My First Buck – Montana 2002

I’ll admit it:  At twenty-six years old, I had yet to kill a buck.  Oh, I’d tried, but my ramblings through the soaking jungles of western Oregon had bore much more resemblence to clumsy nature hikes than true hunting excursions.  Too, I’d had some luck with the Oregon drawings and had on multiple occasions wandered around the countryside on the east end of the State.  The net result of both types of forays had been the same:  No bucks on the ground, freezer, or wall for Matt.

You can imagine my excitement when Dad called up and told me his boss had found a place to hunt deer.  And better yet, it was in Montana!  My mind was immediately filled with thoughts of wide open country, rough and worn terrain, and monster Montana mule deer.  “Did I want to go?” Dad asked.  “Do you even have to ask?” was my reply.

We arrived in Harlowton, Montana, after the eighteen or so hour drive from my home in Springfield and slowly wound through the ranchland that made up the Cooney Brothers Ranch.  The ranch itself sprawled over 64,000 acres.  Understanding the true size of the property was impossible for me.  They may as well have said “a bazillion acres!”  Our accomodations weren’t spartan by any stretch of the imagination, as we had full run of a 1400 square foot ranch house nestled in one of the many large draws on the property.

Deluxe Accomodations Indeed

Deluxe Accomodations Indeed

Our front porch looked out over the vast expanse that stood as both a working cattle ranch and a managed deer, elk, and pronghorn property.

The day we arrived, it was a balmy fifty degrees with crystal clear blue skies.  There had been a very light skiff of snow on the ground, but the weather (to this point) had been remarkably mild for the area and time of year. 
Gorgeous Montana Weather

Gorgeous Montana Weather

Once we arrived, we unloaded the trucks and settled in for a calm, peaceful, relaxing afternoon after a long time on the road.  After dinner, we wandered out to confirm our rifles had not shifted zeros during the trip.   Everyone shot well and we were soon packing our day packs, secreting goodies in our jacket pockets, and watching the Montana sun drift slowly toward its final resting place behind one of the many treed hills.

The next morning found us driving along the unimproved ranch roads from the ranch house to the mess hall.  This ranch, as a working cattle ranch, was complete with an honest-to-goodness chow hall.  The cook (whose name sadly escapes me) laid out a spread which threatened to anchor us in our chairs.  It would not be an exaggeration to say the food was exactly as one would expect on a cattle ranch: hot, filling, and plentiful.  As we headed out the door, the cook handed us our sack lunches.  Remember. . .I said nothing about roughing it! 

Deer were everywhere.  I had never before nor have I since seen so many deer in one place.  Though no wall-hangers were spotted, I was relatively confident it was merely a matter of time. 

After a long morning of driving the ranch’s myriad of roads, we spotted several deer bedded at the base of a rimrock ridge approximately two miles away.  Tugging off the spotting scope covers, Dad confirmed there were a few bucks mixed in.  After a quick strategy chat, we hustled back into the truck and wound our way around to the other side of the ridge.  Rifle in hand, we began a long, thoughful stalk to the rim’s ledge.  Peering over, I spotted three bucks bedded within feet of one another. 

To preface:  When you say “deer” to me, my mind immediately pictures a blacktail buck.  This was my frame of reference, having predominately hunted western Oregon since childhood.   Bearing this in mind, I had never seen a mule deer in the flesh.  As such, I was treated to the sight of one buck with monsterous antlers.  He was bigger in body and rack than any deer I’d ever laid eyes upon.  I slowly dropped to a prone position and eased the Butler Creek scope caps into their “up” positions.  My rifle of choice (at the time) was a Remington M700 Light Tactical in .308 Winchester.  Topped with a Leupold 6.5-20 scope, it was a fair combination of accurate and packable, though not perfect in either capacity. 

Finding the buck in my scope, I eased the safety forward and chambered one of four Federal Gold Medal Match rounds.  Loaded with 168 grain Sierra MatchKings, this factory offering was amazing accurate.  I would learn shortly, however, there is much to be said for bullets designed for animals and the use thereof.

I found the buck’s front shoulder and slowly pulled the slack out of the tuned trigger.  At the shot, I watched the buck flip completely upside down with all four of his legs locked out ala grand mal seizure!  Confident of an immediate “bang-flop” I neither cycled another round into the chamber nor maintained a good shooting position. 

I paid for these oversights dearly, as the buck rocketed to his feet and bounded over the hill.  A second, hasty shot followed him prior to his cresting of the peak, though in my hurry I doubt it struck within ten yards of the fleeing ungulate.  A quick check of the site where Mr. Buck took the first bullet revealed a small amount of blood and very little tissue.  Neither our guide nor Dad could tell me where the buck had been hit.  And so began the arduous and stressful job of tracking an animal which would likely not slow down due to his injury.

After waiting a short time, we began our trek to follow the wounded buck.  This was the first big game animal I’d ever shot and my failure to put him down humanely soured my stomach.  As we dropped into draw after draw, I hoped and prayed the next one would present my buck in an expired state. 

As we eased to the crest of another draw, we spotted a herd of deer bedded and feeding about five hundred yards across a small valley.  Tiring glassing revealed one of the bucks repeatedly stood from his bedding spot and appeared stiff and uncomfortable.  Great Swarovski glass showed us the reason; the buck was suffering from a neck shot.  My heart sank.  While I have no reservation regarding killing animals, I loathe the though of causing suffering.  A quick, humane death was the only way for me to repent for my lack of precision. 

We watched as the buck stood again and wandered over a crest and into a deep, narrow draw.  Covering the 1/2 mile of ground on the opposite side of the draw, I started down from the top of the draw, alone and determined to right my wrong.  Three steps were all the distance I needed to cover, as the tines of the 4×4’s rack betrayed his presence.  Standing over him at approximatley fifteen yards, my shot was true and I made ammends for my inexperience. 

Matts First Buck

Matt's First Buck

Kneeling next to my first buck was bittersweet.  On one hand, I felt I had transitioned into another form of hunter.  Feathered quarry were noble and worthy of respect and awe, but little compares to the majesty of North America’s big game mammals.  On the other hand, however, I still felt the requisite guilt which comes with knowing though you remedied the mistake, it was still made nonetheless. 

I learned so very much from this hunt.  Gear does not the hunter make.  My rifle was true, but my aim was not.  I have since devoted a substantial amount of time at the range, making rifle and man into one being.  I shoot bullets designed for animals and accept they often are not as inherently accurate as match bullets.  Minute-of-animal is my rule of thumb for any firearm I wield. 

The one truest lesson of all was this:  There is something intoxicating and addictive found within hunting big game.  My love for ducks, geese, and upland game has not waned, but shouldering a pack, slinging a centerfire rifle, and beginning the climb through the treed slopes and grassy meadows and valleys stirs something deep within my primal self.  Therein I find life. . .and cannot wait until the next chance afforded to me to share it with my Dad, hunting pals, and of course. . .readers.  And as I sit at my computer and pen this journal six years later, I can’t help but look up at my first buck in his place of honor on my wall and feel grateful for the lessons he taught me and the fire he ignited within me.

About the Author

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen

Matt Thomsen routinely spends over seventy days afield each year during Oregon's hunting seasons. In addition to chasing bear, deer, elk, coyote, waterfowl, upland game, and the occasional sage rat or two, Matt was fortunate enough to draw one of seven annual tags and harvest a Rocky Mountain goat in Oregon in 2008.