hit the deer through the lungs. He turned and ran downhill 60 or 70 yards, fell down, and expired. Everything happened so quickly that it wasn't until we were taking photos that I realized that my hunt was half over and it wasn't even lunchtime on Day 1.
The dark brown rack is a mainframe 5x5 with a small dropper off the left main beam, a couple stickers on the left G2, the start of a second beam on the left side, and a chunk out of the left base that appears to have been the result of a fight. Just an incredible trophy.
Day 2: November 8, 2012
We headed back to the Tope Ranch, in search of a buck for Jake to put his tag on. Once again we saw whitetails in the hay field at first light, but this morning there was nothing worth chasing, so we continued on around the backside of a hill where we'd seen a very wide 3x4 mule deer the day before, which Jake and I had both passed on. I had done so because I was hoping to tag a whitetail in Wyoming (which I ultimately did about an hour later). Jake passed because he would never have heard the end of it if he shot a deer before his "guest." But Jake had never shot a mule deer before, and this guy would make a hell of a first one, so the search was on.
As Richard's Silverado crept up a grassy rise, Jake spotted the big, wide muley across a divide, standing near the edge of some cedar trees with a few does. We drove down into an oak bottom, parked the truck, and Jake and Richard took off up the hill to try and get a shot. They were 50 yards from the truck when they first spotted him, but by the time they realized it was the buck, he'd disappeared into the trees. They went after him and got up onto the other side of a ridge from which we had glassed the previous evening and spotted the buck across the valley. Jake set up on his sticks, figured his hold for 400 yards and touched off his single-shot .270. The buck mule-kicked, ran about 20 yards, jumped a fence onto a neighboring ranch, and ran out of sight. When we drove around the hill to look for him, we saw that he didn't make it 100 yards from the fence line. The big-bodied 3x4's rack taped about 25 inches outside.
Day 3: November 9, 2012
With Jake and me both tagged out in Wyoming, it was on to Montana. After two beautiful bluebird days with temperatures in the low 50s, Day 3 felt much more like deer hunting weather: freezing fog, drizzle and temps in the mid 30s. The day had a promising start when we saw a big, mature mule deer around 6:45 a.m., just over the fence on the neighboring ranch, standing and looking at us from about 70 yards away. But after a few minutes he turned and walked away. We drove and glassed and drove some more, covering various terrain features before driving across a deep dry creek bed and into a low willowy area. We were driving along the edge of the woods and about to go around a bend into a pasture when Richard hit the brakes. Lying just inside the wood line was a beautiful, high-racked 4x4 whitetail.
All we could see were his antlers and from the eyes up on his head. Jake scrambled out of the back seat and got set up on the hood of the pick-up, but couldn't locate the buck, so Richard crawled from the driver's seat, over the console, and exited the cab from the rear passenger-side door. After helping Jake spot the deer, Richard grunted and the buck dropped his head so that all we could see were the tops of his tines. Richard continued to grunt and we could see the antlers moving side-to-side suggesting that the deer was looking around and getting antsy. After a couple minutes, the buck stood up and Jake dropped the hammer. The deer ran 100 yards or so and piled up. The Dream Team was now 3-for-3!
Day 4: November 10, 2012
With Jake now tagged out, I had a new hunting partner on Day 4, as both Drew Goodlin of Federal Ammunition and I were still carrying un-notched Montana tags. We drove to the western edge of the Arpan Ranch, just a few miles from camp, drove through the gate and waited for it to get light. It had snowed about an inch overnight and was still overcast with some flurries. When shooting light finally arrived we started forth, drove a quarter mile or so, and crested a rise in the road when Drew, from the back seat, called out, "Does!" Richard and I quickly spotted them, standing 70 yards in front of us among some trees to the right of where the road cut through the timber. About a second later, Rich said with urgency, "Big buck! Shoot that buck! I can't tell what he has, but he's heavy!"
The buck was standing just to the left of the does, his rack shrouded in the early light by low-hanging branches. I grabbed the rifle, opened the door, stepped out, chambered a round, rested the gun on the open window frame, found the buck's shoulder, and pulled the trigger. It was about 6:30 a.m. He made it 20 feet before tipping over. I had no idea what sort of headgear he had until we walked up to him. The heavy, chocolate rack sported 3 points on the right, 4 on the left, and brow tines. I couldn't believe I'd shot two great bucks, one whitetail and one mule deer, in two different states in just four days.
Day 5: November 11, 2012
I was back with Drew on the coldest morning of our hunt, when temperatures struggled to keep their head above zero. We started out checking on a group of about 35 whitetails we'd seen in a field on the Arpan Ranch the night before. Some were there, but we didn't see the biggest buck we'd spotted the previous evening, so it was back to the ranch where Jake had killed his whitetail on Day 3. The cold weather had clearly turned on the deer, because before long we saw a decent whitetail sprinting across an open field and into a wooded creek bottom. We drove over to where we'd last seen him, but there was no sign of the buck, so we spun around and continued down the treeline. Within minutes we witnessed yet another buck, this one better than the last, chasing a doe across the open pasture and into a creek bottom.
We left the truck and hiked 400 yards over to where we last saw them. As we approached the spot, a smaller buck that must have already been in the woods took off. Drew raised up, but quickly realized it wasn't the big buck we'd seen. Suddenly our guide for the day, Jeff Dushel, started yelling, "There he is! There he is!" Drew ran up to where Jeff was standing in time to see the buck running straight away at 50 yards and about to disappear into the thick stuff. Drew cracked off a shot and his 200-grain Federal Premium Trophy Copper hit the buck in the left rear leg. (The bullet was later recovered on the left side of the rib cage, nearly three feet from where it entered the deer's body.) The buck ran out of sight and Drew and Jeff hopped the fence, went down and up the creek bottom banks, and slowly walked up through the oaks and willows. After a few tense minutes, the buck appeared, running, and attempted to leap a fence, but hit the barbed strands and bounced backwards. When he stood again, Drew shot him in the left front shoulder, ending an improbable 5 days of hunting in which I witnessed the taking of 5 awesome bucks in two different states.
As an interesting postscript to an incredible hunt, Drew's whitetail died no more than 10 feet from where Jake's whitetail had fallen two days earlier. When I finally caught up with Drew and Jeff, and after a few high fives and attaboys, I started looking around the area and realized that everything looked strangely familiar. That's when I glanced down and saw a gut pile at my feet under a light skiff of snow.
ABOUT THE GEAR
As I mentioned earlier, I was shooting Federal's 200-grain Fusion ammo in .338 Federal. This is an awesome all-around big game cartridge that performed well at both 70 and 270 yards. It has less recoil than a 7mm Rem. Mag. or .300 Win. Mag., but still musters a muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps, about 2,500 fps at 100 yards, and roughly 2,000 fps at 300 yards. As far as foot-pounds of energy, we're looking at 3,237 at the muzzle, 2,746 at 100 yards, and 1,940 at 300. If you zero your scope at 100 yards, you'll see about 4 inches of drop at 200 yards and 15 inches at 300.
Fusion ammo has been around for a few years now, but if you're not familiar with it, the construction of the bullets comprises a pressure-formed lead alloy core with a copper jacket, which is applied to the core one molecule at a time. Finally, the tip is skived, or cut off, to deliver excellent expansion at long range and thumping toughness up close. Just look what it did to my mule deer's heart at about 70 yards.
As for optics, my rifle was topped with the Weaver Super Slam 2-10x42 with their glass-etched, second-focal-plane EBX reticle. According to the EBX ballistics chart, my 200-grain .338 Fed. load would be dead-on at 200 yards, the first hash at about 280, the third at about 360, and the fourth at 440 or so. The little dots you see are wind drift marks. Happily, I did not require their services. As far as bullet-drop compensating reticles go, the EBX is both simple to understand and eminently useful. The 5x magnification range is impressive and proved more than ample in the varying environments in which I hunted.

OL's Senior Editor John Taranto traveled to the Montana/Wyoming borderland for the unique opportunity to take a whitetail and mule deer in one hunt.