Under Everyone's Nose

A sweet surprise close to home.

It was mid-July when she spotted him. At the beginning of a backcountry run, not far from a Bozeman-area trailhead, Mom reported that she’d caught a glimpse of a nice muley buck. When September rolled around, I thought I’d investigate.

The alarm rang at 4:30am, but I was up before it even went off. Days are long in late summer, and it’d be best if I was in position before light broke the horizon. On the one hand, I chuckled at myself. I was heading to a popular recreation spot, and there were sure to be other folks out, especially on a Saturday. But there was a buck in the area. That alone seemed a good enough excuse to take the bow for a walk.

At the trailhead, the stars were bright and the air crisp. Two vehicles had arrived ahead of me. I plodded up the trail at a decent clip, passing one of the parties along the way. They were also bow hunting, albeit clearly new to the activity. I asked which way they were headed, and they pointed in the opposite direction of the ridge I wanted to make.

Nice chatting, fellas. Good luck this morning.

Shortly after we parted ways, the sun rose and lit the landscape up in a trademark western sunrise. Whether I saw game or not, it was gonna be a good day. It didn’t take long to scan the area where Mom had seen the buck and deem it vacant feeding grounds for the morning. The meadow warmed quickly, sending me up the ridge and into the trees.

Though I hadn’t seen sign, I crept silently, inching my way around the hillside with purpose. Three steps and glass. Three steps and glass. In pursuit of nothing in particular, I snuck through sage and pine just for the sake of sneaking. That feeling of devout presence and intense wonder—so unique to hunting—fell over me, and I realized that it wasn’t mule deer I was chasing. It was the stalk itself I was after.

Just as my epiphany sank in, I caught movement behind a group of fir trees a hundred yards ahead. I brought the binos up and instantly confirmed my hope—it was him. Grey in the face with wide beams, deep forks, and kickers on both sides, he raked the biggest tree around, shredding all the branches at the base. Then another one stepped out behind him, this one with a set of tall chocolate-colored antlers unmistakable to any other. Seconds later, a third presented himself. Then a fourth.

I nocked an arrow and pondered my options. They were feeding uphill toward another small clump of trees. My best chance would be to try to close the distance as soon as they went out of sight. I had to cross 80 yards of open slope to get to my next cover, but if I made it, I’d have the wind and a good vantage.

As soon as the last antler tip dipped below the horizon I set off through the exposed clearing. With each step I took my heart thumped faster. At 50 yards, just when I thought I might be able to make it, a flash appeared downslope.

They had circled around below me. Now they were in the open, walking one after another, all eyes fixed on me. As soon as the final one cleared the trees, they all stopped, broadside, in a line representative of their age. No doubt, the last one was sporting his first set of antlers. The buck in front of him looked to be two-and-a-half years old and he was right on the tail of Mr. Chocolate Horns, who was at least four. Grey-face in the front was much older than that.

It was 65 yards, but there was no way to close the gap any further. I was pinned.

A crosswind blew through the tops of the sage as we stared at one another for over a minute. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get a shot off, but at that moment I didn’t care. Just knowing these bucks were out here, living together under everyone’s nose, was enough for me. Eventually, they trotted into the trees and I hiked back, returning to a full parking lot with an even fuller heart.