The grunt of a horse and the squeak of saddle leather told me what my eyes couldn’t convey in the dim morning light. Nine hundred pounds of pissed-off mountain bronc was doing its best to slither out from under my sixty-two-year-old father, Owen. I reined my horse, Sweet, around and could make out all four hooves of a black and white paint mare of now questionable disposition, erupting again from the earth. Her squeal was soon met by Owen’s grunt as she landed yet again with ever-increasing vigor. I watched helplessly as the struggle carried them closer to the trail’s edge and a long drop below.
My father and I are blessed men in the fact we still share common interests and love being in the mountains together above much else. In recent years we’ve enjoyed including my sons, nieces, and nephews on less-strenuous adventures but this hunt was for the two of us. Owen had been working out of state for several years and aside from a sporadic quick trip home, our hunting time had taken a serious hit.
One late-winter day my phone rang as I was leaving for work. My father’s voice had a verbal spring in it and I knew there was good news. “I’m coming home, I should be there by October but November for sure. If you get the horses ready, we can hunt deer and elk this fall.” I hung up the phone invigorated and went to work; it was time to start planning.
The year ebbed with life’s highs and lows and we were ready when fall arrived. My son and I had got the horses in shape for Owen’s return. Saddles were stored in a freshly-swept tack room. New shoes were shod on hooves as the equines grazed in the pasture.
Two weeks after Owen stepped off the plane in Montana, he traded in sandals for Pac boots and we jumped two good mountain horses into the horse trailer. A plume of exhaust dissipated in the fall air as we turned onto the pavement.
As darkness slowly enveloped us, we straightened our stiff backs and looked around. The camp was assembled, Socks and Sweet grazed contentedly and dinner aromas wafted in the air. The days were short, and we cooked and ate by headlamps as the conversation drifted toward a morning plan. “I think we should get up high and see what we see for rutting activity,” I posed. While a bit early for prime breeding, I’d already witnessed some whitetail rutting and was optimistic the mule deer would be following suit. The tags I had allowed me to harvest a cow elk and mule deer or whitetail buck; I was hopeful in my research that hunting hard would produce an elk and an older age class mule deer.
“That sounds good to me, ride up and tie at this saddle,” he poked at a swirl of contour lines on a map outlining a ridge and several basins. “We can see what we see and make a plan for the next day. I wish we had some snow but we’ll do our best and hope for that storm.” A forecasted front was predicted to blow through in two days, teasing the possibility of colder temperatures and several inches of snow. The beginning of a strategy formed, heavy heads hit cold pillows.
The first hint of sunlight found us climbing, halfway to our sought-after saddle. The musky smell of horse sweat reached my nostrils and I didn’t need light to know Sweet was earning her breakfast that morning. After tying the mares to a tree and loosening cinches, Owen and I crept over the basin edge as one. Wordlessly, we split and began picking apart the mountain from different angles with our binoculars. As the sun loosened its grip on the horizon, I glassed a solid buck. He stood on the edge of cover across the basin looking warily; a quick glimpse through the spotting scope showed good potential. I fought the excitement of such seemingly-quick success and tried to get a better estimation of age class. While he was impressive, I wasn’t ready to try him as it was early and I had a vast amount of country to explore, a good partner, and fresh horses. Mind made up, I sat and admired him as he surveyed his home. Eventually, his curiosity satisfied, he melted back into the timber patch from whence he came.
Owen and I rendezvoused and compared notes. Having glassed up several mule deer and whitetail during the morning but feeling expansive with four-and-a-half days left, we rode deeper into the country. A sunny afternoon was great for sitting and glassing but not for animal movement. Spotting scopes and binoculars turned up several more deer bedded in timber pockets and shade with light rutting activity. My spirits buoyed, I watched a three to four-year-old buck chase a doe over a saddle 800 yards away. “Well, it should just get better every day,” Owen stated as he untied his coat from behind a saddle. It was getting dark and we had an hour or more ride to camp. “Yep,” I swung a leg over my horse, “the rut heating up and that storm hopefully. We’ve got time.”
I had commitments with my sons at home the following morning so I unsaddled Sweet and wished Owen luck; he was going to stay behind and see what he could find for game in the morning. If I hurried, I’d get back in time the following afternoon for an evening hunt.
Family obligations fulfilled, I arrived at camp midday with enough time for a quick bite to eat. Between mouthfuls of food, Owen filled me in on his findings while I was away. The weather stayed warm and the deer activity conveyed it. Spending hours behind his glass yielded a couple of sightings; we hadn’t laid eyes on an elk yet and the morning added insult to injury. “Let’s leave the horses and try that knob way north on foot. If there’s elk around maybe they’re up high in the timber,” Owen commented.
Hours later, after a stop to catch our breath a dun-colored patch of hide revealed itself through the tangled growth. A gentle downhill thermal carried the odor of elk to us, confirming our suspicions. A small herd was bedded above us but the topography of the mountain precluded us from a shot opportunity. Down but not out, we circled under the elk and set up where the timber opened on several finger ridges and availed itself to better shooting. We didn’t have long to wait; the scent of elk filled my nostrils again as the herd trickled, then flowed into the dappled shade. I slowly rolled to a prone position and waited for an elk to clear, the herd moving as one to a grassy park. My movement was caught by an alert cow who wasted no time in swapping ends to the timber as the herd followed. I waited, knowing my wind hadn’t betrayed me and she would slow. Settling into my rifle, the knot of elk eased to a trot and loosened into ones and twos. A dry cow stopped, stepped clear and my .300 Win Mag jumped in my hands.
Owen and I shared a hug as we gathered our gear. “I can’t believe that worked out! Of all the finger ridges they could have picked and it’s the one we’re on,” I said. “Let’s get our knives and headlamps out, it’s going to be dark before we’re done.”
Sleep came hard and didn’t leave easy. After working up the elk, we’d arrived late to camp and both enjoyed the sensation unique to mountain hunters- wired exhaustion. The next morning, I groggily looked at Owen through a headlamp beam. “Our snow showed up finally, Dad. Let’s hunt while we pack elk meat.” The oft-promised front had arrived while we slept, depositing the snow and colder temperatures we had hoped for. Deer activity was up noticeably but the day didn’t glean any new bucks of interest; we happily packed elk quarters off the mountain as the sun shone on a blanket of fresh snow.
At camp that night, bellies full and sleeping bags warmed thoroughly, we discussed yet another plan to find a mature mule deer. “I think we should go back to the saddle from the first morning and see if there are any new bucks in that drainage,” Owen offered. “It’s been two days and the rut’s bound to have picked up some.”
Saddling by flashlight the next morning, Owen tightened his cinch and threw his leg over Socks. Not as eager as the hunter on her back to head for the ridgetops yet again, she bowed her neck and lept skyward, anxious to rid herself of her unwanted burden. My back to the impromptu rodeo, the sounds of struggling man and beast caught my attention as the two moved closer to the trail’s edge. The former ranch kid and Senior Pro Rodeo World Champion bareback rider “topped her off” though and we readjusted an errant item or two on Socks. Once man and steed had their collective breath back we pushed through the last remnants of an inky mountain night, now racing the light to our primary glassing point.
I swayed in the saddle while Sweet labored underneath me as thoughts turned to the day ahead. Should I lower my expectations and take one of the respectable bucks we’d seen previously or continue to hold out for my intended goal of a true mountain monarch? The horses were beginning to feel the miles of riding and packing and I felt semi-selfish for dragging the hunt on for my singular goal. Today, I decided. Today is the last day of holding out; I could rest easy in our effort if we weren’t successful.
Slightly behind schedule, we tied up on the back side of the basin from our first morning. Duplicating our previous route, we dropped in and settled our glass anxiously as the sun began to break apart early morning shadows. I left Owen to keep an eye on the basin while I backtracked to climb into another likely-looking pocket. “Dad, I’m going to hunt this ridge out with the sun at my back then loop back to you. If you hear me shoot bring the horses, otherwise I’ll be back.” A brief hug and I was off.
Climbing past Socks and Sweet, I whispered to them as they softly nickered. With the wind in my face and the sun behind, I gained the ridge I had been working towards. With only my eyes above the skyline, I picked apart the mountain in front of me with my binoculars before stepping up, peering into another new slice of country. My third round of glassing-then-stepping revealed two mule deer trotting across the head of my target basin. Does, I thought to myself as I stowed my binoculars. Turning slightly, I caught sight of a third body in the brush. The does stotting had alerted another deer from its bed. My glass told me what my mind already knew. Big body, BIG body! The buck, not knowing what had bumped the does, began to drift uneasily towards the skyline.
My pack was off my back as I ran a shell in the chamber and laid my rifle across it, trying to pick up the deer in my field of view. There! He had his head down slinking through the brush and I registered antler where it shouldn’t be. I’d seen what I needed to, thumbing the safety on my Winchester Model 70 while taking a steadying breath. I had five, maybe six seconds before he skylined and then dropped out of sight. Obligingly, he hit a small opening in the brush and showed me his ribs. The trigger broke crisply and I lost him in the scope at the shot. I worked the bolt while my eyes picked him up again, there, he’d turned downhill and I swung through him for a second time. The rifle barked and I lost him again as a dull thud echoed through the basin. He’d disappeared and I anxiously peered into the cover while I stuffed cartridges into my rifle with a shaking hand.
I watched the basin carefully, knowing Owen would have put two and two together and would be along with the horses as quickly as he could. Arriving, he tied Sweet and Socks up then waded into the brush while I stayed back and watched for deer movement. It wasn’t necessary though, as minutes later a shout erupted across the mountain.
Hustling from my perch I crawled up to my grinning father standing next to a true, old mountain monarch. The strange antler was a gnarled mass of bone obscuring his left eye and smooth teeth and split hooves indicated a long life of struggle.
Owen and I sat next to the deer and watched the sun climb toward its zenith. He rested a heavy hand on my shoulder as he rose, “Son, I’m proud of you. You stay here with your deer, I‘ll get the stock.” I watched him start the ascent to the horses as I laid a hand on the greying cape of the buck. My own sons would be waiting at home to hear about the last few days of adventures with their grandpa, but I was going to soak up a few more hours with him first.
is a lifelong passionate outdoorsman. He has been blessed to hunt in numerous countries and several different states, as well as having worked for outfitters in Montana and Alaska as a camp jack, packer, and guide. He lives in Montana with his beautiful wife and is busy teaching his two sons about the outdoors and chasing the next adventure. You can follow him on Instagram @jordan.voigt